“Two Paths for the Novel” by Zadie Smith

Couple of weeks ago I read an article „Two Paths for the Novel” by Zadie Smith. Surprisingly, I found it really difficult to read but I wasn’t sure why. First, I thought it was because of the language (since English is not my mother tongue) but it wasn’t – I understood the words separately but I just could not make sense of them. After the second reading I realized that the fragments Smith used to justified her words were the problem. The article is a review of two novels – Netherland by Joseph O’Neil and Reminder by Tom McCarthy. However, it is not a typical review. Smith does in this text something I have not encountered before. I am used to the situation when the form of the novel reflects the character’s personality or the plot; the form becomes the content. In Smiths article, in a way, the content becomes the form. She bases her discussion about novels’ form on characters’ attitudes and choices. That is why I could not grasp the connection between her arguments and the quotations she used. Discussing Netherland, the example of lyrical Realism, she juxtaposes two protagonists : Hans – the anxious man and Chuck – the symbol of authenticity. Smith describes Hans as anxious since, on the one hand, he cannot stand one of the vice presidents nostalgia but, on the other hand, he does exactly the same thing – reminiscences about the past. Chuck, in turn, having no hesitations, communicates in almost Harlequin like quotations (“My motto is, Think Fantastic.”) Smith states:

“Chuck functions here as a kind of authenticity fetish, allowing Hans (and the reader) the nostalgic pleasure of returning to a narrative time when symbols and mottos were full of meaning and novels weren’t neurotic, but could aim themselves simply and purely at transcendent feeling”(Smith).

By mentioning the return to a narrative time, Smith transposes Hans and Chuck’s personalities into a discussion about narrative. She calls Netherland an anxious novel which uses lyrical Realism, yet, it is conscious of its limitations. Interestingly, she demonstrates this not through the anxiety between different narrative forms and styles (which are simply not there) but through a difference between protagonists’ personalities and approaches to life. This technique seemed slightly bizarre for me at the beginning; I wondered whether we can actually mix characters with the author’s narrative technique or even, in a way, let them comment on this technique. Finally, I came to a conclusion that it is another level of the author’s self-consciousness. He appears to comment on his writing not through the novel’s narrative but through the character’s personal narratives, their individual modes of communication. The author puts the discussion on realism and its limitations not in his mouth, or rather hands, but in the mouth of the protagonists. Interestingly, he doesn’t do it in a direct way, the characters don’t simply talk about realism. This discussion is represented in a mediated way through their ways of communication.

However, despite this rather unusual interpretative style, I cannot escape the conclusion that Smiths comes back to the problem debated intensively since, at least, modernism; the problem that, according to e.g. Gasiorek, does not really exist. He considers the dichotomy between realism and experimentalism as a false one, as ‘neither term can be taken for granted’ (Gasiorek 183) and both modes of writing are, in fact, interrelated since there are no solely experimental novels and realism no longer has the classic form based on transparency of language.

So, when I finally comprehended what the article is about, I asked myself : Do we really have go through this again? Really….?

Gasiorek, Andrzej, Post-war British Fiction, London: Edward Arnold, 1995.

Smith, Zadie, “Two Paths for the Novel”,
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/
[4th September 2014]

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“Pure Gold Baby” by Margaret Drabble

It has been a while …….. almost two years since my last entry; two years that I spent in a rather non literary world of work and where-do-I-live-right-now chaos.  I would like to say that the chaos is over but, to be honest, I really don’t know. That’s why I will try to control it by the routine of writing this blog. But that’s enough about me.

When I was thinking about returning here, I realized that the best topic for the first entry after such a long break should be my favourite author – Margaret Drabble. Luckily for me she has just published her seventeenth novel. I came to this book with extreme curiosity since after “The Seven Sisters” she claimed she would never write a novel again.  In fact, she stood by this decision for some time – her last work- “The Pattern in the Carpet”- was a semi-memoir. Fortunately for us – readers, she has changed her mind and wrote “The Pure Gold Baby”.

“Pure Gold Baby” is told to be the story of Anna – a disabled child; the story of Jess- a single mother who has to deal with her daughter’s disabilities and, finally, the story of our changing attitudes towards these disabilities. However, the novel can be discussed on a much broader level – the level  of otherness as such. Drabble has always been appreciated for her deep and analytical picture of society and she succeeds to do it again . She manages to create a vivid picture of society in which coping with otherness becomes one of the most distinctive features. What is more, Drabble herself copes with otherness in one of the most emphatic and beautiful ways.

