The nature of realism in fiction is fraught, because the question of how art should or can or does relate to reality is fraught.
When I say “reality” I mean the nature of life as it is lived and thought through, the tenor and texture of existence. “Realism” in fiction is a different thing, an aesthetic approach or even a genre or type of literature, that seeks to be honest in its depiction of the way the world looks and is. All literature has a crucial, indestructible bond with reality – that’s what makes it art. But the particular relationship between literary realism and the depiction of reality is what interests me right now.
Right now I’m reading Anna Karenina, which so far I think of as a realist novel, and the internet corroborates this; if the fact that I felt compelled to reinforce my intuition with the internet or the fact that I’m calling Anna Karenina realist fiction when there’s some other, more apt category it normally ascribes to, well: that can’t be helped. I try not to get overly involved with the categorization apparatus of art.
What makes Anna Karenina a realist novel? I’m going to be immediately untangible and point to a nebulous sensation it gives me of “solidity:” there’s a concreteness to the scenes, the characters, their motivations, thoughts, and actions that feels bolstered with the authority of reality. Call it an inherent believability, an instinctual recognition.
And, obviously, this quality is what ties Anna Karenina on an artistic level to reality. A difference between realist and other fiction is that, with the former, the relationship between between its artifice and reality is one of direct mirroring: there’s nothing metaphorical or allusive, for instance, about the early scene of Oblonsky and Levin having dinner together; whereas something like “The Tale of Byron the Bulb,” no less honest in its artistic relationship to reality, is also utterly foreign to any sense of realism (at least as far as we know).
All basic. We know all this. Some unlocated notes:
All realism in fiction is orchestrated; it may be reality, but it’s reality art-ified, or artifacted. There are seemingly inescapable elements of authorship in even the most realistic literary moments that are absent from the unsensical enormous ongoingness of actual day-to-day life. We may call something that happens to us ironic, but the pronouncement lacks authority, because we lack the range and freedom of the artist writing a scene.
You look at something like Ulysses, which seeks to be realistic, but this entire “normal day” in Dublin is scripted down to the displacement of its tobacco crumbs (to rephrase something Anthony Burgess wrote about the book), and on the textual level its various stylistic contortions further distance it from realism (while maybe getting closer to reality on an artistic level; although that point is contestable).
Heavy literary style can obstruct realism too, or preclude it to some degree. Shakespeare was never a realist, and couldn’t be, because his style was too ornate to embellish a scene or a character’s soul with only its realistic dimensions; ditto Melville, ditto McCarthy, Pynchon – pretty much all the writers writing in the post-modern era. We’ll assume in these cases that realism is not the authors’ goal.
Jane Austen’s novels are concrete and believable too; everything has that Tolstoyan sense of solidity. But her plots resolve themselves with levels of felicity that are utterly foreign to the ongoing, fractal, inconclusive dramas of our actual lives today – and, I’m sure, of lives then.
One of the most realistic novels I’ve ever read is Herzog by Saul Bellow. It can be easily argued it’s not a realistic novel at all, but in its depiction of the behavior and personality of one individual, Moses Herzog, the way it weaves his foibles and hypocrisies and passions and the particular involution of his thoughts, as personal as thumbprints – that is a person, that is reality.
On a metatextual level, The Anatomy of Melancholy is realistic, because (to be extraordinarily reductive) it’s like the world’s longest most beautiful essay, composed entirely of sources that existed (at least in 17th century Oxford) in physical reality. It’s something that can only have been made in a particular part of the world in a particular time. A bill of goods from a London merchant would be equivalently realistic; the difference between these two documents is the intercession of art, which makes one immortal and the other disposable.
We used to talk together about a new realism in fiction. Something that would engage more fully with reality: the mess, the repetitions, the downpourings of detail, its patches of oblivion, its unrelenting eternal scope and inescapable smallness. It would somehow bring in all the minutiae and unsatisfying hugeness of living into a satisfying, artistically cohesive whole, by being fanatically attentive and faithful to its subject.
I called it the Literature of Boredom because, for me, boredom has always been a constant of living, one of its defining characteristics – and one that literature, even realist literature, rarely addresses in an honest, non-poetic way. When successful, the Literature of Boredom would not leave out this particular…mood? emotion? quality? of life, faithfully dragging it out into the light along with the rest.
There’s no conclusion to this essay.