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The Way of All Flesh (1903)
Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (12)
Butler finished this book in 1884, but then like Isaac Newton, left it in a drawer for twenty years and it was only published posthumously. It tells the tale of the unhappy upbringing of Ernest Pontifex; unhappy because his parents aren't nice to him & his father insists on a strict theology. The critics, Shaw, Pritchett, etc., hail it as the novel which destroyed the Victorian facade of the happy family. I guess noone had read Dickens or Trollope.
I honestly don't get it. I know that the elites loathed Victorian England, but it's intellectually dishonest to pretend that contemporary authors, like Dickens and Trollope, didn't question the pretensions and conventions of their day. They act as if there was a huge conspiracy of silence and everyone believed life was perfect, until books like this one exploded onto the scene. This is patently untrue.
Butler seems more important as a key figure on the road to the interior or psychological novel. It's easy to see the debt that authors like Joyce owe to him. Pretty much nothing happens and the whole book turns on Ernest having crappy parents.
Tom Wolfe is giving hundreds of interviews right now decrying the psychological novel and begging authors to go out into the world and observe the life and energy of the country. We can only hope someone's listening.
-Encyclopaedia Britannica: Samuel Butler
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