Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ian McEwan: when faith in fiction falters – and how it is restored

What happens if our faith in novels falters, if we find ourselves unable to suspend disbelief? Ian McEwan on when the 'god of fiction' deserts him – and how he finds his way back to the fold

Dominic Guard, Julie Christie in the The Go-Between
‘Realism bolstered by the actual’: Dominic Guard with Julie Christie in the 1970 film adaptation of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. Photograph: Allstar/EMI/Sportsphoto Ltd

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.

When the god of fiction deserts you, everything must go. The book-lined church and miked-up pulpit, the respectful congregation, the interviewer's catechism, confessions disguised as questions, the supplicant line to the healing power of a signature, 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. Priests, too, always imply that we cannot live without them. (Oh yes we can.) My doubter's 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' 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.

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