How is it possible that even when I know nothing about a novelist’s life I find, on reading his or her book, that I am developing an awareness of the writer that is quite distinct from my response to the work? I might enjoy a book while feeling a certain dislike or even hostility for the person I take to be its writer, or I might be attracted to both work and author, but in different ways. Philip Roth’s novels are provocative to the point of bludgeoning, the confrontation is invigorating. At the same time I find myself endeared to the writer who needs to do this, who is determined to get away with it. To me he seems attractively vulnerable.
Of course my intuitions regarding the author may be quite wrong, but all the same I have them. It seems impossible, at least for me, to read almost anything without being aware of the person behind it and without putting that person in relation to what he or she has written and indeed to readers of the book, to the point that I sometimes wonder, in the teeth of a literary critical tradition that has always told us the writer’s personality is irrelevant to any appraisal of the work, whether one of the pleasures of literature isn’t precisely this contemplation of the enigma of the person creating it. We know so little about Shakespeare’s life, and yet as we read his sonnets, or watch his plays, we develop an idea of Shakespeare, and we are aware of a continuity of “personality” behind the writing. We have the impression that if someone ever did find the full story of his life, we would immediately recognize the person we had in mind.
It is difficult to pin down where and how this awareness of the writer starts. Like so much of what happens when we read, it has an elusive, shadowy existence. However, over the last year or two, I have found it clarifying to play this game: I try to identify a kind of conversation, encounter, or transaction in a novel that seems to be characteristic of its author, something that recurs frequently; when I’ve established that, I try to think of the reader’s relationship with the writer in the same terms.
First the recurrent encounter, or exchange. An easy example might be the question of loans in Ulysses. An awful lot of the book is about characters asking each other for loans, or favors, errands, and chores, and every request is a little power game. People make demands—Stephen on Buck Mulligan, Buck on Stephen, the Englishman Hine on both and both on him, and others define themselves in the way they respond.
In Dickens, we frequently have powerful figures befriending weaker ones, or appearing to befriend them, offering them help, inviting them to be part of a group that may or may not be welcoming or beneficent. Likewise the person befriended may or may not be worthy and loyal. He may, like Uriah Heep, accept another’s patronage in order to manipulate him and steal from him.
Rereading Antonio Tabucchi’s work recently I noticed that a great deal of it is made up of conversational sparring between strangers, in which one character is seeking information and the other is teasing, both giving and refusing to give what is asked. Often both characters are teasing each other, and always looking for paradox rather than clarity:
“Photographing wretchedness,” Christine replied….
“It’s my job…. Have you ever been to Calcutta?”
“Well, let’s suppose I’m writing a book, for example.”
“Something like that.”
“Oh no,” I said, “it’s just an experiment, my job is something else, I look for dead mice.”
“I was joking,” I said. “I scour through old archives…. I call it dead mice.”
Most novelists will have some preferred mechanism for putting characters in relation to each other. In Muriel Spark’s work there is always a charlatan, or an act of suspect persuasion. In Coetzee’s writing somebody trying to live life to the full is exposed to judgement but rejects the criteria on which others would judge him. Natalia Ginzburg’s fine novels are never without a character who plays the card of helplessness, more or less forcing others to offer support, and conversely a character who refuses all help even when evidently in need. In Simenon’s novels, whether his Maigret stories or his more serious romans durs, there is always a long struggle between two central characters, in which one holds on triumphantly (as Maigret always does), soaking up every kind of insult, provocation, and equivocation to come through on top, or, in the grimmer books, to die in some kind of glorious defeat.
Now for the second part of the game. Can I think of my reaction to the book, the emotions brought into play by its story and style, as in some way analogous to that recurrent transaction? Is the author beginning to form with me this kind of relationship that recurs so frequently in his novels?
