Book Excerpt

Why I Read

The Serious Pleasure of Books

Wendy Lesser

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

ONE
 
 
CHARACTER AND PLOT
I had meant to keep these two things separate. I intended to start with a chapter about character and then move on, in the next chapter, to plot, since that is pretty much the order in which I choose what I want to read. The two labels had a kind of inevitability in my mind, as if mathematicians had discovered them in nature. And it’s true that writers and readers and teachers and critics have been using these terms for such a long time now that it would be hard to do without them. Yet they turn out not to be oppositional categories, or even fully separable ones. As I discovered when I began to press harder on the distinction, it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of plot versus character: plot modifies character and character modifies plot, and there can be no meaningful version of one that exists purely without the other.
Henry James (who always gets there before me) observed in his sharp, generous essay about the novels of Anthony Trollope:
If he had taken sides on the droll, bemuddled opposition between novels of character and novels of plot, I can imagine him to have said (except that he never expressed himself in epigrams), that he preferred the former class, inasmuch as character in itself is plot, while plot is by no means character. It is more safe indeed to believe that his great good sense would have prevented him from taking an idle controversy seriously. Character, in any sense in which we can get at it, is action, and action is plot, and any plot which hangs together, even if it pretend to interest us only in the fashion of a Chinese puzzle, plays upon our emotion, our suspense, by means of personal references. We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are.
And, he might have added, we know what people are only by seeing what they do when confronted with what happens to them: this is what James means when he says that character, “in any sense in which we can get at it,” is action, or plot.
One has only to look at his own novels to see how this works. Characters like Isabel Archer, Kate Croy, and Maggie Verver, though they may spend whole chapters musing to themselves, essentially think in the same way they speak: rationally, socially, effortfully. Despite James’s reputation as a novelist of great psychological depth, there are virtually no scenes in which he peers beneath the verbal surface, telling us that whereas So-and-so appeared to think this, she really thought that. Behavior is the manifestation of thought, in James. In the few cases where his characters attempt to think deviously—as does, for instance, Mrs. Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton—they are almost always mistaken, or misguided, or at the very least misled as to the efficacy of their own wishes and beliefs. In this respect, the purely psychological interior is not the place where James’s deepest truths dwell. Nor do his characters dream, for the most part. If they have an unconscious, it is as invisible to them as it is to us.
It is not just a matter of our knowing these people through their actions. That is how they come to know themselves. Isabel Archer does not fully define herself to herself—does not, in that sense, arrive at her long-sought fate—until, at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, she renounces her own hard-won freedom and returns to Rome for the sake of her stepdaughter, Pansy. Kate Croy, in The Wings of the Dove, does not realize how deeply she hates the squalor of poverty until she finds herself manipulating her fiancé into marriage with a dying heiress. And Maggie Verver, in The Golden Bowl, has no sense of the reserves of her own psychological fortitude, no awareness of how much power she is capable of exerting, until she sets out to separate her husband from his mistress, who happens to be her beloved father’s wife. These women do not come ready-packaged with a character that accompanies them through life, like a kit-bag of charms carried by the generic hero of a fairy tale. On the contrary, they become their characters—they develop into them—by facing up to the various things that life throws at them, some as a result of chance and others stemming directly from their own actions. But even to distinguish chance from self-imposed destiny is to belie the atmosphere of a James novel, where character is both forged and manifested through its confrontation with all kinds of events—events which, as this perspicacious author repeatedly suggests, arise from an indistinguishable melding of self, environment, history, will, and coincidence.
Henry James’s chosen task, as a novelist, was to locate such moments of self-creation, self-definition, self-discovery—call it what you will—in the often superficial, frequently deceptive, socially complex life of his times. It is not always a pretty sight, this moment at which the person finds out who or what she is, but it is always interesting, which is why the last hundred pages of a James novel invariably zoom by in a flood of suspense. If this payoff for the character, and for us, comes at the end, for the novelist himself it always began much earlier, at the dinner party or the polite gathering where, in the casual conversations taking place around him, he first caught a glimpse of his precious donnée, that “given” item of news or hearsay from which he could begin to weave his fictional web. To see him at home after the party as he writes up his almost-nightly notebook entries, working out the details of what he has captured on the fly, is practically to feel in one’s own body the palpable thrill of authorial discovery. The initial stimulus is never sufficient, the shred of gossip never enough: he has to work it over and over, teasing and tinkering and toying with it, until what he was handed becomes what he wants. The given turns into the wrought-upon, as the self imposes its own nature on the bare events it is faced with. It is a recapitulation of the very process his characters go through.
