“I Finally Got Tired of Being Angry at Roth” — What Jonathan Franzen’s Been Reading

Time profiles Jonathan Franzen this week (part of the push for his new novel Freedom, out later this month). Franzen also talks about five works that have “inspired him recently.” Here are his comments on those books–

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

Instead of sitting for years at his writing desk, pulling his hair, Stendhal served with the French diplomatic corps in his favorite country, Italy, and then came home and dictated his novel in less than eight weeks: what a great model for how to be a writer and still have some kind of life! The book is at once deeply cynical and hopelessly romantic, all about politics but also all about love, and just about impossible to put down.

The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

There’s nothing fancy about the writing in Smiley’s masterpiece, and yet every sentence of its eight hundred pages is clean and necessary. For the two weeks it took me to read it, I didn’t want to be anywhere else but in late-medieval Greenland, following the passions and feuds and farming crises of European settlers trying to survive in the face of ecological doom. It all felt weirdly and plausibly contemporary.
Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

I finally got tired of being angry at Roth for his self-indulgent excesses and weak dialogue and thin female characters and decided to open myself to his genius for invention and his heroic lack of shame. Whole chunks of Sabbath’s Theater can be safely skipped, but the great stuff is truly great: the scene in which Mickey Sabbath panhandles on the New York with a paper coffee cup, for example, or the scene in which Sabbath’s best friend catches him relaxing in the bathtub and fondling his (the friend’s) young daughter’s underpants.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s male characters suffer from some of the deficiencies that Roth’s female characters do, but the heroine of House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is one of the great characters in American literature, a pretty and smart but impecunious New York society woman who can’t quite pull the trigger on marrying for money. Wharton’s love for Lily is equal to the cruelty that Wharton’s story relentlessly inflicts on her; and so we recognize our entire selves in her.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

A lifelong heavy drinker with his most famous novel well behind him, Steinbeck set out to write a mythic version of his family’s American experience that would embody the whole story of our country’s lost innocence and possible redemption. There are infelicities on almost every page, and the fact that the book succeeds brilliantly anyway is a testament to the power of Steinbeck’s storytelling: to his ferocious will to make sense of his life and his country.

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