Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Jane Smiley's 100 novels

Jane Smiley plans to read 100 novels in an attempt to "illuminate the whole concept of the novel." In the first of a series of articles for The Guardian, she explains the basis for her selection.

It's my confident opinion that Smiley is one of our great living novelists. Maybe I shouldn't write that having read only three of her novels. But A Thousand Acres, her retelling of King Lear set in the American Midwest, was a brilliantly executed piece of art which won her a Pulitzer prize. From tragedy she shifted to comedy, turning out Moo, a comic campus novel that reminded critics of Balzac for her attention to the social atmosphere of a large agricultural university. And then with her twelfth book, Good Faith, she moved beyond the tragic and the comic and toward Dickensian realism, successfully capturing the American small town of 1982.

Of her series on the 100 novels she says something that is also true of this blog's aspirations:
My purpose will be served if a reader is moved to try a novel she has never heard of before, or one she never thought she would like, if she is moved to reread a novel she loves in a new way, or try again with a novel she has not been able to get through.
And then--for a blogger who has been asking readers to think of novels that illuminate what life is like in theocracies or in societies that lack the protections afforded by habeas corpus, and to consider novels that might help understand issues in philosophy--it was heartening to read Smiley's take:
Another thing I learned is that novels, even those from apparently distant times and places, remain current and enlightening, and also comforting.... My 100 novels were not outdated at all, but testified over and over, to the perennial nature of regular human thought - not only are there problems and conflicts that persist in not being solved, there are also the insight and common sense people have brought to bear on those problems. It was not only that misery loves company, but also that Jane Austen is a good guide to personal integrity; Anthony Trollope does know how marriage works; Honoré de Balzac is indispensable when Jacques Chirac refers to the relationship between France and England as un amour violent. It's worth remembering The Makioka Sisters when the newspaper reports a typhoon in Japan. It's worth knowing that serious thoughts are being thought, and also that serious fun is being made of fools everywhere. It's also worth knowing, in dangerous times, that dangers have come and gone and we still have these books.
Thanks to Friend of the Blog "Cochise" for alerting me to the Smiley series.

--Marshal Zeringue