The Novel: An Introduction

March 17, 2011

No one is more knowledgeable about the novel than Christoph Bode. You want to know how novels begin? Ask Bode. You want to know how they end? Ask him. You want to know what happens in the middle? Well, you know what to do.

I bet you are one of those people, like me, who thinks that reading novels is easy. But you are wrong. It's not a matter of plunging in at the first page, you know. Beginnings can be very tricky. Get them wrong and nothing after will go right.

There are many different ways to start a novel, but they are all arbitrary. Compared with what follows, Bode makes that point with admirable economy. It takes him a further 26 pages to establish, to his own satisfaction, that the first sentence of a novel indicates the type of sub-genre to which it belongs. "Once upon a time" tells us we are reading a fairy story. I hear someone say "a fairy story is not a novel". I say, take it up with Bode, who also uses the Odyssey to illustrate the many ways in which novels can commence.

The European novel began with Don Quixote, here described as "a novel about the dangers of novel reading". By the time you have read about the various ill effects of fiction, you will be tempted to write to your MP, demanding that novels come with a government health warning. But don't. Because not all novels mess with your mind.

Those that aspire to realism, such as Robinson Crusoe, aim to root us in the here and now. But there's no pleasing some people. Objections were quickly raised that lifelike novels would be the match that sparked the bush fire of immorality. Saner voices spoke of the novel as an attempt to formulate a notion of community in a disintegrating world.

After this grand tour of the genre, taking in thinkers as diverse as Ian Watt and Theodor Adorno, Bode gets down to the nitty-gritty or, in his terms, "the how of the what". Here he demonstrates, with the aid of an impressive-looking table, the difference between story and plot or, if you prefer French terms, histoire and discours, although a lot is lost in translation - and happily so, Bode says.

The chapter on "Time" is typical of Bode's approach, which is nothing less than thorough. We have narrative time (how long it takes to read the story), and narrated time (the duration of events within the story). Got that? Good. Then it's time to learn about the various relations between these two different times, expressed by mathematical symbols that appear with alarming frequency throughout the book. "Isn't this all rather abstract?" Bode asks himself. Not at all, he answers himself, because it helps to understand such otherwise impenetrable notions as narrative pace.

This book serves as a comprehensive introduction to the more technical aspects of the theory of the novel. And Bode is not unaware of how the general reader may feel when faced with so many abstruse concepts: "annoyed". Indeed, there are little asides on each page that keep the reader going just when they may feel like giving up, as I did during the epic chapter on who should be crowned heavyweight champion of narrative theory, Franz K. Stanzel or Gérard Genette.

On the whole, the knowledge you get from this book is hard won - but worth it. Its biggest drawback is to assume that we read novels because we are interested in things such as "identifying narrative situations". Possibly. But only if they help us explore and make sense of the world around us.

The Novel: An Introduction

By Christoph Bode. John Wiley and Sons. 312pp, £50.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781405194488 and 4471. Published 21 January 2011

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