Writers, reading, invigorate the novel. That is both the theme and plot of Schmidt’s (Poetry/Glasgow Univ.; The Stories of My Life, 2013, etc.) encyclopedic compendium tracing the novel over 700 years.
The author sees the genre as alive and evolving, capacious enough to include such writers as Mulk Raj Anand, an Indian émigré to England, whose work Schmidt does not much admire; the prolific Irish writer Ethel Mannin; and Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, read by Derek Walcott and Anthony Burgess but not many others. Schmidt considers his subjects more or less chronologically for half the book, gathering contemporaries who read one another: Hawthorne, Melville and Stowe, for example; and Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Charles Brockden Brown and other practitioners of what Schmidt calls “The Eerie,” as distinct from, in another chapter, the Brontë sisters and their Gothic romances. The second half of the book is impressionistic, as Schmidt creates “a dialogue” among writers and their works. A chapter on “Portraits and Caricatures of the Artist” includes Joyce, Beckett, Burgess and Barthelme; “Tone and Register” ranges from Virginia Woolf to Jeanette Winterson. Along the way, readers will learn that Woolf was dismissive of Maria Edgeworth, whom she considered too demure; that Gertrude Stein could not abide James Joyce; and that pretty much everyone was in thrall to Henry James—Truman Capote praised him as “the maestro of the semicolon.” As commodious as this book is, at more than 1,100 pages, the selections and groupings seem arbitrary, as does Schmidt’s selection of writers’ comments. Writers are famously voracious readers, and some were frequent reviewers; often, they mention novels in their letters, memoirs and diaries. Schmidt, apparently, has read them all.
“I set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” Schmidt admits. “I had no point to prove.” He does, however, prove his wide-ranging reading tastes, his ability to weave a colorful literary tapestry and his conviction that the novel is irrepressible.