Monday, August 29, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

He gets up at a reasonable hour in the morning and catches the bus to work, enjoying the sight of other passengers yawning themselves out of sleep, and looking forward to his day in the office.

The first hour there is a little slow – basically a matter of tidying up things left over from yesterday. Morning tea always provides some interesting, harmless gossip and he’s occasionally able to provide some himself.

The really busy time is between morning tea and lunch, when the phone rings a lot, new contracts are set up and enquiries made.

After a couple of hours of this, lunch is most welcome, taken either in the staff canteen or at a nearby cafĂ©. Among his colleagues, there are always some who are available to have lunch with him, unless he’s out with a client. Some of his colleagues have interesting tastes. He’s learnt a lot about dining over the years, and one thing he knows is to avoid the overlong lunch. It’s fatal to a productive afternoon.

Back in the office, the pace of things slows down in the afternoon, but there is the occasional crisis. He can handle this and he is interested enough in his work not to be a fanatical clock-watcher. If he has to stay late, he rings his wife and then stays late.

Usually, however, he’s back on the bus by about 5:20 and he’s arriving home at the same time that his wife is returning from her workplace. They share the task of making dinner and eat it while watching the evening news, blipping the sound of the ads so they can discuss both work and world affairs. (Often fairly sardonic comments for the latter.)
He reads a lot. He likes good novels. He likes history. He sometimes reads a little poetry. He is well-informed. His work is useful and fulfilling. He likes his life. He loves his wife. They’re proud of their children and enjoy the regular weekends visits with grandchildren. She plays the piano. He takes walks and sometimes flies a kite.

He is not complacent. He has strong opinions on some ethical and political matters, but he knows no argument was ever won by battering people with words. Reasonable discussion is more his thing, when he can find it.

Given what life can throw at people, he knows he is a happy man.

And guess what? Though he exists in tens of thousands, nobody will ever, ever, ever write a convincing novel about him.

Now why is this?

The obvious answer would appear to be that happiness is undramatic and even scrupulously realistic novels require crisis and conflict. A happy, fulfilled life, even if it is lived by a reflective and thoughtful person, can so easily seem smug and boring. But there is also the problem that reality, as lived by most people whether they are happy or unhappy, does not engage us.

I won’t say this situation troubles me, but it does bemuse me. It means, after all, that most novels we read are not about “ordinary” people, but are about extraordinary and unrepresentative people doing unusual things. This is so obviously true of formula and genre writing – thrillers etc. – that I don’t have to elaborate on them. We know they exist for their escapist sensations and thrills, and their very appeal is the fact that they take us out of the ordinary.

But what about “literary novels”, which are rumoured to present something like the real world to which grow-ups can relate? Even here, no story can be made out of the ordinary.

The best nineteenth century novelists tried to present whole panoramas of society, with all classes, professions and trades represented. But the panorama played out in complex and melodramatic plots, often involving crime, murder, dark secrets etc.

Dickens might well represent a drunken nurse (in Martin Chuzzlewit), a schoolmaster (in The Old Curiosity Shop) or a policeman (in Our Mutual Friend). But he always wrapped them in caricature (wonderful , glorious caricature of genius, of course) so that they ended up larger-than-life. The same was true of Balzac.

I’ve been called a vulgarian because I like the novels of Emile Zola. He made it his life’s vocation to describe in scrupulous and documented detail how people lived and worked – train-driver, prostitute, coal miner etc. Readers get all the physical details of their places of work, how they dressed and amused themselves, the type of people they worked with and so on. But his train-driver is a psychotic killer (La Bete Humaine – perversely, my favourite Zola); his prostitute (Nana) works the high end of the market and involves all society in her fall; and as for his coal-miners (Germinal), I’ve rarely felt such a sense of let-down as in the way the novel veers off from credible reality into the far-fetched details of rival lovers slugging it out in a flooding mine, in the novel’s climax. In short, even Zola pegs his “realism” on outrageous melodrama.

As for the Modernists, they thought they could catch everyday reality through the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of their characters. But what characters! A Dublin Jew with a flamboyantly adulterous wife (Joyce’s Ulysses). The society-hostess wife of a Tory MP (Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway).  Ordinary people representative of their time and place? I think not. And even with such unrepresentative characters, the Modernists knew that an unvarnished individual life was rather boring. So Joyce gives us a journey through all of Dublin on one day in 1904. Woolf claimed she was writing “the thoughts of an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”. But she has to rev up her novel with the quite detachable story of a shell-shocked soldier committing suicide. Even the ordinary life of a non-representative person does not carry a novel.

Where are we now in this particular problem? Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is what many novels now attempt to do, but I am aware of what I would call “the higher escapism”. Have you noticed the number of literary novels which now concern “ordinary” modern characters discovering extraordinary or dramatic things about their parents and ancestors? Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of novels I’ve read in the past ten years that turn on some young character finding a document or photo or archive or letter that reveals Mum, Dad, Grandpa, Uncle Harry or Great-Aunt Millie having been a rebellious Victorian-era wife, a member of the IRA in the 1920s, party to a massacre in the Korean War etc. etc. etc.

Usually this set up allows the author to introduce details of the dramatic past in the form of diary entries, or by contrasting a “present” voice with a “past” voice. Very unreliable narrator. Very post-modern. Very escapist from dull quotidian reality.

Many years ago, Professor Joan Stevens declared that David Ballantyne’s The Cunninghams, about an ordinary hard-luck family in Depression-era New Zealand, had not solved the problem of making dull, everyday suburban characters interesting.

But has anybody ever solved that problem?

Ignoring the thrillers and genre stuff, even the literary novels caricature, melodramatise, find excuses to deal with other things or escape into the more interesting past when they run up against workaday reality.

Sometimes I think the most honest novelistic representation of ordinary life and work was in the infancy of the modern novel. Then, the likes of Sir Walter Scott would halt a flowery romantic tale for a page or two, to give a free-standing description of a gypsy or a factor or a peasant at work. Perhaps only in such bland, self-contained description can the everyday life of most people be caught.

Meanwhile our butchers are poets and our grocers have a taste for literary gossip.

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