Thursday, January 23, 2014

19th Century Fiction

I wanted to comment on something Russell Letson put in a comment. Ruseel writes:
In fact, I found Austen, Dickens, and Twain to be among the saving graces of the novel of the Great Tradition (as we were taught to think of it), but Hardy and James were hard (and often incomplete) slogs for me, and I even ran out of gas with George Eliot. (Middlemarch: the 19th century in real time.)

I think I would agree with this. As the century progresses, the novels become more inward and possibly more realistic, though heaven knows Austen is realistic. But how about many of the other great 19th century novelists? Moby-Dick is full of the minutia of everyday life on a whaler. But is that whale realistic? How about Ahab? Huckleberry Finn draws on Twain's deep knowledge of the Mississippi and life on the Missouri frontier. Again, is the novel really realistic? It's an epic quest for freedom, set on a magical river. The white Americans along the river -- "the common clay of the new west," to quote Blazing Saddles -- are for the most part grotesque, stupid and mean. So we have a flight to freedom along a magical river, the banks of which are populated by orcs. Dickens' Bleak House begins with "it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." Granted, Dickens does not say the Megalosaurus is actually there. But we are left with the vivid image: London, the winter mud, the giant lizard. How about Jane Eyre, the ultimate gothic novel? Realism is mingled with wild romance and genuine weirdness.

There is a strong realism in the classic bourgeois novel, but it's often combined with exoticism -- think Robinson Crusoe or the mad, West Indian wife in Jane Eyre -- and the gothic. But all this neat stuff gets gradually leached out, until we are left with the internal lives of the late 19th century European and American middle classes. Austen, for all her realism, is not interested in inwardness. Her topics are money and right behavior.

(I know Robinson Crusoe is an early 18th century novel. But it does combine realism -- in its first edition, it claimed to be a true narrative by Mr. Crusoe -- with the exotic and is in the line of descent of the bourgeois novel. Plus it's a neat read, and the N. C. Wyath illustrations are awesome.)

(And I can't speak about the Russians. I haven't read them, except for Chekov, who is wonderful. My brother got through War and Peace by taking it on a six-week ocean-sailing trip. He had nothig else to read. I am not planning a comparable trip.)

I am sure there is more going on in realstic fiction at the end of the 19th century. But is it enough to make up for the loss of desert islands, white whales in the Pacific, magical rivers, Megalosauruses, and all the splendid oddities that populate Dickens, not to mention the dark, dense, almost alive city of London?


Blogger Russell Letson said...

I suspect that (for me, at least, and perhaps for you as well), there needs to be a combination of the ordinary/recognizable and the remarkable in a narrative--thus Defoe's protagonist gets to cope-with-adversity in an exotic and particularly adverse setting; and Huck and Jim and Austen's heroines deal with real social issues embedded in real worlds biased toward the comic-satiric; and Melville's real working whaling ship pursues a vastly symbolic (and perhaps fantastically intelligent) whale. And so on--to connect with your earlier post, Grace Paley, like Austen, depicts real domestic and social matters with a sharpness of eye and tongue that lifts them out of the ordinary by sheer force of language. What makes much of ordinary realistic fiction tedious is less the focus on the small-scale-personal than the failure of the language to invest whatever miraculous qualities our lives might have with a sense of miracle. Most of the confessional poets I've tried to read have left me cold, but Robert Frost can make chopping wood or watching a spider transcendent.

3:25 PM  
Blogger CJDevall said...

I find Stephen Crane fascinating. The Red Badge of Courage has a weird supernatural edge to its naturalism. It made a great Classics Comics back in the day that made me read it. A lot of fabulist energy also went into the highly embellished western U.S. autobiographies of Hickock and followers and after the war. These echo Twain's mix of reportage and tall tale telling, if not always as funny. Willa Cather steps sideways into the western auto/ biography genre sideways in the early 20th century, with her drier yet symbolically playful style.

I have to recommend The Confidence Man by Melville- it takes some perusal of the annotation to grok but is very intriguing, political, and impish.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

This is Only one of the theing that fiction such as Middlmarch provides to its readers:

The most evocative passages in “My Life in Middlemarch” are those in which Mead hints at parallels between Eliot’s domestic life as a loving stepmother (to the sons of her longtime companion, the critic George Henry Lewes) and her own marriage to a man with children from a previous marriage: “From where I stand in the middle of my own home epic — my own mundane, grand domestic adventure, in which I attempt to live in sympathy with the family I have made — I now look upon the accomplishment of early-­dawning, long-lasting love with something like awe.” Not youthful romance but mature, abiding love amid the life of the everyday is, as Mead sees it, Eliot’s great subject. “Middlemarch” gives Mead’s parents (who were married for nearly 60 years) “back to me.”

“My Life in Middlemarch” is a poignant testimony to the abiding power of fiction: “I have grown up with George Eliot. I think ‘Middlemarch’ has disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. ‘Middlemarch’ inspired me when I was young, and chafing to leave home; and now, in middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of.”

This is what genre fiction hardly does, focussed as it is upon the becoming and the potential, the very youthful, not the mature.

The Victorian novel, in England, the U.S. and Europe, provided its readers with so much that matters to an adult thoughtful readership, and to those who hope for a maturity of lived life -- particularly for women. And granted, this was so much about the middle class. Middlemarch is hardly pitched to the working class, poor woman. But at least Eliot makes her readers aware that these women are part of the cultural matrix within which they live.

Then, of course there are Victorian thrillers such as Wilkie's and Bulwer Lytton's fiction for those who didn't want such realism. Yet these novels too are filled with not even submerged text of class, imperialism and other anxieties. If one is not inspired by their writing qualities, with them one does have wide-open picture windows to our past visions, while seeing continuing reflections of what they articulate inside our contemporary fictions, including, o yes, sf/f.

I have studied this material all my adult life and it never comes up wanting.

8:41 AM  

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