Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Brief Essays on Genre, Part 12: On Naturalistic Fiction


On Naturalistic Fiction


Fiction was full of absurdities: men turned to asses, women finding true love, boys riding geese. It was time for a cleansing. The proper business of literature, it was declared, was recording ordinary lives exactly as they were lived.


No one thought to ask why, in four thousand years of recorded fiction, this had never been done before.


--Michael Swanwick




JJM said...

Boys riding geese? You may well be the first USAmerican I know who was familiar with Selma Lagerlöf's Nils Holgersson. Did I at one point long ago mention this work to you, or did you discover the tale on your own? I think you're the one who hooked me on Tove Jansson's Moominvalley books ...

Michael Swanwick said...

I read THE WONDERFUL ADVENTURES OF NILS and THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF NILS (the publisher, probably correctly, deemed the original book too hefty for English language readers) before we met. Back then, you were impressed I even knew about it. You not being all that easy to impress, I've never forgotten that.

JJM said...

As I recall, the original book was published in two volumes, too, and only later combined into one, in both the original Swedish and the English translation. As I'm sure you already know, Lagerlöf wrote the Nils books as a commission from the National Teachers Association: they're actually geography readers, visiting each of the provinces and describing their natural features and a bit of their culture. This accounts for the rather episodic nature of the plot.

And I do apologize -- you were, indeed, an impressive young man even back then, and that one instance escaped my memory. My bad. :) Most USAmericans haven't encountered the work, though, and its rather stodgy translation doesn't help remedy that. Even so, I rather suspect that, when Lev Grossman wrote about the student magicians turning into geese and undertaking the long flight up to Antarctica as one of their tests, he was making a reference to The Wonderful Adventures of Nils even though Nils never turned into a goose himself.

Michael Swanwick said...

I've been assuming the translation wasn't very good. Jane Ellen Harrison was rapturous about Lagerlöf's prose which she, of course, read in the original Swedish.

No need for apologies. I was also a very annoying young man. You, however, shone intellectually.