December 3rd, 2009

The Secret History

It's very difficult, this late in the day, for novels to surprise us. The guys who got there first- Scott, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky- marked out great swathes of territory. By 1900 there wasn't much left to explore- and 20th century novels are, by and large, smaller, daintier, less interesting. If the point of the novel is to take us places we haven't been before- and I think it is- then the novel is almost redundant now. The Secret History is a very good example of what the form has been reduced to. It's very well written, but entirely constructed out of other fictions. The debt to Crime and Punishment is frankly acknowledged, but there's a lot of Brideshead in there too, a lot of Hitchcock- especially Rope and Strangers on a Train- and even a dollop of David Copperfield (with the narrator as David and the other members of the Greek class as Steerforth). The bacchanal (which - as my friend catvalente points out- is sketchily done and not very well integrated into the story) comes straight out of Death in Venice.

It is still just possible for great novels to be written. Jonathan Littel's The Kindly Ones- which takes us into the inner life of Nazi Germany- terra incognita for sure- is a rare late specimen. It is very pleasant to be guided elegantly over familiar ground, but the only novels that count- in the long run- are those that extend the boundaries of the known. Good writing- even exquisitely good writing- is not enough.