Time for some high literature



As much as I like books, I deplore the novel. Novels, for me, are like Elvis Presley films. They're okay, but they're not going to change my mind about anything.


The novel is pretty much dead, and it has been replaced by the self-centered blog. It was an art form that became sort of popular in the 1950s when I was growing up. It's what we did before television really took off and rock and roll sapped us of our ability to think straight. In order to read a novel, you had to have free time, and the ability to sit still for a few hours. That's just not something that works in today's world.


The Wall Street Journal takes a look at a novel, and I am willing to play along:




In a dumbed-down world, what a pleasure it is to dive into the dense, allusive, uncompromisingly erudite novels of A.S. Byatt. Ms. Byatt has inherited Iris Murdoch's mantle as England's pre-eminent novelist of ideas, but her books are richer and more satisfying than Murdoch's, and less inclined to preciosity and abstraction. Ms. Byatt might more profitably be compared with the great Victorians in whose work she has immersed herself. While her novels may not be read as far into the future as those of George Eliot, her idol—for historical novels, which are Ms. Byatt's forte, are seldom treasured as emblems of their own era—they are certainly on a par with Disraeli's or Mrs. Gaskell's panoramic and socially astute works of fiction.



"The Children's Book," Ms. Byatt's new novel, will not disappoint fans of her phenomenally successful "Possession" (1990), the book that turned a middle-age author known mostly in her native England into an international sensation. Like "Possession"—which presented a kind of mystery story that reached back into the Victorian world of letters—"The Children's Book" is a tour de force of literary chameleonism and social history, set, this time, between 1895 and 1919. Edwardian England was the great age for fairy stories and utopian politics. Equally illusory, both attempts to embrace unreality came to grief on the battlefields of World War I.


"The Children's Book" centers on the lives of two generations of artistic, bohemian families. Olive Wellwood, a writer of children's stories, and her journalist husband, Humphrey, have created a magical realm at Todefright, their rural retreat, where they bring their seven children up "in the Fabian atmosphere of rational social justice" and cultivate a fairy-tale atmosphere. The Wellwoods' situation and many of their characteristics are obviously based on the real-life children's author E. Nesbit and her husband, Hubert Bland, founding members of the socialist Fabian Society.


The Wellwoods' lives faithfully trace a prominent strand of English society at the time, a world—to quote Ms. Byatt's narrative voice—of "socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers, who lived, either all the time, or at weekends and on holidays in converted cottages and old farmhouses, Arts and Crafts homes and working men's terraces, in the villages, woods and meadows around the Kentish Weald and the North and South Downs. These were people who had evaded the [industrial] Smoke, and looked forward to a Utopian world in which smoke would be no more."



Why would I instantly think that bohemians are automatically worth reading about? Are their lives so much more interesting than the lives of everyone else, or this just a lazy way of making them interesting. My parents were not bohemians--my Father was a defense industry magnate and my mother was the waitress that he married when he was through with his second wife.


If you think my home life wasn't interesting, think again. My mother would put me in dresses and call me Norma and make me entertain guests like I was a cocktail waitress.


By the time I was seven, I could expertly mix up twelve different drinks and serve them according to proper bar protocol.


My Father would disappear for months at a time, and end up in Time magazine, being quoted as saying that so-and-so was a filthy animal who deserved electrocution or worse, or he would end up in front of Congress, trying to remove his pants and hit someone with his belt. He would crawl into a secret compartment inside of a stuffed black rhinoceros that he had shot illegally in Africa, and he would hide there while J. Edgar Hoover's boys searched the house for him. Don't tell me about interesting--I had to live with interesting, thank you very much.


This reads like they have sheltered their children away from society, damning them to a life of being outsiders and freaks. Wouldn't it have been better to raise their children within society and give them the fairytale as an alternative to what their lives would be like? Wouldn't it have been better to show them the misery and poverty and then instruct the children as to how to live their lives to help others and avoid the trap of poverty and despair? Why is it always better to shelter children from the world, rather than bring them up in the world while showing them that there is a better way to do things?




One such person, in the novel, is the potter Benedict Fludd (loosely based on Eric Gill), who dominates and brutalizes his wife and daughters while creating exquisite works of art. Another is the narcissistic Olive Wellwood, a woman whose fecundity and happy marriage are achieved at the expense of her drudge of a sister and whose single-minded attention to her writing ends up destroying the child she loves best.



But Ms. Byatt is a multi- dimensional artist, and in Olive she has created a complex woman who is by no means unsympathetic. Olive is above all an artist, with the vagaries that the term implies, and narcissism goes with the territory. It is through Olive's work that she battles her own demons—her impoverished childhood and the sinister coal mines that claimed the lives of her father and brother. If on one level she is a "dark queen weaving her webs, and snares, and shrouds," she is also an affectionate woman who has, with great effort, constructed what she perceives to be an idyllic family life, including an "open" marriage with her cheerful libertine of a husband.


To the members of the next generation, of course, it all looks rather different. Todefright turns out to be built, as they see it, on a foundation of lies: The children cannot even be sure who their parents really are. It is all very much like a fairy tale that Olive has thought of, "in which the gentle and innocent inhabitants of a house become aware that a dark, invisible, dangerous house stood on exactly the same plot of land, and was interwoven, interleaved, with their own."


The events of "The Children's Book" might be said to mirror the ways in which all parents, of every generation, deceive and betray their children; but Ms. Byatt seems to find a special culpability in the Edwardian era, a time in which "people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex. At the same time they showed a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children."



This book labors under the same tired conceit about what is, and what is not, a noble way to live. If you value art above all else, and lead a desperate, miserable life of failing to become the next great artist, you are an ideal in this kind of literature. If you lead a life of enjoying sports, work, girl-watching, socializing, coal mining, animal throwing, eating meat, crapping on someone's lawn, breaking bottles, eating candy, throwing shoes at policemen, you can't possibly be happy. You must be an artist to be happy, don't you see? Being a successful businessman will never do. Having money and family won't do, either. You must be a suffering, degenerate, howling artist to understand how the world really works.


The problem with that is, I have never met an artist who understood how the world really works, but I've met quite a few who were dysfunctional drug addicts who couldn't handle their failures. I have met quite a few happy, well-adjusted people who couldn't write, couldn't sing, couldn't act and couldn't dance, unless they were drunk. Those of us who do lead happy lives have no place in a novel. We prove the novel to be bullshit.


Parents don't deceive children; the reality of life punctures the lazy myth told by parents to children. Anyone who cannot overcome their upbringing is lazy or incapable of simply growing up. You're supposed to have a troubled childhood--being sheltered delays the inevitable moment when you realize that you can't kill your parents, even though you want to, and you can't take off until you get money from them.


How are the parents of today, who retreat into Internet sex, social networking, and their own workplace melodramas any different than the Edwardian period? We are all tired of children when their novelty wears off. This is nothing new. I hope Byatt succeeded in making the book interesting. The subject does not break any new ground for me.