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1 OPERA AND THE NOVEL: ANTITHETICAL OR COMPLEMENTARY? (To appear as a chapter in Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) As the common wisdom goes, novel and opera would seem antithetical to one another. For one thing, they are wholly different media—the one a printed form designed for private reading, the other a dramatic representation meant to be performed. The novel is not only consumed privately, but it supposedly focuse
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  1 OPERA AND THE NOVEL: ANTITHETICAL OR COMPLEMENTARY?(To appear as a chapter in Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera:Period, Genre, Reception, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2010)As the common wisdom goes, novel and opera would seemantithetical to one another. For one thing, they are wholly differentmedia—the one a printed form designed for private reading, the othera dramatic representation meant to be performed. The novel is notonly consumed privately, but it supposedly focuses upon the privateexperience of its characters and in turn encourages its readers toreconsider their individual life experiences. By contrast, opera, locatedas it is in large sonorous spaces, patronized by the so-called beautifulpeople (whoever they fashion themselves to be at any particularmoment of history), and attended by hordes of avid fans relegated tothe cheaper parts of the house, can count as the most public andsocial of art forms.This appealing model of two media in powerful confrontationwith one another served me well when, years ago, I wrote a chapteron the many opera scenes contained within novels for my first book onopera. 1 The scene at the opera, whether centered in socialinteractions in the lobby or boxes or in the action onstage, has beenan ongoing topos in the novel as a way, one might say, of distinguishing between the ordinariness of the everyday life that is itsessential subject matter and the extravagance, as my book’s subtitlesuggests, of the world of opera. However absurd operatic goings-onare depicted, as in the opera scenes in La Nouvelle Heloïse and War  1   Lindenberger, Opera: The Extravagant Art, pp. 145-96.  2 and Peace , from the novelist’s point of view opera served as a mediumembodying the high style, performing actions that, in earlier centuries,had been the task of forms such as epic and romance. When anovelistic character such as Emma Bovary or Natasha Rostov goes tothe opera, I argued, the writer takes the opportunity to assert theidentity, even, in many cases, the superiority of the novel. As a genrewhose prestige, until well into the twentieth century, remained belowthat of other literary genres, the novel could invoke the topos of anoperatic visit as a means of validating its seemingly lowly style and thecommonplace events that it so painstakingly recorded.Yet as I reconsider my remarks in that chapter, I recognize thatmy observations on the relation of these two media had not beensufficiently historicized, that they were relevant above all to the noveland opera of the nineteenth century. Is it possible that these mediahave wider, more varied meanings for us today than they did even afew decades ago? In the course of this essay I shall attempt, first, torecapture an earlier, narrower conception of both novel and opera thanwe have at present and, second, to suggest some directions that wemay take to rethink their relationship. As the discussion develops, theneat antithesis with which I began and that I took for granted in mychapter on operatic scenes in the novel, may well be open to question.If we look back a half century and more to ask how the best andalso the most persuasive minds talked about the novel and aboutopera, what we see would look strange and provincial to many today.Within the anglophone world the most influential model for thecriticism of fiction was F. R. Leavis’s book of 1948, The Great Tradition , which opens with these ominously prescriptive words, “Thegreat English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry Jamesand Joseph Conrad—to stop for the moment at that comparatively safe  3 point in history.”  2 To be sure, in the course of his argument, Leavisadds D. H. Lawrence to his list (as it turns out, the only Englishmanamong the major English novelists), and he grudgingly finds a placefor two Victorian novels, Wuthering Heights and Hard Times , byauthors who otherwise do not make his favored company.It is hard for a later generation to recognize the power thatLeavis once exercised on criticism. Indeed, as late as the 1970s Iencountered graduate students from Commonwealth countries whomouthed his theories as received doctrine—often blind to the vitalpostcolonial literature that was developing in their homelands.Leavis’s all too cogently argued notions were based on a long-traditional idea of the literary critic’s role, a role that goes back toSamuel Johnson and even further back to Dryden, namely, thatcriticism must above all educate, elevate readers’ tastes, teach themto discriminate among authors and texts. For Leavis, whatdistinguishes the few authors who make it to his list of “greats” is “thatthey not only change the possibilities of the art [of the novel] forpractitioners and readers, but that they are significant in terms of thehuman awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life.”  3 However vague this criterion for greatness may sound, whatemerges from his close analyses is that his favored authors—to usesome of his characteristic words and phrases—write with “complexity,”  “maturity,” “moral intensity,” “moral interest in human nature.”  4  Leavis’s standards for greatness were so high that hisrecommended canon is very small indeed. The rest of novelistic 2   F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition: A Study of the English Novel   (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), p. 9. 3   Ibid  ., p. 10 . 4   Ibid  ., pp. 115, 98, 18, 154, respectively.  4 history is of little importance except for what it tells us of the socialconditions that encouraged bad reading habits. The gap betweengreat literature and mere entertainment remains huge for Leavis andhis school. Even Dickens, except for Hard Times , was relegated to thestatus of “a great entertainer”  5 —though in later years, a repentantLeavis found an honored place for Dickens in his great tradition. 6  Leavis’s canon was expanded to a degree by a book of comparable authority that appeared nearly a decade later, Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel  , which added three eighteenth-century novelists,Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, to the later writers whose greatnessLeavis had championed. Watt approaches these authors both insociological and philosophical terms by demonstrating the rise at onceof a new middle-class reading public during the eighteenth-centuryand of a new concept of individuality. The larger contextual range thatWatt displayed was to some degree due, as he himself acknowledged,to a landmark study of the British reading public by Leavis’s wife, Q.D.Leavis, but it also derived from the regular mentoring that he hadreceived at an early stage of his writing from Theodor Adorno duringthe latter’s exile in California. 7 As in Leavis’s work, Watt’s focus is on 5   Ibid  ., p. 31. 6   See the book jointly co-authored by Leavis and his wife, Q. D. Leavis, Dickens: The Novelist  (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970). AlthoughLeavis did not characteristically admit to past errors, at one point inthis book (pp. 213-14) he qualifies his earlier designation of Dickensas an entertainer. 7   Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and    Fielding (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1957), pp. 7-8.Q.D. Leavis’s influential early book was Fiction and the Reading Public   (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932).
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