The Fiction of Winners & Losers

Christie's Images/Bridgeman Images

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Wrestler; Ringer, 1923

Am I being reductive? All of narrative fiction, I’ve suggested, can be sorted into four grand categories. Each presents a rich world of feeling in which any number of stories can be told and positions established, but always in relation to, or rather, driven by, a distinct cluster of values and consequent emotions. My claim is that it really is worth being aware which of these worlds we are being drawn into. We read better. We know where we are. And what the dangers are.

Where did I get this idea? The novelist and critic Raymond Williams, whose lectures I attended years ago, used to speak with fascination of the identical “structures of feeling” that he came across in quite different books. “It was a structure in the sense that you could perceive it operating in one work after another which weren’t otherwise connected—people weren’t learning it from each other; yet it was one of feeling much more than of thought—a pattern of impulses, restraints, tones.”

The discipline of systemic psychology, which owed a great deal to the work of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, elaborated similar ideas: families, communities, individuals could be understood in relation to distinct value systems. In her influential work Permitted and Forbidden Stories, the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio identifies four: the first three correspond more or less to the three kinds of fiction I’ve explored: stories focused on the characters’ relations to the community (belonging), around conflicts between indulgence and renunciation (goodness), around a tension between the craving to be free and a need to feel protected (liberty). And the fourth? Here is Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; the setting is a posh school for girls in Edinburgh.

The term opened vigorously as usual. Miss Brodie stood bronzed before her class and said, “I have spent most of my summer holidays in Italy once more, and a week in London, and I have brought back a great many pictures which we can pin on the wall. Here is a Cimabue. Here is a larger formation of Mussolini’s fascisti, it is a better view of them than that of last year’s picture. They are doing splendid things as I shall tell you later. I went with my friends for an audience with the Pope. My friends kissed his ring but I thought it proper only to bend over it. I wore a long black gown with a lace mantilla and looked magnificent. In London my friends who are well-to-do—their small girl has two nurses, or nannies as they say in England—took me to visit A.A. Milne. In the hall was hung a reproduction of Botticelli’s Primavera which means The Birth of Spring. I wore my silk dress with the large red poppies, which is just right for my colouring. Mussolini is one of the greatest men in the world, far more so than Ramsay MacDonald…

There can’t be many paragraphs that bring together Cimabue, Mussolini, and A.A. Milne. But Brodie’s adolescent audience is sufficiently unsophisticated to be impressed by any name-dropping. The teacher is seducing her class, establishing her dominion over her pupils, turning them into acolytes. At the same time, she invites them to develop a broad range of cultural reference that will make them, she believes, the “crème de la crème,” hence enhancing her own reputation. “I don’t believe in talking down to girls,” Brodie announces, comparing herself to the rather motherly headmistress, who has just interrupted the lesson, “you are capable of grasping more than is generally appreciated by your elders.” Every encounter is framed in terms of competition and comparison. Brodie is always superior. Her friends kissed the pope’s ring, but she only bent over it. She knows about the great Mussolini while others pathetically admire MacDonald. “Whoever has opened the window,” she pronounces a moment later, “has opened it too wide. Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar.”

It’s hilarious. And there is an element of autobiography. The inspiration for Jean Brodie was a charismatic schoolmistress called Christina Kay. “I fell into Miss Kay’s hands at the age of eleven,” Spark later wrote, and added, “It might well be said that she fell into my hands.” This is the model for all relationships in Spark’s work, and indeed all novels in this category: you are dominated or dominant, conned or conning. Welcome to the semantics of power. “We don’t know who’s in whose hands,” complains one character in Spark’s novel The Comforters. Very often, plots hang on reversing a power relationship. There is a battle that transforms duped victim into canny victor, loser into winner. So the girl who most fell under Brodie’s sway, Sandy, is the one who, realizing that her teacher “thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end,” decides to “put a stop to her” by revealing to the headmistress that Brodie is a fascist sympathizer. The teacher is fired. An act of personal revenge is justified as a civic duty.


