Ian McEwan has come up with a fine definition of what fiction does. In the latest Guardian Review he speaks of ‘fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity’. I could have done with this definition last week, when I gave a lunch-time lecture to the Ouse Valley branch of the English Speaking Union, at Sharnbrook in Bedfordshire. I’d had a difficult snowy journey getting there, but it was worth it: the large audience listened well, and their questions kept me on my toes. My subject was ‘Why reading matters (more than ever)’ and I was trying, in the central part of my argument, to pinpoint three reasons why reading fiction is a valuable human activity.
I began with the novel’s role in increasing our capacity for empathy. In his latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests that ‘Fiction may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves’. He wonders whether the rise of the novel may actually have hastened the arrival of the Enlightenment:
The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. (p.213)
Starting with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist, Pinker points to novels such as Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran which, he claims, have ‘all raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored’.
My second point was that the novel explores subjectivity, ‘our consciousness of being conscious’, as David Lodge puts it in Consciousness and the Novel (2002). It’s here I’d have brought in McEwan. ‘Fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness’ is a sentence worth savouring: it testifies to metaphor’s power, in the right hands, at once to focus and to enlarge our perception of the world.
I tried at Sharnbrook to demonstrate what, from now on, I’ll always call the small print of subjectivity by quoting from the opening page of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall:
‘So now get up.’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turn sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
At first this reads like straightforward third-person narrative, though told in the present tense, not the ‘Once upon a time’ of the omniscient author. But it isn’t. It is first-person narrative, the voice and the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell himself (the book’s protagonist), disguised as someone else’s, someone detached. In this first paragraph we cannot yet know whether what we’re reading is indirect free narrative: ‘One blow, properly placed, could kill him now’ sounds like the narrator’s assessment of the danger Thomas is in; it doesn’t sound, yet, like Thomas’s own view of his plight – though that’s exactly what it is. Mantel’s narrative sleight of hand is breathtaking:
Blood from the gash on his head – which was his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.
At this moment, which could be his last, Thomas is suddenly alert to a minute particular: the stitching on the boot coming undone. Nearly dead, he is alive enough to register the significance of the hard knot of twine that has gashed his eyebrow. Mantel here provides a perfect illustration of ‘the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness’ – hence my regret that I couldn’t include McEwan’s definition in my lecture last week.
My final point was about the importance of the past in the writing of fiction today. I did not mean simply the writing of today’s novels set in the historical past, as Wolf Hall is set in the reign and at the court of Henry VIII. I meant the way the past informs, indeed shapes, the way writers write today. And specifically I was talking about the literary, not just the historical, past. There is, for instance, a wonderful scene in Wolf Hall in which Cromwell (still only ‘he’ –never directly referred to by Mantel herself as ‘Cromwell’) is talking to the poet and courtier Thomas Wyatt about Anne Boleyn. Anne is not yet married to the King and Cromwell is trying to assess the danger – to herself and to men such as Wyatt – if, after her coronation, Henry should discover her past affairs. During the conversation Wyatt betrays – as Cromwell intends him to – his own feelings about Anne and about the way she used to treat him:
‘She liked me, I think, or she liked to have me in thrall to her, it amused her. We would be alone, she would let me kiss her, and I always thought … but that is Anne’s tactic, you see, she says yes, yes, yes, then she says no.’
Wyatt is hurt and scared; hurt by the way she treated him in the past and by her indifference now, and scared about his own future safety. Although Mantel never says so - she does not have to - this scene is a splendid commentary on Wyatt’s famous poem ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’. Indeed, as I tried to show, the scene could not have been written in the way Mantel wrote it, did Wyatt’s poem not exist.
Thus the literature of the past shapes the way writers write today, and vice versa. I wanted in my Sharnbrook lecture to make these points as forcefully as I could; to explain that reading literature matters because it gives us access to the voices of the past, to a conversation in which today’s writers and readers can join; and to contend that this matters (more than ever) because we live in a world so obsessed with the present that the loss of historical memory has become the crisis of our time. As Eliot once reminded us:
“Someone said, ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”
[illustration: (lino-cut) the emblem of the Sharnbrook Press, which seems to have existed briefly during and shortly after the Second World War. If anyone has information about this Press, please get in touch. It published journals such as Teaching English in Schools and The School Library Review.