Old Filth

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Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown

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This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

The names alone hint at underlying complexities: Old Filth, Polly Flint, Fred Fiscal-Smith, Bilgewater (whose given name is Marigold). Jane Gardam’s characters have enormously involved inner lives, but rather than waste time telling us this, she instead grows them — like a patient, experienced gardener — as we read. Like late-season flowers, or heirloom tomatoes ripening slowly on the vine, the people in Gardam’s stories become who they are organically; and the results are intensely rewarding. Gardam’s gifts as a writer are many: a sly black humor alongside true compassion, the ability to paint a vivid picture of the English countryside with just a few verbal strokes, and an ear for the way people speak past each other in service to their own marvelous trains of thought. Her characters unfold, mysteriously and in their own time, demonstrating both her love for them and her unobtrusively steely control as a writer.

Hers is clearly a mature talent: Gardam didn’t sit down to write what would become her first collection of short stories until she was 41. But even in her first works, written for children, a reader can sense a lifetime of thoughtful observation — and the even hand of a veteran gardener, which, it turns out, she is. While the precocious young narrator of her first novel, A Long Way from Verona, opens her story with a firm refutation of the author’s method —
I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point.
— Gardam takes great pleasure, here and in the more than 30 books that would follow, in proving her wrong.

Jane Gardam was born Jean Mary Pearson in July of 1928, in Coatham, a former fishing community in North Yorkshire. Her father was the son of a farmer turned schoolteacher, and a well-loved housemaster at Sir William Turner’s School. Her mother’s formal education ended at age 12 — she had a bad heart and wasn’t expected to last long, though she ended up living to 90 — but she was a dedicated letter writer, possessed of great faith in the power of words.

Gardam always knew she wanted to be a writer. She wrote stories as a child, but furtively, and hid her first efforts in the chimney of the unused fireplace in her bedroom. “In those days in Yorkshire, you never had a fire in your bedroom unless you were very ill,” she told Lucasta Miller in a 2005 Guardian interview. The winter she was six she came down with chicken pox, a fire was lit before she could protest, and all her work literally went up in flames. That year would also provide another trauma by fire, in which she burnt both hands severely in an accident; at 85, she still bears the scars. And soon after that, her mother nearly died of scarlet fever after giving birth to her brother.

That year of pain and uncertainty changed something in her, she recalls: “That was the end of the happy little girl.” Books were a deep source of comfort, and when a library opened in her hometown when she was eight, she decided that she would someday go to London “to be among people who cared about books as much as I did.” And indeed, at 17 Gardam earned a scholarship to read English at Bedford College, University of London. She planned on a career in literary scholarship, and did good work on a thesis on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But she was forced to abandon it after running out of money, and on graduating went straight to work.

She put in time as a researcher, then as a Red Cross Traveling Librarian for hospital libraries for two years, and eventually as a journalist, first as sub-editor at Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, and finally as an assistant literary editor at Time and Tide. She had met David Gardam, an up-and-coming young barrister, at a party while still at university, and they were married in 1952. When she gave birth to her first son, Timothy, in 1956, she left her job at Time and Tide, vowing to be back in three weeks. But as her other children came along — Kitty, and then Tom — she settled into life as a wife and mother at home.

David Gardam’s law career provided comfortably for the family. He was often away, however, traveling abroad in the service of construction litigation, and keeping the home front together was a full-time job. It wasn’t until her youngest son started school — that same morning, as she tells it — that she finally found the time and space to write. And the floodgates opened.

Gardam wrote and wrote. “Without writing,” she told the Guardian, “I would have been bored and unfaithful, maybe both.” Instead she finished a collection of short stories for young adults, A Fair Few Days, in 1970, and promptly sent it off to a publisher. Having no idea how the business worked, she called back three weeks later to see what was taking them so long (“‘There’s an awful woman on the phone,’ was the first response. ‘Get rid of her.'”) But an editor at Hamish Hamilton liked it, and contracted her for a second as well, and she was on her way. In a recent interview, she admits, “I think I would have died if it hadn’t been published. I was desperate to get started — I was possessed.”

As of this year, Jane Gardam has published 12 young adult books, 10 adult novels, and eight short story collections, as well as a retelling of the Green Man myth with illustrator Mary Fedder and a work of nonfiction about the landscape of her childhood, The Iron Coast: Photographs of Yorkshire. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Award — now the Costa — twice, for The Hollow Land in 1983 and The Queen of the Tambourine in 1991, and has been awarded countless other prizes as well. God on the Rocks was nominated for a Booker; Old Filth for the Orange Prize, and in 1999 Gardam received the Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to the enjoyment of literature.

Her lifetime’s contribution covers a lot of ground, but a dedicated reader will recognize recurring themes. She is interested in England, of course — Gardam’s characters and general tone are quintessentially British, even when the story is set elsewhere. And along with that particular Britishness comes a fascination with Empire, the bill of goods sold to an entire nation which began to exhibit its first fault lines as her generation came of age.

