Had George Eliot cheated mortality and lived to become a 20th-century writer, and had she, for reasons less unlikely than might seem, turned her hand to the campus novel, she might well have written something very like Jane Smiley's Moo Flamingo #163;15.99.
Forget the genre as it is known: toothless satires of academic life and its vanities. Where they show us meanly shrunken little worlds of learning,Smiley proposes the university as a universe, its hugely diverse populations of students, staff and service workers variously connected not just to one another but to the world beyond - a vast web of hopes, fears, desires and ambitions.
Moo University, whose staple crop is agriculture graduates, amid other burgeoning disciplines, now finds itself being gripped by the dead hand of government cutbacks and the tentacles of agribusiness. The year is 1989, the place the Midwest.
Smiley's authorial voice is Olympian, but she also lets one of her characters have a creditable run at playing God, albeit with the more limited scope of the campus computer network. This is the benignly meddling Mrs Walker, secretary to the Provost, her watchword "academic freedoms", her secret manoeuvres to maintain them matched in ferocity only by the open warfare waged by horticulturist Chairman X, one-time Maoist, lifelong fanatic for justice, enemy of consumerism, a man of passion and principle.
Smiley assembles sundry other characters, overseeing assorted sex lives, home lives, obsessions and dinner menus, although economics professor Lionel Gift, representative of those to whom only the dollar is sacred, lives by calculation alone.
Since this is a comic novel, its themes are handled lightly, yet with a subtle shading of characters' inner lives and a due respect for love and death. Human folly may invite the laughter of the gods, but we are also reminded that we, not they, can decide our fates.
Moo is not a comedy of manners but of morals. What we do matters. We see how infinite changes can be wrought by apparently inconsequential events, and how a single good intention can, against great odds, achieve a reversal of misfortune with similarly repercussive effects. For the time being, passion and empathy (for animals as well as humans) prevail over frozen hearts and trickle-down economics.
Moo has been hyped and, for once, deservedly so. Two other fine novels published this month risk being overlooked for the reason that their authors are dead and only now published in translation. Anna Banti was born in 1895 and Artemisia (Serpent's Tail, #163;8.99), the peak of a distinguished literary career, was written as the Second World War was ending and published in 1953.
Its subject is the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, born in 1598. She was taught by her father, Orazio, was subjected to judicial torture as the victim in a rape trial, achieved some artistic prominence in Rome and Naples and travelled to England to work at the court of Charles I alongside her father. Her final years and death are obscure.
Banti illuminates episodes from this life with an extraordinary telescopic clarity, as if the past really could be looked at, watched in movement, but as something very far away and out of reach. The intensity of her writing is almost unbearable at times, for underlying Artemisia's actions there is always a dynamic of painful choice, of each step taken necessitating loss as she casts off the comfort of being a loved wife, a tender mother, for the sake of artistic fulfilment.
Banti creates her quite unsentimentally as a difficult, ambitious woman of great courage, always aiming to be true to the deepest part of herself. Artemisia is a tour de force, but certain passages are of exquisite resonance: a hallucinatory sea voyage, Orazio's death, and the book's staggering final pages as Artemisia travels towards her own.
What is now one of her best known works, a self-portrait once thought a male painter's allegory on his art, Banti treats instead as Artemisia's portrait of another woman artist, an admired rival with whom she never achieved friendship, making it an exemplary document of testimony, just as Banti's beautiful and powerful novel is.
Margit Kaffka (1880-1918) is Hungary's most highly regarded woman writer this century. The Ant Heap (Marion Boyars #163;10.95) has a dry humour underscored with farce. Its provincial convent setting is viewed with the sophisticated eye of a Budapest coffee-house bohemian - Kaffka looking back on a part of her youth: a teacher-training establishment in Transylvania.
This is a community composed of hierarchies, sedate on the surface, seething underneath. Kaffka develops the narrative in a series of small dramas involving students, novices, postulants, priests and nuns. Illicit passions flourish, conflicts erupt between traditionalists and progressives, and there is much discussion of women's options in the world and in the cloisters. In the wings the scheming student-teacher Erzsi plays Cupid, biding her time so that her education will free her for a life in Budapest and a love affair on independent terms.
The Ant Heap was branded a pornographic shocker in 1917. It is instead a novel about change and the hopeful promise of things to come. Its knowingness and vigour certainly place it ahead of its time.