Notes on Theory of the Novel by Guido Mazzoni

I've spent the last couple of weeks reading — almost devouring — Guido Mazzoni's Theory of the Novel, recently translated by Zakiya Hanafi from the Italian (a very clear translation of a complex text; not reading Italian, I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it's one of the most readable works of academic theory I've ever encountered). I'm still working through where I agree and disagree with Mazzoni, but however my thinking evolves regarding his ideas, the book is unquestionably impressive and thought-provoking, and particularly valuable in how it develops and clarifies some of the classic concepts in the field from Bakhtin, Lukács, Erich Auerbach, and Ian Watt (among others). The only other recent book I've read that seems almost as clear and logical on similar topics is The Rhetoric of Fictionality by Richard Walsh, a less ambitious, less fulfilling, and less elegant book than Mazzoni's, but useful in filling in around some of Mazzoni's edges, since Mazzoni, like most writers and theorists, occasionally does a bit of hand waving to get around the paradoxes created by the concepts of fiction/nonfiction.

For a good basic overview of Mazzoni's main ideas, see Alberto Comparini's review for the LA Review of Books and M.A. Orthoffer's review for The Complete Review. Here, I want to simply make some notes on things that stuck out for me on a first reading, and to offer a few quotations from the text. (I'll put page number citations in not from a desire to be all fancy-pants academic, but because it's tough to excerpt Mazzoni's ideas without doing some violence to them, and interested readers really should read the quotations in context.)

image by Lin Kristensen

Mazzoni's focus is more narrow than the book's title makes apparent. He's really writing about the literary novel in Europe, with occasional necessary forays to the British Isles and, in the later 20th century, to the U.S. This goes against the grain of some other recent writing on the novel, which tends toward a broader canvas. (See, for instance, Steven Moore's extraordinary [and extraordinarily idiosyncratic] two volumes, which in almost 2,000 pages only get up to the year 1800, or Michael Schmidt's 1,200-page The Novel: A Biography.) Mazzoni's knowledge seems to be of the novel in Italian, German, French, and English, and it is extraordinary rich knowledge, even if it rarely extends beyond Europe's borders — the key is that Mazzoni develops and exemplifies his ideas with works from the literary histories and traditions he knows intimately, and, unlike some other recent scholars, he doesn't pretend he can read all languages and know all cultures. This means he mostly writes about European novels by white men, and mostly the stuff canonized by undergraduate English classes over the last century or so — the novelistic Usual Suspects.

Such an approach works well up to about 1940, because it allows Mazzoni to challenge and complicate a pretty settled (even dusty) academic discourse with its own most common examples, thus giving us a new view of a baby while flushing its slimy old bathwater down the drain. The approach is less convincing after 1940 partly because of the efflorescence of varieties of novels published since then (which Mazzoni admits), but also because after WWII literary conversation shows an ever-growing interest in novels not by white European guys. Couple that with the basic challenge of trying to figure out what the most meaningful works are in an era that's still very much alive and changing, an era where the discourse is far from settled, and you get Mazzoni's least convincing, most cursory writing. I laughed out loud when he declared Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones to be "three of the most significant works to appear in the past fifteen years" (204), a claim possible only for someone whose entire knowledge of recent fiction comes from the New York Review of Books.

Given the limits of his scope and knowledge, though, Mazzoni has lots to say of interest. I, not having much passion for ancient or medieval writings, skimmed through some of the stuff about pre-18th century narratives, but Mazzoni's fascinating on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with good insights not only into the various disruptions in novelistic conventions, but in the continuities. For instance, he says that in terms of technical changes and narrative possibilities, "the first generation of writers that are still contemporary is that of George Eliot, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. The storehouse of available techniques was expanded by other devices after them, but the ways of constructing characters, plots, and narrators that these novelists invented or perfected still furnish solutions that twenty-first century novels continue to use today. Their greatest works are still somehow contemporary to our epoch, while those of Scott, Balzac, or Manzoni show signs of an era that no longer speaks to us" (341). (As always, readers could — should — question who is "us" in such a statement, but nonetheless I think Mazzoni's insight is generally valid for the expectations writers, publishers, and readers in the U.S., at least, place on novels today.) He makes an excellent point about the expectation from the early 19th century up to at least World War II (and certainly still strong for many types of fiction today) that the novel ought to be a realistic representation of everyday life: "The critical vocabulary that dominated during the years of modernism was very different from the critical lexicon used by the avant-garde movements of the 1950s and 1960s to justify their works. The basic reason was that, although conceived in different terms, a majority of modernist novelists remained faithful to the same project we find in the critical writings of the authors who were born around 1840 (Zola, James), and even before that in the critical writings of Balzac or Stendhal: to properly, realistically represent everyday life" (288).