Even more than the cracks in the façade of England’s nationalism, Gardam is fascinated by the ways its people construct personal walls — which are also prone to crumbling at inopportune moments. Life doles out its misfortunes to her players, and she shines, as a writer, when she chronicles the struggles between their inner and outer lives. She is never heavy-handed here. Characters move through their emotional and psychological battles under her sympathetic gaze — an awareness that the line between decorum and breakdown can be very thin indeed. Or, as Courtney Cook describes Gardam’s novels in the LA Review of Books, “they are a taxonomy of ordinary madness, and by that I mean the kind of madness that does not require a visit to an institution, or at least, not often.”

Perhaps her best portrait of this “ordinary madness” is that of Eliza Peabody in The Queen of the Tambourine. This epistolary novel traces Eliza’s mental descent and ascent — although it’s never quite so clearcut a progression as that — through a series of letters she writes to Joan, her neighbor across the street, who has abandoned their proper, middle-class suburb for a series of exotic locales: Prague, Kurdistan, India. Or has she? Is there, in fact, a Joan? Eliza’s state of mind is never quite identifiable enough for the reader to relax into knowing that this is one kind of story or another, and Gardam obviously takes pleasure in letting us proceed in this fashion.

Eliza is ditsy — “You have a grasshopper mind,” a friend’s husband tells her — but also serious, pained, and terribly funny. Her husband leaves her, neighbors fuss over her condescendingly, she sees an Oxford don suddenly dissolve and trickle down a drain, and through it all she muses with a dispassionate eye, pathetic one moment and hilariously arch the next. Through her letters, Gardam captures the sudden realizations of middle age as only a fellow-traveler could:
I looked along my skinny body, half a century old: the purple ridge, the appendix scar, the blotches of the old-fashioned vaccination marks on my thigh, but all still serviceable enough. A body not much noticed since the womb. Unused.
What might it have looked like? If I had married a man who thought sharing a bed important? Fat and flaccid? Covered in stretch-marks and Appalachian ranges? I’ve never seen a stretch-mark and don’t know what it looks like. I have never seen a contraceptive pill. I have never seen pot or hash or heroin. I’ve never actually examined a condom, and still feel they are rather secret, nasty things.
Bosoms. Scarcely there. They might, I suppose, by now be hanging like old leather bottles? The children saying, “Mother’s letting herself go. Such a shame.”
But I’d have looked used.
Yet Gardam is not above having some fun at her own expense, and Eliza’s description of a self-important neighbor who writes children’s books is catty, self-deprecating, and extremely funny:
With the solicitor husband and his international practice, the five healthy children all now at boarding-school and scarcely needing her, with her own effulgent bounce and so much money she doesn’t know what to do with it, she now writes fiction…She is always being interviewed on television as the fully mature woman with the perfect life. She is asked her views on Margaret Drabble and Proust, at least she was until she confused the two.
Among other afflictions, Eliza lost her mother young.  In fact, many of Gardam’s characters are orphans of one sort or another. There are the literal kind, like the eponymous Faith Fox, or Polly Flint of Crusoe’s Daughter, whose mothers die at birth and are given up to relatives or friends by fathers who are unable to care for them, and also the children known as “Raj orphans” — born to parents stationed in the colonies and sent back to England at a tender age, alone or with siblings, to be raised and schooled in civilization, without their parents. Gardam may have grown up in an intact family, but she is consistently interested in exploring how the injured child informs the outwardly functional adult. These explorations into the reverberations of loss echo through her 40 years of writing, but are probably most skillfully — and most touchingly — realized in the three books that make up her “Old Filth” trilogy: Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends.

Old Filth, considered by many to be Gardam’s best book, is the story of Edward Feathers, a Queen’s Counsel barrister who made his fortune practicing in Hong Kong. His nickname, Filth, comes not from any lack of personal hygiene, but from a vaguely derogatory acronym used about lawyers who fled the home country: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. The book opens on his final years; he and his wife, Betty, have retired from Asia to the quiet countryside of Dorset, and Betty dies one afternoon while planting tulips.

Feathers has spent the better part of his life cultivating an impression that everyone around him seems to agree on: he is exemplary, immaculate, and a bit boring. But Old Filth is not quite what he seems, and Betty’s death begins to unmoor him — not all at once, of course, and here Gardam is at the top of her form, building her story, and the characters who inhabit it, with great subtlety and perceptiveness. Old Filth takes the reader on a journey as complex as that of Feathers’s inner workings, which turn out to be very complex indeed. Based partly on Rudyard Kipling’s tales of his own Raj orphanhood, particularly his short story “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” Gardam has given her protagonist some terrible — and terribly sad — secrets to carry. He explains his and Betty’s childlessness to a young woman:

If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge…I was not loved after the age of four and a half. Think of being a parent like that.

