23 April 2010

Adventures of a Man of Science

Moretti in California

Originally published in Issue 3, Fall 2006.

  • Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso, 2005.

A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of close reading. But don’t worry: as the New York Public Library had the Ghostbusters, the academy has Franco Moretti.

Of course, Moretti is not the first or the only critic to object to close reading. For a good fifteen years, close reading has had a place in the ever-expanding group of things that might be bad for you; experts have shown that close reading will cause you to ignore history, reinforce cultural hegemonies, and “avoid commitment.”

But Moretti’s objections are different. Moretti is a man of the world, and men of the world do not reproach you for trying to avoid commitment. Instead, he finds close reading to be close-minded, superstitious, a fundamentally “theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously.” The problem with the canon, by extension, is not that it is sexist, racist, or classist, but that it is so-provincial.

These ideas appear in Moretti’s manifesto, “Conjectures on World Literature,” which appeared in the New Left Review in January 2000. In “Conjectures,” Moretti denounces the discipline of comparative literature for failing to be the study of Weltliteratur as defined by the likes of Goethe or Marx and Engels (“from the many national and local literatures, a world literature arises”). He reproaches comparative literature for having become a shabby and parochial affair, “mostly revolving around”—of all places—“the river Rhine (German philologists working on French literature).” Goethe and Marx had the breadth of vision to give us a truly cosmopolitan model of literary production—and what did we do but head obstinately back toward the Rhine with our editions Gallimard?

The most liberally construed canon of Victorian English novels, Moretti continues, runs to about two hundred titles: yet “there are thirty thousand 19th-century British novels out there, forty, fifty, sixty thousand—no one really knows.” Ars longa, vita brevis—and, even if we lived forever, it still wouldn’t be a good use of our time to closeread every book ever written, because literature isn’t “a sum of individual cases” but “a collective system,” and we can’t grasp it by simply doing more of the same thing.

How, then, are we to obtain, given our meager human life spans, a godly cognizance of every last, lost Victorian novel? Moretti calls upon comparativists to practice “distant reading,” elsewhere “the quantitative approach”: a form of collaborative scholarship relying on giant utopian repositories of shared information, such that the study of literature will eventually be conducted “without a single direct textual reading.” Instead of theology, we need “a little pact with the devil”; we surrender the reading of individual texts, and in return we will get: “concepts.”

Moretti’s concepts have all the irresistible magnetism of the diabolical, especially when delivered in lecture form: imagine the charming Italian accent, the amiable panache with which he pulls out yet another overhead transparancy, graphing, say, the rate of increase in gross annual novel-production in Spain versus in Nigeria. One is reminded of Leporello’s “catalogue” aria in Don Giovanni:

In Italia seicento e quaranta;
In Almagna duecento e trentuna;
Cento in Francia, in Turchia novantuna;
Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre.

Like Don Giovanni, Moretti insists on his own heartlessness with a scientist’s zeal. It is rumored that, in a talk on novels “from the periphery” of world literature, Moretti claimed to have read “only the introductions”—and then, during the Q&A session, a professor from the Spanish department tricked him into betraying his knowledge of such details from an obscure Argentinean novel as could only have been known by someone who had actually read the whole thing. Moretti was allegedly flustered, and said something like: “Well, I don’t really remember, maybe I read it in the airplane.”

Personally, I suspect this anecdote to be a fabrication based on footnote 19 of Conjectures on World Literature”: “OK, I confess, in order to test the conjecture I actually did read Krasicki’s Adventures of Mr. Nicholas Wisdom, Abrahamowitsch’s Little Man, Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, Futabatei’s Ukigumo, René Maran’s Batouala, [and] Paul Hazoumé‘s Doguicimi.”

But—who knows? Moretti, a mythopoeic figure, generates around himself a dense network of folklore and apocrypha. Franco Moretti, it is said, has hired five graduate students to retype the first paragraphs of every Victorian novel ever written; Franco Moretti is coauthoring a book on morphology with a team of Canadian ornithologists. Franco Moretti, who “doesn’t believe in” word count, prefers instead to calculate the average number of characters per word in his students’ papers, and anyone with an average of six or higher gets an F.

