Common man and writer get a voice

The English Novel
August 6, 2004

It cannibalises, we are told. It mixes bits and pieces promiscuously together. Occasionally, it even wreaks Oedipal vengeance on its ancestors by converting them into components of itself. Were this a living being, we would be dealing with an ogre. Fortunately, it is only the English novel - which, by appropriating poetry, dramatic dialogue and other literary modes, exhibits a creative cannibalistic core. And thereby becomes, in Terry Eagleton's The English Novel: An Introduction , a sentient being that he grapples with in an attempt to make sense of.

Echoing his highly popular Literary Theory: An Introduction , this new study looks at the works of 18 writers constituting the canon. It starts with Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift and ends with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, dealing with Charles Dickens and 13 other writers on the way.

Not an easy task. One of the first great novels, Don Quixote , warns us off novels (Quixote is driven insane by reading too many novels, implying that reading fiction can drive us mad), while Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy spends itself in attempts to get started (after two volumes, the central character has still not got himself born). By the time we come to the Victorians - the Bront s, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy - the novel has become a robust splicing of "premodern" forms such as myth, fable and folk tale with "modern" ones such as realism, reportage and psychological investigation. What Eagleton does not mention, however, is how postmodern even an early work such as Don Quixote is - Quixote and his companion, Sancho Panza, encounter characters who have read about them. It seems that, while literary categories have their uses in organising literature into chronological schools, they will always be challenged by echoes across literary eras.

Drawing up differences between the epic and the novel, Eagleton shows elegantly how, while the epic lacks a signature, the novel bears the very fingerprints of its creator. However, in his attempt then to account for the epic's engagement with the nobility and the novel's with common life, Eagleton states that the popularity of "reality TV" programmes that "consist simply of someone pottering mindlessly around his kitchen for hours on end suggests one interesting truth: that many of us find the pleasures of the routine and repetitive even more seductive than we do the stimulus of adventure". Might not the popularity of such programmes just be an indicator of the general dumbing down of culture, including reading culture?

What Eagleton does demonstrate, though, is the energy surrounding the entry of the common man into the novel. He points to the role of the Bible, which grants a humble fisherman such as Peter tragic status (thereby privileging the everyday, the ordinary), and then to the roles of the literary theorists Erich Auerbach and Mikhail Bakhtin. Auerbach, a Jewish refugee in the time of Hitler, wrote about the novel while in exile in Istanbul; Bakhtin, as a dissident in Stalinist Russia. Small wonder that both men saw in the novel a populist strike against autocratic power.

With the entry of the common people, the novel was more deeply entrenched in the world of "realism" - although Eagleton is quick to point out that realism is more realistic than reality itself. Reality, after all, is often quite messy, as when it allowed the media tycoon Robert Maxwell to sink into the ocean rather than stand in the dock. "Jane Austen or Charles Dickens would never have tolerated such a botched conclusion," Eagleton writes.

Add to this the reality of writers' lives becoming the stuff of fiction. Through an act of reverse telescoping into the here and now, we are told in the chapter on Defoe how, "like the novelist and ex-convict Jeffrey Archer", Defoe's career spanned debt, high politics, authorship and imprisonment. Thus this chapter gives Archer a doubtful air of respectability: writers in all ages have been familiar with such things. Defoe's works, however, remain the more colourful of the two, including one in support of matrimony titled Conjugal Lewdness ; or Matrimonial Whoredom: A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed .

Eagleton shows us the novel as it was in its early days, before the mechanics of creative writing programmes had taken it apart, studied its different elements and put it back together, in an attempt to pass on "knowledge" to potential novelists. We are left with a sense of a pattern across the centuries. For instance, the plurality of the 18th-century novel - comprising "digressions, diversions, pauses for reflection or documentation, authorial interventions, interpolated tales" and the like - Jechoes a plurality evident in the 20th century's post-revolutionary testimonio , with its bringing together of reportage, documentary, diary and autobiography.

Revisiting the known is often pleasurable when the work is of enduring interest and import. But the literary canon can be asphyxiating territory.

Eagleton stands beside Harold Bloom, F. R. Leavis, Frank Kermode, Raymond Williams and others (a key difference being that Bloom's Western Canon does not restrict itself to the English novel). Coming after them, however, he is ideally positioned to see the canon in relationship to what has followed it: a reading not merely of its production and reception but also an examination of its afterlife, its influence and the traditions it has sparked. Yet Eagleton's postscript barely avails itself of this. It looks only briefly at later English literature, such as the novels of Kingsley Amis, V. S. Naipaul, Fay Weldon and the Oxford conservative medievalists J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Thus, an otherwise reflective study, alive, for instance, to the patronising reception of the non-Oxbridge writer - who presumably gained his knowledge from "second-hand tomes in a roofless cabin" - offers little on colonialism despite the empire's being in its prime at the time of the Victorians. The colonies rear their head in Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre but not in The English Novel .

Eagleton's study takes one back to the pleasures of a prelapsarian, pre-PhD world: of the Bront s' wild moors, Dickens' children, Eliot's rural calm and Hardy's women. But even as one luxuriates in these rereadings, one's postlapsarian instincts make one wonder how much more satisfying the book would have been had its postscript only offered a glimpse of a future canon to the left of us.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in post-colonial literature from Bristol University.

The English Novel: An Introduction

Author - Terry Eagleton
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 365
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
ISBN - £50.00 and £14.99

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