Ben Parker — What Is A Theory of the Novel Good For?


by Ben Parker

Review of Guido Mazzoni, Theory of the Novel, translated from the Italian (2011) by Zakiya Hanafi, Harvard University Press, 2017.

Because the novel is the most important product of modernity, any theory of the novel is also a theory of modernity. That modernity has been characterized in a variety of ways: as an unremitting catastrophe of Being—Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel or René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel; as the vulnerable legacy of humanist secularism—Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis; or epistemologically—Michel Foucault’s reading of Don Quixote as a crisis of signification. As Guido Mazzoni tells the story in his Theory of the Novel, modernity has been a long process of liberation from the implicit transcendence of collective cultural projects. We have now arrived at a moment where “the particular life represents the only horizon of sacredness that modern culture still recognizes.” Modernity is therefore the disruptive entropy of “unbelonging,” the triumph of “individualistic, anarchic, dispersive, centrifugal” forces over those of “collective transcendence.” By Mazzoni’s scorekeeping, the signal accomplishments of modernity are human rights, democracy, and relativism, but above all, “the concrete capacity to construct small spheres of autonomy.” The novel therefore marks “the entrance of democracy into literature,” because it is the vehicle par excellence of particularized private experience. Mazzoni prizes the novel for “its ability to make us see the world through the eyes and conscience of someone else, its ability to allow us to step into a possible life that is not ours.”

Given this endpoint of absolute relativism—“Each person is an epicenter of absolute meaning”—Mazzoni has to construct his history of the novel retrospectively, as a gradual disburdening of the possibility of transcendence and collective horizons. He casts this ontological flattening in the light of an inner liberation of the novel form, although it could as easily be felt as a suffocating reduction. Mazzoni describes the first two centuries (1550-1750) of the novel’s history as an emancipation from the conceptual scaffolding of allegory and moral didacticism, on one hand, and from the strict delineations of classicist poetics (tragedy depicts a higher type of character, and comedy a lower) on the other. Because he was trained as a philologist, Mazzoni plunges the reader into a slough of terminological distinctions attending the birth of the novel: le roman, der Roman, il romanzo, romanice loqui, romanz, romance, novella, nouvelle, novela, novel. But his theory of genre rests upon a dubious metaphysics: rather than timeless Platonic forms, genres are “universals in re,” knots of emerging practices bound up with contemporary definitions and prescriptions. Instead of defining “the novel” retrospectively, which would mean fitting works like Tristam Shandy and The Golden Ass into the same Procrustean bed, Mazzoni sees the genre as the outcome of a complex fusion of heterogeneous conventions and literary corpuses. His approach is to “reconstruct the dialectic between the object and the words that enabled the object to be defined in the first place.” The drawback to this method is that the definition is never immanent to the novels themselves, but is derived from the belletristic scaffolding that is Mazzoni’s preferred archive. The scholarship on display—Mazzoni seems to have read every treatise and preface from the period—is unimpeachably exhaustive, even overwhelming. We learn that Don Quixote, for example, was not welcomed into the world as a novel but as a “comic romance.” But Mazzoni declines to pursue the question, what process of generic self-definition is Don Quixote itself engaged in? Nor does he see the retrospective genealogy of the novel as in large part an invention of the novel itself (as, for instance, the shelf of books in David Copperfield’s library). In any event, the upshot of this formative period is that the novel emerges as the “book of particular life,” a record of private persons, caught up in the “anarchy of the real,” rather than idealized or public figures made into abstract examples.

Once the novel has broken free from allegory (whose political dimensions, overlooked by Mazzoni, have been detailed by Fredric Jameson), and we find ourselves in the nineteenth century, the next constraint to be discarded is melodrama. Melodrama gets painted as the bad outward form of psychology, which Mazzoni contrasts to the subtle analysis of interior life that culminates in James, Proust, and Woolf.  Thus melodrama turns out to be a convenient sorting mechanism for arriving at a set of all-too familiar preferences: Austen (but not Scott), Flaubert (but not Balzac), Eliot and Tolstoy (but not Dickens or Hugo). As with allegory, melodrama is classed as a transcendental and collective schema, averse to the finer gradations of “real life.” For melodrama, we are informed, belonged to a moment where “history had become a lived experience of the masses,” though “at a certain point this paradigm proved to be unrealistic.” It was no longer “plausible to think that people, subjects, or witnesses of an unprecedented transformation were involved in absolute conflicts.” What we have instead of large-scale history is the gradual extension of “our understanding of the interior life,” an ever-refined representational accuracy comparable to “the gains made in physics, astronomy, or anatomy.”

