December reading: Murdoch, Sage, Kinch

img_1955I read three great books in December: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage and Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch. All three were picked up in charity shops, and although the Lorna Sage had probably been sitting on my shelves for a year or so, I’ve just spotted that I had another copy that had been there for far longer, equally unread. The other two sped quickly shop-to-read. This question of what gets read when, and why, is one that continues to preoccupy me.

I have little to say about the Sage. It is a great memoir, a great piece of writing that takes the form of a memoir. It is lucid in its evocation of an upbringing that seems to have been usefully awful, and surprisingly placid in its telling, all things considered. The monster at the centre is Sage’s grandfather, a philandering vicar, who, nevertheless, had a deep connection with his granddaughter. Perhaps it’s that recognition that leads to the placidity.

Nevertheless, like all memoirs this is at base an act of revenge, but like all great memoirs the past (and the narrator’s own person) is held at enough of a distance that we can read ourselves into it. And certainly the description of Sage’s teenage pregnancy made me think of someone I knew in our street who went through the same thing, and was ostracised in a similar fashion­.

Sage fashions a moving end to the story, though (memoirs, unlike novels and, obviously, biographies, can’t risk unhappy endings) in which she her young shotgun husband both make it to university with their daughter. On the way, the unmarried female teachers at Sage’s school (the Misses Macdonald, Heslop and Roberts) support her through her A Levels and university applications in the face of official disapproval, and her fellow pupils, who never much liked her when she was there, give her a huge round of applause as she goes up on stage to collect her leaver’s book token.

It does make me think, as a critic and teacher, about the tricksiness of memoir. It is the only literary form that comes with any kind of barrier to entry. Anyone can write a novel, a sonnet sequence, an essay… even a biography, if they do their homework. In order to write a memoir, on the other hand, you are generally expected to have experienced something extraordinary in your life. But how extraordinary? How much is enough? Equally clearly, the presence of extraordinary events alone is not sufficient. You also need to be able to write.

The greater the writer, you might think, the slimmer and sparser the incidents treated might be, but that still does leave us, as with Sage, trying and failing to unpick the two aspects (bluntly: form and content). It is harder to tell, when reading a good memoir, if it is the events that are affecting you, or the treatment of them, or both. When something doesn’t work, it’s usually easier to make the call. I was astonished how uncompelling I found Adam Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Kid Gloves. The prose was as good as ever (I’m a big fan of his slow-flowing, practically viscous roman fleuve), but I found the story he was telling entirely uninteresting.

Also: is Sage’s book better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel, with all the variance that may imply? If so, why? Because we ascribe more affect to it because it is ‘true’? (And, after all, we don’t know how much variance there is in the memoir itself; we take it on trust.) None of this is new. But certainly I enjoyed Bad Bloodvery much.

(Interestingly, Marina Warner’s introduction to Sage’s posthumous essay collection, Moments of Truth, mentions that she intended to write a book about the friction between life and art, based on the idea that “you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art”, and to show that “the ‘heroism’ and representativeness of writers’ life-stories [are] aspects of the decay of classic literary realism”. Which, when you think about it, is precisely the work we need to read today, that would throw into relief the whole question of autofiction, not along moral lines, but practical, aesthetic ones. Sage died in 2001.)

The Sandcastle is the second thoroughly enjoyable Iris Murdoch I’ve read on the trot, following the superb and wonderful The Black Prince, discussed here. This was a relief, for in fact I have had problems with some of her novels: A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Flight From the Enchanter and The Philosopher’s Pupil are all ones I’ve started and not finished at various times over the past few years. An Unofficial Rose I finished, but grudgingly, with dwindling pleasure; ditto Under the Net. (On the other hand, The Sea, The Sea, The Italian Girl, A Severed Head and Nuns and Soldiers were all read and enjoyed.)

The Sandcastle is Murdoch’s third novel, and though it is not particularly accorded high status so far as I can tell, I think it is a real step forward from her first two, Under the Net and The Flight from the Enchanter. It is as if she settled herself into the novel form, throwing off the influence of the nouveau roman, or finding a way to fit its absurdities into the established format of the good old run-of-the-mill English novel. Yes, her books are middle-class fantasies, but at their best they use that structure to dig deep into psychological aspects of contemporary(ish) human life that – I hope, I trust – reach out beyond that demographic.

There is pleasure to be had in the formulaic aspects of The Sandcastle. At times it seems indistinguishable from cheap romance:

He came and knelt on the floor beside the sofa. ‘Dear darling,’ he said. He looked upon her with amazement, with incredulity. ‘How is it,’ he said, ‘that you could possibly have wanted to come. That amazes me. How could you want to see me?’ He touched her hair.