At Stanford, I once overheard two of my classmates at a department party, drinks in hand, debating the question of Moretti’s office hours. “I wonder whether he’ll be in this Friday,” mused the first student. “I need to show him my reading list.”

“I happen to know,” said the second student, a bit importantly, “that he’s going to be on campus at midnight on Wednesday, to be teleported to Sweden.”

Teleported to Sweden, she said, and nobody raised an eyebrow. Indeed the image glides easily before the mind’s eye: in the moonlit Stanford Quad, before the fake Spanish church, under the gigantic reproduction of Roselli’s Last Supper, Franco Moretti shimmers briefly in the ether and rematerializes, that very instant, in Uppsala.

Moretti’s fascinating new book, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History—three essays originally published in the New Left Review, plus an afterword by geneticist Alberto Piazza—brings a science-fiction thrill to the science of fiction. As in the first photographs of the earth taken from outer space, Moretti’s object—“literature, the old territory (more or less)”—is rendered almost unrecognizable by various perspectival leaps. The first chapter, “Graphs,” charts the rise and fall of novelistic production in Britain, Italy, France, Spain, Japan, Nigeria, and India—and three centuries of novels come out resembling the cardiogram of a single heartbeat. Moretti correlates the rises and falls to external factors, ranging from the biggest Marxist generalities—the emergence of the novel as a “regular commodity” in late capitalism—to small historical particulars—the effect of the Sepoy Rebellion on the rate of importation of British novels into India after 1857.

In the next chapter on “Maps,” we are teleported back to Moretti’s home turf, the Victorian novel—more specifically, to early 19th-century British village narratives, represented by Mary Mitford’s Our Village and John Galt’s Annals of the Parish. The particulars are not entirely accessible to someone who lacks a background in British village narratives, but they are soon drafted into the service of an exciting methodological proposal: namely, that “literary sociology” should be a means of “deducing from the form of an object the forces that have acted upon it.” Literary maps, then, are a visualization of these forces: in the village narrative graphs, which resemble bull’s-eyes, we see the conflict between “the perambulatory narrator” and “the gravitational pull of the village”; in Balzac, the conflicts between “old wealth” and “ambitious petty bourgeois youth” form various triangles straddling the Seine. Each pattern, Moretti suggests, is “a clue—a fingerprint of history.”

Fingerprints and clues assume a central importance in the third chapter, which features morphological “Trees” of two formal literary devices: clues in detective fiction and “free indirect discourse” (FID) in the novel. The trees are designed to apply Darwin’s laws of evolution to the history of literature. The tree of clues shows the presence or absence of clues to be the determining factor in the survival of a detective story in the turn-of-the-century literary marketplace—just as a certain morphological feature might determine the survival of a living species in a given environment. In Moretti’s second tree, various international novelists are distributed on right- or left-hand branches, depending on whether their use of FID tends more toward the second or the first person. Moretti suggests a relationship between the nationality of the writer and his or her use of FID, explicable by Darwin’s theory of “allopatric speciation”: when a morphological structure migrates to a new environment, it must mutate in order to survive.

Of all the concepts Moretti has received from the devil, “world literature” is one of the slipperiest. At times it suggests an entity that transcends national literatures; at times it suggests the sum total of the literatures of all nations. Graphs, Maps, Trees itself shifts virtuosically between abstract and concrete; it is simultaneously a theoretical call for reform and an illustration of the practical effects of the reform. Moretti’s “abstract models” have “extremely concrete” consequences, and are deployed, ultimately, in support of a highly materialistic literary method. At just over a hundred pages, the book can be read in one sitting, with approximately the same running time as Don Giovanni—but it feels more like reading War and Peace. There is the same ambiguity of scale, the same uncertainty as to whether you are holding in your hands a universal treatise, a national epic, or an individual story.

The graphs of the rise and fall of novelistic production, for example, are interspersed with epigraphs in dense eight-point italics, causing the reader to hesitate between her close-reading and distant-reading glasses.

