Of Novel and Books

© Miro Gavran
By Miro Gavran

As a child, I loved to read. That carried on into my youth, and has lasted right up until today. I love books, I love to touch them and love to spend time in new and old libraries. 

I love city and village libraries. I love school libraries. I love large and small libraries. I love bookshops and second-hand bookshops. I love houses in which I can find a room with shelves and a lot of books.

As a child, I mostly read novels; that didn't change when I was a young man, and it has remained the same today. When I was sixteen, I read a text entitled The Death of the Novel in some newspaper or magazine. A university professor spoke about the fact that the novel would soon die away, that it was the end of that literary form and that writers of novels would never again write something new and original.

I really regret that I have forgotten the name of that professor, and I cannot even remember the name of the newspaper or magazine in which I read that prediction. I only remember that I was sad and upset for days after that because the novel was to die soon and I was standing at the end (not to say on the edge) of an era.

In other words, although I did read poetry and short stories at that time, although I did read the occasional drama or comedy, for me the novel was “the queen” of literature. I read mostly novels since they offered me the most pleasure, so you can imagine how upset I was at the announcement that my “favourite” was about to pass away.

I am forty-seven years old now. So I read that ominous article thirty-one years ago. In the meantime, the novel has not died. I would even venture to say that it is move lively than ever. I can testify from my visits to libraries and bookshops that what readers yearn for most is the novel.

The fact is that a lot of good-quality novels have been written in all parts of the world over the last thirty years. However, that statement about the novel dying soon still rings in my ears from time to time, even today.

I ask myself what that university professor had in mind when he pronounced that thought. What did he base his conclusion on? How did he dare to foresee the future, to foresee human creativity and/or the lack of human creativity and the changes in the inclinations of the reading public? What was the professor thinking of when he was announcing his thesis?

Viewed dialectically, everything that is born dies sooner or later. Poetry was the queen of literature among numerous peoples for centuries, but - at a certain juncture - the novel sat upon that throne. And it cannot be ruled out that the novel will lose its attraction one day ...

However, for that to happen, it seems to me that some other sort of people would have to live in this world, people who would feel things differently than us today.

And despite how much the world has changed in both the technological and social sense over the last three decades, I see that today's ten-year-olds still consume novels, as if nothing had changed.

Some fifteen years ago, I read that books would no longer be printed in the near future. Some ten years ago that claim was underscored by numerous attempts to find a market niche for so-called e-books, that is, electronic books. Some popular writers started firstly to place their novels on the Internet and it seemed that a new era had dawned; it seemed that The Book Would Die very soon.

I remembered all those wonderful libraries that had delighted me. I recalled my tactile relationship with the books I loved best. And once again I felt that unease because of the looming destiny of my generation.

Happily, all those forecasts of ten years ago came to nothing. I have never heard even one person say that he/she had read a novel on the Internet, while books are being printed in increasingly higher numbers from year to year, even in the United States of America, where the news about the imminent Death of Books was first broken.

The Internet has become a brilliant means for the fastest collection and exchange of information, and has connected people who live in the various parts of the world in an inexpensive and simple way. The Internet has managed to steal readers away from newspapers and viewers away from television and the cinema. However, I have not noticed that books have lost the battle with that new medium.

In the same way, the theatre did not disappear with the emergence of radio, film and television. Instead, with their appearance, the theatre becomes even more its own, special and irreplaceable.

That is why I believe that the printed book will not lose the battle with the Internet, or with any other medium.

And just as we know that the film of a theatre production can never be as suggestible as a production watched in the theatre environment together with a few hundred other theatre-goers, so a book on the Internet lacks the attraction of a printed one.

Nevertheless, the seeds of doubt have been sown and my apprehension because of the possible demise of the book or novel continues to overwhelm me from time to time.

Let us leave for a moment those “prophets” of the death of books, forget about that futurist university professor who foresaw the end of the novel, and set aside all those who insisted for years that books would no longer be published - and then sat down themselves to write and publish a book about that subject.

Let us look at something else. Let us ask ourselves a different type of question:

For those of us who live, love, suffer, hate, forgive, make friends or are solitary today ... why is the novel so important, why do we so often reach out for it?

It is not an unimportant question.

The answer may be stupid, banal, and wrong ... but the question and the search for that answer seems to me to be important.

My answer might not be yours. Perhaps there are as many millions of answers to that question as there are millions of readers in this world.