By the time we reach the contemporary novel, the sphere of freedom that Mazzoni wants to find in the novel has been narrowed down to the horizon of sheer everydayness. We have exchanged the wild explorations of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Edward Waverley, Natty Bumppo, and Huckleberry Finn for the boredom of Emma Bovary. All we are left with is the bad infinity of “real life” in its banal givenness. Freedom is surreptitiously redefined, from the kind of “unbelonging” of the earlier mode of “lighting out for the territory,” to the unbelonging of grousing individual discontent. No surprise that the contemporary authors Mazzoni endorses are Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee (singling out Boyhood and Youth), Michel Houellebecq (The Elementary Particles), and Jonathan Littell. He doesn’t provide a reading of any of these novels (although he does cite a negative review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones). Knausgaard’s novel is something like an empirical confirmation of Mazzoni’s thesis about the tendency of the novel towards absolutely private particularity, absent any transcendent justification. Mazzoni’s concluding observation—“Inside our small local worlds, everything at stake has an unquestionable value” —could just as easily have been written by Knausgaard as a summary of the exhausting strife of representability at the heart of his book.

In outline, then, Mazzoni’s account recapitulates the problematic of Lukács’s Theory of the Novel—“the refusal of the immanence of being to enter into empirical  life,” the pulverization of all transcendent projects—in order to render it unproblematic. What Lukács saw as “the dissonance special to the novel” was its capturing of the devastating ironies and grotesque realizations that the transcendent ideal is exposed to. For Mazzoni, however, such dissonance is simply “implausible,” a failure of perspective insufficiently immersed in the proliferating contingencies of “real life.” So, what for Lukács was the constitutive problematic of the novel—the hard-fought contest between the ideal and an inert (but ultimately victorious) reality—here turns out to be a detachable “extra” or a historical vestige. Mazzoni sees the struggle with the ideal as something that was gradually exorcised or shed during the novel’s development, as opposed to something essential to defining the genre. His argument then turns out to be another entry in the “end of grand narratives” narrative, or an instance of what Alain Badiou calls “democratic materialism”: we no longer believe in any Truths striving to be realized in the world, only in local particulars. With oracular resignation, Mazzoni announces that, starting with some generalized metaphysical eclipse in the nineteenth century, “Universal forces were no longer revealed in the experience of private persons.” One imagines him lecturing the great characters of fiction like a stern guidance counselor, for their stubborn lack of realism, in those moments of Lukácsian “dissonance” where they confront a churning abyss of unbearable meaning underlying an ongoing and inessential life: Don Quixote for attempting to revive chivalry by mounting his gaunt nag and donning a pasteboard visor; or Catherine Earnshaw for proclaiming, “I am Heathcliff!”; or Captain Ahab for hurling himself against the whale as striking at some “inscrutable malice” behind a mask; or Marlow for detecting, in the depths of the Congo, “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”

To be sure, Mazzoni’s claim that the novel has freed itself from the transcendental has the force of self-evidence, if one surveys contemporary fiction. Mazzoni’s reading of novels in English cuts off at 2002, but (in addition to Knausgaard) Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Rachel Cusk would all be pertinent here, as instances of flattened, quotidian perception, where the “microcosm” of private existence—voided of melodrama or narrative artifice—is elevated to “absolute importance.” Going further back, one could add other instances. John Updike, Frederick Exley, and Renata Adler come immediately to mind. Mazzoni doesn’t mention Norman Mailer, who is on quite another track, but whose “nonfiction novel” would be additional confirmation of the novel’s tendency to represent a reality divested of transcendent impulses. (At this point, however, one wonders whether it were not fictionality itself that represents the final burden of transcendence, whether Mazzoni’s sense of “the novel” is not just headed towards the documentary status of journalism, memoir, travel writing, etc.)