Consider Figure 3, “The Fall of the Novel: Japan.” (N.B.: To see these elucidating figures, you’ll have to buy Issue 3.) Beneath the novelistic zenith of 1770-1820 lurks a passage from a history book about Matsudaira Sadanobu’s censorship of popular fiction, as a result of which the novelist Santo Kyoden was “handcuffed for fifty days.” Just to the right, perched atop the Tempo Period novelistic slump, an even longer quotation testifies to the replacement of romantic ninjobon with “tales of filial piety,” a process apparently accompanied by the nationwide confiscation of wood prints depicting courtesans. I was reminded at this point of the work of one of Moretti’s favorite critics, the Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp. Propp’s great Morphology of the Folktale (1927) was a revolutionary text in literary criticism, because it classified narrative by form rather than by content. While previous classifications had grouped together all tales that involve dragons, for instance, Propp united all forms of “villainy” under a single type A, ranging from “the ruining of crops” (A3) to “the threat of cannibalism among relatives” (Axvii). One initial condition of the folktale, “lack or insufficiency” (a), might likewise manifest itself as “lack of a bride” (a1), “lack of money” (a5), or “lack of the egg of death (or love)” (a4).

Perhaps the best way to show what Propp is all about is to quote his paraphrase of “a double-move tale with one villainy (type: kidnapping of a person)”:

Β1γ2ζ1η3δ2θ3A1{C↑[D1E1 neg.]3 [D1E1neg.]3 F contr / B4C↑[D1E1pos.]3 [D1E1pos.]3}

You can see why Moretti likes him. Yet there is something weird about the morphology. After all, what is the “egg of death (or love)” doing in a “formal” theory to begin with? “Egg of death” can’t possibly be anyone’s idea of a first-order concept—why didn’t Propp just say “lack (money, bride, et cetera)”?

One explanation is that the egg of death enlivens Propp’s otherwise rather unexciting “formal” trajectory of the folktale: a simple sequence of “lack,” “obstacles,” and “acquisition.” Perhaps Kyoden’s handcuffs in Figure 3 perform the same service for the trajectory of the “fall of the novel”—to invigorate the somewhat unsensational observation that novel production declines in times of political repression.

Propp’s egg of death is also typical of a rhetorical strategy favored by the Russian Formalists, something we might call “shock reductionism.” This strategy entails zooming gleefully from text to schema—from “egg of death (or love)” to “a4“—in order to make a point that “this is nothing more than this.” Formalism is occasionally compromised by this formal tic: problems tend to get schematized out of existence, lost between the lurid binaries. Moretti, a latter-day Formalist, makes little effort to hide his reductivist tendencies: it is with perceptible relish that he reduces “Pamela, Persuasion, The Monk, The Wild Irish Girl, Oliver Twist“ to “five tiny dots in the graph of Figure 2.”

“Graphs” is most persuasive when it is slightly less vertiginous, as in Moretti’s discussion of literary “cycles” and genres. Genres, Moretti finds, dialectically replace one another every twenty-five to thirty years, that is to say every human generation; and the succession of novelistic genres turns out to make a much more interesting graph than the rise and fall of the novel itself. We see sentimental novels disappearing after the French Revolution, replaced by Jacobin, anti-Jacobin, and gothic novels; village stories are replaced by the industrial novel; the industrial novel gives way to the invasion novel. Instead of a vertical, binary relationship between the novelist and the regime, we now have a story with internal, lateral dynamism-like something out of Balzac or Darwin.

The Darwinian thread is taken up in the third chapter, which opens with an evolutionary mystery: how can we understand the survival of Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to the failure of the other fictional detectives of his time? Again, a triangle: instead of Conan Doyle and his readers—Conan Doyle, his rivals, and his readers. In search of answers, Moretti and his team of graduate students dove into the archive of Victorian detective fiction and resurfaced with 108 long-forgotten rival texts—which, after appropriate analysis, yielded the secret of their own extinction: their authors didn’t know how to use clues.

