Thus did Henry James famously describe the peculiar beast of the nineteenth-century novel. James meant it as a criticism, but I have always had a special affinity for Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, and other purveyors of such epics. A lovely essay in today's New York Times touches obliquely on this idea. The author describes listening to an audiobook of that greatest of English novels, George Eliot's Middlemarch, over the course of a coast-to-coast roadtrip, and how the novel transforms and improves from being experienced in such a way.
The key thesis of the piece is how hearing a novel read aloud makes vivid its temporal character. This must be especially true of novels like Middlemarch, whose stories unfold over a period of years. Although I have always been a fast reader rather than a careful one, such novels almost demand to be savored. They are never a quick read, even for a fast reader. Their prose is so densely packed, with every word in every description seemingly so painstakingly chosen, that they practically force one to slow down and sense the passage of time that happens between their covers.
Film adaptations of such novels never quite succeed, for a couple of reasons. First, it's nearly impossible to effectively convey the passage of so much time over the two or at most three hours allotted to a feature film. Even successful screen translations of epic novels usually succeed despite their inability to impress upon the viewer the experience of time passing.1 Second, many large novels are large because they dwell so thoroughly (some might say excessively) on the innermost thoughts and feelings of their protagonists. This, too, is impossible to adequately convey on film; no matter how talented the actor, short of extensive reliance on narrative voice-over, the medium of film really offers no way to put across the richness of the character's inner life as laid out by the novelist. (This, incidentally, must be the reason why so many of Henry James's novels -- wonderful novels though they are -- wind up as such inert and uninvolving films. James's novels mostly do not qualify as "loose, baggy monsters" -- but to my knowledge, no author in the history of fiction has been such a master of interiority as James. Without the access to his characters' every thought and feeling granted by the written word, there is not much to make drama.)
But hearing a grand, epic novel read aloud (particularly in an unabridged version) over a period of many hours offers the best of all worlds, in a way: the listener, in a more passive role than if she were reading to herself, has the leisure to more fully imagine the events of the plot. If the reading is skillfully done, extra layers of interpretation can aid the imaginative process. (These are the same characteristics that must have made radio drama so compelling in the pre-television era.) And of course, the story is experienced over a relatively long period of time, just as if the listener were reading it herself.
Music is perhaps the art that is most obviously and fully bounded in time, something that has always both drawn me to it and frustrated me. The listener of a performance of a lengthy piece of music must have the patience to let the music unfold as it will, at its own pace. Naturally, performances and interpretations differ -- tempos change, so a piece of music does not always last the same amount of time. But the overall variance among performances is slight. As every musician well knows, there is a certain point on either end of the tempo spectrum where the music fails to make sense any longer; a piece simply doesn't work if it is performed much too fast or much too slow. This is something most people understand innately. Music presents us with the fact of its existence in time and offers us a take-it-or-leave it proposition: we can always turn the music off, or leave a performance in progress, but we can't have the full experience of the work without acquiescing to the music's temporal demands. It simply takes as long as it takes, and the longer the piece, the greater the sacrifice of time the listener must make in order to experience it.
Epic novels share some of that quality with music, even though temporal boundedness is not their fundamental condition, as it is with music. Still, to my mind, an Eliot novel has much in common with, say, a Mahler symphony. Both present their own worlds, fully formed, completely alien to the modern reader/listener, yet compelling enough to be completely absorbing, if you are willing to accept the terms the work imposes on you. I have always loved both big novels (those loose baggy monsters) and "big music" (whether Schubert, Mahler, or Shostakovich). Could the similar ways in which they impose themselves as temporal experiences be part of the reason why?
Perhaps it's time I revisited Middlemarch.
1I should say that I think that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are an exception to this rule, particularly in their extended editions, where they manage to achieve to some degree the sense of time passing that is so palpable in Tolkien's novel. This hit me with special force last Sunday, when a group of us watched all three extended films back-to-back in a 13-hour marathon. Take that with a grain of salt, though: I've lived my life much too close to those books to be at all objective about the film versions, which made me cry for joy at how much they got right (even though I found plenty to criticize).Posted by at January 21, 2005 10:11 PM