In any case, I shall try to express my opinion on why it is that the novel, even today in the autumn of 2008, has a privileged place in literature, and also in my heart.

In a word: the novel is the best reminder to me of life in total. And that is not the case with any music composition, painting, short story, sculpture, drama, poem ... Sometimes, with some novels and with some writers, the first chapter is similar to the creation of the world. The author, consciously or subconsciously, gradually draws us into the world that is located between the front and back cover.

That world has a specific colour, taste and smell. The sentences are like air. Sometimes it is a matter of crisp mountain air, and sometimes we feel dampness in our nostrils, or anxiety and pressure that does not lessen until the very last page.

I have found it hard to breathe reading some books. I have made my way with difficulty through the chapters, as if I was passing through semi-dark, dank catacombs. I have felt for the heroes sentenced to life in such settings, sentenced to breathing such heavy air.

I have felt that some of the novels I read were divided into four parts, something like the four seasons of the year. Usually they were the typical “Central-European” family novels.

Their composition often started in the following way: the first part was spring, the second was summer, the third was autumn, and the novel ended with the fourth and final part, which conjured up winter.

In those novels, which I like to call by the unprofessional and layman term, “novels of the four seasons”, the plot is sometimes narrated from the perspective of winter, which recalls spring, then summer, then autumn, only to end again in the atmosphere of winter.

There were novels written not long after World War I, and those from the time of the Hippy Movement, which were a full-bodied spring. Such novels and writers did not want to know about winter, or autumn, and not even about steamy summer. There were also bleak novels that were frosty winters from the first page to the last, and after reading those novels we were infused with a persistent chill for quite some time after closing them.

Still, whether the novel bears the aromas of all the four seasons of the year, or only one of them, whether the entire novel tells the story of what happened in only one day, or describes one hundred years in the life of a family or place, we have the feeling after reading it of having visited a specific world, or having lived through an entire life.

Unlike the short poem, short story, or drama focused on only one separate event, the novel suggests a journey through a specific and comprehensive life, the novel being a simulation of a specific world.

The novel is Life. The novel is the World. In the novel, we will find poetry and drama and philosophy and psychology and politics and emotion and reason and the past and the presence. The novel is an artistic creation composed of various building blocks, which together make up the unique structure. The novel has to draw from life in order to seem life-like. The novel is necessary, unfettered imagination that is not a slave to the reality in which we live. The novel yearns for the perfect form that will not inhibit the story. The novel is under the complete control of the writer only while it is being written. When it is published, the novel lives its own life, so that no author can be responsible for the reader's associations, which the author usually does not even consider while writing the novel.

The first and last novels of particular authors are completely out of the control of their creators, because the level of a human being's sincerity is highest at the beginning and ending of life. There are numerous similarities between a good novel and a poor one, which lead to the fact that innumerable superfluous novels having been published over the centuries.

Whether they want to or not, writers of novels also chip away at parts of their own lives writing their novels. For that very reason, many productive novelists live more fully in their novels than in their own bodies towards the ends of their lives.

The internal life of a hero in a novel is more important than the external events. However, if that internal life is not situated in the context of external events, the entire novel will seem unconvincing and flimsy.

Reading various novels written in various countries, it is as though we are seeking for our possible but unrealised lives. Becoming acquainted with numerous characters in novels, it is as though we are seeking for ourselves and for other people. We are often surprised how much of ourselves we identify in lives that are very different from our own.

And however rational we may be in our attempts to decipher the reason for millions of people reading novels every day, the secret of the immortality of that literary form will never be completely revealed.

I would say that the novel, just like the Phoenix, always finds a way to rise again from the ashes, seemingly more lively and brilliant than in its previous life.

And so we come to the conclusion that the prophets of 'the death of the novel' did not know how to recognise that what they identified as symptoms of imminent death were, in fact, a portend of new birth.

 

Miro Gavran is a contemporary Croatian author. His works have been translated into 32 languages and his books have come out in 150 different editions at home and abroad. His dramas and comedies have had more than 200 theatre first nights around the world and have been seen by more than two million theatre-goers. He is the only living dramatist in Europe to have a theatre festival devoted solely to his plays outside his/her homeland. This text has been taken from Miro Gavran's book Literature and the Theatre (Zagreb, 2008) and reproduced here with the author's permission. 

 

22 December 2010

 

Photo Credit: Miro Gavran

 

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