In this regard, Joyce, usually considered such a difficult writer, is easy. If anyone is making demands, it is Joyce asking us to give inordinate amounts of time to decoding the complexities of his work. All those enigmas and puzzles would “keep the professors busy for centuries,” he famously said, as if this was what writing was about: reducing the reader to a busy acolyte. With Joyce the act of literary seduction is also a serious imposition on the reader and establishes at once, thanks to the relentless brilliance and erudition of the style, who is important in this relationship, who is smart. Some people fall to their knees, others resist. Jung complained that Joyce made him feel stupid. H. G. Wells thought it a scandal to demand so much of our time. So a gap can open up between our acknowledgment of the work’s genius, and our irritation at the way the genius is forced upon us. After the first few pages of Finnegan’s Wake most readers will bail out.
On the other hand, Dickens befriends us. That’s evident at once. He reaches out his paternal hand. He writes inviting prefaces. He talks about both characters and readers as his family. His seductive prose is brilliant but never really difficult, witty but never abstruse, always warm. We feel an attraction to the man that reinforces or perhaps even exceeds our appreciation of the writing. We would like to be part of his world, his club. Dickens loved clubs and of course his first novel is about a club. The Pickwick Club. Even today there are Dickens clubs in countries round the globe. Readers love to aggregate around the man. And we notice that happiness in Dickens is almost always a happiness with a group of people, a small community, not with passionate couples.
All the same, Dickens’s plots encourage us to be alert to friendships that seem attractive and easy. David Copperfield is mistaken when he allows the older and more charismatic Steerforth to take him over. Anyone who befriends the Micawbers will be let down. Perhaps this anxiety that one can get it wrong when befriending others explains those sudden odd lapses in Dickens when rather than lavishing attention on his readers he suddenly seems determined to be rid of us as quickly as possible, to wrap up his story and be away. The last part of Dombey and Son is emblematic. But even David Copperfield ends in a hurried, unconvincing fashion, as if Dickens felt it might have been a mistake to befriend us, and we too feel disappointed; the relationship we hurried into is not quite as rewarding as we hoped. Or is it that relationships in general can never sustain that Dickensian festivity for long?
Perhaps this is whimsical, but what I am trying to suggest is that literary creativity, far from being the impersonal thing Eliot and Joyce spoke of, may largely involve finding the form, the stories, the style, that will allow readers to enter into the aura that the writer habitually moves in and to experience the kind of relationships he or she tends to form. Muriel Spark writes about con artists, phonies, and imposters and, at the same time, her own style has a glittering surface dazzle, a playfulness and farfetchedness that forces readers to ask whether they are not themselves the victims of a kind of literary charlatanism. Is all this believable? Am I being taken for a ride?
Natalia Ginzburg uses such a simple, apparently ingenuous style that we almost feel we must come to her aid. She needs our help, the way so many of her protagonists are inept and need help. Meantime, someone we have barely paid attention to, someone independent who refuses help, is in trouble; quite suddenly we hear that he is dead and died alone, unassisted, mugged in some squalid side street, or overcome by illness in a seedy apartment. Our sense of the author when reading Ginzburg is of someone offering a relationship, through her novels, that can be a comfort to both of us, but quite inadequate to help others who adventure outside this intimacy. We become friends to mourn their loss.
J. M. Coetzee, in his trilogy—Boyhood, Youth, Summertime—writes about John Coetzee, and above all his misdemeanors, his towering ambitions, his pretensions to goodness. The style is spare and the facts clearly, even austerely laid out. The reader would appear to be invited to pass judgement on the man. At the same time we are told the books are fiction, novels not autobiography, and that anyway John Coetzee rejects the opinions that others have of him. It’s a conundrum and conundrums are seductive. But it’s not a conundrum to which Coetzee is going to offer any solutions. Enjoying the book, we nevertheless have a strong sense of the author as prickly, torn between an impulse for self- revelation and a preference for decorous or defensive reticence. Or perhaps this sense of the author is precisely part of our enjoying the book.
I remember meeting Coetzee, after having read his books for many years, and being astonished by a feeling of recognition; the atmosphere induced in the conversation, the odd awareness of both austerity and warmth on his part, withdrawal and openness, was exactly the feeling one has reading the novels. Indeed it was after that meeting that it first occurred to me that literary genius is the ability to draw readers into one’s own world of feeling, with all its nuance and complexity, and to force them to position themselves in relation to you.