Auntie M wants to share the meat of a recent article she read, written by Rebecca Goldstein, the author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. I confess I haven’t read her book, but the title alone will make me check it out.
Goldstein’s thesis in this article was for a “Five Best” series in the Wall Street Journal, and in this case, she’s chosen her top five novels of ideas, based on their characters, plot and more.
Up first is Herzog, Saul Bellows’ 1964 comedic tale where his protagonist addresses “immortal thinkers in grave earnestness, demanding of them relevance to his own very mortal predicament. Herzog has been betrayed by his beautiful but neurotic wife with his best friend. He rails against the reality he’s facing, feeling betrayed by “the entire Western canon, not to speak of God, to whom he also dashes off a few choice lines.”
Bellows earns his spot for what Goldstein calls his “blend of high-mindedness and low farce…a rare form of tragic comedy, ‘King Lear’ as filtered through Milton Berle.” I’d never thought of it that way, but it fits.
Second is George Eliot’s superb Middlemarch. I came to read Eliot as an adult and became hooked. I learned from Goldstein that this novel was written in 1873, only months after Eliot finished her translation of Spinoza’s “Ethica,” which highly influenced the work. The book’s main plot follows protagonist Dorothea Brooke, who Goldstein describes as blundering “her way toward moral clarity, on the way making an unfortunate marriage to a dry pedant, Edward Casaubon.” The interlacing stories show Eliot’s mastery of weaving her study of ethics into wonderful novels.
Third is Thomas Mann’s 1951 The Holy Sinner. I admit right up front that although this was written the year I was born, I haven’t read it. After the seriousness of his Doctor Faustus, Mann manages to bury “its seriousness beneath the seductions of storytelling.” The book is set in medieval Europe, filled with sumptuous detail, and is based on the legend of a pope who was the offspring of incestuous brother-and-sister twins. It sounds made for the big screen.
Goldstein lists Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, from 1973, in fourth place. Goldstein says she admires the way Murdoch “hides its high purpose under well-developed characters and an organic plot. She notes Murdoch’s philosophy follows that of Plato, “mistrusting enchantment, whether artistic, religious or erotic.” Yet in this novel, set in modern England, Murdoch underlines Plato’s suspicions before turning them upside down.
Fifth and final is Alan Lightmans’ 1993 Einstein’s Dreams, set in 1905, centering on an patent clerk named. . .Albert Einstein. Albert’s nightly dreams on the nature of time are a “heady play of ideas” as Lightman “wrests irony, pathos and poetry out of the abstractions of physics, but the meaning of it all is viewed from the human perspective.”
Another one to add to my reading list.