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18 February 2015

Generation game: can novelist Anne Tyler save the modern saga?

Conceived by Zola and sullied by Jonathan Franzen, the modern saga is in poor health. But Anne Tyler might be its saviour.

By Leo Robson

In today’s fractious literary culture, there can be no genre with fewer advocates – or worse PR – than the saga. Traditionalists, fearing that association with the starkly middlebrow could tarnish the entire mainstream, are united in scorn with cheerleaders of experiment, for whom the saga, which portrays the fortunes of one family over decades and sometimes centuries, is the quintessential reactionary form – being at once narrowly concerned with dynastic politics and family values, and leadenly narrated in a grand third person. The saga appals those who insist that “literary fiction” is more than just another genre as much as those who know in their bones that it isn’t.

For the time being, the progressive cause is on a solid footing, the traditionalist cause almost lost. Those keen to argue that the traditional novel needs a shot in the arm could use as evidence recent sagas by Alan Hollinghurst or Jonathan Lethem. But any attempt to distance the literary novel from the genre of Joanna Trollope and Jeffrey Archer comes up against the saga’s continuing centrality. It has been a form favoured, to various degrees, by the most prominent American writers – John Updike, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth. And though few would defend the saga in the abstract, as an urgent or even relevant form, it remains a reliable route not just to high publishing advances – Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves being a recent case – and Oprah’s Book Club, but the New York Times, the Pulitzer and the Booker.

Jonathan Franzen, the figure currently dominating the centre ground, actually went out of his way to add saga scent to Freedom, interrupting the story of the two generations of Berglunds living in 2004 to consider Walter Berglund’s Swedish forebears. The S-word never appears in Franzen’s literary manifesto, “Why Bother?”, and his publisher has elected to call Purity, his forthcoming novel, “a multigenerational American epic” but there’s no getting around the fact that in 2015, a hundred years after John Galsworthy and Hugh Walpole, forty years after The Thorn Birds and Roots, one of the most widely discussed novelists in the English-writing world is essentially a specialist in sagas.

If being a saga-writer made life trickier for Franzen, being a Franzen-genre did the saga even fewer favours. When the novelist Jennifer Weiner mounted her Twitter campaign to replace “Franzenfrenzy” with “Franzenfreude” in 2010, she was knocking on a door that was virtually off its hinges. But that was bad news not just for Franzen. The backlash against him affected all the other authors of “non-Franzen novels about love, identity, families” to whom Weiner hoped to draw attention. Weiner’s first recommendation, Anne Tyler’s Digging to America, wasn’t saved on the grounds that it was subtle and impudent where Freedom tended towards bombast, but damned because Tyler, already struggling against her twee book jackets and marketing strategies involving words like “best-loved”, was being pegged as Franzen-like at a time when many readers wanted the anti-Franzen – represented that summer by David Shields’s Reality Hunger and Tom McCarthy’s C.

One of the ironies of this scenario is that the modern saga tradition was initiated by Émile Zola, a writer who was not just progressive but who insisted on the necessity of literary progress. When Tom Wolfe argued for turning back the clock and writing “like Zola”, he missed the point almost totally. In following the prescriptions of Zola’s essay “The Experimental Novel” (1880), he was betraying its spirit. Naturalism, the school of which Zola was spokesman, was above all modish, a late-19th-century style. It drew on the recent lessons of science, asking the novelist to “experiment” on his characters, testing the impact on their personal fortunes of two newly prominent determining factors, heredity and environment.

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The novel moved on very quickly, as Zola would have wanted, though in a direction of which he might not have approved. As in a family saga, his legacy was betrayed by ungrateful descendants. His immediate successors cherry-picked from his example, borrowing his subject matter in isolation from his approach. Where Zola wrote a “natural and social history” of a family living in the Second French Empire – the Rougon-Macquart sequence – Galsworthy’s series of novels (1906-21) about the Forsytes called itself a “saga”. Instead of the box-fresh came the medieval. Instead of dispassionate scrutiny, the vocabulary of heroism.

