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Literary Notions

February 22, 2017

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PART ONE:   Truth That Lies Tell Best

A novel, by definition an extended work of the imagination, has by that very fact a very wide latitude enabling it to tell the full truth about people’s lives. Certainly science, which many in our positivistically colored world think of as offering undiluted truth, actually only deals in generalities even when it is applying those generalities to specific problems. This is not a knock on science, or its myriad applications, which makes our lives easier and offers solutions to so many human problems, for instance, in the healing work of the physician who applies his general knowledge to a narrowly focused problem his patient suffers from. It is simply to point out that fiction, as Walker Percy once noted, offers a way into the whole truth of an individual with a depth and thoroughness that we cannot have even with our relatives and closest friends. Thus it encourages us to ponder existentially what the sociological text can offer only in the generalities and abstractness of a category and not a living human being.

Of course not all novels and works of fiction provide access to the unique truth of the individual. Many works of fiction are intended as ‘entertainments’.

 

PART TWO: Novels As Entertainments Or Not

A literary ‘entertainment’ is a term Graham Greene employed in referring to some of his own novels – but only some. The Power and The Glory was not an entertainment. The End of the Affair was not an entertainment. Spy novels which the subtitle of my novel indicates that it is in part (a novel of race, espionage and redemption), as far as I can tell, are usually entertainments. Lots of excitement: numerous close encounters with violent death, car chases, slinky super-exotic spy women carrying on their persons futuristic jewel-encrusted deadly micro-weapons. This may be an exaggeration in regards to some but plot twists and, well, entertainment for its own sake is its purpose.

The point is not to be against pleasure or entertainment. The point is best understood by asking What kind of pleasure? What kind of entertainment? It makes a difference to me as a reader if the pleasure comes from more than the vicarious excitement of an external action or scene. If it is more than skin deep, or certainly more than something contrived in its plot to roll out escapist adventures, if it springs from an interior truth which captures me because it is deeply real, then it provides a pleasure that we can find in no other place. What we experience in The Power and the Glory through the life of a failed priest who becomes the prey of a murderous political regime, or in an apartheid South Africa through some of the characters in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, these are examples. It would be misleading to say that they are educational even though they are because they are so much more than what we usually mean by that word; just as it is so much more than what we mean if we say these novels are entertaining — even though they are.

It is this whole truth which we discover in the reading of a serious realistic fiction which sometimes moves the normally anti-clerical reader, or the Fifties pro-apartheid South African, with a measure of sympathy and understanding towards those whom he has only previously seen as alien strangers. And even a novel which has clear defects such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, so moving was the character of its protagonist, Jean Valjean a former convict, that it contributed within a generation to the reform of the French penal system.

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