Cheer Three: Gossip as Literature

iii. The Golden Age of Gossip

 It took prose writers of fiction several centuries to get beyond Boccaccio and realize that the techniques of gossip could be expanded beyond a string of lively anecdotes to a long unified narrative exploring the ins and outs and ups and downs of human experience, in other words, the novel.

 There are plenty of candidates for the honor of being the first novel. Robinson Crusoe is as good a candidate as any. It is the story, as everyone in the world knows, of a rather ordinary person, someone you might meet casually in a tavern, who gets to talking about some things that have happened to him, and in this case they turn out to be quite unusual things. There are plenty of features which make the book fascinating, the exotic locale, the ingenuity of the chief character in facing extraordinary circumstances, all kinds of historical and philosophical overtones, side-lights on colonial expansion, and on race relations. What holds them all together is the tone, which will be the tone of the successful novel for the next two centuries, the tone of someone taking the reader into his confidence. The novelist is always sitting across the table, conversing, not thundering from a pulpit or warbling from above the clouds. In Conrad's Lord Jim he is speaking “on a verandah draped in motionless foliage and crowned with flowers, in the deep dusk speckled by fiery cigar-ends,” talking on and on for several hundred pages. A Conrad novel is going to have many levels of complexity, but like Defoe, Conrad depends on his reader to accept him as a temporary god-sib, someone who has something to share which it will be a pleasure to hear..

 Once launched, the novel developed at a speed which no other literary form has ever approached. Almost immediately, novelists learned that they did not need to depend on exotic locales like Robinson Crusoe's island, they could move indoors into Clarissa Harlowe's bedroom or ride out with Squire Allworthy's fox-hunt, they could sail the seven sees with Smollett or visit a mad scientist’s laboratory with Mary Shelley, they could go anywhere they pleased with whatever companions pleased them.

 Growing up in the tolerant commonsensical atmosphere of English Whiggery (what is Whiggery, thundered William Butler Yeats, but a rational rancorous leveling turn of mind / That never looked out of the eye of saint or out of a drunkard’s eye?) the novelists had little to fear from religious fanaticism or political censorship when they chose to deal with contemporary life And they had acquired a mass audience. A rapidly expanding western world had created widespread literacy, cheap paper and unprecedentedly rapid communications. Uncounted millions of people, educated, curious, were free to look in any direction they wanted. New discoveries, new inventions, new forms of society, new industries, were opening up new horizons every day. Marshall McLuhan would one day tell the world that television was turning it into a global village. The process had really been begun long before by Walter Scott, Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Zola, Mark Twain and all those other giant magicians. At a touch of their wand, boundaries of time and space which had always kept the immense majority of mankind closed off in tiny isolated communities disappeared, and millions of bedazzled readers found a chance to share in the lives of Highland clansmen, French moneylenders and social climbers, noble redskins, street gangs of London, Russian revolutionaries, the crews in the forecastles of whaling ships, mill-owners and musketeers and striking miners. Once they had to be content with the all too familiar misfortunes and peccadillos of Aunt Fanny and Neighbor Jones, or with more or less fantastic tales about knights errant, pirates and princesses in strange and distant lands. Now the two forms could merge, and they could become acquainted with people from beyond the horizon brought up close, familiar and strange at the same time, just as full of life as Neighbor Jones but far more stimulating.

 Now they could share in the ecclesiastical politics of Barchester Close, learn the secrets of society divorces in London, track criminals through the sewers of Paris, climb a ladder into Mlle. de la Mole’s bedroom, eavesdrop on the fighting at Waterloo or at Borodino, peep behind the closed curtains of the Bovary house in Normandy, share the suffering in Mr. Heathcliff’s gloomy keep in Yorkshire and in Uncle Tom’s cabin in Kentucky, discover why one wears a scarlet letter in Massachusetts and which of the troublesome Karamazov boys had murdered their vile old man in the little town of Skotoprinyevsk.

 The novel was of course never intended to be a mere collection of bits of interesting gossip. Jane Austen proudly described it as a work “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”.

 But on the other hand, it was never so snooty as to deny its affinity to old Dame Gossip. All the spiritual effulgence of which Jane Austen properly boasts shines around a hard gritty lump of quotidian reality, the tales told in kitchen or tavern in which the novelists find the mainspring of the action which will reveal all those happy varieties of human nature.

 For all their immense disparity in style and outlook, these authors share a common convention which makes it easy to read them all consecutively, which makes it easy to switch from Jane Austen to Stendhal to Tolstoy to Trollope without breaking stride. They are all friendly people -- primly English or theatrically Russian makes no matter -- taking you into their confidence as they chat with you about things they have seen, people that interest them and which they are sure will interest you because they are not that different from yourself or the people you have known.  

 Some of these novelists took time out to denounce gossip, but that is the oldest trick of the gossiper's trade. (“This isn't just a rumor I'm giving you, it's something my Uncle Ben saw with his own eyes”) The fact remains that they were all inveterate gossips who could not stop spinning out more and more details to keep you curious about what was coming next. No matter what higher aspirations they had, no matter that Balzac was convinced he was creating a major scientific treatise, or that Tolstoy always was seeking either his own salvation or that of the human race, they never lost sight of their job as popular entertainers, as storytellers, gossips.

