Think for a moment of reading as akin to faith — the faith of the scientist, not the unconditional faith of the unthinkingly devout. To sustain that faith requires a constant renewal of one’s belief in the value of reading, or the continuing value of the novel three centuries after the term was first invented. The true reader, like the scientist, struggles with doubt and bouts of occasional apostasy, fuelled by the tyranny and bestselling pervasiveness of mediocre writing.
To have two books coming out in the same month that reaffirm one’s faith is a kind of benediction — especially when these two novels couldn’t be more different. Writing in his 70s, Milan Kundera said that the work of the novelist was to build “a castle of the unforgettable”: “Against our real world, which, by its very nature, is fleeting and worthy of forgetting, works of art stand as a different world, a world that is ideal, solid, where every detail has its importance, its meaning, where everything in it — every word, every phrase — deserves to be unforgettable and was conceived to be such.”
This is the way the American novelist Jonathan Franzen writes. Freedom is one of the most anticipated novels of 2010, and Freedom frenzy has swept the US in the weeks before the release. Part of the reason for this is Franzen’s low productivity: his last book, The Corrections, came out in 2001. That long gap reflects the kind of care and fierce focus that has gone into the writing of Freedom, perhaps one of the most ironic book titles ever.
Freedom follows the fortunes of the Berglunds, the “young pioneers of Ramsey Hill”, where the collective task before them and others of their kind was to “relearn certain life skills that your parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn”. From this deceptively simple premise, Franzen moves through decades and generations to cast a chilling light on the pursuit and demise of the American dream. “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage,” he observes of one of his characters, and this stands as an analysis of contemporary America as much as of the middle-class life of the Berglunds.
If every sentence in Freedom is crafted, honed and precise, this is not a claim that can be made for David Grossman’s equally ambitious, equally compelling and far more flawed To The End of the Land. Grossman’s own life reflects the complexities and tragedies of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he has lived within “the Situation”, criticising the policies of the state while remaining loyal to his country. His son, Uri, died in 2006, a casualty of the conflict on the Israel-Lebanon border. Four months after he sat shiva for his son, Grossman made a speech, stressing that it did not come out of anger or the need for vengeance.
“The state of Israel has, for many years now, criminally wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters, but also wasted the miracle that occurred here — the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that would act in accordance with Jewish and universal values.” Grossman had gone back to writing To The End of the Land the day after the last rites for his son were performed; the book was published in 2008, and its long-awaited, if badly flawed, translation is finally out.
To The End of the Land follows the life, and epic flight, of Ora, a middle-aged woman whose son, Ofer, has voluntarily gone back to war. Ora goes to Galilee, hiking across her land, reasoning that if she is not at home when the notifiers from the army come to tell her that her son is dead, he will not die. To say that To The End of the Land is flawed is true, but the force and power, and complexity, of Ora’s story make this an unforgettable read. Jonathan Franzen’s rules of writing includes this dictum: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”
In completely different ways, he and Grossman have written the masterpieces of 2010. Franzen’s Freedom is true to Kundera’s vision of perfection and craft — the novel as a more finished, more articulate version of life. And Grossman’s To The End of the Land is the embodiment of Franzen’s understanding of the novel — as a way of pushing the boundaries of life as far as they can go. To have both of these works coming out in the same month is to have one’s faith in the power and astounding variety of fiction renewed and replenished.