Friday, 30 December 2011

Coben meets Coleridge: Thoughts about the novel

It was a kind of empty feeling I experienced when, having spent a week or so reading crime novels and action thrillers, I realised that the last one was finished and it was my regular time for reading, which is in the evening from about 8pm after dinner is finished and I am once again back home after cooking dinner at my mother's house. I didn't know what to do. There were no new crime novels, no new action thrillers. In a way it was a relief. I had felt a sort of exhaustion a bit earlier, having closed one of them for the last time and put it aside. I craved a new one. The stimulation you get from reading a crime novel or an action thriller leaves you a bit worn out. Without a new fix you feel drained, unsatisfied, tired. Like coming down from a sugar high. It's the mental analogue of the feeling you get two hours after eating an apparently hearty fast-food meal. It's a real downer.

How to modulate my aesthetic sensibility again?

Something different was needed, so instead of a new Harlan Coben or a new Michael Connelly, I picked up a book I had owned for a fair number of years, but that I hadn't read, William Christie's 2006 Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Literary Life, part of the Palgrave Macmillan 'Literary Lives' series. It's a hardcover and looks very serious, but I had once attended a lecture of Christie's and knew him to be up-to-date and well-informed. The book tries to trace the development of the poet using a biographical framework, starting at the earliest times. It demonstrates deep and wide reading for the period in question, especially the late 18th century.

I especially love this period in English literature. While Coleridge was at the Christ's Hospital school in London, Jane Austen was learning to read in rural Hampshire and Walter Scott was listening to tales of derring-do from earlier times at home on the Scottish Borders. The English novel was in plentiful supply and was beginning to vie with verse for the mantle of popularity, if not the crown of repute. Doctor Johnson was recently deceased and Boswell was touring Europe on his father's healthy cash account. Montreal had fallen to the British a generation earlier and the American colonies had prosecuted a successful war against Britain. France was on the cusp of a change in its political structure that would alter Europe for generations. Poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth and novelists such as Austen and the Irishwoman Maria Edgeworth were reading William Cowper along with Fielding and Richardson. They were also reading the numerous gothic tales that had taken the market by storm. And novels about women in trouble, about injustices against orphans, and meditations on what it meant to live in a world in constant flux. These were troubled times, even in England.

Rising prosperity in England allied with higher levels of literacy meant that the gentry - the middle class - was reading more than ever before. For young men like Coleridge it was even possible to parley close acquaintance with contemporary politics and classical literature into a paying job doing lectures in Bristol. Such a life was of course unavailable to Austen but she was busy, too, writing spoofs of the popular literature of her time. In fact, the novel was to a large degree a product aimed at the female part of the population. Who read Richardson? Who did he write for? A generation later there were novelists like Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney. By the next generation - that of Edgeworth and Austen - novel-writing reached its peak atop the closeted desks of England's able women writers. Poetry was a manly, noble, honourable pursuit but it lost out to the scatterbrained, unhealthy practice of novelisation. Poetry would continue to be important well into the 19th century but the novel was hitting its stride, big-time.

Coleridge, of course, never wrote a novel but he read them, especially those of his hero, William Godwin. Godwin, a radical (the term dates from the 1790s) would marry early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and their daughter, Mary, would go on to write Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818. Jane Austen had died the year perviously. Maybe parts of her oeuvre were gathered together by Mary Shelley in order to complete her famous book. Certainly Emily Bronte, who would form part of the next generation of English novelists, would deny that Austen had any part in her own aesthetic development. But Walter Scott was right: Austen was the preeminent exponent of the novel in her generation and her discoveries would continue to enrich the art of the novel throughout the 19th century.

The outlook for poor Coleridge was bleaker due to an addiction to opium and endless money troubles. But just as Austen inspired Dickens, Coleridge would inspire the American Edgar Allen Poe, who in turn would be a major influence on Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet. The printed book takes on a life of its own, ricochets around the globe due to commerce, and comes to rest in paper bags and Christmas stockings with all the relevance of an instruction manual to the individual's inner life. In reading, we participate in an exchange of feelings - aesthetics is the study of feelings - and images, ideas and values. Even in the reading of a trashy action thriller or crime novel there is a rich aesthetic experience.

Genre fiction has gained credibility in the past decade, just as the novel gained credibility through the agency of a man like Charles Dickens, in a way that it had not ever done before. It bleeds over into literary fiction in such works as those of Australian author Peter Temple, who has won the Miles Franklin Award for a crime novel. Or in the books of Haruki Murakami, who mixes crime and science fiction with high-end literature and has captured the esteem of millions of readers worldwide. Perhaps we are now living in the golden age of the genre novel. We've had crime for centuries, of course, ever since the heyday of the gothic romance in the last half of the 18th century. (Although it would be Poe who wrote the first pure crime stories.) And we've had science fiction for centuries too, particularly in the late 19th century when science was starting to change the world in radical ways.

So it's ok to read crime novels and action thrillers. But the experience would be more satisfying, for me at least, given access to other forms of literature, such as biographies, history, and even literary fiction itself. In a sense it's not what you read. It's how you read it. A critical sensibility brought to bear on even the trashiest novel can unearth the most interesting nuggets of thought. Happy holiday reading.

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