Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quote of the Past Week

Last weekend I was finishing up The Return of Don Quixote and found this:

It seems to be a sign of education first to take a thing for granted and then to
forget to see if it is still there. Weapons are a very good working example. The
man says he won't go on wearing a sword because it is no longer any good against
a gun. Then he throws away all the guns as relics of barbarism; and then he is
surprised when a barbarian sticks him through with a sword.

The whole rest of the paragraph this is taken from is interesting, but I'll stop there.

Religion would be another good working example of what the character I've quoted was saying. The educated modern long ago threw out religion as a relic of a superstitious past, and he is now surprised when people within his own culture still claim to hold to it and when people in other cultures do things that seem actually to be motivated by it. (Including running him through with a sword.) The idea of there really being such a thing as good and evil is something else some of our more enlightened moderns have thrown out, along with sexual morality and notions of honor, sexual chivalry, and reserve.

Oh, and let's not forget the idea of there being differences in the sexes: the educated modern has for a generation taken it for granted that the only sex differences are ones inculcated by oppressive cultures and so they must be falling away rapidly as we all grow more educated. Then is surprised when the little boys around him like knocking over block towers as much as building them, the college girls are more likely to respond poorly to binge drinking and one-night stands than their male counterparts, and the women he knows often wish they could stay home to raise their babies while the men he knows may not take paternity leave even if their employers offer it. What on earth could be going on?

But back to the book. The Return of Don Quixote is a short novel with an interesting premise: Some young people on an English estate are putting on a play set in the Middle Ages and come up one actor short. They ask the slightly obsessive, otherworldly librarian, an expert on some obscure Hittite subgroup, to fill in. He sets to by first researching the Middle Ages with scholarly zeal, then plays the part, and afterward refuses to take his costume off, because he's realized how much better medieval clothes were, in many respects, to modern ones. It all leads improbably to a return of the Middle Ages movement in England, which clashes with a trades union uprising (or sitting down), and to both the creation of romantic interests and their entanglements. I don't think I'm giving away too much if I say that all the Jacks shall have their Jills and, even if things do go ill in some wise, all shall be well.

It's all very Chestertonian and the only problem is I kind of wish someone else had written it, even though I don't know who else could have. Much as I love Chesterton's sprightly essays, I just don't like his fiction much. I know Father Brown is much beloved and for a writer to make any character that is still around after a century is an achievement not to be sniffed at, but I'm still not a fan. Father Brown makes good points in his stories, but I don't enjoy the stories. Innocent Smith (Manalive) is a great idea for a character, yet he remains more idea than character. The Flying Inn is a good idea for a story and I am sometimes reminded of part of it while reading the newspaper, but it never really came alive for me. The fictional work of his I like the best, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, has a proto-gamer as a minor character, a good idea for a book at its heart, and actually made me laugh out loud once--and yet I wouldn't call it a great novel. All of his fiction seems to suffer from a carelessness about details, and the characters often don't seem to live.

Somewhere in her Misanthrope's Corner columns, Florence King said she finally realized she couldn't write fiction because she cared more about what her characters thought than what they did. Reading The Return of Don Quixote, I found myself wondering if that was Chesterton's problem. He cared very much about what people think and spent a lot of time arguing in his essays and newspaper columns that what people think about the big subjects--God, life, death, love, war, sex, marriage, family, religion--is important and can't be dismissed with a bland, "Oh, well, it doesn't really matter, we all think the same" or never talked about because it's both vulgar and not really of as much consequence as having the correct opinion of "lawn art" or Andrew Lloyd Webber. This mindset may have helped his delightful essays, but I don't think it helped his fiction.

Most good fiction has a moral component so what a character thinks about the big things does matter and of course it goes without saying that, in even the most frivolous fiction, what the character thinks about other characters or the silly mess he's gotten himself into matters, but we don't go to fiction for philosophy, we go for a story. Things have to happen, it's better if they happen to well-rounded people we can remember afterward, and the things should mostly make sense. If an author is more interested in his characters' philosophies than in anything else about them, he's probably not going to flesh them out as much for the reader. If an author is mostly interested in contrasting how different characters think or in the interesting idea he had about a social situation or some such, he may get careless about details in his rush to get to the parts that interest him. In that flesh-out and in some of those details lie much of the appeal of the story we came for; in other of the details are the shots of realism necessary for us to buy the improbable bits. You can't use hand-wavium to explain away a major social revolution happening in a matter of a few weeks; it's not even a good way to go from no romance to romance.

But I'm just thinking out loud here. I don't really know why I find Chesterton's fiction less satisfying than you'd think I would. He had some good ideas, but the execution left something to be desired, which I can't pin down.

Never mind, I still have his nonfiction to love and, having joined the Church he loved, I can picture him in Heaven (or speeding his way through purgatory to get there, but I like to think he's St. Gilbert, however unofficially), and ready to pray for me or you if we ask. And if any Chesterton fans want to defend his fiction to me by pointing to the endurance of Father Brown or saying that The Man Who Was Thursday has never been out of print (as I think I heard was the case) or even demanding whether I can do better, I shall only take off my hat to that person and bow with a flourish. Or so I would do if I were male. Ladies do not remove their hats for such reason; perhaps I'll curtsy and say "touch'e", which sexually confused response [sings "I'm a happy fella-girly"] should give the speaker enough pause that I can wander off and find a book to read.

Incidentally, if this notion that caring more about what characters think than what they do causes trouble in fiction-writing is correct and if that was a problem of Chesterton's, then the Chesterton book I'm currently reading, The Ball and the Cross, may prove an exception. The two main characters are a committed atheist and a believing Catholic who keep trying to have a duel and keep getting interrupted. I'm not far in, but I think caring more about what the characters think than what they do may work for him in this one, since the whole point of the story is the clash of genuine beliefs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've always been slightly embarrassed about loving Chesterton's non-fiction while being completely bewildered by his fiction. His fictional characters usually have some wonderfully humorous lines, but I'm always looking for the story and can't find it. But never mind - the author of Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man is a saint in my book.

Judy in Plaquemine, Louisiana