Friday, 29 May 2020

Rethinking Literary Categories

Sensing a "deep affinity" between stories by Chekhov and Dickens prompts Tim Park to wonder if there's another way we might classify novels, leading him to a category he dubs "The Belongers":
All Dickens’s stories, and all Chekhov’s, are about being in or out of groups. About belonging. The desire to belong. The fear of exclusion. The pleasure of inclusion. The fear of not being worthy of the group. The pleasure of being the most worthy. But also the fear of belonging to the wrong group, the wrong company. Or marrying the wrong person. Worst of all, of going to prison. The fear that others in the group are not worthy. Not as worthy as the character who directs our sympathy first thought, that is. They must be expelled. Or the protagonist must leave the group. David Copperfield is ashamed of his wife, Dora. He made a mistake to bring her into his family. “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” says Pip in Great Expectations.
The new category looks to be quite capacious:
Were there other writers, I wondered, for whom this hierarchy of values held, novelists whose plots, one way or another, hinged around belonging and its attendant emotions, however differently they might come at it—just as Dickens and Chekhov come at it differently, and position themselves differently, though obviously obsessed by the same questions and construing life in the same way?

Over time, reading and rereading carefully, I found these authors who fit the description: Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, George Eliot, Haruki Murakami, Graham Swift, François-René Chateaubriand. Many other lesser names, too, in genre fiction as well as literary. Many Italians, perhaps because I read a lot of Italian literature, or perhaps because the values of belonging are so powerful in Italian society. Dante, writing in exile, is obsessed with belonging; the deepest circle of hell is reserved for the treacherous, those who betrayed family and community.

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