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5 Unreal Novels by Masters of Literary Realism

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Literary realism has been the undisputed monarch of all genres for at least the last hundred years. The novels which make booksellers happy, writers jealous and academics excitable tend to concern the kinds of events that really do happen to the kinds of people who really do exist. 

But the distinction between ‘realism’ and, shall we say, unrealism—the wacky, the weird and the just extremely improbable—might be harder and faster in the minds of readers than in the minds of writers. After all, writers are a pretty improbable bunch. 

Even novelists famous for their contribution to literary realism often have a strange story or two hidden away in their back catalogue, and they’re well worth digging out. Here are five of the best.

Waiting For The Barbarians

J.M. Coetzee is best known for the scrupulous realism of his 1999 novel Disgrace, one of the most lauded novels of the twentieth century. Part of its power lies in the sheer unflinching accuracy with which Coetzee depicts South Africa as it tries to free itself of the legacy of colonialism and Apartheid. 

Yet Coetzee has also written visionary novels set in unreal worlds. My favourite of these is Waiting For The Barbarians, which concerns the Magistrate of a remote province of an unnamed Empire. He is content with life in his sleepy farming district until Colonal Joll of the Third Bureau arrives. Joll wishes to capture and interrogate some of the barbarians who lead nomadic lives beyond the Empire’s borders, but when the Magistrate discovers the particular methods of ‘interrogation’ Colonel Joll favours, the cosiness of his life begins to appal him, and he even begins to question the benevolence of Imperial rule itself.
By setting his story in ‘the Empire’, Coetzee bypasses the terrible specificity of Apartheid to examine directly the moral compromises which underpin the lives of all colonisers and all lawmakers.

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Salammbo

Although no novelist can claim to have invented literary realism, if there were one who could, it would be Gustave Flaubert. In his groundbreaking Madame Bovary, Flaubert scrupulously denied himself any fictional contrivance or poetic vocabulary, even eliminating accidental alliteration. Contemporary readers loved Madame Bovary for its honest depiction of ordinary, provincial lives, and generations of writers have imitated its techniques.
His follow-up, Salammbo, can only be described as an epic melodrama. It’s set in Carthage in the third century BC, and although Flaubert engaged in months of research, the scarcity of sources from the period left him lots of room to invent. The results include rampaging mercenaries, crucifixions, a sex scene between two characters who each believe the other to be an apparition and an horrific orgy of child sacrifice.
Salammbo was a bestseller in its day. Its descriptions of Carthaginian costume even inspired the Parisian beau monde to new heights of sartorial excess. Sadly, it has been somewhat overlooked in the Anglophone world.

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Orlando: a biography

In her most famous novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf seeks to capture the complexity of her characters’ inner lives as they endure a disappointing holiday by the sea. No writer had ever peeled back so many layers of the psyche, and To The Lighthouse became the prototype for modern psychological realism.
Orlando, on the other hand, is about an Elizabethan nobleman who, aged around thirty, unaccountably turns into a woman and becomes immortal. She spends the next three hundred years working on her epic poem The Oak Tree and meeting the major figures of English literature. Immortality is not without its perils: she is dogged by another immortal, the literary critic Nicholas Greene.
Woolf described Orlando as ‘a writer’s holiday,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. The character of Orlando is based on the life (and family history) of Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, and her adventures allow Woolf to explore questions of gender and sexuality that she was loth to approach in her realist fiction. The result is a novel which has inspired generations of feminist and LGBTQ writers.

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The Plot Against America

Over his long career, Roth has courted controversy with novels that are not only realist, but toy provocatively with his own real-life biography. His work obsesses over the question of what is real and what might be: in The Counterlife he even creates several very different but equally plausible versions of his own and his brother’s lives.
So it’s surprising, perhaps, that it was only with his twenty-second novel, The Plot Against America, that Roth ventured into alternative history. The main character, ‘Philip Roth,’ is a child when Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh, a real-life public figure—it’s tempting in light of recent events to say celebrity—who involved himself in American politics and was accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies.
As President Lindbergh refuses to intervene in the Second World War and pursues racialist policies at home, young Philip and his Jewish family begin to fear for their lives.
The Plot Against America is about anti-semitism, of course, and about the pain and confusion the adult world inflicts on young children. But above all it’s about the dangers of nationhood. ‘America’ is infinitely precious to the Roths, a family of second-generation immigrants, and to Philip it seems stable, reliable, guaranteed. But almost overnight its stability is revealed to be an illusion.

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Shikasta

Doris Lessing’s legacy has crystallised around The Golden Notebook, a novel which manages to be a masterpiece of literary realism while pushing the very idea of ‘realism’ to breaking point. Its depictions of the lives of women in 1950s London were so unprecedentedly frank that the novel shocked contemporary readers and only found widespread appreciation with the advent of the women’s liberation movement.
But she was a dauntingly prolific writer, and amongst her many lesser-known achievements one of the finest is Canopus in Argos, a five-volume cycle of novels about an alien civilisation. The first volume, Shikasta: Re: Colonised Planet 5, documents the struggles of the benevolent Canopeans to govern the troubled planet of Shikasta, whose apelike dominant species you’re likely to recognise.
From the point of view of the Canopeans, whose civilisation prizes love and integrity above all things, Lessing offers a truly original and sometimes painful portrait of human history.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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