By Geoffrey Heptonstall
The truth of fiction is not actuality. Those things did not happen. Those people do not exist. And yet the narrative has to be true to experience. We read of situations and of people we have known or witnessed. Even when reading of things we have not known we can discern what is credible from what is inauthentic. Within the fibre writing there is an integrity which shines through. It comes from the integrity of the author.
This integrity is itself a creation. The words are written from a perception of the world, a perception that is constructed from experience filtered through the imagination. That perception is not reality. Reality may be a summer’s day in Italy, but at his desk D.H. Lawrence is back in the English Midlands among people whose lives are so distant from his. There was someone called David Lawrence the elementary schoolteacher, born into an ordinary family. There is D.H. Lawrence the writer of world stature. They are the same person. Yet they are different.
The division of Lawrence’s life reflected a division within society. Class was the great stumbling block. Victorian manners spoke of an excessive social formality from which Modernism sought to break free. The Twentieth Century was written as a manifesto of rebellion. It was the end of empire and the dawn of revolutionary promise.
‘The insolence of office’, Shakespeare’s memorable phrase, is forged not from the advantage of success but from the harder experience of ordinary life. Common to everyone but the powerful is a distaste for the overbearing manner (or lack of manner) in the powerful. Give someone a little authority over others and observe the change from genial sympathy to cold indifference. Power is too dangerous to be left in the hands of the powerful. It is a writer’s duty to ensure they do not get away it.
Of course you know who they are. They are everywhere. They are not there to serve the public but to frustrate and dismiss the rest of us. Or so it may seem. ‘The regulations state this quite clearly, and no exceptions can be made.’
George Orwell predicted that the next stage of fascism would not be a matter of jackboots and swastikas but of petty officialdom. This is surely how things will be, or how they already are.
Picture a society that retains the democratic norms, but which by stealth and subterfuge prevents the development of creative challenges to power. Wealth is in the hands of the few. Citizens are trained sufficiently to undertake complex tasks, but not educated enough to question the purpose of those tasks. (This was Aldous Huxley’s prediction.) A modest level of prosperity gives the illusion of abundance and choice while beneath the surface meagrely-paid or unpaid workers toil in the fields and the workshops.
Picture a society where thoughts are sequestered and excluded. Picture a society where ideas disappear. They are dismissed, perhaps with ridicule. In this picture lies fecund ground for imaginative fiction to be written in a number of engaging ways. The possibilities are not yet exhausted.
Of course there is Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four struck a chord with the Cold War mood of international division and conflict. But it may read now as too bleak and bare to work as fiction. Its meaning is obvious, and questionably so because extreme tyranny tends not to last. Nor can tyranny ever achieve the absolute control it desires. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s single dimension is despair. Its purpose can be only the counselling of fear.
Simultaneous to Orwell’s dystopia was a Ray Bradbury story that later became the novel Fahrenheit 451, a parable where firefighters search for books they can burn. An echo of contemporary intolerance perhaps may be found. This is no simple political tract, however, but an exploration of the collective psyche. The saving grace of the narrative is the final note of optimism when people commit to memory whole books so that literature will live even as the paper burns. The cultivated imagination can survive whatever assaults are made upon its virtue.
Subtlety and irony are among the qualities required of an intellect alert to the explorations of language in all its challenging complexity. By these essential criteria a dystopian novel that must be read is They: A Sequence of Unease by Kay Dick. Unfortunately it is not an easy book to find.
Published in 1977 by Penguin, They won an award and a circle of admirers without reaching a wider public. It does not seem to have been reprinted. My copy disappeared (there is an irony in that, as we shall see). In lockdown no library was open, and it seemed not a bookshop in the world had a copy. All I had was the memory of a masterpiece that was lost. It was almost as if it had never been, like a rumour or a vividly-remembered dream.
In the midst of my search came an informed and enthusiastic article by Lucy Scholes in The Paris Review. The book was lost but not entirely forgotten, although both it and its author had fallen into obscurity.
Kay Dick (1915-1991) had a long career as writer and editor. Photographs show her large, clear eyes framed by an alert and determined face. Her forthright, frank nature was exceptional. Kay Dick defied many conventions, making her way in a world that was not made for her. The result was a difficult life. Although she wrote for the major periodicals, and was well-reviewed when her own books came out in a steady flow through the years, she felt deprived of a place at the table.
