What do we come away with when we read not merely a masterpiece but a masterwork of literature? The distinction between the two, masterpiece and masterwork, I take to be in favor of the latter, for a masterwork is not necessarily perfect of its kind, as a masterpiece ought to be, but of a significance beyond the question of mere (some “mere”) perfection. Usually large, often sprawling, always the product of monstrous ambition, a masterwork is a key book, one that defines a historical era, or the culmination of a form, or a national literature, or Western thought itself. Robert Musil, in The Man Without Qualities, set out to produce a masterwork, but, despite his great brilliance, failed. Nothing short of genius is required to bring it off. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy—such are masterworks. Closer to our own time, books that qualify as masterworks, I should say,...


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