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Comedy is easy, tragedy easier still. A narrative that ends with the good happily rewarded and the bad satisfactorily punished satisfies one of our instincts. A story that ends with the utter bleakness of nobility crushed chimes with another of our appetites - the need to be put through the emotional wringer.

What is altogether harder is to sustain a story that is closer to the reality of our lives - a tangle of disappointments, disenchantments, fugitive moments of happiness and hope found in humour and resilience.

It's the novels that succeed in carrying off such a melding of narratives which count as the greatest works of fiction. The realist -novel, which captures human nature in all its agonised complexity and captures the life of a community in all its contradictory richness, is the summit of fictional writing. In the very best example of the genre, George Eliot's -Middlemarch, we have nobility thwarted, stubborn wilfulness leading individuals astray and happiness coming at a painfully high price.

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