Novels of Ideas

What is a novel of ideas? In the March 6th Wall Street Journal Rebecca Goldstein writes briefly about five examples that she admires—Herzog, Middlemarch, The Holy Sinner, The Black Prince and Einstein’s Dreams. How are these novels distinguished from those that are not?

In writing about Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince she says, “Like all the novels of ideas I admire, this one hides its high purpose under well-developed characters and an organic plot.” She notes that Mann’s The Holy Sinner “buries its seriousness beneath the seductions of story telling.” Hides its high purpose? Buries its seriousness? I think she can be more explicit than that, although in fairness I am sure that was not her purpose in compiling this list.

She says Herzog blends “high-mindedness and low farce” and that George Eliot’s Middlemarch is “imprinted with many of Spinoza’s ideas. Finally she notes that Einstein’s Dreams concerns the nature of time “The play of ideas is heady as Alan Lightman wrests irony, pathos and poetry out of the abstractions of physics…”

On my understanding, a novel of ideas is quite simply a work of fiction that treats the issues normally considered by philosophers, e.g. moral, existential, metaphysical, etc. It is a novel of where issues are raised and questions asked. You reflect on the problems it poses, stop in mid-sentence or at the end of a paragraph to ponder something the author has written or you make a note in the margin or discuss the book’s concerns with another individual. And you do all these things and more with a really notable novel of ideas.

Goldstein’s characterization of Lightman’s novel comes closest to this conception. Yet she never frames her discussion of this novel or any of the four others in terms of how the reader might respond to the ideas or questions in the various ways I’ve indicated. Time. What is time? The abstractions of physics. What are they and is there any hope that I can understand them? Where can I learn more out about them?

Ideas and problems abound in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon and it is why I liked the novel so much. There is very little narrative in this novel and but there are a great many questions, most of them unanswered. In my view this is a novel of ideas at its best and is the heart of the reading experience for me.

In an interview in the latest Paris Review (#192) Ray Bradbury expresses a rather different and to me unusual view. “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas... Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”

Bradbury wonders why this type of novel is so neglected and he gives an example his Fahrenheit 451, a novel I never read but a story I remember vividly in its film version. In talking about the novel he says:

“Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires…and you start him on the adventure of discovery…. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life. It’s a great suspense story, and locked into it is this great truth you want to tell, without pontificating.”

Bradbury’s interview opened my eyes to broader conception of the novel of ideas, one that also includes utopian and dystopian fiction, and to a view of science fiction that I’ve not taken seriously before. In their own way they are just as much novels of ideas as those Goldstein mentions or, indeed, that she writes.