Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Lady Macbeth in the reading group

It is a perennial complaint of readers of literary fiction that they ‘don’t like’, or ‘can’t relate to’ the characters. It’s my impression that ‘liking the characters,’ or even ‘loving the characters’ forms one of the chief discussion topics in reading groups. However, it is not the role of the novelist to provide complete strangers with sets of imaginary friends. It is not up to me to second-guess the type of individual whose company someone I have never met, nor will ever meet, enjoys.

The creation of characters in fiction is one means, amongst several, of producing work of the literary imagination. At the baseline of fiction, the foundation that hold it up, is the telling of a story – the fulfilment of a human drive to tell and hear stories has its earliest manifestation in European culture in Homer. The story orders experience and makes sense of it; it contains within it wonder while feeding, at its most crude, our curiosity, but there really is nothing wrong with wanting to find out what happens ‘in the end’ even though in life the only endings are death.

An additional purpose of fiction is to point out that not only likeable individuals have stories, but also monsters. The murderer Rashkolnikov, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, has a story. Another murderer, Macbeth, has one, too.

Wanting to ‘like’ characters, is to miss what the author is trying to tell us. That humanity comes in many manifestations, and even those who are evil are aspects of our selves. Indeed, one of the advantages of literature is that you can enjoy the company of individuals whom normally you would run a mile from, particularly their smells and grunts and bad breath. Every year or so I re-read Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater to spend time with the appalling Mickey Sabbath, the repulsive puppeteer who turned down the opportunity to join Jim Henson and make muppets. He’s a lech, a hater, a thug, but at least he reminds you what it is to be alive. He is all passion, unspent.

And it is not only the demons who deserve to have their stories told. I am currently re-reading Anita Brookner, whose work I avidly devoured for several years after she won the Booker in 1984. An encrustation of scorn later grew up around her; her characters, it was said, were all the same – wet young woman, doormats, in an era which was producing a new fictional female type, the ‘feisty heroine.’ Brookner remained coolly admired, but fell from fashion. Re-reading three of her novels in the past couple of weeks, I have been astounded by the quality of her prose and the delicate, compassionate forensic quality of her mind. It is true that many of her characters are passive (both female and male) but their passivity conceals longings which they can neither express nor fulfil.

If you are looking for people to like, turn to the people in your book group. Literature is not escapism, it is a reckoning with reality. My friend, the poet George Szirtes, more or less exactly explains what literature is, in this series of posts about Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, on his own site:

‘The novel's contract with reality is different from the poem's contract with reality, but reality itself - the out-thereness of it, the strange semi-documentary concreteness of it - is the same for both, exerting the same pressure. And this is true not just of novelists and poets but of humanity at large, or rather of that aspect of humanity that comprehends – however inarticulately - what the project of novels and poetry, indeed of all art is about, art being the place where experience, imagination and language flow into each other.’

Indeed. It is not life, it’s more.

More mutton observations

Materfamilias observes, 'Generally, I'm looking for clothes with a bit of attitude.' Now this observation seems to me to go to the heart of the mutton question.

Society demands of women over the age of fifty that they go away, be unseen. It reinforces this by trying to sell us what it considers to be 'classic' clothes in bland unflattering shades. In the past this might have indicated a certain timidity and resistance to fashion in older women but we are talking here about the baby boom generation who wore mini skirts, tie dye, false eyelashes, Biba feather boas and Mary Quant purple lipstick.

If we choose not become invisible as we age, we need to find clothes that fit and flatter, that express our individuality, not repress it, but at the same time we should, I think, avoid clothes that are too girly (and by that I don't mean too feminine, not at all.) There is nothing more sad and desperate than a woman of fifty boasting that she can wear her daughter's clothes. It's too do with the contrast between the body and the face.

But having attitude is a signal of self-confidence. Clothes, as we get older can be stronger, not weaker. At the 2002 S/S Paris collections I saw a woman aged circa 80, on the arm of a very young man - probably her grand-son or even great-grandson. She was dressed from head to foot in khaki combats with copper discs the size of small plates dangling from her ears. And she walked through the crowd like a queen.

Similarly a decade ago in New York, two extremely elderly women, making a slow progress across the lobby of the Carlyle in that season's Chanel little black suits.

The point about these three was that they understood that the parade has most certainly not gone by. None of them looked ridiculous, they had elegance and distinction and above all, a strong sense of personal style. You understood at once that their clothes mattered to them, because they understood why clothes matter.

Look at me, they said. And I did.

(yesterday, at the State Opening of Parliament)

Thought for the day

Fashion dies very young, so we must forgive it everything. Jean Cocteau