The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, October 31, 2005


"There are people who still find Defoe hard to take as a novelist, and this is because they have become accustomed to regarding the novel as a form almost aggressively 'literary', full of barely concealed machinery, self-conscious fine writing, the personality of the novelist peeping through as a show-off divine puppet-master, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent. Up to the time of the first dissenting writers (men like Defoe and Bunyan), which happened also to be a time of great literary artificiality, literature had been almost exclusively in the hands of men with a classical education. Elizabethans like Nashe and Dekker and Greene produced, as did Defoe, fictional works about a real, low, smelly London, but always in language - for all its conversational vigour - highly contrived and often reeking of the lamp. And, after Defoe, the novel was again in the hands of the cultivated who could not resist showing off their cultivation. Even Richardson, a very demotic novelist, was all for contrivances and somewhat artificial manipulation. But rarely in Defoe do we find the cranking of the engine of plot, and never the evocation of classical heroes or the sewing on of classical tags. His novels are too much novels to seem like novels to seem like novels; they read like real life. The art is too much concealed to seem like art, and hence the art is frequently discounted."

This from Anthony Burgess's 1966 introduction to Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, which for some reason Penguin have decided to drop in their rejacketed edition in favour of something limp and bloodless by someone you've likely never heard of. Another wee piece of culture bites the dust. I suppose it must be preserved by whatever university has custody of Burgess's papers, which is like saying it's been professionally entombed.

The bit I've quoted dovetails nicely with what I (currently) think of as being fiction at its best - writing which seems to have nothing to do with creating a secondary world which the reader steps in and out of at will, but which invades the world and reshapes it - hence, Burroughs, Ballard, Garner, and probably Ted Hughes and George Mackay Brown. It also reflects my irritation with The Count of Monte Cristo, and the reason why I've had to put it down - just when things get going, Dumas sticks his bloody oar in and writes a page and a half of totally unnecessary dialogue or exposition just to bump up the word-count (he was being paid by the line). Most irritating it is.

* * *

A good gag from Simplicissimus. Our hero, a musketeer during the Thirty Years War, has been reprimanded by the company chaplain for cheating, lying, stealing and playing endless practical jokes of a cruel nature. As a final measure the chaplain threatens to ensure that Simplicissimus is buried outside the churchyard when he dies, which threat Simplicissimus dismisses as readily as he does the chaplain's earlier advice:

"'I am a soldier and I serve the emperor. If I die as a soldier it will not be surprising if I have to find a grave outside the churchyard like other soldiers. We cannot always be buried in consecrated ground, but often have to make do with a pit on the battlefield, a ditch or even the bellies of wolves and carrion crows.'

"With that parting shot I left the chaplain. His zealous efforts got him nothing from me but the refusal of a rabbit he begged me to let him have. I told him it had hung itself in a noose and killed itself and that it would be wrong for one who had given in to despair to be buried in consecrated ground."


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home