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  • James Ward

The religious story of the novel

In 2006, a community action group in Tower Hamlets launched a campaign to prevent a film production of Monica Ali’s bestselling novel, Brick Lane. Its leaders had attacked the book on publication in 2003, and claimed their influence had stopped it winning the Booker Prize. Their complaint was that Brick Lane portrayed the local Bangladeshis as ignorant and unpleasant. One said, “Young people are getting very involved with this campaign. They will blockade the area and guard our streets. Of course, they will not do anything unless we tell them to, but I warn you they are not as peaceful as me.”

The controversy escalated. Germaine Greer backed the campaign activists. Salman Rushdie called her a sanctimonious philistine. I actually had a letter printed in The Guardian in support of Ali. I said Brick Lane was a novel, not a work of social science, and that Ali’s central characters were decent individuals, trying to live decent lives, nothing to get annoyed about. My letter appeared beneath one by the novelist Hari Kunzru: “I’m sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on ‘minority’ writers) to represent in a quasi-political fashion.”

A deeper approach to the debate might have focussed on the different ways the novel was being read. One side read it as a story full of symbols: Nazneen and Chanu fairly rigidly stood for the archetypal Brick Lane resident. The other read it as a one-off tale of two unique individuals – both of whom probably represented something about the wider picture, although exactly what, it was difficult to specify, and in any case, it wasn’t particularly important.

These two ways of reading might be called the Representative and the Literal approaches. They affect not only the ways in which individuals tell fictional stories, but also the way communities and civilisations do. And, more importantly, how they write them.

The history of formal human storytelling (in oral mode) almost certainly begins in the Representative mode. Gilgamesh and Adam and Eve and the gods of the Egyptians and the Sumerians all stood for things, to the point where their idiosyncratic features were non-existent. “Adam looked at Eve, smiled, scratched his head, and said, ‘Where’d you get that apple?’” is a sentence that couldn’t have appeared in the original, because it contains obvious accidental features. We don’t need to be told it is a modern re-writing. We just know.

Virtually everything in ancient religious literature is cast in the Representative mode. The Literal mode is a modern invention, and it takes a surprisingly long time to appear. Not until recently, in fact.

The ‘invention’ of the novel in the 18th century (I put the word in inverted commas in deference to practitioners like Petronius, Murasaki Shikibu and Ramon Llull) occurs chiefly in the Representative mode: Pamela Andrews, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe and Tristram Shandy are all generic representatives of a type more than they are solid, particularized individuals (although they are definitely the latter). They bear the hallmarks of their origin in religious or quasi-religious literature: moralising stereotypes like the characters in Le Morte d’Arthur or The Canterbury Tales.

The development of the novel from then till now is the story of the sloughing of this inheritance off. Read a really good modern novel like The Corrections, and you’ll find it’s almost completely gone. The sheer attention to detail is what has done it. High symbolism cannot survive when too much of it goes under the microscope.

There remains a faint echo of the symbolic, of course. The Lamberts dimly seem to stand for something, but none of them is overtly emblematic in the way that, say, Catherine Morland is in Northanger Abbey, or Werther is in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Yet the symbolic aspects of fiction are important. Arguably, the historical high point of the novel occurs when symbolism and realism are perfectly balanced. Personally, I think that happened in the mid- to late 19th century. Characters like Heathcliff, Raskolnikov, Miss Havisham, Captain Ahab, Tom Sawyer, Étienne Lantier and Doctor Thorne are realistic enough to be fully convincing as individuals, symbolic enough to transcend their time and place. After the 19th century, the balance titled.

But it didn’t tilt decisively for a long time. Ulysses is a return to the Representative, but subverts it by making it explicit. Much the same could be said of Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. And As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. The writings of Hesse, Mann, Camus, Sartre are all to a large extent still in the Representative mode. It even looms large in the writings of the Beat Generation: there is no better example of a modern cipher-character than Dean Moriarty.

By the time Magical Realism appears on the scene in the 1960s, the Representative is noticeably on the wane. Magical Realism might seem like a late-in-the-day attempt to breathe new life into it, but it was the opposite: a much more aggressive than hitherto attempt to satirise and topple it. Who can really believe in the twin-egg girl, Rahel, who sees a dead woman do a cartwheel in her coffin in Chapter 1 of The God of Small Things? Or the entire village that loses its memory due to insomnia, and which has to label everything, including the cow, in One Hundred Years of Solitude? Of course we’re not supposed to believe in them: their point is to act as an obstacle to the suspension of disbelief. Arguably, Magical Realism reaches its apotheosis in The Satanic Verses. It is there that its ambition to undermine the old Representative fiction is most explicit.

Incidentally, Gustav Flaubert, the writer we are often told is chiefly responsible for the modern novel, was himself mainly a Representative author. Emma Bovary definitely stands for something, and it is not even that difficult to say what. She represents the complete meaninglessness of human existence. It is that, rather than any major advance towards the Literal mode, that makes Flaubert modern. Of his other novels, Frédéric Moreau (to a lesser extent) and Bouvard and Pécuchet (to a greater extent) are cast in the same mould.

Is it possible for a fiction writer to be primarily Representative today? The best deliberate example I can think of is Paolo Coelho. Coelho’s writings are ideological, designed to peddle a particular philosophical outlook, and that is probably where the Representative has most systematic use. (Interestingly his popularity cannot be denied. According to Wikipedia, he has “over” 29.5 million fans on Facebook. And The Alchemist is one of the bestselling books in history. Perhaps there is a current unfulfilled - even by the fairly prolific Coelho - hunger for Representative fiction.)

But of course, sometimes fiction writers may be less than deliberately symbolic. This often happens, for reasons there isn’t space to go into here, in the novella.

Which of the two types of storytelling requires more skill? Probably the Literal. A good modern novel is very difficult to write. Even though it inevitably says less.

The point is, there still exist many communities across the world where Representational reading is the norm; communities in which religious texts still comprise an individual’s first and deepest immersion in literature; where novels will unvaryingly be read as symbolic narratives in the manner of Noah’s Ark or Abraham and Isaac, regardless of their real place in the development of the form.

So one might wonder why there have not been more flare-ups like the Brick Lane 2006. One possible answer is that, in divesting itself of its Representational elements, the modern novel has relinquished most of its more ambitious claims to universality. To the point where this has become obvious even to the traditionally minded.

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