The Continuing Value of the Novel

Lara Feigel reviews Peter Boxall’s new book about the relevance of the novel in the 21st century


In his 1925 essay, “Why the Novel Matters”, DH Lawrence celebrated the novel as the “one bright book of life”. According to him, the novelist alone understands that there is as much life in the hand that writes as in the mind that thinks. Where science and philosophy privilege mind over matter, turning man into a “dead man in life”, the novel resurrects the “whole man alive”. Lawrence acknowledged that books do not constitute life, but insisted that they were “tremulations on the ether” that could make the whole man alive tremble into urgent being.

Almost a century later, Will Self announced the death of the novel. According to Self, the availability of an ever-expanding mass of literature on the internet prevents us from imagining anything original. The disappearance of the boundary between the democratic public sphere and the private, reflective mind has taken away the imaginative capacity for sustained engagement with fiction.

Now Peter Boxall has set out to defend the novel against Self’s charges in terms that draw partly on Lawrence. Boxall claims that the novel is ideally suited to capturing 21st-century life. He argues convincingly that Self ignores the fact that, historically, the novel is a genre that has derived its power precisely from its precariousness, from the tremulations described by Lawrence.

Samuel Beckett

For Boxall we now face the immateriality of an increasingly virtual, online world, at the same time as we face the frightening materiality of climate change. The novel, he contends, is peculiarly adept at exploring this contradiction, because as a form it is created with the premise that it can contain material life (bodies, space and time) while also remaining only an immaterial collection of words on a page. As Beckett memorably put it: “Say a body. Where none … A place. Where none. For the body. To be in.”

In five elegant chapters, split between art and matter, or form and content, Boxall explores the way that novelists over the past five centuries have celebrated the ability of the fictional story to undermine itself without losing any of its power. He makes a powerful case for the novel as the genre capable of capturing the least definable aspects of our experience. In the chapter on time, he suggests that it is uniquely able to evoke the experience of being in the moment, while also maintaining the shape of the fixed temporal scheme or plot. And in the chapter on the law, he says the novel came into being in the teeth of a contradiction between the desire for collective belonging and the struggle towards private space.

Peter Boxall

These summaries do not do justice to the complexity of Boxall’s argument, which is marked by a refusal to make the kind of wilfully generalised statements we find in the Lawrence and Self essays. This is an unusually eloquent book of literary criticism in which every sentence is nuanced, every observation is brought into precise dialogue with what precedes it, all distilled into prose that feels easily written and is therefore easy to read.

Throughout, Boxall converses respectfully with literary theory, managing neither to resist nor to echo the theorists he encounters. He thinks that we have learned important lessons from the theoretical revolution of the second half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, he wants, rightly, to believe that it is still possible to see great literature as having a value that is not simply the utilitarian value demanded by the funding bodies that now have so much influence on higher education.

In the process, he offers a dazzling series of readings of an astonishing array of texts. He is as at home discussing St Augustine as Paul Ricoeur; as comfortable with the novels of Defoe or Melville as with Beckett, Woolf or DeLillo. He presents a convincing challenge to the critics who have distinguished too rigidly between the realist and the experimental novel. Both come from the same impulse to tell stories that enable us to learn about our world. [Read More]

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