Sunday, February 21, 2010

Don DeLillo on the novel

From today's Sunday Times:

“It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience,” he says. “For that reason, reading a novel is potentially a significant act. Because there are so many varieties of human experience, so many kinds of interaction between humans, and so many ways of creating patterns in the novel that can’t be created in a short story, a play, a poem or a movie. The novel, simply, offers more opportunities for a reader to understand the world better, including the world of artistic creation. That sounds pretty grand, but I think it’s true.”

One to discuss. I think he has a point. Short stories pinpoint moments, or define characters, or otherwise shine a light, a small light, on the human condition. Poems are too personal, I think. Plays too constrained by their limitations. Movies too short, too addicted to action.

It is the novel that allows the greatest scope for investigation.


Mark said...

See now, I'd say that, in theory, it is obviously history that allows for the greatest opportunity to understand the human experience--because that's exactly what history is, human experience. But novels are part of history, and in real life they tend to be a more rewarding and even realistic portrayal of persons and times than histories are.

Carlos said...

Yes, I think DeLillo follows other critics and authors who have said something similar; that the novel is the preeminent art form of modernity. The novel rose and flourished hand in hand with modernity's recurrent fight against itself in its manifold and varigated forms of experience. With the increasing complexity of life, of cultures and mores and modes of being coming into collision with eachother, only a more extended and organic simulacrum of life could excapsulate or apperceive such richness.

To contrast, the days of the anthemic, epic poem die with the fading of homogenous cultures- where 'us' and the other, good and bad, can clearly be spoken of.

That said, and as to the rest of your post, I have to say that while perhaps true... I still maintain that a great short story or poem can transcend the boundaries of its limited stature to speak to other peoples and generations. Also, the more limited commitment required in taking on a shorter work invites the less-lettered to join in.

(I know that I read poems, short stories, essays, and novellas en gross long before I began to tackle reeeally long novels.)

Also, from a critic's perspective, detailed studies of shorter works are usually more analytically sound. Longer novels often have so much in them, so many competing currents and trends and ideas- no matter how cogent the author- that one can find pretty much whatever one wants to find in them... not unlike the Bible. (Witness our earlier discussion of Blood Meridian.) But then, that very idea proves DeLillo's point, huh?

Also, I agree with Mark's input about the novel as 'truer' history. I think that speaks to the rise (-or return to, since antiquity) of narrative presentations of history which abound today, rather than the drier, heavily footnoted history books of our grand-parents. These new works are just are minutely researched, but they make use of the endnote and look at 'character' development and arcs of meaning to produce a more engaging and meaningful presentation of the facts.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks both.

Mark, I think there's a lot in what you say. History is the story of the victor and all that. There is always an element of triangulation involved in reading history - the process must include what happened at the time in history, at the time when the history was written and the time when the history is being read. And that being the case, it is very difficult to ever get a genuine historical record of anything.

Carlos - this recurrent fight of modernity against itself: this is what's increasingly coming to interest me. I don't think western culture has ever really got over the First World War. It gave rise to modernism, and modernism still holds sway today, long after postmodernism, for example, has been consigned to the dustbin as a fad.

And DeLillo is as guilty of this as anyone. I think it's why, although I admire many current writers, I can't relax into them.

Mark said...

Going back to Delillo, I wonder if its this idea that makes me dislike his writing (disclaimer: I've only read and probably only ever will have read Underworld and Libra). I appreciate his attempts to make history almost the foreground of his writing, but unfortunately his ideas about history are ridiculous. Everything has to be about hidden cells within secret military organizations and submerged homoeroticism and The True Story Behind The Headlines and heaps of trash covered by landscape and this rather Germanic idea of deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper. Every page of those two novels seemed devoted to unearthing something "sub," something "hidden," and so they almost completely neglected what was conscious and what wasn't hidden. Perhaps he thinks he's got to get down to the core of human existence, and so he ignores what I believe really is essential to human experience--not submerged trash heaps but conscious thinking, not shadowy underground forces but the actions of human beings.

Regarding history, I think both of you addressed something important that is going on in history--which is the tension between popular and "professional" history. The former has been increasing in sales like crazy in the last fifty-ish years, while the latter has, on the whole, become more specialized, more jargoned, less readable, more abstruse. Historians have a tendency to dismiss popular histories (for example, books by David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose [although I have mixed feeling about his work myself], Robert K. Massie, and plenty of others) as not really history but just story-telling. And while sometimes popular histories are poorly researched, poorly thought out, and badly rendered, often professional history in all its sterility offers even less reality. Persons make history, and a person can't be found in isolated "facts."

Because of the limits Tom mentions (the three histories--the subject matter, author, and reader), genuine history is very difficult to write. And "objective" or "final" history is impossible--one reason why masterpieces of history are practically non-existent. Nobody but Cormac McCarthy could truly write about the Judge. If somebody wrote a spin-off novel, we would always know that McCarthy's Judge was *the* Judge. On the other hand, we have Ian Kershaw's Hitler and Alan Bullock's Hitler and Joachim Fest's Hitler and a hundred others. Some of them are certainly better and truer than others, but none is The Authoritative Hitler. There will never be a time when we'll say, "Well, SoandSo just wrote the last book on Hitler. Guess we're finished thinking about him." Granted, the Hitlermania of the last 30ish years will fade as new problems rise, but there will never be a time when we can say that the case is closed.

carlos said...

