The Emergence of the Novel-Essay

Alberto Comparini (LARB) reviews a new study of the novel-essay and its place in modernity
“Hybrid genres,” and the questionable orthodoxy of traditional genres, are subjects that continue to vex literary theory. Consider Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, or Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: What do these novels share? What kind of novels are they? Are these books truly novels, or are they another form altogether?

A crisis of modernity

[Stefano] Ercolino’s book [The Novel-Essay, 1884–1947] — with its rich historical and cultural background, on the one hand, and close analysis of novels published in France, Austria, and Germany between the 19th and 20th centuries, on the other — is a decisive improvement for the study of the hybrid genre, as well as for the interpretation of modernity. As he states at the outset of his study, the novel-essay has a “significance […] for the history of the novel and for modern culture,” since it is also “the symbolic form of the crisis of modernity.”

Defining the novel-essay

But what is a novel-essay? According to the author, it is the “organic fusion of two distinct forms, the novel and the essay.” “Symbolic function,” “macroscopic features,” and “micro-morphological patterns” are grounded in both novel and essay, whose relationship allows the birth of the novel-essay. The main trait of the novel-essay is the essayistic intrusion in the novel, often by means of free indirect discourse; the role of the essay, within a novel, is to disrupt its temporal and narrative structures.

The main trait of the novel-essay is the essayistic intrusion in the novel, often by means of free indirect discourse; the role of the essay, within a novel, is to disrupt its temporal and narrative structures.

The history of the novel-essay parallels the crisis of modernity, from 1884–1947: tracking the sociological, political, and economic outcomes of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and Paris Commune (1871); the diffusion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud’s philosophy (known as “school of suspicion”) throughout Europe; the failure of Positivism; Einstein’s relativism theory (1905, 1916); World War I and II; the birth and the failures of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism.

The novel-essay is initially, at the end of 19th century, the negative counterpart of the naturalist novel.

The novel-essay is initially, at the end of 19th century, the negative counterpart of the naturalist novel. In order to approach, define, and describe this genre historically, philosophically, and culturally, Ercolino focuses on five main authors and books (Huysmans’s Against Nature, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, and Mann’s Doctor Faustus), also including writers such as Zola, Strindberg, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Sartre, and Joyce. According to Ercolino, they embody and mirror, through the novel-essay, the history of the Western novel in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A changeover

Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature
Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature

Ercolino reads the failure of the 19th-century novel through many phenomena, not just cultural, historical, and philosophical, but also scientific. The “development of classical electrodynamics, with energy taking center of the scientific investigation over matter, and the increasing mathematizing of physical description of reality, began to show the multidimensional nature of a world that was even more difficult to explain in terms of Newtonian mechanics.” Authors such as Huysmans or Strindberg, in other words, had to face the multidimensional nature of a world that was even more difficult to explain in terms of naturalist determinism. Strindberg’s “Rational Mysticism,” as it appears in the Inferno trilogy (1887–1889), is another example Ercolino takes into account to show this defection from both naturalism and positivism alike, whose inadequacy instantiated the urge for transcendence in Strindberg’s Inferno.

Ercolino also explains the novel-essay in terms of what he calls a “morphological changeover” at the end of the 19th century, the process through which two literary forms, such as the Bildungsroman and the novel-essay, change over in carrying on a symbolic literary discourse on modernity.

According to Ercolino, “Morphology and Weltanschauungen” shape literary history; therefore, in order to study a new genre, they must be taken into account together. If, on the one hand, Huysmans’s novels are an attack on naturalism, Against Nature is an anti-Bildungsroman — a novel written and conceived in opposition to a genre he viewed as the expression of the bourgeois environment, on the one hand, and modernity, on the other. The novel’s aesthetic and ideology start changing at the end of the 19th century, given “the particular process of progressive historical, scientific, and technological acceleration” — a progressive transformation galvanized by psychoanalysis, relativity, and quantum mechanics.

Addressing history and society

It is true that the novel-essay is a novel, but it preserves and utilizes the essay-device to “recompos[e] the fracture that occurred in the historical and social fabric of Europe between the turn of the nineteenth century and World War I.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Ercolino cites Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novel in order to “further illuminate the morphology of the novel-essay and to mark a significant turn in the history of the novel between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.” He claims that symbolic forms need historical and social conditions to exist; in Dostoevsky’s case, the development of Russian history prevented him from writing a novel-essay per se. Radical ideologies, on the one hand, and structure of societies, on the other, dramatically separate Europe and Russia at the end of 19th century, not just historically, but also philosophically — the crisis of the symbolic order of modernity could not be thought or theorized by Dostoevsky through the form of the novel-essay. Even Notes from Underground could not be associated with European novel-essays: the autodiegetic narrator “never merges with his fictional recipient, nor does he merge with himself;” finally, “each statement is negated by the narrator himself, to the point that a dense epistemological opacity spreads throughout the whole body of the novel.” This is completely incompatible with the synthetic and dialectic framework of the novel-essay — not to mention the fact that Notes from Underground is not a novel at all.

The end of the novel-essay?

In the last chapter, Ercolino focuses again on Mann, but this time on his Doctor Faust, which marks the end of the novel-essay. If this genre was born as emergence for new literary forms, it will end because of the exhaustion of its epistemological needs. It is a novel-essay, but because of its adhering to the principle of montage and to its encyclopedic dimension, it takes on “the problem of the new in art, the problem of its impossibility, and the return of the archaic,” which would later torment most postmodern literature. Ercolino argues that already in Doctor Faust we can see the postmodern need to “answer the exhaustion of literary language.” Mann was concerned to unravel the epistemological failure of modernity, and Ercolino understands the philosophical form and direction that the novel was already taking with Mann’s Doctor Faust in that light: absorbed by the postmodern age, the novel-essay resists, but devoid of its desire and need to describe the fall of modernity.

Onward: The Maximalist Novel

Ercolino does not attempt to trace this trajectory in The Novel-Essay, but by mentioning Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow, De Lillo’s Underworld, Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or Siti’s Troppi paradisi, he briefly maps in the last page of his work what he will later call in his second book The Maximalist Novel, one of the most refined literary expressions of the cultural logic of late capitalism. The Novel-Essay is indeed a necessary step not just to understand the crisis of modernity or to study the premises of the ideology of postmodernism — it is a chapter of the history of the novel which will allow us to understand the development of our society through the mirror of literary forms. [Read the Full Article]

This post is an abridgement of Alberto Comparini’s review, which you can read in full at the Los Angeles Review of Books website.

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