Mari Biella in a fascinating post on her blog comments on the many variables that can lead to a novel’s finding lasting fame or joining ‘The Great Slush Pile of History?
I commented on this post (with dreadful typing; new keyboard, sorry) on how uninspiring I found John Galsworthy’s ‘The Forsyte Saga’.
This series remains fairly popular to this day, and I note that it is doing well in a free promotion on Amazon at the moment, though under a rather strange category, ‘linguistics’ (is this some bizarre marketing ploy, giving greater visibility to a novel by having it in a non-fiction category?).
I mused about why I found it so dull that I had to ‘plough through it’ (I’d never be so nasty about a current, living writer’s work, only his or her category; but this being a sort of classic, and the author long dead – and if he is listening, now in such a higher state of consciousness that literary criticism will slide of his form like water – as with Charles Garvice, I feel that I can be fairly outspoken).
The answer is, of course, simple. Not only did I not find the characters sympathetic, but they didn’t come alive for me, and I’m one of those readers for whom the characters being vivid matters a lot in a novel of that sort; obviously there are many genres where it doesn’t matter very much at all.
Of course, in some novels, as Mari Biella commented on another post, you can have a couple of vivid characters – like Van Helsing and the Count in ‘Dracula’ – who carry along a supporting cast of ‘lay figures’ and it doesn’t detract from the interest at all. But that tends to apply to extrovert adventure, not to novels of emotional or moral conflict.
It isn’t necessary, of course, for a writer to create characters who are likable, or even recognisably human or empathic, but they do have to be interesting (Richardson’s Lovelace is fascinating, though for his treatment of Clarissa alone it’s impossible to like him; Count Dracula is of course, an enigmatic monster and anything but dull). While many others would clearly disagree, I couldn’t find Galsworthy’s main characters much more stimulating than Dickens’ notoriously one dimensional heroes and heroines.
Irene is very unfortunate in having made a rash marriage to such an unattractive man as Soames. We are never told why she did so until very late on in the series, but it seems it was to escape an unhappy home background. Stuck with a husband she finds physically repellent, she succumbs to the temptation of a love affair with his architect Bossiney.
Bossiney, whose motives and individuality is never revealed, is engaged to her relative by marriage June. Irene doesn’t ever express any guilt over this blithe piece of poaching. While I wasn’t inclined to blame her for wishing for embraces more tempting than those of the rebarbative Soames, I did blame her for never expressing any remorse about the wrong she did to June.
But then Irene is treated by Galsworthy in such a partisan way that it is obvious that the character is based on his own wife, and his faith that nobody would recognise her because he had changed her hair colour rather touchingly naïve.
Of course, she is in the dreadful position of a trapped wife in the Victorian era, when marital rape wasn’t accepted as a crime. Soames subsequent door kicking down rape following her locking him out of her bedroom arouses the readers’ outraged sympathy (though this story being subject to the censorship of the times, none of the ugly details are given). However, it is only here that the character of Irene came at all to life for me. Of course, Irene is perhaps meant by Galsworthy to be elusive; she is always presented externally (with a constant emphasis on her hair and eye colour).
Bossiney is a cardboard character; quite why Irene is so besotted with him, except as a welcome relief from Soames, is never explained. He refuses to respond to June’s desperate attempts to communicate with him about his emotional withdrawal. If he had, he could have disentangled himself from the unwanted engagement; perhaps he is protecting Irene’s reputation; if so, he fails to protect her in any other way. He leaves her living in her marital home, and takes no positive action at all after the rape, merely staggering about London in a state of shock, finally to fall under the wheels of a tram (it’s unclear whether in the pea souper this is meant to be an accident or a suicide).
Young Jolyon is a feeble rebel who later marries Irene himself, having already disgraced himself by marriage to his children’s former governess, who conveniently dies early.
The characters of the later generation, Jon, Fleur, Michael Mont and Jon’s wife Anne aren’t particularly interesting or rounded; Jon comes across to me as weak, but as we see him after an eight years’ absence working as a strikebreaker in the General Strike, with my political views, I’d hardly be likely to take to him. Fleur is depicted as selfish, but again is trapped in a loveless marriage, though her husband, for all his odd political views (he believes that the working class should, for its own good, be subject to mass deportation to the colonies) is quite a nice fellow. Altogether, I was nearly as relieved to finish the third volume as I was to reach the top of Snowdon (no, I didn’t attempt both simultaneously).
By contrast, I found the characters in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Blood of Others’ came startlingly to life for me, introspective and given to effortless discussion on Existentialist themes as they are.
There is an aspect of this novel that left my puzzled; why ever do the heroine Helene’s bourgoise parents allow her to be engaged to a working class, active communist like her dull but worthy fiance through whom she meets her beloved Jean Blomart? This improbability is never explained. Overall, though, I found it a wonderful read; and what I love most of all is that at the end not only do the estranged heroine and hero at last discover reach other emotionally, but all the main characters realize their own worth through involvement in a cause greater than themselves – the French Resistance.