Some rivals omitted clues altogether, in favor of such alternative truth-divining devices as hypermnesiac dreams, unsolicited confessions, and, in one case, the chance autopsy of a shark, which turns out to have swallowed a message in a bottle mentioning the identity of the true killer. Other rivals, who did include clues, used them wrong: thus one detective, having deduced that “the drug is in the third cup of coffee,” proceeds to drink the coffee.

The case of the botched clues is a fascinating find, and brilliantly articulated. It brings to mind all those early detective works in which the killers turn out to be monomaniacs, opium-eaters, or giant apes—and the deductive value of the clue is negated by the criminal being precisely someone whose behavior is not bound by the law of (human) rationality. Moretti’s Darwinian explanation for such phenomena is that the fiercely competitive literary market drives authors into “crazy blind alleys,” causing them to produce new forms at random. Most come out defective and become extinct, but some are, miraculously, fit, and these survive.

This explanation is not entirely satisfying, especially compared to an earlier article, “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” (2000). In this piece, Moretti addresses the problem that the clues in the Sherlock Holmes stories are not decodable by the reader—whereas today the decodability of clues is “the First Commandment of detective fiction.” “Conan Doyle gets so many things right,” writes Moretti, so how is it that he can “lose his touch” at the last minute? Moretti eventually concludes that the unintelligibility of the clues is a deliberate means of emphasizing Holmes’s omniscience: if the reader could decode the clues, Holmes would no longer be a superman. Conan Doyle, in short, misuses clues “because part of him wants to.”

In “Trees,” Moretti passes over the “wants to“ element—presumably to underscore the element of randomness. But I think he had it right the first time. Science is necessary but not sufficient for Holmes’s genius. After all, Dr. Watson is a good scientist, and conscientiously uses the “deductive method,” only to arrive, time and again, at the wrong conclusion—as the reader is guaranteed to do. Holmes’s use of clues strikes an incredibly delicate balance: the mystery is always solved using rational rules, but this doesn’t mean the solution is available to just anyone. Holmes is essentially aristocratic: things come to him effortlessly that never come to others at all.

Perhaps the Holmes stories are not half-baked versions of the “correct” mystery story, but a different kind of mystery story, wherein the nondecodability of clues is not a bug, but a feature. Conan Doyle was writing during the conquest of England by industry and rationalism; perhaps his readers wanted stories about the kinds of magic that are possible within the constraints of science. Holmes categorically rejects the supernatural, not in order to show that the new, rational rules preclude magic, but in order to show that you can still have magic even if you play by the rules. Decodable clues came a “generation” later, with Agatha Christie and the first World War, and became more rigorous after the second—by which time readers wanted to be reminded that the world was still rational. Standards of decidability are now higher than ever—but it’s clearly not 100 percent, because then there would be no mystery. And even in today’s grittiest, bluest-collar American detective heroes we can find vestigial traces of aristocracy, esotericism, Old Europe: the newest detective on Law & Order wears Italian suits and $300 silk shirts, and the best-seller lists of the past ten years have regularly featured the adventures of an LAPD sleuth called Hieronymous (“Harry”) Bosch.

Let us suppose that Sherlock Holmes uses clues because of, not in spite of, something that Conan Doyle did. Can Darwin’s law of “random divergence” be applied to literature—given that books, unlike animals, result from “intelligent design”? Didn’t Freud show that even the most ill-formed story, the most arbitrary and nonsensical dream, has a referential meaning? Surely even the most malfunctional of literary clues has some relationship to the life circumstances and reading habits of its author, even if its function within the mystery plot itself seems illogical or arbitrary. If somebody somewhere has written a story about a man who poisoned himself as a function of his own deductive genius, this fact—unlike the fact of a piglet born with a folded eyelid—must point to something beyond itself.

