Novel Theory: May 31-June 2, 2018

The biennial conference of the Society for Novel Studies at Cornell University

novel seminars

These seminars are intended to return us to the pleasures of classroom discussion. Participants will read the novel in advance, and then gather to discuss it, led by two people who know the novel well.

You will have a chance to rank your seminar preferences when you register for the conference. If you are not already giving a paper, your name can appear in the program as a seminar participant.

You may attend any keyword seminars you like as well as a novel seminar. Your name will appear on the program only once.

  • Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear (New Directions, 2016; translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky).

Seminar co-leaders: Martin Puchner, Harvard University and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Rutgers University

Tawada’s novel presents us with a triptych of at least three narrators, possibly more, each a polar bear who acquires a new language and occupies the extraterritorial space of the literary world, the circus, and the zoo, respectively.  Through experiments in narration and voice, Memoirs of a Polar Bear asks timely questions about authorship, originality, the relationship between kinship and language, and whether and how memoir can function without individualism.  Tawada was born in Tokyo and moved to Germany when she was 22; she writes novels both in Japanese and in German.  Memoirs of a Polar Bear was first published by Tawada as 雪の練習生 (Yuki no renshusei, Japanese) in 2011 and then rewritten / translated by Tawada as Etüden im Schnee (German) in 2014. The English edition is translated from the German edition.

  • Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar (2013, Penguin translation from Kannada by Sainath Perur, 2017)

Seminar co-leaders: Ulka Anjaria, Brandeis University, and Aarthi VaddeDuke University

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag, is a novel of the “rising India” that has gained wide praise beyond India.  Unusual among its peers in the “global novel” category, Ghachar Ghochar was originally written in the South Indian language of Kannada and translated into English by Srinath Perur. Today’s readers are more aware than ever of the problematic dominance of English as a global language.  From this perspective, Shanbhag’s novel represents a pushback, however small or symbolic, against the translation deficit into English from so-called “minor” and non-European languages.  Its success is a rejoinder to Salman Rushdie’s infamous claim that Indian-English fiction outpaced the nation’s then sixteen other official languages combined.

Yet, at the same time, the novel’s title, not Kannada but a nonsense phrase translated as “entanglement,” suggests a sensibility irreducible to a narrative of the vernacularization of world literature. The story offers a glimpse into the snarled circumstances of a lower-class family getting its first taste of financial success, but its narrator remains ambivalent toward the symbolic implications of their upward mobility.  While Ghachar Ghochar is emblematic of a new phase of exploration in the contemporary Indian novel as economic liberalization changes the nature of family ties, its portrayal of domestic space also suggests a retreat from the public discourse of nationhood that marked so many of the internationally known Anglophone postcolonial novels.  Reviewers have likened Shanbhag to Anton Chekhov and Edith Wharton for his economy of prose and scrupulous attention to the manners and paranoia that accompany wealth and status.  While the politics of such comparisons are up for debate in our seminar, they are also a launching pad for discussing the sociology and form of the global novel, reading in translation, and contemporary fiction’s responsiveness to neoliberalism.

  • Benito Pérez Galdós, Tristana (1892, New York Review Books, 2014, translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Seminar co-leaders: Julia Chang, Cornell University, and David Kurnick, Rutgers University

Tristana (1892) is a key text of Galdós’s sprawling fictional universe, an interconnected series of novels and tales that takes inspiration from Balzac’s Human Comedy and rivals it in exuberant inventiveness. Tristana deftly deploys some of the nineteenth-century novel’s most tried-and-true plot arcs: it plays the Bildungsroman against the novel of seduction against the tale of intellectual emancipation against the New Woman novel to create a text that is also somehow a paragon of realist ambiguity.  The book continues to generate controversy about Galdós’s views on women’s emancipation; published shortly after the end of Galdós’s affair with the novelist Emilia Pardo Bazán (who was translating John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women at the time), Tristana helped earn him a reputation as “the Spanish Ibsen.” Galdós’s contemporaries found the muted ending off-putting, but interest in the novel was revived by Luis Buñuel’s 1970 dark adaptation starring Catherine Deneuve (one of three Galdós novels the director adapted).


  • Madame de Lafayette, La Princesse de Cleves (1678, Oxford World’s Classics, 1992, translated from French by Terence Cave)

Seminar co-leaders: Deidre Lynch, Harvard University, and Katie Trumpener, Yale University

This novel, published anonymously in France in 1678 and immediately translated into English, remains foundational for the historical novel, the novel of manners, the psychological novel, the marriage novel, and the female Bildungsroman. A gripping account of interpersonal miscommunication, parent-child struggles, and the internal struggle between ethical beliefs and emotional impulse, La Princesse de Cleves also gives a famously powerful, diagrammatic, yet finally enigmatic account of court, gender and marital power relations.  It should be required reading for any student of the history of the novel interested in the intricate relations between history and fiction; it should be likewise required reading for any one  interested in the place that inner life and inner meaning hold in the development of fictional form. We can also use La Princesse de Cleves –often called “the first novel”–to construct genealogies of the history of fiction that counter Ian Watt’s account of the novel’s rise; the primacy that Watt’s account accords to the solitariness and individualism of the Crusoe figure looks somewhat wishful once one has explored the complex counter-example of pervasive sociality staged by Defoe’s French predecessor.


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