Gardam never hurries to unburden herself of Feathers’s burdens, though, and neither does she condescend to her readers. He’s as complicated a character as anyone you might meet, or know, or simply wonder about. And she carries these dense lives through the rest of the trilogy, The Man in the Wooden Hat — Betty’s side of the story — and 2013’s Last Friends, which brings in several peripheral characters and manages to make the story interesting all over again. Clearly this is a labor of love — she referred to Feathers as “my little boy” in a recent WNYC interview — but the time she has spent with these characters also reflects a willingness to let a story grow at its own pace — a gardener’s sensibility.

In a Publisher’s Weekly interview that explicitly dubbed her a “Late Bloomer,” Gardam explains,“I couldn’t have written any earlier. I wasn’t ready. I was a very anxious sort of woman.” Clearly she waited just long enough: there is no anxiety to her work. Rather, she has a kind of authorial green thumb. Gardam understands the beauty of coaxing something to unfold over time, and trusts her readers with the patience to watch her stories grow.

Keep Them Guessing: An Interview with Maile Meloy

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When I was a lowly editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster in 2006, a colleague gave me a galley of Maile Meloy’s forthcoming A Family Daughter, and I was absolutely done for. Within a year, I had exhausted all of her published works.

Meloy is just ten years my senior, which means I’ve enjoyed an admittedly precious, evolving relationship with her work. Under normal circumstances, she probably couldn’t produce enough to mollify me, but she’s been downright vexing since 2009, when her last adult book, the short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, was released. Since then, she’s published a small number of articles and short stories in NPR, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and elsewhere. I won’t pretend that every new offering is her best, but for me, it fills an acute deficiency. It is the sustenance I need while I await her next book.

But the thing is, that book has yet to arrive. Instead, Meloy has made an unexpected foray into middle grade fiction with The Apothecary, a 2011 book about 14-year-olds and a magic book that falls into the hands of Russian spies. In June, the book’s sequel, The Apprentices, was released, and there were rumors of a third book, but no clues on her website.

In fact, despite being a reader in lockstep with this writer, I have absolutely no idea where she’s going. It seemed time to query the writer herself, and Meloy was kind enough to email with me last week.

The Millions: The book tour for The Apprentices, the sequel to The Apothecary, is rapidly approaching, and I understand that you’re working on a third installment. Will this be a trilogy, or an ongoing series?

Maile Meloy: I’m planning to make it a trilogy. But there are so many fourth-in-the-trilogy books out there that it must be tempting. Yesterday a kids’ book club suggested that I write a fourth book that’s the story of The Apothecary from Benjamin’s perspective, rather than Janie’s, and I’m crazy enough to have thought, “Hmm.”

TM: Are you considering it? I can’t help but see a connection between that suggestion and your two adult novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter.

MM: I thought the same thing. I finished writing Liars and Saints thinking I was done with all the characters in it, and then ended up writing a parallel story about them in A Family Daughter. And I was really taken, this year, with Jane Gardam’s brilliant Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. They’re both the story of the same marriage, one novel being mostly the husband’s story and one novel the wife’s. I think Old Filth is a masterpiece on its own, but it was the combination of the two, at the end of the second book, that made me burst into tears. I like the idea of novels that aren’t exactly sequels but companion novels, that each stand on their own but complicate the other. And I’ve written a couple of parallel short stories like that. But I don’t think I want to do it with a novel again.

TM: The Apothecary was your first middle grade novel, and it was also the first time you had written an entire book in the first person. In The Apprentices, you return to the third person, and the main characters, Janie Scott and Benjamin Burrows, are now far flung. Did their distance necessitate the shift, or do you prefer it?

MM: I loved writing in Janie’s voice, and the sense of reality it gave: that this is the true story of what happened when she was fourteen, in 1952. First person is frustrating, in some ways, because everything had to be filtered through Janie’s experience — overheard or noticed or learned by her. But it was really the distance that dictated the shift. I started with the main characters across the world from each other, so switching to third person was a way to include their scattered perspectives. And it felt instantly comfortable, as it’s the way I’ve written novels before.

TM: You’ve described writing the first draft of The Apothecary as somewhat freeing, devoid of the kind of rules and expectations you’ve felt as an adult novelist and short story writer. How did the process of writing The Apprentices compare?

MM: The Apothecary hadn’t come out when I started writing The Apprentices, so I still felt some of that freedom: I didn’t have a sense of what the expectations might be. And I also felt more confident, having done it once. I really love the pacing that writing for kids both requires and allows.

Then The Apothecary came out while I was still writing the second book, so I was talking to kids, and they would ask if certain characters were in the new book, and I’d go home and make sure they were.

