by Sunil Badami

Despite many (mainly white male) writers’ concerns about the effect of television on “serious culture” (which I discussed here) many others have suggested that TV is the new novel (as Salman Rushdie first did, albeit after writing the screenplay for an aborted miniseries of Midnight’s Children).

Even Jonathon Franzen, whom, as I mentioned in a couple of posts ago, blamed the state of the contemporary fiction on television, acknowledged in a recent interview that ‘TV [has] redeemed itself by becoming more like the novel, which is to say: interested in sustained, morally complex narrative that is compelling and enjoyable.’[i]

There’s no doubt, especially looking back at the phenomenon of Dickens’s serialisations, where the Boston piers would be crowded with people eagerly awaiting the magazine carrying the latest instalment of David Copperfield into port,[ii] that novels were TV before TV, offering the same sustained, morally complex, compelling, enjoyable narrative.

(indeed, sometimes I feel as if the box sets of all the shows I HAVE to watch—Breaking Bad, True Detective, Borgen, The Sopranos and more—are like all those books piled up reproachfully on my bedside table)

And there’s no doubt, despite the golden age of 20th Century fiction, between the First World War and the Vietnam War—coincidentally between the popularisation of film and before the popularisation of TV—where books were usually no more than 250 pages long (I once heard, though I can’t tell you where, that it was because most fiction bestsellers in the UK were sold to workingmen’s libraries and mechanics’ schools, which meant that they had to be read within a standard fortnightly borrowing period, after work), that books are getting longer and longer.

But you could hardly describe the first novels—Don Quixote (Vol. 1, 456 pages; 1056 in the Penguin Classics edition); Tom Jones (Vol. 1 of 8, 214; 1024 in Penguin Classics); Clarissa (Vols. 1-4 of 8, 612; 1536 in Penguin Classics)—as concise by comparison to even Norman Mailer’s most verbiose efforts, much less the big multi-volume doorstoppers of the 19th Century classical canon like Les Miserables, Bleak House or War & Peace.

Some, like Sophie Cunningham, suggest this is because writers write on computers the way the prolix Jack Kerouac used to type on a roll of butchers’ paper to avoid losing his train of thought [iii] (which is why many writers often write their first draft by hand, then edit as they type their pages up). Others, like Robert McCrum, because of the decline of editing at major houses.[iv]

And some, like Franzen or Mark Lawson, have criticised the move to historical fiction away from contemporary social-realist fiction as trying to appropriate the critical—and literal—weight of the classical 19th Century canon, setting stories during that time (or the past in general) because of a timidity or unwillingness to address complex and fast-changing realities and issues of the present or because ‘the current easiness of divorce, infidelity and serial monogamy would render useless the plots of many of literature’s greatest novels… in a society in which, at least in its nominally Christian sectors, guilt and shame have largely been abolished, fiction loses some of its best petrol.’[v]

(what to make, then, of recent film adaptations of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, or the recent success of miniseries The Affair?)

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Still, what TV as the novel—and the novel as TV—share, in addition to these sustained narratives, are two things.

Firstly, they share concise episodes of a specific length: on TV, they might be an hour; and in most 19th Century serialisations, short chapters that cover a particular moment or plot development, each ending on a cliff hanger, compelling us to want more.

In the case of an epically long novel like Anna Karenina, they’re especially short, running only a couple of pages or so. Indeed, what makes Anna Karenina so compulsively readable—apart from Tolstoy’s amazing ability to move between characters’ consciousnesses within the same scene, writing solely in the first person or the subjective third, something many (including me) find so difficult today—is that because the chapters are so short, you can’t help but read the next one. And the next one. And the next…

But most importantly, they’re free of the impenetrable, incomprehensible language so beloved of modernists like James Joyce or pseuds like Will Self. The language is as thin a meniscus between reader and character as possible, speeding us along the narrative, so that we can become fully immersed, not only in the characters’ stories, or their lives, but themselves.

Indeed, because the details are often so perfunctory—at least by comparison to so many modern novels which revel in such florid description–there’s even more space to imagine, and to empathise. I remember interviewing the late Michael Cox, author of a very good 19th Century detective novel, The Meaning of Night. The editor of several anthologies and encyclopaedias of Victorian writing at Oxford University Press, he let me in on a secret about why so much historical fiction failed to effectively evoke a period: they had too much physical description, particularly when characters describe their surroundings to each other. ‘It’s nonsense,’ he told me. ‘We don’t have to describe McDonalds to each other.’[vi]

And if you re-read contemporaneous fiction—say, for example, Dickens, held up as a paragon of the way history might tell us the facts about a place or period but how fiction helps us understand it—how often do you read exhaustive descriptions of all the furniture in a room, and how it was made, and where? Too often, misreading the idea of “show, don’t tell,” writers show us everything in the room but tell us nothing about what’s happening in their characters’ hearts. Much less anything at all: stuck looking around the room, nothing else much happens.

