“Style being the man, you cannot borrow the one without first becoming the other.”
“Escape reading”: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). I read it first in college, years after Robinson Crusoe. They share the survival theme, irresistible to boys. Early readers mistook it, understandably, for a survivor’s account, and that’s how I chose to read it this time, as did A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. They judged it a precursor to their own work, which, at its best and like Defoe's, is not always what it appears to be. The contrast with In Cold Blood, the “nonfiction novel,” is instructive. Capote fudged the facts and excused himself in advance by calling it a novel, which also served to tart up the book’s reputation so it looked like something more than a tawdry potboiler. It worked, and people still take it seriously. Defoe told a compelling story, elemental in its appeal to common readers, the sort sophisticates disdain. In his first chapter he interpolates a table of the plague-related burials reported in Holborn, lending it a documentary appearance. Fact or fiction, the book's appeal after three centuries tells us much about human credulity and the love of story.
The passage quoted at the top is from V.S. Pritchett’s “Defoe,” collected in The English Novelists: A Survey of the Novel by Twenty Contemporary Novelists (ed. Derek Verschoyle, Chatto & Windus, 1936). Immediately we sense Pritchett’s affinity for Defoe and his social background. Defoe’s father was a tallow chandler who worked alongside butchers. As a boy Pritchett worked in the leather trade, and religion was problematically central to both of their families. Pritchett writes:
“Unique in his own time, plain but never elegant, Defoe had the devious complexity of a nature whose simplicity and straightforwardness were highly disingenuous. How far simplicity is the result of art and how far of artlessness is always impossible to say . . . He is a weed in English literature, a writer as wiry and prolific as couch grass, growing anyhow and essentially inimitable.”
I had to look up couch grass, an Old World native and common forage for grazing animals – tough, bountiful source of nutrients. Part of the pleasure in reading Defoe is gauging his loyalty to the facts. Pritchett writes:
“Almost every sentence of Defoe’s fiction is sealed by the circumstantial. There is such gusto in the habit that he is forever seeking opportunities to indulge it, saying the most careless and unlikely things in order more ingeniously to test his skill in making everything credible. It is the habit of the born and congenital liar, the old lag impenetrably stocked with alibis, the spy who has noted every inch of the ground, every movement of the population, as well as the habit of the new, fact-hunting, scientific mind.”
I can’t think of another critic as hungry for the world as he is for books. None so primes us for just the right volume, whether Defoe, Goncharov or Perez Galdos. His generalities have a personalized appeal. It’s no surprise Pritchett is, with Kipling (whose appetite for the world he matches), the best of all English story writers. The passage just quoted serves, with a little jiggering, as a commentary on Pritchett’s story “The Skeleton” (1966). And here, Pritchett lifts off into a philosophical reverie without losing sight of the matter at hand, Daniel Defoe:
“All the time our eyes are looking at a world which the mind’s eye immediately distorts. We walk down a street, we enter a room, we become part of a drama, and the mind turns this seeing and hearing into a stage play of jungles, associations, memories, wishes, fears and fantasies; we become to ourselves, itinerant puppet shows. The realism of Defoe breaks into this private dream world and reminds us of our public reality. We are citizens and taxpayers. We cease to be romantic, absolute centres, and become creatures relative to one another in the business of survival, delighted by the originality of an author who can surprise us with the commonplace of our circumstance.”
Pritchett is describing one of the central obligations and mysteries of great fiction – its power to induce self-forgetting and teleport us into the sensibilities of others. He calls Defoe “the greatest liar in English letters,” and we cherish him for that reason. The best of Defoe is in Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year, but follow Pritchett’s lead and sample the rest of his work, especially The Storm.