The Sea Is Not a Place, Part 2

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The proposition I would like to consider, in other words, is that novels—all novels: realist, modernist, and otherwise—have a hard time telling stories at scales larger than the nation, and that it is important for us to figure out why this is so. Consider the novel-in-letters. Dickens writes at one point that one must consider “all the work, near and afar,” that goes into making any not-really-solitary human life. Near and afar: Epistolary novels have their own tidy way of collapsing the distinction between the two, since familiarity-at-a-remove is their very métier. The letter is a wondrous device: Compatriots trade stories at a distance; each produces long-distance emotional effects in the other; one telegraphs moral claims upon his fellow’s far-off regard—any such novel obviously brings to the fore the idea that nations are synthesized in acts of reading. The early English novel often borrowed its scenarios from the theater, but if the novel helped readers imagine the nation and the theater mostly did not, then this is simply because characters in a novel don’t all have to be standing in the same room. Even novels with reduced character lists—which is to say, most eighteenth-century novels, since these had not yet worked out how to choreograph the street-filling multitudes of the high Victorian novel—even such novels submit their few personae to what by theatrical standards is a de-centralizing operation, often replicating the intensities of neoclassical drama, and peopling it with the stock types of the late seventeenth-century stage, but now in centrifugal form. The epistolary novel is the chamber drama in dispersal.

But then how far is afar? If the epistolary form is in part a way of narratively managing distance, then just how far can its techniques be extended? How thin can you stretch a novel before it begins to tear? Saliently: Can there be novels in which characters exchange letters between nations—or were there, in fact, such novels? That, yes, such novels were written and published raises a reader’s hopes; maybe transnational and even transoceanic fiction is viable after all. The bad news, then, must be instantly and soberly delivered: Epistolarity in such novels begins to seem makeshift and erratic. In 1792, Charlotte Smith published a novel called Desmond, whose title character some few hundred pages into the thing leaves for revolutionary France. Now that move is in itself not all that unusual: France is one place that characters in English fiction are routinely allowed to go. And yet even so, when Desmond leaves England, three remarkable things happen all at once: The gap between letters increases at least threefold and often widens rather further than that; the letters themselves get accordingly longer; and the characters repeatedly fret, at the beginning and ends of chapters, about the difficulties of maintaining a correspondence over very long distances: I haven’t heard from you forever; my apologies for not having written; “the opportunities I have of sending to the post are so few….” A novel committed to epistolary verisimilitude will have to factor in the limitations of the eighteenth-century postal service, absorbing the latter’s inefficiencies into its very form, where they will blossom into sympathetic arrhythmias and sentimental dysfunction. In Smith’s novel, characters ride beyond the reach of regular mails; letters routinely cross, which means that each party is writing from a position of relative ignorance; traveling friends become moving targets, less interlocutors than the blank site of recently vacated addresses: Fine feeling gets forwarded by cooperative landladies. The letters themselves, written in the company of an impatient carrier, begin to seem hurried—truncated and self-interrupting; or, conversely, letters never sent are bundled together and inflate into soliloquy.

