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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Can there be a deeply flawed great novel?

Can a great novel be deeply flawed? The answer has to be: Yes. If for no other reason than - Huckleberry Finn, the great beautiful story of the two young men floating together down the river - scarred by the unsubtle racist attitude toward Jim and marred by he ridiculous plot developments when Tom Sawyer comes on the scene. And in a completely different context, yes, Daniel Deronda is a deeply flawed great (or near great) novel - scarred by unsubtle anti-Semitism and marred by the Zionist subplot. The two are different in that Eliot's politics are more evident and more admirable, and Twain nearly ruined HF when he couldn't figure out how to end it so drew in a character from a previous successful novel; Eliot nearly ruins DD by veering off into a polemical, didactic channel - yes, friend WS (not Willm Shakespeare) via FR Leavis was correct - though I was interested in the novel in part because I wanted to see a great 19th-century novelist's take on the Jews of her time, what I'm getting is her take on the Jewish issues of her time: the Zionist chapter is from a literary standpoint extreme dull and even clumsy - no one on this earth speaks the way Mordecai does, her Jewish characters are neither distinctive nor recognizable - they're just mouth-pieces, and without a drop of wit. Things get stranger when Mordecai tells DD that he is actually Ezra Cohen (DD assumed the pawnbroker working in Ezra Cohen's shop was Ezra - strange that he never got the names straight), i.e., the long-lost brother of the beautiful Mirah. Even by the conventions of 19th-century fiction, this is a little tough to swallow. Maybe Eliot will make more of it? Maybe she has another surprise or twist in store? She quotes from Aristotle in one of the epigraphs that she uses to head every chapter, this one saying something like: It is the nature of the probable to include many improbable events. Maybe so, for for novelist that dictum doesn't work. The improbably in a novel stands out as an instance of the author's failure and uncertainty; in life, the improbable stands out as a wondrous event. That is, we accept the improbable in life whereas in a novel, we don't believe it.

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