Time is on His Side?
By Anna Aslanyan.
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate 2010
The plot of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, has been widely recounted over the last few weeks in numerous reviews and features and should by now be familiar to everyone interested in contemporary fiction. All the keywords – American family, generation gap, environmentalism, overpopulation, teenage sex, middle-class values and so on – have been done to death by critics and interviewers worldwide. The flurry of publicity for what has been hailed as the Great American Novel is now causing a backlash, headlines such as ‘Freedom Is Not the Only Book in Town’ springing up in press. Without repeating what has already been said, the briefest plot summary would be the opening line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Or, to paraphrase Tolstoy, “Happy families are all alike, and so are unhappy families, in their own way” – not so much a contradiction to the classical statement as an extension of it.
Tolstoy provides some obvious parallels, not least because he is namechecked in Freedom: the heroine is reading War and Peace before throwing herself into the arms of someone she has been coveting for a long time. She picks up the book “for sheer respite from herself” and then confesses that “the effect those pages had on her, their pertinence, was almost psychedelic.” That Natasha’s betrayal of her fiancé lends the woman the strength to follow her own desires says something of the powers of Tolstoy’s prose. Is the scene likely to affect Franzen’s readers, similarly or otherwise? Let us wait ’til enough people have reflected on it before jumping to any conclusions.
In the meantime, it is tempting to imagine what Leo Tolstoy himself would make of Franzen’s novel – after all, he did have something to say on several of its themes. Take infidelity: having sown his wild oats in his youth, the writer grew extremely patriarchal later, and his family principles indicate that he would disapprove of the impulse his novel provoked in Franzen’s character. Procreation was seen by Tolstoy as the main, perhaps only, redemption of the sinful act men must indulge in from time to time, so he would probably come up with some criticism on the subject of global overpopulation, too. Depression was not unknown to the great Russian novelist and his characters, the answer to it always being “to be good” (something Franzen’s characters also aspire to), to immerse yourself in work and stop moaning about your plight, which is negligible in comparison to that of the suffering classes. The only point Tolstoy would accept without reservation seems to be environmental responsibility – given his enthusiasm for self-sufficient ways, he would certainly warm up to the hunting millionaires who “eat what they kill, and […] manage their land for wildlife,” perhaps even give the protagonist who is working on a project to preserve a species of a songbird a pat on the shoulder.
The spartan lifestyle Franzen was leading during the years it took him to write the book also looks quite Tolstoyan, as does the pacifism that appears to play a crucial part in the both authors’ philosophies. Finally, throughout his life the Russian thinker was discoursing on the notion that gave Franzen’s book its title, whose meaning the author refuses to unravel, warning only that it shouldn’t be taken literally. Leo Tolstoy would probably do the same to ensure War and Peace gets people thinking, although he might have pointed out to his English-speaking audience that it was, in fact, meant to be War and the World. Again, the future will show if the readers interpret Franzen’s book, including the title, as he intended.
Freedom, as already mentioned, is on everyone’s lips – just this morning, for instance, it was discussed on Radio 4’s Start the Week. One of the participants, trying to please Franzen, who is understandably fed up with that Great American Novel label, ventured an opinion that the novel strikes him as a Greek tragedy. There is nothing surprising here, seeing that every human life is essentially a tragedy, sometimes verging on a tragicomedy. Franzen is well aware of this fact and does not shun it in his writing. His novel is full of observations that, despite being not particularly original, focus on situations that most people will have experienced at some point. Indeed, a lot of women might relate to the heroine who is torn between “the great guy she’d married and the sexy one she hadn’t.” Many sons drift apart from their overprotective mothers, hearing nothing but “the drumbeat of negativity” in their concerns. ‘Mistakes Were Made’ is an overarching theme in the book, and if you compare those analysed by Franzen against your own list you will probably see a lot of common points.
So, a novel of the 21st century, then? Maybe; we are only a decade into it, although there are books around that seem more impressive at this stage. With the weight of world literature on your shoulders, it is now impossible to produce an entirely original idea, let alone a plot, hence the importance of not what a writer says about life (or anything else, for that matter), but how he says it. In actual fact, this remark is not exactly new in itself and could once again be applied to Tolstoy: when he describes a banal affair – say, a woman cheating on her husband with a handsome officer, to return to Anna Karenina – he is not telling us anything new, but upon closing the book you feel somehow changed. Whether the same can be said of Franzen’s endeavour remains to be seen. The novel has all the right words in the right order (well, not the pulped edition, of course), it ticks all the boxes a work of fiction is expected to tick today, and still the question stands: how many people could have written it just as well, give or take a few variations on style and characterisation?
There is a school of thought holding that you write not because you can, but because you are convinced that you are the only one who can say this particular thing in this particular way. Perhaps that is what Franzen had in mind; whatever the case might be, it makes sense to hold on till the hype abates and the novel sinks in, to see if it has made anyone a different person. A lot of people who have read Tolstoy at a young age admit that they only understood him much later (if at all), when everything clicked into place, suddenly or, more often, as a result of much mental work. Should Franzen’s book justify its ambitions in the long run, the solution for those who, like your reviewer, find themselves not yet ready for Freedom could be this: give it some time; meanwhile, go and make your own mistakes; then come back and read it again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 5th, 2010.