This should allow us to specify the important point: Transnational novels aren’t nearly as good as their sedentary counterparts at the very things at which prose fiction is generally thought to excel. You might, for instance, think that eighteenth-century novels prompt readers to sharpen their sensibilities by inviting them to partake imaginatively in the lives of strangers, but a novel like Desmond shows something rather different—friendships put under pressure by distance, as characters themselves, corresponding only intermittently, are presented fewer occasions for sympathetic communion: “It is very uneasy to me, my dear Bethel, to be so long without hearing from you”; “time and distance are cruel enemies, even to the ties of blood.” Worse: A letter from another country will, when it finally arrives, still generate sympathy in its receiver, but that person will now have conspicuously fewer options for acting on his sentiments: “If these distressing scenes should become yet more alarming, I shall return to England”—because in another country my sentiments are for naught. In a sentence such as this, we witness sympathy, having flicked to the end of its elastic tether, begin its snapback and homeward journey. The transnational novel has to consider the possibility that sentiment is localizing and nation-bound. The sympathetic novelist stares unhappily at the limits of sympathy. Or there’s this: “Write to me instantly—Yet how shall I put off my determination till I receive your answer?” That dash is a kind of fracture, or perhaps a surveyor’s chain, melancholically measuring distance, at the distal end of which a character is realizing he is going to have come to a decision by himself, outside of his accustomed community of sentiment, and without the advice that would normally be wired in from the next county. This isolation is a problem for a sympathetic ethics, to be sure, but it is also a narratalogical problem, since in that same half-sentence we see one of this novel’s narrative strands achieving its reluctant autonomy; the hero’s story will now have to proceed without imported inputs. The novel’s multiple plots, far from knitting more tightly together in the genre’s accustomed fashion, begin to disarticulate. Epos reverts to episode. When, in a novel-in-letters, the communications begin to arrive infrequently, the back-and-forth that is the hallmark of the form grows muffled, to the point where the narration begins to resemble the running monologue of a plain first-person narrator, and the novel begins shedding its epistolary qualities. If made-up letters turn readers into virtual friends, then long distances tend to force even friends into the position of novel readers. The epistolary novel’s sense of time is accordingly unsettled. The status of events shifts in one of two ways, each of which inhabits a sympathy-defeating temporality: Either a correspondent writes to recount in full events that are no longer ongoing, that have already arrived at their conclusions and so present no possibility for sentimental intervention—or, odder: the correspondent writes to half-tell events that were ongoing when written, but will have been completed by the time the letter is read, their outcomes sealed, but to the addressee unknown: “Perhaps, before you receive this, for it is a long way from hence to England, he will be well—perhaps he may not need your prayers!”; “Before this letter reaches you, however, my fate must probably be decided.” And with sentences like those there collapses the shared time of the nation that novels are thought to generate. If cross-Channel epistolarity generates formal impasses of this severity, we can begin to understand why the trans-Atlantic novel in letters was left unattempted, since the problems of scale would have become that much more unmanageable. The epistolary novel, it turns out, suffered from the same difficulty as the British war command circa 1780—the insurmountable difficulty, that is, of transoceanic communication, of never being able to respond to events in real-time, of only ever knowing what happened in the war six weeks ago, of planning for the future with permanently and incorrigibly obsolete information. Verse epics, willing to scale impossible mountains or to send muses and angels screaming across the sky, don’t have this problem. We are used to thinking of novels as sprawling, encompassing, fully open to the world; and if you don’t like poetry—the way, for instance, Sartre didn’t like poetry—this might be because poems, you think, tend to be miniaturizing, inward-looking, preoccupied with language itself, in a manner that too readily turns its back on the world. But eighteenth-century poems routinely describe oceans and continents and spheres. Worldly novels and unworldly poetry—now consider please: What if it were actually the other way around?

This brings us back to our question, which we should naggingly repeat: Is it possible to write a novel about the entire world? Where is the novel that evenly divides its attention between the Chicago and Pakistani branches of the same family, without making either of those locations serve as mere backdrop to the other—as interlude or memory hole? Where is the periodical novel in which the Dedlocks divide their time every year between Melbourne and the Greek islands, in which Richard Carstone is still trying to make his nut in London, and Little Jo dies in Kinshasa? Could Gaskell’s North and South be rewritten so that its title refers to hemispheres and not counties? What do we do when we realize that Frank Norris’s Octopus is not just, as the subtitle has it, “a story of California”? If you wanted to sit down to write a planetary novel, what would you take as your model? What kind of novel would get you closest? And what about its techniques and conventions would you nonetheless have to change? What exactly do we take to be the pendular opposite to the domestic novel or literary regionalism? Jane Austen and Sarah Orne Jewett at one end of the geo-fictional spectrum and at the other end…well, what? Is it possible to compose a literary history of novels that were never written?

