Like a late victorian clergyman sweating in the dark over his Doubts, I have moments when my faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse. I find myself asking, “Am I really a believer?” And then, “Was I ever?” First to go are the disjointed, upended narratives of experimental fiction. Oh well ... Next, the virgin birth miracle of magical realism. But I was always Low Church on that one. It’s when the icy waters of skepticism start to rise round the skirts of realism herself that I know my long night has begun. All meaning has drained from the enterprise. Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief. What imaginary Henry said or did to nonexistent Sue, and Henry’s lonely childhood, his war, his divorce, his ecstasy and struggle with the truth and how he’s a mirror to the age—I don’t believe a word: not the rusty device of pretending that the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending.
When the god of fiction deserts you, everything must go. The book-lined church and mic-ed-up pulpit, the respectful congregation, the interviewer’s catechism, the confessions disguised as questions, the reviewer’s blessing or curse. I confess, I’ve been on those panels with fellow believers as we intone the liturgy, that humans are fabulators, that we “cannot live” without stories. You cannot live, priests always imply, without them. (Oh, yes we can.) My heart fails when I wander into the fiction section of a bookstore and see the topless towers on the recent-titles tables, the imploring taglines above the cover art (He loved her, but would she listen?), the dust-jacket plot summaries in their earnest present tense: Henry breaks free of his marriage and embarks on a series of wild ...
This is when I think I will go to my grave and not read Anna Karenina a fifth time, or Madame Bovary a fourth. I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have 20 good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rises and falls, the adepts of the English Civil War. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry’s remorse or triumph? Will a novelist please tell me why the Industrial Revolution began, or how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved, or what Antonio Salieri thought of the young Franz Schubert in his choir? If I cared enough about Henry’s gripes, I could read a John Berryman Dream Song in less than four minutes. And with the 15 hours saved, linger over some case law (real events!), as good a primer as any on the strangeness and savagery of the human heart.
Such apostasy creeps into the wide gap that separates the finishing of one novel and the start of the next. It’s less a block than a matter of profound indifference. Happiness is elsewhere. Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase, or a sentence can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold. It needn’t be brilliant. It only has to exude a certain kind of imaginative warmth.
A recent reversion to faith started with the rereading of two short stories. (There’s persuasiveness in brevity.) The first was Vladimir Nabokov’s much discussed and celebrated “Signs and Symbols.” A crushed elderly couple visits their mentally disturbed son in a psychiatric institution on his birthday. The mother doesn’t wear make-up. Instead, “she presented a naked white countenance to the fault-finding light of spring days.” Perfectly pitched and rhythmically coiled around a muted or modest paradox—spring, conventionally the harbinger of hope, brings only criticism of a personal sort.
A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel?
The second was John Updike’s “Twin Beds in Rome.” The Maples have decided on a divorce, but sexually can’t quite leave each other alone. Out of habit, they take a holiday together in Italy. Once there, Richard finds his shoes, perfectly comfortable at home, a source of torture, and he can barely walk. He and Joan come across a Roman shoe store where he buys himself a pair of black alligator loafers. “They were too tight, being smartly shaped, but they were dead—they did not pinch with the vital, outraged vehemence of the others.” I liked that “dead.” The alligator was dead, this mild observation suggests. A living creature must have caused the torment in the American shoes. The mundane, in Updike’s own formulation, is given its beautiful due—in unambitious, comic terms.
As one of his former Cornell students recalled in TriQuarterly, Nabokov would utter, “ ‘Caress the details,’ rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details!’ ” I’m happy to take that advice. I make no great claim for either sentence above, except to say they each marked the beginning of a thaw in my indifference. They are prompts, not revelations. What they share is their illustration of fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity. Both are third-person accounts that contain a pearl of first-person experience—the fault-finding light of spring, the shoes no longer alive and biting. Appreciating the lines, you are not only at one with the writer, but with everyone who likes them, too. In the act of recognition, the tight boundaries of selfhood give way a little. This doesn’t happen when you learn what a Higgs boson does.
I have a memory of myself as a child, caressing a detail in a novel. Recalling the moment is another way of restoring faith in fiction. The experience was hypnotic, with lifelong consequences, for it showed me how the worlds of fact and fiction can interpenetrate. I was 13 years old, alone in the school library, spellbound by L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Its hero, Leo, from a poor background, spends the summer of 1900 holidaying with a school friend whose family owns a grand country house. The focus, of course, is Leo’s role as a messenger in an illicit love affair. But what drew me was the July heat wave, and the little boy’s fascination with the greenhouse thermometer and whether it would reach 100 degrees. That week’s copy of the satirical magazine Punch arrives at the house and, inside, a drawing shows “Mr. Punch under an umbrella, mopping his brow, while Dog Toby, with his tongue hanging out, wilted behind him.”
My memory is of putting the book aside and, in an inspired move, crossing the library to where the ancient bound copies of Punch were shelved, lifting down the volume for 1900 and turning to July. And there they were, the overheated dog, the umbrella, and Mr. Punch pressing a handkerchief to his forehead! It was true. I was captivated, elated by the power of something both imagined and real. And briefly, I felt an unfamiliar sadness, nostalgia for a world I was excluded from. For a moment, I had been Leo, seeing what he saw, and then it was 1962 again and I was at boarding school, with no lovers to run between, no heat wave, and only this remnant in a yellowing magazine.
I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but I had seen how realism could be bolstered by the actual. Twenty years later, I tried it out for myself. Things that never happened can tangle with things that did, an imaginary being can hold hands with the flesh-and-blood real. He may live in your house, as a Henry of my own once did, or he may read all that you have read and even make love to your wife. The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. Everything absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months—science, math, history, law, and all the rest—can be brought with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.
Ian McEwan’s most recent novel is Sweet Tooth.