It was at a dinner on December 23, 1893, that James first heard, from a Mrs. Anstruther-Thompson, the core of the tale that ultimately became The Spoils of Poynton—a “small and ugly matter” involving a young laird who, upon his marriage, planned to dispossess his widowed mother of her house and all its beautiful possessions, as he had a legal right to do. The plot, as we now have it in the novel, is practically all there from the beginning: the mother’s hatred of the new wife, her removal of the precious objects, the threat of litigation, and so on. But the elusive heart of the story is still evading James as late as the fall of 1895, nearly two years later. On October 15, he uses his notebook entry to explore the problem. “What does she do then?—how does she work, how does she achieve her heroism?” he asks himself about the character of Fleda Vetch (a creation of his own, distinctly not a figure in the initial dinner-table story). “It’s the question of how she takes care of it that is the tight knot of my donnée,” he goes on. And then, before our very eyes, he loosens that knot by worrying at it:
That confronts me with the question of the action Fleda exercises on Mrs. Gereth and of how she exercises it. My old idea was that she worked, as it were, on her feelings. Well, eureka! I think I have found it—I think I see the little interesting turn and the little practicable form … How a little click of perception, of this sort, brings back to me all the strange sacred time of my thinkings-out, this way, pen in hand, of the stuff of my little theatrical trials … My new little notion was to represent Fleda as committing—for drama’s sake—some broad effective stroke of her own. But that now looks to me like a mistake: I’ve got hold, very possibly, of the tail of the right thing. Isn’t the right thing to make Fleda simply work upon Mrs. Gereth, but work in an interesting way?
And here, with his metaphor of the “tail,” he suggests how he is being led by something outside himself, is merely following an idea that has been thrust upon him with that nearly audible “click of perception.” Is this process internal or external, character-driven or plot-driven? The question makes no sense, because the two are inseparable.
*   *   *
Still, I would have to say that for me character is always at the forefront. I cannot enjoy even a plain old mystery if the people (the detectives and the killers, but especially the detectives) do not on some level strike me as persuasive. And in this view I am supported, it turns out, by that grandmaster of plotting, Wilkie Collins. “It may be possible, in novel-writing,” he wrote in the 1861 preface to his wildly popular thriller The Woman in White, “to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters: their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can effectively be told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women—for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.”
To be persuasive, a character need not necessarily adhere to the rules of humdrum reality. Nor need she be a fully shaped human figure with descriptive qualities attached. Sometimes, as in a poem, she can simply be a voice. But what she does need to have, if she is to persuade us of her reality, is a plausible relationship to her own context. That context resides in the content of the work of literature (its situation, its setting, its plot), but also in its form, by which I mean its language, its diction, its mode of address. So there are at least two kinds of surrounding environment: the one the character perceives, because she exists there as a real person, and another of which she generally remains oblivious, because it defines her as a fictional character. Both collaborate to shape her personality and our response to it.
Every character springs from and belongs to his own specific world, and though he may be successfully relocated from that context (as Hamlet, for instance, is relocated to an existential-absurdist performance in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), he will not be the same character in the new setting, even if he is still given his old lines. Because the tendrils that hold him to his original work are at once so delicate and so firmly wound, it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish a character from the other literary elements—situation, language, event, other characters—that surround and create him. Yet writers and readers have always made precisely this distinction. Perhaps we insist on it because we ourselves, as selves, feel separate from and independent of all the multitudinous factors that have gone into our own making and continue to influence our actions. To the extent that we believe ourselves to be autonomous individuals in the world, we tend, or at least wish, to grant the same autonomy to literary characters.
Some characters certainly seem more autonomous than others. Memorability, that repeated capacity to leap out of the general mist of our past reading and take center stage in our minds, is often but not always the sign of a great literary character. The characters that stick with us for weeks and months and even years after we close the book tend to be larger or at least more exaggerated than life, but they are also lifelike: they come back to us, in part, because we are reminded of them by the people we meet as we go through the rest of our lives. It’s not so much that we encounter these characters in the flesh as that we encounter their memorable qualities transferred onto living people, sometimes including ourselves.
This is especially true of Dickens’s characters, and it is the minor characters in Dickens, the ones that re-enact their distinctive habits over and over again, who tend to be most memorable in this way. The figure I recall most often from David Copperfield (and it is a novel filled with ghoulishly memorable characters: Mr. Micawber, Mr. Murdstone, Steerforth) is the eminently creepy Uriah Heep, who oozes oily fake-helpfulness and disgusting false humility even as he ushers his kind, oblivious employer into the poorhouse. If the other characters come back to me once a year or so, Uriah Heep recurs ten times as often. Nobody in life is exactly like Uriah Heep, of course, but there are many who share at least some of his irritating qualities. And such is Dickens’s power that when I meet these Heepish people, I can somehow imagine them rubbing their clammy hands together and calling themselves “’umble” even if that is something they would never do.
We recognize Uriah Heep by the way he expresses himself, but even characters without language can be memorably embodied in words. In literature as in life, the nonverbal or the preverbal can be powerful and moving figures with their own particular points of view. Anyone who has ever owned a dog, and many who have not, will consider the dog Bendicò a central character in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s marvelous novel The Leopard. His master, the Prince, certainly does; and so, it seems, did his author. In a postscript to a letter Lampedusa wrote about his only novel, belatedly added to the outside of the envelope, he scribbled, “N.B.: the dog Bendicò is a vitally important character and practically the key to the novel.” Even without this scribbled note, we would sense this, for it is the stuffed carcass of the long-dead dog, tossed away onto the dustheap, that ends this sad, funny, feelingly ironic novel about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy.
The ten-month-old baby whose point of view is briefly taken by the narrator of The Old Wives’ Tale is another case in point. Though he is a much more temporary figure than Bendicò (in that he is only a wordless baby for a relatively short time: like most of us, he soon grows out of it), he is quite notable during the brief moment when Arnold Bennett captures him, lying on a soft woolen shawl laid over his parents’ hearthrug. “For ten months,” Bennett tells us, “he had never spent a day without making experiments on this shifting universe in which he alone remained firm and stationary. The experiments were chiefly conducted out of idle amusement, but he was serious on the subject of food. Lately the behavior of the universe in regard to his food had somewhat perplexed him, had indeed annoyed him.”
