Gotham Diary:
The Point of Fiction
24 April 2014

This will be brief, not so much because I’ve got a lot on today as because the point that I wish to make is very concise. The idea behind it was one of those recognitions that you have from time to time that arrive with an air of such intense obviousness that not only do you bow down to them at once but you think yourself quite stupid for not having grasped them sooner. Later, you see that other people sort of said the same thing — but not exactly. And you can’t even say — not for a while — why the insight seems so tremendously important.

I had been wanting to say something clever about Elizabeth Taylor’s way with fiction, a way that is as palpably distinctive as any great novelist’s, but, in this case, much less studied, less covered by critics, less grappled with. Nothing very impressive came to mind, and I chalked my failure, perhaps rather opportunistically, up to Remicade, and to how rather exhausted I always feel the day after an infusion. This was very good thinking, because, the moment I absolved myself of any duty to think of something clever, something clever occurred to me. Something clever about Elizabeth Taylor, anyway.

Throughout the novel that I just re-read, In a Summer Season, what one person says is often “answered” by what someone else thinks in response but does not say. Here’s a good example, from the little picnic that Kate and Charles have near the end of the novel.

“Minty is overtired,” he insisted, dwelling on the safer issue. “That’s perfectly plain.”

“I do hope that she’s in love, too,” Kate thought. She could not bear it for her son if the girl were not.

Somewhat parenthetically, I want to note that it is “perfectly plain” to the reader that Araminta (“Minty”) is not in love with Tom, Kate’s son — or with anyone else, not even herself.

Sometimes, as in this acute passage from the “disastrous” dinner party that ends the first part of the novel, nobody says anything, and we’re only given an exchange — an exchange for us only, not for the characters — of thoughts. Here are Edwina and her son, Dermot:

She had glanced up and seen the pleasure and pride upon his face. “We were so very close in those days,” she thought now. He noticed tears in her eyes and felt that he could understand. “We are poles apart,” he thought, “but she was always concerned for me. The antagonism is my fault — I neglected her.”

Are mother and son “poles apart”? Probably not.

The contrast between what’s said and what’s thought in these passages — something that is generally called “irony” — is so beautifully textured, so piquant, as it were, that I found myself reveling in Taylor’s daring to presume to know not only what her characters think but that what they think is usually somewhat off the mark; these “thoughts” always signal a mismatch, a state of being out of step. It is a very common state in this novel, and perhaps in all novels. It was the sheer piquancy, however, that threw me back on an observation that I’ve been making repeatedly in recent entries. All that we know about other people is what they say and what they do. Their minds are otherwise closed to us. And that is all there is to be said about it.

The magic of novels is the appearance of precisely this thing that is never to be known in real life: what other people are thinking, how they are feeling. That’s why we read novels, because, psychoanalytical case studies aside, they are our only window — utterly imagined as it may be — into the souls of others.

And that is why it is best to read old novels, lots of old novels that have appealed to generations of readers. That fame, that sustained attention over generations, is the closest thing to proof that we have that the old novelist got it right, or was at least plausible. Great novelists remind us of how we ourselves think, of what we don’t in fact say. And they remind the readers who come after us as they have reminded the readers who came before.

Every now and then, a new novelist casts a spotlight on a new way of thinking, a new manner of thought, and everyone rushes to read his or her books. Sometimes, the new manner is a fad; sometimes it’s more lasting. I think that we’re still trying to decide which was true of Ernest Hemingway, who was without a doubt a reporter of arresting novelties. But no serious reader in the English-speaking world fails to recognize that Jane Austen and George Eliot captured vitally elemental interior experiences — thoughts — and made them available for all to consider.

I will say up front that, in my opinion, women are much better at this hunt than are men. But, man, does that figure.