Thursday, July 09, 2015

`Little Autumnal Moments of Vision'

We find this in Anthony Powell’s A Writer’s Notebook (William Heinemann, 2001): “One of the most difficult things to realize when one is young is that all the awful odds and ends taking place round one are, in fact, the process of living.”

It takes a novelist to notice this truth, as novels consist largely of “the awful [and not-quite-awful] odds and ends taking place round one.” Our imaginations when young tend toward naiveté and vulgarity. They deal in cartoonish fancies, heightened states, the melodramatic. Nuance is generally reserved for the mature (of any age). Life for the young (of any age) is deferred by living, and every day is preamble to John Marcher’s “arid end.” Elsewhere in his Notebook, Powell writes: “People are boring, but not life.” And this, on the literary side of things: “A novel is simply one means of giving information.” Combine those two notebook entries, and every honest grownup recognizes the essential truth. Powell’s observations recall some thoughts sent to me via email by D.G. Myers on May 9, 2013, a little more than sixteen months before his death from cancer:

“I’ve been thinking how much of life is absorbed with `small cares’ that seem overwhelmingly important at the time--or at least disabling--which are forgotten in the sequel: the headaches, stomach aches, the traffic jams, the appointments which are late. Do these take up the majority of our time? They almost never make it into literature, and in fact literature seems an unstinting propaganda on behalf of the dramatic occurrences of human life. I may try to write about the `small cares,’ but I'm not sure yet what I want to say.”

“Small cares” is not to be read ironically. David disliked the sort of fiction that pretended to be abstracted from life – Donald Barthelme’s artsy-fartsy bric-a-brac, for instance. Joyce devoted much of Ulysses to Bloom’s “small cares.” Nobody reads Shakespeare for the sword fights. David’s mention of “unstinting propaganda” offers a ready explanation for the recent respectability given genre fiction – fantasy, mysteries, science fiction and such -- among readers and critics who ought to know better. That much of life consists of the familiar, ordinary, unheroic and tedious is self-evident and probably sounds rather appealing to a lot of people in Darfur and Syria. David’s email recalls the gallant letter Larkin wrote in 1965 to Charles Monteith, an editor at Faber and Faber, lobbying for publication of Barbara Pym’s novels: 

“Personally, too, I feel it is a great shame if ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days. This is the tradition of Jane Austen & Trollope, and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today. Why shd I have to choose between spy rubbish, science fiction rubbish, Negro-homosexual rubbish, or dope-take nervous-breakdown rubbish?”

The ascendency of bad taste and impaired literacy was well underway even half a century ago. Larkin goes on:

“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful or lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self  pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness & even humour, that is in fact what the critics wd call the moral tone of the book.”

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

Thanks for this thoughtful condensation.
As an ordinary reader, I found it useful.

On a related note,
I'd like to see you write
more of the pieces
that bring out
the reporter in you.