The problem is more complicated than that, since there are several different ways a book can fail to appear. There are, for a start, entire regions of our collective experience that seem inhospitable to narrative—the most consequential of these would be work, unsettling as it is to realize that the preponderance of contemporary narrative, novelistic or otherwise, takes place at the day’s margins, on weekends or during coffee breaks or after the whistle blows. Where, we might ask, are the great novels of the workplace?—though that question seems less like a judgment on novels than it does on factories or office buildings themselves, those austere and storyless zones—a judgment, I mean, on our lives’ blankest hours, routinized, repetitive, unproductive of incident. In other cases, a book’s non-appearance is a simple matter of literary access—of admittance to literacy and the quantum of leisure that alone makes writing possible—as when one learns, disbelievingly, that we possess no slave narratives in French, not a single one, not from Haiti, not from Guadeloupe, not from Martinique. Some institutions, in other words, don’t produce stories; and others don’t produce storytellers. But neither of those explanations seem to hold for the missing stories of empire and diaspora and global capitalism. So: Can we tell stories about the whole world? And if not, then why not? What’s keeping the novel from pulling this off? It is hard to shake the feeling that the novel should be up to the task. In inquiring about the planetary novel, we are, it’s important to keep in mind, not imposing on the form a reader’s private wish, arbitrarily spoken from outside its pages, alien to its design. We are not asking the novel to mop our floors or press our shirts and then complaining when it doesn’t. Quite the contrary: George Eliot writes that the novel produces “new consciousness of interdependence” or “fresh threads of connexion.” Goethe writes that “everything depends” on “knowing the connection of parts,” Salman Rushdie that “to understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” One of the greatest accomplishments of the novel has been to generate on behalf of complex social systems a kind of hypothetical transparency, to allow us counter-factually to inhabit a metropolis the way we think villages and neighborhoods were once inhabited, to reduce the outsized back to the scale of the knowable. You read Balzac—or you watch The Wire—and you think: This is what it would feel like if cities were intelligible, which they’re not. So given that the tendency of the novel—or of one prominent strain of the novel—is already towards diffusion and dilation, and also towards complex causality and action at a distance, one would like to know why, when the novel’s compass was expanding, it stopped where it did. Why wasn’t that process arbitrarily extendable? Why, when characters in Great Expectations travel to Australia and Cairo—or when characters in Balzac’s Black Sheep voyage to Texas and Algeria—do the novels in question not follow them to those places? Dickens famously thought that the word “telescopic” was an insult. Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron, one of the first Gothic novels, from 1778, features one character who has, in fact, had many adventures overseas, but the novel poses as a found manuscript, and it turns out that the un-English pages have all been misplaced. Reeve simply leaves them out, tears them from the book. That names the problem pretty well: Where you expect to find the world outside England there is instead only a gap, a strikethrough, a coffee stain.

If you read a lot of novel criticism, you might want to track this observation back to Edward Said’s “Jane Austen and Empire,” itself twenty years old now and due for reconsideration. That essay was trying to evaluate one simple, easily overlooked literary datum—that Jane Austen over the course of Mansfield Park mentions Antigua some half a dozen times. What, the essay asks, are we to make of this flickering in the Caribbean distance, this dependency glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye? Said’s answer to that question was notably unsettled. In one sense, all he wanted to do was make sure that no-one thought he was doing something willful by introducing the question of empire to the study of literature, and the mere presence of the word “Antigua” in the library’s Austen concordance was all he needed to make his point, since it allowed him to argue, correctly, that the colonies were already inside of English literary history and that insisting on the importance of empire was, in fact, just one more way of being attentive to a great novelist. It turns out that even the most decorous, music-box fictions compulsively record their affiliations with spaces outside themselves. Fair enough, I’d like to say—but we should also note the particular ways in which Said overstates his claims, since by the time the essay has finished, he will have enrolled Austen, alongside Jean Rhys and Joseph Conrad, in the roster of colonial writers, the idea being, I think, that there were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries no non-colonial writers. And this bit of luminous hyperbole, unmistakably generative and entirely flattening, is accompanied in Said’s essay by a palpable desire to correct Austen—to improve upon her novel—to bolster her few summary references to plantation slavery and thereby to transform her into the Tolstoy of Atlantic capitalism. Fredric Jameson has made the brilliant observation that large-format realist novels do not require footnotes to nearly the same degree as other types of literature. The discouraging experience of the undergraduate taking a seminar on Augustan poetry is one of spending a lot of time flipping to the back of the book and still not really understanding who Bolingbroke was. Most literary writing is hard to read without somebody constantly whispering explanations in your ear. But realist novels can get by with many fewer footnotes—and that’s not because the world they describe is more like ours—but because they are as it were self-footnoting, as though they had pre-emptively absorbed the apparatus of historical explanation and annotation into the fiction itself. It is in this sense a problem that so much of Said’s essay amounts to an extended historical gloss on Mansfield Park, with the critic providing the account of the sugar islands that Austen has in fact withheld. Said, in his own words, has made it his task to “reveal and accentuate the interdependence scarcely mentioned on [the novel’s] brilliant pages”; and in that sentence, he stops functioning as Austen’s commentator and steps forward instead as her collaborator, eagerly offering to draft Mansfield Park’s omitted scènes de la vie coloniale, praising Austen not for the novel she actually published, but for some imaginary other novel that the two of them cooked up together. But one needs, I think, to hold fast to the distinction between a novel in which Antigua is named and one in which it is brought before the mind as a narrative object in its own right. I hope this will begin to make clear the stakes of the project I am outlining here. The near absence of concertedly transoceanic novels is one of our literary history’s oddest lacunae. No less an intelligence than Edward Said was forced to make one up.

