When I read most novels, I enjoy them while I am reading them and, when I finish, I feel a keen sense of disappointment at the joy having had to come to an end. In this case of this book, however, it is the opposite that is true. I enjoyed the book very little while I read it but closed it with a sense of accomplishment and, after some significant time in reflection and discussion, came to appreciate the idea and purpose, even if I am far from inspired to once more take up the book.
Perhaps the most difficult and disconcerting aspect of the book is that it is not written as most novels are written. It is not, in other words, written as a story in the modern sense of that word. Instead, it is written in a manner that is perhaps more similar to a historical narrative than to other modern works of fiction. In many ways, the style, including pace, diction, and even subject matter, are quite similar to the way stories are told in the Old Testament of the Bible. While this is undoubtedly intentional on Márquez’s part, I could not help but feel that sticking so firmly to this style detracted from rather than contributed to the book.
At its best (the opening and closing, for example), the book is a stunning masterpiece. At other points, and all too frequently, it becomes bogged down in the sort of way that the Bible does when a list of begats spanning the entire page appears to break up the narrative. Unfortunately, and, again, much like its biblical source and inspiration, these are not times when the reader can, as he might naturally be inclined to, tune out; instead, each sentence is imbued with such meaning and significance to the totality of the book that any missing piece means dozens of pages of incomprehensible text. This is, of course, both a great strength and a weakness.
I can certainly understand why this book is considered one of the greatest works of Latin American prose. I can also understand why Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I feel no obligation to try to like the book for the sake of this understanding. And, in the end, while I am happy to have read it, I did not enjoy it and so I cannot recommend it.
When I think of literature that is worthy of an award that holds the sort of esteem the Nobel Prize does, I think of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot. As I approached this novel with these great Nobel laureates in mind, I was setting myself up for disappointment. Beloved is not a bad novel, but it nowhere approaches the greatness of The Old Man and the Sea or Murder in the Cathedral.
I am not only disappointed with the novel itself, however, I am more disappointed that I must be so disappointed. Literature is primarily the study of the universal human condition and experience through the particular experiences of humans. It is the ability of a great author to grant insight into the universal through the particular that makes great authors great.
The African-American experience is a unique one in the history of mankind. While those who have been a part of this experience have produced several great works of literature, these are, unfortunately, few and far between. Most African-American literature eschews the universal features which can be extracted from the African-American experience in favor of a particularity that borders on insularity. It does not allow one who has not partaken of this experience to enter into it and understand it, nor does it grant such a person any insight into the universal human condition which can be re-particularized by forming that person’s worldview and experience.
This is, unfortunately, the case with Beloved. No matter how much I tried, I found it difficult to feel a sympathy, much less an identity, with any of the characters. Most of the characters are too simple and one-sided to be confused with persons; nearly all of them behave in bizarre and irrational ways that makes it difficult to understand their feelings, desires, and motivations. Always lurking in the background, though rarely visible, is the consistently ominous presence of the “whiteman,” who is evil embodied.
All of this makes the novel difficult to read and leaves the reader ultimately unfulfilled.
Frankstein is undoubtedly one of the best novels ever written. It is enthralling, stimulating, and insightful. Most of all, like any good work of fiction, it is a fascinating and enlightening study of human nature and of the human condition.
Shelley’s time and circumstances are, of course, reflected in her writing. The Romantic rebellion against the rationalism and high hopes for scientific inquiry and invention which predominated in the Enlightenment are evident. Also evident is a commentary on the Baroque age, which preceded the Enlightenment, and its ideals. From this perspective, the novel can be seen as a commentary on Milton’s Paradise Lost. In some ways, Shelley presages Neitzsche, the great prophet of the 19th century, especially in his proclamation of the death of God. Indeed, as Nietzsche said, God is dead and we have killed him; Frankenstein is dead and his monster has killed him. In all of this, Frankenstein provides us with insight into the minds of and hearts of 19th century men and women.
In yet other ways, however, Frankenstein remains perennially relevant. In its study of good and evil in the heart of man and in the questions it raises concerning the unmitigated good of progress in technology and science, the novel has a strong and important message for those of us living in the 21st century.
I recommend this book to all readers.