The Triumph of the Novel

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The Triumph of the Novel is both a full, provocative study of Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner and a defense of all novels that are not primarily faithful re-creations of the world as it is. In the works of these writers Albert Guerard finds the triumph of a tradition that passes from Cervantes, Rabelais, Sterne, and Joyce to such contemporary novelists as Nabokov and García Márquez. All are fascinated by the strange and grotesque, and all “derive fictional energy from the interpenetration of the fantastic and the substantial, altogether fleshly, ’real.’” They may lack the formal control of a Henry James, but for Guerard this deficiency is far outweighed by the vitality of their creations and the effectiveness of their rhetorical experimentation.

Guerard, a professor of English at Stanford University and author of distinguished critical studies of Conrad, Hardy, and Gide, brings to this book wide and deep reading in nineteenth and twentieth century fiction, experience as a practicing novelist, and a long-standing concern with the psychology of the writer and its effect on his work. All of these factors contribute to the breadth and depth of this study, which includes extended analysis of specific texts, exploration of the minds of the novelists, and discussion of the writer’s problems in shaping the reader’s reaction to his material.

Three chapters are devoted to “forbidden games,” psychological obsessions revealed directly or obliquely in the work of the novelists: Dickens’ idealized love for his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who died suddenly in her late teens; Dostoevsky’s “paedophilia,” his preoccupation with the violation of young girls; Faulkner’s misogyny and his mistrust of normal sexual relations. From the psychology of the authors, Guerard turns to aspects of their craft, analyzing Dickens’ narrative voices, Dostoevsky’s psychological approach to his characters, and Faulkner’s experiments with language and style. He bases his generalizations about each writer on detailed discussions of a number of their works and occasional comparisons with the writing of their contemporaries, Conrad and Hardy in particular.

The final section of this study in an extended, balanced critical analysis of three novels that reveal fully the creative energy and rhetorical freedom of the fictional form Guerard is defending: Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! There is, perhaps surprisingly, no general conclusion. Guerard suggests by its omission that the best argument for the greatness of this genre is the works themselves.

There are, as the author recognizes, problems inherent in the structure he has adopted here. The book does at times threaten to break apart into separate studies of the three writers and of specific works, but Guerard gives it an underlying unity through a number of recurrent themes: the interrelationship of the author’s psychic state and his work, the fictional energy that arises from the free play of thought and imagination, the truth conveyed in the depiction of the “unreal.” Avoiding the obvious pitfalls of dwelling on “influence” and insignificant parallels of plot and character, he illuminates the writing of each of the novelists by pointing out important similarities and differences between them—Dostoevsky’s tendency to “underdramatize” scenes of violence that Dickens or Faulkner might handle melodramatically, for example.

The Triumph of the Novel is not, Guerard says, and could not be, a fully comprehensive study of the three novelists. It is rather a consideration of points that others have neglected or passed over lightly. His Dickens is “the inventive fantasist and comic entertainer,” not the social critic and reformer; his Dostoevsky, “the great. . . intuitive psychologist and wayward dreamer of solitary obsessions and intense interpersonal relationships,” not the “religious mystic” or “political ideologue”; his Faulkner, the “lover of the comic and grotesque, the poet intoxicated by words and rhythms,” not the “sociologist of the South.”

These qualities that Guerard singles out for emphasis have much to do with “paradoxical sympathies” he takes up in the second chapter of the book. What is it that makes readers respond positively to fictional characters that would repel them if they met them on the street, creations such as Daniel Quilp or Old Karamazov or Mink Snopes? Conversely, why is it so difficult to make a “good” character truly appealing? Guerard mentions Pickwick, Father Zossima, and Dilsey as notable exceptions to the general rule that the noble are much duller to read about than the wicked.

Achieving the...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, August 1, 1976, p. 879.

Library Journal. CI, September 15, 1976, p. 1857.

New York Times Book Review. September 26, 1976, p. 27.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCX, September 20, 1976, p. 22.