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The Novel: A Biography
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
1200 pp., $39.95
Karen Swallow Prior
"Unconventional Holy Ground"
Rare in contemporary literary criticism is the scholar who betrays a love for literature. Ever since literary theory took the reins of English literature, disdain of actual affection for the subject seems to be the vogue. Theory's tyranny over the last quarter of the 20th century is something like that proverbial operation which was deemed a success even though the patient was lost. How refreshing, then, to encounter in Michael Schmidt's The Novel: A Biography not a theory of the novel, but a life.
And what a life it is.
Schmidt is a literary figure in his own right. Professor of poetry at Glasgow University, he is himself a prolific poet, and his habitual attentiveness to the texture of language is evident here. Cormac McCarthy, he tells us, "builds long sentences and heavy emphases by piling up clauses, linking sentences by conjunctions in a breathless, uninterrupted aria followed by runs of dialogue, sometimes meditative, often staccato for contrast." As William Deresiewicz observed in his review of The Novel for The Atlantic, Schmidt "carries English literature inside his head as if it were a single poem." Perhaps this explains the book's lack of footnotes, a feature alternately fitting and frustrating, but probably the only significant omission in this intimidating tome of over 1,000 pages covering hundreds of novelists and their kin. Guided by "a sense of canon," albeit a canon unstable and open, Schmidt arranges his examination both chronologically and thematically, taking into account the influences and developments that have shaped the novel for hundreds of years. The Novel is at once encyclopedia, history, and "biography."
A biography of the novel is a particularly apt approach for this genre. That the novel is the literary expression of the modern self is axiomatic: a study of its history, growth, and various iterations is, in a sense, a study of the modern self, a portrayal of an actual person ...