(Paying Homage to Great Novelists)
© 2012 by Frederick Su
All good fiction encompasses three things: life and death and love. Great fiction encompasses them seamlessly and beautifully, and sometimes subtly. The great novelists capture setting, scene, and dialogue with an incomparable skill that we budding novelists can only marvel at and strive for.
For those of you who have kept up with my writings in this newsletter, two of my favorite novelists are John Fowles (politics and British superciliousness aside) and Ernest Hemingway, who respectively wrote my two favorite novels, Daniel Martin and Islands in the Stream (tied with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera). Hemingway’s descriptions of place are like looking at a realist’s painting. Fowles is the master of setting scenes with nuanced dialogue, especially between the sexes, where the characters fence with words rather than swords. Fowles paints fine descriptions too. They both portray characters so alive that I feel I have lost friends when the book ends.
Islands in the Stream was published posthumously by Hemingway’s wife, Mary. In my opinion, it is Hemingway’s best novel. Reading it, you can glimpse the man behind the pen because Thomas Hudson, the protagonist, is a thinly disguised Ernest Hemingway. Loosely autobiographical, sure, but like all fiction, it ventures where nonfiction cannot. (As an aside, for cat lovers, you should not miss Hemingway’s endearing portrayal of the bond between Thomas Hudson and his cat, Boise.) The setting is Bimini pre-war, then Cuba, and the surrounding waters during. Amoral in love and marriage, Thomas Hudson was moral in his duty to country during World War II. He volunteered to help the Coast Guard and Navy patrol the waters. At the end of the novel, he and his civilian team hunt for survivors of a German U-boat that had been damaged and sunk. The hunt is one of the more gripping accounts in fiction of the brotherhood of men at arms, beautifully described in terms of setting, dialogue, characters, and the menace of abrupt death waiting in the wings.
Here is an example of Hemingway’s description of setting, which begins Islands in the Stream:
The house was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea. It had lasted through three hurricanes and it was built solid as a ship. It was shaded by tall coconut palms that were bent by the trade wind and on the ocean side you could walk out the door and down the bluff across the white sand and into the Gulf Stream. The water of the Stream was usually a dark blue when you looked out at it when there was no wind. But when you walked out into it there was the green light of the water over that floury white sand and you could see the shadow of any big fish a long time before he could ever come in close to the beach.
It was a safe and fine place to bathe in the day but it was no place to swim at night. At night the sharks came in close to the beach, hunting in the edge of the Stream and from the upper porch of the house on quiet nights you could hear the splashing of the fish they hunted and if you went down to the beach you could see the phosphorescent wakes they made in the water. At night the sharks had no fear and everything else feared them. But in the day they stayed out away from the clear white sand and if they did come in you could see their shadows a long way away.
A man named Thomas Hudson, who was a good painter, lived there in that house and worked there and on the island the greater part of the year.
Wow! Can you visualize that place? I can!
Daniel Martin is a literary novel in the finest sense of the term. This is not a mystery, not a thriller, not a shoot ‘em up story line. But, it is a novel about the breakdown of marriages and relationships, the loss of old love, and the finding of new love. And John Fowles captures the essence of life and death and love through an exquisite molding of words to form a literary sculpture. If words could be transposed into Carrera marble, Daniel Martin would rival Michelangelo’s sculpted works. It is that good.
