Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children? The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of the great novelists of either gender had a successful family life. I have always liked Tolstoy’s diary entry from 1863: “Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.” Tolstoy is indeed the great novelist of family happiness, but delight is tempered by the vision of the father and husband he became—selfish, tyrannical, more faithful to his literary and religious followers than to his biological successors. Even gentle Chekhov joked that he would prefer a wife “who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.” He contrived to marry late in his short life, and spent much of his marriage in Yalta, while Olga Knipper worked a thousand miles away, in Moscow.

Perhaps the storyteller is especially ill-suited for happy family life. For even as the fiction writer tells humane stories about behavior and motive and family relations – what one might think of as a sympathetic skill – so he or she is also a little like the proverbial choirboy at the funeral: coldly observing, carefully pillaging, rearranging, impersonating, and re-voicing the very material that constitutes “family.”

James Wood, “Sins of the Father”, The New Yorker (22 July 2013), 70.

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