Most readers of COMMENTARY, for which Joseph Epstein has been writing for 60 years, know that he is one of the great essayists in the history of English literature. His essays derive much of their charm from his mastery of two other short forms, the anecdote and the aphorism, which make his prose sparkle. I used to tell myself that I would give two fingers to write as well as he does. Epstein has also written some splendid short stories, several of which have also appeared here.
Despite his taste for brevity, Epstein values most highly literature’s longest genre, the novel, and, especially, the great tradition of realist novels. I know no one who reads novels with greater subtlety and attention to fine shades of meaning, and that mastery is present on every page of his wonderful new book-length essay, The Novel, Who Needs It? In Epstein’s opinion, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Proust, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and especially Tolstoy—whom Epstein regards as the greatest of all novelists and perhaps the greatest of all writers—offer “truth of an important kind unavailable elsewhere in literature or anywhere else.” Reading the best novels “arouses the mind in a way that nothing else quite does.”
Unlike ideologies, social sciences, or the simplistic political moralisms we constantly encounter, “serious novelists” demonstrate “that life is more complex … more various, richer, more surprising, more bizarre than we had thought.” Above all, they show us that the most important moral and social questions have no easy answer. Characters in novels, like many journalists today, may sort people into good and evil, but experience demonstrates what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described as the fundamental truth of life he learned in the Gulag: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but through every human heart.”
Understandably, therefore, Epstein does not favor authors who depend on mere cleverness or style. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary suffers from “petrified feeling,” and in Nabokov Epstein detects “coldness.” He adds,“Lolita, his most famous work… I consider the most overrated work of the past century.” Despite the talent that made Nabokov a good writer, “the absence of largeness of heart kept him from being a truly great one.”
High-school English teachers love to assign books that have a single, straightforward message, but no great work does. After all, if they did, why not just teach students the message? Anna Karenina: Don’t commit adultery. Great Expectations: Life disappoints. Pride and Prejudice: Things are not what they seem. Any attempt to reduce a masterpiece to a maxim will always seem preposterous because, as Italo Calvino remarked, a classic is “a book that never finishes what it has to say.”
One sign of greatness, therefore, is what Epstein calls “rereadability.” Rereading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for anything but amusement would be a waste of time, but one could—here I speak from experience—reread Anna Karenina every five years or so and find some profound insights one had previously missed. But there are books, as Epstein observes, that cannot be read beyond a certain age, such as Dos Passos’s USA and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
One reads fiction differently from nonfiction, and it does not matter that one forgets details or, indeed, the plot. It is not information one is after, but an experience that reshapes the way one thinks and feels. Even if he cannot recall what happens in Barbara Pym’s novels, Epstein observes, “I walk the streets as a man who has read” all of them and is aware that “they have left a rich deposit on my mind.” Good novels change the way we pay attention, express ourselves, entertain new ideas contrary to our settled beliefs, and enter into the minds of others. When one reads Anna Karenina, one identifies with a heroine with a different personality and values who comes from a different society, century, religion, and social class; and one lives within her mind for hundreds of pages. “The novel is the genre of intimacy,” Epstein explains. It invented ways of allowing us to trace a character’s sequence of thoughts and feelings from within, as one cannot do in real life. By sharing those feelings, by wincing at a hero’s or heroine’s mistaken choices, one acquires the ability to experience the world in a new way. One practices emotional and intellectual empathy and, perhaps, makes the capacity for such empathy a habit in real life.
Satire deals with types; great novels presume and focus on the uniqueness of each person. Major characters in a novel are memorable because they are distinctive, irreducible to any set of qualities or syndromes, and we may come to live with them as if they were old friends. For this reason, they also cannot be mere embodiments of an idea, as they are, for instance, in utopias, saints’ lives, or socialist realist fiction.