In other words, he is being weaned. Only a single page of this long novel is devoted to the baby’s viewpoint, but in it we see the hearth fire, the family dog, and the surrounding giant adults from his exhilarating, strangely philosophical, endlessly wondering perspective, before Bennett returns us to the mundane life of his parents. This single page is the one that has most strongly stayed with me through all my many decades of reading and rereading this book. Yet it was only on my last reading that I realized this baby eventually grows up to be the character who could be Arnold Bennett’s own jaundiced self-portrait—a skeptical, cosmopolitan young man who fails to be sufficiently interested in the lives of the two women who are at the heart of the book, his mother and his aunt. But even if this is indeed an autobiographical character (and of that we can never be sure), Bennett did not use the faculty of memory to create that baby on the hearthrug. One can’t, after all, remember one’s own ten-month-old existence in detail, and this version of the experience is largely projection and imagination. That is as it should be, for the passage feels interior even as it proclaims with its language that it is not.
Lampedusa’s Bendicò and Bennett’s baby (to which one could add the anthropomorphic tumbleweed in Andrei Platonov’s astonishing story “Soul”) are novelties: great novelties, irreplaceable novelties, but not what we normally think of when we think of literary characters. They show what certain authors can do even with seemingly unpromising character material; they chasten us in regard to our usual presumptions about psychological complexity. And they make us realize, once again, how closely a fictional character is tied to whatever surrounds him—how much is needed, in the way of scenery, action, and interaction with others, to bring even a single tiny character to life.
*   *   *
Or to kill him off. When Henry James refers to plots that “pretend to interest us only in the fashion of a Chinese puzzle,” he is alluding, I take it, to mystery and thriller plots. In his own time, that would have meant the mysteries of Wilkie Collins and, somewhat later, Arthur Conan Doyle; by the early twentieth century, he might have had access to John Buchan’s brilliant thrillers, which began to appear just before James died. But it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that we received a flood of masterpieces in this vein, culminating in works such as those of Eric Ambler and Patricia Highsmith (to give just two examples—and very different examples at that, since one writer belongs firmly to the espionage-thriller camp, while the other specializes in the domestic murder mystery). Sentence by sentence, a novel like A Coffin for Dimitrios or Ripley Under Ground is as good as almost any book written during that time, and I venture to say we will be reading these novels for as long as people read John Updike or Toni Morrison.
In fact, there are certain things that thrillers can do better than serious novels. What these are will depend partly on the country of origin and the historical period, but in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in America and Western Europe, one of those things is definitely politics. When the serious novel of today attempts to cover subjects like terrorism, global warming, international financial shenanigans, civil unrest, and government corruption, the political side of the novel tends to feel like a superimposition pasted onto the “real” theme of a psychologically realistic interior life. In such novels, the parts about the characters’ love affairs or family conflicts or tense work environments ring absolutely true, because that is what contemporary authors of naturalistic fiction have trained themselves to think about. But when they extend themselves into the larger political arena, the novels tend to go off the rails: the violent deaths and conspiratorial plots feel slightly cartoonish, especially when set beside the slowly accumulating, carefully investigated psychological portraits of the main characters.
In contrast, the novel that sets out to be a pure thriller takes as its starting point the violence or corruption of the political world. Such a novel has characters—in Ambler’s case, for instance, they can be quite amusing and sympathetic characters, in an ironic, low-key way—but these characters do not exist primarily to display to us their personal, private, domestic inner lives. Instead, they function as players in the international scene: sometimes by mistake, to be sure, when an erroneous identification or a misunderstood message catches them up in the intrigue, but more often because they have worked in some capacity that connects them to the political world, as journalist or spy or government official of some kind. And this experience means that when violent deaths and mortal threats impinge on their lives, the events mesh naturally with their personalities. It is not just that they are equipped to deal with such things, but that they are practically expecting to deal with them, which means that we in turn, as readers, have this expectation as well. Instead of feeling tacked on in a well-intentioned but finally unsuccessful way, the political aspects of thriller novels feel integral to the plots. And if they are “good enough” thrillers—that is, works that satisfy a fairly high standard of literary style, as many do, despite or perhaps even because of their plainspokenness—we can read them with a kind of interest that is comparable to, though very different from, the interest we might bring to more purely psychological novels.
