I have read a fair number of modern novels, and can only remember enjoying a very few.  (By modern, I mean anything written in the 20th century, or even worse the 21st.)  As a rule, the more literary a modern novelist is considered, the less pleasant is the experience of reading their work.

The basic substance of modern novels seems to be resentment of the generation(s) before us and the people around us.  Growing up with alcoholic, abusive, insensitive parents (or non-parents) is a basic engine of fiction.  Marriage at a too-early age to an alcoholic, abusive, insensitive husband is another.   Likewise, living and working in a community of oafish, stupid, abusive, insensitive others.  I could probably name more such engines if I read more such books.

If the basic tone is resentment , the plotline of such works seems to be “How I rose above the abusive, insensitive jerks in my life to achieve fulfillment”.  The “fulfillment” is the happy ending that justifies the relentlessly bitter mood.  (They are like violent movies in which the villain’s final demise is offered as sufficient to excuse the endless parade of brutal mayhem which provides the thrills; thus, we learn, such movies have a “moral message”, and are not mere pornographic violence.)

“Modern fiction” started early on.  The contempt for lowbrow Americans that runs through Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and the like, helped to set the stage for today’s mocking “humor” and angry tales.

So what to read for pleasure?  If the 20th and 21st centuries are excluded, one turns naturally to the 19th century.   And there one is not entirely disappointed.

Dickens.  Austen.  Scott.  Tolstoy.  Dostoyevsky.   Melville.  Lots to choose from.

First, let me rule out Jane Austen.  She is an outstanding writer, good with dialogue, sparing with flowery landscaping, and incisive in puncturing phoniness.  But she provides no relief from the curse of modernism described above.  In fact, she is the first modern, by those terms.

Jane Austen was a brilliant woman who resented the society into which she was born, her status in that society, and  that society’s expectations of and for her.  Her resentment is both modern and fully justified; but it produced a persistent tone of bitterness in her work.  The laughs are all cruel.

My problem with Dickens is simple:  over-population.  I first noticed it in Bleak House, where new characters were still being introduced on the 500th page!   The most enjoyable of his books is Pickwick Papers, which is practically a collection of short stories.  It is funny, and his characters are all delightful. His longer (much longer) works are filled with excellent character studies; just too many of them.

Sir Walter Scott is worth re-discovering.  His romantic histories are educational and filled with adventure.  The romances themselves are all pretty sappy.  But you can enjoy several before it begins to wear on you.  Try Waverley and The Antiquarian for starters.

Tolstoy is not read much these days because people have such wrong expectations.  War and Peace is no longer than many modern hits, and the story gallops along, never lagging.  It is a historical pot-boiler, and most of today’s readers would enjoy it.  Its massive reputation is the only thing holding them back.

Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, is truly the most important novelist of all times.  His works belong to philosophy and theology and politics as much as to literature.  They pose the great debate over the nature of existence in beautiful and comprehensible terms.  It was he who summarized the failure of the Enlightenment Project by observing that “If God is dead, anything is permitted.”

Unfortunately, his novels can be heavy or even painful going.  Crime and Punishment is so sad and depressing that it is difficult to finish.  Worth it, but difficult.  The Brothers Karamazov, on the other hand, is easier to read than any of his other masterpieces.  If you haven’t read it, you ought to.  Now.

Melville is also worth a read.  If you haven’t read Moby Dick in the past half century, you owe it to yourself to do so.  It is even better than any of its movie versions.  But that is by far the best of Melville.

Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Melville wrote only a few books each.  Dickens and Scott wrote enough to keep anyone reading for years,  but I find I tire of them quickly, for the reasons given above.

So what to read, for fun, for escape, for enjoyment, for thoughtful looks at different varieties of human beings, by authors who genuinely like people?

The answer is Anthony Trollope.

Trollope  wrote 47 novels while working for the British Post Office.   He churned them out month after month, about one a year from 1841 to 1882.  He wrote six novels set among the Church of England clerics of the country parish of Barsetshire;  Barchester Towers is the best book to serve as an introduction to Trollope.

His books are all set in middle or upper class society.  They involve men and women seeking marriage, quarreling over inheritances, loving and snubbing one another, and generally seeking happiness.  His heroes can be a bit too heroic, and his heroines even more sappily so.  But he generally depicts human beings in the full array of their natures, their good and evil and banality, without ever seeming even remotely mean to them.  Some of his very worst characters – Mrs. Proudie, the “Lady Bishopess” of Barchester Towers, for instance – are none the less delightful.

Barchester Towers has one of the best first chapters of any book ever written.   Try it out here.  In this chapter (“Who Will Be The New Bishop?”) Archdeacon Grantly, the dying bishop’s son, is a cold and worldly man, who watches his father dying and cannot help wondering if he will be allowed to succeed him.  How Trollope manages to make us both understand and sympathize with such a man in such a situation is typical of the wonders found throughout his writing.

The details of the English Church hierarchy are unfamiliar to most of us, but many editions (such as the paperback Oxford World Classics) include sufficient explanatory footnotes to keep it all straight.  It is only initially surprising that all the conflicts are largely devoid of theological content.

In a later book (The Last Chronicle of Barset),  Grantly’s father-in-law Rev. Harding is depicted as an old man approaching his own end, portraying so evocatively the gentle leave-taking of a contented Christian, that it could almost make a believer out of the most hardened cynic.

Try Trollope.

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