Rain took the glass from his hand and laid it upon the floor. Then she threw both arms about his neck and drew him down until his head lay upon her breast. She held him close, caressing his hair. Mor lay still. A deep peace and joy was in him. He could have died thus. For a long time they lay quiet. The thunder rumbled overhead and the rain came down steadily.

And yet, as in The Black Prince, there are passages of insight – of clear presentation of thoughts such as any of us might have – that can only be got by digging through that cheap romance to what lies underneath:

He wondered for the hundredth time what it was that he wanted from her. It was not just to be the owner of that small and exotic being. He wanted to be the new person that she made of him, the free and creative and joyful and loving person that she had conjuring up, striking this miraculous thing out of his dullness. He recalled Bledyard’s words: you think of nothing else but your satisfaction. All right, if two people can satisfy each other, and make each other new, way not? After all, he thought, I canbe guided by this. Let me only make clear what I gain, and what I destroy.

The art teacher, Bledyard, has another great line earlier in the novel:

‘You imagine,’ said Bledyard, ‘that to live in a state of extremity is necessarily to discover the truth about yourself. What you discover then is violence and emptiness. And of this you make a virtue. But look rather upon the others – and make yourself nothing in your awareness of them.’

I do love the morality of Murdoch’s work, and this is where the psychology of most contemporary fiction is not enough. Contemporary fiction is obsessed above all with consciousness, with how existence makes us feel, or how the world might seem to someone else. Thus the tyranny of close third person narration, a sort of filtered stream-of-consciousness fixed to a sturdy chassis of clear mid-century prose. But Murdoch’s now unfashionable omniscient narration crucially accesses and weighs the thoughts of her characters. It is only through comparing thought and action that we can come to an understanding of a character’s (a person’s) morality.

Incidentally, there are four reviews of Murdoch in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché. He was clearly influenced by her, in terms of narratorial attitude, characteristic novel settings (to start with, at least) and comic strategems, but equally you can see why the young Amis would want to kick back against her. He was 24 years old when he dismissed The Black Prince in The New Statesman as garbled and misfiring. Seven years later, in a similarly derogatory review of Nuns and Soldiers, he parenthesises the earlier book as “excellent”.

Lorna Sage, in her obituary of Murdoch (collected in Moments of Truth), brings up the issues of concreteness and muddle. She quotes Murdoch’s critique of Sartre for the “lack of concrete illusion and sympathy with human muddle” in his work. Yes, Murdoch can be brilliantly concrete: The Sandcastle has a superbly described set piece in which a large car parked deep in woodland gradually tips into a stream – just as Nuns and Soldiers has a scene with a dog falling into a fast-flowing river that haunts me still – but she was learning. A later scene in The Sandcastle intricately explains the manhandling of a long ladder out of a window to effect a rescue of someone stuck up high, but it simply doesn’t work; I can’t see what’s going on, and the tension nosedives.

As for that muddle, I’m not convinced. The human muddle in Murdoch’s books is all stage-managed. She had a dramatist’s sense of plotting. What I love about them is how they seem to set a series of plausible characters in motion, that, on their own terms, seem to be acting improvisationally, and yet seem to come together, by the end of the novel, to produce a dramatically surprising and psychologically satisfying answer to the moral question the novel set out to answer. That’s what the novel (a certain kind of novel) can and should do, to my mind.

This links, in a way, to the third of my December books, Simon Kinch’s excellent debut Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness– about which I had intended to write at length in this post, after having skimmed briefly over the other two books. That didn’t happen. It’s New Year’s Eve, early evening, and this has taken me most of the day, on and off, inbetween fixing the toilet, cleaning the house, doing the laundry and going to the shops. I haven’t got time to write everything I wanted. Here’s where I’ll have to hurry.

The link between Murdoch and Kinch is the production, or invention, of plot. I’ve just set out how I see the generation of plot in the writing of a novel – as I teach it on the MA Creative Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, as I try to practice it myself. I am intrigued (though haven’t yet seen) the Black Mirror ‘interactive film’ Bandersnatch, which has a plot engine based on those hoary old Choose Your Own Adventure books we all loved. Here’s Joel Morris (from Facebook):

Any writer knows that fiction exists in the Choose Your Own Adventure form at all stages of its composition, but part of the job of storytelling is making those choices before giving it to the public. That’s what writing is. Interactive fiction – and stuff like non-linear sandbox gaming – seem to have solved a problem nobody really had. Even in open ended simulated worlds, people make their own stories with limited outcomes, video them, and put them online. Storytelling is choices already made, and the pleasure is our response to them.

Exactly that. Thank you, Joel.