All novels are premised on a certain degree of suspense: we keep reading because we want to find out how things turn out. In mystery novels, it’s just that the contract with the reader is slightly more explicit. By the end of the book, we are assured, we will not only know everything of importance, but we will also be able to renounce any future concern about the fates of the characters involved. According to this contract, there will be no plotlines left dangling—as there so notably are, for instance, in the last sentence of Henry James’s The Bostonians, where he says of his heroine’s emotional tears: “It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these are not the last she was destined to shed.” The marriage for which we have on some level been hoping throughout the novel, though in a somewhat mixed and perhaps skeptical way, has arrived to seal the plot of The Bostonians, but it turns out that this is only the beginning of another plot, one that we won’t be around to witness. James’s novels often end this way. A decision has been reached, an option has been closed off; the plot is, in that sense, terminated. But since life always offers more decisions, more options, we know that something else is going to happen to these characters after we leave them, and what that will be, we cannot really guess. Even when the authorial voice seems willing to prophesy, we can’t fully trust it. After all, from whose point of view is Verena Tarrant’s marriage to the ambitious, impoverished, irrepressible Basil Ransom considered “so far from brilliant”? Whose anxieties are expressed in the politely reticent “it is to be feared”—Verena’s, about her own potential happiness, or society’s, about her choice of husband? How strongly can we take the word “destined” when it comes to us couched in such ironic, particular, socially placed and therefore nonauthoritative language? In this final sentence, is James speaking to us in his own person, or as the ventriloquist of the society he’s somewhat mockingly representing? There are no firm answers to questions like these, and to answer “Both” is simply to beg them.
The mystery novel, as a rule, ends more firmly than this. It asks a straightforward question—which might be “Who committed the crime?” or possibly “Will the murderer be caught and punished, or will he escape?”—and then it proceeds to answer that question to our complete satisfaction. There are notable exceptions to this pattern, such as Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall’s Rosanna, where we never discover who committed the murder, or Jo Nesbø’s Redbreast, which solves one aspect of its mystery plot but leaves an equally important element unresolved. But even these exceptions confirm the rule, by hastening on to multiple sequels in which the plots do get tied up, as if to say to us, “Yes, yes, you’ve been very good, tolerating this amount of ambiguity, but we promise not to ask it of you again.”
The mystery, despite its general gruesomeness, is designed to reassure. It asserts the existence of an author who knows the answers (who has almost certainly, in fact, arrived at those answers before constructing the plot) and who will eventually give them to us. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, too. John le Carré’s Smiley books reassure us with their control—of plot, of language, of “tradecraft”—even as they undermine any faith we might have in the governmental powers-that-be, for in George Smiley’s world the worst offenses always turn out to come from inside his own security-keeping system. And in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, the standard version of reassurance gets turned on its head: here the murderer himself is the continuing character, and the investigating officers are just flies to be brushed off as each new episode passes. Playing on our own indwelling anxieties, taunting us with the nerve-wracking possibility that Ripley might be apprehended, Highsmith pushes our strange desire to empathize with a villain about as far as it can go, and that turns out to be very far indeed. We feel, reading her books, as if something bad we have done will be exposed and our guilt will be revealed. (She may seem to be talking about Ripley, but from our point of view she is really talking about us.) But even here, a kind of reassurance arrives at the end, because Ripley always vanquishes the police investigation and survives to kill again, just as Smiley solves the crime even when he can’t bring the true criminals, his MI6 superiors, to justice. Is this reassurance, or its opposite? In the best mysteries, there is always a residue—of doubt, of anxiety, of concern about our social welfare. It is this residue which distinguishes the rereadable mysteries from the run-of-the-mill one-timers.
*   *   *
Perhaps it will seem perverse of me, in a book devoted to the subject of literature, to refer repeatedly to murder mysteries, a notoriously trashy form. But quality is not hierarchical. Judgments can always be made at any level; and though there are certainly good books and bad books in the world, they do not line up neatly according to rank, with good books filling the approved high genres and bad books the despised lower ones. If only stick figures inhabited the novels of Wilkie Collins and Patricia Highsmith (not to mention John Buchan, Ross Macdonald, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, Henning Mankell, and all the other great mystery writers of the last couple of centuries), our interest in those books would greatly diminish. They would become simply like crossword puzzles, something ingeniously designed to kill time. Instead, they constitute one of the more essential forms of reading. Our own literary tradition might be said to have begun with the investigation of a murder (I’m thinking of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex: yet another story, like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, where the detective turns out to be the murderer), and I suspect it will end that way, if it ever does.
Dostoyevsky did his best to push it all toward an ending—both literature and the murder mystery—in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. There is a murder here which provides the engine of the plot, but does anyone recall the solution? No, because the solution is not what’s important. If I ask you to remember several years after reading the novel whether Dmitri Karamazov killed his father, you might not be able to tell me the correct answer. That is, you will possibly think, as I did at the beginning of my recent rereading, that Dmitri committed the crime. The novel itself does not come down firmly on this question. It suggests that someone else was the guilty party, but it also implies that Dmitri could have done it, was morally capable of it, and therefore felt and acted guilty for a reason. (But then, Dmitri exists to experience guilt: that capacity, that outright need, is the essential element in his character.) We may continue reading the novel partly to find out who killed the horribly embarrassing, graspingly avaricious, ludicrously lustful old Karamazov—a singularly repellent and not-at-all-missed character to whom Dostoyevsky has wryly given his own first name, Fyodor—but if this is the only reason we are reading it, we will find The Brothers Karamazov a bizarrely unsatisfying work of fiction, filled with inexplicable digressions and seemingly endless speeches. We care about the novel because of what it tells us about Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitri, those three brothers who are simultaneously themselves and larger than themselves.