 It is also true that owing to their breadth of vision, their wide experience and their wide sympathies, their stories changed almost automatically in their hands, they became universal myths overnight. In ancient Greece it might have taken centuries for scattered items of local gossip to coalesce into the myth of Oedipus the King. In 19th century London, Fagin and the Artful Dodger acquired the aura and authority of myth as fast as the weekly installments of Oliver Twist could keep coming off the press.

 The crowds waiting at the New York docks for the steamer with the latest news of Oliver's woes and how Bill Sykes murdered Nancy mark the apogee of gossip. No other art form has ever rivaled the 19th century novel in establishing deep and intimate personal relations between artist and audience.

 In our time, both Mickey Spillane and John Lennon have said that if they had been born in Elizabethan England they might have been Shakespeare. That is as may be, but there is no doubt that all three were enormously popular authors reaching into all levels of the audience available to them. Euripides too had been popular, and so was Charlie Chaplin. None of them could ever be as popular as Dickens was popular, because none of them can be imagined coming in your front door and settling down for a heart-warming informative chat.

 As in all good gossip, in novels of the golden age you always know where you are, and when. You have been invited to witness events which may be extraordinary and unexpected, but they always fit into an orderly structure of time and space, often specified in the very first words on the first page:

It was one of the hottest days of the summer of 1853. By the side of the Moscow River, not far from Kuntsovo, two young men were lying on the grass in the shade of a tall lime tree. (Turgenev)


One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. (Hardy)


On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the academy of Music in New York. (Edith Wharton)


 The characters in these novels have names, addresses, families, occupations. Their action is linear. If they leave their lodgings to go to church or to the palace of Cardinal Richelieu, you know they will arrive there, unless some unexpected turn of the plot intervenes. The waves of life break over them in order.


 It was not long before novelists began to find this a too narrow horizon. By the middle of the 19th century they were fretting at the narrow cells in which they were expected to work, they wanted to soar into the bright clouds of the unfettered imagination. Flaubert, who said his overriding ambition was to pour thousand proof alcohol down the throat of the namby-pamby bourgeois public, almost had to be physically forced to turn his attention to a vulgar case of small town adultery when he really wanted to dream up ever more loathsome temptations for St. Anthony in the desert and recreate the spicy horrors of an ancient Carthage where princesses could touch up their eyebrows with a paste made of crushed flies’ legs.

 Yet the most daring of the new novelists remained bound, however grudgingly, to Dame Gossip's apron strings.

 Moby Dick; or, The Whale, published in 1851, may be considered the first of the great anti-gossiparian novels. It is an epic prose poem about man, about God, about America, about the restless soul of Herman Melville. But it is also a matter-of-fact account of some people, engaged in a commercial enterprise, turning whales into oil for lamps. The first hundred of its seven hundred-odd pages are almost pure gossip, hearty talk from one Ishmael, a sailor down on his luck such as you might meet in any waterfront saloon. He tells you how he drifted to Nantucket, how he made friends with the cannibal harpooner Queequeg, how they were both signed up by a couple of eccentric Yankee sea-captains named Peleg and Bildad for a long voyage to the South Seas on board the whaler Pequod. It doesn't take the attentive reader long to realize that this is not going to be an ordinary ship, or an ordinary voyage. There are premonitory signs everywhere, and the sermon which Ishmael hears in the local church is pointedly about Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale. But the general tone of what Ishmael has to say is relaxed, down-to-earth, gossipy. Even when the voyage gets under way, and we discover that we are on a ghost ship, with a mad Yankee captain on deck and a boat-load of mad Persians in the hold, and the spirit of evil sends up spouts on the horizon, Ishmael is careful to break up his narrative with long chunks of straightforward prose describing the mechanics of whaling and of shipboard life.. These chapters, which too many readers skip, contain some of the best writing in the book, and if they were not there as ballast, the whole thing might fly away on the wings of the author's febrile imagination. They are prosy and informative and a little boastful, as anybody might be when gossiping about having participated in some great endeavor. All the technical details about the Pequod, a floating factory in seas more distant and more dangerous than Captain Cook ever explored, hardly bigger than a whale but a major contributor to the American economy, help give the voyage the grandeur of the ancient quest for the Golden Fleece. All the grander, as Melville insists, because the crew is flesh and blood. Even Captain Ahab who talks like a combination of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Milton's Satan, has a wife and child back home in Massachusetts, though the author wisely desists from any speculation on what life in that home might be like.. Without its down-to-earth, or down-to-sea, details, Moby-Dick would be a horror-show entertainment, a scary rhetorical exercise, like a Poe story or a Hitchcock movie, about a madman who destroys himself and his vessel and his whole crew in order to get even with a whale.

