A Fairly Honourable Defeat
In 1855, Charles Dickens criticized a short story by his friend W. H. Wills, sub-editor of Household Words: the story
is all working machinery, and the people are not alive…. It is very difficult to explain how this is, because it is a matter of intuitive perception and feeling; but perhaps I may give two slight examples. If the scene, where the woman who dies is lying in bed, were truly done, the conversation between the heroine and the boy would belong to it—could do no violence to it—and whatever it might be about, would inevitably associate itself in the reader’s mind with the figure on the bed, and would lead up to the catastrophe that soon happens. If the boy on the outside of the Coach were naturally done, his illness would be a natural thing and one would receive it accordingly. Now, the conversation by the bed is an interruption to the idea of the dying woman, and the dying woman is an interruption to the conversation, and they don’t fit. And it is plain that you, the author, make the boy ill because you want him to be ill—for, if the few closing lines of the chapter, referring to him, were taken away, the reader would have no reason whatever to suppose that anything was the matter with him.
Dickens here seized two related points which are still of fundamental importance, and still obstinately unamenable. To say of the characters in fiction that they “are not alive” is to register a crucial protest which no amount of exculpatory explication or signification can overrule. For the nuances and significances which we rightly prize in fiction can be said genuinely to exist (as art rather than as aspiration) only if they are livingly embodied in the characters of fiction.
Dickens, notably, does not here use the word characters; his insistence that “the people are not alive” offers less room for sophisticated evasion than does our usual uninsistent word. But what Henry James said of naïveté in art might be said of all significances in art: “He noted that the water-colours on the walls of the room she sat in had mainly the quality of being naïve, and reflected that naïveté in art is like a zero in a number: its importance depends on the figure it is united with.” Significance in art—and especially that penetrating significance which we exalt as symbolism—depends for its importance on the figure it is united with. Or the figure it is embodied in.
Yet “the people are not alive” is the register of a protest rather than the mounting of a critical argument. Dickens, not obliged to earn his living as a critic, could afford to come more clean than critics do, could point to something crucial which he yet considered hardly accessible to giving good reasons: “It is very difficult to explain how this is, because it is a matter of intuitive perception and feeling.” Not just that it begins in such intuitive perception, but that it virtually ends there. The most that even Dickens could do was point to an inordinate convenience, a manipulation: “It is plain that you, the author, make the boy ill because you want him to be ill.” The openly unpleasant sound of such a wanting is a sharp reminder of how artistic manipulations—particularly those which are high-minded, confidently out to edify—become morally distasteful in being artistically peremptory.
Recent literary criticism has not much gone in for character analysis, whether in plays or in novels. A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean criticism has been somewhat discredited—and greatly misrepresented. Instead, we are alert to patterns, of myth, fable, imagery, word play, symbolism, archetype. Yet such alertness is often strained and ineffectual because it sets aside what substantiates all such patterns, what provides the solidity of resistance which alone makes the creation of pattern something other than all too easy. Much of the retreat from character analysis has been a retreat from an unacknowledged intransigence, an unacknowledged critical daunt. But it will often be necessary to say both that nothing matters more than whether the characters are alive, and that the question is singularly recalcitrant.
None of the present four novels seems to me especially good; Iris Murdoch’s and Giorgio Bassani’s seem to me lamentably vacant because—within enterprises where livingness of character is essential—they both house only spectral authorial wishfulnesses; and yet I have to admit that I have no idea what would count as evidence in a critical argument for or against the view that “the people are not alive.” When T. S. Eliot averred that Othello in his last speech was hooding his eyes and cheering himself up, it was possible to see what would count as arguments for or against such an interpretation of Othello’s character. But when George Bernard Shaw insisted that Othello was melodramatically characterless, his criticism never impinged—not because it is self-evidently fatuous, but because literary criticism is abjectly (and usually disingenuously) short of any way of discussing the matter.
Ten years ago, Iris Murdoch threw her weight behind the reinstatement of character: “When we think of the works of Tolstoy or George Eliot, we are not remembering Tolstoy and George Eliot, we are remembering Dolly, Kitty, Stiva, Dorothea and Casaubon.” Yet for some of us, the weight which Miss Murdoch throws has consistently been one of unremitting assertion and aspiration rather than of creation. For me, her novels fail because they manifest creatively none of the crucial adjurations of their author. Miss Murdoch’s advocacy of living character, mysterious, not to be pigeonholed, remains advocacy and not embodiment; what is espoused is never impregnated. A Fairly Honourable Defeat has on its cover a puppet, blazoned and spreadeagled. The girl, Morgan, steels herself against the sight of the husband, Tallis, whom she has betrayed: “I must see him as a puppet.” The diabolical manipulator Julius moves the honorable, complacent Rupert to protest: “You make human beings sound like puppets.” “But they are puppets, Rupert.” Julius installs the homosexual Simon where the two of them can watch Rupert and Morgan get caught on a flypaper of vanity-cum-love: “Come, come. I promised you a puppet show. You will be immensely diverted.” Again,
I must say, they have behaved predictably to an extent which is quite staggering. Indeed, if any of them had been less than predictable the whole enterprise would have collapsed at an early stage. They really are puppets, puppets.