For me, literature is driven by four engines: one qualitative and subjective, the other three quantitative. The qualitative aspect is tone: you either like the voice telling the story, and the style, or you don’t (which is why I can’t read those clever young men novels now). The other three—plot, language and character—are quantitative, and although you can’t ever say criticism is entirely objective, these are not only indicators of quality, but of what kind of book you’re reading.

Although Bryce Courtenay famously—and foolishly—once said that he could ‘unequivocably write [Carey’s] kind of stuff,’[vii] much so-called “popular” trade or genre fiction, like Courtenay’s, fantasy or airport thriller novels, are driven primarily by plot. Things are always happening: planes are crashing, cars are being chased, bombs are being defused or going off. Nobody ever talks: they grin—as in “I’ll see you,” Ridge grinned.

Yet for all their contortions, or the height of the concept (dinosaurs being reanimated, a town trapped by a dome, or a plague of zombies, whatever), their narratives are usually riddled with clichés—although you might find yourself disgusted or dismayed by the ending, you’re rarely surprised. The hero gets the girl, the villain their just desserts, the story moving along well-rutted tracks to the inevitable denouement (usually loud, frenetic, and saved at the very last moment). The characters are tropes of heroism or stoicism or villainy or expertise or sexuality; the language, as Geordie Williamson put it, ‘like a McDonald’s menu: fat and sugar are the point; the food merely the delivery mechanism’:[viii] simplistic, kinetic, rarely revealing more than action.

But the kind of difficult literary fiction that Courtenay resents, Franzen finds difficult and many, such as Hanif Kureishi argue, is continually pumped out by university writing courses, is often just as unreadable, even though they’re defined by language, in which, creative writing students, as Kureishi puts it, ‘worry about the writing and the prose and you think: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next… they can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way to the end without people dying of boredom in between.”[ix]

In such novels, there’s often little or no plot, and the characters are symbols rather than people, often doing or saying little, caught up in their own solipsistic self-reflections; when they do speak, their utterances are stilted, stultifying, set-pieces or speeches rather than dialogue, buried under the weight of such weighty sentences, which say more about the author than them, or us.

For me, the best novels aren’t defined by plot, even if a lot seems to happen. Nor are they defined by language either. In these great novels, the meniscus-thin language, the speeding narrative in its own little world until something we could have never imagined, much less said, rises up off the page and inside us, in which the author and his style disappears.

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Indeed, other than perhaps the opening lines, what specific sentences can you remember or quote from, say, A Tale of Two Cities or Anna Karenina? Yes, I do remember Rodolphe’s famous reflection from Madame Bovary about language being ‘a tin kettle upon which we tap out crude rhythms for bears to dance to while all the while we wish to make music that would move the stars to pity.’[x] But if you re-read those canonical 19th Century novels—the convoluted, subordinated clause syntax and occasionally fantastical, deux-ex-machinical coincidences aside—what’s striking is how simple the prose is, serving only to tell the characters’ stories.

As Akhil Sharma, who reduced a 7000 page autobiographically based manuscript into a 224 page book, Family Life (one of my favourites last year), acknowledged in a New Yorker essay, after ‘comparing fictional reality to factual ­reality and finding the former wan,’ and trying to find a way to tell the story in under 7000 pages, he discovered, having re-read Chekhov, that

‘somehow, in fiction, sound, texture and smell are stickier, lingering more than visual details … I began rewriting the book with these constraints, and found that … without [them], the reader moves through the narrative rapidly and so asks different questions about why time is collapsed or not collapsed, or why a scene is dramatised or summarised.’[xi]

Such questions of these comparisons between factual and fictional reality abound in Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed Neopolitan tetralogy. ‘The literary sensation nobody knows,’ according to The Guardian;[xii] ‘maybe the best contemporary novelist you’ve never heard of’ according to The Economist,[xiii] although if you Google her name now, you’ll discover over half a million results.

James Wood, who first revealed her and her work to the English-speaking world in 2013 (her translator is Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker, for whom Wood reviews), puts her name between quotation marks; her identity has been the cause of much speculation in Italy, with some suggesting “Elena Ferrante” is a collective like Wu Ming (whom I mentioned in a previous post) or even a man (Italian novelist Domenico Starnone).

The irony! That writers like George Eliot or Henry Handel Richardson had to resort to men’s names for their work to be taken seriously – and yet, as Ferrante (whose name is agreed to be a pseudonym) signs her work with a woman’s name, it must be assumed to be a male author, pulling a kind of Italian Koolmartrie job.