As the novel (and discourse about the novel) began to develop consistent conventions, Mazzoni points out that the conventions developed were adapted from the theatre. This, he maintains, was Scott's great innovation — description in particular takes a leap forward as Scott assumes the reader of novels to be in a comparable position to the viewer of plays: "The reader of narrative fiction is placed in the position of spectator: we watch a scene unfold in front of us, described as if it were being seen for the first time. ...At the beginning of a play the spectators reconstruct a general sense of the story by interpreting the decor, costumes, gestures, and words they see and hear after the curtain draws open — hence the importantance of the sense of sight and its verbal equivalent: description" (238-239). In the 20th century, expectations and assumptions about such conventions changed: "The visual models condensed in the aesthetic unconscious of educated readers today appeal to a different visibility: one that is photographic and cinematographic in nature, quicker, more allusive, and more fragmented" (240). But the move away from the theatrical model affected more than just descriptive prose; it also affected ideas of plot and structure, ideas of what belongs in the foreground and background, and ideas of what readers need to know and what sorts of leaps they can make in their own imaginations. "The characters in contemporary novels spend much less time on stage than nineteenth-century characters did, as was also the case, for that matter, before the theatrical model gained its hegemony over third-person narrative fiction...the scenes are much shorter and there are fewer of them... This does not mean that they do not exist or that they are not important: far from it. ...But these dense spaces are surrounded by moments during which the intersubjective action in the present tense is restricted to summaries, passed over in silence because it lacks interest, or made the object of a nonfictional interpretation..." (243-244). He then notes that the sort of theatrical density found in most 19th century novels now survives primarily "in the subgenres of the contemporary romance: crime novels, noir fiction, or the fantastic" (244).

Mazzoni doesn't spend much more than a few sentences on what's come to be called genre fiction, acknowledging it long enough to note that it is mostly outside his purview. Much of what he has to say about the romance and its relationship to the novel would be of use to genre-fiction scholars, though, and offers a model of the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction that is more nuanced than most. This paragraph, for instance, seems clearer, more efficient, and more insightful than most of what I've read from genre-fiction scholars:
The English gothic novel and the narrative fiction of German Romanticism expanded the territory of mimesis to imaginary universes that lay very distant from common sense. They ushered in the modern period of fantastic literature and created a new form of romance. Out of this there arose a tradition that would traverse the entire nineteenth century: from the gothic novel to Hoffmann, from Potocki to Mary Shelley, from Edgar Allan Poe to Nerval and Théophile Gautier, from Bram Stoker to Wilkie Collins. It was also practiced by the authors of novels who, starting from the 1830s, would be called “realistic”: from Balzac and Flaubert to Maupassant and Henry James. As heir to the premodern romance, the new unreal literature no longer sought legitimacy by claiming to describe the world according to the poetic order of the idea, namely, according to a public exemplarity given as an a priori, but rather as a creation of the subjective imagination. On the other hand, it also took up some of the descriptive traits that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel had developed to create a reality effect. In this way it revived the conception of the supernatural by rooting fantastic tales in the concreteness of the sensible and the everyday. (214)
Much could be extrapolated about genre fiction from Mazzoni's ideas about novels, didacticism, and class. He's hardly the first to note the ways the development and reputation of certain types of novels was (and is) attached to social prestige and cultural capital, nor is he the first to look at the development of the novel in relation to the development of the European bourgeoisie, but nonetheless he tells this story well and with nuance. What he's particularly good on is the different progressions made by the novel aimed at the general public and the novel aimed at the educated elite (the people with cultural capital and in most cases economic capital as well). Overtly didactic and moralistic writing survived in the novels (romances) aimed at the general public much longer than in novels aimed at the elite, where didacticism began to seem gauche — the educated upper-classes, after all, were not the ones needing instruction; they had been to the right schools and learned the right morality. The less educated lower classes were more suspect, and writers aiming for such an audience seemed to feel compelled to write more overtly didactic books. For the cultural elite, "art for art's sake" became a value that helped novelists escape didacticism; I suspect that for popular fiction "entertainment for entertainment's sake" served a similar function, while also preserving the street cred of distance from high falutin', hoity-toity high culture types.

