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The Realistic Novel Post by :jordanf Category :Essays Author :Israel Zangwill Date :August 2011 Read :3177

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The Realistic Novel

The realistic novel, we know from Zola, that apostle of insufficient insight, is based on "human documents," and "human documents" are made up of "facts." _But in human life there are no facts._

This is not a paradox, but a "fact." Life is in the eye of the observer. The humour or the pity of it belongs entirely to the spectator, and depends upon the gift of vision he brings. There are no facts, like bricks, to build stories with. What, pray, in the realm of human life _is_ a fact? By no means a stubborn thing, as the proverb pretends. On the contrary, a most pliant, shifting, chameleon-coloured thing, as flexible as figures in the hands of the statistician. What is commonly called a fact is merely a one-sided piece of information, a dead thing, not the series of complex, mutually inter-working relations that constitutes a fact as it exhibits itself to the literary vivisectionist. I walked with a friend in a shabby district of central London, a region that had once been genteel, but was now broken up into apartments. Squalid babies, with wan, pathetic faces, pullulated on the doorsteps; they showed from behind dingy windows at the breasts of haggard women. The fronts of the houses were black, the plaster had crumbled away, the paint had peeled off. It was the ruins of a minor Carthage, and, like Marius, I was lost in mournful reverie; my companion remarked, "These houses are going up; they now pay 7 per cent." He was perfectly justified. There are a hundred ways of looking at any fact. The historian, the scientist, the economist, the poet, the philanthropist, the novelist, the anarchist, the intelligent foreigner,--each would take away a different impression from the street, and all these impressions would be facts, all equally valid, all equally true, and all equally false. Life, I repeat, is in the eye of the observer. What is farce to you is often tragedy to the actual performer. The man who slips over a piece of orange peel, or chases his hat along the muddy pavement, is rarely conscious of the humour of the situation. On the other hand, you shall see persons involved in heartrending tragedies to whom the thing shows as farce, like little children playing in churchyards or riding tombstones astride. To the little imps of comedy, who, according to Mr. Meredith, sit up aloft, holding their sides at the spectacle of mankind, to the


Spirit of the world,
Beholding the absurdities of men,
Their vaunts, their feats, ...


human life must be a very different matter from what we poor players on the scene imagine it; we are cutting a very different figure, not only from that which faces us from the mirror of vanity, but from that which is "as ithers see us." Not only, then, may our tragedy be comedy; our comedy may be tragedy. The play of humour at least suggests these alternatives. Life is Janus-faced, and the humourist invests his characters with a double mask; they stand for comedy as well as for tragedy; Don Quixote wears the buskin as well as the sock. Humour, whose definition has always eluded analysis, may, perhaps (to attempt a definition _currente calamo_), be that subtle flashing from one aspect to another, that turning the coin so rapidly that one seems to see simultaneously the face and the reverse, the pity and the humour of life, and knows not whether to laugh or weep. Humour is, then, the simultaneous revelation of the dual aspects of life; the synthetical fusion of opposites; the gift of writing with a double pen, of saying two things in one, of showing shine and shadow together. This is why the humourist has always the gift of pathos; though the gift of pathos does not equally imply the gift of humour. The tragic writer must always produce one-sided work, so must the "funnyman" who were only a "funny man" and not a humourist (though this is rarer). Each can only show one side of life at a time; the humourist alone can show both. Great novels of romance and adventure, great works of imagination, great poems, may be written by persons without humour; but only the humourist can reproduce life. Milton is great; but the poet of life is Shakespeare. Thus the whole case of "realism" falls to the ground. There being no "facts," Zola's laborious series is futile; it may be true to art, but it is not true to life. His vision is incomplete, is inexhaustive; it lacks humour, and to the scientific novelist the lack of humour is fatal. He is the one novelist who cannot succeed without it. Leave out humour, and you may get art and many other fine things, but you do not get the lights and shadows or the "values" of life.

All novels are written from the novelist's point of view. They are his vision of the world. They are not life, but individual refractions of it. The ironical pessimism of Thomas Hardy is as false as the sentimental optimism of Walter Besant or the miso-androus meliorism of Sarah Grand. What Hall Caine happily calls "the scenic view of life" of Dickens is no more true than the philosophic view of Mrs. Humphry Ward. Each is existence viewing itself through a single medium. "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" is as false as "Lorna Doone" or "Plain Tales from the Hills." Life, large, chaotic, inexpressible, not to be bound down by a formula, peeps at itself through the brain of each artist, but eludes photography. This is the true inwardness of the Proteus myth. The humourist alone, by presenting life in its own eternal contradictoriness, by not being tied down to one point of view, like his less gifted brother, comes nearest to expressing its elusive essence. The great novelists are Fielding, Cervantes, Flaubert, Thackeray. But all the novelists supplement one another, and relatively-true single impressions of life go to make up a true picture of


Life, like a dome of many coloured glass.


It is because there are all novels and every aspect of existence in Shakespeare that he sits supreme, the throned sovereign of the literature of life.

All this is writ to console those who suffer too poignantly from book-tragedies and "pictures of life." The artist selects, he studies tone and composition, whereas in real life tragedies are often accompanied by "extenuating circumstances." The unloved girl temporarily forgets her sorrow in the last new novel, or a picnic up the river; the broken-hearted hero betakes himself to billiards and brandy-and-soda, or toys with a beefsteak. Again, many pathetic tales are the outcome of imperfect insight. The novelist imagines how he would feel in the shoes of his characters, and cries out with the pain of hypothetic bunions. This mistake better deserves the name of "the pathetic fallacy" than the poetic misreading of Nature to which Buskin has annexed it. A good novel may be made of bad psychology; indeed, this is what most novels are made of. Yet the gentle reader, misled by the simulation of life, makes himself miserable over dabs of black ink on white paper. The failure of two imaginary beings to unite their lives in wedlock brings unhappiness into myriad homes. How delicious is that story of the German novelist who, having failed to unite his leading couple at the conclusion of a newspaper serial, saw no way of appeasing the grief and indignation of his vast audience save by inserting in the advertisement columns of a later issue of the journal an announcement of their union under the usual head of "Marriages"!


(The end)
Israel Zangwill's essay: Realistic Novel

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