pulpit d j taylor

‘He Wrote This Specially For Me’

In ordinary circumstances the link between a novel published last autumn on the fashionable topic of multiculturalism and the memoirs of a late-Victorian man of letters might be thought rather tenuous. Nevertheless, reading the reviews of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time as they poured from the presses three or four months ago, I found myself returning, with a kind of homing instinct, to Andrew Lang (1844–1912) and his paean to the decisive hold exerted on his imagination sometime in the late 1850s by W M Thackeray’s novel The History of Pendennis:

Marryat never made us wish to run away to sea. That did not seem to be one’s vocation. But the story of Pen made one wish to run away to literature, to the Temple, to the streets where Brown, the famous reviewer, might be seen walking with his wife and umbrella.The writing of poems ‘up to’ pictures, the beer with Warrington in the mornings, the suppers in the back-kitchen, these were the alluring things.

Swing Time attracted a mixed response from reviewers and readers. Certain critics – among them Houman Barekat in these very pages – diagnosed a brand of moral box-ticking and hazarded that Smith was a good deal keener on ventilating issues of the kind that appear in leading articles in The Guardian than on exploring her characters’ inner lives. This was balanced by a substantial clump of readers who clearly identified with cast, sensibility and locale, and whose judgments could be pretty much summed up as ‘I am the kind of person, under the age of forty and brought up in London, that Zadie Smith likes writing about and this novel speaks to me as no other work of fiction possibly could.’

My initial reaction to this type of gush of empathy was, I regret, an authentic F R Leavis-style snort of horror, based on the assumption that such remarks, however accurately they may reflect an individual reader’s view of a book, are not literary criticism and that to profess that you admire a novel because you ‘relate’ to either author or subject is a kind of betrayal of both the writer and your own critical faculties. Then, when I had calmed down, I realised that I was arguing against one of my most strongly held beliefs, and that, from their vantage points in London NW6, Smith’s wide-eyed admirers were conforming to a fundamental law of literature: that by and large, and however well instructed by the likes of Leavis, Barthes, Derrida, Terry Eagleton or John Carey they may be, readers tend to react to books in peculiar, unorthodox and above all highly individual ways.

After all, the sudden awareness that you are reading a passage in a novel that reflects your own experience, that mimics a past or present emotional state, or that gestures at the kind of person you are or would like to be is one of the most extraordinary sensations in life. Orwell captures the sheer revelatory charge of this moment in Coming Up for Air (1939), when his hero, George Bowling, picks up a copy of H G Wells’s The History of Mr Polly: ‘I wonder if you can imagine the effect it had upon me, to be brought up as I’d been brought up, the son of a shopkeeper in a country town, and then to come across a book like that?’ Like some of the reviewers of Swing Time, Bowling imagines that he is being spoken to directly by Wells, that – to use Orwell’s own words when he first came across Henry Miller – ‘He knows all about me … He wrote this specially for me.’ Whether we like it or not, this kind of response infuses most literary criticism and influences quite a lot of book prize judging. Half a dozen of Lang’s contemporaries left cordial reminiscences of their first encounter with Pendennis. Edmund Yates, the muckraking society journalist, went so far as to title one of the chapters of his autobiography ‘The Influence of Pendennis’. As for the august deliberations that produce prize jury garlands, the novelist Francis King left an amusing account of judging the 1976 Booker Prize. His fellow judges were Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, and the working-class novelist Walter Allen. King reckoned that Saville, about a straitened childhood in South Yorkshire, written by David Storey, the son of a miner, had won from the moment it fell out of the Jiffy bag.

Naturally, there are distinctions to be drawn. What might be called a positive identification can set up readers for life, leading them by the nose to the kinds of books that are crucial to the view they take of the world and the personal myths that sustain their progress through it. If what Lang said about Thackeray has stuck in my head ever since I first came across it, that is because from about the age of fifteen I ‘identified’ with another famous fictional writer. This was Gordon Comstock, the moth-eaten poet-hero of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), who spends his days drudging in a Hampstead bookshop and his nights ranting at the editors who have returned his manuscripts, who bites every hand that feeds him and yet, mysteriously – this was the clincher – is still attractive to women.

As for negative identifications, these can be seen in the customer reviews on Amazon, where, for some reason, the fact that a reader can’t ‘relate’ to a particular character, the place in which a novel is set or the themes it presumes to address is worn as a badge of pride. Well, I can’t relate to Captain Ahab, Mr Dombey or Buck Mulligan, but it would take a frighteningly blunt-edged view of the creative imagination to suggest that this sort of emotional separation somehow invalidates MobyDick, Dombey and Son or Ulysses. Meanwhile, if there are those who think that Zadie Smith speaks to them like no other writer, then hats off to them, and hats off to Zadie Smith. r march 2017 | Literary Review 1