And instead of a microscope, rose-tinted spectacles. Or binoculars, perhaps: as often as not the saga writer was less experimenter than elegist, less naturalist than nostalgist, recalling a bygone age of community and perfection before the coming of industry or independence, which ruptured precious “then” from hateful “now”. Whereas Zola embarked on his project while Napoleon III was still in power, the age of “human madness and shame” still ongoing, Galsworthy used the Forsytes’ story to defend the Victorian faith in family and property against Edwardian “efforts to ‘talk them out’.”

So, naturalism was swallowed up by a resurgent romanticism and even Zola’s most ardent followers tweaked his creed to fit theirs. Thomas Mann, who described his book Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family (1901) as the first naturalist novel in Germany, likened Zola to Wagner. Frank Norris, the American author of McTeague (1899), compared him to Victor Hugo. The world of Rougon-Macquarts “is not our world”, Norris wrote in his essay “Zola as a Romantic Writer”, “not because our social position is different . . . but because we are ordinary”.

Even Virginia Woolf couldn’t stop the rot, though she did her best in The Years (1937), offering a drier-eyed account of what Galsworthy called the Victorian era’s “ripeness, decline, and ‘fall-of’”. For Woolf, the problem wasn’t too much change but too little; the fall hadn’t been precipitous enough. But her intervention was formal as much as political. She didn’t just toughen the saga, she loosened it. Although she couldn’t pull off her original plan to write a “novel-essay”, in which direct advocacy for women’s rights alternated with dramatic depictions of the Pargiter family, she invented something else instead: the snapshot saga, swapping the form’s stateliness for the more intimate and fleeting. She absorbed the new lessons from science and technology – in this case, Einstein and aviation – in a novel in which the period 1880 to 1908 is accorded half as many chapters as 1910 to 1918 and every year that we drop in on is covered by a single day.

Later saga-writers have had no trouble ignoring Woolf’s innovations in favour of Edwardian comforts. For every Karl Ove Knausgaard, pushing to achieve Woolf’s dream of a novel-essay or saga-sermon, reconciling grandeur and intimacy, the national and the personal, straight talk and narrative, there is a whole breed of writers who are happy with something cruder. Jane Smiley, for instance, whose recent novel Some Luck, the first instalment of The Last Hundred Years trilogy, moves relentlessly through the story of an Iowa farm, giving a chapter to every single year from 1920 to 1953. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Smiley’s stated allegiance is to the ancient saga, on which she has written a previous spin, The Greenlanders.)

Other writers have opted for an awkward compromise, employing a forward lurch between chapters but settling for a familiar tone and tempo within them: the approach taken by Aatish Taseer in his new novel, The Way Things Were, which uses news of a death to consider three generations of a Delhi family. (The India of recent decades resembles Britain and the US at either end of the 20th century in its pace of radical change, that magnet for the saga-writer’s backward glance.)

This conflicted middle way was also taken by Anne Tyler in The Amateur Marriage (2004), producing one of her rare failures. But in her new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, she mounts a witty attack on the genre, portraying a family, the Whitshanks, who desperately want to be worthy of saga treatment. They cleave to a pair of stories that had been “told and retold and embroidered and conjectured upon any number of times”, travelling “down the generations” from Red and his wife, Abby, through their children, Denny, Stem, Jeannie and Amanda, right down to Stem’s three-year-old.

In one, a girl ends up with her best friend’s fiancé. In another, a man buys the house he built for a rich client. Though the stories are “viewed as quintessential – as defining, in some way”, Tyler deems them all too hard to define. The Whitshanks “imagined” that patience was the theme but someone “more critical” might say that the theme was envy. And that still covers only the first act: “in the long run, both stories had led to disappointment”.