I don’t mean, by pointing this out, to admonish Said. That’s not it at all. I merely want to be clear about what he was up to so that we can, if possible, reformulate his point with greater precision. For if we have no choice but to become Austen’s deputies and co-novelists, we will need to know in much more detail what it’s going to take to write that other Mansfield Park. In particular, we will need to know how a novelist like Austen, having once spied the rest of the planet—having, that is, registered the globe as a possible object of narrative concern—nonetheless manages not to tell a story about it. What are the devices that, dyke- and levee-like, prevent the rising ocean from overrunning the novel’s pages? A demonstration is ready-to-hand—here’s a passage from Mansfield Park where you can see Austen deploying some of the canonical novel’s drainage techniques. The novel has just introduced a minor character; his name is William; he’s a sailor; he’s been abroad for several years; and he’s back in England on leave for the first time. This makes him a valuable guest.

William was often called on by his uncle to be the talker. His recitals were amusing in themselves to Sir Thomas, but the chief object in seeking them, was to understand the recitor, to know the young man by his histories; and he listened to his clear, simple, spirited details with full satisfaction—seeing in them, the proof of good principles, professional knowledge, energy, courage, and cheerfulness—every thing that could deserve or promise well. Young as he was, William had already seen a great deal. He had been in the Mediterranean—in the West Indies—in the Mediterranean again—had been often taken on shore by the favour of his Captain, and in the course of seven years had known every variety of danger, which sea and war together could offer. With such means in his power he had a right to be listened to; and though Mrs. Norris could fidget about the room, and disturb every body in quest of two needlefulls of thread or a second hand shift button in the midst of her nephew’s account of a shipwreck or an engagement, every body else was attentive; and even Lady Bertram could not hear of such horrors unmoved….

The first thing that this passage allows us to say is that Austen herself recognizes the possibility of global narration, and that our demand for such a form will seem accordingly less whimsical and arbitrary. Even in Austen’s Nottinghamshire, we find ourselves briefly in the presence not just of colonial wealth (Sir Thomas’s repaired finances)—and not just of colonial goods (Indian shawls and tea and spiced punch)—but in the presence, too, of colonial storytelling. The possibility of an entirely different narrative mode opens up in front of us. The second thing we’ll want to say, though, is that William is a rival narrator—not an ally who might piggyback on Austen’s own persona and thereby extend the novel’s geographic reach, but a competitor whose efforts must be parried. A sailor arrives spinning yarns, and the chamber novel registers his coming as an intrusion. Austen, we will note, has dealt with the challenge in much the way you might have expected her to—by absorbing William’s stories into her own apparatus, though to say this is not yet to say enough, since in most other cases that observation would mean that the young sailor’s Stories from the Sea had actually been reproduced or dialogically interpolated. Novels, after all, routinely feature guest narrators who show up for a few chapters to sit in with the band. But that’s not the case here. Almost nothing of the competing narrative has been preserved; Austen has undertaken not just to, say, recontextualize William’s adventures, but to neutralize them, to diminish them back to the mere fact of themselves. The visiting sailor “has a right to be listened to,” but that right will not be honored. The opening sentences are of special interest in this regard: What matters is the recitor, not the recital. The novel draws attention to Sir Thomas and allows him to model for us a way of listening to global or maritime stories—a mode of listening that purges the planet even from planetary relations, that brackets the world as narrative object and makes it subordinate to the world’s witness, that manages to transmute into a lyric solo the thronging chatter of port cities. That’s all you need to know about one strain of English fiction: that it knowingly makes a reading of the globe secondary to the reading of character.

