Updated: Feb 8
It is often said of the greatest novels that they ‘capture life’, and this has probably been an ambition of most major authors. The nineteenth century novel did it by bringing in all social classes to create a panorama (thus capturing the life of society), by probing people’s motivations (thus capturing the life of the individual) and by exploring themes of contemporary and perennial importance (thus capturing life in the abstract). The twentieth century mostly abandoned all this as too ambitious. It went instead for the minutiae: streams of consciousness in which nothing was considered too insignificant; or surface appearances, on the grounds that everything was equally meaningless; or it introduced ironic elements, some supernatural, on the premise that the ‘truth’ of life was elusive, if not non-existent, and ‘reality’ could only be captured, if at all, by a kind of infinite regress of knowing subversion.
I will argue here that there are two necessary conditions a novel must fulfil before it can hope to ‘capture life’. The first is that at least one of the protagonists must be, or try to be, moral; the second is that something in that novel must make the reader laugh.
The first condition is controversial nowadays. Note, I am not suggesting that there is some unequivocal moral reality ‘out there’; just that characters in fiction are more interesting, and illuminate their surroundings more effectively, if they think and act as if there were. Equally, I am not suggesting that characters in a novel have to be driven principally by moral concerns, only that morality must be present as part of a protagonist’s universe of factors under consideration when a choice is presented.
What is the alternative to a character driven at least partly by moral concerns? Answer: one driven exclusively by appetites, emotions, feelings. True, these have to be part of any interesting character – there has to be something for the moral impulse to ‘kick against’, and an amoral protagonist can make for a very readable novel – but on their own, non-moral drives are not enough to enable a novelist to capture life. One would not put, for example, The Talented Mr Ripley, The Outsider or House of Cards in the same category as Fathers and Sons, Crime and Punishment or The Radetzky March.
I will go further and say that a character driven by huge appetites is interesting only up to the point at which animals are interesting. Animals are in the grip of biology. On the whole, they focus on achieving specific material goods with maximum efficiency, and they consider other subjectivities instrumentally. This can make for a fascinating puzzle – how can X get from A to B? - but it doesn’t reflect human life, not in its totality. This isn’t because there aren’t people like that – obviously, there are - but because, unlike reality, the world of a novel is closed: it has a beginning and an end. In a closed world in which the instrumentalist view predominates, other actors are permanently objectified. In the real world, the process is always reversible.
By contrast, a character who is at least partly driven by moral concerns is a one who can empathise with others. This means that minor personalities within the novel can be credited with independent lives, and that in turn permits the reader a much broader purview. We see over the protagonist’s head as well as through his or her eyes, and we are empowered to credit even bit-part characters as individuals with valuable inner lives. As a result, the particular ‘world’ of that novel will be more populous, much more similar to our own.
The second condition a novel must possess if it is to ‘capture life’, I think, is that it must make the reader laugh at least once. Great writing and great humour are closely related. The great author surprises us by pointing out, or describing, we have never noticed before, or by saying something familiar in a new way. As JM Coetzee said, “A book should be an axe to chop up the frozen sea inside us.” Or Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The resulting shock of recognition of a well-crafted sentence resembles the surprise of a punchline in a good joke. (In fact, good jokes are nearly always instances of good writing: they omit needless words, speak concretely and make every word count.)
Not all laughter is provoked by something ‘funny’. Sometimes it is entirely involuntary, and when one casts around for the ‘humorous’ thing that must have been the culprit, one apparently finds nothing at all. Why? Well, because the true culprit, on this occasion, is the shock of the new. In the Book of Genesis, Sarah laughs when she is told she is going to have a child, but not because she finds it droll. “Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And [God] said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.” Both parties seem to agree that it’s not really a question of humour here: something else is at stake. Something much more momentous. Truth and reality have just broken in.