A PERFECT NOVEL
A PERFECT NOVEL
I was recently asked in an interview if I had read a perfect novel recently and I had, Middlemarch. Middlemarch is often considered one of the greatest novels in the language, and I have to agree. It is bursting with incident and the pleasures of narrative. She spans multitudes of characters and situation, giving us village gossip, the stuffy machinations of the landed gentry, local politics and even inadvertent murder, as well as loveless marriages, gambling and blackmail. Eliot is a remarkable woman for many reasons, particularly her refusal to obey the rules for women of her age, and it can’t be said she suffered greatly for it. Somehow she got away with defying her society and producing works of literature that were popular, erudite and have survived intact for over a hundred years. Her writing is credited with inspiring Tolstoy to write Anna Karenina, another perfect novel, when he saw that the domestic novel was capable of serious philosophical and moral reflection. And this at heart IS a traditional romance about marriage. What makes it so much more than that is Eliot’s emotional vocabulary and extraordinary psychological insight. Dorothea Casaubon is a living, breathing woman who explores her psyche and the world around her with restless intelligence and moral conviction. She is morally upright but not a prig. I know this woman, and I knew her from page one. Reading Middlemarch is to abandon oneself to a master of narrative fiction; it is a luxurious experience but also has the astringent commentary of a mind that bristles at stupidity even as it loves the weakness of human beings. The complexity of sentence and thought sometimes suspends one in the air, as if swinging from dependent clause to dependent clause on ropes over a ravine. And, in 1870, she quotes Blake! Twice!
All of this opens the question of perfection in the novel. The form is inherently complex and imperfect. That is one of its beauties. But there are perfect examples of the monstrous, like The Brother’s Karamazov, or Invisible Man. These novels are written on the edge of sanity compared to works that have the perfection of concision and brevity, like The Leopard or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I don’t need to read perfect novels, though I look for them, and could never define a set of criteria that pick them out. Perfection in the novels lies in the subjectivity of the reader. There are perfect novels for here and now and for me. I would like to think that Portrait of a Lady will be as perfect when (and if) I reread it as it was when I read it each morning after getting off the graveyard shift at Nightbirds, one of the most nightmarish jobs I’ve ever had. Being a waiter at Nightbirds was like working on B. Traven’s Death Ship, another perfect novel.