Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Beginning and the End

Along with Finnegans Wake, I also just started reading Don Quixote. This is my third attempt, and it's probably not that great of an idea to read two classic novels that are so lengthy. DQ is 940 pages long. My wife thinks I have a disease psychological condition that gives me an insane inordinate predilection for reading multiple large books at the same time. Right now I'm reading 4 books > 500 pages long. It's a problem.

But I realized that this is actually an interesting pair of books to read together. DQ is often referred to as the first modern novel. It's hard to say precisely what this is supposed to mean. I suppose it could roughly be explained by saying that just about every novel we would read today (written in the past 400 years or so) was influenced in some way by what Cervantes wrote circa 1600. Technically, stylistically, philosophically, novels today are descendants of DQ. This is the sort of claim that probably doesn't hold up well if you take it too far, so we won't get carried away. But it seems legitimate to say that, if you want to trace the history of the modern novel back as far as it can go, you won't find a better candidate for a big bang event than Cervantes.

And then there's Finnegans Wake. This may sound weird, but some people think that FW is the end of the modern novel. Its death and funeral. Which seems to make no sense, because obviously quite a few novels have been written since 1939. All this FW=end-of-the-novel-talk is referring to is the historical trajectory of European/American literature in the 20th century. Joyce seemed to hit some kind of limit, in terms of what can be done with the novel structurally and stylistically. Here is a graphical representation of what I'm trying to say.
My sense is that Cervantes comes out of nowhere with DQ and the novel immediately bottoms out in the 17th and 18th centuries. I can't think of a good novel, a novel that I can read today and enjoy, that was written in the 17th century, after DQ. Same goes for most of the 18th century. I'd say the incline begins with Jane Austin ~1800, the 19th century gives us all kinds of complexity and nuance, and the top of the curve bumps against the total chaos line with FW. Since then, novelists have had to step away from the edge and come to terms with the diminishing returns. Is it worth experimenting with fiction to the point where no one can even read your stuff? [This is partly what Jonathan Franzen is getting at when he writes about the difference between Status and Contract novelists.]

So that's the idea. I'm reading the beginning and the end of the novel. Sort of. So to speak. We'll see how it goes. If I don't finish them this time I don't think it's ever going to happen.


Anonymous said...

I like the graph. Have you seen what Franco Moretti is up to at Stanford?

Sub-sub-librarian said...

I had not heard of Moretti, but his literary lab looks cool. The geography project is especially intriguing. In the Ulysses seminar I took, one of my ideas for the final paper I had to write was to map out the geography of Joyce’s Dublin. I like maps.