The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (3)

Continued from the previous post.

When placed in the company of Betjeman and Larkin, Heaney joins the conversation from a bit of a distance. Love is rarely a subject he sees fit for exploration. The embarrassments and frustrations of lust are not the concerns of his best-known work. More celebrated are poems like ‘Mid-Term Break’ (1966) and ‘Limbo’ (1972), both of which punctuate the quietude of life in rural Ireland with shocking irruptions of death. More compelling are the haunting ‘Follower’ (1966) and ‘District and Circle’ (2006), both of which detail Heaney’s disquieting relationship with his father. More eloquent are Heaney’s sporadic, almost impulsive disclosures of his mystical sentiments — disclosures like those made in section xxii of ‘Settings’ (1991) or in the oblique rhetorical question that appears as a non sequitur between two descriptions of a badger in ‘Badgers’ (1979): “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?”

But then there are poems like ‘Act of Union’ (1975), starkly coloured by Heaney’s debt to his predecessors insofar as his attempt to wed eroticism with nationalistic commentary tends towards a glut of embarrassing metaphors. “Your back is a firm line of eastern coast,” the speaker tells his lover, “And arms and legs are thrown / Beyond your gradual hills. I caress / The heaving province where our past has grown.” When they make love, the speaker impregnates his lover and then describes himself as at war with the misbegotten child:

And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within.
His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum
Mustering force. His parasitical
And ignorant little fists already
Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked
At me across the water. No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again.

Yes, on one level, it’s an allegorical treatment of the relationship between Great Britain, Ireland, and Ulster. Yet the sonnet form and the diction remain very much those of a love poem, and in this poem the act of making love is cringe-inducing, agonising, for both parties — agonising for the lover in the heat of the moment and agonising for the speaker in the process of description. It is less as if the speaker is using love to speak indirectly of international affairs, and more that he is awkwardly contorting metaphors drawn from the realm of international affairs in order to avoid the embarrassment of speaking directly of a torturous love. This is a fundamentally juvenile thing to do, a juvenile way to speak of love, as Heaney indicates in ‘Twice Shy’ (1966), one of his earliest love poems. There, as the speaker and his lover set off along “the embankment walk” with “Traffic holding its breath, / Sky a tense diaphragm” — note the reference to birth control given an atmospheric figuration — he and she play coy with one another. “[T]remulously we held / As hawk and prey apart,” he says, “Preserved classic decorum, / Deployed our talk with art” — but, significantly, he later refers to this talk as “nervous” and “childish,” and he attributes their behaviour to youthful naiveté:

Our Juvenilia
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late.

Where, then, in the Heaney oeuvre, does Heaney ever grow up? Nowhere at all. He never “publish[es]” his “feeling[s]” of love. After ‘Twice Shy,’ Heaney’s speakers continually render love as lust and then, as in ‘Act of Union,’ they attempt to address it by diversionary means but they fumble the artistry of the diversion, or else they blink in the face of sincerity and opt for a puerile schoolboy’s treatment of the subject at the very moment that calls for maturity. For instance, in ‘Wedding Day’ (1995), the speaker describes his new wife as “demented” while watching her “sing[ing] behind the tall cake,” then he takes himself to “the gents” where he sees, graffitied on the wall, “a skewered heart / And a legend of love,” before he brusquely concludes: “Let me sleep on your breast to the airport.” And how else to describe ‘Rite of Spring’ (1969) but as simply crass and crude? The speaker begins by glazing the image of a frozen water pump with the rhetoric of sexual penetration — “So winter closed its fist,” he says, “And got it stuck in the pump,” and there are few surprises about where he takes that imagery as the poem nears its end:

The plunger froze up a lump

In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.

Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light

That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.

While Heaney certainly indulges in bawdiness with less frequency than Betjeman and Larkin, he also does so with greater intensity. On the whole, his speakers have a similar sense of propriety to those of the speakers of the other two poets, albeit Catholic rather than Anglican in origin. From this sense of propriety, any hint of sex or sexualisation — whether in a human encounter or simply in the language applied to non-human phenomena — offers the speaker a private titillation, a sensation that resonates with but does not quell his bodily wants and urges. Heaney’s speakers, like those of Betjeman and Larkin, are grown men who find themselves simply unable to speak of sexual matters with serious or sensual intent. Whether they set out to describe a longing for someone absent or an attraction to someone nearby, the description inevitably breaks down into some sort of joke — sometimes salacious, sometimes forlorn — which suggests the innermost insecurities of the speaker by way of glossing a situation that needs no gloss at all. Theirs, altogether, is a view of romance whose ribald sheen amounts to a varnish over deep, essentially adolescent reservations about speaking forthrightly of love — and even about feeling love in the first place.

