Raskolnikov of Finland

In The New Republic Ruth Franklin has an interesting and damning survey of American novels dealing with terrorists. And though I was gently chided for being too hard on Franklin for her attempt to deny the differences between European and American writing, I just can’t help myself taking issue with some of the premises of this article.

Franklin’s diagnosis of the problems in the novels she mentions seems spot on, especially in reference to offender #1, Terrorist by John Updike. Likewise her pointing out a few examples of contemporary Arab writers as well as the fascinating new Afghan issue of Words Without Borders is a step in the right direction (speaking of Arab literature, it will be in the spotlight at Book World Prague from May 12-15, so more on that next week).

Where “Writing Osama Bin Laden” goes off the rails is the unquestioned notion that anyone needs novelists to write about the recently deceased terrorist at all. Isn’t bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t a single novel on The New York Times bin Laden reading list essentially a complaint that journalists are monopolizing journalism?

World War I was a pretty tramautic event as well, but I doubt anyone would reproach the great novelists of the era for not getting into the mind of their enemies. Not only didn’t most of them do anything so specific as writing a great novel from the point of view of a militaristic German, English or French madman, many didn’t even write about the war at all (and then there was Kafka and his diary entry on the day the war started – “Germany declares war on Russia—in the afternoon, swimming lessons.” A similar tweet today about 9/11 and he would have experienced The Trial first hand).

Franklin builds up to an argument that realist novelists have cultural barriers in what they can write about, and that a Western writer will never be sufficiently “inside” to recreate the terrorist mindset and experience in any universal way. “But logic tells us that it might well be impossible to write a truly great realist novel about a culture of which one knows little, because realist fiction requires an amount of precision that can be gained only through comprehensive contact,” Franklin writes.

True enough. But again I wonder why even the most realist of novelists should think of adhering to such impossible aims, and whether in this definition of the novel background is being pushed into the starring role. The examples she uses are telling: “Could Dostoevsky have written Crime and Punishment about a student in Helsinki rather than St. Petersburg? What if Flaubert had made Madame Bovary a country wife in Appalachia?”

But of course there could be a novel about a Finnish student who believes himself morally superior to the rest of humanity and kills a pawnbroker to test his theory, etc. – just as there could be a book about an unhappy provincial housewife whose mind is inflamed by reading too many romances set just about anywhere (admittedly, Appalachia might be a bit of a stretch – though it’s not like I’ve ever been there).

The point is that Dostoevsky and Flaubert had their core stories and set them in locations they knew and that suited them. A Finnish or Appalachian novelist would naturally have set those same stories in the locations they knew best.

It’s becoming increasingly common to hear about the emergence of non-fiction and journalism as a form of writing more suitable for the modern age. Writers like V.S. Naipaul, Tom Wolfe and others have weighed in with this tiresome cliché – and though there is a lot of great long-form journalism available now, probably including excellent coverage of bin Laden and the world of international terrorism, it is not in competition with the novel because it is doing (or should be doing) entirely different things – and this is true of realist novels like Crime and Punishment and a good 21st century realist novel as well.

“The camera cannot compete with a brush and canvas, as long as it can’t be used in heaven and hell,” wrote Edvard Munch.

There was a real person named Osama bin Laden and we will never know how his mind really worked. There was no such person as Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, and how his mind worked is something that will fascinate people long after today’s terrorists have joined the forgotten threats and enemies of the past.


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Categories: Essays


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