Dostoyevsky tests to the limit the idea that evil characters are the most memorable, because in Dostoyevsky (as in Shakespeare, but even more so) the violent, destructive, self-loathing characters are the ones we are most drawn to. This is obviously true of Crime and Punishment, where the murderer Raskolnikov is the central character, the focus of our deepest sympathetic interest. But it is also true of a strange work like Demons, which seems at first not even to be a novel at all, but rather a series of pointless conversations—about radical politics, domestic alliances, intellectual disappointments, petty rivalries, and everything else that made up nineteenth-century provincial Russian life. Yet even here the villainous characters stand out: not just the petty demons who enact all the devious crimes, though they are interesting in their own right, but above all the large-souled villain, the fascinating Stavrogin, who cannot help punishing himself for, but also with, his cruelty to women.
Stavrogin is the kind of character who can only exist in a Dostoyevsky novel. However much his characteristics may have been borrowed from real people (and Joseph Frank, in his masterful biography of Dostoyevsky, goes into great detail about who those models might have been), he stands apart as an unduplicated, unduplicatable figure, unlike anyone we will ever encounter in the flesh. With his intense self-hatred nestling beside his loathing for the rest of society, his profound sense of honor coexisting with his tendency to lie and deceive, and his moral corruption underlying and perhaps even reinforcing his supreme attractiveness, Stavrogin is a captivating original. Intelligence is not enough to explain his appeal (though it helps: a stupid Stavrogin would be inconceivable). Nor is physical beauty, because we can’t actually see him, though the women who flock to him in the novel may in part be responding to that. In contrast to the distinctly life-sized figures who surround him in his mother’s village—that anxious and commanding mother herself, her saintly young servant-companion, Stavrogin’s ridiculous and impoverished old tutor, the tutor’s scoundrel of a son, the marriageable daughter of neighboring landowners, the local radicals and spies, the pretentious village bureaucrats, even the idiot-girl to whom Stavrogin turns out to be married—he seems to glow with an excess of reality. They are all believable, and often pitiable, and in some cases loathsome, but he is something more than that: utterly present to us, yet beyond the reach of our normal, cathartic, fictionally inspired feelings. It is as if we can do nothing for him, because his fate is completely predetermined by his own personality, his own situation, and so we are helpless in the face of him. (Of course, it is literally true that we can do nothing for any fictional character, but our feelings tell us otherwise; in Stavrogin’s case, they tell us the truth.)
On the whole, literature—in this respect much like history, or for that matter daily life—draws us toward the kinds of people who dominate, or at least attempt to dominate, their own circumstances. I’m thinking now not only of Stavrogin, but also of other great characters like Henry James’s Kate Croy, or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, or Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, or Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, or Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei. These memorable figures all forcefully, or at any rate willfully, take certain actions that result in their having the lives they ultimately have. (And this is true even of the great characters who reign by their inactivity: think of Melville’s Bartleby, for instance, or Goncharov’s Oblomov, both of whom issue a comprehensive “No” to the routines of other people’s existence.) One might say of these people that they make their own plots. And the suspense, for us, lies in seeing how they will negotiate all the different fixities that confront them: not only the author’s willful predeterminations, and not just history’s oblivious ones, but also the relentless immovability of their own characters.
*   *   *
One source of suspense is not knowing how things turn out, but an equally powerful source is knowing how they turn out and waiting for that to happen. There are certain novels that hinge, in part, on this kind of foreknowledge: their authors actually let us know the plot beforehand, not so much to ruin suspense as to heighten it. In Richard Ford’s Canada, for instance, the elderly narrator, reflecting back on his childhood, tells us in the novel’s first sentence that his parents robbed a bank, and then tells us again, repeatedly over the course of many pages, until we finally get to the event itself, about halfway through the book. At that point, having had something definite to look forward to, we find ourselves in freefall, with no certainty at all about what will happen next. Plot takes over, but not wholly: the role of memory is still ever-present, and we are never allowed to forget that the endangered young boy in the story turned into the older man who is telling us the tale. The novel as a whole possesses a cunning and unusual combination of forward movement and retrospective musing, with the result that the anxiety of the suspense somehow becomes infused with, or confused with, the calm of remembering.
In a different way, Shirley Hazzard’s omniscient narrator in The Transit of Venus gives us forecasts we don’t know how to use until the very end of the novel. Quite early in the plot, this voice announces to us that one of the main characters, the astronomer who is in love with the female protagonist, will end up dying by his own hand before he reaches the pinnacle of his career. Much later, toward the end of the book, the narrator lets fall that an extremely minor character, a doctor who appears in one brief scene, will die three months later in an air crash. It is not until the final page of the book that we understand how these facts come together and why we needed to know them, but in the meantime we have undergone a great deal of anxiety wondering which possible betrayals and discoveries (and there are several) could cause the astronomer to kill himself. Only at the end do we learn that all of our anxious guesses were wrong: the true course of events, as so often in life, turns out to be one we didn’t expect.
