ReadySteadyBlog

Nice piece in the Guardian a month or so back with Stefan Collini reviewing The Good of the Novel (edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan):

This book contains some outstanding writing about fiction, about individual novels and also, along the way, about the power and reach of the novel as a form. In an age of drive-by reviewing, when every reader can tell the (electronic) world whether or not they "like" a particular book, these 13 essays together constitute something of a manifesto, speaking up for the continuing vitality of that traditional form, the critical essay, a discursive piece of writing which is longer than a journalistic review but more accessible than an academic article. Almost all of them strike those sparks of understanding whereby we recognise that we half knew what they tell us yet didn't, in any articulated way, know at all. This is true of Mary Hawthorne on Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac ("how to live in the world in the absence of having achieved one's heart's desire"), and Frances Wilson on Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy ("Breaking up is a form of editing, which is perhaps why writers do it so well")...

Wonderful quote, from Mary Hawthorne, about Anita Brookner, a writer whose work, in book after book, has been such a moving meditation on loneliness, and on how arid life can be when it is shorn of love.

Of the novels discussed here, JM Coetzee's Disgrace is the only one I have read more than once, so it might be expected that a critical essay on this book would have more of an uphill task than the others to engage me and make me feel I was learning very much. But Tessa Hadley manages this and more, and does so precisely by concentrating on questions of "technique". She returns to that old chestnut of novel-criticism, "point of view", though without the clanking of heavy machinery that often accompanies excursions into narratology. How far is Disgrace written from the point of view of its central character, David Lurie, and how far from that of an omniscient narrator? Taking an instructive detour through the narrative technique of Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee's ostensibly autobiographical accounts written in the third person, she alerts us to the way in which the novel shows us the world through Lurie's sensibility while also including that sensibility as, in some sense, part of its "subject-matter". As she acutely observes: "We aren't given any alternative secure perspective from which to 'know' Lurie, but we are able to scrutinise the edges of the knowledge his temperament makes available to him." This now seems to me dead right, but something it was very hard to get right. The brilliance with which Coetzee pulls off this delicate operation is enhanced rather than diminished by Hadley's analysis, even though, on a reductive view of the matter, she hasn't given me any information that I didn't already possess.

Aside from Collini's rather ill-informed jibes about online reviews which pepper and unbalance his piece, his review is an excellent little essay in defence of literary criticism: "What is going on, I'm tempted to say, is literary criticism, something more ambitious than much everyday reviewing. Such criticism, at its best, involves a sustained attentiveness to how a work of literature achieves its effects plus a focused analysis of what kind of achievement it represents and where that comes in the scale of things."

London-based readers may be interested to know that The Good of the Novel is being discussed at the London Review Bookshop on Monday 16 May at 7.00 p.m.

Readers Comments

  1. A very disappointing book. Apart from James Wood's piece - and even that doesn't leave up to the reputation of someone who came up with hysterical realism - this collection regurgitates the literary establishment's views on the contemporary novel, which seems to be all about plot, character and social realism (have they got the century right?) plus a few post-modernist games on fictionality here and there. Have the editors never heard of Gabriel Josipovici and his fiction? Could someone send them a copy of What Ever Happened to Modernism? Collini could do with it as well.

    ps A much more perceptive review appeared in New Statesman

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