On the other hand, some of the most acclaimed novels of recent years have resuscitated either melodrama (Hana Yanagihara’s A Little Life), or transcendental (religious) preoccupations (Marilynne Robinson’s work), or allegory (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi). To remark these works are also somewhat middlebrow and embarrassing, would introduce a dimension of aesthetic evaluation that Mazzoni never broaches. It’s worth noting, too, that Mazzoni’s own examples are not unproblematic. Although Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles does duty for Mazzoni, his more recent The Possibility of an Island and Submission don’t fit the pulverization-of-collective-transcendence thesis at all. Houellebecq emerges, instead, as an (unevenly satirical) utopian thinker, closer to Jonathan Swift in the Houyhnhnms section of Gulliver’s Travels than to Roth’s Zuckerman novels. Mazzoni also cites the autobiographical novels of J.M. Coetzee, but his latest novels, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, whatever else they may be, are obvious violations of Mazzoni’s rule against allegory.

The unbearable scene he cites from Buddenbrooks, when little Hanno draws two lines under the last entry in the family tree, muttering, “I thought… I thought… there wouldn’t be anything more,” is indeed a powerful image of finitude. But Mann then went on to write the highly allegorical The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. Dostoevsky is invoked in a number of contradictory ways—he is, on one hand, one of the first authors who is “still contemporary,” because of his techniques of characterization, but on the other hand, he presents a regrettable and lingering case of melodrama. What is never mentioned is that Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, from start to finish, is rent through with transcendental preoccupations. To take only the case of The Brothers Karamazov, what does one make of the beautiful moment in the final chapter, where the father of the slain child Ilyusha sees a flower fall on the snow, and rushes “to pick it up as though everything in the world depended on the loss of that flower”? This sense of absolute responsibility, of “everything in the world” depending on one’s posture towards salvation and loss, is the hard core of Dostoevsky’s meaning. If Mazzoni wants to insist that “we cannot go beyond” our immersion in factical being, that it is “the sole layer of existence that… distinguishes us from nothing,” then he will have to lose The Brothers Karamazov as a forward-looking work.

I wrote above that the novel is the most important product of modernity. I forgot to add that modernity is in large part the product of the novel. The novel is one of the “workshops where ideals are manufactured,” to take an image from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. For instance, the continuous and rigorous thinking of responsibility throughout the novels of the Victorian period (paradigmatically, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Lord Jim) constitutes as central a development of our ethical life as the subsequent Freudian theorization of same. The self-representation of the nineteenth-century social imaginary is largely created through the ways novels develop of “giving an account of oneself,” in Judith Butler’s phrase. The ultimate trouble with Theory of the Novel is that Mazzoni oscillates between seeing the novel as a co-creator of modernity, whereby “an essential aspect of the Western form of life takes shape and becomes an object of knowledge only through mimesis and fiction,” and seeing the novel (or cultural production as a whole) as validating (or falling into line with) larger systemic results, e.g. “the disintegrative force implicit in modern individualism,” or “the relativistic deflation of collective values.” We don’t know, finally, whether the Western “crisis of transcendence”—what for Lukács was an ongoing schism constitutive of the novel form—is simply a fait accompli restricting literary possibility, or whether one might hold the history of the novel itself accountable for this disintegration. Nor does Mazzoni see the novel as a possible reflection upon these outcomes, a perspective-taking that would refuse the enforcement of deflationary relativism.

But might not the greatest novels be precisely such refusals? To return again to The Brothers Karamazov, we find there (in the remembrances of Father Zosima) a forestalling of Mazzoni’s conclusions, in almost identical language: “For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing people away from himself… He is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or in mankind.” For Dostoevsky, at least, the novel is not a story of emancipation from transcendence. If the novel has nevertheless brought about this anomie and purgation of values, the novel goes on only in a perpetual fight against what it hath wrought.

Ben Parker is assistant professor of English at Brown University. His current research is on recognition scenes in the nineteenth-century novel. He tweets @exyoungperson.