16th November

The Greatest Novel Ever Written

You ask, ‘What is the greatest novel ever written?’ You really want me to tell you that? Do you think it’s possible to know, possible for me to give you an even semi-intelligent answer to that question?

I could fall back on hearsay. I could say War and Peace or Don Quixote or Remembrance of Things Past. Only I’ve never read those books. I could say Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment or Ulysses because I have read them but would that make my choice any more credible? That would just be me saying I’ve read these books. I wouldn’t have to remember much about them. I wouldn’t have to have enjoyed them. That might be a disqualification. Should you enjoy the greatest novel ever written? If you enjoy Len Deighton, Agatha Christie or J. K. Rowling can you enjoy Tolstoy or Joyce? This is literature, after all. Let me rephrase that: this is Literature, after all. Literature is to be endured, not enjoyed. It should be a challenge, an effort, a struggle from which you emerge triumphant on the final page, even if you have no idea what you’ve been through. It should be an achievement, not an amble. Otherwise, what’s the difference? Where’s the sense of superiority, the reason for self-congratulation?

Is that what you’re looking for? Superior wisdom? For me to tell you, with authority, what the greatest novel ever written is, so that you can go and read it, and then say with almost equal authority, ‘That’s the greatest novel ever written’? You’re looking for a short cut, is that it? You don’t have time to read all the other novels in the world, but if someone whose judgement you trust identifies the greatest ever written then you’ll not have to bother with fiction ever again? Because how could any other novel match the qualities of the greatest? It’s impossible.

Well, I have written the answer to your question and sealed it in this envelope. You will inherit it on my death.

Actually it isn’t the answer. It’s a semi-informed guess. That’s the best I could do and I don’t wish to be around to witness your disappointment, surprise, anger or disbelief.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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