Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Novel, a survival skill by Tim Parks

[ To some degree he sets up a straw dog: ‘what literary criticism does’ that it doesn’t always.]

If reader reaction to writers are profoundly conditioned by their respective backgrounds, by where one is writing from and the other reading from, then any notion of establishing a definitive “judgment” on a book, or pecking order of writers, is swept away. But it could hardly be otherwise, and despite all the literary prizes and “authoritative” critics, really we already knew this. “He didn’t get it it at all,” “She bought into it at once” are expressions that suggest how readily we accept the idea of affinity or lack of it when we read a book; publishers and newspapers send novels to reviewers who they sense will be well-disposed to a certain style or content; relatives and friends give books they hope will be the right thing for the right person. Often the person receiving the book appreciates at once that a mistake has been made. It’s an experience I’m all to familiar with.

So this is common knowledge.  .  . Here I have proposed a model for narrative creativity that is not common knowledge and that has uncomfortable implications. It is widely believed that literary writing may come out of mental turbulence, disturbance, even pathological states of mind. Yet it is always assumed that the literature produced by these states of mind is beneficent. Why should this be? Is it perhaps that since we enjoy reading narrative it has become important for us to believe that the activity is intrinsically good; we exploit a cod Platonism absorbed since earliest infancy that tells us that if a thing can be described as beautiful it will somehow be morally good as well. A great thinker like Schopenhauer was convinced that novels were detrimental to mental and moral health. People were “deluded into an absolutely false view of life by reading novels.” Nobody takes on this accusation. Schopenhauer is a great thinker, except when inconvenient.

I have tried to give some shape and system to our intuition of the mental discomfort behind much literary creativity. I have not questioned whether Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence, Joyce, etc. write “good” novels or stories. What I wonder is whether the process of fiction writing offers resolution, greater ease, to the writer or the readers, or whether it is a way of rendering an unhappy situation chronic by allowing just sufficient consolation and reward from the expression of unhappiness to prevent us from making big changes. True, I have suggested, in my very title, that writing can be thought of as a survival skill, offering relief from internal conflict, but perhaps in some cases we could add, in lieu of some other more radical and practical course of action: if you are not willing, that is, to undertake the real life changes that might resolve a dilemma, or if such changes have been tried but proved impossible, unworkable, then write!

In this regard I recall a conversation with a German writer, locked into an unhappily complicated relationship with two women and writing rather brilliant books about men locked into unhappily complicated relationships with more than one woman. He was fairly young and over beers complained to me that he found himself doing things (with women) that he had promised himself he would not repeat. However, when I suggested he might want to see an analyst, he responded that he was afraid that if he solved his problem it would effect his writing. Perhaps he needed this messy life to write. Literature, or an income from literature, or the self esteem that accrues from producing literature, were more important than solving his unhappiness, or made unhappiness manageable.

The strategy rubs off on the reader. When we read Colm Toibin’s silvery prose, the fine cadences with which emotional suffering is described, it really does seem that art might somehow make up for, or almost make up for, a lost love, an empty life. Alice Munro is on the same wavelength: successful writing, sophisticated reading, sensibility, irony, deep perception, all invite us to feel at once pleasantly sad, yet complacent about lives described as failures. The reader of Hardy can feel gratified by his or her own rejection of destructive Victorian values, yet at the same time remain convinced of how dangerous it is to go against the social grain. And so on. Perhaps of all writers, Beckett, or at least his narrators in the trilogy, made the most hay with this, at once mocking the consolation to be found from writing- “there is a choice of images,” declares  Malone, having described his alter ego’s disorientation as a “thistledown plucked by the wind” – then finding consolation in this superior awareness that no consolation is to be had.

Let me return to Gregory Bateson’s Naven to frame the one deep question I meant this book to pose. Bateson described a drastically imbalanced society which found in an elaborate and bizarre series of rituals ay of allowing that imbalance to continue without society tearing itself apart. Whether this is precious stability or chronic unease is not an issue for the anthropologist, but it might well be for the individual members of that society. It might be that, becoming conscious of the mechanism, an individual in that society would want to drop the ritual and confront the imbalance. In general, then, is the effect of novels we read essentially a form of Naven, an elaborate mental ritual? Thus the virtual and virtuous intellectual life is sufficiently gratifying, one way or another, to permit us to continue with ugly realities, the satisfaction of feeling ourselves progressive, for example, is enough to go on being conservative. Arguing against arousing compassion in novels, Muriel Spark remarked that the sentiment merely allows the reader to “feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled by the emotions they have been induced to feel.”

Is this the way our western lifestyle perpetuates itself? With a structural hypocrisy that requires a very special mind set; receiving the Nobel Prize, the winner gives a ferociously anti-capitalist speech to a full-house of international capitalists who all applause warmly. Nothing will change. Such was the case when Jose Saramago took the award. “I can’t understand why the applauded,” remarks The Writer in Bernhard’s play Am Ziel, speaking about his own successful drama: “we are talking about a work that exposes every one of them and in the meanest way admittedly with humor, but nasty humor, if not with malice, true malice. And all of a sudden they applaud!” Art has become structural to our way of life, not a force for change, rather an opportunity to feel complacent about our sensibilities.

