Friday, June 17, 2005

In which no heroes stumble: on realism and suspending disbelief

TEV asks whether we find the following sentence (from Nicole Krauss' novel The History of Love) moving or sentimental:

Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.

Neither express how I find it, but "vomit-inducing nausea" is not an option.

The post concentrates on TEV's response to James Wood's LRB review of the novel. It argues that Wood's commitment to 'realism' makes him insensitive to the ordinary pleasures of reading. From the extracts of the review, it is clear Wood is appalled at the novel's sentimentality and its caricature of Jewishness. While they reflect a sensitivity perhaps borrowed from Wood's US literary editor, the test sentence completely justifies the judgement about sentimentality.

Actually, TEV accepts the charge but says "for every mawkish note [Krauss] strikes, there is a balancing supply of graceful prose". He reckons Wood needs to embrace a willing suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the novel. Wood is reluctant to do this though "perhaps understandably" TEV says "given his literary preoccupations".

Pardon? Are we being told that Wood's commitment to realism is a "literary preoccupation"? What then is TEV's love of suspending his disbelief?

Let's look at that one sentence again: Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.

I want to ask: who knows what 'he' wants? The author, of course. I know. But how does she know? What would it mean for fiction for her not to know? We might bury the question under landscapes of "graceful prose" but it's there, like a molehill on the lawn.

With this in mind, TEV's distinction between realism and suspending one's disbelief is incorrect. He seems to think it is a matter of style. If that was the case then realism would also depend on a willingness to suspend one's disbelief - you have to forget that you're reading at all. Literature is, after all, a world in which Hubert Selby Jnr and Wallace Stevens are one.

There is a common wish, running as an undercurrent through the literary blogosphere, for novels to return to the innocence of the Victorian classic. Yet even the most unabashed supporter of this wish doesn't really believe such innocence is possible anymore. Hence the nods toward irony and florid pastiche (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, The Crimson and the Petal) and equally excessive praise. While these disappear like the desperate ephemera that they are, there are more subtle examples, for which so many gullible readers still fall. You can read about them every week. (This Space seems to have become a firefighting operation!)

The narrative of a truly realistic novel would be an expedition to the space between the world and the book, or - to make it more pertinent - between oneself and everything else. Sentences like the one above collapse that space; make those living in it pawns in our solipsistic games, masquerading as empathy. But what is really going on in that space? It is a question each of us could spend our whole lives answering.


  1. Firefighters are sexy.

  2. Anonymous11:48 am

    Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell -pastiche - I know this novel is a pastiche of the mid-nineteenth century novel as acidemic biography. However beyond that it is one of the most intellectually viable novel that britian has seen in the last three or four years.

  3. What do you mean by "intellectually viable" Nick?

    "Acidemic" - it might help if they were!

  4. Anonymous10:19 am

    " it is one of the most intellectually viable novel that britian has seen in the last three or four years."

    Huh, Nick? I though JS&MN was an example of a book crossing genres/audiences - to me it read like just like yet another historical fantasy novel - only Clarke's novel was marketed outside its usual audience.



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