At a metafictional level, Spark is taking revenge on her old seductress, Christina Kay. Many of her novels were avowedly acts of vengeance on old boyfriends or employers. “Art takes revenge on life,” Luigi Pirandello observed. Yet even as Jean Brodie’s strategies of seduction are so entertainingly exposed and ridiculed, Spark is seducing us. We are invited to enjoy feeling superior to Brodie, but never to Spark, who becomes our adored, ever-brilliant instructress. Antagonists tend to be alike. Just as the betrayer, Sandy, was the girl most similar to Brodie, so when we read Spark’s essays, we find she often sounds alarmingly like her name-dropping teacher. Here she is talking of her own transformation from loser to winner in the 1950s:

The majority of those one-time [rejected manuscripts] have become a part of my oeuvre, studied in universities… I was really hungry and undernourished in those days… Graham Greene, who admired my stories, heard of my difficulties through my ex-companion; he voluntarily sent me a monthly cheque with some bottles of wine for two years to enable me to write without economic stress… I was now, also, Evelyn Waugh’s favourite author… he was generous enough to write a review of my novel in the Spectator in which he said that I had handled the subject [of hallucinations] better than he had done. 

Flaunted stylistic brilliance, impressive encyclopedic knowledge, observation deployed as a weapon, and manifest complexity of composition (seeing “the beginning and the end”) are typical traits of these energetic authors, hallmarks of the superiority they have so strenuously staked out. James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, and Jonathan Franzen are prime examples. But while I struggle to find authors from earlier times to include in this category, the list from the twentieth century onward would be long: H.G. Wells, Pirandello, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Georges Simenon, Isabel Allende, V.S. Naipaul, Alice Munro, Stephen King, Elena Ferrante. If anyone is offended to find a name they worship in “inferior” company, bear with me; the distinctiveness of these categories does not prevent their being extended and varied.

Often enough early autobiographical novels portray competitive parents. Here, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is Stephen Dedalus’s father bragging in a pub with his son beside him:

By God, I don’t feel more than eighteen myself. There’s that son of mine there not half my age and I’m a better man than he is any day of the week.

—Draw it mild now, Dedalus. I think it’s time for you to take a back seat, said the gentleman who had spoken before.

—No, by God! asserted Mr. Dedalus. I’ll sing a tenor song against him or I’ll vault a five-barred gate against him or I’ll run with him after the hounds across the country as I did thirty years ago along with the Kerry Boy and the best man for it.

—But he’ll beat you here, said the little old man, tapping his forehead and raising his glass to drain it.

“Beat you here”—in the mind, eventually on the page—is exactly what Joyce is doing to his father in this passage. In Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, Del Jordan, the author’s alter ego, grows up in a miserable provincial town where her mother desperately seeks to distinguish herself from the losers all around her.

She joined the Great Books discussion group which… [included] a retired doctor, Dr. Comber, who was very frail, courteous, and as it turned out, dictatorial. He had pure white, silky hair and wore an ascot scarf. His wife had lived in Jubilee over thirty years and still knew hardly anybody’s name, or where the streets were. She was Hungarian. She had a magnificent name she would serve up to people sometimes, like a fish on a platter, all its silvery, scaly syllables intact, but it was no use, nobody in Jubilee could pronounce or remember it.

It’s another comedy of pretension, put into pathetic perspective by Munro’s virtuosic turn of phrase when she gives us that plattered fish with its “silvery, scaly syllables,” that no one can appreciate. The mother soon resists the dictatorial Dr. Comber and is happy to establish her own superiority when the group meets in his house and she discovers that the toilet smells. “What good is it if you read Plato and never clean your toilet?” But things turn unpleasant when she seeks to improve her position by selling encyclopedias door-to-door and gets the idea that her daughter “might be useful in her work.” Del “shared [her] mother’s appetite for reading and information.” Learning brings a sense of achievement, distinction, power.


In the front rooms of potential purchasers, the mother asks the daughter to perform, to show the value of having an encyclopedia around the house: “Name the countries and capitals of South America. The major explorers, tell where they came from and where they went. Dates too, please.” The girl loves it. “I put on a shrewd, serious, competitive look, but that was mostly for effect. Underneath I felt a bounding complacency.” She’s a winner. Until she realizes that, on the contrary, she is being exploited by a pushy mother. “One day I did not want to do it any more. The decision was physical; humiliation prickled my nerve ends and the lining of my stomach.” Del pretends she is about to vomit.

