There are many definitions of what makes a great work of literature, but for my money a great book must do one thing above all else: it must create a world of its own, with its own unique atmosphere and moral universe. It must invent that world and transport you into it, and make you believe in it, from first sentence to last. Paradoxically you will inhabit it intimately as an autonomous world existing independently of you, the reader. The plot and the setting, the characters and their language – all exist elsewhere, and you merely overhear, oversee, even though you are drawn into the very heart and essence of the creation. This is the godlike miracle of great writing. Homer did it, Shakespeare did it, the Brontës and Dickens did it. The new world the author creates is peculiar and true to that particular poem, play or novel, and true to no other.
The last sentence of True Grit, spoken by its narrator and heroine, Mattie Ross, declares that ‘this ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s [her father’s] blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground’. That phrase ‘true account’ is vital to the fiction. Mattie’s story has all the authority of the truth-teller who has successfully created that other world, the one in which, like the Wedding Guest, you cannot choose but believe, even though you know it’s an illusion, that Mattie does not exist, that the real voice belongs to Charles Portis, the enigmatic recluse who wrote the novel in 1968.
Look at Mattie’s concluding sentence again. The casual geographical precision and the simple, telling detail about the weather make it sound almost banal – ironically so after you have just read her amazing account of her adventures, while on another level the biblical cadences will make you prick up your ears.
Nor does the opening sentence of the novel offer much more promise of what is to come by way of these incredible and enthralling adventures: ‘People do n
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