Moretti’s attitude toward these questions is determined by his suggestion that the “tree” of literary history is divergent, rather than convergent (i.e., different branches develop independently, without building off of one another). Divergence versus convergence: this is where Darwin and Balzac part company. In Darwin’s system, the secret motor is agentless “natural selection,” where for Balzac the “Third element” is always a human agency. “Doesn’t society make of man, according to the milieux in which his action is deployed, as many different men as there are zoological species?” writes Balzac, in the preface to the Human Comedy, continuing, with characteristic exhaustiveness: “The differences between a soldier, a worker, a governor, a lawyer, a man of leisure, a scholar, an administrator, a merchant, a sailor, a poet, a beggar, a priest, are as marked as those which distinguish the wolf, the lion, the ass, the crow, the shark, the seal, the lamb.” Random mutations created the differences between the shark and the seal; but it is “milieux,” other people—donors, in Propp’s terminology—who create the vast array of human types. You don’t become a merchant until you meet the fateful investor; you don’t become a poet until you read the fateful book.

Well, there was a reason Balzac called it the Human Comedy, and when Moretti veers away from Balzacian mediation toward Darwinian selection, he acknowledges, apparently without regret, the loss of a “human” element: “as human history is so seldom human,” he writes, “this is perhaps not the strongest of arguments.” Moretti goes on to suggest that literary history might be, in a nontrivial sense, a part of natural history—that culture itself might be nothing more than “a ‘second nature.’” He illustrates this claim in Figure 29: a “genetic tree” of the languages of the world, which really did evolve by divergence. “If language evolves by diverging,” he demands, “why not literature too?” If, as Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Propp have argued, cultural systems such as religion, kinship, and folklore are structured like language, why not modern literature?

In his afterword, Alberto Piazza offers a reason. Piazza—coauthor of The History and Geography of Human Genes, and a possible allopatric relative of Alberto Piazza, the Australian distributor of high-end Italian shoes—notes that morphological trees only work when “the various branches cannot exchange information.” The multiplicity of “natural languages” can only be represented in a tree insofar as the branches really don’t have contact with one another; i.e., insofar as monolingual French speakers and monolingual Japanese speakers literally cannot exchange information. Linguistic and geographical constraints also prevented crosscultural exchange in most systems of religion and folklore.

A form like the novel, on the other hand, depends upon the exchange of information between branches: it depends upon books informing other books, authors giving each other ideas, authors using or rejecting each other’s ideas. The exchange of novelistic information is not constrained by linguistic boundaries: Harry Potter has been translated into over sixty languages, including Plattdeutsch and Greenlandic. The age of world literature has come.

Let us reconsider in this light Moretti’s argument about allopatric speciation in the use of free indirect discourse. If national literature is over, does it really make sense to correlate formal variations in literature with changes in national environment? In the FID tree, we find Dostoevsky sitting on the leftmost branch, because his use of FID tends toward second-person dialogism; Joyce is perched a bit higher on the right, because his use of FID tends toward first-person stream of consciousness. And yet it cannot be said that Dostoevsky’s is a Russian, rather than an Irish, use of FID; Tolstoy, for instance, would have to appear on the right, with FID in Anna Karenina headed full-speed toward Dublin and the first person. After all, Anna herself does not read Dostoevsky; she reads French novels, perhaps by Flaubert—as did James Joyce.

A more manage able and convincing “allopatric” discussion appears in the chapter on graphs, taking as its subject the migration of genres and words, rather than devices. Moretti cites here his 2001 study, “Planet Hollywood”—an analysis of the relative proportions of American comedies in the top five box-office hits of forty-five countries. In every country, comedies comprised 30 percent or less of the top five, with one mysterious exception: “absolutely all Italian box-office hits of the sample decade were comedies.” This is a more promising mystery than the FID tree, as it may have an answer. Moretti himself is unable to explain this phenomenon—and he suggests, persuasively, that such unsolved mysteries are “exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer.”

Answering—instead of asking—questions has ossified into a convention of academic “good writing”: in order to be published, any observation must, as on Jeopardy, be reformulated as a question (which, as it happens, the author has already answered). By contrast, it is incredibly refreshing to think of a time when academics might, after appropriate field research, meet around a table and work out why exactly the Italians love comedy so much. This question in turn invites a larger Moretti-style investigation, into what one might call the “big in Japan” effect: often a work will go out of style in its native country, but will survive, bizarrely, in translation. Most Turkish schoolchildren of my parents’ generation, for instance, read a multivolume French novel called Les Pardaillan, by Michel Zévaco, an author unknown to many of their French coevals.

