The good and the great

A couple of posts back I linked to an article at The Millions which compares the reception of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom with that of Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, both out last year. The writer argues that while the books treat comparable themes and characters, Franzen's was hailed as a formidable and (probably) abiding contribution to American letters, whereas Goodman's received scant and condescending praise of the ‘not bad for a girl' sort. The writer sees this disparity as a function of institutionalised sexism in the literary industry. (It might be, but having just read The Cookbook Collector and the first hundred pages or so of Freedom, I think they really are in different leagues. Goodman's writing is exuberant, but has nothing like the complexity and craft of Franzen's.) A good deal depends on how gendered genre is. There's an assumption that women write about home and family in warm and affirming ways, and that grand alienations and cold ironies are the province of men.

Perhaps there are gender biases at play, but there's a deeper divide, and a more ancient one: that between comedy and tragedy. Possibly tragedy has always had a grandeur that comedy, domestic by nature, could never have, but it seems to be a peculiar bent of the twentieth century that the ‘great’ books, the powerful books, are inevitably the sad books, the difficult, devastating, awakened books that affirm only fragility, inconsistency, and pain. Books that celebrate life and perhaps even end, like traditional comedies, in happy marriages are seen as somehow less powerful, less brave, less grand.  Rom coms never win best picture. Something happened in the twentieth-century - perhaps a great Russian winter - that made comedy with its happy ending the province of fools. Virginia Woolf's comment on Jane Austen shows the shift: “Of all great writers, she is the one most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” What, after all, is great about ordered and ordinary life in a small community? What is great about goodness?

Another great is most often caught in the act in his big tragedies: Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth. (Some lists include Othello, but others won't on the grounds that it's too domestic.)  Shakespeare's tragic vision has influenced a half millenium of thought, but what about his comic vision? What about a view of the world that sees the catastrophe of life as food for laughter, laughter as medicine for life's various ills? It's the fools in Shakespeare that know this, and that speak truth. It's the comedies that know life not as a trajectory, a tragic fall, but as a circle. Life follows death, spring follows winter. All life comes to an end, but this is no reason not to be happy.

Freedom begins with what appears a happy marriage. Adultery follows, and finally, estrangement. The Cookbook Collector ends with a wedding, and closes with an apt image of mortal happiness: “The hammock swayed under them, and George and Jess floated together, although nothing lasted. They held each other, although nothing stayed.”  Like the original pair: “Happy, but for so happy ill secured.”  But happy.