The novel recipe

250px-Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Gaspar_Melchor_de_Jovellanos

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their life. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is after having done or seen much. They just experimented novel writing. So let’s figure out, one day Daniel Defoe took ink and paper and, while sipping a nice cup of tea, set to work and……..nothing, blank. Certainly, he had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but writing novels was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather creating an organic structure where his characters could move and interact for many pages. There was no psychoanalysis to help him, so the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient he was very lucky, because he was witness of an age of great changes where the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeous hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe. He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism:a success. But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in a smaller space: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside the family circle and their connections. Furthemore they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour. When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy,Gentleman, that is his flux of thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of la durée, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was not fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalists could give him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a rather primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel placing the preface is in the third chapter for example, then filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings,dashes etc. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipes   work without another ingredient, the most important one: “the genious touch”.

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