Anna Wulf is a character in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I don’t know her very well yet because we only met 78 pages ago and our encounters since have been sporadic. My first impression of her was on board the 46 A bus to Dún Laoghaire and at that time, I considered her pretty self absorbed and possibly lacking the courage of her convictions. She really surprised me today over lunch though. I was eating a re-heated corner piece of brocolli quiche and I had opened the book defiantly, because on my endless weekend ‘to do’ list I had included such boxes to be ticked off as “sleep in and relax”, “check out menu pages for dinner tonight” and “Read The Golden Notebook”.
What Anna said to me over lunch was: “I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused … I have only one, and the least important, of the qualities necessary to write at all, and that is curiosity. It is the curiosity of the journalist.”
I think what Anna means is that for her the appeal of art lies in its power to arouse in the intellect and the emotions a sense of novelty. Whether or not there’s anything intrinsically profound in that novelty, it seems reasonable- at least from the perspective of human advancement- to be deeply moved by an idea which one encounters for the frst time. Premieres are pure, and that which is pure does not take long to become tainted and ugly. I have often wondered why we have such an aversion to clichés. To use one myself: “it’s a cliché because it’s true” and surely “beauty is truth”? I remember once as a child feeling immensely satisfied when I suddenly understood what my mum meant when she said (in German) “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree”. I had heard this said before and had stored in my mind an image of one of the apple trees in my Grandmother’s garden dropping its fruit gently onto the grass below. I connected in a flash the image with its import: like mother like daughter; like father like son.
Truths become clichés and clichés in themselves pejorative because of human vanity. We enjoy the novelty of our first flash of understanding and feel our cognitive and moral achievement devalued by widespread use. Anna’s fear is that she lacks original insight and instead indulges in passionless curiousity – which leads not to clichés but instead to a barrage of information with no meaning.
Art is nothing without meaning and even ambiguity in art has its function etched into it etymologically; allowing us to see two things at once. I have written before about how I believe the patron of the arts to be more profound than the artist themselves. I stand by that position, particularly because I have always been confused and lacking in conviction about what’s really ‘good’ in art and in particular in literature. When something has not appealed instinctively to me, beauty has been drawn out for me by inspiring teachers and friends. I have an irational but passionate dislike for the word ‘canon’ because it seems to have been constructed in cultural retrospect rather than based on timeless intellect and emotion. I know that I, like Anna am only interested in books that move me (usually to tears) or change fundamentally the way I think but I know that for many others, the appeal of literature lies elsewhere and that more and more, the commercialisation of fiction has come to be what constitutes it rather than what reveals great truths to the masses.
I think much more about reading and writing than I engage in either activity, and I like Anna yearn to write a novel which is just that. My problem is that I am crude and craftless – I yearn for original insight and would gladly spend my life in its pursuit but I despair at the idea of inventing a plot, characters, voice and setting, in which to couch my eventual clarity. I can’t help but ask myself the very question that Anna poses: “Why a story at all … Why not, simply, the truth?” Readers, please help me out. What does ‘novel’ mean for you?