by Tim Parks
Arcade, 442 pp., $24.95
One of the prime difficulties the novelist faces is that he must work within the delusion that life as human beings live it is a fair representation of reality. He must work as if, to adapt Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, life is all that is the case. The composer, for whom form is content and content form, can bypass mere daily doings and go straight to the essence of things, pure ideas, unmediated expression. So too the poet, despite having to lug the baggage of common words, can achieve effects between the lines that are beyond the reach of all but the most slim-fingered and sublime purveyors of prose. “Gesang ist Dasein!” Rilke exclaims, and who would gainsay him? Even the painter, a great one such as Cézanne, dabbling among surfaces, can plunge into depths and fix what seems the secret of Being in a few abstract lines, a few planes of pure color.
The fact the novelist must live with, must work with, is that people’s actions are rarely true to what they feel or are, and, more, that there is no certain way of telling the real from the feigned, no way of dispelling what Denis Donoghue, writing of Yeats’s and Shelley’s attempts to break through the veil of appearance, calls “the delusion by which we think that reality coincides at every point with its appearances.” Kafka in his diary writes: I do not act as I think, I do not think as I should think, and so all goes on in deepest darkness.
The problem has been tackled by fiction writers, or at least by those fiction writers who have perceived that there is a problem, in their various cunning ways. We think of Thackeray the ironist, Dickens the fabulist, Dostoevsky the existentialist. Of them all, and still in the pre-Freud era, Henry James came closest to a solution, especially in the three great last novels, masterpieces of both polyphony and counterpoint, in which the actions of the characters are constantly and with immense, with diabolical, subtlety subjected to the lie detector of the Jamesian late style. Who else has managed to make language obfuscatory to the point of impenetrability and at the same time so luminously revealing? To follow, say, the play of proper pronouns in a page of dialogue between Maggie Verver and her father in The Golden Bowl is to witness one of the supreme masters of ambiguity operating at the top of his skill.
Modern English novelists have for the most part, in their admirable English way, approached the matter in a spirit of common sense, insisting that things as they are are as they are, and not as they are upon the blue guitar. Graham Greene, say, or Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Swift and Ian McEwan proceed on the premise that the world and the people in it can be caught whole and intact in the net of language. Even conscious stylists such as Martin Amis or Julian …