Even when popular novels are not didactic, the basic values illustrated by their stories remain ones that do not challenge the ruling class of their era and that class's moral sensibility. It is not merely that general audiences like happy endings where villains are punished and noble heroes triumph, but that the ways villains are villainous and heroes are heroic support dominant values. When novels push too hard against such orthodoxies, they get into trouble (often by being unpublished or undistributed, since they don't fit with the common sense of the day, though sometimes by being somehow banned). Within the tradition of the literary novel, writers have often done just such pushing against orthodoxies, and Mazzoni does a good job of looking at how some of those moments worked, but his picture of the literary field is incomplete without attention to some of the ways such pushing happened in popular and lowbrow forms — the obvious example, for me, is the rise of hardboiled and noir fiction in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s, a fiction that had its own romantic and melodramatic conventions, but which offered writers some space to challenge and even shatter ruling-class assumptions in a way little other fiction of its time did.

Speaking of melodramatic conventions: Mazzoni is also excellent on the power and persistence of melodrama:
Melodrama survived the disciplining of the novel advocated by naturalism as well as by modernism and the avant-garde: the works of Zola and Conrad would be unimaginable without devices dating back to this mimetic mode. In the second half of the twentieth century, works like Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago or Elsa Morante’s History picked up on melodramatic techniques. Contemporary popular fiction, midcult fiction, and mainstream film are still based on the melodrama as well as the romance. (259)

…melodrama is a vestige of tragedy, from which it inherits its techniques and tones. But while histories and tragic heroes are grand and important by definition, the stories and protagonists of a novel are not. To hide this lacuna, melodrama creates a pathetic-sentimental version of the noble genres, shifting interest from the objective importance of the stories to the subjective intensity of the passions. The aim is to show that the protagonists’ feelings are universal, in spite of the work describing or portraying people in private situations. (265)
This ties in with one of Mazzoni's primary questions: How, during different eras and in different places, was the novel form affected by novelists' desire to capture and hold readers' interests? After all, novels don't last long if they don't find some way to appeal to readers, even if the appeal is limited and the readership small. As culture and attention change, so, too, do the ways that novels can be interesting. In the last few centuries, melodrama has been (and remains) one of the key tools for attaining and holding readers' interest. This is an obvious insight for popular fictions, but Mazzoni is especially smart about the ways that the melodramatic imagination (to steal Peter Brooks's term) is baked into the 19th century novel form that continues to dominate so much fiction and so many assumptions about what makes works of fiction successful or unsuccessful. (For more on melodrama, I'm partial to Eric Bentley's The Life of the Drama.) Further, the period of High Modernism can at least partly be seen as a time of experiment seeking to discover what novelistic effects were possible if melodrama were abjured or detourned.

Mazzoni's philosophical conclusion is a beautiful meditation on what today we get from reading novels, what we as readers expect, and what writers might seek to provide. I'll end with one of the sentences from that conclusion:
Only narrative fiction can show how particular beings are exposed to the world, and how their identity, happiness, and unhappiness depend on the way their paths cross with those of others, and the power of circumstances. (374)

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