Sunday, February 17, 2013
Ian McEwan: when faith in fiction falters – and how it is restored
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. Ach 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 scepticism 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 non-existent 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 the weather has something to do with Henry's mood, not the rusty device of pretending.
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' rise and fall, 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 Salieri thought of the young Schubert in his choir. If I cared just a little 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.