Sartor Resartus

Josh Cohen – Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (1836)

I’d award the prize to Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836), his only novel and one that should have a much larger place in English literary memory than it does. Anticipating Nabokov, Calvino and Perec’s playful experiments with narrative frames, it purports to be the introduction by an anxious editor to the German Idealist philosopher Diogenes Teufelsdröck’s (literally ‘Devil’s Shit’) epic treatise on the metaphysics of clothes. Layering fiction upon fiction, the novel performs Teufelsdröck’s central thesis, that the self is made out of its own disguises. Like Quixote and Shandy, it shows us the novel’s bottomless capacity to question and reinvent itself, a capacity that Victorian realism would soon eclipse. Carlyle himself would go on to achieve fame as a writer of history rather than fiction, but his novel reminds us just how surprising the form can be, and for that he deserves the prize.

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