Hayden White in “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” to explain how historians make sense of the facts uses the term “emplotment” by which he understands “the encodation of facts contained in the chronicles as components of specific kinds of plot structures.” (White 1714) He refers to Northrop Frye and his historical myths (romantic, comic, tragic and ironic) which for the facts are a kind of case that provides them with sense. Obviously, in novel writing this process of emplotment is much more visible. However, the scope of this term, both in history and novel writing, is placed between two extremities. First one refers to authors who lead their readers resolutely through the narrative, giving them clear signals for the novel’s interpretation. The reader is then left with a rather narrow margin of freedom in terms of meaning of the text. In the the second one, in turn, the process of emplotment is not that visible,  the author does not impose his vision so strongly and gives the reader some space to manoeuvre. Drabble seems to prefer the second style of writing and often presents the text as kind of tabula rasa. She appears to be saying: ok here’s the story but it’s your job to make sense of it. Of course, it’s not possible to avoid a particular perspective and direction in which the novel goes, but her writing is so balanced and, I would even say, neutral, that the reader has a really vast scope for action in terms of interpretation. In case of “Pure Gold Baby”, Drabble’s style of narrative has one more function.  Because of its impartiality, it manages to present otherness as something completely normal, as day-to-day experience. What can be sensed in her writing is peacefulness instead of drama and steadiness instead of climax.

The novel starts with Jess’ memory of African children described as “Lobster-Claw”. Later the narrator reveals that they have syndrome called ectrodactyly or SHSF – split hand split foot. What is striking about this image is a rather positive resonance it provokes. Jess when looking at the little ones “felt a kind of joy, an inexplicable joy” (Drabble 1) and “the little children seemed indifferent to their deformity” (Drabble 2). Importantly, this vision reappears in the novel several times and becomes kind of leitmotif which shows the novel’s prevalent attitude towards otherness in which, as I have already mentioned, other is perceived as normal. Anna’s disabilities are described in a very polite and  a non-judgemantal manner:

She was, it is fair to say, a little uncoordinated, and was often clumsy. Sometimes she dropped things or knocked things over or split her juice. But what child does not? Her speech, perhaps was a little simple, with a tendency towards a repetition of phrases, sometimes meaningless, that appealed to her. (…) She never learnt to manage the dumpy little thick-wheeled red-and-yellow tricycle that the playgroup provided: she could not get the hang of pedalling. (Drabble 15)

Drabble seems quite sparing in the use of adjectives. In order to avoid judging, she presents facts rather than opinions. Another example of this specific kind of writing is a fragment presenting the conversionof one of the peripheral characters:

Ursula, he relates, had seen God when young. God had visited her in a shining light, from somewhere above the pelmet of her bedroom curtains (she was very precise about his location), and she had been converted. (Drabble 213)

The whole story is told by a third-person narrator from the perspective of one of Jess’ friends. The choice of that kind of narrative is another move that contributes to the aforementioned peacefulness and steadiness of the novel. The narrator describes the events from the outside what makes it possible to keep some distance and leave the drama behind.  However,  in this particular fragment, what is hidden behind the face of the third-person narrator, are the very words and thoughts of Ursula herself. Ursula’s vision, rather awkward and unrealistic, by the third-person narrative becomes much more objective and loses the traces of otherness.

“The birth of children such as Anna may become rarer year by year. And that would be a loss, though the nature of that loss is hard to describe. It is important to recognise it as loss, although we cannot describe it.” (Drabble 44) It seems that Drabble in “Pure Gold Baby” not only recognized the loss but also succeeded in describing it. With incredible empathy and tactfulness she created a picture of society in which coping with otherness becomes one of the most distinctive features. What is more, through her style of writing – balanced third-person narrative  based rather on facts than attitudes – Drabble manifested probably the most desirable attitude towards otherness; attitude that lacks exaggeration in which otherness equals normality.

 

Drabble Margaret, The Pure Gold Baby, London: Canongate, 2013.

White Hayden, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticsm, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.