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (2)

Continued from the previous post.

Larkin’s speakers do something similar to that of Betjeman’s speakers, minus the thrill. In one of Larkin’s most celebrated poems, ‘High Windows’ (1967), the ageing speaker imposes his own lust onto a younger man:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives —
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side…
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life…

In another poem of equal fame, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (1967), Larkin’s speaker makes some wry and oft-quoted remarks on the liberalisation of attitudes towards sex and sexuality: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” he says, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” But the key phrase in this opening quintet, far less frequently quoted, appears in the third line when the speaker makes the self-deprecating confession — in parentheses — that sexual intercourse in 1963 was, after all, “rather late for me.” “Up to then,” he adds by way of explanation, “there’d only been / A sort of bargaining, / A wrangle for the ring, / A shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything” — and a shame that remains very much in force.

For Larkin, it seems, the heyday of his optimism came during his more vigorous years in the early- to mid-1940s, years that his speaker reflects upon fondly but without true nostalgia in ‘Wild Oats’ (1962). Thinking back over his youthful dalliances, his striving for a sensual connection despite his personal insecurities, he proceeds to reveal something of his ongoing lust for the object of his desire from those days. “About twenty years ago,” he begins, “Two girls came in where I worked — / A bosomy English rose / And her friend in specs I could talk to.” He strikes up a connection with the “friend in specs” and begins a romance that will last for seven years, during which time, he says, “I believe / I met beautiful twice. She was trying / Both times (so I thought) not to laugh” — not to laugh, that is, at him. He goes on to chronicle the demise of his relationship, with he and his lover “Parting, after about five / Rehearsals” on the grounds that he is “too selfish, withdrawn / And easily bored to love.” “Well,” he muses, “useful to get that learnt,” before he confesses, almost as an aside some twenty years after the fact, “In my wallet are still two snaps, / Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.” That’s lasciviousness without joy, energetic lust without urgency or passion. Time and again, Larkin responds to the prospect of a sexual relationship — even just the hint of a prospect, his own or someone else’s — with a wink-wink nudge-nudge, and then a forlorn sigh. His speakers are moved to fantasy by the same sort of urges as Betjeman’s speakers, but they don’t have the stamina to entertain the fantasy, or to elaborate on it, in the way that Betjeman’s do.

The reason they don’t have the stamina is basically because they’re atheists of a particularly fatalistic pedigree. These men look upon life as, in the final analysis, a vast miasma of missteps and mistakes, missed opportunities and misused time, each instance of which is a sin worse than the one before it because the sum total of remaining life is continually dwindling. In a strange way, then, their behaviour in the world is as conservative as that of Betjeman’s speakers. The real difference between the two sets of speakers is that the melancholic passivity of Larkin’s speakers owes less to a sense of insecurity than to world-weary exhaustion and a feeling of futility. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the elegiac yet embittered ‘The Life With a Hole In It’ (1974):

When I throw back my head and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you’ve always done what you want,
You always get your own way
— A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that’s been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I’ve never done what I don’t.

So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay) …

Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces.
Days sift down it constantly. Years.

The pessimism takes other forms, manifesting sometimes as near-paralysis, as in the haunting ‘Aubade’ (1977), and sometimes as gallows humour, as in ‘Born Yesterday’ (1954). Mostly, though, it comes from the speaker dwelling patiently if ruefully alongside his subjects — those who lust and those who are lusted after — and then resigning himself to the state of “Uncontradicting solitude” in which, in ‘Best Society,’ “there cautiously / Unfolds, emerges, what I am.”

Continued in the following post.