The eponymous Daniel Martin is an English playwright who has succumbed to writing American movie scripts. The storyline is about his relationships with four women: a young English actress, Jenny, starring in her first American film, which he wrote; his daughter Carolyn (or Caro); his ex-wife Nell; and Nell’s sister, Jane. Nell, Jane, Daniel, and Anthony were a close foursome in their college days at Oxford. They were all the best of friends. Nell was Daniel’s girlfriend and Jane and Anthony were a pair. But, the underlying tension was that Jane and Daniel were drawn to each other, and consummated that love, though Jane went on to marry Anthony and Daniel married Nell. Anthony was Catholic and became an Oxford Don in religious philosophy. Jane was not religious, but became Catholic to please Anthony, a subjugation of her true nature. Nell and Daniel’s marriage broke up over her jealousy of his success and partly because of his philandering. Relationships soured all around. Daniel wrote a play, thinly disguising the four characters, based on the relationships of the four. Anthony and Jane were not amused. Anthony wrote a letter to Daniel saying, “We are only too clearly dead for you; and from now on you must be dead for us.” And so it stood for many years until Daniel, in California, receives a long distance phone call from Nell and Jane in England saying that Anthony, on his deathbed, wants to see him in person. So, a door into his past opens.
That door reintroduces him to Jane. She has changed after all these years, but he still has feelings for her, though he initially tried to stifle them. Here is the scene Fowles sets, in Oxford, after Daniel has conversed with the dying Anthony. He has taken Jane to a local restaurant.
“I don’t know what Anthony has said to you, but I can guess they concern things I regard as very private. That have far more to do with the present than the past. That’s simply all, you must believe me.” She hesitated, and then there was suddenly an undertone of something much more natural. “I can’t at the moment take the past, Dan. In any shape or form.
She had used my name, at last, for the first time, and for the first time I clearly saw a strain. She was mortal after all. I left a pause.
“Anthony kept going on about the two of you having ruined my marriage. By implication, my life. I pointed out that you have no right to give yourselves that kind of guilt. I haven’t not enjoyed my life, Jane, for all its faults and failings—and I was always fully capable of ruining my own marriage. And I did. That’s one thing. The other is that he hoped you and I would become friends again now. My own instant conclusion is that there’s an appalling lack of corrupt and conscienceless men in your life. I think you need at least one. I’ve also got Anthony to report to tomorrow. And Caro. I’d like it to be that some hope, however small, was established.”
She had stared down through that and for a long moment she continued to do so, but there was a trace of a rueful smile, some sort of admission of defeat.
“Nell did warn me.”
“What she called your vicious habit of calling everyone’s bluff but your own.”
“You used to have quite a low handicap at that game yourself.”
“I seem to have grown out of practice.”
“I can’t understand why you should wish to continue what was always an inhumanity.”
“It’s nothing to do with you personally. But with a use to which I feel you’re being put. Quite unjustifiably.”
“Isn’t one definition of fascism the belief that you have a right to judge for other people?”
I detected what I had sensed with her husband, an insecurity, almost a gauche anxiety when faced with someone from another world . . . all very well to despise and dismiss it, as I felt sure she did—very probably on artistic as well as political grounds—and all very well to despise her own enclosed academic world, her city: but it was where she lived, and she was not used to people, to situations, to men who had dropped, or could drop, the local sign-system, the conventions she knew best.
Her eyes down, she murmurs, “I’m no longer the person you knew, Dan. I’m sorry for not hiding it better. It’s not your fault at all.”
Dan hesitates, then reaches across the white cloth and touches her hand lightly. She says nothing. He beckons for the waiter.
Were you drawn into the scene and the nuances of the conversation, as I was? Did the two characters come alive for you, and did you grasp the intertwining of the two personalities—a hint of their past, present, and future? Granted, I had the whole book beforehand to guide me. Still, I believe the above scene illustrates the work of a master (did you catch the seamless change of tense in the narrative, often frowned on? Was it deliberate or an overlooked error? Did you also catch the change from first-person to third-person viewpoint?—something Fowles incorporated throughout the novel).
Both novels are still in print. Search for them in bookstores, libraries, and online. They are literary treasures to me, more valuable than gold.
And great fiction that they are, these two novels illustrate the niceties of life in a way nonfiction cannot. Near the end of Daniel Martin, the protagonist laments “. . . a girl and a past walking into winter trees.” That simple phrase beautifully and succinctly captures one aspect of the human condition, about life, love, and loss. To peer into these imagined characters’ souls is to peer into ours—and be better for it.