Realist Novel

Chapter 13
The realist novel
Casting the contradictions
A large proportion of modern African works of fiction can be defined as realist novels. Though
what, precisely, is a realist novel? And what of the notion of Realism itself? As Stephen Heath
has lucidly expressed it, the 'realistic' is a process of significant fictions (that is, not substantial but formal) and it may be
described as the vraisemblable of a particular society, the generally received picture of what may be regarded as 'realistic'.1
Heath, I think rightly, points out that this vraisemblable is founded partly by the novel itself. In terms of the connection between
the novel and reality, then, there is a dialectical process at work. Within this process it seems important to say that there is no
direct, spontaneous relation between a literary text and history. Incorporating the mediating role of ideological formations, the
text takes as its object, not the real, but certain significations by which the real lives itself as Terry Eagleton puts it.2 Realism is
therefore a convention of discourse, a range of different patternings that gives rise to an impression of reality, a range of
reality-effects.
Granted that realism is a conventional, formal concept, what of the formal realism of the novel? Ian Watt and Lucien Goldmann
have suggested answers to that question. The formal realism of the novel would appear to allow a more immediate imitation of
individual experience set in its temporal and spatial environment3 than do other literary forms. And not only individual
experience, surely, but areas beyond that limit: where a 'world' can be created whose structure is analogous to the essential
structure of the social reality in which the work has been written.4 Given, then, the possibility of an imitative rendition of both
individual and collective experience, the use of the realist-novel form can certainly make available (through varying emphasis) a
function of judgment in relation to the experience that it renders. Stated ideas, embedded in the text, could be expected to
occupy a central position in the 'judging' process. But then (in approaching these realist novels) certain implicit ideological
assumptions - from which the stated ideas derive their authority - also need to be noted.
An approach to the ideological concerns of realist fiction entails something akin to what Richard Hoggart has called 'reading for
value'. He sees the aim as to find what field of values is embodied, reflected or resisted, within the work ... what, in assumed
meanings or counter-meanings ... is in play.5 Such a reading moves us right into the centre of the critical debate about the
relationship between ideology and literary form. For these 'values' are, after all, in a novel.
There are two concepts of immediate importance here. The first has been articulated in the theoretical work of Etienne Balibar
and Pierre Macherey.6 The literary text, they contend, presents ideological contradictions in the form of their resolution. Such a
concept enforces the view that the distinctive work of literature
... is not simply a contrived harmonization of the discordant ideological themes that echo in the text: rather, it
consists in a 'prior' recasting of these themes in such a way that their final reconciliation becomes possible.7
The second concept of importance is that stressed by Francis Mulhern, among others, when he points to the personalisation of
social contradiction as being one of the distinguishing features of realist fiction.8 Both these concepts - the possibility of
ideological contradictions being presented in the form of their resolution and (as a corollary) the projection of contradictions by
literary personalisation - chart the road ahead.
Before plunging along that road, one remembers a remark by Achebe that seems to frame the whole enterprise:
... it is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of
contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant - like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his
burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.9
Given such views, an African novelist would necessarily not be concerned with the 'fleeing rat' but with the central problem of
the 'burning houses' of the post-colonial period. In examining the manner in which this concern is projected through a formal
literary response, the following questions are of paramount importance: what ideological contradictions are being considered,
either implicitly or explicitly (at the level of stated ideas), within the presented worlds of this novel? In what manner are these
contradictions personalised? To