In university I barely read novels. I only read what I studied, and I believed only poetry could stand up to the intensive sort of study I went in for. I could find more to say about a single page of poetry than I could about an entire novel.
Ironically, when I went to university I also gave up all pretension of being a poet, and started writing fiction. I wrote two massive, unreadable and incomplete novels back then, which combined would probably come out to half a million words.
It was only when I was approaching graduation that I began to read novels more seriously. In 1991 I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and loved it. A couple of years later I found a couple of her books in the library and read them too. The first was The Italian Girl, one of her slighter books. Then, immediately after, I read A Word Child, one of her best. I enjoyed it so much I decided to read everything of hers that I could get my hands on.
I decided to search through used bookstores in Toronto till I had found and read all 25 of them. (I had read them all by the time her 26th book, Jackson’s Dilemma, came out, already showing signs of the Alzheimer’s disease which she would be diagnosed with two years later, and which would hasten her collapse and death after another two years.)
What drew me to Murdoch’s books was how crammed they were with the mess and unmanageability of life. (A recurrent word in all her work is “muddle”.) She spent long paragraphs exploring what was going on inside her character’s heads – sometimes even the heads of her characters’ pets.
If I had been born in England, I probably wouldn’t have liked her books as much. For me, the setting alone was fascinating. Even her admirers have complained that the mundane world of labour, or even that of the regular 40-hour week, was completely missing from her books, that she concerned herself with characters wealthy enough to devote themselves exclusively with the plots she spun for them.
The plots, however, put these characters through various kinds of humiliation, or at the very least a great deal of stress. A typical Murdoch novel involves somebody who might, say, have some dark story in their past, which they want to escape and which comes back suddenly to haunt them. Somebody they don’t want to see appears from the past and demands that something be dealt with. At the worst possible moment, various other people show up unexpectedly, all making demands on the main character (or even on each other). A Murdoch novel could take place over one hectic weekend. I’ve always admired this relative unity of time and place. It created a surprising amount of suspense.
Most writers, I’m sure, write the kind of books they would like to read. For years I wanted to write Murdoch novels. (I have one completed/abandoned manuscript, however, which bears no resemblance to her work.) I still do, in some ways. I have a natural inclination to let my imagination sprawl and to explore the psychology and motivations of my characters, and to place the story in a some kind of domestic setting.
I’d be ready to sacrifice a wider readership if I could produce those kinds of books (naturally with my own personal stamp, something I take for granted and am not able to discuss objectively), but it’s very difficult to achieve this apparently rambling style of hers and still be interesting, or even, at times, relevant. If we think of Murdoch’s discourse with the reader as an aside, it’s very difficult to bring it to a satisfying conclusion and return to the story.
One also needs to sound authoritative (it’s no coincidence that an author is an authority) so that the reader doesn’t feel he’s wasting his time. Where this authority comes from is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately, although I don’t have an answer yet.
In more recent years, my tastes in fiction have changed dramatically. The sort of book I want to write has changed. Two writers I admire very much now are Bruce Chatwin and J.M. Coetzee, especially the latter, since he’s written more novels, or more conventional ones. Their style is more impersonal, spare and unostentatious. Readers who are not particularly interested in style are probably hardly aware of them as authors, as voices. The details speak for themselves, and often at barely more than a whisper.
It’s difficult to talk about their style, or even to grasp what it is that defines it, because essentially they do very much with very little. With Coetzee in particular, I’m baffled by how he manages to convey so much intelligence and authority and still be so impersonal. I might even have thought that authority itself is composed of these features, except that writers like Delillo and Roth establish it with a voice that is almost the direct opposite of Coetzee’s.
The novel I’m writing now is giving me a lot of trouble. I have a clear enough idea of where it’s going, and what happens in it, but on every page I’m faced with problems of execution. I still haven’t exorcised the influence of Murdoch, nor do I feel sure I want to. I rend my clothes and gnash my teeth, but I know that I’ll have to reconcile these two different approaches, if they can, in the end, be reconciled at all. Can I open my characters up and allow the reader a glimpse? Can I portray the unmanageable muddle of life with Doric precision?
Just as I wrote those words, it occurred to me that Anna Karenina, which I’m currently reading, might just achieve this effect.
So all I need to do is write like Tolstoy.
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