Friday, July 18, 2008


Is there ever such a thing as a perfect novel?

I enjoyed this piece on the Paper Cuts blog, but must confess I am of the same opinion as the commenter who contributes Randall Jarrell's definition :
A novel is a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it.
Some of the novels for which perfection or near perfection are claimed by blog readers here are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lolita by Nabokov, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee among many many others.

(I would perhaps have added Ian McEwan's Atonement, Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.)

This is an excellent list of reading recommendations and whether any of these books really are "perfect" or not doesn't really matter, does it?

(Pin-up boy is of course Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby. Luscious.)


Burhan said...

hullo. my opinion is that there is no such thing as *the* perfect novel, but there can be *a* perfect novel. if i can be mushy here, it's kinda like loving or befriending a person because of *who* they are instead of *what* they are. perfect not because the person is the most beautiful, kind or funny. perfect not because the person excels in all the particular criteria. perfect not even because the person is the most suitable person for you. but perfect within and as him/herself, in the splendid serenity of their intrinsic being.

Amir said...

As Grace Jones says, "I'm not perfect, but I'm perfect for you!"

dreamer idiot said...

Deep stuff from Mr.Burhan :)

Though I agree with Burhan, I think I am also swayed by the idea of a 'perfect' novel, in the traditional sense of the term, as in the craft, language and beauty of the novel - all of it readily deconstructible, I might add.

Great Gatsby, definitely... Remains of the Day, yes, yes! and my favourite, Beloved.

Chet said...

Someone left a comment in that piece to say Middlemarch and Bleak House. And here I am, never having finished reading Middlemarch. Maybe that's what makes a book perfect - it can't be finished reading.

I'm trying to think of a book I've re-read, but I can't. Maybe I didn't think about it hard enough. Maybe I need to start listing all the books I've ever read.

So many maybe's on a Friday evening ...

bibliobibuli said...

chet- bleak house i loved so much i turned it straight over and began again from the beginning. there's a v. good bbc video which i may still have of it.

animah said...

Alice In Wonderland, Immortality.

Definitely NOT Persuasion. Am subjected to drudgery by the Bookclub.

animah said...

You were just looking for an excuse to post a photo of Robert Redford, weren't you?

animah said...

Some of the most perfect books are those for young children. They are concise, humorous, yet say so much without actually saying it.

I'd say Winnie The Pooh is perfect.

But I really need to sleep now. I think Persuasion will do the trick.

bibliobibuli said...

uggh yes, animah, definitely NOT "persuasion", i am only 3 chapters in and it is going to spoil my weekend!

and re robert redford - howdyaguess?

Anonymous said...

Persuasion is AWFUL! Anne needs twotightslaps just to get her going.

I had to read it during A-Levels, taught by a boring lecturer whose idea of teaching was to read from the book to the class. Made me hate Janey for ever.

- Poppadumdum

animah said...

Two tight slaps and a lifetime supply of prozac.

Anne Eliott is the worst protaganist ever ever.

Thank God I did Pride and Prejudice in school. Elizabeth Bennett is super cool.

Subashini said...

Persuasion is one of my favourite Austens. I have voluntarily reread it 3-4 times. :) My heart breaks reading your comments...

Now Mansfield Park? That Fanny deserves twotightslaps. And maybe some vigorous shaking.

bibliobibuli said...

am giving it, and anne eliot a fair chance. halfway through now.

animah said...

Subashini, Sorry to upset you. I was upset after my bookclub panned Lolita, one of my favourites.

Please share with us what you enjoy about Persuasion. Perhaps it will help open our eyes.

Anonymous said...

Lolita is the PERFECT novel!
(alongside with The Thorn Birds)

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

I love Persuasion too :-( . Perhaps Subashini will have different reasons but I just love Austen's gossipy voice, even when it's slightly less polished as it is in Persuasion. Plus the social commentary is just so sharp. I guess the plot seems choked with gender stereotypes from our 20th-century perspective, but consider the fact that the protagonist is a no-longer-young woman -- for the time, it was actually quite radical to write from that point of view. For that reason alone it's groundbreaking, just as the first novels from the point of view of the colonised (instead of the colonisers) were groundbreaking.

Ah, the idea of the perfect novel :-) . Rationally speaking, it cannot make sense. Perfection in literature is as subjective as perfection in other things, isn't it? And perhaps the best novels are those that elicit extreme reactions in their readers, so that my "perfect" novel will be the one you threw across the room in frustration. The best novels are often ambitious ones that take big risks of some kind (whether in content or style), so it stands to reason that some readers will feel the risk paid off and others won't be convinced.

To use an example many will be familiar with: for me, the final twist of _Atonement_ was what made the novel such a masterpiece, but what a huge risk! And I know several people who felt totally cheated by the end.

But then, where's the fun in being so rational about these questions? ;-)

-- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

not all panned "lolita", animah! but my "never let me go" choice was universally dissed in my absence ... which still hurts. (except now some people who were there have said that they have begun to reconsider.

am most of the way through "persuasion" now and ... ah well i will tell you tomorrow night, animah. if i say what i think here then we will having less to talk about and supper will be the only reason to meet!

Subashini said...

Ohmygod, who panned Lolita?!? Heartbreak after heartbreak, I tell you. ;)

Preeta, I do agree with you... Austen's always been one for sharp social commentary disguised as frothy chatter and gossip, but in Persuasion it feels like she's really honed that sharpness to a fine point.

I adore Anne, I really do. There's nothing remotely whiny or wishy-washy about her. I think she has enough self-respect not to throw herself at Wentworth despite knowing what has happened, but at the same time she's not made of steel either. Okay, that's a corny way of putting it but you know what I mean. She's vulnerable and trying to the "right thing" to the best of her abilities... which is no mean feat in a world like hers, what with her odious father and that annoying elder sibling...

Also... there's an undercurrent of sharpness to the way Austen portrays family ties in this book. I think Anne's family is a perfect example of just how unlike family members can be; you might be related by blood but if you could, you'd still want to get away from some of them them, yet you're still so tied to them in a way that's almost claustrophobic - there was some of that in Pride and Prejudice, and in some ways the father here is a little bit of a caricature like the mother in P&P, but I find Anne all the more loveable because she's a little bit alone in her maturity and wisdom, while Elizabeth Bennett had Jane, at the very least.

And, I love Wentworth... I think he's Darcy all mature and grown-up, there's something delicious about him... don't ask. Maybe it's his self-sufficiency and kindness. There's nothing remotely jerk-like about him at all! Ah, marry me Wentworth.

The novel is a little bit unpolished, to be sure, a little bit rough and tumble... but I just love the hope Austen gives her readers - you know, second chances in true love - I'm a big old romantic sap, so that won me over in a big way. Also, more than her other novels, the female characters are more complex, and not so easily defined as the "feisty one," or "the dumb one." There is that Louisa Musgrove, who can be irritating, but is saved by her feistiness, and she's rather bright. There's Wentworth's sister, too, can't believe I'm forgetting her name now... she was quite strong-willed and not a namby-pamby woman who married some dour man and churned out babies for the sake of it.

I'll stop waffling on now...

On the topic of "perfect novels," I like Burhan's explanation so I won't say more. The mushy part of me agrees.

Preeta, I loved Atonement so much it hurt, I read it for the first time about two months ago and was just floored and had to take a week to recover (as in, I couldn't read another piece of fiction for awhile after that). It just got me in the gut in a way a book hasn't done in a long, long time... but yes, the ending did leave me feeling lost, I was a tiny bit upset. I felt like I KNEW those people and I had to know the truth about their respective ends or I would just die.

I'm sort of over it now, I think.