Facts of life

“The facts of life are too terrible to go into my kind of fiction.”  –Edith Hope, the popular-romance-novel-writing protagonist–in “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner.

This bit of a dialogue caught my eye.  It touches on a frequent preoccupation of mine.  Is humanity essentially terrible or does love and kindness at every level even things out?  How to look at life–at one’s own, at those of others, or the human condition?  What constitutes telling the truth in literature?  What constitutes telling the truth and approaching the genuine in my own writing, and why does that always feel like such a futile struggle, the There I cannot get to from Here?

The quote also approximates my own suspicions and worries about the kind of things I want to read–and the kinds I don’t.  If a book gives me the feeling that the writer, like Edith Hope, thinks I don’t want to be shown the facts of life, I’m not likely to finish it–or even to pick it up in the first place.  When it comes to choosing books, or the books that choose me, I tend not to walk on the sunny side of the street.  This doesn’t mean I reject anything funny, or about people whose material lives are essentially comfortable, but I want the exigencies of the human world to at least be present in the background, in the margins, and to be unsolved and unsolvable regardless of whether it’s a novel where all the right people get married to each other at the end.  (I think of Jane Austen, whose novels are often summarized in the popular imagination as being about dresses and tea-cups and little romantic problems solved against a background of rolled lawns and country-house libraries.  But Austen gives us, so long as we’re paying attention, the piles of manure, the poverty of country life, the desperation of women in the 18th century version of the patriarchy, but she does it in such a way that these things aren’t what you mostly remember when you like about “Emma” or “Persuasion”.  But you’ve caught them often in the corner of your eye, on the edge of the frame, or underlying, like a penetrating mist, the whole structure and motivation of the story.)

Currently reading or listening:

“The Spire” by William Golding (audiobook read by Benedict Cumberbatch, and well too, though I’m not particularly a fan)

“Maiden Voyage” by Denton Welch

“Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero” by Charles Sprawson

“Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner

All of these as a result of listening to the Backlisted Podcast, by the way, whose tagline is “Giving life to old books”.

More about some of these in further posts.



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