Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The real thing: Ian Rankin and Proust

Ian Rankin's appearance on Desert Island Discs (as discussed at the weekend) reminded me of a long-standing fascination of mine. What makes a novel more than a rhetorical exercise?

Up to the time when his second son Kit was born, Rankin had written seven novels. He wrote the eighth (Black and Blue) as Kit was being diagnosed with the rare neurological disorder Angelman Syndrome. As he explains in this interview:
"I was writing Black and Blue, and I think that made it a big, angry, questioning book, because I was going through this process of asking, why me? I would beat Rebus up regularly on paper.” He pauses for a moment, his usual animation stilled at the memory. “By the time you get to the next book Hanging Garden, his daughter is in a wheelchair. That was just me being petty and spiteful and thinking if my son is not going to walk, your daughter is not going to walk."
The eighth novel just happened to be his breakthrough book. It sold big numbers. Sue Lawley wondered how much the anger seeping through the novel had contributed to the book's success. The author reckoned it was probably very important.

If Rankin happened to be the reincarnation of Proust, those first seven novels might not have been published. It's well-known that Proust didn't publish the 770-page novel Jean Santeuil even though, as Blanchot points out, he so badly wanted to make a book and be considered a writer. What's more, the discarded work has many of the features and events of In Search of Lost Time: the phenomenon of reminiscence, the metamorphosis it presages (transmutation of the past into the present), the feeling that there is here a door open onto the domain unique to the imagination, and finally the resolution to write in light of such moments and to bring them back to light.
So why didn't he publish?

Blanchot argues that it is because he needed the novel to include the inspiration to which Jean Santeuil merely responds. The latter novel is perhaps closer to the actual Proust ... than the narrator of Le Temps Perdu is, but this proximity is only the sign that he remains on the surface of the sphere and that he has not truly engaged himself in the new time, which causes him to glimpse the shimmering of a changing sensation. And it is to transmit the joy of this new time for which Proust writes:
yet [in Jean Santeuil] it is really Saint-Simon, La Bruyère, Flaubert who write in his place, or at least Proust the man of culture, the one who relies, as is necessary, on the art of previous writers, instead of entrusting himself, with all its risks and dangers, to that transformation that the imagination demands and that must first reach his language.
Blanchot ends his essay by making the disturbing observation that it was only through "energy, inertia, inactivity, attention, and distraction" that enabled Proust to write the other novel which made him famous; fame which Jean Santeuil would never have matched. Hard work and craft, it seems, are not guarantees of artistic success.

This is why I am so wary of books that tend to rely on the art of previous writers, that do not make the language subject to the unique inspiration and ambition of the book it forms. They are too rhetorical and crime (and other genre) novels are, by definition, mainly rhetorical works. While Rankin's eighth novel cannot be on a par with Proust's (if only because the anger is added colour rather than intrinsic to its creation), it perhaps suggests in both cases a desire among readers for something more than routine entertainment, for more than the author to do "a good professional job for the reader". They want the real thing.

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