I'm reading Anita Brookner's 1988 novel Latecomers, which tells the story of two Jewish boys who come to London as refugees from Nazi Germany. They meet and--despite their quite different personalities--bond at a horrible boarding school, forming a friendship that lasts the next fifty years. But of course I'm not here to talk about the novel itself. I want to talk about some ideas about writing novels that are forming as I read Latecomers.
You might suppose that since I write of Brookner, I want to write about her prose, which is as always quite fantastic and alive, highly specific, cool-headed, ironic and beautiful. Yes, all of that, but I'll just let Brookner comment on her own writing, in this excerpt from a Paris Review interview:
I am not conscious of having a style. I
write quite easily, without thinking about the words much but rather about what
they want to say. I do think that respect for form is absolutely necessary in
any art form - painting, writing, anything. I try to write as lucidly as
possible. You might say that lucidity is a conscious preoccupation. I am glad
people seem to like it.
I am not sure how much I trust that statement, as Brookner is an unreliable narrator (and it is true that all novelists are, at heart, liars). But regarding my own prose, I believe I am willing to finally admit that I have lost the war. There was a time when I thought that I was going to do--indeed was doing--interesting and innovative things with prose, stretching possibilities and bending the shape of the sentence to make language behave in a new way. I thought I was approaching the musical and poetic possibilities of speech, that I had somehow got my hands on the roots of language and would make it grow into forests hitherto unexplored, etc. Of course none of that was actually happening, and none of that is in my future. If there is one thing that the study of poetry has taught me, it is that I am not a poet and that what I'm attempting to do in terms of prose style has nothing to do with poetry or the potentialities of language, and is nothing grander than creating an amalgam of the prose styles I admire in other writers, in order to arm myself with reliable weapons. I am not inventing anything; I am plundering tombs and polishing ancient artifacts until I can see my own face reflected thereupon.
This is a disappointment, as you may well imagine. My intent was to be expansive (explosive!) and transformational (transgressive!), and my results are traditional and comfortable. I guess that's not so bad, after all, and it certainly explains my lack of sympathy with the (mostly American) writers who are obsessed with the sentence. And my disappointment here is happily enough counterweighted by the successful (so I tells meself) work I've done in terms of form and thematic/symbolic content. As none of my novels except The Astrologer (a book I would happily ignore forever could I but get a second novel published) has made it to the light of day, as the saying goes, I cannot easily demonstrate any of the pointless (why am I writing this, after all?) claims I make herein about my writing. You'll have to take my word for it. For now anyway, as I tells meself in optimistic moments.
What Brookner, in her allegedly style-free prose is doing, is exploring ideas. Ideas, as I wrote in this very blog some years ago, are the basic unit of fiction. A novel is made out of ideas, not out of sentences. Sentences give transmittable form to ideas, and a great many (mostly American) novels seem to be constructed of shiny sentences that clothe nothing at all in the way of ideas. I like to think that my own (invisible) novels are built of interesting ideas. I like to think that my novels are the development of intertwining ideas that are rooted in those things which matter (to me, at least). I like to think that my novels are built of good ideas.
Anita Brookner's ideas are better than mine. No, maybe that's not true. Maybe it's that Brookner's development of ideas to which mine are similar, is better done, closer to the bones of humanity than my development is. That feels less inaccurate. I think that I might be exploring a lot of the same ground, a lot of the same ideas, as the novelists I admire. Likely I admire these writers because they explore areas of my interest (Pnin is so relatable!), and thus I reveal myself as the sort of reader-looking-for-a-mirror that I claim to (rightly) disdain. I don't know. I have been seriously writing novels for about the last fifteen years, and I believe that most of my novels have been failures of one sort or another. The failure has been as interesting as the attempt, in most cases. Beckett famously said that one does nothing but fail, and just keeps trying to "fail better."
I am currently drafting a new novel, and though the prose may do nothing new, I think the ideas are good, and also timeless, and I think the formal elements of the narrative (wasn't I going to talk about that in this essay?) are pretty solid and also interesting, so I'm doing what I tells meself is good work. Once, many years ago, I believed that the work I did as a novelist was "as good as anything anyone else is doing." I no longer believe that, but the writing remains interesting. Everyone, as they say, needs a hobby, and there is only so much violin playing that Mighty Reader will tolerate around the house. I do not believe I have said anything here, but I tried to say nothing as lucidly as possible.