Originally an entire work split into four parts, Ferrante’s books—three of which, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, have so far been translated into English—most resemble both those big, classic, serialised novels, offering complex, tangled family trees (so much so each book includes a comprehensive cast of characters at the beginning, although by the end of the first book, the characters are so indelible you don’t need them); equally complex, tangled and over-arching plots, riddled with digressions and incidents; and breathtaking cliffhangers: each chapter ends on one, and so does each book, with the first book ending with such a jaw-dropping anti-climax in the middle of a scene you have to reach for the next.

Ostensibly, it’s the story of two talented, intelligent girls growing up in the same violent Naples slum: impulsive, dangerous, exciting, Lila and meeker, more diligent, less confident Lénu (whose real name is Elena, like the author’s). Though more naturally brilliant than anyone in their neighbourhood, Lila doesn’t progress past primary school because her parents won’t pay the fees; Lénu, the narrator, ends up going to university and writing a controversial book based on their childhood.

Despite trying to resist or escape the fate that befalls the older women around them, from their own defeated mothers to the mad woman upstairs—

‘they were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them… they had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble… when did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?’[xiv]

—they both end up, in each their own way, ‘enclosed in a glass container’ by marriage, ‘like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea,’[xv] Lila entrapped by brutality, Lénu by privilege, to men they do not really love; one by circumstance and sometimes misplaced rage; the other by aspiration and subdued anger.

As I’ve mentioned, too often novels by women about female lives and relationships are simply labelled “kitchen sink dramas” or “chick lit.” But Ferrante’s work, while deeply interested to breaking point in female experience, perspective and emotion, goes far beyond this, taking in a sweep of Italian post-war history—the reconstruction after the war, the on-going battles between the Communists and the Fascists, the insidious pervasiveness of the Camorra; of class, of bourgeois socialism, of sexism, of the differences between writing and doing—history, like their squalid, violent neighbourhood, becomes real, rather than theoretical, as much a part of what happens to them as their own personal struggles.

References:

Badami, Sunil, ‘Family life in all its frailties and force,’ The Australian, 14 June 2014.

Cervantes, Miguel, The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Frederick Wearne & Co, New York, 1800.

Cox, Michael, The Meaning of Night, John Murray, London, 2006.

Cox, Michael, quoted in Sunil Badami, ‘Restless vision,’ The Australian, October 7–8, 2006.

Cunningham, Sophie, ‘Sophie Cunningham: is writing evolving?’, Crikey, 25 November 2010. http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/11/25/sophie-cunningham-is-writing-evolving/?wpmp_switcher=mobile, accessed 15 February 2015.

Davies, Lizzie, ‘Who is the real Italian novelist writing as Elena Ferrante?’ The Guardian, 16 October 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/15/who-italian-novelist-elena-ferrante, accessed 18 February 2015.

Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, 2003.

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield, Penguin Classics, London, 2007.

Dickens, Charles, Bleak House, Hablot Knight Browne, London, 1852-1853.

Di Paolo, Paolo, ‘Il caso Ferrante, il romanzo italiano secondo il New Yorker,’ (The case of Ferrante, the Italian novel according to the New Yorker), La Stampa, 13 October 2014. http://www.lastampa.it/2014/10/13/cultura/il-caso-ferrante-il-romanzo-italiano-secondo-il-new-yorker-k6z6crdyRB5A6Z4ycRUrIO/pagina.html, accessed 17 February 2015.

Ferrante, Elena, My Brilliant Friend, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2012.

Ferrante, Elena, The Story of a New Name, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013.

Ferrante, Elena, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2014.

Ferrante, Elena, quoted in ‘The Art of Fiction’, The Paris Review (forthcoming). http://www.theparisreview.org/issue-212-preview, accessed 17 February 2015.

Fielding, Henry, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (in Six Volumes), A. Millar, London, 1749.

Flaubert, Gustave, Madame Bovary, Hackett Publishing, Indianopolis, IN, 2009 (1857).

Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Helena de Bertodano, ‘Jonathan Franzen interview,’ The Telegraph, 29 September 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/8022791/Jonathan-Franzen-interview.html, accessed 14 February 2015.

Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Susan Lerner, ‘A Conversation with Jonathon Franzen,’ Booth Magazine, 13 February 2015. http://booth.butler.edu/2015/02/13/a-conversation-with-jonathan-franzen/, accessed 13 February 2015.

Hugo, Victor, Les Misèrables, Dodd, Mead, New York, 1900 (1862).

The Internet Archive. https://archive.org/index.php, accessed 21 February 2015.

McCrum, Robert, ‘Why modern novelists need to watch their weight,’ The Observer, 19 February 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/19/novels-size-robert-mccrum, accessed 17 February 2015.