The italics are indeed Miss Murdoch’s. The whole novel is redolent of puppet-mastery. Miss Murdoch has, perfectly properly, made central to her novel the question of whether human beings can or should be seen as puppets (though unfortunately the idea that they shouldn’t be is itself as likely to become perfunctorily routine as any other idea about human beings); and she has thereby doomed her novel to total failure. For the exchange—“…But they are puppets”—is altogether evacuated by the novel’s clumsy palpable strings and ventriloquistic squeaks. Kenneth Tynan once deplored the “facile pessimism” of Beckett’s mime, Acte sans paroles: “I am ready to believe that the world is a stifling, constricting place—but not if my informant is an Egyptian mummy.” All talk of puppetry is likewise nullified when the puppet-mistress blatantly rigs all.
Plan and will suppress spontaneity and suppleness. Far from achieving that sense of strangeness and mystery which she so prizes, Miss Murdoch continually substitutes an assertion of strangeness for an evocation of it. In this there is nothing new about A Fairly Honourable Defeat: her determination annually to rewrite the same novel has the effect of compelling the reluctant reviewer to rewrite his earlier review. So it is with a reiteration in danger of the same formulaic petrifaction which brittles her novels that I observe, again, how totally the double pressure of design (insistent pattern and insistent intention) oppresses her fiction.
Totally, too, the ceaseless hundred-fold repetition of odd, curious, mysterious, strange, weird, eerie, peculiar, uncanny, somehow renders impossible any free and new evocation of mystery; just as that other sub-Jamesian locution (“a kind of x y”) settles yet again into a mechanism which effects nothing but pretentious obscurantism. A sort of incoherent love, a sort of ordered completeness, a sort of desperate feverish cheerfulness, a sort of lifting supporting tide of love, a sort of relaxed despair, a kind of horrid excitement, a sort of large bright humming electric silence, a kind of bitter confidence: these are something worse than a nervous tic, since they counterfeit a taxing and exploratory precision.
Julius wrecks the happy-complacent marriage of Rupert and Hilda as a demonstration of his own cynical skill and of the human race’s vanity and gullibility. But Rupert and Hilda are so vain and gullible as to make the demonstration empty. Julius says of one of his ploys, “Maybe I shouldn’t have told Peter, it was just my instinct as an artist, it was entirely impromptu”; and he avers, “After all, I am an artist.” One remembers the long tradition of viewing Iago, with some justice, as an artist of a sort. But artistry is commensurate to its materials, and Julius is at work upon too soft a medium to elicit much interest or admiration. “I was the magician, Hilda”: but he is less a magician than a tawdry conjurer.
No doubt A Fairly Honourable Defeat knows this (though it’s not clear why it is fairly honorable to be defeated by such cheap tricks), but the thinness of the minds and hearts both of the victims and of their victimizer issues in an artistic thinness. “Considering how nasty the human race is, it’s amazing how carelessly trusting it can be too.” Clearly Julius isn’t endorsed in his generalization about the human race, but the novel can come to very little unless at least he is making what appear to be the challenging points. But the easy authorial selection of these puppets of nastiness and trustingness makes it all vacant. Julius is no Iago or even Iachimo, but a mere Don John who tries to wreck the love of Claudio and Hero—in other words, a character with whom not even Shakespeare had been able to do anything of the faintest interest.
Unfortunately A Fairly Honourable Defeat is not Much Ado about Nothing, it is much ado about nothing. Unpleasingly so, too, in that Miss Murdoch is determined that any comic harmlessness will be breached; Rupert is drowned (drink-sodden and suicidal) in his swimming-pool, this having been anticipated—with symbolic but weightless gravity—in the drowning of the hedgehog which people had of course ominously feared might drown. Dickens: “It is plain that you, the author, make the boy ill because you want him to be ill.” Julius may say, “It started as a sort of practical joke but it got rather out of hand, I fear.” But one has only to recall such art as does convert murderous practical jokes into poignancy and compassion—Kipling’s art, and especially “Dayspring Mishandled”—to feel how uninsidious and unpenetrating is Miss Murdoch’s construct.
