The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt - review by Frederic Raphael

Frederic Raphael

A Life Well Read

The Novel: A Biography

By

Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 1,172pp £29.95 order from our bookshop
 

I should, perhaps, begin by saying that Michael Schmidt is my friend and, quite frequently, my publisher. Ought this to disqualify me from reviewing his mammoth study of fiction in its full-length, prose form? I can say only that if I did not admire it, I would not have agreed to write this review. The Novel: A Biography is a marvel of sustained attention, responsiveness, tolerance and intelligence.

Schmidt, more Aristotelian than Platonist, treats the novel, in its sprawling or neat forms, as a natural phenomenon, to be honoured and tabulated in all its diversity; but he refuses to clamp a measure on what deserves the title or best merits it. He is as close to omnivorous as a man of decided taste can be. F R Leavis’s The Great Tradition, with its scrutineering scowl, has no leverage here.

Schmidt celebrates what John Bayley called ‘the uses of division’: fiction is a ‘way of telling the truth … because it wears the mask of truth and marshals facts and seeming facts into plausible narratives’. Later – crucially, to my ears – Schmidt quotes Ben Jonson’s ‘Speak that I may

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