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1)

It’s no secret that John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney were bound together by a sense of brotherhood. Larkin greatly admired the work of Betjeman, his predecessor, and then Heaney, arriving on the scene after the other two men were established poets, expressed equally great admiration for Larkin’s work. They even admired more or less the same elements of each other’s poetry: Betjeman, according to Larkin, was remarkable for “the quality in his poetry loosely called nostalgia,” “that never-sleeping alertness to note the patina of time on things past which is the hall-mark of the mature writer,” while Larkin, according to Heaney, was remarkable for his “visions of ‘the old Platonic England,’ the light in them honeyed by attachment to a dream world that will not be denied because it is at the foundation of the poet’s sensibility.” Sure enough, the poems of all three men are tinged with a vague sort of pastoral glow, a sly affection for the peace and calm and orderliness of village life in the British Isles. It manifests in a recurrent fondness for old churches and cobbled streets and other antique relics of a more innocent, pre-War, even pre-twentieth century world. But what also unites them, to my eye, is something considerably less quaint than all that. What unites them is that, when it comes to matters of sex and sexuality, each one of them is basically a man-child, a juvenile schoolboy who never grew up and now finds himself stuck in an ageing body. Betjeman is smutty and giddy about it, Larkin is a little darker, and Heaney is plainly crude, but in each case the words on the page reveal a man in a tussle with his juvenile self upon feeling a great pulse of lust.

The thing I love most about Betjeman is the way his frozen adolescence manifests as lasciviousness. You might call it simple, unashamed bawdiness, but for the fact that the poet is ashamed of it, or ashamed of his inability to act on it, which gives his expressions of lust an undercurrent of self-pity, an air of lament, a tone of proleptic regret. Consider, for example, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ (1945), in which the speaker rhapsodises over his beloved Joan Hunter Dunn, one of Betjeman’s infamous tennis-playing girls with “[t]he speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.” The speaker loves her dearly for her body, but he doesn’t love the women herself quite so much as to honour his fleshly love by requesting her hand in marriage. He notes, early on, “[t]he warm-handled racket” with which she beats him in a tennis tournament, and then, later, he notes her “strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!” — and it’s not difficult to guess where exactly he’d like her to put that hand, particularly as the two of them retreat to private quarters:

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

But there’s no handjob in this poem, nor anything else of a sexual nature. Paralysed by the prospect of first having to dance with Joan Hunter Dunn before anyone’s pants come off, the speaker, leaping ahead to a disappointing future, ends the poem by switching into the past tense and glumly looking back: “We sat in the car park till twenty to one / And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.” A similar sort of ennui enshrouds an earlier poem about a tennis-playing girl, ‘Pot Pourri From a Surrey Garden’ (1940), in which the speaker waxes lyrical about his amply proportioned partner, Pam, and her “bountiful body.” “Pam,” he begins, “I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl / …you zephyr and khaki shorts girl,” and then, in an oblique addendum to ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song,’ he focuses again on the brachial beauty of his beloved, and uses his image of her to figuratively give himself the handjob he was hoping for:

See the strength of her arm, as firm and hairy as Hendren’s;
 See the size of her thighs, the pout of her lips as, cross,
And full of a pent-up strength, she swipes at the rhododendrons,
    Lucky the rhododendrons,
    And flings her arrogant love-lock
 Back with a petulant toss.

And even though ‘Pot Pourri’ ends in much the same way as ‘Love Song’ — with the speaker and his sweetheart taking themselves to church to become “Licensed… for embracement” — the speaker here, younger than the speaker of ‘Love Song,’ is bold enough to sexualise even the largely undesirable state of marriage. Presumably he and Pam sign the papers, presumably they receive a blessing, and then, as the ceremonial music starts up, he rejoices while “the organ / Thunders over you all.” It certainly does, if we play along with the speaker’s double-entendre, since his “organ” “Thunders over” pretty much everything he captures in verse. And that’s no less true for ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ or ‘Pot Pourri From a Surrey Garden’ than it is for later poems like ‘Beside the Seaside’ (1948) or ‘Late-Flowering Lust’ (1954). In ‘Beside the Seaside,’ the speaker displaces his misbegotten lust onto Mr. Pedder, the provocatively and quite aptly named “schoolmaster and friend / Of boys and girls — particularly girls,” who sexually grooms pre-adolescent children but dwells in a haze of forever preparing to act on desires he can’t bring himself to realise. In ‘Late-Flowering Lust,’ the speaker is somewhat more open and blunt —

My head is bald, my breath is bad,
    Unshaven is my chin,
I have not now the joys I had
    When I was young in sin.

I run my fingers down your dress
    With brandy-certain aim
And you respond to my caress
    And maybe feel the same.

