Frank Kermode

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BOOKS JULY 30, 2008

Frank Kermode

How Fiction Works

By James Wood

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $24)This admirable book is, among other things, a successful attempt to
replace E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel as an accessible guide
to the mechanics of fiction. Without losing sight of its promise to
address the common reader rather than the specialist, How Fiction
Works is much more sophisticated than Forster's book, which is now
eighty years old, but still, in a rather peculiar way, what James
Wood says it is, namely "canonical." Some of its observations-- on
the difference between story and plot, and between flat and round
characters- -are still quoted even though more subtle
discriminations have long been available, and Wood has thought
keenly and profitably about such matters. He also benefits, as
Forster did not, from wide reading in contemporary fiction.

Forster was not exactly lazy--he undertook to read or re-read
usefully some classic novels, and he consulted Virginia Woolf--but
his contemporaries (of whom, having lived so long, he had a great
many) are inadequately represented. Gide and Henry James get some
attention, but only to be found wanting, whereas novels by
Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Norman Matson, little known even in
1927, are admitted as writers of fantasy, along with Joyce's
Ulysses, described as "a dogged attempt to cover the universe with
mud." As to the famous dichotomies mentioned above--flat/round,
story/plot--they have been scorned by critics, if not by students,
for almost a century. Wood's book offers updated versions; flat
characters will never be the same again.

Wood's conversational style is a modern equivalent of Forster's, but
for all its wit and ease of manner, this is a much more substantial
study. To be fair, one must add that Wood has access to serious
studies of fiction and its workings that have become available
since Forster's day--mostly in the last half-century, which
witnessed the birth of "narratology." Some "narratological" studies
are pretentious and dull, but some are not. Wood announces that his
favorite twentieth-century critics of the novel are Viktor Shklovsky
and Roland Barthes, but he cites them largely in order to differ
from them, gently deploring the difficulties they present to the
"common reader." In a longer book (which this one ought to have
been) we would hope to learn why these critics won his favor in the
first place. In this one he does usefully borrow some of Barthes's
ideas, while contesting his opinion that "realism" has nothing to
do with reality, being nothing but a system of conventional codes.
He comments, but not as extensively as he usefully could, on S/Z,
Barthes's remarkable study of how a novella by Balzac works, but he
says only a few words on Shklovsky's essays--for instance, the
study called "How Don Quixote Is Made, " a title perhaps echoed in
Wood's own.

It may be that few readers will much regret that Wood prefers to do
his own thinking, addressing primary texts and readers less anxious
to engage with Barthes's neologisms and Shklovsky's preoccupation
with the notion of defamiliarization--his belief that it is not the
business of fiction (or any art) to provide something conveniently
easy to recognize, but rather to create a particular and probably
surprising perception, to transform the ordinary in ways he
illustrates brilliantly with examples from that well-known realist
Tolstoy. It is true that some of Wood's critical procedures somewhat
resemble Shklovsky's, and his largely unexplained interest in the
Russian author may result from that similarity.

Wood wants to ask some "essential questions": "Is realism real? How
do we define a successful metaphor? What is a character?... What is
point of view, and how does it work?" He begins with "point of
view" and the case, not so special as some think, of the
"unreliable narrator." To tell a story from the point of view of
somebody who does not understand it, or for other reasons
misrepresents it, may seem merely perverse, but unreliability can be
a matter of art. Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Henry
James's What Maisie Knew are celebrated examples, and Wood adds
Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno to the list. In these instances
unreliability is of course intended, and necessary to the novel's
design, though it may well happen that events or things not
intended to contribute to the narrator's unreliability are
misrepresented by accident. With Ford's novel, which contains a
good many mistakes, there remains the question as to which of them
are intended by the author and which are not. In such cases, the
author's errors can of course be attributed to the character. But
in fact all narrators, even of the more usual "omniscient" variety,
are in some measure unreliable, missing things out, reporting them

So much is obvious. More interesting is the point that
"omniscience"--the assumption that reliable narrators know all
about everything--often, or possibly always, falls short of real
omniscience. It comes closest when it employs "free indirect
style," a subject to which Wood, though not the first in this
field, has given close and rewarding attention. Using this style,
the author claims to be recording, with comment, the unspoken
thought of a character. Technically, the next step from this device
toward the omniscient recording of all his thoughts and feelings is
"stream of consciousness," which is frequently regarded as a
modernist innovation but may be nothing much more than the
re-invention of the soliloquy.

As an example of free indirect style "at its most powerful," Wood
offers this: "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid
tears"--where, as he correctly writes, the word "stupid" is the
clue that shows the sentence to be what is sometimes known as
"f.i.d.," free indirect discourse or style. Without that word
"stupid," it would just be "standard reported thought." And with
it, interpretation gets trickier. Wood observes that the author
would hardly call a character stupid merely because he listened to
some music in a concert hall; the sense of the word (as in other
instances of the device) is transferred from the author to Ted, who
is embarrassed that he is weeping. In simple reported internal
monologue, Ted is now thinking: "Stupid to be crying at this silly
piece by Brahms." So now both the author and the character have a
share in the word, with the consequent enhancement of the potential
meaning of the text.

This argument is both clearer and more complex than a brief summary
can convey, but I hope it is possible to deduce from it the point
that Wood is making about free indirect style. It may also appear
that this invented example (rather on the lines of Forster's little
explanatory inventions) may be misleading. "Stupid" is said of the
tears, not of the character, and the question may be whether they
are stupid because they are irrelevant to Ted's situation--has some
anterior grief rendered cruel or ironical his presence at a
concert, on an occasion when no music could be relevant? Or, as you
like it: it is part of the argument that such opacities and
ambiguities are valuable in fiction. Anyway, when Wood returns to
this example later in the book he is wrong to say that "the reader
had no difficulty in assigning 'stupid' to the character himself."
Still, as he rightly maintains, "it is useful to watch good writers
make mistakes."