This is precisely how I teach novel- and story-writing to my students. You invent possibilities and rehearse them in your head. You start to make choices. Some of the possibilities make it to an experimental draft. Only one makes it to the finished version. This is what imagination means – not just making stuff up, but making more stuff up than is needed, and then submitting those works of the imagination to the writer, and the editor.

Simon Kinch’s short novel starts with Granville, a depressed young American, throwing his phone into the Mediterranean rather than respond to his American girlfriend’s latest query as to when he’s finally coming home. Liberated by this absurd act, and the theft, shortly after, of his satchel and passport, leaving him just a bank card (he is rich enough to be able to subsist on what’s in his account) he decides to stay in sunny Spain and start over. Which he does, taking a train to Seville and boarding in a guesthouse.

The story is written in short numbered chapters of affectless prose. The character drifts, without really connecting to anything or anybody. But then, 30 pages in (of a 137pp book) something odd happens. He imagines what would have happened if he had returned to Wisconsin, and the imagination takes on narrative form. Thereafter the chapters roughly alternate between Granville’s continued life in Seville, and his continued life back in America. Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure book, there isn’t a correct or ‘better’ or more satisfying version. Both of them are equally unsatisfying (to Granville), in that he spends most of his time wondering if he should have chosen the other path. It is, in essence, a concretisation of the desire (or regret) in Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood…

Kinch’s book works because it is short, and disaffected, and curious: longer, and it would turn in Paul Auster’s 4-3-2-1(which I haven’t read); lacking the narrative gambit, it would be just another book about a dull, feckless American in Europe (and Ben Lerner rather dominates the field in that particular genre, just now).

A book that takes a similar slippery approach to narrative is Peter Stamm’s The Back of Beyond, which starts out (spoiler alert: skip this par and the one after the quote if you want to read the book ‘blind’) splitting itself straightforwardly between two narrative viewpoints: Thomas, a seemingly happily married man who one day ups and leaves home without a word, deciding to go off-grid and walk up into the Swiss mountains; and Astrid, his wife, who is left behind to work out the mystery of his disappearance, as well as keep their two young children on an even keel. It proceeds in this fashion for most of its 139pp (a whole 2 more pages than Kinch!), switching perspectives few pages, though without recourse to numbering or chapters. As in Kinch’s book, the two narratives seem half-aware of each other – Thomas spending almost as much time thinking about Astrid as she does about him – but Stamm does something astonishing. Most of the way through the book, Thomas falls and dies high in the mountains, or seems to. In Astrid’s thread, he is dead, the police find him and there is an autopsy, though she keeps him alive in her mind.

Amongst all the thoughts that filled Astrid’s mind in the next few days, there was one that never let go of her: that this was not necessarily real, rather just one among many possibilities. Sometimes she thought it was something she had in her power, to decide in favour of one or other of these possibilities.

In Thomas’s thread, he gets up and carries on – he does the same, I suppose: keeps himself alive in his own mind, rather as Pincher Martin does in William Golding’s stupendous novel. What this book does, and Kinch’s, is the split the narrative, but keep it moving forward. That’s the trick, I think, and the risk to any structural device that impedes the flow of narrative – in the contemporary novel at least. I’ve just started reading Proust, so clearly I don’t believe that narrative propulsion is the be-all and end-all; but it’s something I feel duty bound to teach my students.

I have written on here about the loops inherent in Dumitru Tsepeneag’s The Vain Art of the Fugue, while narrative loops of a different, far wider kind dominate Proust (which I’ve just started reading, seeing if an early start will help me in my New Year’s Resolution). The final comparison I want to throw down before I end the year is to Lorrie Moore’s brilliant Anagrams, which repeats and improvises not plotlines, but characters. The book is made up of four stories and a novella all featuring the same three central characters, but in differing formulations and iterations. It’s a fascinating experiment in how that work of imagination that I talked about happens. Usually, I said, only version makes it to the page. Joel Morris’s comment on Bandersnatch and the comments that replied to it seem to suggest that stories-on-rails are the future as well as the past – sand box games don’t hold you for ever. If they did, gamers would never buy another one. A game that means something different when you play it again, aged forty, to when you played it, aged fifteen – now that would be when gaming truly matures as an art form, but will the technology ever allow that to happen. Because gaming is tied to technology, and so the improvement of effect, old games can never escape the nostalgia trap. Books sidestep obsolescence, and so can live again in the reader’s own future.

This has all been terribly rushed. I never know what I’m going to write in one of these things, and it always feels like I’m skating over ideas that need writing about properly. But when will that happen? Not this year. Next year? Ha, right!

Have a great 2019!

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