The Novel of Learning: Endangered Species

By Theroux, Alexander | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

The Novel of Learning: Endangered Species


Theroux, Alexander, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


BERTRAND RUSSELL ONCE SAID that he knew of only six people--three Poles and three Texans--who had persisted to the end of the third volume of his vast 6000-page Principia Mathematica. I am not making a plea here for such perdurability or perseverance, but asking merely that the "novel of learning"--that compendious, learned, semi-encyclopedic variation in the very flexible genre of the novel, where rhetoric meets knowledge, where a book, written to be read, is made as a book--be cherished for its lists, collocations, digressions, self-contained stories, and be taken for what more often than not it is, a liberal education. We live in an age where such books seem more and more an anomaly. Ours, it seems, is fated a tempus tacendi. Tell it--so the identifying lollipop has it--like it is. Less is more. Increasingly, I have come to see that language is in a state of supreme scruple.

Joyce's Ulysses, Vardis Fisher's Children of God, Samuel Beckett's Watt, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, Thomas Pynchon's V., Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, to name but a handful, are not just novels, but novels of erudition, of elan, of expansiveness, which go back to Thomas Nash, Laurence Sterne, and a tradition of the word that to my mind is less and less in evidence with every passing day. And the decline of the word, which, by the way, you biblical scholars will recall was from the beginning, is hardly a matter to be ignored.

There is a modern suspicion that elaborateness in composition is a mark of trick or artifice in an author, that the majestic, the os magna sonatorum, the organ voice, is a sign, not of the marvelous, the magnificent, but of a pedantry with little to do with our world. To value Shakespeare, say, and to castigate simultaneously gorgeousness of phraseology and diffuseness of style is to argue that to be a philanthropist is necessarily to hate a misanthrope. Intelligently overplaying is not the same as overacting. Embonpoint is not fat. It's a problem deeper than mere anti-intellectualism, however, far deeper than a simple plea for the sophisticated novel. A new cretinism in our indifferent culture seems to be the prevailing attitude. A feeling at times is that knowledge itself is irrelevant.

I don't know where it all began, the idea that knowledge is homely, style is vile. Television is an easy but of course legitimate villain. (Hasn't Sitcom City lured all the playwrights away? Are good books ever advertised in commercials? Don't anchormen and women often make six or seven grammatical mistakes at a sitting? Haven't children's programs failed to turn them into readers?) There's a sea of video gamesters out there, Nintendo zombies, hat wearers. (More about the public schools anon.) There's recreational shopping in malls. There is also the strained economy. In Worcester, Massachusetts, today all sixteen branch libraries have closed down. The local library in my small village on Cape Cod is (a) filled with the crappiest authors on earth (Janet Dailey, Judith Krantz, Belva Plain, etc.), novels, by the way, which (b) were ordered for the most part by people who do not buy books--needless to say, there's a connection between the two. A new book written by David Nasaw, called Going Out, documents the slow but steady decline and fall in America from an exciting metropolitan culture filled with large amusement parks, picture palaces, baseball fields--I don't see why we shouldn't include libraries--and other vital public spaces to a sterile suburban landscape in which vast parking lots are pockmarked by theme parks, malls, and sports stadiums that package our fun in predictable ways. (I'm convinced rabid sports fans don't read to any consequence.)

Are we in fact staying in? …

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