Like Vladimir Nabokov, I think the word ‘genius’ should be used incredibly sparingly and not be casually bandied about. In certain fields of human endeavour the appellation seems relatively easy to understand and identify – I’m thinking of science, philosophy, mathematics and music, in particular. We appear able to recognise genius in composers almost instinctively. In other arts, though, it becomes more problematic. Leonardo da Vinci, yes, but Picasso? Shakespeare, yes, but Molière? Dante, yes, but Elisabeth Bishop?
When we move on to writers of fiction it becomes even harder, I would argue. Perhaps this is because the novel is so trammelled up with the vast complexities of our human lives that the scope of the novelist’s enterprise is too large. There seems to be something inherently pure and shining and immediately graspable about a work of genius or an artist of genius. But our lives are too messy, contingent and idiosyncratic so that, inevitably, the novel – the art form that best treats them – is similarly messy, contingent and idiosyncratic. Because our lives are so manifestly not a work of art there is, almost by definition, something tarnished, uneven, contradictory and ambiguous about a novel, however great.
And there’s a further question: if a writer writes one iconic work does that allow him or her entry into the genius-pantheon? Is Cervantes a genius? Is Jane Austen? Is James Joyce? Is Borges? I think that when it comes to fiction we have to reshape the criteria for genius-level, somewhat. Perhaps we might say that to be a writer of genius the perception of the world has to have changed in some way because of that writer’s work – a kind of literary paradigm-shift has to have taken place. So we might look again at Dickens and see how the way that readers saw the world post-Dickens was shaped and altered by him. More names come to mind as a result of this re-thinking: Gustave Flaubert, possibly; Kafka, almost definitely; Edgar Allen Poe, conceivably; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, controversially; Philip Larkin, maybe. And so on – suddenly we have a small but growing list.
But if there is one writer of prose fiction upon whom I would like unhesitatingly to bestow the label of genius then that would be Anton Chekhov. Nobody wrote like Chekhov before he appeared and after he had gone (in 1904) he had changed everything. The thirty or so mature short stories that he published in the last decade of his life depict a view of the human condition and a way of writing about it that is still hugely prevalent and entirely valid. Chekhov, perhaps because he was a doctor and knew he was dying when he wrote his great stories, was highly conscious of life’s endless disconnections, its absurdities, plotlessness and its random cruelty. Comic, dark, secular, unconsoling, unsentimental, refusing to condemn or celebrate, Chekhov’s stories still ring with unmistakeable human truth over a hundred years after they were written. All serious writers are, in a way, Chekhovian. His influence, covert and overt, is massive and widespread. A genius.
This article appeared in The Observer’s Book of Genius April 2007