An Infinity of Novels

Philip Horne

  • A Short Guide to the World Novel: From Myth to Modernism by Gilbert Phelps
    Routledge, 397 pp, £30.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 415 00765 8
  • The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction by John Sutherland
    Longman, 696 pp, £35.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 582 49040 5
  • The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914 by Peter Keating
    Secker, 533 pp, £30.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 436 23248 0

Anthony Trollope once proposed to write ‘a history of English prose fiction’, but ‘broke down in the task, because I could not endure the labour in addition to the other labours of my life’ – for ‘it would be necessary to read an infinity of novels.’ Such a wholesale reading of fiction takes on for many of us, as for Trollope, ‘a terrible aspect’. It doesn’t apparently, though, for Gilbert Phelps, John Sutherland and Peter Keating, surveyors and encyclopedists of the form who in their respective fields have laboured with energetic exhaustiveness and not broken down. Each of these books feels as if it takes in an infinity of novels, and each deserves the gratitude of those who, if they could not have endured the labour involved in the production, will find their understandings helpfully, often excitingly enlarged. Coverage on this ambitious scale carries an implicit rebuke to the specialist in the corner, or at least a reminder that a reframing of the wide angles can also refresh our views.

The broadest perspective is that of Phelps, himself a novelist, who sets out ‘to tell the story ... of the rise of the narrative impulse in the major cultures, both East and West, and in doing so to correct the temptation to think solely in terms of our own’. It is, as this suggests, salutary to submit oneself to nearly 200,000 words (‘short’ is misleading) of his interesting information about works from every epoch and culture; he wants to make us citizens of the world, and to make us feel the novel as a truly international form, conveying at its best ‘the universal human elements’ to every reader. The didactic urge to enlightenment is what seems to keep Phelps going through his 25-chapter journey, which is divided into two parts with a strongly progressive cast: ‘From Myth to Realism’ and ‘From Realism to Modernism’. Where primitive ritual was, there secular narrative will be: this is true and good for him, so that ‘every time an ancient singer composed a fresh song about some god or legendary hero, he was in effect bringing another small area of the primitive mind under aesthetic control.’

Such talk of ‘control’ and ‘the primitive mind’ can raise the spectre of Conrad’s Kurtz, whose blitheness about civilisation and progress comes grievously unstuck; and while most of the old works Phelps includes are given friendly treatment, it is not the alienness and self-sufficiency of the past that receive emphasis but its nascent modernity: ‘What is particularly impressive is the way in which Petronius ... practised one of the most sophisticated techniques of the modern novel,’ and ‘Richardson had an intuitive understanding of modern psycho-pathology.’ The teleological pressure here, with the achievements of former times repeatedly being referred forward for their value, gives a certain impetus to Phelps’s story, and one can hardly help feeling sympathetic towards the candid way he squarely occupies assumptions which are practically constitutive of the mental world of contemporary Western readers. How can we live without some more or less flexible notion of a common humanity, even if we are embarrassed to have it invoked in so many words? Yet, as might be expected, some words don’t fall easily into the line of his chronological scheme.

Tristram Shandy, for instance, introduced as an enlightenment text – ‘progress towards the mature realistic novel continued steadily’ – has then to be acknowledged as backward-looking also, not only in its allusions but also in its forms, to Burton, Cervantes, Rabelais and so on. This is taken by Phelps as pulling against his initial statement that, in the colonising metaphor, Sterne ‘mapped out important new territory for the future’. Perhaps it is an impossible task that Phelps has bravely tackled, and no intellectually integrated or satisfying history of the world novel can be written – without, at least, ignoring great sweeps of the material he is decently determined to include. Along the way many awkward customers implicitly join Sterne in his insinuating challenge – not cited by Phelps – to the straight line of narrative: ‘I defy the best cabbage planter that ever existed, whether he plants backwards or forwards ... – I defy him to go on coolly, critically, and canonically, planting his cabbages one by one, in straight lines, and stoical distances, especially if slits in petticoats are unsewed up – without ever and anon straddling out, or sidling into some bastardly digression ...’ Any ‘straight lines’ of descent the grand schematist might be tempted to draw between, say The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Bonfire of the Vanities seem unlikely to trace a true genealogy, and we need the ‘bastardly digressions’ to do justice to what actually happened. The mildest of Leavisites, Phelps administers a gentle rebuke to Sterne for not managing a plotted ‘inevitable conclusion’ like Clarissa’s, and having as ‘controlling principle’ only the force of his ‘genius and personality’: ‘in this respect Tristram Shandy was a retrogressive work.’ Sterne’s novel, a round work in a rather square whole, ‘certainly did not comply with the precepts of the new novelistic mode’, and was ‘a circle perpetually in motion’, so that ‘its composition can be compared with the incremental process that attended the ancient cycle of myths.’ Sterne seems here to hand back some territory to the primitive past, to let the side down.

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[*] An overlapping, but yet more recent, set of dates define the subject of another significant survey, Douglas Hewitt’s firm and challenging English Fiction of the Early Modern Period 1890-1940 (Longman, 275 pp., £16.95 and £7.50, 21 August, 0 582 49285 8 and 0 582 49284 X).