Author of Stoning the Devil
6/26 17 Two Ways of Writing a Novel
Part Two: The Lyrical Model
In part one of this essay, I argued that there are essentially two ways of writing a novel (notwithstanding the possibility of various degrees of hybridization). I called the first one the cinematic model. In this kind of novel the reader is essentially invited to see and hear what the characters are doing, much as playgoers do at the theatre, or as viewers watch a film. In this part, I suggest that the contrasting way to write a novel is lyrical, by which I mean that it’s focussed more on language than on drama, and more on the interior lives of the characters than on their conflicts and actions.
If Hemingway and Greene are seen as exemplars of the cinematic model, then their counterparts in the lyrical model might be Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch and Robert Musil—in fact, most of the Modernists. Of course the Modernist project was (is) to a large extent impelled by psychoanalysis and Freud’s fundamental insight: that the larger part of our mental and spiritual lives is not conscious, and can only become conscious if we are particularly attentive to our language, our dreams, and to what he called the psychopathology of everyday behaviour. Necessarily then, the great Modernist fiction writers pay a great deal of attention to dreams, fantasies, musings, to slips of speech, and to the now nearly-infamous (because so cliched, and so hard to do well) ‘stream of consciousness.’ They are not so interested in what their characters want and do—those touchstones of workshop fiction—as with who they are, who they really are. Much of Modernist fiction is about self-discovery (for example, Woolf’s Orlando or Mann’s Death in Venice).
It could certainly be argued that if much of the most interesting fiction of the first half of the twentieth century was Modernist and lyrical, in the sense I mean, then much of the most interesting fiction of the second half of the century is Magic Realist and lyrical, in a somewhat different sense. The Latin American novelists who are the most famous of these writers are often less interested in the individual quest for self-discovery and self-fulfilment (a rather typically European bourgeois quest, it must be admitted) as they are in illuminating the quest for self-understanding of whole societies, and particularly in the way colonised peoples come to terms with the devastating effects of centuries of exploitation and brutal repression by the colonial and post-colonial powers. This is not to say that writers like García Márquez have no interest in individuals: anyone who has read his fiction knows that he is capable of creating dozens of unforgettable and unique characters. Still, I think it’s fair to say that he is more focussed still in the collective character of a nation or even a supra-national group like the Latin American family of nations. Borges is less interested in the political development of societies, but focusses on individuals in order to highlight certain philosophical dilemmas. It seems to me that magic realists from other cultures, like Salman Rushdie, say, or Orhan Pamuk, follow in their footsteps (and I don’t mean to detract from them by that, since they do so brilliantly). Other examples: Milan Kundera (again more driven by political and philosophical issues than those of individual dramas) and those Japanese writers who are so fascinated by the conflict between western and traditional values in their country, like Kawabata, Mishima and Soseki (in fact all of them that I have read.)
In general, in fact, much of the best fiction from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa, seems to fall under the lyrical heading. I would go so far as to suggest that the cinematic model is dominant in the Anglo-Saxon countries, precisely because of the hegemony of America politically and economically, and because of the hegemony of cinema and television, culturally. Once again, I am not suggesting that great art can’t be produced by this paradigm. Nor am I suggesting that novels have to be entirely cinematic, since obviously most share some features of both, to greater or lesser degrees.
But I do think that the almost exclusive concentration on the cinematic model in writing programs has been detrimental to the development of more inventive fiction in the Anglo-Saxon countries over the past seventy or eighty years, and although no doubt many more brilliant novels will be written using this model, I’d like to see more fiction in which the writer plays with ideas as much as plot points; in which she investigates philosophical questions and self-knowledge as much as whether the character is going to get what he wants; and in which imagery, euphony and metaphor are as important as what will happen next. It’s been argued that the Odyssey was the first novel. That’s plausible, since there is an easily identifiable character, who certainly wants something very strongly, and encounters great conflicts in his quest to achieve it; but the epic is also about a metaphorical journey towards self-knowledge and ethical perfection, which means living in harmony with the gods (or nature, if you prefer.) It’s as much about the mind of a man, and indeed of a people, of which he is a representative, as it is about his heroic actions.
And why can’t we write like Homer nowadays? Or Goethe, or Kafka, or Mann? We could, you know. But first, we have to break out of the prison that film has induced in the minds of fiction writers. Film can of course be great art—Bergman and the post-war Italians and the French Nouvelle Vague prove that—but when fiction tries to be film, it limits itself. What literature, and particularly fiction, does better than any other art, without exception, is introspection. ‘Whither the Novel?’ was a much-derided cliché question asked in lectures and conferences for decades. The answer, if there is one, might be inward, and onward—taking the insights of the Modernists and Magic Realists and infusing them with greater environmental and scientific awareness, and staying true to the beating heart of all literature, which is poetry.