Worse still, the earliest Whitshank involved in these stories, Junior Whitshank, dates back only as far as 1926, “an unusually recent year for the start of a family tree”. There were hardly any generations for the defining myths to travel down. Instead of presenting family stories as evidence of solidity or continuity, the vestiges of a regrettably lost age, Tyler reveals a family’s impulse towards saga-making as a futile defence against the transitory: “They had to make the most of what they could get.”

In a line typical of this author but rare in this genre, Tyler writes that there was “nothing remarkable” about the Whitshanks. Jane Smiley, in her book on novels, says that, “like Zola”, Tyler “details the ordinary”. (Gudrun, in the Icelandic Saga of the People of Laxardal, by contrast, exists “outside of the ordinary”.) Smiley calls Tyler’s approach “comic naturalism”, which ought to be a contradiction. The naturalist’s job is to observe, not impose. But the comedy of Tyler’s novels comes not from a jokey tone but from her level head and her clear eye, which, aimed towards characters expert at harbouring illusions, has frequently amusing results. There are times in A Spool of Blue Thread when the comedy comes at the expense not just of the Whitshanks’ saga-making but their belief in naturalist tenets – for instance, the emphasis they put on the family’s “genetic disposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night”.

Tyler pushes things a bit far when she devotes two long sections to portraying Whitshank history directly, leaving the characters in 2012 for flashbacks to the 1930s and 1960s. Having hinted that the stories have no inherent meaning, she tries to show that they might have a darker meaning altogether. But if the analysis of Whitshank mythology gets a little convoluted, it doesn’t really matter. Tyler wages her war against the saga on the practical front as well, writing about several decades in a family’s life without recourse to saga conventions.

To this end, Tyler’s greatest asset is her gloriously free and offhand approach to exposition. The novel’s opening chapter, like the opening chapter of her most distinguished book, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), is a tumble of incident and detail, astonishingly adept without being boastful, which slaloms around a mother’s seemingly disordered memories for around 35 pages. It starts with a phone call from Denny to his parents in July 1994 and then touches on events from across the Whitshanks’ lives, unobtrusively telling us all we need to knew.

Tyler has an infinite supply of fiddly insights about her characters’ habits and vices, but she exposes them in slow-burn effects as well. There’s a casual reference near the beginning of the chapter to Denny skipping “the beach trip that summer”, an absence that receives sustained and moving attention in the chapter’s final paragraphs. In its low-key, almost invisible way, the earlier reference proves to be an example – the novel’s first – of the comfort that Abby derives from massaging painful experience into family legend.

A Spool of Blue Thread does an exquisite job of bringing the Whitshanks down to size, exposing their self-descriptions as pure poppycock; but fans of Tyler’s work may be inclined to place the family among the existing characters in her larger fictional universe, shrinking them further still. In this respect, Tyler is drawing on another lost legacy of Zola: the alternative he offered to the staid three-volume “chronicle”. The Rougon-Macquart sequence is a work of continual improvisation. Zola had no plot to answer to, no great house to hand from son to son, no lost mores to mourn. His fictional family tree, a tangle of rich and poor, spread out in all directions and he followed it to wherever intrigued him: down mines, into battle, along Haussmann’s bloodstained boulevards.

For half a century, Anne Tyler has been doing something similar, building up a cast of characters, turning in to yet another Baltimore lane, forming a composite picture of American life from Roosevelt to Obama. Though she has never written a sequel, she has permitted her characters to live on, as when the family in Saint Maybe (1991) go for Christmas dinner at Ezra Tull’s Homesick Restaurant.

Where the conventional saga fetishises the special family as a product of the special age, Tyler’s comic naturalism, which incorporates modern irony about naturalism’s reductiveness, uses the family of today as a way of getting inside the “ordinary”, in the sense not of bland but of typical, common, universal. It’s a challenge she has confronted in novel after novel. And with A Spool of Blue Thread, she brings her tally to 20 – the same number as Zola gave to the world of the Rougon-Macquarts. 

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