Reading Great Novels for Pleasure or Profit

Reading Great Novels for Pleasure or Profit

Vincent van Gogh: The Novel Reader, oil on canvas, 1888.

“There’s this rich old man with lots of enemies, and it turns out that someone has bashed his head in. The police have to figure out which of his three sons is responsible for the murder, and so they arrest the oldest son (who’s at a drunken party with his mistress), because he clearly needed the old man’s money to pay off his debts. The oldest son tries to put together a convincing alibi, but at the trial his fiancée rats him out because she’s really in love with his younger brother, and—”

“Let me guess. The butler did it.”

“Oh. Well, yeah, actually, the butler did do it.” (Spoiler alert?)

Now, the fault here clearly lies with me rather than Dostoevsky, because my 30-second plot summary manages to exclude everything that puts The Brothers Karamazov among the world’s great novels (such as the fact that the butler did it, in part, because of an argument about the moral implications of the non-existence of God). But sometimes summaries, even the most reductive and unfair ones, can be revealing. And what a plot synopsis reveals is how Dostoevsky managed to hang a book of profound questions on some of the most hackneyed conventions of fiction: the murder mystery, the love triangle, the courtroom drama.

When I re-read The Brothers Karamazov this spring I was surprised to find that it was, at heart, a murder mystery. You have the structure of a crime novel: first an introduction to the personalities of the victim and primary suspects, then the crime itself, its investigation, the arrest, the courtroom drama, the question: Did he or didn’t he? And then the verdict.

This week I stumbled across an article that took the novel very seriously as a crime drama and it reminded me again of that aspect of the novel which so captivated me. The article, CSI: Karamazov (The Ghettoization of Courtroom Drama), specifically considers the genre of the novel and asks whether the crime novel, having been demoted to a pulp genre– and taking a turn to ask why that demotion happened– whether having taken that turn it could ever again be the vehicle for something as grand in scope and as deep as The Brothers Karamazov. The author is skeptical, but I’m less certain. I think the limitation is less in the material and more in the imagination of the author.

Conventions are what we make of them, and they are entirely different things in the paws of a hack, or the hands of a master. In one, they are rote, paint-by-numbers exercises that satisfy our hunger for the familiar; in the other, they are closer to archetypes that bear remarkable thematic weight. But not every convention can bear the weight of every theme. The conventional knight’s quest or saint’s life might have been dominant literary conceits in another era, but it’s hard to imagine serious fiction making use of them today. And just as conventions go in and out of fashion, they also move into and out of better neighborhoods: up and down the scale that, fairly or not, divides “literary fiction” from “genre fiction.” Today’s literary set-piece becomes tomorrow’s predictable genre exercise — and we can see that process playing out in the sad, but inevitable, decline of the courtroom drama.

The whole article is fascinating and worth reading and pondering. But it also sent me off in another direction: pondering the way in which readers approach the Great Novels. And wondering whether our expectations of thematic weight and being in the hands of a master shapes how we approach them and changes the way we read. Does it perhaps even diminish the experience of reading the great novels?

I’d so often heard of The Brothers Karamazov as a great spiritual novel and had first approached it as this masterpiece that I had to grapple with. I think that baggage sabotaged my first attempts to read it, hobbled my first complete read through of it and almost derailed this most recent reading. But this time once I got past the first getting to know you chapters at the monastery and we started to get into the action, I found myself wanting to read for what happens next, gripped by the plot and characters. And really, I think that’s one of my favorite ways to read a book: caught up in the action.

I get more out of a book if I first lose myself in it and then come back and question and probe and inquire as a secondary impulse as opposed to the first encounter. I think books are very much like people in that way. The best relationships are when we make friends with them first before we get to the heart to heart confessionals. And all too often literature classes forget that basic truth.

Our freshman year in college my best friend and fellow literature major, Stephanie, shocked me by skipping class when she got behind in the reading. I want to finish the book first, she said. Because the professor would often jump ahead and talk about parts we hadn’t read yet. And she hated, hated, hated spoilers.

We often jump to the meaning, trying to find the meaty themes and the technical tricks, and forget the sheer pleasure of story or language or exploring a new world through new eyes.

I’ve been listening to Moby Dick, which might have been the very book that Stephanie didn’t want spoiled, come to think of it, and the kids have often been listening in. I picked up the audiobook because when we went to Mystic Seaport the exhibit on whaling had an old black and white film of a whaling ship and the narration for the film was simply an excerpt from Moby Dick. I almost forgot about watching the picture, I found myself reveling and delighting in the sheer beauty of Melville’s language. Who else could make the capture and butchering of a whale into such a poem? I was almost drunk on the words. And listening to the book I find myself over and over again falling into the same delight. This book is simply marvelous, a love poem to the sea, to whales, to the whole whaling industry and to a way of life and to nature and to nature’s God. A masterpiece.

It’s fun to see the kids listening for pleasure, enjoying the ride. And not even suspecting that this work is something that could be analyzed and discussed. As much as I love that discussion and analysis, the more time I spend with kids the more I realize that it’s the very worst way to get them to engage with great literature.

I first read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was a senior in high school, knowing nothing about Joyce. (I grabbed it from my mom’s bookshelf for something to read in the car when we were going on a campus visit to UD actually, which seems somehow quite poetic and perfect.) I just liked the title. And I was in love with the language of it while not at all understanding the greater context of the story. But I’ve always loved it because of that first encounter and rather felt like reading it in a class ruined the book for me because we totally ignored what had been so enchanting to me at the first reading, the masterful use of language in that first chapter.

And what unlocked Ulysses for me was actually an Irish detective story, whose name I can no longer remember and for which I have since hunted in vain, but in it there was a police detective in Dublin whose wife was a literary scholar and somehow the crime revolved around a Joyce letter or manuscript. So the detective ends up reading Ulysses and loving it, even though he’s just a working class Dublin schlub, because it’s about Dublin, his city, and he recognizes himself and his city in the novel. For him it’s not at all this grand literary puzzle, but a book about a place that he loves. And that brought me back to my own experience with Portrait, a realization that maybe literary scholars read Joyce all wrong and he’s best enjoyed not as a conundrum but for the pleasure of reading the work itself. Joyce as lover of language and lover of a place called Dublin and its people.

And now I wonder if the phenomenon of the literary novel might not hamper writers, too. Does the genrefication of fiction and the ghettoization of certain kinds of stories and the elevation of others create a pretentiousness to so-called literary fiction that gets in the way of simply telling a good story? And do we overlook important themes and profound wrestling with ideas when it happens to occur in genre fiction, simply because we don’t expect that kind of depth from our pleasure reading?

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    • Based on the various reviewers’ comments, I think this is the one! Thank you!

      I was so frustrated a few years ago when I was looking for it to find that there are several Joyce-themed mystery novels out there, but I didn’t find this one somehow.

      “McGarr is forced to finally read Ireland’s most famous novel, and the literary forays are the best part of this haphazard book. ”

      “One of my favorite bits was when the Chief Inspector reads ULYSSES one night when he can’t sleep.”

      “Fun, too, for the police detectives to pull out Ulysses and try to get through it, looking for clues.”

      “An unexpected bonus is I think I may have a clue as to how to handle “Ulysses” itself more effectively. I think perhaps I won’t take it so seriously and look for meaning in each line, but will just let go and let the richness of the language, the poetry, sweep me away.”