The return of story

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In the 20th century, as the practice of the novel tore away from storytelling, narrative went to the movies. But that rip in literature is now being mended

Prospect, December 2004


It may seem odd to propose F Scott Fitzgerald as the most modern of storytellers, but consider how his portrait of Anson Hunter, the protagonist of The Rich Boy, opens with the narrator’s reflections on his own technique: “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing.” The Rich Boy was written in 1925, as Fitzgerald waited for The Great Gatsby to be published. With the explosion of modernism, the 1920s were a watershed for storytelling. Behind them were Austen, Dickens and James, in front Joyce and Borges. Yet far from showing Fitzgerald marooned on the 19th-century shore (where critics almost invariably place him), its 30 pages demonstrate a remarkable bridging of that watershed. The story consists of a linear narrative managed by a modern consciousness. It may owe more to Chekhov than Beckett, but post-Beckett it is possible to see a notion of reality that has already abandoned authority, becoming oblique, partial, esoteric. “The only way I can describe young Anson Hunter,” the narrator concludes his introduction, “is to approach him as a foreigner and cling stubbornly to my point of view. If I accept his for a moment I am lost.”

Why should this concern us? Because in an era of cultural plenitude like ours, stories should abound in something like the manner they did in Fitzgerald’s time. In a sense, they do. Stories are everywhere. The hourly headlines are stories, as are the multifarious narratives of postmodern pluralism. We have more leisure than ever to give to their telling and hearing. Yet it is not the storytelling itself that leaves an impression so much as the histrionic energy of its distribution. The publishing of fiction, its marketing, the shortlisting for prizes, the profiling, the reviewing, the processing: since we lack the time to read the several thousand novels published in Britain each year, the high level of these epiphenomena ought to make us feel that our fictional culture is alive and well. Does it? My answer is a qualified no.

The histories of the novel and of storytelling ran together until the early 20th century; since the 1920s, that history has been one of formal drift, away from the novel as a social form that described how characters live in relation to others; a drift that gathered decisive momentum in the 1970s, as self-consciousness was joined to irony. You may object that the novel, as a result of the century’s bitter fragmentation, is no longer required to satisfy E M Forster’s tentative claim that “Yes—oh dear, yes—the novel tells a story”; that Joyce’s linguistic pile-ups have embarrassed us out of anything so simple; that readers are too aware to acquiesce any longer to the novelist’s authority to tell them that “It was a snowy Sunday afternoon in February,” and that Charles and Emma Bovary have gone with Homais and Léon to see a new flax mill near Yonville.

The first three of these objections assumes that the novel is a vulnerable form, easily manipulated and destabilised. That assumption is hardly borne out by its tumultuous 400-year history. The final objection, that it is no longer as easy to hoodwink readers as it used to be, is simply a slur on our grandparents. And a further obfuscation has grown up: the notion that there is a difference between novelists and storytellers. The assumption here is that the novelist is a creature of form and language, while the storyteller is occupied with the lesser act of narrative. There are several possible rebuttals to such a distinction, depending on your literary tastes, but it is salutary to quote a defender of the contemporary literary novel, one of this year’s Man Booker judges: “Reading 132 books in 147 days… you learn a great deal about why so many novels—even well-written, carefully crafted novels, as so many of those submitted were—are ultimately pointless.”

I have no desire to sound like the second of EM Forster’s imaginary readers in Aspects of the Novel (“‘What does a novel do? Why, tell a story of course, and I‘ve no use for it if it didn’t.’”) Like Forster, I detest this little Englander. But where today is the high storytelling of Fitzgerald or of Robert Louis Stevenson who, beyond his well known juvenilia, wrote in The Beach of Falesa one of the best modern stories in English? No division existed in Stevenson’s lifetime between literature and storytelling; Henry James, that subtle critic and literary snob, would not have been his admiring friend if one had existed.

Storytelling’s golden age is not, of course, the 19th century. Storytelling has no golden age. It has stirred us since the first creation myths, and continues to do so in the guise of modern cosmology: what else is big bang theory but a story? In Christopher Booker’s diligently encyclopaedic The Seven Basic Plots, the author begins by noting that patterns of narrative, created by sequences of mental images that progress across our inner vision, have the profoundest place in our psyche. Beowulf and the Epic of Gilgamesh, he writes, convey to us in considerable detail the same archetype—the monster defeated—as do Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s Dr No. He could have gone further: such narrative patterns, experienced from childhood, have psychic priority over all conscious thought, which is whythey are contiguous with our dreams.

