Last year I wrote an essay in 3 Quarks Daily trying to clarify my thoughts on “the total novel” or what I’ve started calling “the everything novel.” This is the land of Joyce, Gaddis, Musil and other giants. I took the essay, entirely reworked the middle and the ending, and recorded it for the Feeling Bookish Podcast as part of our “Audio Essay” series. Take a listen:
Marcel Proust is forever being lost to myth, reduced either to a gossip who chronicled Parisian salons, or even worse, a withdrawn asthmatic overly sentimental for the past. This reduction makes no room for Proust’s admiration for technology or the diplomats and military men who made statecraft and war. Proust adored automobiles and was fascinated by German military aviation, and we find in Proust’s novels countless examples of his passion for military strategy, diplomacy and foreign affairs, which is personified in his character, the diplomat, Monsieur de Norpois.
Proust attended Sciences-Po, which had been founded to educate an elite for France’s civil and diplomatic posts. And though he developed a rich interest in relations between states, in the end, he knew a life of letters was his destiny. Proust biographer Jean-Yves Tadié writes, “The former pupil of the diplomatic section of the Sciences-Po never wanted to be a diplomat; yet he wrote the novel about diplomacy that those novelists who were diplomats—Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Gobineau, Giradoux and Morand—never wrote.”
The writer-diplomat tradition, though largely ignored in the history of letters, has been critical to the development of many European and Latin American writers. Eight poets with diplomatic experience, including Octavio Paz and Czeslaw Milosz, have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tadié references France’s great tradition, which reached its apex in 1937 when 50 percent of the diplomats from the Quai d’Orsay (The French Foreign Ministry) were published authors.
Helen DeWitt’s struggles with the publishing industry have been well documented. She famously battled the copy editors of her first publisher regarding the correct typesetting of certain passages in her novel The Last Samurai (2000), which had pages of classical Greek and also Japanese characters (hiragana, katakana and kanji).
In a 2016 Vulture profile of DeWitt, Christian Lorentzen documented how the bankruptcy of her first publisher, and the subsequent lawsuits over “accounting errors,” kept her second novel Lightning Rods (2011) from being published for 12 years.
“Lightning Rods, finished in July 1999, was then stuck in limbo after her publisher, Talk Miramax, folded,” Lorentzen wrote. “When it did finally appear, from New Directions in 2011, it garnered a legion of devoted readers too young to have read The Last Samurai before it went out of print.”
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It’s a massive book, it’s nearly 50-years-old, but it has been republished by the New York Review of Books press, and some critics are calling it a masterpiece.
I took a less enthusiastic view. You can check out my essay on Anniversaries and my attempt to define the “everything novel” in 3 Quarks Daily, as well as listen to the discussion I had about it on a recent Feeling Bookish Podcast: