James Lasdun was born in London and now lives in the US. He has published novels, a memoir, collections of poetry and books of short stories, including the selection Besieged, the title story of which was made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci.
His most recent books are Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Afternoon of a Faun, a novel.
With his wife Pia Davis he has written two guide books, Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria, and Walking and Eating in Provence. His essays and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, Granta, The London Review of Books, The New York Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker.
His work has been widely translated and won numerous awards, including the inaugural BBC National Short Story Award. He has been a finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize and the LA Times Book Prize. His first novel, The Horned Man, was a New York Times Notable Book, and his second, Seven Lies, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. www.jameslasdun.com
(Photo by Tania Barricklo)
Thoughts on Fiction as an Agent for Change
By James Lasdun
I grew up in England and studied English literature during the depressed and skeptical English 1970s. I think – hope – my literary and emotional compass has widened since then, but for good or bad my deepest bias as a reader is toward books that, if by no means exclusively English, maintain an old-world distrust of ennobling sentiments and idealistic fantasy.
“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” wrote Keats, and I’d say he still speaks for a good chunk of the world’s readers (he certainly does for me). Do-gooding literature hasn’t had much success in any tradition (unless you’re a fan of Soviet factory songs). The nature of art, unlike polemic, is to question, subvert, undermine, destabilize. Evil may always be evil, but great writers, aside from being incorrigibly empathetic, are always searching for the depth and nuance that bring life to the page, and it has become almost axiomatic that villains tend to grow steadily more appealing the longer they stay around. Satan in Paradise Lost is generally offered as Exhibit A in this argument, his charismatic presence notoriously sympathetic. As Blake famously put it, Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it.” Think, also, of how George Eliot forces us to reappraise the awful banker Bulstrode in Middlemarch by re-approaching him from the inside after having comprehensively laid out his external noxiousness. He may never become lovable, exactly, but, my god does he become human! Auden crystallized the process in his famous lines:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
As for upholders of virtue, the same curious alchemy operates, seething more corrosively the longer we live with them and the closer they come to attaining the condition of pure idealism. Shakespeare’s Angelo, the high-minded magistrate in Measure for Measure is the locus classicus here. His moral extremism, which resonates interestingly with our present age (decapitation for sexual miscreants!) isn’t merely the foil to his subsequent corruption, but is in some sense its very cause (every audience member grasps this, I think, even if we might not be able to identify the precise triggering mechanism). “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” as the bard himself put it (he might have added that it is in the very nature of lilies to fester, sooner or later).
Even in the more grounded, quotidian world of the novel, the same principle applies, or does in the novels I like. Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Graham Greene, all had a strong interest in the forces of destruction in human affairs and could portray obvious bad guys as well as anyone, but it’s their good guys you really have to watch out for: saintly Russian fanatics, Polish radicals, quiet Americans. For me the most interesting case, in this regard, is Chekhov.
As a good citizen and conscientious doctor, he hated cruelty, petty-mindedness, oppression of every kind, and called out these vices with laudable energy and memorable brilliance. He even articulated a sort of credo around their opposite. To his friend, the poet Alexey Plescheyev, he wrote : “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.” Noble sentiments, of course, but in the crucible of his fiction, things get more complicated. Far from unambiguously occupying the high ground in his stories (as you might expect them to), the virtues of decency, rationality and philanthropy are subjected to withering critiques, and lead more often to failure, self-disgust and madness, than to any shimmering conjuration of a just society. (The well-intentioned engineer in his story The New Villa, with his disastrous attempts to improve the lives of his peasant neighbors, is one among dozens of characters in whom the desire to do good is thwarted by the world’s stronger desire not to have good done unto it.)
Given this shying away from simplistic moral clarity, perhaps it isn’t surprising that this tradition is stronger on dystopian satire than it is on utopian vision. With the notable exception of children’s books such as The Hobbit (and even there, Eden is a place that has to be left), the reforming, improving, idealizing tendency seems to be more comfortable exposing sins than imagining unfallen worlds. Jonathan Swift knew his audience well enough to know that he could move them on behalf of the downtrodden Irish more effectively by the grotesque comic device of taking British oppression and greed to its logical endpoint of cannibalism, and pretending to endorse it (the proposal in A Modest Proposal is that Irish babies should be sold and eaten) than he could by either sermonizing them or painting some idyllic picture of a world where everyone was nice to each other (and hoping that this would somehow set an irresistible example).
Something similar could be said of Orwell, whose diptych of satires, Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four, probably did more to wake people to the dangers of totalitarianism than even the great memoirs that emerged out of the Soviet Union or the regimes of the fascist Right. Writers like these give us powerfully condensed images that become part of our mental circuitry. Thanks to them we recognize the brutality coded into seemingly innocuous policies faster and more confidently than we otherwise might (think ‘border security’ – no-one who’s read Swift could be surprised where that led). Thanks to them we have terms – Big Brother, Newspeak, Thoughtcrime – that help us recognize, and so resist, the intrusions of the state into the intimate recesses of our own consciousness.
For a more positively-accented critique – visions of the Good Life, in other words – you have to cross the Atlantic, and plunge into the great currents of celebratory effusion that spring from Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac… But of course even as I write these words, I see how absurdly generalizing they are. For one thing there is no shortage of great dystopian or otherwise insurrectionary satire in the New World – my current favorite practitioners being Margaret Atwood and Paul Beatty. For another, there are plenty of depictions of what a better society might look like, in the literature of the Old.
Arguably, a book can’t rise to real greatness without offering at least a glimpse of some ideal order of existence premised on its own implicit or explicit scheme of values. Different ones have given me nourishment and hope at different times in my life. As a teenager who spent an inordinate amount of time wandering alone through the countryside, I was intensely affected by Alain Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes (sometimes translated as "The Lost Domain"), which turns on a dimly erotic encounter between a romantically-inclined young guy and a group of mysterious revelers in a quasi-abandoned French chateau that strangely eludes his attempts to find it when he tries to go back. All the indeterminate yearning of my teenage years seemed contained in that fleeting moment and the frustrated attempt to reprise it. Nature, the countryside itself, could often embody, or at least stand in for that alternate, superior mode of being, as its great observers – Thomas Hardy, Turgenev, to name just a couple – deployed it as a sometimes lyrical, sometimes bitterly ironic parallel to the human dramas playing out in its midst. Later, as I embarked on marriage and family life, along with a quixotic attempt at self-reliance (at least on the vegetable front), I became infatuated with the Levin passages in Anna Karenina, where Tolstoy articulates a magnificent vision of human life harmoniously integrated into the natural world and the wider cosmos beyond.
Doris Lessing, seen in this 1959 photo, published The Golden Notebook in 1962. She won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007.
(Roger Mayne / National Portrait Gallery, London)
I still find that vision immensely beguiling, but it has also come to seem a little lofty, perhaps a little too colored by the mighty Count’s essentially aristocratic outlook on life. I’m more moved, these days, by writers who can make something out of very ordinary, untranscendent experiences; sacralize it by the sheer power of their attentiveness. Virginia Woolf comes to mind, as does the recent turn fiction has taken toward the memoiristic, in the work of writers such as Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard. There are parts of Knausgaard’s epic, My Struggle, that raise the most mundane things – being bored at a children’s party; scrubbing potatoes; running errands – to a level of interest that, to my mind, competes with passages in the great romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and works the same miracle of redemption on the otherwise hard-to-appreciate banality of everyday life. To me that is a political act; as valid and potent as any of the more overtly agenda-laden books we think of as politically transformative.
Are there books that combine all the various and contradictory catalysts of inner and outer change that I’ve come to love in my life as a reader? Books that are at once skeptical and idealistic, satirical and visionary, personal and political, quotidian and sub specie aeternitatis? I’m sure there are a great many, but I have my own personal trinity.
First, D.H.Lawrence’s novella St Mawr, which is the only book I know that succeeds in delivering an idea of happiness that has to do with process and struggle rather than some static (and therefore wholly uninteresting) idea of human fulfillment. Second, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, where the author found a way to split his highly conflicted self – the brilliant tragic drunk, the romantic lover, the ever-youthful political idealist – into the three principal characters of his story, and braid them back together in a composite vision of modern existence in all its incoherent beauty.
Third (and possibly greatest), Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I’ve written about this elsewhere, and rather than strive for a pointless originality I will ask the reader to indulge me in the no doubt very bad form of quoting myself:
“I won’t try to describe the experience of reading it except to say that it is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. And that it contrives to make the most ordinary situations—a couple arguing, a woman cooking a meal—into epicenters of weather systems stretching from McCarthyite America to apartheid South Africa to Stalinist Russia. And that there is a vein of brilliant acid comedy flowing through it that nobody had warned me about. And that it is as great for its plainness of address—all the stylistic and vocal jigs it doesn’t dance—as it is for its structural originality and staggering psychological insight.”
Doris Lessing and the Perils of the Pseudonymous Novel
The New Yorker, July 23, 2013
If this little article does nothing more than persuade you to check out Lessing’s once famous but now increasingly forgotten masterpiece, it will have been worth it. It is a book that will change your life, and as Rilke said: “You must change your life.”