This novel is of course, an exploration of the issues of personal responsibility and the consequences of individual action and inaction in the context of the build up to World War II, the Nazi invasion, and the activities of the French Resistance.
These themes are depicted through the main characters, and in particular the relationship of Helene Betrand and Jean Blomart (I apologise for leaving out the French symbols – I still haven’t worked out how to do it on wordpress).
Jean is a man who seems emotionally frozen, and who finds any sort of action a cause of tortured self doubt. Similarly, though, he finds any inaction equally subject to moral scruples; all this leads to his cautious life of rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing . He works in a print shop and though a trade union activist, his actions are intended to be ‘non political’; he conducts a passionless love affair with a woman whom he admits he wouldn’t miss if she left his life, though he treats her with remarkable respect for a man of that era: – ‘I’ve never been capable of passion. I dither about between my guilty conscience and my scruples: my one and only aim is not to dirty my hands…’
This seems partly a consequence of Jean’s guilt feelings over the death of his friend Marcel’s younger brother, whom he encouraged to join in violent political action. He feels that he won’t be able to love the teenage Helene, who has become wildly infatuated with him, as he ought; he does all he can to avoid starting a love affair with her until he is trapped into it.
Helene, by contrast, is committed to her desires; she is summed up quite well by the remarks of a shocked critic in The Tatler:- ‘Helene, the little shop girl, wild as a hare with the morality of a pirate is…enchanting’. She is in fact an artist though she works sometimes in the family confectionary. When we first see her she is deciding to steal a bicycle she covets, and at first her feelings for Jean are of the same order (though emotionally repressed, his sexual attraction comes clearly through the text).
Coerced into a relationship through the horror of witnessing Helene’s abortion (where Jean shows that he is startlingly lacking in squeamishness – a sign of things to come, when he evolves into an excellent member of the Resistance) – he fears telling a lie in saying that he loves her as he doesn’t feel he is in love with her in the passionate way that she is with him.
In fact, given her wild charm, physical attractions and adoring attitude towards him, it would probably be quite hard for a man not to fall for her, and it seems obvious to me, if not to all readers, that he loves her all along.
Naturally, the themes of alienation, of ‘nothingness’ are unswervingly explored in this novel; in Simone de Beauvoir, nothing is ever simplistic; the problems of Helene and her friend Denise stem partly from their basing their happiness on a man’s love, but this is part of a larger problem of a lack of commitment to any moral stance of value.
There are wonderfully sensitive descriptions in the book; here Helene is looking forward to escaping through love making with Jean from thoughts of their friend Denise’s lapse into insanity (she lives with an eccentric but insensitive artist who would be guaranteed to drive any woman insane): –
‘During the whole day he had escaped her; in his past, in his thoughts, near his mother and Denise, scattered throughout the whole world. And now he was there, against her flesh, under her hands, under her mouth: to be with him, she let herself slip, without memories, hopes or thoughts, into the depths where time stopped…’
The war encroaches; Jean won’t accept Helene’s attempt to get him freed from military conscription; they part, and at one time Helene even does trade with the invaders; but finally, seeing the deportation of Jews to Germany stirs her outrage and she abandons selfish desires, joins the resistance, and finds true love with Jean after all.
I found this part of the book particularly moving. It was so fulfilling that they had at last found each other through the act of self abandonment to a higher cause: –
‘”You’ll be in danger and I shan’t be near you; I cannot bear that,’ he said.
“You’ll always be near me,” she said. “Distance doesn’t matter; you are always near me.”
He put his arm about her shoulders, and she laid her cheek against his.
“You’re right,” he said. “Now, nothing will separate us, ever.”
“You know,” said Helene, “I was frightened during the first trips. Now I’m so happy that I can’t be frightened any more.”’
“My dear love,” he said.’
I’m glad that it is apparent from the text that they have been working together some time, and have discovered this mutual love and been happy before this, Helene’s fatal trip. I wish de Beauvoir had given us a bit more of a description of this happiness, as she gave us a fairly detailed one of their emotional separation.
Years ago, as a youngster, I naively asked someone, ‘Why do bad things always happen to the characters in books who you care about?’
Well, this was obviously an oversimplification: bad stuff went down with Bossiney, and I didn’t care two straws about him. But you can be as sure that there‘s a happy ending n store for the emotionally scarred Duke of Wendover and his spirited miller’s daughter bride in ‘The Devilish Duke’s Dark Desires’ (part 12). (I just made that up: I hope there isn’t a book out there called that!).
“Depends on the genre,” said my informant, laconically (like one of the cowboys n a Zane Grey novel). “Light fiction equals happy endings; the good stuff is often surrounded by gloom and doom. Not escapism, you see.’
As a matter of fact, I don’t see why writers of light fiction shouldn’t work hard to create characters you care about, and Byronic heroes are only sympathetic when they drop the pose for a while. Finally, though, I see that whether we can care about the fate of characters in a story or not, whether it’s an existentialist novel or an ambitious series challenging the social order or a paranormal romance, depends on the little human touches they are given, the care with which they are portrayed, and that huge imponderable, the reader’s individual reactions to them.