Miller, Sandra A., ‘When Charles Dickens Came to Boston,’ The Boston Globe Magazine, 18 March 2012. http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2012/03/17/when-charles-dickens-came-boston/LwCtpA83DGQWqFfVEoyfZL/story.html, accessed 15 February 2015.

Richardson, Samuel, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, Russell & Allen, Manchester, 1811.

Rushdie, Salman, quoted in Vanessa Thorpe, ‘Salman Rushdie says TV dramas comparable to novels,’ The Observer, 12 June 2011.

Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children, Vintage, London 2011 (1981).

Sharma, Akhil, Family Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2014.

Sharma, Akhil, ‘A Novel Like a Rocket,’ The New Yorker, 7 April 2014. www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-novel-like-a-rocket, accessed 16 February 2015.

Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina, The Political Messenger, Moscow, 1873–1877.

Tolstoy, Leo, War & Peace, The Russian Messenger, Moscow, 1869.

Williamson, Geordie, ‘Courtenay counts the cost of cultural capital,’ The Australian, 11 December 2010. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/film/courtenay-counts-the-cost-of-cultural-capital/story-e6frg8pf-1225966829106, accessed 16 February 2015.

Wood, James, ‘Women on the Verge: The fiction of Elena Ferrante, The New Yorker, 21 January 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/01/21/women-on-the-verge, accessed

Citations:

[i] Franzen, Jonathon, quoted in Susan Lerner, ‘A Conversation with Jonathon Franzen,’ Booth Magazine, 13 February 2015. http://booth.butler.edu/2015/02/13/a-conversation-with-jonathan-franzen/, accessed 13 February 2015.
[ii] Miller, Sandra A., ‘When Charles Dickens Came to Boston,’ The Boston Globe Magazine, 18 March 2012. http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2012/03/17/when-charles-dickens-came-boston/LwCtpA83DGQWqFfVEoyfZL/story.html, accessed 15 February 2015.
[iii] Piirto, Jane, ‘The Creative Process in Poets,’ Creativity Across Domains: Faces of the Muse, (eds) James C. Kaufman & John Baer, Laurence Erhlbaum Associates, Inc./Taylor & Francis e-Library, Mahwah, NJ, 2011, 15.
[iv] McCrum, Robert, ‘Why movern novelists need to watch their weight,’ The Observer, 19 February 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/19/novels-size-robert-mccrum, accessed 17 February 2015.
[v] Lawson, Mark, ‘Contemporary fiction can still stand the test of time,’ The Guardian, 11 September 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/sep/10/booker-books-mark-lawson, accessed 15 February 2015.
[vi] Cox, Michael, quoted in Sunil Badami, ‘Restless vision,’ The Australian, October 7–8, 2006, 13.
[vii] Courtenay, Bryce, quoted in Jason Whittaker, ‘Peter Carey’s a snob: Bryce Courtenay in defence of popular writing,’ Crikey, 9 June 2010. http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/06/09/peter-careys-a-snob-bryce-courtenay-in-defence-of-popular-storytelling/, accessed 18 February 2015.
[viii] Williamson, Geordie, ‘Courtenay counts the cost of cultural capital,’ The Australian, 11 December 2010. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/film/courtenay-counts-the-cost-of-cultural-capital/story-e6frg8pf-1225966829106, accessed 16 February 2015.
[ix] Kureishi, Hanif, quoted in Alison Flood, ‘Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are “a waste of time,”’ The Guardian, 5 March 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi, accessed 18 February 2015.
[x] Flaubert, Gustave, Madame Bovary, Hackett Publishing, Indianopolis, IN, 2009 (1857), 166.
[xi] Sharma, Akhil, ‘A Novel Like a Rocket,’ The New Yorker, 7 April 2014. www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-novel-like-a-rocket, accessed 16 February 2015.
[xii] O’Rourke, Megan, ‘Elena Ferrante: The global literary sensation nobody knows,’ The Guardian, 1 November 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/31/elena-ferrante-literary-sensation-nobody-knows, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xiii] ‘See Naples and die,’ The Economist, 5 October 2013. http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21587190-singular-voice-english-last-see-naples-and-die, accessed 11 February 2015.
[xiv] Ferrante, Elena, The Story of a New Name, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013, 62.
[xv] Ferrante, Elena, The Story of a New Name, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013, 34.

Image References

Image 401: Test Card and Bruton Music Compilation, Youtube, http://i.ytimg.com/vi/tUsvpxqm8iU/maxresdefault.jpg

Image 402: © Sara Felsenstein, Sketching a Story http://sketchingastory.com/2012/08/05/small-finds-pickwick-book-shop/
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