Viktor Shklovsky 1939

Review of Lukács’ book The Historical Novel

Written: 1939
First Published: on 29 November 1939 as Retsenziia na knigu Georgiia Lukacha “Istoricheskii roman” in: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva (in Russian)
Source: JSTOR
Translated by: Galin Tihanov

[...] Comrade Lukács refuses, as is evident from his articles and the later book edition, to give a definition of the genre of the historical novel. For Lukács, genre exists only as far and as long as it can guarantee the reflection of a specific life content. By specific life content he does not simply mean specific topics, but rather specific attitudes to the world. In his analysis of the historical novel, Lukács is persistently reluctant to recognize it as a separate genre, for, ultimately, it is not the sheer range of facts depicted that determines a given genre. A specific form, a genre, Lukács states, must be based upon a specific truth of life. For Lukács, the decisive criterion for a group of texts to be singled out as a genre on its own is epistemological: not simply different content and different form but, in the first place, a different vantage point and, therefore, a different knowledge of the world. This logic of discrimination is carried out throughout Lukács’ book, in which the second chapter (a comparison between historical novel and historical drama in their irreducibility as novel and drama) offers the most original and persuasive arguments on the subject. Lukács’ assault on thematic genre criticism anticipates a number of later objections to the traditional morphology of genre: The genre theory of later bourgeois aesthetics which splits up the novel into various “sub-genres”: adventure novel, detective novel, psychological novel, peasant novel, historical novel etc., and which vulgar sociology has taken over as an “achievement” has nothing to offer scientifically (Historical Novel, pp. 287-89). [...]

[...] At the core of the book lies the analysis of Walter Scott’s novels, which Comrade Lukács considers to be classical examples of this non-existing genre. For Lukács, the birth of the historical novel coincided in time with the process of formation of the bourgeois nation and mirrored these new developments. Hence, Lukács insisted, the historical novel must show the entire nation (‘the people’) as the true moving force of history. To be able to do this, the novelist should abstain from concentrating on the exceptional and should instead foreground the ordinary as a manifestation of the typical. The average person, rather than the grand historical figure, seemed to be the best material for a novel. In reality, however, the average character is nothing but an embodiment of uninspiring pedestrianism. It is the norm of the historical novel (I speak according to Comrade Lukács) to show events through the average character, through mediocrity. One has, like Stendhal, to show a small town, a little residence, Parme, but not Paris. But Comrade Lukács seems to forget that the indisputable role great personalities play in the historical novel is illustrated in the quintessential work of the genre from the past century, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But Comrade Lukács is not allocating sufficient space to Tolstoy. How exactly is Tolstoy connected with Russian literature is not known from the book.

In Lukács’ book, a giant figure like Tolstoy is discussed less than Conrad Ferdinand Meyer or roughly as much as Lion Feuchtwanger, two authors writing in German, whose oeuvre could hardly be said to match that of Tolstoy. Tolstoy and Russian literature in general are either absent from or, at best, misinterpreted in Lukács’ book. Soviet literature seems to fare even worse. There is not a single word in the book about the contemporary Soviet novel, about Aleksei Tolstoy, for example, or about Tynianov. [...]

[...] Not even a tenth part of my objections apropos Comrade Lukács’ interesting book have been raised by now. In particular, his attempt to deduce the [historical] novel straight from the novel or to link the historical novel to the historical drama seems to me incorrect. As a matter of fact, we see the influence of the ballad on Walter Scott. Lukács’ erudition is great but somewhat random, as far as literature is concerned.

My objection to Comrade Lukács comes down to the following his interesting book takes the novel not in the process and not in the contradiction of development, that is, outside history. In particular, the relation of the novel to the epic, on which I don’t have the time to elaborate right now, for us, for our union, is not a question of the relation of the novel to Homer, but a question of the relation of our novels of today to the present epic of those peoples which create their national literatures without having surpassed the stage of folklore. The contemporary novel, as far as the system of organizing its imagery is concerned, borrowed from the literature of the sketch as did the Russian novel of the age of flourishing, and that the enrichment of the contemporary novel with new material did not proceed without the influence of the Soviet literature of sketch. [...]

[...] Comrade Lukács’ book is very interesting, somewhat long-winded and, from my point of view, somewhat normative. It establishes prematurely laws, on whose ground history is being rethought as a departure from the norm. The appearance of such a book may prove interesting, for it will call forth a huge polemic; and, besides, it is the first attempt to draw some kind of picture of the history of the novel’s development on the basis of the current world-view. I pronounce myself for the publication of this book and at the same time I consider it half-baked.