'The Novel: A Biography'.

12 March 2015


Amongst the topics of conversation with psychiatrist Raj Persaud include: whether novelists are more prone to mental illness - why do we appear to have an insatiable psychological appetite for stories - can novels serve a psychological function - can they cheer us up? Can they be therapeutic? Novels are meant to be about the human condition, or human conditions, and yet so also are psychology and psychiatry, but the two don't seem to intersect - novels don't drive psychological research and are novelists moved by developments in psychology and psychiatry?
 
The 700-year history of the novel in English defies straightforward telling. Geographically and culturally boundless, with contributions from Great Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean, and Southern Africa; influenced by great novelists working in other languages; and encompassing a range of genres, the story of the novel in English unfolds like a richly varied landscape that invites exploration rather than a linear journey. In The Novel: A Biography, Michael Schmidt does full justice to its complexity.
 
Like his hero Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature, Schmidt chooses as his traveling companions not critics or theorists but “artist practitioners,” men and women who feel “hot love” for the books they admire, and fulminate against those they dislike. It is their insights Schmidt cares about. Quoting from the letters, diaries, reviews, and essays of novelists and drawing on their biographies, Schmidt invites us into the creative dialogues between authors and between books, and suggests how these dialogues have shaped the development of the novel in English.
 
Schmidt believes there is something fundamentally subversive about art: he portrays the novel as a liberalizing force and a revolutionary stimulus. But whatever purpose the novel serves in a given era, a work endures not because of its subject, themes, political stance, or social aims but because of its language, its sheer invention, and its resistance to cliché—some irreducible quality that keeps readers coming back to its pages.
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