Not that I believe that all literature is necessarily of this kind. Of the writers we have looked at Lawrence is definitely of a different nature. Beckett is another writer determined to draw attention to the dangerous consolations of literature, to satirize the power of art to encourage us to imagine our sufferings noble.

But on the whole? Amid all the pieties that art is always worthy and above all worthy of funding, that the world needs stories, regardless of what kind of stories, let us stay focused on the real effect that reading and writing has upon us. Let us understand the malaise it came out of and the malaise we bring to it. Plato banished [poets from his republic. He felt they were noxious. Plato was no fool. I will not suggest we do the same, I love reading novels; but let us beware, or rather be aware. Dickens can be harmful. Hardy can be harmful. Joyce can be harmful. I admire them all. We must defend ourselves.

.   .   .   .   .  .


The critical reception of Jude, though it proved popular, was the breaking point for Thomas Hardy. Hardy had written openly of sexual problems  that people close to him knew were to do with his own marriage and frustrations. He had spoken explicitly of marriage as a trap. “Why can’t we agree to free each other?” begs Sue of her husband. Yet at the same time he was suggesting that the community’s principles were so internalized in his protagonists’ minds that there was no question of escaping them. “We must conform! . . .says Sue at the bitter climax of the novel. “I am, cowed into submission. I have no more fighting strength left; no more enterprise. I am beaten, beaten!” Victorian principles prevail, albeit as a decaying albatross round the necks of these would-be revolutionaries. And Hardy stayed in his gloomy Dorset home, adding an outside staircase so he could move between study and garden without meeting his wife Emma.

What broke in the end was not his way of life, but Hardy’s will to go on writing novels. If one function of his narrative pessimism had been to keep him in his marriage, despite his unhappiness, this “advantage” was now outweighed by the deeper bitterness the novel created in that marriage – his wife openly announcing her disgust with the book to dinner guests – and again the extreme hostility of a wide area of the press. Hardy, like Jude and Sue, was now cowed into submission, lost any will top go on struggling with his dilemma. Quite probably he accepted the situation with the same relief that Tess accepts her death, especially since the scandal of the book turned it into a considerable commercial success that now made him as independent financially a he was trapped domestically. From now on he would only write poetry, where, he claimed, the same strong opinions could be expressed without negative response, largely because the absence of narrative and the attraction of lyricism prevented the same ferocious engagement on the part of the reader. A disembodied idea is much less dangerous than an embodied one. In a letter in 1888 he remarked:

If there is anyway of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life in dying, so to speak before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manner of ghosts, wandering in their haunts, and taking their view of surrounding things. To think of life as passing away is a sadness, to think of it as past is at least tolerable. Hence even when I enter into a room to pay a simple morning call, I have unconsciously the habit of regarding the scene as if I were a spectre not solid enough to influence my environment.

The relation of such a wish to the fear/courage polarity in alkl of Hatrdy’ novels is evident, as equally there is a parallel between the desire to be beyond engagement and responsibility and Tess’s desire to forget her body in contemplation of the stars, or again Clym’s happiness submerging himself in vegetation and insect life. Hardy yearns for a place beyond fear, desire, and the need to muster courage. He gave up novel-writing, one might hazard, to look for that place and that ghostly place in poetry.

Here’s Afterwards:
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
    And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbors say,
    “He was a man that used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
   The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer might think,
    “To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
    When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “he strove that such innocent creatures should
    come to no harm,
But he could do little for them, and now he’s gone.”

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
    Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who meet my face no more,

    “He was one who had an eye for such mysteries?”

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
    And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s bloom,
  “He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”?

All Hardy’s old anxieties are here, but so quietly  and beautifully expressed we hardly notice. The poet’s has been a “tremulous”, death is already behind him, aestheticized in the tolling bell; his concern about his reputation is presented modestly as he wonders whether people will remember how he observed the natural world that the poem the immerses itself in. A rapacious bird of prey becomes the “dewfall-hawk”; the fact that this bird of prey could be responsible for the death of the “furtive hedgehog” of the next stanza is discretely left unmentioned. Hardy “strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm. But he could do little for them [or himself]; and now he is gone – so much for the possibility of positive action in the world. In the fourth stanza the starry heavens remain the “mystery” they always were. There is no God,. Finally, the bell of “quittance”  suggests “discharge from debt or obligation.” Hardy is relieved to be gone. All life’s passions have been elided, not just the fatal consummation, Bathsheba’s first kiss with Troy, Tess’s sex with Alec, but the whole damn narrative .The pessimism is so elegantly put that none one could possibly object. Above all there are no women.