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Pickle Me This

November 10, 2006

The Great (fill in the blank) Novel

A novel is not just a novel, but rather the product of a nation. I’m no scholar, and I realize this idea is by no means original, but it fascinates me. After living abroad for three years, I lost the ability to read Canadian fiction, even though it was my home and native book. I couldn’t touch the stuff. I’d been reading nothing but British fiction for ages, and the CanLit seemed to miss the point of what I’d come to think a novel was supposed to do. I was missing the wit, the erudition. There were too many spirits in the trees. Etc. And even though I’ve got back into the CanLit groove, BritFic is still where I’m most at home. I require a dictionary by my side to read British fiction properly, and I’ve always got a stack of new words learned once I’m done.

I don’t read much American fiction, however. Not contemporary stuff at least, but when I do read it, the words I end up looking up always have to do with literary theory and are never quite as interesting to learn as the British words. So now I’m reading The Emperor’s Children, which I knew was American from the second I saw its size. I’m enjoying it, but it fits me awkwardly. Not just because it’s heavy. I think I’ll like it in the end, but I have to shift my brain around to make it work.

Novels from Australia or New Zealand read quite Britishly to me, but then turn out to be hung from their toes in certain places. You think you’re in London and then a wallaby darts across the road. It’s unnerving. And I struggle with novels in translation, as I think each writer approaches their work with their own culture’s understanding of what a novel is, and when I pick up that novel, I’m looking for something different. Japanese fiction absolutely mystifies me. Orhan Pamuk didn’t thrill me. Part of this is because I’m not that clever, and I read novels a bit cheaply. I find a novel is not really a novel unless its a novel to me.

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