— but the loaded ambivalence of that “maybe” suggests that the concerns he expresses here are of a piece with the concerns that run as a motif throughout Betjeman’s work. Betjeman’s schtick, for want of a better word, basically involves taking a superficially respectable English gentleman — he with the Church of England propriety and well-mannered deference to tradition — and imprisoning that man’s sensibility in a body quite at odds with it, a body overruled by lust and a longing for sensual pleasures.  The tension between the man’s sensibility and his bodily urges only grows stronger the more he is forbidden to pursue his wants, whether he is forbidden by circumstance or by law or by age. Yet at the same time — and this is where Betjeman infuses his poems with bitter humour — the very forbiddenness of his wants inclines him to see himself as perverted, so that his need to maintain a respectable appearance grows stronger at the same time. Betjeman’s speakers are thus trapped in a double-bind, indulging in bawdy fantasies while beset with inhibitions that lead them to confine their fantasies to poetry, and this confinement is what pushes his speakers into outright lasciviousness. They savour their fantasies all the more when rendering them in poetic form, knowing they cannot enjoy in the flesh so pure a product of the imagination.

Continued in the following post.

Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it’s actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seems divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.

Precision of Statement

He spoke slowly; he remembered swiftly and with extreme vividness; he could have reproduced like an echo the moaning of the engineer for the better information of these men who wanted facts. After his first feeling of revolt he had come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things. The facts those men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses, occupying their place in space and time, requiring for their existence a fourteen-hundred-ton steamer and twenty-seven minutes by the watch; they made a whole that had features, shades of expression, a complicated aspect that could be remembered by the eye, and something else besides, something invisible, a directing spirit of perdition that dwelt within, like a malevolent soul in a detestable body. He was anxious to make this clear. This had not been a common affair, everything in it had been of the utmost importance, and fortunately he remembered everything. He wanted to go on talking for truth’s sake, perhaps for his own sake also; and while his utterance was deliberate, his mind positively flew round and round the serried circle of facts that had surged up all about him to cut him off from the rest of his kind: it was like a creature that, finding itself imprisoned within an enclosure of high stakes, dashes round and round, distracted in the night, trying to find a weak spot, a crevice, a place to scale, some opening through which it may squeeze itself and escape. This awful activity of mind made him hesitate at times in his speech…

Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim

The Next Word, and the Next

Continued from the previous post.

Perhaps the strangest element of John Mullan’s essay on the pleasures of plot is the way in which Mullan identifies as ‘plot’ all those aspects of literature from which he derives pleasure, even when the pleasure demonstrably does not come from the sophistication of the plotting. He finds, for example, a “pleasing moment in the very first instalment of Bleak House when Dickens uses a parenthesis to hint at his buried design.” Dickens introduces “Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir,” and, as Mullan writes, the words in parentheses “turn out to be untrue” so that “[w]hat is treated as though it hardly matters is in fact a clue.” That’s a fair enough assessment of the significance of Dickens’ aside, but while Dickens’ sleight-of-hand with regard to Lady Dedlock’s parental status might well be an issue of plot, the effects of his use of parenthetical remarks are arguably an issue of style. And since these sorts of remarks don’t fall within the aesthetic capabilities of artforms other than literature, the real source of Mullan’s pleasure here lies in Dickens’ use of an aesthetic resource that is particular to the artform in which he is working.

All of this is to say that the pleasures of literature owe much more, I think, to things like style and structure than to secrets concealed, motives revealed, sudden betrayals, uneasy alliances, moral epiphanies, and other twists and turns of plotting. Funnily enough, Mullan would seem to agree with that, even though he still credits plot for the resultant pleasures. “Plot is not just a sequence of connected events,” he writes, echoing E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story as a sequence of events and a plot as a sequence of events that obtain meaning by way of their causal connections. “Plot,” he insists,

is… the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’ The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her.

No disagreement from me. How could that not be the case? A work of literature is essentially a bundle of information. In places, the information it contains is quite simple. It might be, for example, information about a particular event: where it took place, who was involved in it, what caused it to happen, and what its consequences were. In other places, the information can become much more complex. It might involve exploring how somebody responded to something that happened to them, how the emotional aspects of their response conflicted with its psychological aspects, and how their response as a whole evolved and changed over time. It might involve information about things of a scale far larger than that of an individual life or a single moment in time, or it might involve information about a multitude of things that interact and intersect in countless ways that are significant but not necessarily causal in nature. Whatever the case, the totality of the information is there inside the work of literature, contained within its pages, and the work serves to transmit the information to the reader one piece at a time, one word at a time.

