Will the novel as we know it live forever, or are we standing on the precipice of some strange new digital world where each ‘page’ will leap with interactive pictures, clickable links, music, intrusive explanatory passages? Will novels ultimately come to resemble something indistinguishable from movies with the author taking on multiple roles as director, screenwriter, producer?
I hope not. For me, the best novels fill a special place and accomplish things that even the finest movie could never hope to pull off. Because the novel can do things that are so exquisitely personal to the reader, so perfect in the way they demand us to join quite actively in the act of creation, until two brains are completely intertwined, no matter how far separated they might be in time and space.
Here’s a delicious example of the uniqueness of what a novel can do – in combination with the mind of the reader – from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The following passage occurs very early in the book after young Jane has been made miserable by her detestable ‘relatives’ and looks for somewhere to retreat.
A breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.
I returned to my book--Bewick's History of British Birds: the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of "the solitary rocks and promontories" by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape--
"Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls,
Boils round the naked, melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides."
Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with "the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space,--that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold." Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.
Why do I find this scene breathtaking? On the surface, there appears to be almost no action: a girl sitting alone in a room. But look where the author is able to take us. At first the scene, in response to the isolation Jane is feeling, moves the reader into a place that is deeper and more protected, cozier and smaller: a window nook in the breakfast room behind drawn curtains. But, in an echoed microcosm of the overarching theme of the book, Jane’s spirit is unable to be contained: paradoxically, everything suddenly begins to expand as she opens a book on birds and relates its contents to what she sees outside the glass on a “drear November day” lashed with rain. In 252 breathless words Charlotte Brontë transports us to:
The rocky coast of Norway.
The North Cape.
The Northern Sea.
Lapland, Siberia, and Iceland.
The Artic Zone.
Until at last the cozy window seat has become the prow of a magical ship, the rain transformed into waves tossed against the panes. But even that leap is not enough for an imagination as big as Charlotte’s. Again, in response to her character’s mood, Jane and the reader are left trapped in a broken ship, sinking off a desolate coast, striped with bars of ghastly moonlight.
That’s what I call writing outside the lines and why I believe the novel will never die. Not for those who want to travel farther, deeper.