And so we come back to the themes of canonicity and literary survival. In 2001, I enrolled in a seminar taught by Moretti on this subject, entitled “Lost Bestsellers of Victorian Britain.” The idea was to identify the formal devices that might have been responsible for the initial success and subsequent failure of these books. It was a great seminar, although not one distinguished by its humanness, or by the quality of the reading. Coelebs in Search of a Wife, The Mysteries of London, The Woman Who Did: these proved to be the kind of mirthless and dismal productions that made you want to take your copy of the Princesse de Clèves and go hide in the Rhine. There was, however, one exception: Edward Bulwer—Lytton’s Pelham, or Adventures of a Gentleman, from the lost genre of the “silver fork novel.”

“On entering Paris,” Pelham relates, “I had resolved to set up ‘a character‘: for I was always of an ambitious nature. . . . After various cogitations as to the particular one I should assume, I thought nothing appeared more likely to be obnoxious to men, and therefore pleasing to women, than an egregious coxcomb.” A young man goes to Paris determined to be “an egregious coxcomb”—now that’s a premise with some life to it.

One day I mentioned Pelham in self-defense to my advisor in the Slavic department, who was forever making fun of me for taking this class on Lost Victorian Bestsellers.

“There’s this one book,” I said. “It’s really good.”

To my surprise, my advisor knew all about it. “Oh, well, Pelham,” she said. “Sure. Pushkin loved Pelham.”

As it turns out, Pushkin’s love for Pelham actually resulted in his writing one and a half chapters of a novel called The Russian Pelham—and incorporating certain features of Lytton’s “egregious coxcomb” into Eugene Onegin, an antihero who gets up at dawn, takes an ice-water bath, and spends the rest of the morning practicing his pool shots. Pelham was, in a manner of speaking, big in Japan; it wasn’t lost at all, at least not to Pushkinists. This discovery made me reconsider the theoretical project of reading the 30,000 lost Victorian novels. After all, it had taken all my willpower to get through just six of them—and then, the only one I liked turned out to be one that I might have encountered anyway, through Pushkin—i.e., through the canon.

My commitment to the 30,000 took an additional blow one day in class, when a classmate suggested that if we really wanted to understand the law of survival in the novelistic field, we would have to read the slush-piles of the big Victorian publishing houses. Moretti met this proposal with enthusiasm. “That is a very intelligent idea,” he said.

“An intelligent idea,” I thought, as all the slush-pile texts I had ever read flashed before my eyes in a gruesome parade. The novella about a woman who discovers in her den a series of video tapes of her husband’s elderly parents describing their experiences in the Holocaust—“Jackie had never even known that Alex was Jewish”—and then watches them all; the epistolary novel about a woman who receives letters from her uterus, which claims to be trying to write a novel: “It’s dark in here—could you please insert a flashlight into your vagina?”

If I tried to do any systematic reading from slush piles, I realized, it would be just a matter of time before I ended up writing my own crazy novel, about how my life was deformed by reading all these crazy novels. Then somebody would have to read my crazy novel and enter it into the database. Soon we would run out of manpower and have to outsource, possibly to Bangladesh. When the Bangladeshi inevitably wrote their “peripheral” versions of the slush novels, these, too, would have to be put into the database.

This dystopian image has, like all genres, a mirror image: an idyll of collaborative scholarship. Imagine, Moretti suggests, if literature were as important as science—if literature were a form of science—and attracted as many different kinds of thinkers. “I want Stalin to report in the name of the Politburo about the production of verse as he does about pig iron and steel,” Mayakovsky once wrote. Piazza’s afterword is, in this light, incredibly uplifting—a kind of antidote to the Sokal hoax, a ray of hope for the much-maligned interdisciplinarity between the humanities and the sciences.

