It’s hard to imagine a life without fiction. To fall through the print on a page, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, into a real and convincing world is an experience not to be missed. A novel that detaches the mind from its prevailing concerns and that transports and calms the reader, no matter how agitating the plot, is indeed one of life’s prizes – a patch of sunlight in a dark woods. If the reality we fall into is of another time and place, so much the better. We are not only shifting our focus away from our own social milieu, we are soaking up another era in a distant corner of the globe.
Perhaps, thanks to the talent of American writer Susan Sontag, author of the phenomenal The Volcano Lover, we are surrounded by Lord and Lady Hamilton and their houseguest Lord Nelson in a villa near Naples, Italy, at the end of the eighteenth century. Or, immersed in Frank Delaney’s book, Tipperary, we could be in Ireland during the nineteenth century rooting for the tireless protagonist Charles O’Brien in his convoluted pursuit of April Burke.
And not only do novels carry us across the ages and oceans, they deliver us into the very minds and hearts of other human beings. Fiction is uniquely suited to entering a character’s consciousness. Not even the movies can do this! In the course of our daily lives we are merely outside observers of other people whose mental and emotional lives are hidden from us.
William Shakespeare, to whom generations of critics attribute the largest consciousness and most incisive intellect of all fiction writers, paved the way. It is in his tradition that novels make us feel as others feel, reason as they do, and struggle and triumph as they do. Fiction in the Shakespearean mold illuminates for us the bewildering complexity of the human heart, and it captures universal truths – truth being that which is in accord with fact and reality. For example, everyone thirsts for love and respect, albeit in different ways; everyone encounters temptation, fear and betrayal; and everyone is forced to choose between principle and self-interest. Everyone lives her/his own version of these facts. The lives of Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Othello, King Lear, and MacBeth are proof of this. The lives of Anne Elliot, Silas Marner, Silas Lapham, Leonard Bast and Julian English, as we shall see, also reveal versions of the truth. They, along with others, make up the colorful procession of characters that weaves through the coming pages.
A novelist creates real people and then allows the plot to grow credibly out of who these characters are. Characters stripped of complexity so that they are easily understood signal a flawed novel. They populate light fiction – that is, shallow and trivial books designed for quick absorbing and forgetting. Works of literary fiction, on the other hand, are peopled with complex, difficult and often inscrutable characters. Henry James’s Isabel Archer and Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott, for example, are from different eras and countries but are both inexplicably committed to unhappy marriages. Readers should be wary, too, of books providing pat answers to life’s challenges. Successful fiction tends to raise questions about life.
Each year fiction seems to carry a heavier and heavier cargo of violence. It is important to understand that such novels, while offering one version of truth, are not the only valid depictions of life. Countless authors excel at featuring airplane explosions, vast conflagrations, mass murder, and physical and sexual abuse, but there is much to be said for the quiet, nuanced novel that sheds light on the drama of everyday life – life lived with no corpses in the basement; no bombs hidden in a drawer; no murders; no suicides; no virtue assailed. There is drama enough in the moral turning points of lives lived with integrity. William Trevor’s masterful Love and Summer is a version of that belief. Literary novelists such as Trevor write for educated readers who are cultivated and astute enough to appreciate complex wordplay, intricate themes, and dense analysis of ideas.
In addition to presenting a good story, a successful novel leaves the reader with a fundamental idea. It is this insight that we refer to as the novel’s theme, and usually there are several in one book. For example, the narrative of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a work to which I have devoted a chapter, bolsters our understanding that personal advice is as good or bad as the event decides. We come away from Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum with the idea that not all families are happy, and from William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham with the conviction that generosity often demands brutal self-sacrifice. In a word, a book’s themes are versions of the truth. To perceive them, we need only to give the author our time, attention and “suspension of our disbelief.”
As you will note, the settings and prose styles of the books I have included are decidedly dissimilar, but they share common features. Each is underpinned by an inherently interesting story; each is populated with three-dimensional characters; each unfolds a plot that progresses inevitably but not predictably; and each conveys versions of reality. The notions that perfect happiness is rare; that death and loss are a part of life; that memory is selective; that things are not as they appear; and that economic and/or social status is not an indication of personal worth are just some versions of the truth to be discovered in these pages.
Readers who are eager to explore the world of fiction – as assiduously as Alice in Wonderland investigated behind each locked door in her magical surroundings – will encounter a windfall of life-enhancing experiences.