Thursday 23 February 2017

Challenger for title of Great English Novel

John Boland

For the past 90 years, Irish novelists have lived in the shadow of Joyce, with Ulysses the daunting benchmark by which all subsequent novels have been judged and found wanting.

In America, Melville, Twain and Henry James have occupied much the same lofty position, each successive generation of writers attempting to come up with the Great American Novel in the manner of Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Portrait of a Lady.

Some critics have argued that Jonathan Frantzen managed it with The Corrections and Freedom, though others remain unconvinced.

England, too, has always had its novelistic titans against which lesser writers measure themselves, though you'll search in vain for a latter-day Austen, Dickens or George Eliot.

Still, there are always contenders, and admirers of Alan Hollinghurst have made great claims for last year's The Stranger's Child as the major English novel of our time, though I remain unpersuaded.

Now, though, there's a new challenger for Great English Novel of the Millennium -- Capital, the 650-page magnum opus by John Lanchester, due next month and his first novel in nine years.

Lanchester, who won the Whitbread Award in 1996 for his debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, has spent the last decade writing non-fiction, notably Whoops!, which entertainingly analysed the ongoing global financial meltdown.

Capital, which traces the lives of a group of characters connected with one London street, addresses some of the same issues in fictional terms and is already being hailed as a masterpiece for the troubled age in which we find ourselves.

"Effortlessly brilliant," raves William Skidelsky in the Observer, "gripping for its entire duration, hugely moving and outrageously funny."

Equally enthusiastic is the New Statesman's Jonathan Derbyshire, who deems it "the great London novel of the early 21st Century", while novelist Andrew O'Hagan thinks it "amazingly good".

So has England finally found its great contemporary novelist? You can judge for yourself next month.

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