In general, Bloom is too sketchy, too dutiful, about the major French novels, the exception being “Les Misérables,” which he perceives as “a vast prose poem … more a tidal wave than a book,” and which is, he acknowledges, despite its sentimentalities, a work that will live forever. Even Harold Bloom bows to the inevitable. About Balzac — “an amazing novelist” — he writes always with deference but here almost exclusively (and nervously) about the demonic character Vautrin, and fails to convey this writer’s astounding fecundity and acuity. Flaubert may be “except for Proust … the true artist of the novel,” but Bloom is more interested in Emma Bovary herself than in her novel. (Chez Bloom, cherchez la femme.) About that unique masterpiece of depravity, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Bloom has nothing whatsoever to say.
He also gives short shrift to the most important novelists of late-19th-century Europe, and when in his various books he mentions them, it is conscientiously, not with a sense that he is committed to them or even deeply read in them. He does alight briefly, in one of his books, on Eça de Queirós’s “The Relic,” but of Portugal’s greatest novelist, author of “The Sin of Father Amaro,” “Cousin Basilio” and above all “The Maias,” “The Bright Book of Life” has nothing to say. More dismaying, he simply ignores Spain’s greatest novelist since Cervantes, Benito Peréz Galdós, whose huge, teeming novel of the life of Madrid — “Fortunata and Jacinta” — is especially fascinating since, as far as I know, it is the only major adultery novel of the 19th century in which the central character, the adulterer, is a man. (Fortunata is the lower-class mistress, Jacinta the respectable wife.) Galdós, inevitably referred to as “the Balzac of Spain” or “the Zola of Spain,” is hardly an obscure figure: Not only is he central to Spanish literature but Luis Buñuel adapted a number of his novels for film, including “Nazarín” and “Tristana.” And speaking of adultery, where is Theodor Fontane’s “Effi Briest” — indeed, where is Fontane himself, a superb writer who is Germany’s finest novelist between Goethe and Thomas Mann? Where, for that matter, is what to me is the most impressive novel written since World War II — Vasily Grossman’s overpowering “Life and Fate”? But Soviet literature is not part of Harold Bloom’s personal canon — a canon that increasingly looks to be too personal and, as a result, too narrow.
What else can explain Bloom’s failure to focus on writers of the stature of Eça de Queirós and Galdós and Fontane? Certainly not laziness — no reader was ever less lazy. Then I remember that when I was at college, which is when Bloom was at college, these writers were never even mentioned, let alone taught, unless you were taking specialist courses. You were on your own, until you stumbled on them. If you stumbled on them.
He is inevitably at his strongest when dealing with those writers he cares most about. With Jane Austen, for one. And, above all, with Tolstoy: “To have written ‘War and Peace,’ the profoundly troubling ‘Anna Karenina,’ and the perfect story ‘Hadji Murat’ is to have given such vitalism to readers that, whatever his moralizings, my primary reactions to Tolstoy are awe and gratitude.”
Bloom grapples mightily with Tolstoy’s hatred and resentment of Shakespeare — talk about the anxiety of influence! He tries to mitigate if not forgive Tolstoy’s unspeakable behavior to his wife. Most crucially, he makes crystal clear what may be Tolstoy’s outstanding quality as a novelist — that mysterious vivifying touch which, separate from analysis or description, makes his characters so real, so true: They simply are. This applies to Shakespeare too, of course — perhaps another cause of Tolstoy’s resentment? Even so, “Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, which the old Tolstoy taught himself to read in the original; Homer; Dante; Chaucer; Cervantes; above all Shakespeare: These stand with ‘War and Peace.’ I myself would add Milton, Goethe, ‘Moby-Dick,’ Whitman. After that it is a question of individual taste and judgment.”
As for Dickens, whose “David Copperfield” was a direct influence on Tolstoy, to Bloom his greatest achievement is “Bleak House” — but the “Bleak House” he loves is the “Bleak House” of the long-suffering Esther Summerson, not the dark novel of fog, of London, of the law and the courts, of obsession, which is, I believe, the way most readers read it. He pairs it with Dickens’s final complete novel, “Our Mutual Friend,” a book I care for so extravagantly that I’ve read it three times, two of those times aloud. But where is “Great Expectations,”to my mind Dickens’s most profound and perfect book, which even in “Novelists and Novels” Bloom practically brushes off? Most important, does he adequately appreciate Dickens’s unshakable virile gusto — a quality Bloom so frequently celebrates? Who, other than Shakespeare, has created so vast an assortment of memorable human beings? Who so firmly commands both humor and pathos?