Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Mysterious Craft of Novel-Writing

Readers of fiction like to try and identify the ‘real’ people and places on which they imagine the characters and places of a novel are based. There is a whole sub-genre of writing engaged in this game: one can find ‘authoritative’ texts ‘proving’ that the characters in Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ are ‘really’ Baron so-and-so and the Duchess of such-and-such, and it is after all crashingly obvious that the novel’s narrator Marcel is Marcel Proust himself. Many editions of Thomas Hardy’s novels include a map of ‘Wessex’, with the real and the fictional place-names in different typefaces. This genre reaches its zenith or perhaps nadir in G. Livingston Lowes’s fascinatingly ingenious ‘The Road to Xanadu’, which purports to relate almost every word in Coleridge’s poetry to people, places and events in the poet’s life.

Critics, and especially ‘Creative Writers’ themselves, discourage this: they turn up their noses, say it is very vulgar and that the writer’s art is something much more mysterious than a mere narrative of real but disguised people, places and events.

Really? I’ve just started reading Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’. Philip, who is I suppose going to be the novel’s hero, is taken away from London as a child to stay with relatives in the seaside town of ‘Blackstable’, sixty miles from London. When he is old enough, he is sent to the ‘King’s School’, in the shadow of the cathedral in the nearby city of ‘Tercanbury’. All this in the first twenty-five pages.

I come from South-East Kent. Just round the coast from where I was born, sixty miles from London, is the seaside town of Whitstable. Not far off is the city of Canterbury, with its King’s School in the shadow of the cathedral. Come off it, Mr Maugham: pull the other one; it’s got bells on.

                Yes, I know it's irrelevant, but I also know you like pictures.

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