The first novel for grownups I remember reading, while slowly giving up on Doc Savage and Edgar Rice Burroughs, was Robinson Crusoe, a book I reread every few years. There was a time when Defoe’s novel, like Gulliver’s Travels and Moby-Dick, was marketed as an adventure story for children, in editions boiled down and sanitized for impressionable audiences. That a novel published more than three centuries ago can still please an adult reader and remain a cultural referent even among people who have never opened the book is testimony to Defoe’s gift and to the enduring quality of novels as a form – a narrative of some length, usually in prose, that follows the fortunes of its characters.
Among the themes of Joseph Epstein’s new book, The Novel, Who Needs It? (Encounter Books, 2023), is the impossibility of defining the novel with precision (Would our forebears, inveterate readers of Bunyan and Dickens, recognize Pale Fire as a novel? At Swim-Two-Birds? Malone Dies?), at the same time acknowledging its enduring appeal to writers and readers. Early in the book Epstein writes:
“Critics speak of novels of ideas, novels of character, psychological novels, historical novels, adventure novels—the novel can be all these things, but above all it is the book of life. More than any other literary form, the novel is best able to accommodate the messiness of detail that life presents.”
That's the heart of Epstein's pitch. His book is inviting, not ranting or dryly academic. Old Epstein hands will encounter familiar themes. Clive James once defined Theory as “that capitalized catch-all term which is meant to cover all the various ways of studying the arts so as to make the students feel as smart as the artist.” None of that here. Epstein, the Last Man of Letters, has written a bittersweet love letter and eulogy. There’s a humility at the heart of his advocacy. He acknowledges that the future of the novel, as always, is uncertain. In an age hypnotized by the small screen, with attention spans measured in nanoseconds, with political stridency replacing humble attentiveness to the text, how many have a taste or time for novellas let alone three-deckers? At least that's their excuse. On the other hand, some of us can track our lives and establish a chronology using the first reading of certain novels and novelists as landmarks – Defoe to Swift, Our Mutual Friend to The Idiot, Joyce to Nabokov.
Epstein has never been a spendthrift with language. He has always tempered conversational fluency with concision. The prose in his new book has grown more aphoristic, and thus quotable, as though he wishes to pack as much knowledge and wit into the smallest of spaces. This lends an urgency to the book, as though he were saying: “Look. We don’t have a lot of time. Read this carefully.” This, for instance: “Great literature is about the role of destiny and moral conflict. The therapeutic culture is about individual happiness.” And here, two paragraphs later:
“For the true novelist, self-esteem and so much else in the therapeutic realm is tosh. Life is more complex than the analyses and panaceas of the therapist or the dream of future happiness of his patients. Fate, the great trickster, offers no couch for the resolution of life’s problems. Morality is richer than any fifty-minute session, even twelve years of such sessions, can hope to comprehend. Surely Proust, in this single sentence, came closer to the truth of human existence than all of therapeutic culture: ‘We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey which no one else can make for us, and no one can spare us.’”
Proust’s name shows up often in The Novel, Who Needs It?, as do Epstein’s other “novelists I have reread with pleasure” – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, Joseph Roth, Max Beerbohm, Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, Marguerite Yourcenar, V.S. Naipaul. No surprises there. While reading a collection of Tolstoy’s short works, including The Kreutzer Sonata, he writes:
“Tolstoy was, in my view, the greatest of novelists, perhaps the greatest writer of all time and among all genres. Every character he created comes alive, every novel and story he wrote stirs one’s imagination, making one want to read on to learn how things will come out for the people he has created.”
Try that with JR, The Tunnel or Women and Men. There’s more to fiction than sterile, self-obsessed experimentation and slumming among the sub-literary genres. Epstein’s new book is compact – 126 pages, plus bibliography and index – and easily read in an evening. It reminds seasoned readers why we have always found sustenance, not merely escape or "message," in fiction, and might encourage young readers to sample our vast and welcoming inheritance. Epstein writes:
“The knowledge provided by the best novels is knowledge that cannot be enumerated nor subjected to strict testing. Wider, less confined, deeper, its subject is human existence itself, in all its dense variousness and often humbling confusion.”
In the book's final sentence Epstein addresses the rather raffish question posed by his title. The Novel, Who Needs It?: "[T]he answer is that 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." As a friend told me she is doing, it's time to read A Dance to the Music of Time at least one more time. And Dead Souls. And Memoirs of Hadrian. And so on.
Great review. If our forbears could handle "Tristram Shandy", they could handle "Pale Fire".
Once again let me voice a hope that many of your readers will take you literally and "try with" William Gaddis's JR, and that some of those readers will find, as Epstein says of Tolstoy, that "every character comes alive," the novel "stirs one's imagination making one want to read on to learn how things will come out for" poor Bast and Gibbs, those disparate yearners, forever bumping up against their own intractable materials, wary of and impermeable to one another, still reaching an almost-friendship. As eccentric -- not to say experimental -- as Pale Fire, At Swim-Two-Birds, or Tristram Shandy, Gaddis's novel is another instance of the Bright Book of Life and, I believe, one of the great novels of the late 20th century. And tearfully funny.
Special thanks, Patrick, for today's EA. I don't read any book pages regularly anymore. Most of the good old ones have disappeared or changed beyond recognition, and my own neglect wipes out the rest. So your post is the first I've heard of Joseph Epstein's new book, which I mean to devour as soon as I can get my grubby hands on it.
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