You could make the same point in terms of genre, since the stories that William recounts have the quality of epic, and we can think of the novel as here reducing this more prestigious competitor form to a few amputated conventions—shipwrecks, battles, horrors. But I think the point is most compelling when made in terms of style. In Austen’s pages, we can see the globe acting upon novelistic style, making itself felt as a distortion in realist prose, a thinning of the form’s usual busy knit. The mark of the globe is a recourse to abstraction where we would otherwise expect specificity: “recitals, histories, an account, details.” Abstraction is the residue of an untold story—quite literally in this case—a history named ideationally qua history but then relegated to the Cone of Silence.

The problem of abstraction is worth thinking about some more. It will help, in this regard, to examine a passage from a novel that Elizabeth Hamilton published in 1800, called Memoirs of Modern Philosophers. It is not a novel that urgently demands to be rediscovered; it is enough, for current purposes, to imagine a gawky, Presbyterian Austen novel in which the scoundrels are all left-wing intellectuals. The book also goes in for a little light Shandeism, teasing readers about the expectations they bring to a novel and so flagging what by 1800 had already come to seem tediously conventional in prose fiction. The novel’s best bit comes in the final chapter, when the narrator announces that she is not after all going to be able to get everyone married before the book ends. And she imagines an irritated reader asking Why not? Sure, one of the novel’s men is so rascally as to be beyond marrying. But

“If Bridgetina can’t have him [the truly vile one],” cries the [reader], “she surely may have Myope at least. His poverty is no obstacle; for what so easy, as to make him have some rich uncle come home from the East-Indies, or to give him a prize in the lottery; or—oh, there are a thousand ways of giving him a fortune in a moment….”

“Giving him a fortune in a moment”: The marvel of this short passage is that it brings to the fore a constellation of problems in the history of the novel that we could cluster under the rubric of Things That Just Happen. The reader is begging the novelist to exercise her emergency powers, and one of the terms that occurs in this context is “fortune,” which is linked to the lottery and thus to chance. There is an entire literary history behind that formulation—the history of a writerly device—since eighteenth-century fiction still routinely chalks events up to fortuna—or, alternately, to providence or accident. In other contexts, the distinctions between those three would need to be teased out, but for our purposes what matters is that all of them are higher order abstractions that introduce terminal gaps—great, shrugging perplexities—into a given novel’s chain of causal explanation. Fortune is the encompassing and vacant pseudo-cause, the mark in human affairs of implacable complexity or genuine randomness, hence the hollow into which narrative bottoms. If an event happened “because of Fortune,” then it just happened.

But then the second possibility that the impatient reader raises is that a character could be summoned in from India. This points to a problem that I don’t ever think has been sufficiently considered: Characters routinely appear in novels from afar—and they routinely exit novels, as well, as surely as they do stages, and one way to think about this would be to say that novels almost always generate for themselves a kind of offstage, a place from which messengers arrive, where events happen unseen and to which characters can pop out for a cigarette and a costume change. And the passage already makes clear why novelists might avail themselves of this void space; an offstage can solve all manner of different problems that are at once ideological and formal, furnishing spaces—many of them with names like “Egypt” and “St. Kitts”—where novels relieve themselves from the otherwise endless burden of narration, magic boxes from which poor characters emerge rich and nobody needs to know how or why. The offstage is in this sense a spatialization of what had seemed like the intrinsically temporal problem of fortune. It’s not that fortune can’t strike nearby—it’s just that events transpiring in remote places are more likely to appear to the mind as fortune-driven—and the territories involved become, again, places where things just happen—the Fortune Islands or the Archipelago of Accidents. The biggest island in the Bahamas is called Providence.

