by dr ngo
Not long ago my brother (the opera singer) recommended to me Richard Powers, The Time Of Our Singing as perhaps The Great American Novel. I read the book, which elegantly combines a deep appreciation of music with the story of several decades of race relations in the USA, and was much impressed, though it wasn't for me – not a serious musician – quite as Great as all that, certainly not TGAN.
Which led me to musing – why do we seek The Great American Novel , and look for it every generation among the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Dom DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, and even a bunch of writers you've never heard of? Or Philip Roth, who actually wrote The Great American Novel back in 1973. Do other countries have a "Great ___ Novel"? If so, what is it? If not, why not? Based on my spotty, dimly-recollected education and peregrinations, I came up with the following:
England has Shakespeare, a playwright and poet (we tend to think of him in that order; he probably would have reversed it) as The National Writer. Novelists, too, headed by Austen & Dickens, perhaps, but no need for a Great one when you've got Shakespeare.
Germany: Goethe, similar.
Italy: Dante, similar.
Spain: Aha! !Olé¡ Don Quixote certainly qualifies as The Great Spanish Novel, with no competitors. Cervantes stands head and shoulders above all other writers in national esteem.
France: Certainly productive of many fine novels, but is any of them The Great one? Les Miserables? À la recherche du temps perdu? And how would Hugo or Proust stack up in the public mind with Racine and Moliere, or France's greatest poets? I'm not seeing here a consensus on who the greatest writer was, much less an obsession with determining (or writing) The Great French Novel, but I may well be missing something. Flaubert? Zola? Camus?
Belgium has Tintin.
Norway has Knut Hamsun's Hunger, which I suppose is TGNN. Sweden – who knows? Neither playwright August Strindberg nor journalist-turned-thriller-writer Stieg Larsson quite fits the bill.
Russia has two great novelists, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, each with at least two memorable books (War and Peace and Anna Karenina; Crime & Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov). Despite Chekhov and Pushkin and many other fine writers, this appears to be a fairly defined race, with War and Peace the presumptive winner as TGRN on points.
Outside of Europe my knowledge is even spottier. India has fine novelists, but there's no chance they'll ever displace the Ramayana or Mahabharata. (Do Indians have The Great Indian Epic conversations, and if they do, who's winning?) China's got The Dream of the Red Chamber and Monkey and Water Margin, but one never senses that the novel is, or is believed to be, the key to understanding China's character. Likewise The Tale of Genji, often lauded internationally as the world's first novel (and one of its finest), but my feeling is that Lady Murasaki is not seen in Japan as defining the essence of Japanese culture, nor are writers today striving to supplant her in writing TGJN.
Jose Rizal, on the other hand, unquestionably wrote TGPN. Noli Me Tangere, along with its sequel El Filibusterismo stands in Philippine literature as Don Quixote does in Spanish, but perhaps even higher and more central, given the comparative lack of competition. (Not that there aren't good Filipino writers, but none have succeeded at anything like that level.) It's a damn good read, too, in an overwrought melodramatic late-19th century way, and available in several translations from the original Spanish (I haven't seen this latest one).
The Tale of Kieu occupies a similarly central place in Vietnamese literature, but technically it's an epic poem (Kim Van Kieu) rather than a novel.
The Great Indonesian Novel is actually a tetralogy: The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but it's comparatively recent and, I suspect, known only to a relatively elite portion of the population, unlike older epics, often presented through shadow-puppet theatre (wayang), which have been internalized by the masses. In another couple of generations, however, it may have implanted itself somewhat more deeply in the national psyche, who knows?
Latin America has outstanding writers, but I have no real sense of how they stack up against each other in the regional, or various national, minds. How does novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez compare with poet Pablo Neruda or short-story writer (and essayist, &c.) Jorge Luis Borges? I simply don't know.
So that's it from this particular vale of ignorance. Does the USA need The Great American Novel? If so, what is it (Moby Dick? Long and boring. Huckleberry Finn? Really a kid's book?!)? And If it be not now, yet will it come? The readiness is all.
Confine your answers to one side of the paper.