Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Line of Beauty

I've just been to Raphael Selbourne's talk about his novel, Beauty, and run a seminar afterwards. Both were fascinating and stimulating. As an aside, embarrassing too: Raphael's mother has been reading yours truly and he 'outed' me in front of the whole class… So anyway, hello Raphael's mum. Always good to acquire new readers, as I'm sure your son agrees.

One of the great things to come out of the talk was how confident and intelligent this year's first-years are - they asked really interesting questions and aren't afraid to pass judgement. It helped that the novel is set in named places around this city. I was a bit disappointed that only one Asian student asked questions: the novel engages very directly and controversially in notions of Bengali femininity and cultural traditions - but perhaps the classroom reflects a Caucasian dominance that's hard to break.

Selbourne's use of dialect came up, and questions were asked in the same broad yam-yam. His position is that the kind of literary fiction he despises doesn't represent regional accents (Philip Pullman hated Beauty and claimed that everyone knows how regional accents sound so there's no need to recreate them on paper). It's a conundrum: get them wrong (as DH Lawrence sometimes did, and Howard Jacobson really does in the Hegemon-set Coming From Behind) and it's horribly patronising. Ignore them, and you're accused of tipp-exing out diversity.

Something that was refreshing about Selbourne's approach was his strong belief in the novel as intervention. I asked him if Beauty was a return to the 19th-century 'Condition of England' novel: he used the phrase 'state of the nation' but roughly agreed. Gaskell, Dickens, Disraeli and many others thought that one of the things fiction should do was do uncover the hidden injustices and oppressions at work in society, whereas modern fiction often doesn't (though the mythical Great American Novel tries to do it without the liberal-ish concern for social justice.

To Selbourne, contemporary fiction is narcissistic: bourgeois middle-class people writing about their minor inconveniences as though they were in some way profound. It's a nice line with some truth in it, but there's a deeper divide. The Condition of England novelists were right to represent cruelty and oppression, and they chose the novel as a way of getting round humanity's abiity to ignore facts (when you read about massacres and famines in the newspapers, do you do anything about it? Of course not). They knew, instead, that giving faces and names to otherwise anonymous masses would appeal to your emotions, hence the millions crying over little Pip or young Cratchett. But: these novelists could do so because everyone believed in the novel's ability to represent something called reality. They had beginnings, middles and ends because we felt, somehow, that life was like that. It had purpose, direction and an Author - God perhaps.

That belief died, for two (perhaps more) reasons. With mechanisation, working-class lives became meaningless: they were even called 'hands', disembodied machines. Mechanisation led to the senseless slaughter of untold millions: the US Civil War, the first World War: it seemed like the old rhetorics of a Plan no longer counted. We're clearly all too willing to do terrible, destructive, stupid things to each other, and unfortunately no Sky Headmaster is going to come out into the playground and break it up.

The other major influence was psychology. All the characters in a George Eliot novel (one of my favourites) have clear motivations and rationales, whether they're stupid, wrong, clever or right. People were predictable, it was felt, and a good author could make them 'real'. However, when psychology emerges, it turns out that we don't know ourselves, and can't be known by others. An author can't justifiably direct his or her characters without a degree of self-consciousness and acknowledgement that characters aren't people in a real world. Once you've got ego, superego and unconscious, how can you ever know what another person is 'really' like or is likely to do? We become an unstable, twitching, untrustworthy and changeable bundle of nerves: interesting, but not knowable in any profound sense. We can't know ourselves, or other people, and so to create 'rounded' characters is a charade, according to the modernists, which is why you get Joyce and Woolf and all the others trying to present human experience as provisional and subjective above all other things.

Selbourne dismisses this. To him, the novel must be about real lives in real places, and he feels that the literary world has failed to remember this, retreating into a narrow space of individualism and narcissism. I'm torn: I think there are reasons for it, though I do agree that an awful lot of the stuff that gets reviewed in serious newspapers is self-regarding.

Related to this is Selbourne's defence of his engagement with foreign, Asian and female voices. Although he said that authorial experience is important to authenticity (he couldn't write about his years in Italy, he said, because he had nothing to say about them, hence his move to Wolverhampton to do some good - something which is just as bourgeois in a 19th-century way as the narcissism of bourgeois fiction, in my view), he justified representing the voice of a young Asian female on the grounds that 'we're all human' and we all want roughly the same things. I'm not sure - perhaps this is me being a wishy-washy bourgeois cultural relativist, but I wouldn't have the confidence to assume this. I wish we did have universal values, but I just don't think it's true. I admire Selbourne for his approach, but I have doubts (as I do about his diagnosis of Britain's ills).  What I really admire is his determination to challenge the assumptions of the market and the literary audience.

I should probably add at this point that he's a very interesting speaker and the novel is much much funnier than I make it sound. And that's not just because his mum's reading this! Buy the book. It's worth it.

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