To watch the predetermined plot unfold, like a recurrent nightmare that we are powerless to alter or avert, is a rich and compelling experience for a certain kind of reader. What is anxiety-provoking in nightmares—the arrival of the inevitable—becomes its exact opposite in a book, where knowing what is about to happen makes one more attentive, more alert, more open to the moment-by-moment texture of the experience. This is why I frequently reread both Patricia Highsmith and Henry James. This is why I take pleasure in the kind of narrative foreshadowing practiced by Richard Ford and Shirley Hazzard. And this is why we all read works whose plots we may well know in advance, like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, David Malouf’s Ransom, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Milton based his Paradise Lost on the familiar Garden of Eden story (though, granted, its familiarity to us now is at least partly thanks to Milton). In both the Bible and its Miltonic elaboration, the serpent tempts Eve and, through her, Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge, an act of disobedience that leads to humanity’s ejection from eternal paradise. The book-length poem has now been around for so long that it seems natural for it to exist, but think how odd it must have been for Milton to undertake it in the first place. An epic retelling of a brief story from Genesis, couched in unrhymed iambic pentameters and intended to “justify the ways of God to men”—only a courageous madman, or an unconventional genius, would imagine he could accomplish such a thing. And yet it works, even three or four centuries later, and even for nonbelieving readers like William Empson and me. We may have to rejig the motive slightly, turning Satan into a heroic rebel and questioning God’s degree of justification. We may feel unexpectedly moved and uplifted by the ending, which is supposed to be a tragedy of punishment, but which instead seems to view Adam and Eve’s new life with something like hope, or even excitement:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
The common arguments about whether Milton intended us to feel this way—supportive, empathetic, almost optimistic about the possibilities open to the fallen mortals—are neither here nor there. It doesn’t matter. The poem, leading us in its own direction, exists apart from its maker, just as Adam and Eve existed apart from theirs.
Nobody reads Paradise Lost for the plot, of course. But knowing what will happen lends an essential element to the experience of reading, in that it creates the exact tension between predestination and free will that Milton is attempting to explore in the poem. We know where these characters are headed and yet, minute by minute, we feel no sense of moral or epistemological superiority to them. On the contrary, we undergo their fates with them, as if in real time, or perhaps even a stretched-out version of real time, a version that mimics eternity. It takes forever for them to fall, and we hope for every moment of that forever that they will resist; then, when they have fallen, we hope they will get away with it. Our foreknowledge and our sympathies are completely at odds, just as God’s would have been (or ought to have been, if he was a good God). If this mixed reaction on our part doesn’t finally justify Him, it at any rate makes even His position more sympathetic.
A different kind of courage—somewhat less crazy and ambitious, but nonetheless intense—must have been required for the Australian writer David Malouf to produce his marvelous short novel Ransom, based on an episode from the Iliad. For writers, Homer is almost as much of a god as God, and to tinker with his perfect stories requires hubris of a notable degree. James Joyce possessed that hubris in grandiose form, and we can feel it exercising its assertive presence all the way through Ulysses. But Ransom (which understands that it comes not only after the Iliad, but also after Ulysses and Moravia’s Contempt and all the other twentieth-century works based on Homer) is almost the opposite kind of work. It is small, and delicate, and intellectually modest. It does not trumpet its substantial intelligence at us.
Ransom takes as its departure point the section of the Iliad in which King Priam goes forth from Troy to collect the body of his son Hector from Achilles, the Greek enemy who has slain him. Achilles has always been viewed as a great character, and centuries of writers, from Euripides to Shakespeare to the moderns, have built great roles around him. Priam has not; only Malouf has been alert enough to ferret out his inner life in this subtle way. What he does is to hinge the whole novel on the relationship between Priam and his cart driver, a man whose name the king can’t even remember (he repeatedly miscalls him by the name of his former driver), but on whom he comes to depend completely and, one might say, lovingly. Through the sensible, tender behavior of the cart driver—who, like Priam, is also a bereft father—we come to sympathize with the grief and fear and uncertainty of the otherwise inaccessible king.
It does not matter, in reading Ransom, whether you already know the story from the Iliad or not. Either way, the novel will cast its spell over you, because what keeps you going is not the larger plot question (whether Priam will or will not get his son’s body back), but the step-by-step psychological moments that lead to that outcome. And “outcome” is too thin a word, in any case, for what happens to the characters, and to us, by the end of Malouf’s novel. The result is not everything; the process is part of the result. This is one of the key realizations that accrues to Priam in the course of his quest.
The same realization, though achieved through very different methods, dawns on us as we read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is itself a work about achieving results. Mantel is a master of using history to create fiction: she does so to great effect in her excellent novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. But in contrast to that earlier book, which covers ground that is basically in the international public domain, this more recent novel deals with a passage of English history that is at once broadly familiar and completely obscure. Mantel focuses on the period from 1527 to 1535, when Henry VIII was figuring out how to dispose of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn; in order to do so, he ended up breaking Catholicism’s hold on England and naming himself the head of the church.
Everything you think you know about these events turns out to be inadequate to the discoveries made by this fictional work. By centering the narrative on Thomas Cromwell—a blacksmith’s son who rose to become one of the king’s most powerful advisors, and whose great-grandnephew eventually became the Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell—Mantel gives us a whole new perspective on the era and its machinations. Cardinal Wolsey, with whom Cromwell got his start, becomes a much more complicated and appealing figure than usual, and Sir Thomas More becomes downright hateful: not at all the saintly martyr portrayed in A Man for All Seasons and in Catholic theology generally, but a ruthless, narrow-minded egotist who cannot imagine the possibility of his own error.
Mantel is a great hater, and part of that greatness lies in the subtlety and modulation of her hatred. When she shows us More being casually cruel to his long-suffering wife (he insults her in Latin, a language she doesn’t know, while she serves dinner to his guests), we think we will never forgive this man. And yet at the end of the novel, when Cromwell repeatedly visits the imprisoned More in an effort to get him to capitulate to the king and save his own life, we find ourselves adopting the same grudging admiration that Cromwell feels toward this now pitiful figure. It is with More’s execution, in fact, that the novel ends, even though much still lay ahead in both Thomas Cromwell’s and King Henry the Eighth’s careers.
