Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bellamy on Robbe-Grillet on Barthes on Flaubert

One of Robbe-Grillet’s points, which I believe he borrows from Roland Barthes, is that the novel of character, such as Madame Bovary, for example, or Tolstoy’s work, belongs to the age of character, to the age of the individual. And in mass society, for example, when individualism as a philosophy is historically discredited, the novel of character is a kind of anachronism.
Joe David Bellamy

I'm reading Madame Bovary at the moment, my first novel this year outside the confines of my thesis studies. It's certainly a novel of character, and its style is indeed anachronistic. It is suffused with what we would call "telling" these days: we are suddenly presented, in depth, with the thoughts of the characters that, to our modern tastes, feels distinctly odd.

But is the novel of character itself anachronistic? I'm not at all sure about that one. I've read Suttree four times this year alone - I've no idea how many times in total - and it's certainly a novel of character. Of course, McCarthy being McCarthy, you have to watch out for inversions of meaning - because he writes a novel of character doesn't mean he's promoting the idea of a novel of character, just as Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy, westerns all, are intentionally debunking the myths of the west. But it is certainly a novel about a character, Buddy Suttree.

The problem I have with this proposition is the lazy thesis on which it rests, that in mass society individualism is discredited. That kind of soundbite philosophy just doesn't bear scrutiny. Indeed, one might argue that our current society is more individualistic than any in history. That may or may not be a good thing - that's a different argument - but the fact remains industrialisation has not, yet, reduced us all to the automata that conservative naysayers have been prophesying for a hundred plus years. I've spent the past year arguing against such reductive views of modernity.

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