‘I’m not interested in character because I don’t think character exists anymore,’ Rachel Cusk said recently in a New Yorker interview. For a writer of fiction that is a challenging remark. In a culture of bland conformity it is stimulating to find a challenge. It surely demands a response. To dismiss it out of hand would be to show no respect. Ms Cusk is admired sufficiently as a writer to be worthy of some respect. I accept the challenge.
She elaborates her point at the interviewer’s prompting. The author’s belief is that her writing ‘comes through living’. Today, she feels, there is ‘a homogeneity of feeling that I think everyone would accept in terms of our environment and how we live and how we communicate, and those things seem to be eroding the old idea of character.’
Character exists, she feels only in a dysfunctional sense. A character, then, is a maverick, someone out on a limb, away from the mainstream and all the other metaphors of conformity. We all think the same now, don’t we? So the task for the novelist is to examine how we relate to our shared sense of things.
It is surely the case that we don’t all think in the same way. Even within a network of general agreement there is debate about practical steps to achieve an end, and about the nature of that end. There will be many, including the informed, intelligent and sensitive, who are not going to affirm that end. They seek something else entirely.
It denotes maturity of outlook to recognise and acknowledge how many perceptions there are. A novelist’s responsibility is to recognise the nature of all the different voices in society. A novelist’s impulse is to describe the interrelation of conflicting voices. Nobody has all the answers. The truth is found somewhere in the lives of disparate people. Searching for that truth is what a novel does. The novelist explores the relations between people. Writing fiction is to write about contrasts and conflicts. Communion comes at the end when everything is resolved, as it is not in real life.
Writing comes out of living by the writer seeking some distance from the scene. The vantage point may be in terms of time. Memory is a frequent device in fiction: ‘I have been here before.’ Writing comes from living [rather than out of living] when personal experience informs the narrative. It will be experience mediated through the process of creation that transforms experience into art.
Novels are not life because our lives are not so coherent. They are not narratives, and we do not have an all-knowing narrator. There is no author determining how things are going to be. We do not live according to predestined plots. It is sometimes said of writing fiction that the characters take on a life of their own. There is an element of spontaneity and a sense of natural occurrence. The novel is said to’ come to life.’ It is not actuality. A transference between the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader is the process by which literature lives. It does not have independent agency.
By saying ‘writing comes through living’ Rachel Cusk seems to be saying her writing is a transcription of lived reality. This does seem to be a limited ambition, a rather prosaic approach to the inherent poetry of human inter-action.
Certainly it is true that her approach is analytic and discursive, as if the narrative required explanation rather than depiction. The customary approach is a portrayal of various types in situations that connect disparate characters into a frame. Because each character brings a singular, personal perception the novelist’s task is to create a network of credible connections. It is through making the connections that the dynamic of fiction comes into play.
These are not connections that a writer or a reader might make in life, perhaps. Do we seek to cohere our experience into a narrative? We have to make sense of things. After a time we may see how events in our life form a pattern. If we seek to transcribe those patterns into fiction we are bound to transform reality. There are things that happen in art that never could be in life. In living there are all manner of diversions from any theme we may try to impose on events. Fiction distils experience, removing the diversions so that the thematic essence can be cohered and clarified.
In a curious passage in the New Yorker interview Ms Cusk refers to the Odyssey. She speaks of ‘foundational narrative ideas and their relation to therapy.’ She feels that the impulse to tell stories is therapeutic. Some would say cathartic. Catharsis is a question of empathic identification with certain characters and situations. Rachel Cusk firmly declares her opposition to the idea of identification in reading fiction. We as readers ought to view the narrative objectively and dispassionately.
This confuses two meanings of the word ‘identification’. Readers may see something of themselves in a character, although wishful-thinking may be at work there.
The higher sense of identification is the capacity to understand characters with whom we have little in common in our daily lives. You don’t have to be a Victorian orphan to see things through Oliver Twist’s eyes. Dickens is the enabler of that empathy. He writes fiction noted or its sense of character.
Dickens appeals to the heart, at times with sentimentality and other times with sensitivity.
It can be that narrative ideas do touch upon stresses within the writer’s, and the reader’s, psyche. A fear of abandonment, or a memory of abandonment, is a recurring theme in Dickens. Anyone who has been a child, however fortunate our childhood, knows that feeling. If the stress overwhelms our being then we need therapy. If it is there in the background, along with much else, it is fiction we need. We cannot live beyond conflict in a world of human relations. We have to aim to know ourselves.
Nathalie Sarraute put it well: ‘Everyone knows la Bovary c’est moi. The point is to explore the rich life of the psyche.’ Exploring the interior life of fictive characters means believing in those characters, and believing in people. In a human society there is such a range of diverse experiences. Within narrow confines we may find everyone thinks as we do, only to find that even there we are mistaken. It would be a dull world if were not so.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall