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Writing the nation

The "state of the nation" novel is back in fashion, with recent examples from Hanif Kureishi, Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernières. But many of these books focus too closely on "authentic" period detail at the expense of convincing characters and stories

By Philip Hensher   April 2008

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Put it down to the lack of a national epic. Many countries have a single, agreed national text, as distinct from an oral myth—a literary classic that for centuries has celebrated its country’s founding and virtues. Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Cervantes’s Don Quixote removed a crucial pressure from their successors.

In Britain, the situation is different. There is no ancient national epic—The Faerie Queene is a gigantic and fantastical romance, Paradise Lost is only indirectly concerned with nationhood. Pope’s idea of a classicising epic of the founding of…

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