This in medias res approach is an essential aspect of Mantel’s technique. She expects us to know things: that the king eventually executed Anne Boleyn, for instance, who is shown here only as a powerfully intelligent, destiny-controlling figure; that his subsequent wife was Jane Seymour, who merely gets a few brief though pointed cameos in the novel; and that all the children of his first three wives (first Edward, then Mary, then Elizabeth) ruled England in turn, despite his efforts to cut the two girls out of the line of succession. All these events take place outside and after the novel we hold in our hands, and we can certainly read Wolf Hall without knowing about them, but the fictional story becomes much richer if we are acquainted with the historical one as well.
The triumph of Mantel’s novel, though, lies in its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell—a triumph that is all the more surprising when you consider that most historians have presented him as the Lavrenty Beria or Heinrich Himmler of his era, the evil henchman responsible for implementing his employer’s violent wishes. In Mantel’s much more sympathetic account, we witness at close hand Cromwell’s public and private political negotiations, his astute business methods, his intelligent, multilingual dealings with all sorts of Europeans. We live with him in his house, watch him hire and train his servants, and share his sorrow as his wife and then his daughters die of the plague. His poor and violent background, his self-made and sometimes self-obscuring character, make him by far the most appealing figure in the crowd of devious nobles surrounding Henry the Eighth. All of this, needless to say, depends heavily on the language Mantel has devised to present her tale—a language that is neither archaic nor modern, neither ironically remote nor fully enmeshed in events, neither abstract nor individually nuanced, but one that floats, impossibly, at an invisible point equally distant from all of these.
I finished the rather hefty Wolf Hall wishing it were twice as long as it is. Torn away from that sixteenth-century world, in which I had come to know the engaging, pragmatic Thomas Cromwell as if he were my own brother—as if he were myself—I found myself turning to any available sources to find out more about him. I read each new piece of information about Tudor England with fresh and sharpened eyes. I thought back to Shakespeare, and wondered how purposely he was embodying the problem undermining Queen Mary’s sovereignty—the question of whether a marriage to a deceased brother’s wife is a real marriage or not—when he wrote Hamlet under the reign of her antagonist and half sister, Queen Elizabeth. I even found myself visiting the Frick Museum, gazing at length on the Holbein portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell that are hanging on its walls. But none of this, however instructive, made up for my feeling of loss, of having been ejected from a world that I could no longer inhabit because the final doors had now closed on me.
One would think that a sequel would solve this problem, and so it was with particular eagerness that I picked up the next volume in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. Bring Up the Bodies is a well-told tale, worth reading for its own merits, but it is not as good as Wolf Hall. This should not have surprised me. Time after time, having finished the marvelous first novel in a series—Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, L. P. Hartley’s The Shrimp and the Anemone, Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, and many others, too numerous to list—I have rushed to the second and third volumes to gobble up more about the characters, only to find myself disappointed. This is never a learning experience: you cannot refrain from taking the next step, any more than you can refrain from watching the episode that comes after a cliffhanger on TV. But though your curiosity may be satisfied, your much-raised expectations of pleasure will not be. With a handful of exceptions (Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels and Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series come to mind), the sequels to a great first novel are bound to be distinctly inferior. The characters have grown up, or reformed, or otherwise lost their edge. The tale-telling has become dutiful, perhaps even a bit weary.
To these standard problems, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies adds a few of its own. The author is stuck with the fact that the later career of Thomas Cromwell is more sordid and less engaging than his early struggles. Also, since the story of Anne Boleyn is already more familiar to us than the rest of the Henry the Eighth tale, Mantel has to cope with the reader’s own expectations about the plot. And the unusual style she invented to transmit both historical distance and narrative intimacy (in particular, the use of an undesignated “he” to refer to Cromwell) has by now, perhaps, begun to strike us as slightly mechanical. None of this means that the novel is actively bad; I don’t think Mantel is capable of writing a bad novel. But it almost makes me wish—against my own readerly interests—that she had chosen to end her story in midstream, leaving me with that terrific, inconsolable hunger.
*   *   *
One can derive this sense of longing from narrative artworks that are not literature. I felt something very much like it after I finished watching the television series The Wire. I also felt it at the end of The Best of Youth, the six-hour Italian movie that first showed on Italian television. Very few standard-length movies are capable of creating this sensation of loss; it requires the Wagnerian length and the Dickensian intimacy of television, I think. And most television is not good enough to accomplish it. But when it does happen, as in these two cases, you get something that has a kind of literary profundity.
Here, I suppose, is where the definition of “literature” gets fuzzy. You could insist that it must depend on the written word. But even television shows—that is, good television shows—begin as scripts. If those scripts need full performance to bring them to life, well, so do most plays; and since we are willing to count drama as literature, why not television as well? Besides, it may be that the written word is not as essential as we think. Consider Homer, who had no written text at all, but simply sang his verses to those assembled around him, relying on them to memorize and transmit the poems. Or what about fairy tales? They may have been gathered together by the Brothers Grimm and the like, but they existed in orally disseminated form long before that. At what point in their history, if ever, do such works become literature?