But I could say pretty much the same thing of my MacBook Pro setup guide, couldn’t I? What exactly is it, then, that might distinguish a work of literature from the corporate publications of Apple? What is it that makes one of them capable of giving pleasure and the other one virtually incapable of it? Does it really just boil down to a difference in the interest level and the emotional depths of the information that is disclosed in words? Or is it a difference in the means by which, the ends towards which, and the effects with which each written work approaches the task of disclosure in words? If, say, Bleak House were to be rewritten from top to tail, to have every sentence reworded, without altering a single plot point or changing any of its narrative information, would John Mullan derive precisely as much pleasure from it as he does at present? Or is it rather the case that Dickens has chosen to transmit the information to his readers through a selection of stylistic and structural devices that work in concert with the information itself in order to produce the unique pleasures of Bleak House?

Words possess properties beyond those of direct and literal reference for the purpose of disclosing information. They possess prosodic qualities, tonal qualities, connotative meanings, and multiple meanings any one of which may be suppressed or called forth by the surrounding words and by the place of a particular word within a broader context. Stylisation involves, among other things, the purposeful exploitation of these and similar properties of words. Since these properties are precisely the sorts of things that the writers of MacBook Pro setup guides don’t exploit — not least because they’ll leave the readers of those guides confused and irritated — it’s fair to say that the particularities of style are part of what make a written work identifiably literary.

Information, too, is unstable. A work of literature may be essentially a bundle of information, but as readers we can’t and don’t receive the information in a bundle. As above, the work transmits information to its readers one piece at a time, although to phrase the situation in that way is to combine and simplify three important points that warrant a little elaboration. First: that, without exception, every work of literature has been structured so as to keep some information concealed while allowing some to be disclosed. That’s just the nature of the beast. Second: that every work of literature adds to the totality of its disclosures and subtracts from its concealments as the pages turn. Obviously, though, there’s no guarantee that cumulative disclosures entail a clearer or more coherent understanding of the information as a whole. Third: that the process of writing a work of literature involves deciding, on a word-by-word basis, which information to keep concealed, and why, and which information to disclose, and how. In other words, it involves decisions about the perspective from which to make disclosures and the order in which to make them, as well as assessing the effects of every possible variation in the sequence of the disclosures. Structure is a reflection of the sum of those decisions. If you’re writing a MacBook Pro setup guide, you probably want to structure your disclosures in the way that most clearly spells out, in order, the key steps in setting up a MacBook Pro. If you’re writing literature, however, you have an effectively unlimited range of possible effects to produce in your readers, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to structure your disclosures, and each possible structure will of course produce its own unique effects. Structural particularities therefore make a written work identifiably literary just as much as do particularities of style.

“When we know that a story has a plot,” writes John Mullan, “we find ourselves asking not so much, ‘What will happen next?’ as, ‘What has already happened?’.” I think that’s fundamentally right, but it’s also much too restrictive. Actually, I think it’s more that we ask some version of those two questions in combination: “What has already happened, in the sense that the information is predetermined? And which piece of it will I receive next, and in what words, and how will all of that resonate or clash with what I have received so far?” And when readers begin receiving answers to those questions from a work of literature, whether or not the answers relate to a plot is entirely incidental to their potential for producing pleasure. They might produce pleasure as successfully, and they often produce it better, if they exercise a range of literature’s other, less cinematic aesthetic resources. That way, the disclosure of ‘what happens next’ involves not just using words to record events involving characters, but using the purposeful selection of words as an ongoing event that involves the reader in a particularly literary experience.

Plotted Pleasures

This weekend’s Guardian Review features an essay by John Mullan on the pleasures of a good plot. “How we love plots,” he begins, “and how we look down our noses at them. … [P]lot lovers who are also novel readers might think that [the excitements of a plot] are guilty pleasures.” Mullan encourages his readers not to feel guilty about enjoying novels that place a premium on plotting, and instead to see the orchestration of “a good plot” as “one of the highest arts.”