Some critics have understandably but mistakenly concluded that abstract ideas invariably contaminate a novel. A novelist should avoid them, they assert, or he will produce nothing better than a simplistic tract disguised as a literary work. And yet the greatest novels—The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Middlemarch, Turgenev’s Fathers and Children—are unabashedly philosophical and all the better for it. So what’s the difference between novels of ideas that succeed and those that fail?
To begin with, in great novels, it is usually the character, not the author, who places his faith in an ideology—an ideology that turns out to fail precisely because it is inadequate to the complexity of life. Ivan Karamazov begins by believing that there is no such thing as good and evil and that, even if there were, wishes have no moral value. He winds up feeling guilty, to the point of madness, for a crime he has only desired. Bloodless theory meets living experience: That is what happens in great philosophical novels.
The best ideas, novels show, do not descend on experience but arise from it. They are always tentative generalizations subject to endless revision in light of the unexpected. Great novelists suggest. They do not know. Or, as the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin observed, “the novel speculates in categories of ignorance.” Epstein quotes the critic Desmond MacCarthy: “It is the business of literature to turn facts into ideas.” In Dostoevsky’s The Possessed—usually considered the greatest political novel—characters actually “feel ideas” and so this political novel, as Epstein observes, “generates such intense heat that the ideas it appropriates are melted into its movement and fused with the emotions of its characters.”
Not only do characters learn about the world, so do their creators. In the course of writing, the sense of what is truly plausible, what a given personality would do in a specific set of circumstances, may upset the author’s plans. This is a process that Epstein himself experienced in writing his stories: “Such is the force of novelistic method, the novelist himself sometimes changes his views of his own characters midway in the course of his novel.” When Dostoevsky began The Idiot, he hoped that his saintly hero would have a beneficial effect on those around him, but, to his surprise, “novelistic method” showed him that their resentment of his goodness would make them even worse. Contrary to the author’s original intention, saintliness turned out to be a curse and Christian compassion a decidedly mixed blessing. A true novelist, Dostoevsky was honest enough to record the disappointing truth his writing revealed.
Since the 19th century, critics have been predicting the novel’s demise, either because all its potential had supposedly been exhausted or because fewer and fewer people were interested in reading novels. The movies, television, and most recently the Internet all seemed to abridge the capacity to pay attention. Impatience would therefore make serious novels seem not worth the effort.
Today, ideological conformity threatens the genre. The Nobel Prize–winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of a destructive “climate of fear” engendered by political correctness and online lynch mobs. And in fact young ideologues are right to despise novels, which show what is wrong with their simplistic worldview and instruct them to seek the evil and self-deception lurking in their own souls. They demand what novels reject: a simple message. Epstein explains: “Esau sold his birthright, it will be recalled, for a mess of pottage, but the politically tendentious novelist is willing to sell his or hers for a pot of message.”
Perhaps most destructive of all current doctrines is “appropriation,” the idea that one must not represent a group other than one’s own. The whole point of the novel is to transcend one’s own experience and enter into the mind and heart of people unlike oneself. In that way, one broadens one’s sense of what it is to be human, questions assumptions that one has taken for granted, and acquires a healthy skepticism of one’s own ways of looking at the world. Great novels teach tolerance and empathy—but, of course, that is just what the ideologues who inveigh against “appropriation” reject. In the Soviet Union—which replaced realism with socialist realism—skepticism, empathy, and tolerance were regarded as vices. Novels, as Epstein explains, explore inexhaustible human nature, but Soviet ideology denied there was such a thing and endeavored to reconstruct human beings the same way they tried to run the economy, according to a simple plan.
To the question posed by the book’s title—who needs the novel?—Epstein answers: “We all do, including even people who wouldn’t think of reading novels—we all need it, and in this, the great age of distraction we may just need it more than ever before.” My own experience as a university teacher of the great Russian novels is that when these works are presented not as technical achievements, or documents of an unenlightened age, but as profound explorations of life’s most important questions that we all face, students respond with enthusiasm and understand what the fuss is all about. Having properly attended to The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, I think, none of them would quarrel with Epstein’s argument that novels provide wisdom to be found nowhere else.
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