It is a foolish question – what book is the most formally perfect? – because it assumes, first, that there is an ideal form for a book, and second, that perfection is attainable.1 The only perfection possible is the heat death of the universe – frozen droplets of iron suspended, isolated, in a deafening void, endless, boundless, complete – and to pretend that something a person could make (and especially the creation of one person filtered through the labor of another, a translator) could be ‘perfect’ in any way that would be universally acceptable is, well, if not the mark of an idiōtēs (viz., someone not given to showing their thinking in public), then certainly short-sighted. Setting aside works of formal cleverness, which may or may not be perfect but are often messy – one thinks of Tristram Shandy or Ulysses or La Vie mode d’emploi – how is one to say that a book of apparently imperfect form, one that appears to be a chimerical bumble broth, is not in fact perfect for what it is trying to accomplish?2 One must always allow the possibility that one has not sounded the depths – indeed, I wonder whether The Making of Americans might not be the ‘formally’ perfect novel desired, save that its form (and therefore its perfection) is so apparently baggy that one does not (or cannot) notice the perfection. But that is mere speculation, and I will let it rest.
- One can tell it is a silly question because people were tempted to answer Madame Bovary, which is a fine novel and well-structured, but is by no means perfect in any way – nor even close; it does, however, have a sort of prissy sterility and contempt for its characters (so far as I can recall – it has been a while since I read it) that might appear to augur formal mastery: it is tidy, although on a messy subject, and perhaps the contrast of that formal tidiness and its psychological messiness (not the right word, but I am not finding a way to articulate what I mean, which is unfortunate) makes it appear more perfect (can this be a comparative? I think it shouldn’t) than it is. A formal rose garden (canker’d tho’ it be) is very pretty, but I prefer a forest. [↩]
- I should give an example; unfortunately, the example I would have chosen did in fact happen to be a pair of novels published together as one, so the fact that it seems like two distinct novels stuck together is merely accurate rather than structurally unsound – I was very ready to make a pretense of cleverness about it, though! [↩]