On one level, at least, this reader needed little persuading. I’m one of the umpteen million people who binge-watched The Wire and Breaking Bad, and like so many others I remain addicted to House of Cards and Game of Thrones. With religious fervour I also bow down at the altar of Marvel Studios, heading to the cinema on opening day to pay the extortionate price of admission to every new superhero brawl, and I don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt about admitting any of this. On another level, though, I found it hard to follow Mullan very far into his argument. Halfway down the first column, he swerves off in an absurd direction. In pursuit of a tussle with critics who fail to see the brilliance of contemporary novels that invest heavily in plot — novels by the likes of John le Carre, Michael Frayn, Sarah Waters, and Ian McEwan — Mullan points out that those novels share a kinship with other, more celebrated works that are neither contemporary nor novels at all. Let’s slow down right there. The particularities of both historical context and use of artform are not incidental to the ways in which we might appreciate the contemporary novel, with or without a plot. It’s worth taking a little time to think about the way they shape what we think we want from a novel, and how we respond to what we actually get.

Here’s exactly what Mullan writes in that opening column:

No longer satisfied with the mere whodunnit, the prime-time [television] audience can satisfy its plot hunger with the elaborate conspiracy narrative of the BBC’s Line of Duty or the psychological indeterminacy of ITV’s Marcella. … TV drama, especially the one-off mini-series, is where we can go for the special pleasures of plot. …

In the Victorian age, novelists such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins treated the compulsive powers of plotting as fiction’s strongest resource. The most literary novelists respected the engrossing powers of plot: even George Eliot’s Middlemarch has at its heart a secret tale of seduction, larceny and hidden identity waiting to be discovered.

How to diplomatically recap the logic underpinning all this? Novelists working in the nineteenth century ago expended great energies on the intricacies of their plots. Popular television series continue to do so today. Contemporary novelists who neglect plot are therefore betraying both the innate desires of their readers and, worse, their artistic heritage. If I managed to get the gist of it right, colour me unconvinced.

Here’s a question to be answered in all seriousness. Why would someone who cherishes reading novels not read a novel for the plot? Far from being ignorant about how the typical novel was read in the nineteenth century, I do it precisely because of what happened to the novel and its capacity for plot in the two hundred years between then and now. Circa the 1850s, literature began to encounter rival artforms. Photography came first, then cinema, broadcast radio, comic books, and television. Each of these artforms brought with it a set of aesthetic capabilities that overlapped with those of the nineteenth century novel. Among the most notable of these capabilities were the representation of the real world and the narrative sequencing of events. Yet each of these artforms also brought with it new aesthetic resources which allowed it, in its own particular way, to realise those same representational and narratorial capabilities much more fully than literature could.

What aesthetic resources were those? I’m thinking especially things like photorealistic mimesis, by which photography was the first to diminish the success of literary attempts at verisimilitude, as well as scene cuts and shot-to-shot cuts, by which cinema and television have diminished literary efforts at managing narrative causality, tempo, and overall pace. I’m also thinking of the simultaneous transmission of verbal and visual narrative information. That’s an aesthetic resource by which cinema, comic books, and television have created complex new narrative structures that aren’t possible in works of literature with their commitment the singular focus of the written word. It’s also one of the aesthetic resources that Mullan praises for its effect on plot, without pointing out that literature can’t replicate it. Writing of Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects, Mullan points out that its “surprising success stemmed from its devotion to plot and its willingness to deceive the audience quite as comprehensively as its villain was deceiving the detectives. Certainly the means by which it did this was postmodern: the film broke with old cinematic conventions by showing on the screen events that had not happened. What the trickster narrated (though untrue) was turned into images on our screen.” I wouldn’t dream of denying the validity of the observation, but Mullan argues in bad faith when he calls for contemporary novelists to play these sorts of game with plot. As well demand that airplanes be built to sail the seas and paraplegics take the stairs.

To put all this another way, new and emergent artforms have, over the last two hundred years, encroached upon and constrained the supremacy of literature as a vehicle for an immersive plot. You’d be crazy to say that literature can’t do plot at all, but literature in this day and age simply isn’t the best available artform for making plot convincing and compelling. That’s why I find I’m not able to read a novel for its plot without wondering, every step of the way, why the author didn’t decide to let the plot unfold someplace other than on the page. I can’t read a novel for its plot when I know I could see the same plot executed more realistically and at a better pace on television or in the cinema. To use literature as a vehicle for plot is to not make use of the aesthetic resources that are particular to the artform, and a novel that results from this use therefore fails to answer the fundamental question of why it might be something worth reading.

Continued in the following post.