The Lousy Racket: Hemingway, Scribner's, and the Business of Literature by ProQuest


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But in his careful and synthetic exposition of the major characters and themes of
the Quartet–individual human action pitted against the collective conscience, the
differing focus of novelist and historian, racial and gender tensions, the enigma of
characters (like Merrick and Kumar) as products of empire, Emerson’s view of society
and history, the limitations of liberalism in the face of exploitative imperialism, the
primary metaphor (the raj as “the end of the British as they were”), and images that
launch the plot of the novels–Steinberg effectively dissects Scott’s meta-historical
analysis that, in effect, places history itself on center stage. That Scott has written a
novel epic is less interesting to me than why he needed a sequence of four novels to
communicate what he wanted readers to understand, especially in light of the fact that
in writing Jewel, he did not conceive of a sequence at all. The epic may well have
moved away from verse into prose, but great writers (Homer, Tolstoy, and Scott, for
example) need a vehicle, a tool, to get at “that big thing” (141); they can do so only
by considering many things through hundreds of pages.
     What is missing, perhaps, from Steinberg’s discussion is a more radical posture
toward purveyors of literature who treat traditional classifications of genre as
sacrosanct. Steinberg’s use of traditional epics as touch points in his chapters suggests
that he does not want to stray too far from scholarly precedent. Steinberg aligns each
of his examples with another, more familiar epic candidate. Three Cities, set against
the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, is compared to Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the
Don. The Fortunes of War, dealing with the collapse of the British Empire, is aligned
with Homer’s Iliad. Scott’s Raj Quartet is compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (the
greatest and originary epic novel) while the Jerusalem Quartet is likened, interestingly
enough, to the works of Thomas Pynchon. Finally, the Alexandria Quartet closely
parallels Dante’s Divine Comedy in theme and structure.
     What Steinberg should argue explicitly, and what he demonstrates by implication,
is not simply that the epic has been reshaped through these novel-sequences. More
importantly, the novel epic requires a new understanding on our part of what writers
of the epic want to do and the knowledge that they need to impart. The missing piece
may be a conclusion that takes yet another meta-step back to articulate not simply
the changing elements of the epic but, more importantly, the cultural conditions that
evoke such extended and measured contemplation.

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