The art of reading a novel involves a dash of experiment, conjecture, even risk. It requires readers to try out different narrative perspectives, styles, even personalities, and so to explore the inherent variousness of experience, and to recognise the vein of arbitrariness that runs through any possible version of events. Novels, in short, are implicitly pluralistic. In this respect they resemble essays, which, as it happens, came into existence at more or less the same time (Montaigne launched the form in 1580, with Bacon following in 1597). Essays tend to be classier, more learned and more demanding—there is no essayistic equivalent of the “popular novel”—and even when written in a perfectly casual style, they are likely to be strewn with half-concealed quotations or allusions to flatter or perhaps annoy the smarter class of reader. As exercises in hesitation, exploration and experimental self-multiplication, they are like novels, only more so. You might even say that the novel aspires to the condition of the essay, and there is certainly no shortage of novelists who have aspired to be essayists too. Think of Eliot or Henry James, Woolf, Forster or Orwell, or Mann, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus and Mary McCarthy. And as the four recently published books now lying open on my kitchen table demonstrate, the essay-writing novelist is still a literary force to be reckoned with.
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