The Good of the Novel

The editors of this volume have done an unsatisfactory job - in establishing the parameters for the commissioned essays, in selecting the contributors, and in writing their introduction to the book, which has a great deal of preparatory and justificatory work to do but fails to do it. The essays gathered here, 13 in of them all, are concerned with "the contemporary anglophone novel", but only in the negative sense that the contributors, invited to write roughly 6,000 words on a novel published in the past 30 years, were prohibited from writing about novels written in languages other than English. The result is unflattering to the contemporary anglophone novel, which seems to have produced nothing more experimental than Ian McEwan's Atonement; and it does not reflect much better on contemporary anglophone "criticism", said to have been "reinvigorated" by the demise of theory, but which emerges here, for the most part, as unvigorous, unadventurous and not really critical.

Of the ten male contributors, only one (Amit Chaudhuri) has chosen as his subject a novel written by a woman (Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things). The book doesn't aim to be comprehensive, but surely it doesn't aim to be negligent or lopsided, either, and there is nothing on Marilynne Robinson or Anne Tyler or Angela Carter, but an essay each on McEwan, Amis, Roth, Coetzee, DeLillo, Auster - not all of them written by "the most strenuous and perceptive critics of the present moment", as we are told. The omission of someone who answers to that description, Adam Mars-Jones (a Faber author), points up the absence, too, of the kind of forensic disparagement in which Mars-Jones specialises.
Ray Ryan and Liam McIlvanney say that the project was motivated partly by the sense that "the novelness of novels" is returning into view - and along with it, "a criticism that approaches novels as novels". Instead of explaining why, for example, non-academic criticism, which was hardly affected by literary theory, is thriving in the age of post-theory, the editors quote or paraphrase (among many others) W H Auden, Robert Burns, Milan Kundera, "the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray" and Saul Bellow - all within the space of seven overassertive, underargued pages. One of the many novelists mentioned on the hoof is Zadie Smith, inevitably identified as the author of White Teeth rather than, more pertinently, of a lecture, "E M Forster's Ethical Style: Love, Failure and the Good in Fiction", which not only talks about "the novel as novel" but also examines the relationship between aesthetic approval and moral improvement: the Good represented by good novels.

On their way, the editors ask a series of narrow, essentialist-type questions that suggest a cohesive project: "What is it about the language used in a novel that creates a world different from that of poetry and drama? What distinguishes fictional prose from journalism, biography, or non-fictional prose? . . . How good are these novels? What kind of good are they?" Either this litany was written after the essays were delivered, in which case it provides a skewed portrait of them, or it was written beforehand and the contributors paid it little mind. In reality, the book is a hotchpotch.

Frances Wilson considers Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy in terms of its reception, as a popular author's "unpopular" book; Ian Sansom offers a gonzo exercise about teaching American Pastoral to undergraduates; Jason Cowley, editor of this paper, has written a breathless rumination on, or rummage around, the career of Martin Amis, but he has done well to choose a novel (The Information) which, due to its dramatised and mouthpieced concern with the writer's anxieties, and due to the dramas that accom­panied its publication, facilitates discussion of such subjects as talent, ambition, reputation and the afterlife of novels.

The species of critical writing most prominently on show is the review-essay, the conventional purpose of which is to adjudicate in the process of explaining. But the books under discussion here have already been read and admired, so adjudication is replaced (at least notionally) by thoughts on a particular novel's "novelness". Tessa Hadley, writing about J M Coetzee's Disgrace, fails to offer such thoughts and produces a numblingly relentless essay - which James Wood avoids doing, partly because his prose has more spring and partly because his chosen novel, Atonement, is more varied in plot and point of view, but mainly because he shifts between invasive close-up and a contextualising wide shot, asking, among other things: "Why should we believe that fiction can disinterestedly comment on its own distortions?" Wood favours such spaciousness even when not specifically demanded to supply it - in the final line of his magazine review of Disgrace, he invoked the "very nature of novelistic narrative, which inherently tends towards the dramatic corrugation, rather than the thematic flattening, of ideas".

This is the kind of thinking missing from Hadley's perceptive piece. Similarly, Robert Macfarlane (on Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty) offers intelligent admiration, but nothing more exploratory, or exciting.

Benjamin Markovits, in his piece on Colm Tóibín's The Master, does pause to consider - or define - "the novelist's task" and "the job of the novel", but his critical thinking is higgledy-piggledy and his rhetoric way off. Instead of portraying Tóibín's "simplicity" on its own terms, he identifies a blanket policy of rejection: he "has never taken seriously Nabokov's advice, to avoid starting successive paragraphs with the same word"; "elegant variation, metaphorical flights and grammatical complexities" are "tricks that Tóibín forswears". I do not wish to strike below the belt, but as an account of plain style this is reminiscent of Martin Amis ("Much modern prose is praised for . . . its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue").

At the other end of the scale, Michael Wood's piece serves as a reproach to the others in three ways - it is energetically written, broad in its thinking and concerned with a little-known novel. Briarpatch, by the crime writer Ross Thomas, was given 27 words in the Guardian thriller column, which described it as an "American can-of-worms novel". Wood shows that Thomas portrays detection as a way of reading the material world, and if he risks going a little far, so what? He is a true critic, and always entertaining.

As I read this collection, what I longed for was not thoughts on "what is distinctive and indigenous to the novel form", but the wit and suavity of a critic such as the Anglo-American Wilfrid Sheed, author of the novels The Critic and The Hack, as well as various collections. Sheed, who died in January, was able to make a newspaper column into an occasion for spry reflection, though he was right to define criticism as "what every reviewer would like to write if he had the time". The contributors to this volume have been given the space in which to write a piece of criticism; but most of them have rejected the opportunity, or have proved incapable of exploiting it. l

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

The Good of the Novel
Edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £12.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide