Michael Schmidt: The Novel – a Biography*


Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu’d I said

Tie up the knocker, say I’m sick, or dead….

Gert is not sick, dead or even fatigued.  She just wants the world to go away and let her get on with reading Michael Schmidt’s The Novel – A Biography.  This is an absolutely enchanting book, but be warned: it may make you feel like Achilles in Zeno’s paradox, chasing the tortoise you can never catch. If you’re inclined to panic or despair at the thought of all the great and interesting books you still haven’t read, you’ll need to speak sternly and calmly to yourself as you dive into this inexhaustible supply of literary history, anecdote, critique and reflection.

A few novels ask to be re-read and become living parts of memory that affect how we hear, speak, see, feel, and act. Those novels and their authors are this book’s quarry, and those that provide sources and context for them, or that imitate and cannibalize them (7)

Just like the biography of a person, the book builds over a chronological line the mountains, gullies, forests and byways of individual personality, connection and accident. It isn’t the kind of book you read from start to finish. It invites dipping and flipping, every discovery prompting another. Schmidt is interested in everything about writers and he’s read so much that he sees connections everywhere.

Have you ever thought of comparing Truman Capote to Daniel Defoe?  Bruce Chatwin to W.H. Hudson? Did you know Nabokov read zoology at Cambridge and published a learned paper on the Lepidoptera of the Crimea?  Is Lolita “the best travel book ever written about America”, as Christopher Isherwood said?  Did Hitler contrive the Second World War because he hated Finnegans Wake so much, as Flann O’Brien claimed? Did you know Steinbeck’s puppy ate half the original ms of Of Mice and Men? Is Iris Murdoch just “pulling one’s leg” as Rebecca West thought? And if so, why? And perhaps most importantly of all, had you heard that the coolness between Margaret Drabble and her sister A.S. Byatt arose over a family tea set?

There’s time for such detail as we wander Schmidt’s literary forest:

Between the lofty trunks of the great novels and novelists is the lower growth of the good and not so good a forest that feeds and sustains; and among that lesser vegetation there is much that rewards attention (2)

From Mandeville’s Travels in the 14th century to Martin Amis in the 21st, this is a booklover’s dream come true.  But oh no, he’s also written Lives of the Poets – is there no end to it?

You need this book.  You really do. Put it on your Christmas list.

*The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.


2 thoughts on “Michael Schmidt: The Novel – a Biography*

  1. Thanks for reviewing this one as I can think of two or three people who would love it. Perfect Xmas-present material! I’m intrigued by Steinbeck’s puppy and the ‘Of Mice andf Men’ manuscript? Did Steinbeck have a spare or did it come down to a total rewrite? I guess I’ll have to read the Schmidt to find out!

  2. Given that Steinbeck said he always tried out his work on his dogs (see our earlier post on that) you’d have to assume that the puppy loved it. Yes, this is a great Christmas present. I’ve put in my order for his Lives of the Poets too.

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