Monday, September 2, 2013

Trollope on Suspense

I am reading Trollope again. It's Barchester Towers this time, and I am enjoying it vastly. This is quite a pleasant surprise for me, as novels have nearly always been something I took up with reluctance and put down with relief, even if I enjoy occasional passages along the way.

It's not that I've never enjoyed novels. When I was a teenager, I read and re-read the novels of the Irish writer Walter Macken, who did quite a nice line in observation of the everyday, and was also gifted at describing the odd thoughts and tricks of association that flow through a man's brain. (I don't think he ever had a female protagonist.) And in my early twenties I became a passionate fan of J.P. Donleavy, the American-Irish writer of lyrical, farcical, bawdy novels. Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, gave me much pleasure when I was younger.

But I think I've trudged through far more novels than I've actually relished. Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Thackeray, Defoe, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Henry James, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Powell, Ray Bradbury, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence...the list of novelists who have, to a greater or lesser extent, bored me is long and lustrous. Even my beloved Chesterton ceases to interest me once he intones those supposedly magical words, "Once upon a time..."

So it's a nice change to gobble up fiction for once.

As with any powerful writer, it's hard to describe what it is I enjoy so much about Trollope. Virginia Woolf (I forgot to add her to the above list) said that reading Trollope gives you the same pleasure that you get from looking out the window. Of course, that begs the question as to why you don't just go and look out the window instead of reading a book...but then again, our modern world of cars and emails seems less appealing to me than the Trollopian world of carriages and hand-delivered notes.

But, even without the emails and cars, the men and women Trollope depicts are men and women who I recognize, even though social mores have changed significantly. They worry about money and status, get bored, gossip, flirt. They have noble impulses and then admire themselves for having noble impulses. They have low thoughts and then feel guilty for having low thoughts. Everybody compares Dickens to Trollope, and to me, the comparison is not entirely in Dickens's favour. The outrageously villainous Dickensian villain, the tediously noble-hearted Dickensian heroine, and the grotesqueries of the Dickensian eccentric are not something I recognize from real life.

But I didn't intend to write a general appreciation of Trollope in this post. I just wanted to comment on one particular passage that delighted me in Barchester Towers. After revealing to the reader that two different men are planning to pay court to a wealthy widow, Trollope goes on to reveal that their designs will come to naught:

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never realised? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was the picture before which was hung Mrs Radcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us, merely a receptacle for old bones, and inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then, how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. 'Oh, you needn't be alarmed, for Augusta, of course, she accepts Gustavus in the end.' 'How very ill-natured you are, Susan,' says Kitty, with tears in her eyes; 'I don't care a bit about it now.' Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the last chapter, if you please--learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed, there be any interest in it to lose.

Of course, this is not entirely serious, since Trollope does in fact use suspense to some extent, as all story-tellers must. But, insofar as it is a serious point, I loudly applaud it.

I've never understood why other people are so concerned about keeping the end of a story a secret. I've trained myself, with much effort, to respect their preferences and to avoid "spoilers" when describing a movie or another work of fiction. But as for myself, I very often read (usually on Wikipedia) the entire plot of a film that I'm thinking of going to see. It never diminishes my pleasure (or displeasure) one little bit. Who doesn't enjoy a good movie more, the second time they watch it? Whatever enjoyment rests upon suspense is the lowest and cheapest of enjoyments.

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