What we can say now is that events in prose fiction become abstract when they are, as here, declared exempt from the novel’s usual modes of analysis and elucidation—the curiosity about complex action that seems to be part of narrative’s permanent Aristotelian inheritance. And it this abstraction that will make itself felt at the level of the sentence, in a manner that we’ve already just seen in Austen. Verbal de-specification is how Fortune and the offstage—these temporal and spatial dullnesses—begin to colonize the very style of prose fiction. Two more sentences from Mansfield Park:

…Sir Thomas was still abroad, and without any near prospect of finishing his business. Unfavorable circumstances had suddenly arisen at a moment when he was beginning to turn all his thoughts towards England; and the very great uncertainty in which everything was then involved determined him on sending home his son, and waiting the final arrangement by himself.

This is as close as we come in Mansfield Park to a direct description of Antigua, and what stands out here, again, is the strange, ruthless weeding of the narrative underbrush: Business?—What business? Circumstances?—what circumstances? Arrangement—what arrangement? Everything? Sentences like these do, it’s true, push the concept of fortune one degree back towards a differentiated causal sequence, but only one degree, achieving the syntax of narrative while narrating almost nothing. They resemble an author’s reminder to herself to insert event here.

The question, then, is whether the novel could set itself loose from this or that place without degenerating into abstraction in this manner—or more simply whether, in an English novel, Antigua could function as a narrated place and not just as a placeholder. And I think that these questions furnish us with a series of fresh reasons to go back and read widely in the early history of the novel. There are some utterly basic things we still don’t know. What finally accounts for this literary deficiency? Is the problem, as with epistolary fiction, that the novel’s technology gets glitchy when upscaled? Or is the problem, as with Austen, that novelists have, one after another, obstinately discounted openings to global narration even when these have conveniently presented themselves? The epistolary novel might have specifiable limitations, but then why aren’t these lifted by authoritative and disembodied narrators—the narrators that in this of all contexts we are going to have to stop calling “omniscient”? And which features of the realist novel could we nonetheless imagine repurposing to planetary ends? Is it really all that hard to conceive of a multiplot Mansfield Park—an Austen novel reunited with its twelve mislaid Caribbean chapters? But then what are the various ways in which regional and national novels cauterize their edges? How does any given novel constitute its geographical borders? How does it set territorial limits to what it is willing to narrate or how does it mark out a beyond into which it will not follow even major characters? Do maritime novels have distinctive narrative strategies for expanding the realist novel’s scope? Do immigrant novels? And could the realist novel still learn from the genres against which it typically defines itself? Can it learn from science fiction novels, which, after all, have an easier time than most talking about planets? Are there things that neoclassical verse epics know how to do that even a Dickensian or Balzacian realism doesn’t manage? And if a novelist tried to import these epic features into a novel already in progress, what would she have to give up? With what exactly would they seem incompatible? If the realist novel is to keep its promises, will it have to cede its very realism? Even the most imperialist of epics allow the casualties of empire to call curses down upon their conquerors. Couldn’t brother William, just once, see St. Helena from the main-mast? Will Fanny Price have to play cards with the sister-nymphs who live at the world’s western edge? Will Sir Thomas be called to account by the gorgon spirit of Africa rising caustic from the drink?


-The map up top was designed by Aaron Straup Cope.

-I don’t mean to suggest that there are no planetary novels, only that we should pause to appreciate how unusual they are—and that we should read them again carefully to make sure that they are really doing what we think they are. Here are the beginnings of a list: Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, any of Pynchon’s long novels, and especially Moby-Dick. Other readers will forward their own candidates.

-Thanks to Christopher Flynn, whose Americans in British Literature helped me extend my thinking on Charlotte Smith.

-Jameson’s comments on the self-footnoting novel can be found in The Political Unconscious.

-For more on how novels deal with Things That Just Happen, see my “Providence in the Early Novel, Or Accident If You Please.”

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