Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Talking Books: How to achieve 'epic'?

It's funny how books - like people I suppose - turn up in your life and deliver answers almost before you know what the question was.

I've been working on the novel, and got to the point where I was quite happy with the basics: storyline, character, language etc. But something else seemed missing. It didn't seem to have any gravitas. It was, I suppose, just a story, but not something that said anything profound about the world: and I like to read things that are profound.

I was thinking about this when I started reading John D. Rateliff's excellent The History of the Hobbit, which gives a draft by draft account of The Hobbit: where Thorin was Gandalf; Gandalf was Bladorthin; Smaug was Pryftan; and the Goblin king was called Fingolfin. All a bit obscure unless you're a Tolkien fan - but the important thing for me was a letter CS Lewis (of Narnia fame) wrote about The Hobbit, to Charles Williams 'The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious change of tone....we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsokn [hall-burning] and Badger had begun to talk like Njal'

It was the phrase 'escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot' that struck me. My novel felt like it was well-paced and drafted, but failed to reach to the pinnacle of relevance: when it says something profound about the human condition.

I came across a similar concept yesterday while reading VS Naipaul's Reading and Writing. He quotes a letter by Joseph Conrad, who is commenting on a novel by a friend: 'the novel was clearly one of much plot but all the drama all the truth are thrown away by the mechanisms of the story.' And Naipaul writes of Conrad: 'The discovery of every tale was a moral one.'

It's easy to understand what is missing and quite different working out how to fix it. I have my ideas, and will come back when I think I've solved it. There's another relevant quote from Naipaul which gives a very interesting insight: 'A novel was made up; that was almost its definition...at the same time it was expected to be true...so that part of a novel came from rejecting the fiction, or looking through it to a reality. '

Seeing reality through the fiction: this is of course what all good novels - good writing - all good art - does. It adds insight to our lives.

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