TM: I imagine many of your middle grade readers come to book signings with their parents, some of whom are familiar with your adult novels and short stories.

MM: Yes, although sometimes adult readers don’t put it together until they get to the back flap of The Apothecary and realize they’ve read the other books. I’ve also done some mother-daughter book clubs, which I love. The communal family reading that people do now strikes me as very sweet, and one of my goals was to make sure the parents didn’t find it a chore.

TM:  Speaking of family, you’re now working in the same medium and genre as your brother, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. He’s also written a middle grade trilogy, Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles. Do you foresee a collaboration?

MM: Colin has such a beautiful collaboration going already with his wife, Carson Ellis, who illustrates the Wildwood books. I love everything they do. And novel writing is a solitary practice for me, at least so far. I love Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the YA novel John Green and David Levithan wrote together, but I don’t quite understand how they did it.

TM: How did the essay in Medium last May, “On Playing With Others,” come about?

MM: That’s funny — that’s about the solitary practice, too. The composer Greg Bolin wrote two short one-act operas based on two of my short stories, and they were being performed together. I wrote an essay about the process, and about how strange it is, when you’re used to sitting by yourself writing fiction, to suddenly have to worry about the availability of opera singers and rehearsal space.

TM: When did you write the short story, “The Proxy Marriage,” which appeared in the New Yorker in May of 2012?

MM: I wrote it right before it was published. I needed some distance from The Apprentices to figure out the plot, so I stopped and tried to write a short story — which I wasn’t sure I could do anymore, being used to the pace of novels. And then it was the closest thing to instant gratification I’ve ever had in writing fiction. Usually I revise forever, and then everything takes so long. But the New Yorker is quick, and I’ll probably never have that kind of turnaround from conception to publication again.

The only thing about “The Proxy Marriage” that wasn’t quick was the digging around in the Montana territorial code to try to find the original source of the law that triggered the story. Montana is the only state that allows for a double proxy wedding, so that neither party has to be present; both can have someone else in their place. My generous father did that digging for me, but we never figured it out. We did find out that he co-sponsored the bill that established the current law, when he was in the Montana legislature in the 1970s, and he’d forgotten about it. I asked him why he thought double proxy weddings were allowed and he said, “Well, why not?” It’s a contract you’re entering into, and if you’re going to allow one proxy there’s no reason not to have two. Which is not to say that Montanans are unromantic, but we’re practical.

TM: Have you taken similar breaks from the third middle grade novel? Has it worked as well?

MM: I took an inadvertent break this summer because I spent a lot of time with my family. When I got home, I started reading the unfinished novel draft from the beginning, to get my head back into it and see where I was. I love having a little time away, and the distance it gives you. I could see where the plot was getting away from me, and where things weren’t hanging together. I was so happy adding pages, before, and now I’m so happy cutting them.

TM: I read everything you write, so when you moved to middle grade novels, I dutifully followed. At first, I found your writing for children to be quite different, but I soon realized that Janie and Benjamin are dealing with a duality that looms large in your adult works. Their lives consist of the normal stuff of childhood, but they’re also contending with simultaneous, albeit extraordinary, realities. Your adult characters often feel as if the lives they’ve lived have had concurrent, imagined ones all along, full of things they long to do but abstain, because the associated risks seemingly promise a chimera will emerge and wreak havoc. It isn’t as if they have regrets they sometimes think about, but rather an ever present temptation.

MM: It’s always been frustrating to me that to choose a path means giving up all the other possibilities. To have a choice at all is extraordinarily lucky, of course, but you choose a career, a city, a partner, to have kids or not to have kids, and you become a different person than you might have been. Other things fall away. To write a novel in which an extraordinary reality is possible in conjunction with ordinary life, in which people can actually fly away or become invisible (and not just want to do those things metaphorically), was an enormous pleasure.

TM: In 2011, you told GalleyCat “I have a novel for adults in mind, but I haven’t found my way into it.” Have you progressed on that novel for adults, or another? Can we hope for another short story before 2013 concludes? I must confess, I fear you won’t come back to us.

MM: Oh, that’s very kind. I have a short story — a real estate horror story — coming out with Byliner in October, just in time for Halloween. And I have a story in xo Orpheus, a really amazing collection of myth retellings that’s out this month. Mine is the Demeter and Persephone myth as a joint custody story (it always struck me as one). The novel from 2011 was a period story. I started doing research for it on the side while working on The Apothecary, and I got too caught up in the real history. It’s always dangerous for me to do too much research in advance; I get overwhelmed by facts and don’t feel as free to make things up. But I’m hoping to forget a lot, and let it settle and ferment, and start again.

The Elusive Omniscient

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As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.

I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.

On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.

It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.

No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.

But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.

He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.

But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.

Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.

So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.

And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.

This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.

All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)

Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.

Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.

[Image credit: Tim]

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