Fear and Literature

Man driving in Caracas.jpeg

Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

A man driving through Catia, a violent slum in Caracas, Venezuela, 2005

Is the novel a space of intense engagement with the world, of risk and adventure? Or is it a place of refuge, of hanging back from life? The answer will be all too easy if we are living in a country that does not allow certain stories to be told. For Solzhenitsyn writing novels was indeed a serious risk. But in the West?

In my last piece in this space I considered the idea that our personalities are formed in communities of origin where one particular polarity of values or qualities tends to dominate—fear or courage, winning or losing, belonging or not belonging, good or evil. As each person seeks to stake out a position for himself in his community and later in the world outside, it will be the position he or she assumes in relation to that polarity that will be felt as the most defining and any problems in establishing such a position (am I a strong person or a weak one, am I part of the group or not?) will be experienced as especially troubling.

Now I want to toss out a provocation: that in the world of literature there is a predominance of people whose approach to life is structured around issues of fear and courage and who find it difficult to find a stable position in relation to those values. Not that they are necessarily more fearful than others, but that a sense of themselves as fearful or courageous is crucial for them and will be decisive in the structuring of both the content and style of their work.

That certain vocations attract a particular character type is evident enough. At the university where I work in Milan, we have two post-grad courses for language students, one in interpreting and one in translation. With some exceptions the difference in attitude and character between members of the two groups is evident. The students who come to translation are not looking to be out there in the fray of the conference, under the spotlights; they like the withdrawn, intellectual aspect of translation. Often their problem as they begin their careers is not so much the work itself, but the self-marketing required to find the work.

It’s also hardly revolutionary to suggest that literature can be seen simultaneously as an adventure and a refuge. Per Petterson’s novels often feature a conflicted, anxious, but would-be courageous character surrounded by reckless friends and enemies. In To Siberia the young female protagonist is excited by images of Siberia she finds in a children’s book and dreams of one day going there. Frightened of wartime developments around her—the novel is set in Denmark—she takes refuge in reading, in fantasizing future adventures, but twice loses her source of books, once when a rich friend who has a library of her own suddenly dies, and once when a lesbian librarian makes aggressive advances at her. The refuge of reading (which is full of virtual adventure) is threatened by real adventure and calamity.

Throughout Petterson’s work the main characters devote a great deal of time to practical tasks that will protect them from all kinds of dangers, or just the weather. They build huts and fires with immense care, because life is perilous, exciting, frightening. In the novel Fine By Me, a bildungsroman about a young Norwegian who looks for a way out of his depressing family situation in a life of writing, Petterson makes explicit that, as he sees it, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter: for those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.

We could equally well look at a classic like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is constantly frightened. The first time his name is used, his mother is demanding an apology. Rather than confronting her, he hides under the table. His aunt threatens to pull out his eyes if he doesn’t apologize. A page later he is frightened by the hurly burly of the rugby game. Pretending to participate because afraid of criticism, he actually hides on the edge of his line. The first time we see Stephen happy and relaxed it is on his own in the sick bay where he is no longer obliged to engage in life in any way. Here for the first time we see him quoting lines of poetry, fantasizing, imagining, escaping, and in particular turning an imagined funeral into something beautiful, through words.

Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away.

How beautiful and sad that was! How beautiful the words were…

Terrified at Christmas lunch of the quarrel between the nationalist Mr. Casey and the fanatically Catholic Aunt Dante, Stephen focuses on the way the antagonists speak, the words they use, which allows him to keep out of the firing line, and creates an illusion of comfortable distance. Wishing to be a bold adolescent he goes to a prostitute; terrified by a Jesuit sermon on hell, he tries to be chaste and good. Eventually, courageously resisting all claims on his loyalty, he conceives of the vocation of the artist as someone beyond and above the factions. All the same he needs to justify himself imagining that his work will courageously “forge the uncreated consciousness” of his race; disengaging with all parties he will single-handedly, from the safe distance of other countries, change Ireland. He claims. The decision to move to writing can thus be conceived as courageous on the one hand, or motivated by fear of succumbing to forces that terrify him on the other; his writing is a space of refuge, but he insists that it is engaged in changing the world.


Or what about the curious case of Thomas Hardy’s first, unpublished novel? Having courageously left his village home to train as an architect in London, Hardy suddenly retreats to mother in Dorsetshire, pleading fatigue and illness (we have no record of any symptoms) and in 1867, aged 27, writes The Poor Man and the Lady, whose main character Will Strong, a bold Hardy alter ego, courts a rich man’s daughter, is chased away by the family, and launches himself pugnaciously into politics. Hardy described the book as a “dramatic satire of the squirearchy … the tendency of the writing being socialistic, not to say revolutionary.”

There are various accounts about why the novel was never published, but as Hardy has it, publication was offered, but the publisher’s reader, the novelist George Meredith, warned Hardy that the content was explosive and could damage his career. So, afraid of consequences he withdrew it. Courage dominates in the story of the strong-willed Will Strong, but not in Hardy’s dealing with his publishers; he is courageous only in so far as he supposes the work will not intersect with reality. He then set about writing the entirely innocuous comedy Under a Greenwood Tree. Later in his career Hardy did take on Victorian morals very courageously in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, but was so harrowed by the aggressive reviews he received that he chose to stop writing fiction and turned to the much safer production of poetry. “No more novel-writing for me,” he remarked. “A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at.”

One could name any number of novels in which the tension between a desire for and fear of intense experience is played out in all kinds of ways: J.M. Coetzee’s Youth and Damon Galgutt’s The Good Doctor are two contemporary novels that immediately come to mind; Coetzee’s characters are often eager to be tested by life, but at the same time afraid that they will be caught out, found to be lacking in courage. Peter Stamm’s novels (Unformed Landscape, On a Day Like This, and Seven Years) suggest how the need to create a narrative for our lives forces us towards moments of risk and engagement, while fear of those moments may lead us to fantasize rather than act, or to become hyper rational and cautious in our decision making. These antithetical energies, towards and away from adventure, are mirrored in the writing itself as Stamm sets the reader up for melodrama, then seems to do everything to avoid or postpone it, as if, like his characters, he would much prefer to plod quietly along with life’s routine, but knows that sooner or later, alas, a writer has to deliver the goods.

So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.

The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.


In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

The same New York Times article quotes Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist and, significantly, “a published novelist” who claims that “reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers…. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”

If Oatley genuinely believes this I suspect he is not a very good novelist, novels being largely about form and convention. Halfway through Seven Years Peter Stamm, who I believe is an excellent novelist, has his narrator describe his oddly quiet and passive mistress thus:

My relationship with Ivona had been from the start, nothing other than a story, a parallel world that obeyed my will, and where I could go wherever I wanted, and could leave when I’d had enough.

Nothing other than a story. How disappointing. How reassuring. The passage seems to be worded in such a way as to suggest the author’s own frustration with his quiet and safe profession. But a mistress is a mistress, and a novel a novel. To ask her or it to be more than that would be to ask the mistress to become a wife, and the novel a life. Which it can never be.

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