One of my favourite writers died last week. James Herbert, master of the thriller horror genre, author of international bestsellers “The Rats” and “The Fog” amongst many others. They’re still not saying what he died from, and at the age of 69 his passing was a complete shock. In fact, his mysterious death would make a perfect plot for one of his novels. England has lost a visionary; a literary colossus. It was Herbert’s commentary and not-so-subtle portrayal of post-war industrialised Britain that ignited my interest in the realist novel, and literary realism has become my favourite genre. A difficult and often misunderstood literature. Admittedly, Balzac and Tolstoy do not make easy reading.
So what is literary realism? One of the foremost misconceptions is that it attempts to describe reality. But the realist novel is not only concerned with portraying life as it really is; indeed the concept of verisimilitude, where the author holds up a mirror along the road in a bid to record their own experiences, is only one way of interpreting the narrative. It certainly throws questions about what realism purports to describe, and whether the reality represented in the author’s mirror is one that is a sovereign and objective truth unadulterated by the author’s experiences—or perhaps dependent on their angle and subjectivity. So what is the reality that the realist novel represents? One definition is that realism represents the complexity of modern life. Whereas in earlier literary genres stories were often didactic and moralistic in nature, the realist novel engaged with developing cities, industrialisation and social classes. Modernity and the ever-encroaching urban reality became the subject of discourse.
The historian and Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács described the realist novel as the epic of modernity. In this godless and commercially driven universe, where man faces his destiny in the glowing fires of industry and struggles to find meaning in this new transformative reality, narrative realism can provide a looking glass that simulates it. According to Lukács, “the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” The hero’s psychology is demonic; the objectivity of the novel is the mature man’s knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that, without meaning, reality would disintegrate into the nothingness of inessentiality. Suffice it to say that Lukács was (i) an atheist and (ii) a fan of Dostoevsky.
So has the author-creator replaced God in this new reality as the demiurge of a brave new world? Can narrative realism ever succeed in representing the actual world it seeks to document?
“Scenes of Clerical Life” by George Eliot (above) is one of the first examples of the genre – and it also happens to be the first book that portrays alcoholism in great detail. The book contains three short stories and deals with the politics and societal effects of religious reform in rural England. Often cited as the most controversial of the collection, Janet’s Repentance brings several issues to the fore, chiefly alcoholism and domestic violence. The narrative introduces the reader to a torrid and often violent reality where the internalisation of repression and gradual breakdown of social and religious mores is demonstrated in all the main characters. Eliot weaves a form of idealism in her realist tapestry, where she is both loyal to her roots and her depiction of rural life (almost to the point of ethnography), but she also adapts and constructs a reality that is consciously created and knowingly fictive.
The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin argued that the realist novel has a heteroglossic form, i.e. that there are many voices to a novel and certainly several forces of signification that are mirrored and represented by the characters’ dilemmas. While realism seeks to represent modernity as a whole, modernity is in fact a fractured whole in which a plurality of voices and perspectives are expressed. Do you now see why literary realism can never truly be objectively descriptive of any “real” reality? Religion plays an integral part in the articulation of social conflict in the realist novel. Here the changing trends within religious discourse, no longer the life-threatening offense of yore, acquires a renewed social and political significance. This is faithfully mirrored in all of Eliot’s novels (“Middlemarch” is another example). Whereas in the Middle Ages society was unified by Christian symbolism that served to unite communities, in the modern world this sense of totality is lost and replaced with diligent steadfastness towards another goal, of a less celestial nature perhaps. In narrative realism, this religious paradox is often represented by tensions and anxieties within the community, even hostility.
So is the scope of the novel limited by the scope of the author-creator’s experiences? And if this is the case, how can the realist novel ever be truly realistic? Perhaps this is the religious inheritance of narrative realism, a kind of godless literary limbo that can only ever distort reality and colour it with the author’s experience of the world.
The German realist novel is considerably different from its English counterpart in that its construction of the fictional world is more important. There is a greater psychological emphasis and preoccupation with innerlichkeit, a German word for the inner psychological life. The intensity of unconscious feelings have profound religious implications. German realism depicts an idealised, utopic representation of urban life, and this reality is often manifested in the way changing fortunes and experiences are represented. A wonderful example is Fontane’s “Irrungen Wirrungen” (translated as On Tangled Paths or Delusions Confusions). Published in 1888, the novel tells the story of a doomed romance between a beautiful orphaned seamstress, Lene, and a handsome young baron, Botho von Rienecker. The baron is unable to support himself and, in spite of his love for Lene, must heed the call of duty and marry his rich cousin. Interestingly, while finances are never mentioned, class is the underlying motif that fuels and eventually breaks their bond, each party accepting of their fate.
While losing the baron to the mores of aristocracy, Lene has the tools to recover from this and support herself in a way that the baron could never aspire to, and this perhaps is a direct consequence of the urban world that is represented in the German realist novel. For Fontane (right), realism could arise because the reader processed what was clearly a fictional text into the illusion of a common reality. While Eliot’s narratives (and indeed other English realist writers such as Hardy) are set in quaint rural communities, and the struggles are of a more existential nature, German realism explores life in the actual environment that it designs to represent: the city.
G.K. Chesterton famously said that realism is romanticism that has lost its reason for existing. The lead characters in these two novels, while distinctly dissimilar in approach, have one thing in common: the eventual redemption and/or independence they find as a result of their painful experiences. But are their experiences a reflection of a reality that already exists in the ‘actual world’ or are they given life by the author-creator? If that is the case, they can never truly be measured or discerned to be wholly realistic, but merely artistic utterances. Perhaps this is why literary realism is so special; it illuminates the human condition with a precious lodestar of compassion. It gives rise to a kind of meta-realism, where the narrative balances a reality that is at once authentic and instructional, accurate and moral. And, most importantly, eternally forgiving.
George Elliot – Scenes of a Clerical Life
Theodore Fontane – On Tangled Paths
Honoré de Balzac – The Human Comedy
Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina