Time’s up. I’ve stalled long enough. It’s time to talk about the novel, the genre I spend the most time with. I want to use a combination of three sources to do it: Proust, Kundera, and Forester.
“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.” Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust most famously wrote a multi part monster known as “In Search of Lost Time.” Today, though, I’m more interested in his work in defining the genre of the novel.
His quote, is interesting because it defines the component parts of a novel in two sentences. He says you need a reader that actually reads your work and you need a writer that actually writes what he intends to be read. He also explains that you need a reader with a willingness to bring their own discerning vision to the work. To Proust, a writer has not done his job and, for that matter, neither has a reader, until the reader is made to recognize in himself some truth.
I start here when I think of the novel because the nuts and bolts of the characters, the story, and everything else that gets thrown into the proverbial novel mixing bowl don’t mean anything unless you get this kind of outcome. In fact, I would even say that a book that reveals no truths to no readers does not meet the definition of a novel.
Milan Kundera wrote some interesting novels that centered on ideas almost as much as or more than characters. Try out “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” if you’re interested. It should also be pointed out that Kundera is a big fan of Proust’s definition of the novel. He even said the above Proust quote defines “the meaning of the very art of the novel.”
Kundera adds some important ideas of his own, though. He makes a point of talking about how long it takes an author to write a novel. Having written several, he knew that they take away an era of an author’s life and by the time you finish such a novel, as an author, you are not the person you were when you started. The same should be true of the reader.
The novelist’s goal, therefore is to change the reader into something they were not before they read. To Kundera, an artist does that by doing better than his predecessors did in the same field. An author should strive to see something his predecessors did not see and to say what they did not say. Put cutely, the novel should be novel or else it’s not a novel.
E.M. Forester is great because he wrote “A Passage to India.” He’s also great because he defined the novel and published a whole series of lectures on the definition as “Aspects of the Novel.”
In these lectures, he gives us the nuts and bolts that define the novel.
To Forester, a novel must have/do/be the following:
1. Any fictitious work of prose over 50,000.
Length distinguishes the novel from the short-story
2. Independent of the culture that creates it.
A novel is not specifically English despite any historical roots that trace it there. As an example, Forester points to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as brilliant Russian novelists.
3. Novels can be about any time or place so the time or place they are written about can not define them.
The setting does not define the novel. Novels can be set in space, a desert, or Siberia and still meet the definition. Novels can be set in the past present or future and still fit the criteria.
4. One central focus is the story that makes the reader want to know what happens next.
A novel is nothing without a story. The driving force in the mind of the reader must be the events that occur. Without a story we know we are looking at something other than a novel.
5. The concept of time plays a central role.
In a novel there must be some passage of time. Compare novels to poems, for example. Poems can exist in eternity without the effects of time. Novels must obey the rules of time or create new rules where time is considered.
6. The novel deals with characters and people.
You can’t have a novel without people. Real people are best. Real developed people with motivations and desires.
7. Novels reveal the hidden lives of characters and this makes them different from history.
Accounts of history reveal what we know about a person that didn’t reveal his innermost thoughts. Novels can help us know people in a real way because we can understand what goes on when they aren’t speaking. A novelist can expose the inner life which is rarely if ever exposed in daily life.
8. You have the right as author of a novel to change and shift the view-point. The right to “intermittent knowledge.”
The novel is flexible in terms of how it is told. Memoirs are first person accounts. History books can’t be written from an omniscient point of view. Novelists can weave in the details from the point of view that makes the story best told. A novel can have an author talk about characters, talk through characters, or let the reader listen while they talk to themselves.
9. Some characters stand for more than themselves.
I hate to open up a discussion of symbolism here, but suffice it to say that novels can use characters to stand for more than just a person. They can stand for ideas and emotions.
The novel is a flexible story that surrenders itself to the same effects of time that humans experience. It is a lengthy work, usually undertaken and written during a period lasting an entire era of an author’s life. The reader then comes along and gobbles up that era in a week or a month of solid reading. The effects of the novel, however, should last a life time. It is in this way that the author sees the act of novel writing as worthwhile.