Jonathan Rée reviews (The Democracy of Don Quixote) four books- all books of essays written by novelists: Touchstones by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Curtain by Milan Kundera, Inner Workings by J.M. Coetzee and the posthumous collection by Susan Sontag, At the Same Time.
In or around 1605, European literature changed. No one realised it at the time, but when Don Quixote set off to save the world, a new kind of writing was born. The old forms of storytelling—the epic, the romance, the oral tale—would from now on be pitted against a boisterous young rival. Before long it would be universally acknowledged that a reader hoping to enjoy a good story must be in search of a novel.
The novelty of the novel is of course connected with the rise of printing, and the growth of a literate public with time and money to spare. Beyond that, the sheer scale of the form allows storylines to be extended and multiplied as never before, crossing and re-crossing each other with ample scope for coincidence, surprise and contingency, and hence for the depiction of characters with whom, as William Hazlitt put it, the reader can “identify.” But the most momentous way in which novels distinguish themselves from other kinds of storytelling is that they give a central role to a supernumerary character—the narrator—whose task is to transmit the story to us. All kinds of stories invite us to imagine the characters they portray, and involve ourselves in their fortunes and their follies; but to engage with novels we need to go one step further and imagine the people telling the story, or even identify with them.
The art of reading a novel involves a dash of experiment, conjecture, even risk. It requires readers to try out different narrative perspectives, styles, even personalities, and so to explore the inherent variousness of experience, and to recognise the vein of arbitrariness that runs through any possible version of events. Novels, in short, are implicitly pluralistic. In this respect they resemble essays, which, as it happens, came into existence at more or less the same time (Montaigne launched the form in 1580, with Bacon following in 1597). Essays tend to be classier, more learned and more demanding—there is no essayistic equivalent of the “popular novel”—and even when written in a perfectly casual style, they are likely to be strewn with half-concealed quotations or allusions to flatter or perhaps annoy the smarter class of reader. As exercises in hesitation, exploration and experimental self-multiplication, they are like novels, only more so. You might even say that the novel aspires to the condition of the essay, and there is certainly no shortage of novelists who have aspired to be essayists too. Think of Eliot or Henry James, Woolf, Forster or Orwell, or Mann, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus and Mary McCarthy. And as the four recently published books now lying open on my kitchen table demonstrate, the essay-writing novelist is still a literary force to be reckoned with.
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