The Novel and Literary Form

Painting by Annie Besant of an attempt to visualise the music of Gounod
The music of Gounod – a thought form, by Annie Besant

We’re reading a bunch of novels for this month’s Culture Club (Under the Volcano, The Power and the Glory, The Plumed Serpent). I love reading novels, but when studying them I’m invariably irritated by the lack of form.

By ‘form’ I mean literary or artistic form, such as the 14 lines and strict rhyme scheme of a sonnet, or the four-movement structure of a symphony. There are often attempts to bring formal qualities to the novel, such as the 12-book structure of Under the Volcano (meant to recall Homer’s and Virgil’s epics), but these are unique to each work and bound to fail because they are rendered in unstructured prose. (In my view the most successful novelist in this respect is Jane Austen, whose intricate patterning of plot and narrative comes closest to creating a unique novel ‘form’.)

So why is this a flaw? Mainly because it removes one of the most powerful aspects of art forms that do have formal qualities, such as music, poetry and drama: the interplay between form and content.

For example, the following lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra work on more than one level because of their poetic formal qualities:

….on each side her
Stood pretty-dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

The rhythm of ‘And what they undid did’ makes us hear and therefore experience the fans flapping in the hot breeze in a way that a pure prose description can’t.

Formal elements in art enhance, contradict, surprise and extend meaning. As Stephen Fry says in his book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet within:

The point I am anxious to make, is that metre is more than just a ti-tum ti-tum: its very regularity and the consequent variations available within it can yield a structure that EXPRESSES MEANING QUITE AS MUCH AS THE WORDS THEMSELVES DO.

To some critics, form  takes on even greater import, perhaps because it alone has the power to ‘express the inexpressible’. This is what Walter Pater was getting at when he said ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’. For a great discussion on this quote see: All art constantly aspires to the condition of music – you don’t say. Nigel Beale’s point in his comment on this post is illuminating:

This post put me in mind of composer Clive in Ian McEwen’s overly contrived Amsterdam:
“Sometimes Clive worked so hard on a piece that he could lose sight of his ultimate purpose – to create this pleasure at once so sensual and abstract, to translate into vibrating air this non-language whose meanings were forever just beyond reach, suspended tantalisingly at a point where emotion and intellect fused.”

Back to the novel then. Why does it lack the formal qualities I’ve described? I think Ian Watt nails this in his book The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding:

When we judge a work in another genre, a recognition of its literary models is often important and sometimes essential; our evaluation depends to a large extent on our analysis of the author’s skill in handling the appropriate formal conventions. On the other hand, it is surely very damaging for a novel to be in any sense an imitation of another literary work: and the reason for this seems to be that since the novelist’s primary task is to convey the impression of fidelity to human experience, attention to any pre-established formal conventions can only endanger his success. What is often felt as the formlessness of the novel, as compared, say, with tragedy or the ode, probably follows from this: the poverty of the novel’s formal conventions would seem to be the price it must pay for its realism.

2 responses to “The Novel and Literary Form”

  1. Re: Watt’s: “it is surely very damaging for a novel to be in any sense an imitation of another literary work”

    Joyce’s Ulysses is praised precisely because of its ‘fidelity to human experience.’

  2. Interesting point Nigel. Can Ulysses be seen as ‘formally’ imitating Homer though? I understand there are correspondences between the two, but they are delivered through quite different formal means, no?

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