Thursday, March 01, 2007

Some thoughts on Tess and truth, to close a week of Hardy

I thought I was finished with Thomas Hardy, but a conversation at the office today about him led me back to Claire Tomalin's biography where I dug out the following letter from Robert Louis Stevenson to Henry James, deploring Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891):
Tess is one of the worst, weakest, leas sane, most voulu [Wanted? French speakers--anyone clear this up for me?] books I have yet read . . . no earthly connexion with human life or human nature; and to be merely the unconscious portrait of a weakish man under a vow to appear clever, or a rickety schoolchild setting up to be naughty and not knowing how . . . Not alive, not true was my continual comment as I read, and at last--not even honest! was the verdict with which I spewed it from my mouth.

Stevenson's criticism is close in tone to Tomalin's statement about the darkest, most self-pitying portions of Jude the Obscure:
"This is not a true account of life. Hardy is not only coercing his plot, he is generalizing falsely."
Similarly, Nick Hornby (to whose column on Pete_Dexter I find myself referring for the second time this week), tells of Martin Amis recalling his father saying
that he found Virginia Woolf's fictional world 'wholly contrived: when reading her he found that he kept interpolating hostile negatives, murmuring, "Oh no she didn't" or "Oh no he hadn't" or "Oh no it wasn't" after each and every authorial proposition.

Though I disagree Amis about Woolf (for whom it is hard to imagine a reader less likely to be congenial or receptive), I appreciate the sentiment. When I judge a novel a failure, it is most often because it has failed the test of reality; the author has intentionally misrepresented, bent, or damaged human nature--and the world itself--for some other purpose, and thus the novel's every word has become suspect. Once you begin to doubt an author, there's little reason to continue except to argue with the book (which, like Kingsley, I will admit I do quite a bit of).

If I were forced to boil my aesthetic as a reader of fiction down to one phrase, it would be that I am looking in fiction for the manifold answers to the question of "What is one to do?" Such an aesthetic should not be mistaken for a belief in a truly pedagogical role for literature; rather, I formulate it that way to emphasize the openness I hope to bring to any piece of writing: I want to learn about characters on their terms, as their situations and the decisions they entail strike them. But for that question to matter at all, the people and the world being presented absolutely must ring true--one false note can ruin a whole work.

That said, I find it's an aesthetic that is incredibly malleable, one that does not by its nature foreclose any type or genre of literature, for any form, well practiced, can accommodate true observations about people and their interactions. As I don't by nature tend towards the doctrinaire, I can sometimes enjoy novels, from crime to sci-fi to comedy, that do suborn a true representation of life to other goals--but the best authors (such as Patricia Highsmith and Graham Greene, Stanislaw Lem and Phillip K. Dick, J. F. Powers and Kingsley himself) find ways to present a real understanding of people without sacrificing their other aims. And while someone who has a way with a sentence will always have an advantage over someone whose prose is pedestrian, ultimately it all comes back to the question behind Stevenson's complaint: is this author paying real attention to the world, has this creation fully come to life, is it true enough to be real?

Which brings us back to Tess, about which I--and Claire Tomalin--think Stevenson is dead wrong. Picking almost at random, I find the following passage, wherein Tess, well beyond down on her luck, finds herself, at the end of a tremendously long walk across the Dorset countryside, needing to seek succor from her father-in-law:
She nerved herself by an effort, entered the swing-gate, and rang the door-bell. The thing was done; there could be no retreat. No: the thing was not done. Nobody answered to her ringing. The effort had to be risen to and made again. She rang a second time, and the agitation of the act, coupled with her weariness after the fifteen-miles' walk, led her to support herself while she waited by resting her hand on her hip, and her elbow against the wall of the porch. The wind was so nipping that the ivy-leaves had become wizened and gray, each tapping incessantly upon its neighbour with a disquieting stir of her nerves. A piece of blood-stained paper, beat up and down the road without the gate; too flimsy to rest, too heavy to fly away; and a few straws kept it company.

Tess remains so powerful more than a hundred years after its publication precisely because it feels so true to life. Tess herself is achingly real, her sufferings all the more painful because her ultimately insufficient strength is so deeply rooted in a life, and a person, in whom we fully believe. Hardy, for all his failures in gender relations within the confines of his marriage, clearly understood and appreciated women with a perspicacity unexpected in a late Victorian man; it may be unfair to conjecture thus, but I wonder if Tess was simply too much for Stevenson, a woman beyond his imagining?

1 comment:

  1. I still don't understand why a grade school teacher would assign Tess of the D'Urbervilles to her class, the way Sally Brown's teacher does in Peanuts.

    Stevenson, like Asimov, is not known for the depth of his understanding of women.

    Be careful articulating so precisely what you like in literature. If you figure it out entirely, you'll grow bored of it. Which might not be so bad, now that the Wii has come.