In a recent post Dan Green contests my championing of the idea that it is through connection with character that the reader bonds with a book, and that this bond is an essential determinant of whether or not that book is designated ‘great.’
"Those readers like Nigel, who recoil from novels "which impose artificial form on formless real life experience," even when such form is simply "plot," have formed a relationship with fiction rooted in late-nineteenth century realism, later developed into "pyschological realism," that might arguably be called character-centered, but such readers assume this sort of fiction essentially brought literary history to a halt and that other kinds of fiction, less dependent on "lifeness" so very narrowly conceived, are simply marginal, trivial, empty flourishes easily ignored. Only character-driven realism is "natural."
This attitude strikes me as ultimately rather contemptuous of "the novel" as a form of literary art, as anything other than an opportunity to project one’s own psychological preoccupations onto fictional characters. The order that form imposes is, after all, an aesthetic order without which a work of fiction really has no reason for being. Unless one can turn novels into some sort of religious meditation or "spiritual" quest, which is about all I can make out of the attempt to force fiction to "answer important questions that I may have about my life" and of language like "amount of blood the reader and character share." When the stakes are raised this grandly, "art" can’t be anything but a nuisance"
He has a point. I don’t think much revolutionary has happened with the novel since Finnegan’s Wake [see my (') comment below]. But he’s wrong on ‘plot.’ I’m very keen on convoluted, ingenious, surprise twists and revelations, reversals, instabilities and conflicts, suspense and complication. I like unity too. Tom Jones is a favourite novel…I don’t even mind its sardonic commentator breaking in every chapter or two with his take on world affairs. I do however care about Tom, and this is the point I’m trying to make. If you don’t give a shit about what happens to any of the characters, there’s little likelihood you’ll stick around to read what the author has to say about society, or philosophy or whatever. Little chance too you’ll be interested in appreciating what’s going on aesthetically either.
After reading the first page of Madame Bovary, I knew it was going to be a great ‘reading experience.’ Charles Bovary is the new kid in class. He’s made fun of by the others. The teacher is mean to him. I’m not liking this. I’m engaged. Then this on Emma:
His wife had adored him once on a time; she had bored him with a thousand servilities that had only estranged him the more. Lively once, expansive and affectionate, in growing older she had become (after the fashion of wine that, exposed to air, turns to vinegar) ill-tempered, grumbling, irritable. She had suffered so much without complaint at first, until she had seem him going after all the village drabs, and until a score of bad houses sent him back to her at night, weary, stinking drunk. Then her pride revolted. After that she was silent, burying her anger in a dumb stoicism that she maintained till her death. She was constantly going about looking after business matters. She called on the lawyers, the president, remembered when bills fell due, got them renewed, and at home ironed, sewed, washed, looked after the workmen, paid the accounts, while he, troubling himself about nothing, eternally besotted in sleepy sulkiness, whence he only roused himself to say disagreeable things to her, sat smoking by the fire and spitting into the cinders.
Clearly Flaubert has thought about his character and cares about her a lot (C’est moi), this is why I care about the book. Within a short time, not only was I caught up in the story of her life, I was wowed by these aesthetic delights.
‘Contemptuous of "the novel" as a form of literary art, as anything other than an opportunity to project one’s own psychological preoccupations onto fictional characters’?…hardly. Interested in being absorbed in an alternate world which fascinates and informs?…definitely. How is this best achieved?…through space created by the author which allows the reader into the mind of his characters; which piques curiosity, insists on engagement, encourages attachment.
The novel as a spiritual quest? Certainly. If fiction provides answers, in addition to all the other things I wish and request from it, then, then it enters the realm of the great. Are these grand stakes? Damned right they are…which makes art that succeeds, that informs, stretches, and transforms, the opposite of a nuisance. It makes art profoundly important.