That sense of being in the margin may have contributed to the theme of They. In a series of dream-like sequences the narrator describes the effects of secret, shadowy people. They are never actually seen, but their presence is sensed. Books mysteriously disappear because they have taken them. They are confiscating ideas and imaginative possibilities. Consciously and for unknown but sinister motives, they are narrowing human experience, and closing the human mind.
Where Ray Bradbury’s book burners were officially sanctioned, and entirely open about their work, Kay Dick’s creatures are unknown and barely seen. They are akin to a monstrous idea in the mind, rather than actual, tangible beings. Their existence is afformed only by its effects. They seem very credible in the labyrinthine textures of the narrative that is They.
Of course a brief description of the theme does not convey the exquisite manner of style. It does not convey the intensity of feeling, nor the urgency of intellect. In fact, the aesthesis which distinguishes Kay Dick’s work can be appreciated only by reading it. Now once more it can be read. Faber, that incomparable torch-bearer of literature, is to publish They in a new edition very soon.
Subject matter alone is not a literary question. Yes, writing has to be about something. The literature is found in the means by which that something is expressed.
Communications of fact or of interpretation do not make for anything beyond the mechanics of writing. Where, the reader asks, is the art that lies in the language itself? Where is the beating heart? Where is the spirit?
These things are to be found emerging from the dedication to craft that seeks to fulfil the vision. Angelique Jamail, in a coda to her novella Finis, put it well when she wrote, ‘We are writers and we destroy lives and worlds and ideologies. And sometimes we don’t. And sometimes that choice is the right one.’ Jamail is a writer so painstaking in her craft that everything is distilled to the essence. Her fiction is a poet’s fiction, intense, mysterious and at times surreal even as it describes our known realities. In that she is a natural successor to Kay Dick.
The realities we feel we understand can take on a bizarre and unreal aura in a world where truth itself is in question. An ideology of individualism has moved by stealth, then by overt power, to challenge the norms of our social narratives. To speak of alternative truth as politically credible is to elevate wishful thinking into a form of legitimate governance. The moral chaos that ensues is itself deniable. The truth is a commodity that can be bargained for.
But the truth, once established is inviolate. That much is one of the absolutes at the heart of a civilized society. However, another kind of chaos can ensue from another kind of alternative to the generally agreed values of literary culture. Literature is not disappearing. Books may yet be found. But adaptations to other media are sometimes insensitive to spirit of the original. Scriptwriting hacks know mothing of period detail, and historical feeling. It is possible, of course, to portray explicitly what Jane Austen had to imply. There is a gain there, but only if we understand the norms and customs that shaped an Austen fiction. If we lose that awareness we lose the essence of Jane Austen’s art.
The language and manners of another age are not ours. The respectable, even in private, did not speak of ‘fucking’, although they did it with all the hypocrisy at their command. We are so accustomed to the casual and open use of street language we forget how it was confined, even a generation or two ago, to the darker side of society. We are no longer shocked. And perhaps that is healthier. But we must not abandon our sense of society and how historical forces shape the times.
Acting in period is more than costumes. It requires a mimesis of period speech and manner. It has to look of its time. If it feels too modern something essential is lost, and nothing of value is gained.
There were anachronisms in Shakespeare, of course. But genius can break the rules, whereas you and I can’t. The world before the middle of the Twentieth Century knew nothing of electronic music. Period dramas need music of the period. The world was not created yesterday. If we lose that awareness we lose our own identity because we are living in the flow of history. The past is not a reflection of the present. The forces that shape our world have to be understood at least in part by the literature that speaks of other times.
The relation we establish with a work of literature is not on our terms alone. It need not relate to our lives to be read with understanding. Enlarging our imaginative sympathies is a primary purpose of literature. We read of conditions so different from anything we know, but we are there among those people in their world. And so our view of ourselves is enhanced. We are more alive by seeing life through other eyes. Modernizing the past means destroying it. Literature does indeed disappear. We become those secret, shadowy people, strangers to our better nature.
It is easy, of course, to judge the past and find it wanting. Remember that in the future, should there be one, we will be judged just as harshly as we often judge the past. However benign our intentions, however attuned we may feel to the pulse of virtue, we are going to disappoint the future, especially in ways we cannot anticipate. We are not able to escape the shadows, although we may see the light.
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