Wednesday, 27 July 2011
The historian and critic Tony Judt – who died almost a year ago of a variant of motor neurone disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – managed to complete a book Ill Fares the Land which I have just finished and which makes me think of Stéphane Hessel's Indignez Vous! (see older post in this blog) in its determination not to be cowed by the current intellectual climate of supine acceptance of the nostrums of privatisation and the worship of markets as a substitute for creative public policy. Too sharply intelligent and knowledgeable to fall back on nostalgia, romanticising past struggles, or self-indulgent political fantasy, Judt simply asks for what he calls "a new moral narrative", a way of thinking and talking about contemporary politics that returns to ethical principles instead of parroting the post-Thatcher free market slogans. It is a thoughtful, crisply written book that, like Hessel, offers no single Great Idea to solve all our problems but rather calls for a willingness to challenge, to dissent, as a preparation for a better way. And its opening sentence makes a declaration that no one in the Labour Party, for example, would ever make: "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today." It is a book to read and ponder rather than a source book of slogans or policies and none the worse for that. One can imagine the policy wonks in all the parties, trapped in their bubble of self-referring and self-reflecting cant, dismissing it with a smug wave of the hand but those of us who long ago ceased to expect anything from that quarter at least have something to energise our thinking about alternatives.
Tuesday, 19 July 2011
I have enjoyed reading Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Stranger's Child, which centres around a First World War poet called Cecil Valance and I notice that some people have been having fun trying to identify "the original of" Cecil, arguing, for example that he is "based on" Rupert Brooke. This in spite of the fact that Brooke is mentioned in the novel alongside Cecil Valance. I found myself playing the game too, seeing Julian Grenfell and maybe a bit of Charles Hamilton Sorley in this character. And then I reminded myself that this is fiction. That's right: invention, imagination, creation. Novelists, even conventionally realistic ones, are not newspaper reporters (perhaps a bad analogy just now but you know what I mean) but they may well build their characters out of the raw material of people they have known and experienced. In an autobiographical novel the relationship one supposes is clear enough but mostly characters are amalgams of perhaps three or four people or they are pure invention. In so far as we observe the mantra of the creative writing classes – Write About What You Know – then we will draw on actual experience, but surely what matters is the significance and meaning of the character in the novel's overall aesthetic structure. "The only sure truth about characters in prose fiction," wrote Susan Sontag, "is that they are, in Henry James' phrase, 'a compositional resource'." The more we emphasise the realism of the novel over its other elements, the more we will think these detective games matter.