“One life, one writing,” Robert Lowell said. The writer’s experience is all of a piece, and so too, however disparate it may seem, is the work to which it gives rise. The personal emphasis here is typically poetic, but novelists have long shared the desire to give a higher unity to their careers, transform a succession of works into something larger and more coherent. The method selected is apt to reflect its time. In the nineteenth century—a period whose greatest inventions, it’s been said, were society and history—Balzac and Zola produced vast sociographic supernovels, many volumes long, that sought to transcribe the whole of contemporary society. Hardy, defending his provincial world from metropolitan encroachment, gathered his work within an autonomous imaginative principality—a method emulated by Faulkner and García Márquez. High Modernism’s self-mythologizing artist-heroes took a different tack, Proust placing his own figure at the center of a single never-ending, all-encompassing epic—the self expanding to fill the work, the work expanding to fill the career—with Joyce and Musil doing roughly likewise. Different unifying strategies appear today. The autobiographical persona that runs like a spine through Philip Roth’s corpus represents a multiplication and refraction of the authorial image that is perfectly in tune with our culture of mediated self-exposure. David Mitchell, one of British fiction’s brightest stars, forges his links surreptitiously, characters from one novel showing up, as if by chance, in the margins of others—a strategy that mimics the fortuitous, far-flung connections of a globalizing age. And then there is Javier Marías, the acclaimed Spanish novelist: annual Nobel speculation, 5 million books in print, high praise from Pamuk, Sebald and Coetzee. As his oeuvre has lengthened—and in particular, with the gradual publication of his magnum opus, the three-volume Your Face Tomorrow—its coherence has gathered only slowly and in retrospect.
more from William Deresiewicz at The Nation here.