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When Does a Very Good Novel Become “Great”?

October 12, 2014

 

Private Eye’s “Bookworm” described Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom, as too domestic to be great. Or words to that effect. I didn’t keep the review, and Bookworm doesn’t do “online”, so I may have misremembered. But not by much, I'm sure.

When I finally got round to reading Freedom, in 2012, I couldn’t help reluctantly agreeing. But this left me with a problem. Because it’s actually the best 21st century novel I’ve read – or second-best by a whisker: The Corrections gives it a good run for its money. If Freedom isn’t “great”, then what on earth is?

The problem is compounded by the fact that it’s an awful lot more sophisticated than a lot of fairly sentimental Victorian novels that nowadays count as “great”: better written, more intelligent, more true-to-life. Maybe, I thought, we need to revise what we nowadays deem “great”. Or maybe the category’s already in the process of revision, and novels like Franzen’s will, in a century’s time, be considered to fall within it, and things like Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset will have dropped out.

2012 is a long time ago, and I more or less forgot about the problem until yesterday. Because that’s when I finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Another truly outstanding novel, and it raises the problem I’ve just described a little more explicitly, because the “marriage plot” of the title refers to the mechanics of the Victorian novel. It explores the central narrative device of the era entertainingly and intelligently, whilst simultaneously celebrating and subverting it. Quite an achievement.

Yet I still couldn’t bring myself to mentally assimilate The Marriage Plot to past examples of novels I take to be great (“take to be” not out of personal preference, but because they’ve achieved a kind of objective canonical status).

Is the problem somehow to do with realism? All three novels (the two Franzens and the Eugenides) are very realistic – they expertly utilise those arbitrary little details of everyday life. Gustave Flaubert’s the one who is generally supposed to have invented realism in the modern sense, and I’m not sure that Madame Bovary or Sentimental Education fall short of Freedom in terms of the clarity of the realism on offer. And, in any case, a good deal of the novels we think of as great are realistic.

Then it struck me that perhaps the difference has to do less with realism, than with a novel’s characters. In all great novels I can think of the protagonist seems to stand for something, although we’re often at a loss to say what. Emma Bovary might stand for rebellion, or unbridled sentiment, or object-less yearning, or women in general, or life’s essential meaningless, or something else entirely. But for all Flaubert’s thoroughgoing realism, the reader is left with the firm, sometimes troubling sense that she does stand for something.

But then this doesn’t quite work either. Yes, Emma Bovary and Jane Eyre and Leopold Bloom all seem to stand for something. But so do Walter and Patty Berglund, Richard Katz, Alfred and Enid Lambert, Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus. Probably more so than their nineteenth century forebears.

The answer to this riddle lies, I think, in the same place as the fact that hardly any novels are ever immediately acclaimed as great. Rather, they take time – at least a few decades, usually – to attain that status.

My belief is that when a truly outstanding novel first appears, the “essence” and the “particulars” of the characters stand, to the reader, on the same level, because both categories are present in his or her own world. Thus, Walter Berglund’s dress and mode of speech are, to us, as fully contemporary as his ideals and attitudes. But fast forward a few decades, and we’ll discover that the one belongs inextricably to the past, while the other – Walter’s “essence” – remains present. Because that essence now stands in full relief, readers are able to affirm the novel’s greatness, something they were unable to do previously. They can see the essence without difficulty or distraction, because it’s laid bare.

If this works well, the past “accidents” of Walter’s person can even accentuate the novel’s greatness. Why? Well, because Walter’s “essence” is still, paradoxically, the essence of a particular historical time. Emma Bovary’s essence is all nineteenth century; Joseph K’s is all twentieth. 

This would explain why it is rarely possible to write a historical novel that achieves instant greatness: the author, insofar as she has anything worthwhile to say, is always writing primarily about his or her own time. As regards its essence, War and Peace tells you more about the 1860s than the first two decades of the nineteenth century. As regards its accidents, it is, of course, a different matter.

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