We’ve all heard the opinion of an avid reader who declares that such-and-such is the best novel ever written. Of course the selection is generally one of the reader’s most recent reads (if not the last book they read) and the best novel ever written has a tendency to change as more books are read. Even if this scenario is not too scientific, it also is not concerned with the best novel but more so with the most liked novel.
We generally mistake our enjoyment of a novel with the quality of a novel.
That’s not to say that our personal opinions of the quality of a work are not valid. After all, I understand that more than a few people consider Ernest Hemingway to have been a great writer. Hard to believe, right? On the other hand, how many people consider James Joyce a great writer? Oh, there is a large population that considers Joyce a great writer because someone told them Joyce was a great writer. But then there are those who, whether they have ever read Joyce or not, that consider Joyce as only being decipherable by academics and in the end simply a literary goof who was successful at fooling the world into thinking he was a great writer. Finnegans Wake is a big joke, right?
I have a difficult time deciding on the best novel. Traditionally I point to Ulysses by James Joyce. Ulysses is hugely erudite and also stirs up our ideas of what a novel should be. Ulysses is fun to read but also demanding. Is Ulysses just a little hairy to be considered the best novel? Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a very satisfying: all those characters and that exciting history and those dated philosophical theories, but hardly the greatest novel. Perhaps Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s masterpiece and might well be a good selection for best novel. I would vote for Anna Karenina over George Eliot’s Middlemarch any day; in fact, I wouldn’t even nominate Middlemarch.
There is a strong contingent which considers Marcel Proust’s multi-volume masterpiece, À la recherché du temps perdu, as the greatest novel ever written. I might agree except it is so very long. I adore A Dance To the Music of Time but Anthony Powell made it so long I really couldn’t absorb the overall effect of the fiction (even reading it twice). Proust is a much better writer than Powell but I still have trouble holding the entire fiction in my head.
It’s been fifty years since I first read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I hated it back then but subsequently read it again in a more academic and mature situation that resulted in a much higher opinion. The same thing happened with Tristram Shandy: it wasn’t until the third time I read Sterne that I realized how great Tristram Shandy was. I wouldn’t argue too much if someone suggested Tristram Shandy was a better novel than The Brothers Karamazov.
But my nominee for the greatest writer isn’t Joyce or Tolstoy or Sterne: it is Gustave Flaubert. I find all of his works excellent but the prize goes to Madame Bovary. Madame Bovary is the perfect novel. Read it carefully and you will discover unities and connections that glue the novel together, images and leitmotif that echo throughout the pages of the novel; characters and events that are fully developed and integrated into the themes and the narrative of the text. Madame Bovary is too good to be read just once but rather demands a second and a third reading, and with each reading it exposes new riches.
What do you consider the greatest novel ever written? Here’s a list of possible contenders but I’m sure you have a couple of suggestions of your own:
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- À La Recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
- The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
- Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
- Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
- The Recognitions by William Gaddis
- Le Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter
- The Makioka Sisters by Junichero Tanizaki
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
- La Vie mode d’emploi by Georges Perec
- The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
- The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis