Jonathan Franzen and “Robinson Crusoe”

The Bea­t­les V the Stones, Picas­so V Matisse, dig­i­tal V vinyl, youth is spent draw­ing up bat­tle lines on either side of these divides. And one of the first choic­es that all first year Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture stu­dents are faced with is Defoe V Swift. This is because the pub­li­ca­tion of Defoe’s Robin­son Cru­soe in 1719 is tra­di­tion­al­ly seen as the first ever nov­el and is there­fore the start­ing point for any course in mod­ern lit­er­a­ture. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s inevitably com­pared to Swift’s Gulliver’s Trav­els which was writ­ten, at least super­fi­cial­ly, as a response to Defoe’s exot­ic tale of dis­tant shores.

How­ev­er suc­cess­ful­ly you might have sup­pressed your ini­tial sus­pi­cions about Robin­son Cru­soe — this is after all your first term, and they sure­ly couldn’t have know­ing­ly sad­dled you with some­thing so obvi­ous­ly sec­ond-rate to begin your stud­ies with? – read­ing Swift imme­di­ate­ly after Defoe puts paid to any such illu­sions. And whilst you might have been able to dis­miss Defoe’s casu­al racism as part of his cul­tur­al make-up, there’s no get­ting away from that dread­ful­ly lead­en, and painful­ly clum­sy prose, so cru­el­ly exposed in the light of Swift’s Olympian brilliance.

Read­ing Jonathan Franzen’s superb piece Far­ther Away in the New York­er ( it’s impos­si­ble not to be remind­ed once again of quite how dread­ful a nov­el Robin­son Cru­soe is. Franzen had retreat­ed to Robin­son Cru­soe island off the coast of Chile, and his emo­tion­al­ly charged piece charts his efforts to come to terms there with the sui­cide of his friend and fel­low star nov­el­ist David Fos­ter Wal­lace in 2008. Defoe’s nov­el, and his father’s fond­ness for it when he was a child, gives Franzen the scaf­fold­ing with which to con­struct his mov­ing edi­fice. And the care­ful­ly craft­ed sen­tences with which he sculpts his con­fes­sion pro­duce an inti­mate por­trait of painful con­fu­sion. Because Franzen is a real writer.

Defoe was a busi­ness­man who decid­ed to write his first book as a means of mak­ing mon­ey now that he was approach­ing 60. And Robin­son Cru­soe is exact­ly the sort of thing you’d expect a retired busi­ness­man to pro­duce. It’s not the first nov­el, it’s the first air­port nov­el, and is not there­fore some­thing to be stud­ied, but consumed.

It does serve one pur­pose though. It is to any­body strug­gling to write a nov­el, what Lady In The Water is to any­one try­ing to write a screen­play. Every bud­ding nov­el­ist should have a copy of Robin­son Cru­soe on their bed­side table. So that in their dark­est hour, paral­ysed by despair as thoughts of worth­less­ness and abject fear threat­en to envel­op and engulf them, they can turn to Defoe, hap­py in the knowl­edge that how­ev­er awful what­ev­er it is that they’re writ­ing is, it couldn’t pos­si­bly be as bad as what they have to hand.

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