The Greatest Novel of the Last 100 Years

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Here at The Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests. Today’s request comes from alert reader Gopal Reddy, who asks, “What is the greatest novel of the last hundred years?”

Well, if you are even reading this blog, you’ve probably already read the greatest novel of the last hundred years, because it is The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Let’s back up a step. There’s technically no such thing as “the best novel of the last hundred years,” because the entire oeuvre of a writer is more important than her individual books. Consider Shakespeare. Not only is Hamlet possibly equaled by various other plays (such as A Long Day’s Journey Into Night), but it isn’t even necessarily Shakespeare’s best play. A case can be made for every one of his major tragedies, as well as for various underdogs like The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Moreover, our interpretation of each individual play is influenced by the others. In short, what makes Shakespeare “Shakespeare” is what he accomplished in full.

Since readers are fickle, the best authors are (thanks to us, their readers) usually the ones who spend their whole lives on a single book. Because, in these cases, the “best book” is also the whole oeuvre, the text exerts maximal influence and is unusually well-understood. This is certainly the case with Tolkien. The Hobbit is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s various other books (such as The Silmarillon) are likewise set in the same fictional world, which is very lucky for The Silmarillon, since it is one of the worst fantasy books ever written. It was published posthumously because Tolkien was afraid of being sued by his own estate.

The Lord of the Rings is easy to translate, which makes it more universal. The meaning carries through: every translation of Tolkien has been basically successful, except for one Italian translation, now mostly forgotten, entitled Un piccolo uomo prende una lunga passeggiata (“A Small Man Takes A Long Walk”).

Tolkien is the grandfather of numerous genres; while The Lord of the Rings is squarely in the fantasy genre, its very strangeness continues to propel other genres by making “genre fiction” totally immune to critical disdain. We would not have Star Wars without Tolkien; quite possibly, we would not have Dune, or Twilight, either. HBO, as we know it today, would not exist, and neither would New Zealand. Even the coming-of-age novel was usurped by Tolkien as soon as he began writing under the pseudonym “J. K. Rowling.”

Tolkien’s book is marvelously well-crafted. It has boring, flat episodes, to be sure, but so does Shakespeare (e.g. The Comedy of Errors and Timon of Athens). It incorporates lasting bits of poetry and a ton of accessible scholarship in linguistics, mythology, and sociology. It is written in a variety of modes, and almost qualifies as a modernist pastiche, and yet (unlike every modern novel) it is totally blithe.

What I mean is this: the novel peaked, both commercially and aesthetically, before J. R. R. Tolkien was even born. If this seems questionable to you, compare Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dickens wrote so many good novels that even today, when they are free, nobody except the very rich can afford his collected works. Fitzgerald only managed to produce one (1) perfect novel, after receiving a large commission from every high school English class ever. Likewise, while it is perfectly sensible to read every novel Jane Austen ever wrote, nobody can read every book by Vladimir Nabokov without admitting, at least privately, that they have gone insane.

But since Tolkien never worried about “the death of the novel,” his masterpiece is fully and constantly alive. If there is something a little bit naive and offensive about Tolkien’s indifference to the agons of the literary canon, well, there is something a little bit naive about life itself, and the way every new generation necessarily ignores both the lessons and the triumphs of the past. Tolkien just didn’t care whether T. S. Eliot would consider his epic novel — a cheerful confetti of every European myth, goblin, and tongue archived in the Bodleian Library — a reasonable response to the First World War.

There are only three reasonable objections to crowning Tolkien, and only three other rivals for his throne. First of all, Tolkien is a dead white man, and his book is unbelievably patriarchal and Eurocentric. (Hopefully nobody thinks that Hobbits are an abject, marginalized population; they represent everything Tolkien loved about his countrymen.) Second, Tolkien writes in a stylistic vacuum. Stylistic tics come and go in the course of his epic — when he draws on Celtic literature, especially — but for all his linguistic inventions, he is formally obvious. Finally, Tolkien clearly believed that children were delivered to their parents by storks. He has nothing to say about sex or gender. Even romance is mostly beyond him. This is a man who never once, in his entire life, saw an “R” rated movie. The Lord of the Rings actually began as a bedtime story that Tolkien dreamed up to amuse his (adopted?) son Christopher, so that the boy would never turn to smutty writers like T. S. Eliot for entertainment.

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So, who else, then? Well, the most important stylist of the last hundred years is Ernest Hemingway. His best book is whichever one you’ve already read. Trust me on that. The most important “voice from the margins” is Virginia Woolf. Her secret doesn’t reside in one particular text; rather, it is the effect of her novels, as a group, multiplied by her essays and biography and (especially) A Room Of One’s Own. Woolf broke ground, and created space, where countless writers made their homesteads afterward.

Tolkien’s rivals are, perhaps, as follows: James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, and Marcel Proust. Joyce is a strange standard-bearer for “the greatest novelist of the 20th Century.” His two best books, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, are both limited. Ulysses is hemmed-in by its preoccupation with domesticity, and it bewilders most readers. Finnegans Wake was the subject of my dissertation, and the only problem with it is that it’s not written in any language. It includes letters, and punctuation, but mostly as a joke. Neither book is really susceptible to translation, a symptom of Joyce’s hermetic style. The lack of universality that this style amounts to really is a lack of greatness.

Thomas Pynchon was simply born too late. The only problem with his novels is that the sun’s already set, and his books know it. Every page is haunted by a symbolic complexity that Pynchon himself doesn’t take seriously. It is as if he is always saying to his reader, “sure, you could spend hours interpreting what this means, but why should you?”

Proust, like Tolkien, only wrote one novel, variously translated as Remembrance of Things Past, In Search Of Lost Time, and When I Was Seventeen, It Was A Very Good Year. He is perfectly readable in translation, and understands both sex and romance so well that he can pretend to be straight, convincingly, for 3,000 pages, which he totally wasn’t. Proust is boldly inventive as a stylist, and his epic of the self is (in a sense) the opposite of Tolkien, whose epic concerns the fate of all Middle-Age. Proust anticipates Pynchon’s question — why should you care? — and answers it, by implicitly reminding us that it is a pleasure to read slowly, setting our boats against the current.

But Proust is no Tolkien. So, in conclusion, there is only one good reason to read In Search Of Lost Time. If you’re already familiar with The Lord of the Rings, but still want to read something, you cannot possibly do better, for at least the next century. Proust understood time, and irony, and the world so well that he gave us a good book to read — one capable of seeing you through a hundred years of anonymity, and solitude — in the aftermath of thrones, and crowns, and kings.

Kugelmass out.

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