- - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

By Tobias Smollett
With an introduction by James Basker
The University of Georgia Press, $89.95 640 pages

The English novel, with everything from our best-loved classics to everyday fun reading (to say nothing of the screen adaptations it has spawned) is less than 300 years old. Although some would argue that Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders” or “Robinson Crusoe” began the genre, the generally received first novel is Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” (1740). It was soon followed by Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” (1742) and “Tom Jones” (1749).

But they had a contemporary, Tobias Smollett, whose work combines many of their virtues while adding some of his own. His specialty was the picaresque novel, which took the hero (with the reader happily perched on his shoulder) on a wild ride, which not only could take them all over the country and through the dens and warrens of London, but overseas into who knows what perils. Although Smollett would write other hit novels, his first foray into fiction, “The Adventures of Roderick Random,” which has never been out of print, is in many ways his best, a must-read for those familiar with his other works and the place to start for neophytes.

The problem for many readers wanting to sink their teeth into a Smollett novel is partly its daunting length, but its seductive charms and all-around hilarity will soon leave them glad that so much delight stretches ahead of them. A more serious problem can be the lack of familiarity with some of the references and terms, and this is where this superb edition comes in. There are copious notes and introductory material, clarifying all matters biographical, historical, political and linguistic and explaining customs, manners and diction, providing the reader with everything he needs to get the most out of this not-to-be-missed treat.

As James Basker writes in his authoritative introduction:

“When ‘The Adventures of Roderick Random‘ was published on 21 January 1748, this raucous novel by the Scotsman Tobias Smollett marked a major breakthrough in its author’s career and in the history of fiction. Still only twenty-six years old, the Glasgow-trained surgeon had been trying for more than eight years to succeed as a writer. In 1739, Smollett had come to London … with the manuscript of a tragedy in hand and other projects under way. Yet until ‘Roderick Random,’ he had not succeeded in publishing anything more than two short poems and a pair of verse satires in the style of Juvenal.”

How amazing that a first novel should be so successful but even more that it not only created a distinctive type of novel but epitomized it right away. But of course, Smollett packed so much of his life into it. The scenes at sea during the disastrous Battle of Cartagena have an immediacy that could only have come from the author’s experience as a naval surgeon there. And of course, he had read widely. He acknowledged his debt to “Gil Blas,” which he would translate, as he would another great influence, “Don Quixote.”

If Smollett had something to draw on as he evolved his own kind of fiction, his oeuvre would provide fodder for so much literature and more that would follow. As this edition notes, “In terms of character, language, and theme ‘Roderick Random‘ daringly expanded the possibilities of fiction in ways that would reverberate through the work of Dickens, Melville and Thackeray in the nineteenth-century and those of Arthur Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, George Orwell, Elizabeth Bowen … Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Barth … in the twentieth. More broadly … ‘Roderick Random‘ can be seen in many ways as a key text in the emergence of the whole noir sensibility of modern literature and film.”

For most readers, though, “Roderick Random‘s” importance in literary history will be secondary to the sheer joy in plunging into a world that is so rich in character and incident. It is like looking at one of those marvelous paintings by his contemporary Hogarth, only better, because the richness of Smollett’s language and his combination of deep insight and wide frame of reference take one into the action. And there is so much going on, even more than in one of those crowded canvases. So take advantage of this latest in its long unbroken line of editions to revel in the picaresque bounty of “Roderick Random.”

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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