Moretti’s graduate seminars resemble this utopian dream: his standard class on the theory of the novel starts from the assumption that we don’t have a working theory of the novel yet, so that the seminar is framed around the task of finding one. The novel itself is the great unanswered question, the elusive white whale of Graphs, Maps, Trees; somehow, it always resists even theories that work like a charm when it comes to genres or devices. In a footnote to “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” Moretti mentions, in addition to the study of Conan Doyle and his rivals, a forthcoming study of Jane Austen and her rivals—and in the Lost Bestsellers class we did read a novel by one such rival, Hannah More. But we never came up with an answer to the mystery of More’s obsolescence; and the Austen article, as far as I know, never materialized.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera divides womanizers into two categories, the lyric romantic and the epic scientific. The lyric romantic womanizer always looks for the same woman and never finds her; but the epic scientific womanizer always finds what he is looking for. “Since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him,” Kundera writes. “This inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it.”

Given that most critics are people who have devoted their careers to reading and rereading their favorite books—romantics who pursue the ideal in everything they read—finding Pushkin in Pelham and so on—there is something mysterious and even, as Kundera says, scandalous in Moretti’s willed and scientific choice to read what is formally interesting, with so little regard for what he likes. And it’s not that he doesn’t like things. In Atlas of the European Novel, he confesses: “What can I do, I like Balzac better than Dickens, forgive me.” He goes on to call Lost Illusions the best novel ever written, and to disparage David Copperfield as a children’s book: British political isolationism led to the unnatural literary survival of “sentimental moralism” and “fairy-tale structures,” so “British adults read David Copperfield, and it serves them right.”

One wonders, after a point: how on earth did a Balzac aficionado, a native of Rome, end up specializing in these dismal texts of fog, orphans, and puddings? Does Moretti’s tale contain, like Propp’s morphology, an omitted “donor” function—was Moretti’s education secretly financed, as in Great Expectations, by a grizzled British convict?

Within the textual system of this review, I envison Moretti’s function as that of a donor in Propp’s morphology. To this end, a brief anecdote. One day I reported to Moretti’s office for an appointment, to find a student from the English department pacing outside his door. We had a brief exchange, during which it emerged that we both had an appointment for the same time, that Moretti wasn’t in his office yet, that she was in a hurry. When I said she could meet him first, she thanked me and we lapsed into an oddly tense silence, avoiding eye contact, a bit like two rivals in a romantic comedy, such as might be enjoyed by the Italian people. A minute later Moretti turned up—carrying, true to form, a suitcase and a raincoat—and appeared somewhat chagrined to discover he had given the same meeting time to two students. Scientific as always, he offered to flip a coin to determine who would get the first meeting. We explained that we had already decided the order.

“Ah, excellent,” he said. “Jessica, you get the first meeting. . . . Elif, you get a gift.” He handed me a book. It was The Structure of Complex Words, with a cover photo of William Empson sporting what appeared to be a feather boa, though I later learned it was his beard.

“I have an extra copy,” he explained, “and I decided to give it to whoever gave up the first meeting.”

Jessica and I both regarded the photograph of Empson.

“It’s a very good book,” said Moretti.

“Ah, thanks,” I said.

Jessica looked from Empson to me. “Wow,” she said. “I’m glad I don’t have to read that.”

“Ha-ha,” conceded Moretti, following her into the office.

As the door closed behind them, I sat on a bench in the hall and opened the book at random—I had a superstitious hope of finding a message about my future.

“The machinery,” I read, “is now already rather elaborate under the main head ‘1’; the suggestion in ‘1+’ of keeping the spirit not the letter might be supposed to give the shift from conduct to character found in ‘2’ and ‘4’, and the narrowness of ‘1-’ might produce the contempt of ‘3’, especially as there are emotions ‘1!3’ to support them.”

I set the book in my lap and stared at the ceiling, contemplating the wisdom of he who had read and understood these words—a wisdom to rival that of Solomon (”You get the baby; you get The Structure of Complex Words“).

I thought, too, of Propp, who represents the donor, in his morphology, as D. D10 is “the offer of a magical agent as an exchange.” I thought next of F, “the acquisition of a magical agent”; and I remembered the suffering undergone by heroes who don’t do the right thing: (F=), “the hero’s negative reaction provokes cruel retribution.”

Over the summer, I decided, I would definitely read The Structure of Complex Words.

Image: Jakob Brugge, Untitled, 2009.


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