Humiliation and triumph are never far away in these novels, and always viscerally experienced. Fainting fits, panic attacks, and vomiting are commonplace. Con men abound but are often outwitted. Competitions are a regular trope, emblematic of deeper struggles: the singing competition in A Portrait of the Artist; the diving competition at the end of Tender Is the Night (in which Dick Diver disappoints); the classroom competitions in My Brilliant Friend. In Simenon’s stories about Inspector Maigret, the detective’s engagement with his criminal prey is described as a competition of wits (“You’ve won,” says the beautiful killer Else in The Night at the Crossroads, “but admit it: I put on quite a show”). Drinking, particularly heavy drinking, is always a competition, a battle with the bottle, and with one’s own weaknesses. In A Crime in Holland, the local police try to distract Maigret by inviting him to a heavy lunch with quantities of wine, where they try to sell him a false lead. He outdrinks them all and sees through their trick. But Stephen Dedalus’s father is a loser because he cannot hold his drink. Likewise, many of Fitzgerald’s protagonists.

Love relationships can be triumphs. The new couple is an exciting conspiracy against an envious world. So it is for the glamorous Dick and Nicole in Tender Is the Night, or Rushdie’s glitzy Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But soon enough, love turns into struggle. Munro’s alter ego loses her virginity with her first boyfriend, Garnet, standing up in the “peony border” outside her house. When she sees the blood between her legs, “the glory of the whole episode became clear to me.” Thrilled, she “had to mention it to somebody.” To boast. And to whom should she boast, if not to her principal antagonist, her mother?

I said to my mother, “There’s blood on the ground at the side of the house.”
“I saw a cat yesterday tearing a bird apart. It was a big striped tom, I don’t know where it came from.”
“Vicious beasts.”
“You should come and look at it.”
“What? I’ve got better things to do.”

It’s another put-down for the daughter. But soon, the lusty couple are indeed involved in a life-and-death struggle. Garnet is a born-again Christian. Del appears to have chosen him in part because he is woefully ignorant. He can’t compete. Eager to marry Del, Garnet tells her she must first be baptized. The two are swimming together in the river. She refuses. “You think you’re too good for it,” he tells her. He forces her head underwater, again and again, in a “baptism” that covers for domination. She fights back. Far from being afraid, she is merely amazed that he could have been so stupid as “to think he had real power over me.” On the contrary, it was her who “had meant to keep him sewed up in his golden lover’s skin forever.”

With this mutual realization, the relationship is over—though to lose an antagonist is hard for characters in this kind of novel, since it is only by comparing oneself, matching oneself, competing, fighting, that one achieves identity and self-esteem. Maigret always feels a certain depression when his prey is nailed and done for. Happily, a writer has the consolation that old antagonists can be resurrected and drubbed on the page, as a playful cat pats a dead bird this way and that, to hunt and kill it over and over.

Belonging. Goodness. Liberty. Power. Which is the odd man out? Our first three categories offer values that can be appreciated for themselves, separately from any relationship one may or may not have. But in the fourth, all meaning, value, and emotion springs from measuring oneself against others. Of course, terms of comparison are required. Stephen Dedalus’s father wants to beat his son at singing, jumping, and running. Stephen will beat him intellectually. Financial success is a very easy measure; money is often to the fore in these stories. Celebrity is more slippery: Is it such a victory to be admired by people who are dumb? In Simenon’s terrifying roman dur, Dirty Snow, Frank Friedmaier is determined to show he can be crueler, more violent, and more cynical than anyone else. Many of those around him don’t realize it’s a competition.

In short, in a nihilistic world, where values are not shared, it can be hard to know whether you’re winning or losing, since my antagonist’s perception of our relationship is crucial for my sense of my power over him. Or subjection to him. Frustration at not seeing one’s superiority or subservience recognized is a staple. Fortunately, novelists addressing an educated, liberal audience can reliably arouse admiration by seeming more sensitive than the norm, a quality typical of author alter egos in these novels. Or more honest. Or more morally upright. And since the medium is writing, a sophisticated way with words will always be appreciated. Of all our categories, this is the one whose authors work hardest to dress themselves in literary splendor, reducing the reader to a state of dazzled deference. When Joyce remarked that Ulysses would “keep the professors busy for centuries,” he was enjoying the same emotion Jean Brodie was looking for as she seduced her students. These authors do not think of readers as their equals.