Booker’s explanation of how plots converge, under headings such as “Overcoming the Monster” or “Rags to Riches” or “Voyage and Return,” is not new—we know many stories are displaced myths—but we can be grateful to him for offering a key to why so many stories feel the same, why they rub the same emotional pressure points; and it is pleasant to have proof of commonality between us as humans with a shared need for stories. One reservation about his approach might be that, though expending time and energy explaining how Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary fit into his plan, he talks less about their value to us. We have to wait 600 pages for any mention of the word catharsis, yet the significance of that single idea is surely greater than any assembled matrix of archetexts. The cleansing of the pent-up emotions that accumulate in us in the normal course of life is the profoundest purpose of “story.”

So where is this priority today? In the cinema, a core of narrative innocence survives across a spectrum of values represented by Spielberg at one end and Abbas Kiarostami at the other. In the novel, however, story has gone down in a blaze of modernist attitudes (despite Borges’s remark about Stevenson being for him “a form of happiness”). Modernism as a movement may not be at fault. The problem is that its initial doctrine—the psychological and linguistic purity pursued by Woolf, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Wallace Stevens—rapidly matured into a catastrophic literary self-consciousness. After the 1950s it was more creditable, as a writer of fiction, to be Beckett’s or Borges’s descendant than Orwell’s or Waugh’s. Possibly writers were tired of making the effort of linear narrative, possibly they simply wanted to be modern. Yet I can think of few more complete embodiments of 20th-century alienation than Orwell’s George Bowling in Coming Up for Air, and I cannot think of a novel that better expresses 20th-century English dissent than Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.

As a result of their newfound self-consciousness, from the 1960s onwards many writers of fiction felt it essential to show to their readers, via formal playfulness and irony, that they knew very well that what they were writing was fiction—as if Flaubert, immobile in his study for two long days in March 1852, “very bored, very idle, very drowsy,” furiously unable to progress with his Bovary, did not know he was writing fiction! Playing with a story is not telling a story (as Fitzgerald knew). But this literary obsession with the self, and with metafictions, ran through a gamut of literary bleeps and squeaks—the satires of Amis, the magical realism of Rushdie, the Scottish realism of Kelman, the épater-les-bourgeois surrealism of Self, the chemical adventures of Welsh—before leaving us with the dysfunctional memoir and confessional “novel” that are its avatars today.

This climate was surprisingly partisan. Publishers and critics who in the 1980s were looking for the great white whale of the style-novel to appeal to the Face readership and in the 1990s were cuddling up to the chemical generation were violently hostile to the linear narrative as form, and anything to do with the white middle class as subject. Novelists suffered: I think of Michael Bracewell, whose brilliantly accurate fictional portrait of the 1980s, The Conclave, vanished without trace, and James Buchan’s fine study of middle-class loss, Slide, which was widely ignored.

If anglophone fiction is not to devour itself and readers are to retain their interest, we may imagine that we need urgently to decide what kind of stories need to be told. But that is not a subject for prescription, unless we want to restrict production to what the novelist Dubravka Ugresic has called “market literature… realistic, optimistic, joyful, sexy, explicitly or implicitly didactic,” to capitalism’s ideological equivalent of socialist realism. There are no obligatory plots, great or small; there are no minor events either—only minor writers. Novelists may want to write about freedom (we have over the past century at least acquired an exceptional literature on the experience of oppression from immigrants, women, survivors of genocide and gulag) but an unhappy home-counties marriage has its own prison bars. Novelists may want to write narrowly or widely; but the novel remains a social form, and our fiction should communicate that whatever identity we may have is composed not merely of ourselves but of others. The novel, in its fully realised state, exists to reflect on those links between us—on their making and breaking. How can it do that other than through stories? The writer’s task, as Margaret Atwood has said, is to make those stories plausible. The only excuse for taking refuge in introspection and irony is meanness and the fear of involvement. Fiction, like life, is no idle stroll, as Flaubert continues in the letter quoted above, “when I reflect that so much beauty has been entrusted to me—to [ital] me [ital] —I am so terrified that I am seized with cramps and long to rush off and hide.”

The neurotic introspection and exhibitionism of the novel of the past 30 years may be ending. It is impossible to be sure, but there are signs today of a renewal of interest in sociology in the novel, evident in the impact of novelists as diverse as Jonathan Franzen and Michel Houellebecq. They have made the modern world plausible without over-darkening or sentimentalising it. Their characters’ secret lives and motivations throw light (as Balzac’s did) on our social and cultural conditions; the psychic priority of those characters is ours, in their imperfect attempt to tell themselves the story that will save their lives. It may be doomed to failure, as Anson Hunter’s story is, distorted by his inability to be happy unless the “superiority he cherished in his heart” is nursed and protected by a woman. Fitzgerald’s rich boy can serve as a metaphor for our novelists, the ones who fail to engage with the world around them. As long as there are readers who will spend their brightest hours nursing the superiority of those writers, they will survive. I suspect most readers yearn for a more mutual relationship.


© Julian Evans 2004

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