Here’s a confession: between blog entries, even when they are separated by days or weeks, I think of almost nothing else except my last entry.
So I’m watching the BBC Dickens bio last Monday â€” which I loved, though it was overlong â€” and I’m thinking, what is it about this Saunders guy? I think the reason I connected Saunders and Dickens is that Saunders’ subject matter in the New Yorker story is very Dickensian: the almost operatic tribulations of people at the lower end of the economic scale. Whether this is typical of Saunders’ work, I don’t know. From what I’ve read about his work â€” including a good discussion of his two story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, on Bookninja â€” it tends more towards fantasy than reality, but he certainly has a touch for the latter, judging by Christmas.
Which brings me back to the subject I’ve been hedgehogging about lately: realism. (Ok, I admit: closely related to my last obsession, the relationship between a writer’s life and work.) This preoccupation has been encouraged by reading Auerbach’s Mimesis, reissued this year.
There have been two very thoughtful, very different reviews of Mimesis in recent months: George Steiner in the TLS on Sept. 19 (not online), and Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books on Oct. 23 (available here). Both refer to the romantic story behind this extended look at realism: Auerbach, a Berlin Jew compelled to flee his post as chair of Romance studies at the University of Marburg in 1935, ends up in Istanbul where, relying only on the local public library, he writes one of the monuments of 20th century literary criticism.
Auerbach’s approach is to analyze brief passages from a wide range of works, and even today it’s amazing to look at the scope of works he addresses. Each is treated separately, in chronological order from ancient to modern, in one of the twenty chapters of his book:
Homer, The Odyssey
Ammianus Marcellinus, Book15
Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks
Le Chanson de Roland
Chretian de Troyes, Yvain, or, The Knight with the Lion
Antoine de la Salle, Le Reconfort de Madame du Fresne
Rabelais, Book II
Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
Cervantes, Don Quixote
La Bruyere, Les Caracteres
Abbe Prevost, Manon Lescaut
Schiller, Luise Millerin
Stendahl, The Red and the Black
The Brothers Goncourt, Germinie Lacerteux
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
When I think of Flaubert’s comment: “What a scholar one might be, if one only knew some half dozen books well,” I think of Auerbach’s as one of those books.
But back to the connection with Dickens and Saunders: Eagleton points out that what concerns Auerbach is not, or not merely, realism as a “technical, formal, epistemological, or ontological affair,” but as a moral, political, and historical matter. To write realistically is to address ordinary, daily life. As Eagleton writes:
Perhaps it is impossible for us to re-create the alarming or exhilarating effect of a few pages of Daniel Defoe on an 18th century reader reared on a literary diet of epic, pastoral, and elegy. The idea that everyday life is dramatically enthralling, that it is fascinating simply in its boundless humdrum detail, is one of the great revolutionary conceptions in human history . . .
I guess it’s obvious, when we think of “realist” movements in literature and the other arts, that we’re talking common, everyday subject matter. In Chicago, home of Farrell and Dreiser, that should be particularly obvious. Somehow, though, I’ve never thought much about it before reading Eagleton’s piece.
Steiner, just to add, is very good on Auerbach’s weaknesses â€” the reductions involved in A’s concept of foreground and background, the fact that Defoe is never mentioned, Fielding only in passing, Dickens in a manner that suggests only a superficial familiarity with his work. Still, Mimesis is a “work of exceptional stature.” What’s more, it’s needed:
We have need of it for a specific reason. Nothing is more lacking in our current encounter with and understanding of great literature than joy. The sheer wonder of the thing, the laughter even in the creation of the tragic . . . A gravely jubilant sense of good fortune inhabits this book.