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 storiesby Philip Hensher / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
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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 Britain, Brutus, survives as—and probably only ever consisted of—ten lines of blank verse. The Idylls of the King was probably several centuries too late to take on the role, and we are struck now by its failure to address what was evidently of burning interest to Tennyson: his age’s dynamism and technological innovation.
This lack of a national epic has set a hare running among both readers and writers. The novel of national origins has now been relegated to mass-market fiction, such as Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum (1992). But what has occupied more elevated practitioners and critics of the art is the novel of national life in a contemporary, or near-contemporary, setting. It has come to be called the “state-of-the-nation” novel, and it is currently all around us.
Several things define this genre: a range of social settings; the coverage of an extended period of time; a sense that the lives described reflect major social shifts or matters of public importance; and, often, open debate on political concerns and the nature of the nation itself. Commentators on the English novel have often claimed to find works of this type in 19th-century fiction. In fact, few of Dickens’s or Eliot’s works really analyse the whole of a society. However, some 19th-century authors certainly did set out to write state-of-the-nation fiction. The title of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is a clear indication of intent, and the book conscientiously covers a range of social settings and roles, from the agricultural to the new capital markets of the City. Disraeli’s splendid “Young England” trilogy of the 1840s, Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred, with its broad social spectrum and tendency to political solutions, is virtually the founding example of the state-of-the-nation novel. The celebrated passage from Sybil about the two nations, rich and poor,…