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All questions that occurred to me some years ago, when the study of national bibliographies made me realize what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain […], but is still less than one per cent on the novels that were actually published: Twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows—and close reading won't help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so … And it's not even a matter of time, but of method […] it isn't a sum of individual cases: it's a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole […] [From Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History]
Now we're getting to the real heart of the matter. When books and libraries started to go digital a while back, countries started to think about all of the literature they had produced, and they discovered that—lo and behold—that's a lot of books. Now, we literary types are the ones who are supposed be the authorities, but we still only read a tiny fraction of all of the books out there.
You'd basically have to read on the toilet with an IV drip for the rest of your life to get through even a small portion of what's out there, so why bother? Forgive me for sounding like out of those two-minute-long daytime television commercials doing the hard sell, but it's time to get at those books in a different way. (Notice I didn't say "read" in a different way.) We can only understand the body of literature by looking at it as a collective, not by through book after book as if were picking through a haystack.
There is no picaresque of the border, or Bildungsroman of the European in Africa: this specific form needs that specific space—the road, the metropolis. Space is not the "outside" of narrative, then, but an internal force, that shapes it from within. [From Atlas of the European Novel, 1800–1900]
Another one of my fave subjects: how space functions in the novel. How you ever mapped out Jane Austen's Emma? Well, if you read closely enough (but not too closely), you're able to get a good sense of who lives where. What I'm saying here is that the genre of a book (like, say, a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative) more often than not relates to its geographical setting.
So, in the Bildungsroman, characters often travel along roads or become adults in cities. They aren't out in the jungle or the desert figuring stuff out on their own; they have to travel and interact with people like one usually does, well, along roads or in cities, and not out in the middle of a cornfield. It's like the genre requires that kind of geography.
There is a deep attraction between the two terms, "Ulysses" and "crisis." Yet, in current critical use, the meaning of the second has been assimilated to a hazy image of the end of the world, values, literature—of the bourgeoisie, as, with the logic of folly, students never tire of repeating. It is as though Ulysses bewitched readers to such an extent as to make them forget that more than half a century has passed since 1922 and that in the meantime the world, values, literature, and, indubitably, the bourgeoisie, have continued to thrive. [From Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms]
When people talk about modernism in literature, they usually talk about novels like Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, and they talk about the impact of World War I and the crisis or trauma that followed it. Scholars and students of literature like to point to these and other books as signaling a kind of apocalyptic end to certain 19th-century values.
I'm here to say uh-uh. Unfortunately, the bourgeois values that supposedly went the way of the dodo are still alive and well. People just live to declare the death of things, but that's so 1980s. I'm saying not much has changed.
[Goethe's Wilhelm Meister] marks simultaneously the birth of the Bildungsroman (the form which will dominate or, more precisely, make possible the Golden Century of Western narrative, and of a new hero […] Elizabeth Bennett and Julien Sorel […] David Copperfield […] Dorothea Brooke. Youth is a necessary and sufficient definition of these heroes. Aeschylus's Orestes was also young, but his youth was incidental and subordinate to other much more meaningful characteristics […] But at the end of the eighteenth century the priorities are reversed […] Youth, or rather the European novel's numerous versions of youth, becomes for our modern culture the age which holds the "meaning of life." [From The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture]
So back to the Bildungsroman—you can see it's a beloved genre for me. The 18th century loved it, too, and so did the 19th century. These centuries just couldn't get enough of rascally kids growing up and figuring out their place in the big wide world. (I don't actually mention Pip from Great Expectations here, but he's a perfect example.)
Before the Bildungsroman came along, protagonists were any old age, but if they were young, their youth wasn't the big deal and point of the novel. It was the Bildungsroman that made youth the focus of the work, and so it was the Bildungsroman that came up with the familiar idea that being young is the coolest and best thing ever.
There is an American doctor [...] who diagnoses the neurosis of the twentieth century—in its first year—as "Newyorkitis." Of Franz Biberkopf, the hero of Berlin Alexanderplatz, who on his return to the city feels paralyzed: his "head threatens to burst." But usually the atmosphere of the metropolis is rather more ambiguous, with fear and promise intermingled. If the new stimuli do cause some alarm, they are also terribly seductive: objects to be owned, products to be seen, places to be lived in, roles to be filled [...] Or even just things to be seen. [From Modern Epic]
Did you ever notice that certain places have an effect on you? Like Piccadilly Circus in London feels different from the Lake District in England? Well, characters in novels are affected by space as well. Just as the Romantics loved that countryside stuff with all of those tweeting nightingales, modernists loved to talk about how damaging city life could be. (I refer you back to Mrs. Dalloway, or—even better— to "The Waste Land" for some robust examples.)
But migraines aren't the only thing that afflicts us in the city. We also have compulsive desires to own stuff. To gaze at things in covetous ways. To objectify people or show ourselves off. This is all very lurid stuff to a Marxist like me.