Some people take a very dim view of those who spend any of their precious time reading fiction. In their view they are at best taking a little time off from the serious business of life and spending it on some harmless entertainment. At worst they are wasting their time in a pointless and trivial pursuit. At one end of this critical spectrum are those who don’t read anything other than the news media – which they do because they have to – and the documents of one kind or another which land on their desks. These are the hard-nosed practical men and women of our time. They are not what we might call “readers” at all. Their application of the precious gift of literacy is little more than functional.
At the other end of this critical spectrum are genuine “readers” but they still fail to see or appreciate the point of fiction and the depth of its value. These are the readers who feel that fiction is nothing more than fantasy and that the truth of the human condition can only be seen in the history or biography of real events and real people. The deny that the creative imagination can really show us much that is true or get beyond the role, useful they will admit, of giving us some harmless stimulation. In fact, if you mention the word truth to them in the context of fiction, or if you argue that truth is the essential mark of great fiction, they look at you in puzzlement as though you were employing contradictory terms.
Anthony Powell, one of the masters of twentieth century literature, repeatedly expressed the view that autobiography was different from fiction because the latter was true, whereas the former was all made up! In his great sequence of twelve novels, The Dance to the Music of Time, he explains this in detail at one point. Essentially, I think, his point was that the historian and the biographer have to piece together the picture from the scraps of evidence they collect. They select what they think completes the picture portraying a person or an event. The creative writers, on the other hand, who want to explore what it is to be human, what it is or was like to live in a particular human condition, are free to delve into their imaginations and personal experiences to create characters through which he or she will try to give a truly authentic picture of all the possible twists and turns which we human beings can make in our interaction with this world, with each other and with our Creator. Our judgement on what they achieve is ultimately based on whether or not what they give us “rings true”. If it does, and if it shows us something that we have not seen before about our life, our times, times past or present, then we truly have what we can call “revelation” – with a small “r”. Sometimes this happens even if the authors themselves have not seen what we see about their characters. These characters become real and, for example, a Christian reader will bring a Christiaqn sensibility to the interpretation of a character or situation in a great novel – and learn something from it. In a sense what is called fiction is not fiction at all but is truth masquerading as fiction. We have in fact what Pope John Paul II wrote of in the context of Revelation with a big “R” when he speaks of the biblical account of creation in his discourses on the theology of the body: “Following contemporary philosophy of religion and of language, one can say that we are dealing with mythical language. In this case in fact the term ‘myth’ does not refer to fictitious-fabulous content, but simply to an archaic way of expressing a deeper content. Without any difficulty, we discover that content under the stratum of the ancient narrative, truly marvellous in the quality and condensation of the truths contained there.”
Going back to Powell’s work, Christopher Hitchens quotes a Marxist critic – and there were few people more remote from Marxism than Anthony Powell – saying that “there is no other work in the annals of European fiction that attempts meticulously to recreate half a century of history, decade by decade, with anything like the emotional precision or details of [these] twelve volumes.” This is, again, all about truth being presented to us under the stratum of a fictional narrative. But this particular narrative does not just give us an account of a period, nor just a perfect feel for what it was like to live in such a period – the vivid recreation of the experience of living in Blitzkreig London is just one example. It puts us into the hearts and minds of people imagined on the basis of a writer’s real experience of living people, makes us feel the emotions of their loves and losses in a way that enriches us and can form us in our own capacity to respond to our own loves and losses. Our encounter with these lives provides each of us with an opportunity for the refinement of our own sensibilities and emotions. Indeed one might ask if the coarseness of our own age is partly the result of the failure – for one reason or another – to engage with and dwell reflectively on these lives and the panorama of pitfalls they encounter, their errors and weaknesses, right turns and wrong turns, the tragedies and comedies which mirror the whole gamut of human existence.
Those loves and loses bothered some readers of Powell’s novel. They allege a streak of callousness in his depictions of the comings and goings of the vast array of characters who passed in and out of the life of the novel’s narrator, Nick Jenkins. The critic Brooke Allen defended Powell. “I first read Dance when I was in my twenties, and though I loved and treasured it, it now seems clear that I couldn’t have understood half of it. Though it is a book that appeals to the young, it is not a young person’s book. One has to be middle-aged to have experienced the almost arbitrary dissolution of love and friendship, the almost arbitrary apotheosis of some and dissolution of others, to understand that Powell was not being gratuitously cruel to his characters but simply realistic.”
The critic William Pritchard, writing about Powell’s art in The Hudson Review, gives just one example of the kind of empathy which the author induces in us when he writes of Nick’s last encounter with his dying friend, Moreland, where they talk about a song he might have composed. “Nick is visiting the dying Moreland in a South London nursing home where Moreland, surrounded by books, remembers a song from a little-read Jacobean play by John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan. The song—which begins ‘The dark is my delight / So ’tis the nightingale’s’—brings to Moreland’s mind the predacious Pamela Flitton, now married to Widmerpool. He says that, if there had been time, he might have done a setting for the song, and he imagines how it would have made his friend, the music critic Gossage, sit up: He sighed, more exhaustedly than regretfully, I thought. That morning was the last time I saw Moreland. It was also the last time I had, with anyone, the sort of talk we used to have together. Things drawing to a close, even quite suddenly, was hardly a surprise. The look Moreland had was the one people take on when a stage has been reached quite different from being ill. “I’ll have to think about that song,” he said. The moment final; the prose absolutely transparent with resonant simplicity.”
This is just a random sample of the vast wealth of human experience, vicarious but full of meaning, that can enrich us in literary fiction, drama, poetry and through that modern popular narrative form, film. Needles to say, within the vast treasury we are looking at, individual taste will determine what we might each feel is appealing or otherwise. The Dance to the Music of Time, which I have been so effusive about, is not, I have to admit, everyone’s favourite book. But entering these worlds is not a waste of time. Indeed it is a sad commentary on our education system, in which a considerable amount of time is devoted to trying to help young people experience these riches that so many people still feel that it is.
One final thought. One must suspect that the appeal of narrative fiction has some deep source in human sensibility given that it has been employed so extensively by the Holy Spirit to reveal so much to us of the very nature of God himself and our relationship with him, not to mention the use made of it by Jesus Christ to teach us how to love God and love each other in this world.
This post will appear in the August/September issue of Position Papers www.positionpapers.ie