Julius may say, “I couldn’t help wondering how old Rupert would stand up to a real test and what all this high-minded muck could really amount to in practice.” But for one thing Rupert isn’t alive to me, and for another he’s painted as so patently ill-equipped for the mildest of tests as to make any test a bureaucratic self-indulgence. It’s as if Measure for Measure were vitiated by an Angelo who was not only a mere figment, but moreover without any of the genuinely substantial virtues which render his testing a challenge and a pathos. In fact, A Fairly Honourable Defeat suggests a different kind of play: Restoration comedy, without the wit but with an added wreaking of harm. And as William Empson has said of Restoration comedy, “The idea of sex as only enjoyable when it is a victory over the partner is often present, and desolates the heart (one feels these people would be less miserable if they gave sex up).”
The Heron is about someone who has given it up. He is not any the less miserable. Giorgio Bassani’s novel is at the opposite extreme from Iris Murdoch’s: where she is nimbly kaleidoscopic, he is sluggishly melancholy. But the end-product impressed me as equally unimpressive, the hero of The Heron being artistically dead and deadly. Whereas Miss Murdoch incorporates the parodic (though without any firm sense of why it asks to be incorporated), Bassani offers something so softly vulnerable to parody as almost to tempt one’s kindness. Just as the poor heron itself, flapping with ungainly sadness, fraught with significance, is too open a target for the lugubrious hero Edgardo to shoot at, so The Heron in its ungainly sadness and fraught significance makes its appeal, not altogether scrupulously.
But the heron gets shot, and Edgardo needless to say goes in for a characteristically morose and constipated (that too is literal) act of self-identification: “He looked at it, full of anxiety, identifying with it completely.” And once it is wounded: “If he hadn’t felt that shooting at it would seem, to him, shooting in a sense at himself, he would have fired at once. Then, at least it would be all over.”
Poor old Edgardo so luxuriates in his humiliations, real and imagined, that one wants old-fashionedly to shake him. He spends most of his novel trying to rouse himself, being late, yawning, looking at his watch, groaning. “Again there was nothing that did not irk him, wound him.” His hunting trip comes to nothing, which is what his half-hoped-for reconciliation with his brother comes to; his marriage never looked like coming to anything but nothing; so it is no surprise when he is moved by a taxidermist’s window into believing that he’d be better off dead. We leave him about to blow out his brains. They never seem to have been much to write home about. Or to write about.
The Heron only looks distinguished, and it doesn’t manage more than a quivering “Nothing, any longer, appeared real to him.” But a novelist had better first be justifiably confident that it will all be real to us; otherwise the distinction evaporates. “You had only to look at the affairs of life from a certain distance to conclude that they were worth, all of them, only what they were worth: namely nothing, or almost nothing.” All very well for Edgardo, but his creator hasn’t grounds enough for believing that “the affairs of life” are indeed present in his attenuated fictional preciosity. Bassani’s favorite poetic locution is “as if” (“as if he were seeing it for the first time”); fifty times he deploys it, in company with an insistence on how strange, odd, mysterious, and absurd everything seemed; and it all just lies there. Yet all this hypersensitivity, radiated from Edgardo’s every pore, is apparently asking our respect, and even, it seems, our interest. I thought of D. H. Lawrence:
I can’t stand Willy wet-leg,
can’t stand him at any price.
He’s resigned, and when you hit him
he lets you hit him twice.
“James Dickey,” says the vibrant blurb, “has been a star college athlete (football at Clemson and track at Vanderbilt), a night fighter pilot…” No Willy wet-leg. But as the narrator of Deliverance stands in the swirling perilous river, he has his Lawrentian moment: “The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it.” Lawrentian—only the mannered manliness ends up being mannish.
Deliverance deals with a canoeing expedition in a remote area which will soon be flooded for a reservoir; the hunters have their bows and arrows: “After so much shooting at paper images of deer, it was exciting to think of encountering a real one.” The narrator here is an adman who finally shows that this is compatible with being a man; Lewis is a survival-addict with an addiction to being in a fix; Drew is decent and ends up dead; and pink Bobby is inordinately distasteful to his creator.
None of these characters much lives. But then there is a great deal in Deliverance which grips as situation and description. The “techniques and mystiques” are those which one would expect from Mr. Dickey’s poems; it all makes for a vividly precise account of what it’s like to be hurled in a canoe or to hurl an arrow. Not but what it would seem to count on our not having done such things much lately—perhaps its adroit verisimilitude is less than the whole truth.
Still, the plot has its excitements irrespective of the characters; what the men meet are not murderable deer but two murderous perverts. Bobby is buggered at gun-point by one such, and the narrator is about to get his when from the bushes Lewis’s arrow strikes. Thereafter (the body buried) it all turns upon whether the armed prowling pervert will kill or be killed.
Clearly Mr. Dickey hopes we will value all this as more than a yarn. But his canny ironies don’t sufficiently scrutinize the boy scoutish pretensions—instead there is a covert protection. “I’m so tanked up with your river-mystique that I’m sure I’ll go through some fantastic change as soon as I dig the paddle in the first time.” But if the characters suffer a river-change, it isn’t into something rich and strange. Too much of the dialogue remains dialogue, whether or not it is conscious of its stereotypes: “What I mean is like they say in the movies, especially on Saturday afternoon. It’s either him or us.” There is too much metaphysicality plumping out the physical: “Is this freedom? I wondered.” And too much predictable pose-striking: “There’s nothing you do as vice-president of Emerson-Gentry that’s going to make any difference at all, when the water starts to foam up.” And too much slovenliness of phrasing; I don’t think much of struck in the following excerpt, and offhand seems to me the worst gaucherie since J.I.M. Stewart called the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear “an eye-opener”:
In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least.
There is, too, a moral insensitivity comparable to the stylistic, for all the studied fineness. Deliverance is too patently the concoction of a situation in which it will be morally permissible—nay, essential—to kill men with a bow and arrow. Such is clearly what the book wants to do from the outset, and the contrivance of such circumstances has its cold prurience. Secondly, there is the treatment of Bobby. “He was a pleasant surface human being,” but the narrator loses this simulated patience:
I was not in awfully good shape myself, but Bobby was wheezing and panting after the first hundred yards…. I was sure that Lewis was disgusted with Bobby, and just as sure that I would be, also, before much longer.
Enter a convenient excuse for feeling disgusted with Bobby, one which yet claims not to blame him and so doesn’t have to give good grounds for disgust: the buggering of Bobby, “still and pink in an obscene posture that no one could help.” The narrator, in the nick of time, is saved—and one can’t help suspecting that it was his not being pink that saved him. Poor Bobby goes from pink to red. “I moved away from Bobby’s red face. None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me.” And the taint sticks; Bobby manifests cowardice, and he comes to a custom-built bad end two pages before the conclusion:
I saw Bobby only once or twice in the city, just nodding to each other in public places. I couldn’t tell from looking at him how he was, but he had returned to the affable, faintly nasty manner he had always had, and I was glad as not to leave him alone; he would always look like dead weight and like screaming, and that was no good to me. I later heard that he quit the company he was working for and tried to go into business with a partner running a Chicken-in-a-Basket drive-in and carry-out near a local engineering college, but it failed after a year and he moved to another city, and then, I heard, to Hawaii.
By which point it has become all too clear that Bobby is the victim of a deeply obscure authorial grudge.
There is nothing as gross as a grudge in Michel Butor’s Niagara. Whereas Mr. Dickey’s river is a virility test, M. Butor’s falls constitute an admonition, a reminder of how endlessly various and yet the same are human impulses, pressures, shatterings. Niagara is a “stereophonic novel”; it weaves together a description of the falls by Chateaubriand, snatches of modern conversations (newly-weds, lady and gigolo, second-honeymooners, Negro gardeners), and announcements about Niagara and its visitors. Typographical equivalents to stereophonic effects are deployed with skill and sensitivity; the pages only look unreadable, and the poetic felicities are many. Its subtleties of permutation are genuine and apt, and they reminded me of a fine tribute by Empson to Sidney’s sestina, “Ye goat-herd gods”:
The poem beats, however rich in orchestration, with a wailing and immovable monotony, for ever upon the same doors in vain. Mountaines, vallies, forrests; musique, evening, morning; it is at these words only that Klaius and Strephon pause in their cries; these words circumscribe their world; these are the bones of their situation; and in tracing their lovelorn pastoral tedium through thirteen repetitions, with something of the aimless multitudinousness of the sea on a rock, we seem to extract all the meaning possible from these notions.
Nevertheless, faced with such an extreme of experimentation, so severe an ejection of living people in favor of disembodied and fragmentary voices, a reviewer ought to say whether he thinks he’s likely ever to read the thing again. I think I shall not. It interested me, rather than interests me. It has its idiosyncratic charm, but lacking characters it ultimately lacks character.