‘The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgements on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place. […] A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.’
So says Colm Tóibín in his new collection of essays New Ways To Kill Your Mother; Writers and their Families. The excerpt comes from the opening essay on Jane Austen and Henry James, writers whom Tóibín points to as excellent examples, not just of intriguing approaches to stories about families, but masterful novelists who had an instinctual appreciation of how to give a story interest and depth. Tóibín reads their work as a colleague, understanding the choices they made to be responses to technical problems in storytelling, not merely semi-autobiographical promptings, or unconscious urges. The result is both fascinating and insightful.
So, if mothers are notably absent from the novels of Austen and James, it isn’t just because Jane Austen herself was scarcely mothered and never became a mother herself; it isn’t just because James had a complicated relationship to his mother, in which he loved her more the further he got away from her geographically. No, it’s because these writers are interested in breaking down conventional structures and seeing what they can do with the pieces. This is what novels are about: they destroy or subvert calm and stable situations in order to set inventive and exploratory energies in motion. The unorthodox family units that are described in their works are the consequences of wilful creative conflict, where the old is torn down to allow space for new things to grow and develop, and in particular to leave main protagonists free to define themselves beyond the usual boundaries.
Tóibín tells us that the heroes and heroines of James’ work ‘enact a drama of self-reliance, self-invention; they live alone and unnurtured in their minds.’ And Austen’s Fanny Price is brilliantly described not as the tediously virtuous, dislikeably passive heroine she is so often understood to be, but as the pervasive and peculiar source of energy that drives her story. ‘She has a way of noticing and registering that has nothing to do with virtue, but everything to do with narrative impetus, holding the reader. It is uncertain how she will live in the book, thus filling the book with momentum.’ Readers love to read about dramas of identity, about the challenges the characters face as they grow and develop in situations that lack the usual resources. We can identify more closely with them, get tighter into their perspective, when they are winkled out of a network and forced to go it alone.
James and Austen were also products of the times in which they wrote, times when the novel itself was not yet sure of what it could, or should be. Tóibín points out that the early novel drew heavily on two different models: the confessional memoir, in which one voice leads us through a complex account of an inner life, and the play, in which a tantalising drama is enacted through many voices. Against that lone voice of the main protagonist there needs to be a background of other voices, ones whose responses and actions we cannot easily guess. If mothers are cut out of fiction, it must be because their motives are too boringly easy to anticipate. Aunts, however, are an altogether different matter. When they become surrogate parents their motives must necessarily be curiously complex. Tóibín enacts a series of delightful reading around aunts in 19th century fiction, exploring the way that their entrances and exits are often dramatic and disarming, how they can be foolish and frivolous, or power-hungry and duplicitous, causing all sorts of horrors for the heroes and thrills for the reader, their displaced positioning in the family drama leaving them wriggle-room for wild acts of subversion. An aunt, says Tóibín is ‘a figure capable of moving at will from one role to another, causing havoc within the narrative system created for her.’
Where we ultimately end up in these narratives is in the recognition that our main protagonists have found a power within themselves that can both manipulate and resist, a strength of mind that produces genuine autonomy, liberation not just from the families that are thrust upon them, but from the families they have sought to create. The climax of the story is also the celebration of the individual and the act of self-definition. Tóibín doesn’t say so, but I wonder whether such a conclusion is particularly satisfying to the reader who sits alone in reality and who must fly solo into the world of imagination where the story lies. Maybe readers are particularly interested in self-invention because each book they read is a small private drama of identification with another life, one lived in safety and explored without risk. Readers can reinvent themselves time and time again by vicarious living. What Tóibín does say is quite fascinating, though, about the way stories are constructed as a system of weights and balances, of energy distribution that creates dynamic movement, both in the plot and the reading experience. I felt I was being offered a new way to look at books, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the essays in this volume.
This was my (rather last minute) contribution to Irish Short Story Week. I confess I am loving the fact that the week goes from the 12th to the 22nd of March – that’s really getting into the Irish spirit of things! Still having trouble with commenting, though – I can’t even comment on my own posts! So frustating.