The difficulty arises from the fact that, as Wood remarks, free
indirect discourse is close to irony (and to ambiguity). He writes
at some length about What Maisie Knew, in which we are offered a
child's view of adult corruption: We "live inside her confusion."
Maisie knows a lot, but not enough. In a long extract from the
novel--a passage Wood particularly admires--she puzzles over her
relationships with two governesses, and also with the dead child of
one of them, a girl of Maisie's own age. Maisie meditates on the
status of the dead girl, Clara Matilda, "who was in heaven and yet,
embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green," a London cemetery, which she
had visited with the dead girl's mother to see her "little huddled
grave." "James's genius," we are told, "gathers in one word:
'embarrassingly,'" and Wood asks whose word it is.

He argues that it is Maisie's, embarrassed to witness adult grief, a
little afraid of it; and he develops this theme with his usual
resource. And yet the embarrassment surely arises less from the
confusion that Wood identifies than from a much more obvious
childish puzzle, of a sort that adults rather than children can
find words for. Common sense says the dead girl is in Kensal Green,
whereas conventional religion places her in heaven: how can she be
in two places at once? It is, or it was, a common problem for
children. Maisie's reaction arises from ambiguities in the cultural
code that Wood inherits from Barthes. He rightly comments that
"huddled" must be James's own word, but he thinks that Maisie
might, by a stroke of Jamesian genius, have used the word
"embarrassingly" to describe her own confusion. Yet it seems
virtually impossible for it to be anything but an adult's way of
describing a child's commonplace eschatological difficulty.

Commentary of the kind here offered will very often give rise to
conflicting readings, and I do not often find myself in serious
dispute with the author. Wood's book is full of acceptable insights
on a long list of novelists and topics--on Naipaul, whose A House
for Mr. Biswas is a particular favorite; on Chekhov and Giovanni
Verga; on Nabokov (good at metaphor); on John Updike (not a
favorite--we know from Wood's attack on him in The Broken Estate
that he is judged incapable of that Jamesian "embarrassingly").
Wood takes seriously the duty of criticism to judge.

There is a problem that he regards as peculiarly American: the
conflict between the desire of writers to use all their linguistic
resources and their need to represent in a plausible way the
language and perceptions to be expected of characters less amply
endowed. Wood here judges Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and
Don DeLillo to fall short. Even the admired Saul Bellow is gently
reproved for letting Tommy Wilhelm, in Seize the Day, perceive the
beauty of the ash on old Mr. Rappaport's cigar, though Wood himself
perceives it and is indeed so fond of it that later in the book he
pays it a return visit.

Bellow is, for good reason, one of Wood's heroes, but his main hero
is Flaubert, the inventor of an authentic modern realism. A passage
from L'Education sentimentale, inserted to provide a demonstration
of "modern realist narration," is Wood at his best. It concerns
detail, whether included or brilliantly omitted. "How superb and
magnificently isolate these details are- -the women yawning, the
unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air." Wood
gives many warm and original pages to the matter of detail:
"Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on
life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in
literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so
on and on." Having noticed, one may praise with discrimination.

The ability to praise convincingly, to communicate disinterested
respect and affection, is a rare critical gift. It is important to
note that Wood, who is often denounced as too scathing, has the
gift of intelligent praise in abundance. It may declare itself in a
single phrase: Muriel Spark's novels are "fiercely composed and
devoutly starved." Marilynne Robinson in Gilead calls a
grandfather's grave "his weedy little mortality patch," and Wood
simply exclaims, "How fine that is"--it seems enough just to say
so. But a strange sentence in Woolf's The Waves ("The day waves
yellow with all its crops") haunts him and demands lengthy
explication. And a wonderful sentence in Philip Roth's great novel
Sabbath's Theater requires pages of thrilled comment. The admired
beauty may not be simply of language but of characterological
invention: Anna Karenina, having met Vronsky on the train, notices
that her husband, who has come to meet her at the station, has
undergone a physical change: "Why have his ears become like that?"

A long section on character in the novel does not forget Forster,
but we read him along with Barthes on the "reality effect" and are
asked to consider a great many admired novelists--Diderot,
Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Proust, Saramago, Hamsun,
Thomas Bernhard, Svevo, Kafka, Beckett, Ralph Ellison, Ian
McEwan--and others not so unequivocally admired (Iris Murdoch, "who
so wanted to create free characters and so often failed"). Wood's
section on language and metaphor contains one of his rare falls
from omniscience: "If prose is to be as well-written as poetry--the
old modernist hope ...," he begins; but the modernist hope, as
expressed by Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound, was that poetry should
be as well-written as prose.

Yet Wood is right to say we should read "musically, testing the
precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost
inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of
modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding
why a metaphor is successful and another is not." Wood has himself
written a novel, but here he makes, by example, the point that
critical prose should also be as well written as the prose of the
best novels. The critic's critic is tempted to fill his review of
How Fiction Works with quotations, and in the end may well repeat
too frequently the author's comment on Marilynne Robinson, "How
fine." There have been many books in recent years on the making of
fiction, but I know of none (except perhaps S/Z, its admired
anti-realist opponent) that can offer as much serious instruction
as this masterly essay.

Frank Kermode's new book, E.M. Forster and Other 20th Century
Novelists, will be published by Orion in December.


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