Novel argument

Robert Eaglestone on a bravura exploration of the most demanding subject in literary criticism

September 26, 2013

Those endless lists of “1,000 Great Novels you must read” wickedly encourage a tick-boxing cynicism, of course, but they also inspire the more hopeful thought that if you were to read the whole list, you might discover something luminous. Thomas Pavel has read the whole list and more, and, indeed, something enlightening and wonderful has appeared. The Lives of the Novel, first published in French as La Pensée du Roman, is a superb work that deserves to be very widely read by academics, students and anyone interested in the novel.

The history of the novel is one of the most demanding subjects in the discipline of literary criticism. Novels take time to read; they come in many different languages; and they have a long history. This history is the first intellectual challenge the book takes on. Previous accounts, such as Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957), which is still the standard primer in the field, had argued that the novel was more or less invented in the 18th century, with Don Quixote as something like an overture. Having taken for granted the conventional wisdom that Cervantes’ parody of chivalric romances was the first “proper” novel, 20 years ago Pavel read its main target, Amadis de Gaula – “I found myself loving it” – and, from there, other earlier novels. So, in contrast to the conventional view and spurred on by Amadis, Pavel follows and expands more recent scholarship (Margaret Doody, Franco Moretti, Steven Moore) and begins his history with ancient Greek novels, focusing on Heliodorus’ 3rd- or 4th-century Ethiopian Story, which was wildly popular when rediscovered in the West in the 16th century. These novels, Pavel argues, have a new distinctive feature: “inner space”. They concern not nations and peoples like the epic, but individuals, their subjectivity and their choices.

This insight, and the historical span of nearly two millennia, leads to the second challenge, and to what I consider to be both the major achievement and the most controversial aspect of this book. The question of methodology in literary criticism is complicated and the answer lies somewhere between T. S. Eliot’s remark that “there is no method except to be extremely intelligent” and attempts at something that apes the social or even natural sciences. In the case of the history of the novel, too strict an approach would overly distort the view over such a long period, while taking no view at all would lead to chaos. Wisely, Pavel uses only a “small number of conceptual tools” with a lot of “give”. Key to the original French title of his book and underlining the whole work, he finds a thread through the varied history by arguing that the novel as a form thinks and explores the complex but inescapable relationship between individuals and their social moral norms. Characters in early novels can behave like ideals (the chaste, indomitable lovers of the Ethiopian Story), wicked tricksters (the fox in the 12th-century Roman de Renart) or amoral picaros, trying to survive in a world where strict social structures work to exclude them. As morality (or how we understand it) changes and develops over time, so the novel changes and develops: rather brilliantly, Pavel’s book tenaciously traces this.

Pavel argues that the novel as a form thinks and explores the complex relationship between individuals and their social moral norms

This aesthetic thinking about morality’s development is cross-referenced with the evolving form of the novel. Just as we, today, are happy with a range of genres, so readers in the 16th century accepted a range of forms that presented a “different aspect of the human condition – heroically chaste love in the ancient Greek novel, individual valour in chivalric tales, gentle sentiment in the pastoral, deceit in the picaresque and sudden surprising action in the novella”. His coverage of these earlier novels is very full, with a justifiable amount of summary (his point is precisely that these novels are rarely read, and rarely read as novels). Cervantes begins the process of combining these genres into one, although not with the intention of creating a new form. Pavel is interesting on how the character of Quixote haunts the novel, whereas the form of Don Quixote – baggy, picaresque – was less fertile as a model.

However, in a bravura chapter full of detailed close readings – which simply begs to be given to students struggling with Pamela – Pavel argues that English novelist Samuel Richardson blends all the subgenres to bring the “idealised character” into “our everyday world”, where the narrative encompasses “the most trivial deed to the highest tragedy”, is “able to trace every nuance of speech, feeling, gesture and mood”, and can feel “the pulse of events”. From this point on, The Lives of the Novel becomes an astounding and stimulating survey of the high points of the mature form of the novel. Brilliant and insightful readings of Goethe, Eliot, Dickens, Flaubert and Tolstoy litter the pages as his analyses open up into accounts of idealism, irony, bitterness and empathy in the novel. If some of these readings agree with rather than challenge the critical consensus, the larger context – the longue durée of the novel’s evolution – gives the readings a new shine. The final section, on Modernist and Post-Modern novels, while perhaps unduly but interestingly critical of Joyce, is wonderful on Proust, who might serve as a comment on the whole project. The end of À la recherche du temps perdu tells us, Pavel writes, that “true deliverance is brought by art – not as a refuge from life, but as the only true access to its plenitude”. This final section ends a little disappointingly, with what is rather a list of major modern works: still, as Pavel writes, he is “reluctant to impose a definitive pattern on the novel’s myriad trends…over the last fifty to seventy years”.

It seems awful to find any cavils with such a generous-hearted work. Its focus, despite nods elsewhere, is on the European novel: American fiction is barely mentioned (Moby-Dick gets only a fleeting wave); novels from Africa, Asia and Latin America, despite their huge contemporary impact, are mostly absent. That said, these are not, as it were, specifically excluded: indeed, so liberal is the book that one could imagine it much longer and able to discuss these in some detail. The historical and linguistic range of novels Pavel discusses suggests that he is more interested in a “natural history” of the form, rather than a canon-forming “national history”. If the book’s high points of analyses and thought are with Tolstoy, Eliot and Proust, well, maybe that’s true of the novel as an art form itself.

The philosophical approach Pavel takes puts him into dialogue with philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair Macintyre and Robert Pippin, who find in narrative fiction powerful resources for understanding and questioning ethics. His work both supplements and expands these sorts of debate as, here, the novel is not simply grist for a philosophical mill, but a developing, sinuous form of ethical enquiry in its own right.

Intelligent, insightful and astonishingly well-informed, The Lives of the Novel is a major intervention and I imagine that it will become the standard work in this field, and remain so for years to come. Best of all, it was a pleasure to review because Pavel’s love of literature just beams out of each page: reading this book is like the joy of meeting a stranger in a crowd at a pop festival and enthusing together about bands you both love.

The author

“I live in Chicago with my wife Janice, my twin daughters Amélie and Catherine, age 16 – both fluent in French and English, like my adult son Carl – and our dog Lotte, named after Werther’s beloved in Goethe’s novel,” says Thomas Pavel, distinguished service professor of French, comparative literature and social thought at the University of Chicago.

He was born in Bucharest, the son of “a prominent lawyer; a highly principled one” and an “art historian, one of the first married women in her generation to seek and get a job”.

He attributes his studiousness to his mother. “When I came home with a grade less than the best, she warned me that if this continued I would lead the life of a beggar who sleeps under bridges. I’m not sure I believed her, but the tone of her voice at such moments was something to be avoided. In a world without TV, with only one radio in our apartment, reading was the most accessible kind of entertainment, especially as we had lots of books at home – Romanian and French classics, as well as books in English (I still remember the illustrated copy of The Old Curiosity Shop bound in red leather) and in German.”

Chicago’s downtown, he observes, “is one of the most energetic and elegant on this continent. It is wonderful to be so close to the shores of Lake Michigan, as vast as a sea. The University of Chicago is a true home of culture, full of distinguished specialists in all fields, and a place where you can hear students talking passionately in the cafeteria about Plato being right or wrong. In addition, in Chicago one can find all imaginable kinds of Central European food. And to those who dislike the harsh winter I would say: sorry, Chicago is for strong people.”

Nevertheless, Pavel confesses, “The place I always wanted to live is The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. Unfortunately, it does not accept intruders.”

Karen Shook

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