Henry Oliver on "How to Read a Novel"

Henry Oliver on "How to Read a Novel"

A Book Club on the tricks and techniques behind what makes literary novels work

Do you want to read more classic fiction? Then the upcoming Salon Series, How to Read a Novel, is the perfect fit for you! Henry Oliver, ii Host and author of The Common Reader, walks us through his plans to take us on a journey in structure, style, and technique, with hopes that we all come out on the other side as better readers than before. Enjoy!

Lots of people want to read the classics but they don’t know where to start or they feel like they won’t get as much out of it as they should. In my upcoming salon series, How to Read A Novel, we’ll be reading six short classic novels and looking at how they work. In a low-pressure, book club-style setting, we’ll think about the techniques that make literary novels work.

To start, we’ll read Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last complete novel. In this session, we’ll be thinking about openings. Nothing a novelist does is by coincidence. What themes are being established? What subtleties are being introduced for later development? How should we read the hints that are being left for us in the opening chapters?

As well as doing a detailed reading of the opening of Persuasion and how it relates to the themes of the rest of the novel — thinking about vanity, taxes, family relationships, and snobbery — we’ll look at openings from other novels, to see the way novelists create their stories the way composers put together a piece of music or carpenters a cabinet. If you want to read a literary novel, you need to be alert to these techniques in the opening.

Next, we’ll study Silas Marner, that short and condensed classic that reads as much like a fairytale as a realistic novel. We’ll use what we learned in the first salon to look at the novel carefully and see not just what moral message George Eliot was leaving for us, but how she left it. We’ll compare this to Jane Austen and think about how novelists make their moral arguments directly and indirectly.

This all sets us up nicely for the third salon, A Room With a View, E.M. Forster’s classic romance. But there is more to this book than meets the eye. Like Jane Austen, Forster keeps politics in the background but they still influence how we read the novel. And we will be equipped to see Forster’s patterns, the way the novel is structured around the seasons, and how this influences our reading. With our ability to see the structure of the book, it becomes much more than a social comedy and a romance. We’ll also want to ask, what does such a classic, straightforward novel have to do with Modernism?

After that we will want to understand character, the most popular and enduring part of novel writing. How do novelists make their characters so real, so recognizable, and so relatable? A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen has some startling and vivid characters, a perfect novel for us to look at the way novelists make living characters out of dialogue and description. And by now, we’ll be able to think about the opening clues, the implied morals, and the novel’s patterns, too.

We finish with two modern classics. The Remains of the Day has all the poise of Austen, the moral nuance of Eliot, and the patterning of Forster. This is the perfect book for us to exercise our new critical skills. We’ll be looking at the way Ishiguro creates large and poignant ironies out of small details.

Our final book will be The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald’s enchanting novel set in Edwardian Cambridge. How does she make it so real in such little space? How does she make each sentence do so much work? How can she be so precise about the past? In this final session, we’ll pull everything we have learned together to help us enjoy one of the most underappreciated geniuses of twentieth century literature.

And that’s it. Six short novels. Six discussions. You’ll have read some classics and understood their tricks and secrets, which will set you up to read more literature and read it more deeply.

Salon Series Schedule

1Sept. 6, 2022Part I, Beginnings — Persuasion, Jane Austen.

We start with Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last novel. Why does it have such an unromantic opening? And what can we learn from novels openings in general?
2Oct. 4, 2022Part II, Morality — Silas Marner, George Eliot.

Our second novel is Silas Marner, George Eliot’s fable of fortune. How can a book that is so realistic also be read like a fairytale? What is the role of morality in a novel?
3Nov. 1, 2022Part III, Pattern — A Room with a View, E.M. Forster.

Third is A Room with a View, Forster’s social comedy and romance. What patterns of allusion, metaphor, and figurative language give this novel its structure? How do description and plotting work together?
4Dec. 6, 2022Part IV, Character — A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen.

Fourth is A World of Love, Elizabeth Bowen’s compelling novel about a group of amoral characters and a young woman coming of age. Bowen has a genius for character. How does she make them so real?
5Jan. 10, 2023Part V, Irony — The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro.

Ishiguro’s hit novel about a butler that doesn’t understand the world. What is irony? How can it work for moral as well as comedic purposes?
6Feb. 7, 2023Part VI, Precision — The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald.

The Gate of Angels, a hugely precise novel about Edwardian Cambridge. We will be asking the same question as the critics. How does she do it?