 Dostoyevsky's The Possessed,.published a quarter of a century after Moby-Dick would seem to have nothing in common with it, except that the theme of both books is mania, and the mania is shown seeping gradually into an apparently ordinary and orderly world. The first hundred pages of The Possessed are also almost pure gossip, detailing everything that is being talked about in a “nonremarkable town” somewhere in 19th-century Russia where if the novelists are to be believed all towns looked alike. The gossip is provided by a narrator who fits every one's specifications for a small-town busybody of the most odious traditional type: mean, envious, compulsively seeking out the nasty detail. He is a minor bureaucrat named Govarov, he hates every one he calls a dear friend, he has wormed his way into everyone's confidence and can record all the conversations of the odiously vain old Stepan Verhovensky and the odiously silly old Mrs. Stavrogin and all the marital and monetary intrigues, all the snobberies and secret envies and petty intrigues of a stuffy idle provincial society.

 All information in this town is transmitted in the traditional way, by word of mouth. “My mother found it out from my old nanny, Alyona, who got it from your Nastasya. And you told her yourself, didn't you?” Or:

"I spoke in a whisper in his ear, in a corner; how could you have heard of it?"

"I was sitting there under the table. Don't disturb yourselves, gentlemen. I know every step you take. You smile sarcastically, Mr.

 Liputin? But I know, for instance, that you pinched your wife

 black and blue at midnight, three days ago in your bedroom as you

 were going to bed."

Liputin's mouth fell open and he turned pale. (It was

afterwards found out that he knew of this exploit from Agafya, Liputin's servant, whom he had paid from the beginning to spy on him.)


 Life goes on at this conventionally grotesque humdrum level only to explode into a cascade of delirious melodramas. A small group of dim-witted revolutionaries -- people like Kirilov who dreams of making a hundred million heads roll -- works on the baser elements of the town -- “people like Lyamshin and Telyatnikov, wretched little Jews with a mournful but haughty smile, guffawing foreigners, poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant caps and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents, majors and colonels who ridiculed this senselessness of the service and who would have been ready for an extra ruble to unbuckle their swords and take jobs as railway clerks; generals who had abandoned their duties to become lawyers; ‘progressive’ arbitrators between landowners and peasants; merchants with a penchant for self-enlightenment; innumerable divinity students; women who were the embodiment of the woman question”-- to crash the gate at a reception being given by the wife of the provincial governor and create a disturbance while other maniacs are setting fire to buildings and shooting one another at random.

 At the level of the pedestrian realism with which Mr Govarov's gossip starts, all this is preposterous. This is not a town in Russia or anywhere else. It is a fire in Dostoyevsky's mind, and what gives it its tremendous force for modern readers is how, the more absurd it gets, the more prophetic it sounds. Only forty years after Dostoevsky's death, various Kirilovs began to take over large parts of the globe, and, sure enough, a hundred million heads rolled.


 Dostoyevsky may be said to have taken the novel into the 20th century when he started peeking systematically into what we have learned to call the unconscious mind. It is accepted more or less as a matter of fact today that the unconscious mind has depths of knowledge and wisdom far more meaningful than anything available to the mere conscious mind and that authors and artists who tap these depths are automatically more profound and more significant than their simple-minded predecessors. However, even those who have reveled most in what D.H. Lawrence called the fantasia of the unconscious must admit that the increased knowledge and wisdom is acquired at a price. By abandoning the conventions of gossip, the 20th century novelists may have opened up new areas of the human mind; they also lost their universal audience.

 Modern critics make fun of the 19th century novel for its device of the omniscient narrator, who is of course the novelist himself slipping with suspicious ease from one character’s mind to another. A favorite device of 20th century literature is to approach the same scene from different points of view, thus exposing the lack of anything real in what we fatuously call reality. This is only a different kind of omniscience, more sophisticated but also more pretentious than the stodgy old Victorian kind. The great vice of the kind of literature called “modern,” and even more of literature called “post-modern,” is that it accepts not just the omniscience but the omnipotence of the author’s (presumably unconscious) mind. André Malraux has traced the origins of modernism to the day when the starving and delirious young poet Isidore Ducasse read over the manuscript of a long prose poem he had written, called Les Chants de Maldoror: and crossed out all the tired old Byronic phrases - “beautiful as Satan...beautiful as Evil” -- and changed them to “beautiful as the sarcoptes scabies which produces the mange...beautiful as the chance meeting on an operating table of an umbrella and a sewing machine.” It is quite startling the first time you read it as an adolescent, though it can hardly bear the weight of all the critical theory that has built on it. Maldoror has been described as a novel with the plot and the characters left out, but in fact there is one character in it, Maldoror himself, and like any character in a novel he has to be gossiped about. Unfortunately, Ducasse had no talent for gossip. The book comes to a climax of sorts when Maldoror has what he calls a “long, chaste and hideous copulation” with a shark, a feat which becomes less interesting the more you try to visualize it. I once knew a mad Russian psychoanalyst who kept a shark in his swimming-pool on Malibu beach because he said it was the creature he felt most akin to. “You can cut out its brain, and it will still bite your arm off.” This physician never so far as I know tried to copulate with his friend, but he was Russian enough to have tried and I can’t help feeling that some straightforward gossip about the physical contact between the two of them would produce effects of giddy horror just as disturbing as. and much funnier than, Ducasse’s little pipe-dream.