Mark- thanks for the clarification. I guess I have been drawn into reading history over the last 5 years partly due to my interest in the subjects (-as my need for contextualization of literature burgeoned into a general interest in the time periods and subjects), but also I have been drawn in by this more stream-lined and… I guess less researched form of ‘popular history’. I have heard that term before, but what makes it so? (These questions are meant in all earnestness; no loaded gun here, just FmyI) --is it just a matter of whether the author is trained and tenured? Or, is there a formal distinction? Or, does it come down to peer-reviewing, number of footnotes, and whether a respected history journal printed an excerpt first? (Any and all of these would make sense, just wondering.)

Tom- I understand you regarding the sketchy nature of history, itself; the triangulation notion you each speak of. I think of Sting’s song “History will teach us nothing”. Still, I love history for its own sake, not unlike art, and am guilty of enjoying it whether it’s all inevitably crap or not. And yet, as a reader of Voegelin, I can’t help thinking that history is important, even if its lessons are not what may be read on its face (-assuming that face could be discerned with anything approaching clarity).

I do not mean to go the underworld route (-Mark- good point, most certainly taken). I don’t mean that the ‘truth’ lies in the trash-heap. What we say and do, what we intended, and what we think afterward of what we have said and done— these conscious acts and thoughts are most certainly the stuff of histories, great and small. I just mean that if we are cursed to repeat our mistakes (however and by whomever determined and valued), then let it also be a conscious act; let the past speak its prophecies of blame to what we might have done. To assume the task futile, is to give up the game entirely, I think.

Tom- I am off topic as usual. Re modernity and post-modernity in the novel-- I see where you’re coming from, and I agree, post-modernity was a variation on a theme, for sure. (I am intrigued by your WWI comment, and would love to hear it elaborated. –Do you mean that then, like now, our very human ability and willingness to mass murder begs fundamental questions about our 'humanity'?)

Still, I have maintained in other forums that the post-modernity that has survived to produce viable progeny is that which rejects the post-modern aesthetic, but continues the PM line of questioning, McCarthy being an example. E.g., what meaning can be derived from a story told in a story that we know to be false, even in the comprehending story-world? Yet some meaning is still derived by the reader... so what does that say about our sense of making sense of things…? Are we just seeing what we will in the clouds?

When the perspectivism of modernism is put back together, we are still left with the questions and problems inherent in narrative authority that modernism elucidated. McCarthy elevates these tensions into discourse all throughout his works.

So, I think some contemporary novelists manage to skirt the line between author as God and book as real life, or between earnestness and irony, to arrive at questions that speak to today’s bewildering (and self-involved) Western concerns. In the end, though, these are still Modern preoccupations (as you suggest), as they look backward to wrestle or break with tradition, and not yet forward to blaze new paths of inquiry.

Mark said...

I don't know that there is any hard-and-fast formal distinction between professional and popular history. Generally anyone who doesn't have a PhD or equivalent in history gets lumped into "popular." And usually people who are "professionally" trained get the professional label.

It also can depend on your publisher (commercial v academic), your writing style, and your intended audience. I don't believe research or accuracy really play much of a role. My favorite historian, John Lukacs, always publishes with commercial publishers and argues that historian shouldn't and can't have a specialized jargon, and he agrees with Jacob Burckhardt who said that the only qualification of the historian is that he know how to read.

Tom Conoboy said...

I think of Sting’s song “History will teach us nothing”.
Of course, Nietzsche says that IF we can learn to look at history as a means of understanding, rather than as a source of resentment and anger, we will be able to progress. Therefore, I agree with the following:

And yet, as a reader of Voegelin, I can’t help thinking that history is important, even if its lessons are not what may be read on its face

(I am intrigued by your WWI comment, and would love to hear it elaborated.
Modernism started before the First World War, but it became a powerful movement afterwards. And that war is at the root of much of the great literature that came afterwards - Magic Mountain, The Waste Land et al. Even now, when we see the more millennialist strand of writing, with its dismissal of western culture as something that is dying, the references to the 1WW are strong, both implicit and even explicit. For example, last night I finished Walker Percy's Love among the ruins. It contains, apropos nothing, two separate references to the 1WW. I think it is more than just a convenient shorthand for the malaise of western civilisation: the 2WW could easily stand in for that too, not to mention Vietnam and more recent escapades. That war seems to have affected us in profound ways, so that nearly 100 years on its impact is still felt.

–Do you mean that then, like now, our very human ability and willingness to mass murder begs fundamental questions about our 'humanity'?)
Yes, possibly, and this may be why the 1WW resonates: it was the first industrial-scale war, when we turned our technological genius against ourselves.