Thursday, 4 February 2010

Lessons and laughter from Maugham, and a dose of denial

Why are we so critical of that invaluable psychological process, denial? It seems to me that it’s often the only defence against devastating self-awareness. Without denial we might have to recognise our faults and then how could we resist the pressure to try to fix them? How would we avoid all the horrors of self-improvement?

Sometimes, though, even the guard of denial fails me. For example, there are moments when I realise that a really harsh critic might regard some of the things I say in these posts as a little sententious. Of course, I retreat into denial as quickly as possible, but the insight leaves me feeling uneasy about the inclination to be self-important. It gives me a sense of affinity with others who might suffer from the affliction, and that makes it peculiarly delightful to catch them out in some authoritative statement proved false by events.

Now, I am a great fan of spy novels. Graham Greene, one of the finest novelists never to have won the Nobel prize, served in intelligence and drew on the experience in his writing, most successfully in Our Man in Havana. It set the benchmark for novels about intelligence fabricators: John le Carré, the master of spy writing, declares that he wrote The Tailor of Panama in conscious emulation of the model set by Greene.

If I say that le Carré is the master I’m really thinking of his writing from the Cold War, the conflict in which he served. The Spy who came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People as well as the masterful and semi-autobiographical A Perfect Spy aren’t just outstanding spy novels, they’re great novels of any type. So is The Little Drummer Girl which dates from the same period but deals with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, in a way that combines gripping narrative with unusually balanced insight.

Le Carré has continued to write since the Berlin Wall came down, but somehow it’s not the same: with the Cold War gone as a backdrop, he’s taken to using his novels to denounce injustice, a worthy aim, but one that gives them an unfortunate stridency.

Having admired Greene and le Carré, I was interested in tracking to its source the tradition of writers using personal experience of intelligence work in spy novels. The first I could find was Somerset Maugham, who was with British intelligence in the First World War. So I went Amazoning (I believe in the US grammar principle that ‘every noun can be verbed’) and I now have a copy of the Ashenden stories, with a preface giving a brief manifesto of Maugham’s views on writing in particular within art in general.

He tells us that the experiences he drew on had been ‘rearranged for the purposes of fiction.’ He goes on to explain that ‘fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion.’ Maugham accepts that some think this is exactly what writing should do: ‘There is a school of novelists that regard this as the proper model for fiction. If life, they say, is arbitrary and disconnected, why, fiction should be so too; for fiction should imitate life.’

He, however, argues for artistry, the process by which the writer structures fact to turn it into fiction with literary value.

If Maugham is arguing against trends which culminated in stream of consciousness type writing – in vogue at the time of the preface, published in 1928 – I have to admit that I too find that it lacks – how can I put this – the page-turning quality of, say, Greene’s The Quiet American. Take James Joyce: Portrait of the artist as a young man held me breathless; a dozen pages of Ulysses convinced me that there had to be more to life than ploughing through the rest. Even Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu eventually lost me, even though at 1500 pages I was halfway through before I realised that I really needed no further information about any of those people. These great works are jewels of our culture and it’s comforting to know they’re out there, but it’s a bit like a town’s drains: my life is doubtless enriched by their presence but I feel no need to visit them.

According to Maugham, Chekov is one of those writers who believed in simply imitating life. Though he did it ‘with mastery’, Maugham wonders whether the work will survive: ‘already it is getting a little difficult to care much what middle-class Russians were like fifty years ago.’ Similarly, in visual art, he points to Claude Lorrain whose fine sense of structure distinguishes him from the Impressionists who ‘were content to render the radiance of sunlight, the colour of shadows or the translucency of air.’ Soon after the death of Claude Monet, ‘it is strange how empty their paintings look now,’ Maugham claims, ‘when you place them beside the stately pictures of Claude.’

Chekov revivals happen every year. Monet’s water lilies decorate a thousand student rooms to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of sheets of wrapping paper. When did you last see a poster of, say, Claude’s Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba?

As opposed to some version or another of Monet’s Water Lilies?

Eventually Maugham may get the last laugh of course, when Claude knocks Monet off his pedestal, when Maugham himself returns from his relative obscurity to overtake Chekov in popularity. In the meantime, though, the laugh’s on him.

That will only add spice to my enjoyment of Ashenden, as will my appreciation of the work's artistry.

And I shall continue to resort to denial to protect myself from the suspicion that I might ever be as sententious as Maugham, or as palpably wrong.

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