Where some people see "greatest modernist novel ever," I see Joyce's utter failure to recognize historical progress. Sure, woven into Leopold Bloom's abstract mind are some useful critical thoughts about capitalism, but Joyce fails to offer any other option. Where's the Marxism, Joyce?
What I don't like is the idea of literary experimentation for its own sake. We need to focus on the political and historical messages the book might hold for us.
If I may digress, I had a real beef with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who claimed to be a straight-up Marxist but who also defended modernist writing in books such as Ulysses. Our disagreement over issues of modernist aesthetic experimentation ignited what is famously known as the "Brecht-Lukács" debate. I say you can't be a Marxist and a modernist. Pick one.
This great Scottish author is the bomb when it comes to historical novels. I reserve particular affection for Waverley, that classic example of the genre. Historical novels are based in history (not just one protagonist's head), and when they are good, they look at the various types of social life in a given era. Most importantly, they show human progress (and not some navel-gazing character only reflecting on his own experience), and they give us important information about how characters exist as individuals in society.
Why do I love historical novels so much? I'm glad you asked. First, they paved the way for Realist novels (my fave). Second, they give us a peek into the lived reality of a particular historical moment. Now that's Marxist-friendly.
I'm keen on all of Balzac's work (check out Pere Goriot, for one)—he kept it real. Realist, that is.
Balzac was able to strike the crucial balance between the individual and his or her place in the flow of history. With me, it's all about historical realities and a fine-tuned sense of political experience. Balzac was downright revolutionary with the model created by Sir Walter Scott. Now, I don't agree with his pro-aristocratic sentiments (a king?), but he sure showed us the looming hydra-headed rise of the bourgeoisie.
Balzac's novels show people rising and falling; their transformations occur right before our eyes. Forget that he and Scott were conservative—the messages in their novels were radical.
Mann was the man. In my view, all of his books—like Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus, you name it—were masterworks of historical realism. Buddenbrooks is all in when it comes to accurately showing the rise of the bourgeoisie. In this book, capitalism and all of its nasty realities come out and replace old systems that seemed really bad but now look pretty gentle by comparison.
That Hagenström family is ruthless. Mann's Realist style allows us to see characters in their larger contexts of community and society. I don't want novels with self-determining, head-in-the-clouds characters, because that's not how reality works. (Take it from me.) People are moved by social forces—whether they recognize it or not.
Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô is another great historical novel. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
Now, I wasn't exactly in Carthage and Rome in the third century BCE to verify the facts, but I still have praised this book for its historical realism as if I were a personal eyewitness to ancient history. Above all, this exotic little work of literature meets the two crucial measures of successful historical fiction: it has an accurate sense of the past and the present while not suggesting that they are two completely separate entities.
People have argued with my high opinion of Flaubert's work, but they can't deny how he made the most of the novel as a form. He made the historical novel reflect the interconnectedness of history, and he also showed how the conditions created as people go along determine what happens to people in a given era.