Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

Laurence Sterne and the modern American novel

There are three kinds of fiction: historical, biographical and anecdotal. Lord of the Flies, for example, is fictional history, describing a series of events taking place over a defined period in time. An example of fictional biography would be To the Lighthouse, which is concerned less with what people do than with what they are. Most nineteenth and twentieth century novels are either fictional history or fictional biography, depending on whether they are driven primarily by narrative or by character.

Most eighteenth century novels are anecdotal, consisting of loosely connected episodes, like Homer’s Odyssey, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The picaresque novels of Defoe, Fielding, Swift, Smollett and Richardson belong to this tradition. Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, written in the middle of the eighteenth century, stands out from the crowd for its apparently chaotic structure but is really not so different from the others. Writing a novel without a plot was in the spirit of the age.

The anecdotal novel is one in which the narrator is more important than the narrative. Its purpose is to satirise and to moralise. Dickens started writing in this tradition with The Pickwick Papers but, even before he had finished it, found himself wanting to do more. Paradoxically, the model for Dickens was not the story-teller but the tragedian. He wanted to stir the emotions, to make his readers cry as well as laugh, to create characters they could love and hate in stories that had the trajectory of great dramas. The anecdotal Pickwick quickly gave way to the biographical Copperfield and the historical Bleak House.

After a century of novels in historical and biographical mode, the anecdotal returned, appropriately enough, with Ulysses. Flaubert’s ambition was to write a novel in which nothing happened, Joyce did it. Ulysses could have been called ‘The Life and Opinions of Leopold Bloom’. Ten years before, Alfred Jarry had called one of his novels Gestes et Opinions du Docteur Faustroll, Pataphysicien. The narrator, the narrative voice, not the narrative, came to the fore again. Stirring a reader’s emotions was facile, a literary deception.

Ulysses, like Tristram Shandy, is inimitable and, like the plays of Samuel Beckett, a lack of imitators has made it seem like a literary dead end, but its influence is felt in other ways. His legacy, the legacy of modernism, was self-consciousness. In Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, for example, the identity, if not the very existence, of the narrator is what the book is about. It reads like an extended Jewish joke, with long digressions and quick asides in the manner typical of Jewish American comedians. Roth’s style, like Sterne’s, is not literary. To read either of them is to hear them speak. They do not want to make you laugh or cry, just listen. Fiction should not be mistaken for reality. It is a different kind of truth. A novel is a novel is a novel. A novel about a novel is not.

In America, Melville had already moved beyond the strict confines of history and biography into the discursive and anecdotal. Who is the narrator of Moby Dick? ‘Call me Ishmael.’ He begins Bartleby by introducing himself: ‘I am a rather elderly man.’ Knowing something about him is, he says, ‘indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.’ He concludes by apologising for not being able to tell us more about Bartleby and leaves the story, the anecdote, to all intents and purposes, unfinished.

Kurt Vonnegut speaks directly to the reader too and starts Slaughterhouse-5 with a disclaimer. ‘All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.’

In Vonnegut’s case, the separation of narrator and narrative, the distinction between the book and what really happened, is a kind of defence. ‘I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.’

He goes on to create a further separation by giving himself a second persona as Billy Pilgrim. ‘I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?’ Then he starts again at Chapter 2.

It is a mistake to think of writers like Roth and Vonnegut as modern, or of the modern American novel as anything new. Like everything else, they go back a long way, past Joyce, Melville and Sterne, all the way to Homer. Historical and biographical fiction may be more fun, but anecdotal fiction has a longer pedigree.

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This entry was posted on July 8, 2015 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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