Certainly there is a great deal of literature that partakes of fairy tale; or, to put it another way, fairy-tale elements manage to make their way into a number of highly respectable novels, stories, and plays. The marriage plot—that whole century-long tradition, extending from Jane Austen, who delighted in giving us the marriage, to Henry James, who delighted in withholding it—stems in part from the fairy tale of the princess and her multiple suitors (a tradition that Shakespeare also drew on, in the three-casket subplot of The Merchant of Venice). Other works of literature are clearly based on the prince’s quest for an almost-impossible object, a plot which underlies not only Don Quixote’s explicitly chivalric escapades, but also Julien Sorel’s relentless pursuit of higher social status in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, or Marcel’s interminable search for a satisfying love affair in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Then there is the story of the provincial tailor’s or cobbler’s son who makes good among the aristocracy in the big city, a version of which lies behind both Balzac’s Lost Illusions (which propels its protagonist, Lucien, from a small French town to bustling Paris) and Trollope’s Phineas Finn (which transfers its title character from rustic Ireland to a London career in Parliament). My own favorite incarnation of the fairy-tale plot involves the collection of devices or talents or provisions or skills that are handed to the hero at the beginning of his journey and must be used—we know not how, until they appear at precisely the right moment—before his story reaches its end. There is something extremely satisfying about this process, whether it be the use of the characters’ unique talents in Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, or the application of objects saved from shipwreck in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Verne’s The Mysterious Island, or the necessary collaboration of the individual police officers, each of whom has a special skill, in the ensemble casts of Fred Vargas’s policiers. Part of the pleasure has to do with a sense of efficiency, of materials exactly allocated and completely used. Another part has to do with a sense of inevitability, the feeling that someone knew where we were headed all along, even if we and the characters did not.
There are novelistic plots that play on this sense of inevitability and then give it an extra twist at the end, as if to satisfy us by meeting our expectations and also by evading them. I’m thinking, in particular, of the wonderful nineteenth-century novel The Maias, by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós. The plot of the novel occupies practically the whole century, covering the lives of three generations of the wealthy and colorful Maia family, though centering on Carlos Maia, its youngest member. We get details about his upbringing on his grandfather’s country estate; we see the rural lives of the villagers who surround him there as well as the more sophisticated lives of the young men he meets as a student. We follow their efforts to undertake various cultural, artistic, and political projects (including founding a magazine) in a way that seems typical of young people in that era and that class, and yet particularly Portuguese at the same time. Nineteenth-century Lisbon is rendered in all its tinseled glory as a provincial capital aping London or Paris, with its own silly aristocracy and its own conventional manners. All this is done with tenderness and wit, and the book would be worth reading purely as a portrait of a fascinating society that we Anglophones know little about.
But the heart of the story, the plotline that keeps us compulsively reading, lies in the love affair Carlos conducts with the woman of his dreams, a dark-eyed beauty who happens to be married to someone else. Those of us with an eye for melodrama can spot the resolution coming from afar: de Queirós drops sufficient hints along the way to suggest to his more alert readers that this beautiful young woman will turn out to be Carlos’s long-lost and previously unknown sister. We anxiously await the tragedy that will result when Carlos himself finds out, assuming that the discovery will mark the book’s disastrous denouement. That moment of revelation arrives, but it is not the end. The author surprises us by concluding his book with a leap into the future, allowing decades to pass and awarding his main character a distanced view of these calamitous events from the calm perspective of the century’s end. Carlos has survived, as have his close friends, his capital city, and his country—all in altered form, of course, but recognizably connected with who they were in their callow youth. It is an astonishing feat of authorial wisdom, this replacement of the expected melodrama with a sense of wry nostalgia; it is as if we were expecting a painting in primary-colored acrylics and were instead handed a beautiful pastel with the most subtle gradations of hue. The shock to our system is bracing, and salutary. We too feel that we have survived something, and have moved onto a plane that is suspended slightly above normal life, where we are contemplative and amused but still capable of being interested in what goes on around us. This is old age at its best, I suppose, and de Queirós renders it perfectly.
Not all plots are required to reach this kind of conclusion, or for that matter any kind of conclusion at all. There are plots in which nothing, essentially, happens. (Most of Beckett falls into this category.) There are plots which consist largely of thoughts rendered into words—stream-of-consciousness novels like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, but also mystery novels that specialize in showing the detective’s lucubrations. Plot need not be profuse or busy. It can linger on a few memorable moments; it can be stark, or scarce, or minimal.
Yet when plot is largely absent, as it is, say, in certain nouveaux romans or imagistic poems, we tend to fill the gaps ourselves, with our own pattern-creating minds. For we are plotting creatures, we humans, and we like to be told a story that goes somewhere. We like to sense the connections between seemingly disparate events, even though we may recognize that real disparities rarely resolve so neatly. Life often foils us in this respect, with its coincidences and its dead ends. We turn to literature to remedy the loss, to impose some kind of meaningful order on the nonsequential. And good literature, like The Maias, meets us only halfway.

 
Copyright © 2014 by Wendy Lesser

Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, which Adam Zagajewski has called “one of the most original literary magazines not only in the U.S. but also on the entire planet.” She is the author of eight previous books of nonfiction and one novel. Her most recent book is the prizewinning Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen String Quartets. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She divides her time between Berkeley, California, and New York City.