So, whatever the value at the center of our attention, the emotions driving the action and coloring the mood are always those related to winning and losing: confidence and inadequacy, strength and weakness, complacency and resentment, envy and emulation, seducing and succumbing, jubilation, but also wise resignation. “At some far-off time he had suffered a great anguish,” reflects Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas. “He had fought against it. Now he had surrendered and this surrender had brought peace.”

This disquieting doubleness—typical, incidentally, of so much political debate—in which declared values and felt emotions seem out of sync, is at its crudest in genre fiction. Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy gives us a detective’s assistant, Holly Gibney, who is a loser in all kinds of ways: dominated by an overprotective mother, suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, frail survivor of two attempts to kill herself, overweight, etc. But sweet, modest, kind. And pacifist. She refuses to carry or use a gun. Meanwhile, the loathsome Brady Hartsfield, another mother-dominated loser, is filled with resentment against a society that has rejected his talents and determined to excel in killing large numbers of people, to show the world who’s who. With elaborate contrivance, a situation is engineered where, just as Brady triumphs—“Look who wins,” he cries—the hopeless Holly grabs a gun (a “Victory .38”) and in extremis saves humankind by blowing him away. The reader rejoices; the forbidden emotion of exulting over killing has been legitimized. As for grief over the fate of innocent victims, anxiety over a possible slaughter, or repulsion at Brady’s incestuous relationship with his mother, they are barely rehearsed and certainly never felt.

Literary practitioners are more complex, perhaps conflicted. Muriel Spark, born to a working-class Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, became a Catholic and claimed she couldn’t write novels until she did so. She spoke of a “nevertheless principle”: life was all struggle, “nevertheless,” strict rules were required to prevent you from behaving too ruthlessly, imagining you were God. But Catholicism, we remember, was also the choice of England’s literary elite, the authors Spark emulated: Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. As well as a set of precepts, this creed is also a boast.

Salman Rushdie identifies multiculturalism as a positive value that his readers will acknowledge. And a winning strategy. Interviewed in 2005, he spoke of his anxiety as a younger man seeing very English writers like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes getting ahead while “I was the one left in the starting gate, not knowing which way to run.” Dropping his job at an advertising agency, he decided to gamble everything on a “gigantic, all or nothing project,” and set off to India to reinforce his Indian identity. Midnight’s Children was the result. Soon enough, as he recounts in his autobiography (proudly titled Joseph Anton—after Conrad and Chekhov), he would be at the Booker Prize dinner gazing at the “handsome, leatherbound presentation copy of Midnight’s Children” with “the bookplate inside that read WINNER.”

Frequently, Rushdie’s characters look to their multicultural identity (as Spark’s do to their Catholicism) to provide strength in the fray. In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, rock star Ormus Cama “hasn’t fully grasped how to make of multiplicity an accumulating strength rather than a frittery weakness.” His breakthrough comes when he fires all the members of his band and chooses to go it alone with his own multiplicity:

What I want the music to say is that I don’t have to choose… I don’t have to be this guy or that guy, the fellow from over there or the fellow from here… I’ll be all of them, I can do that. Here comes everybody, right? That’s where it came from the idea of playing all the instruments. It was to prove that point.

Identity may be important as such, but what is felt in the novel is its importance as a way to achieve success. The fusing of Indian and British idioms are to give that constant energy and crackle that is the hallmark of Rushdie’s wilfully seductive style. His famous 1982 article, entitled “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance” frames postcolonial writing as vendetta.

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity deploys the most elaborate narrative machinery to set up a conflict between two very similar men, Andreas Wolf and Tom Aberant. Both run WikiLeaks-like organizations that claim to be forces for good, and both are involved in highly competitive marriages. Tom’s wife counts his and her orgasms, determined that she should have as many as he does; otherwise, she would feel like a loser. What essentially distinguishes the two men is that Andreas uses his organization to bed the women he wants and increase his power, while Tom, for all his faults, is more genuinely concerned about the world his organization was set up to help.

So we are told. In the event, it is Tom’s mooted goodness that allows him to see off Andreas in a dramatic mountain scene at the end of the book. Attempting to turn defeat into victory, Andreas asks Tom to push him off the mountain: that way, Tom, though the survivor, will be destroyed by his crime. (Spark sets up a similar plot in The Driver’s Seat.) Tom refuses, because he is good, or simply shrewder than his enemy, and Andreas kills himself. So Tom wins without having to dirty his hands, which makes him even more of a winner.

In his late Letter to My Mother, Georges Simenon suggests three kinds of victory. His mother, at the core of the book, fought all her life to escape poverty and achieve financial security, tyrannizing everyone around her, most of all her first husband, Simenon’s father, whom she despised for his low earnings. But he was always serene and happy in himself, Simenon observes, while she, despite reaching her goal, “always suffered life, never lived it.” “My father lacked nothing, my mother lacked everything,” he reflects. Finally, there was Simenon himself, who claimed to “have had sex with 10,000 women,” and was one of the highest-paid writers of his time, but who failed to win the Nobel Prize, as he had confidently predicted he would, whose marriages ended badly, and whose daughter committed suicide.

Who is the winner here? Simenon tries to resolve the question with a gesture of understanding. “Don’t imagine, Mother, that I bear you any grudge, or that I judge you. I don’t judge anyone. If men have always fought each other since time began, it is out of their failure to understand their neighbours.” This sounds wise and sensitive, but the attentive reader might also detect the smell of moral superiority that makes victory complete. As one character says to her mother at the end of Purity, “Weak people hold grudges, Mom. Strong people forgive… You got everything you wanted. You won!”

Other writers renounce victory, seek out defeat. In Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello supposes a situation where, weary of succumbing to the dictates of his characters, an author abandons the struggle, leaving them to fight it out between themselves and the actors they hope will represent them. Old hierarchies are overwhelmed by a free-for-all of competing egos. Robert Walser inverts the terms of the game entirely, imagining, in Jakob von Gunten, a surreal school of self-annulment where pupils learn to think of nothing and serve others blindly without asking any questions. Dumbest is best. Appalled with his own early ambitions, Walser retired to a mental home intent on “disappearing as discreetly as possible.” When Carl Seelig, visiting, assured him he was one of the greatest authors of his time, Walser told his friend he must never say anything of the kind again, or their relationship was over. Self-annulment, too, is a form of victory.

The most celebrated novel in this category is undoubtedly Ulysses, offering the full range of possible positions in this world of feeling. In the opening pages, Stephen Dedalus measures himself against Buck Mulligan in a battle of wits, then teams up with him to outwit the Englishman Haines, in hopes of getting some money out of him, then resents the dairy woman for respecting Buck more than him because Buck is a medical student, resents England for dominating Ireland, resents the headmaster at the school where he teaches for paying him so little and asking him to run errands, and resents his students for being rich and ignorant, focusing his lesson on the concept of the Pyrrhic victory. Stephen is wittier and more sensitive than others, and competitive, but he can’t compete on their terms: money and social standing.

Conversely, Leopold Bloom is introduced in the subservient act of making breakfast for his unfaithful wife. But generously, resignedly. A Walser figure. With a sense of curiosity and fun, he measures himself against the cat. “Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.” Here, too, he is put in his place. Submissively, he takes a tray up to Molly in bed and picks up a book she has dropped by the chamber pot. She complains about a word she doesn’t understand, “metempsychosis.” Now, still serving her, he can show his superior intellect by explaining. Later, sitting on the toilet, he is unimpressed by a short story in the newspaper, but “envied kindly Mr. Beaufoy who had written it and received payment.” Then he tears up the paper and wipes himself with it. 

In many ways a defeated man, Bloom has chosen not to compete: he lives in that peace after struggle described by Mr. Biswas, retreating into the pleasures of his voyeurism and encyclopedic musings. It’s wonderfully attractive. For Joyce himself, those musings are turned into an instrument of sensational success. Retreating himself from Ireland and the ordinary fray, but continuing to compare himself with old antagonists back home, Joyce sought out new literary territories where only he could shine. The end result was the brilliantly unreadable Finnegans Wake, a project that fused self-affirmation with withdrawal into a private world. Writing it, he would recite passages to friends and ask if they understood; if they did, he rewrote them to make things more difficult.

Once, talking to the novelist David Lodge, I expressed my impatience with the book, which he was then teaching at university. “Whatever you think,” he replied, “you can’t deny it was a winning strategy.” Joyce draws us to think in those terms, and to try ourselves against the challenge he set. Courses on the Wake, Lodge added, were always oversubscribed.

For the full series on literary categories, click here.

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