‘Only in fiction,’ writes American novelist and critic Edmund White, ‘where gentility and the wretched class system are actually viable subjects, did the English excel.’
This sentence is taken from White’s memoir of his years in Paris, Inside a Pearl, and he is making a general point about Anglo philistinism and lack of achievement across the arts (‘In the 1980s the Tate had its first ever show of Cubists – in the 1980s!’). What provokes this stinging verdict, it’s only fair to note, is the author’s indignation on behalf of a female French friend whose flamboyant dress sense has been discreetly mocked by some English ladies.
No doubt there is some truth here amid the pique. But perhaps English authors don’t (or don’t always) write about class out of intrinsic fascination with the subject. Rather, they include it in their fiction because it’s awkward and embarrassing, and therefore a subject often relegated to our private, unspoken lives.
When it came to writing Barbarians – a novel in which the suburban protagonist, Elizabeth ‘Buzzy’ Price, finds herself among the well-connected Islington intelligentsia – my aim was to try to create a set of characters who each had private thoughts which the reader would recognise as being true to life. This is what seems to me uniquely pleasurable about fiction, and what film and television, restricted as they are to showing the surfaces of people and events, can never hope to replicate.
Exploring the gap between our private and public selves creates scope for irony – a character’s self-delusion can, when successfully handled, be funny for the reader. It can also be a great consolation. After all, if as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed part of the beauty of literature is discovering that your longing are universal longings, it’s a relief to discover your failings are universal too.
One English writer who was certainly interested in class was Evelyn Waugh. He would also, I suspect, have been deeply dismissive of sentimental reflections on the comfort of literature, and the very notion of ‘life-like’ literary characters.
In a Paris Review interview Waugh said that when it came to fiction-writing he had ‘no technical psychological interest’, seeing it instead as ‘an exercise in the use of language’. I find these statements fascinating. I’m also not sure I believe them, or believe Waugh believed them. It’s possible that someone with no psychological interest might have written the stylish but slightly empty Vile Bodies. But would this person also have been capable of creating the subtly monstrous Lady Marchmain?
In the preface to the reissued edition of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh writes nonchalantly about his novel’s ‘glaring defects’. Surely such an unusually clear-eyed self-critic was well aware that a successful sentence (or an accomplished ‘use of language’, as he put it) is one that is truthful – and truthful sentences create psychological depth.
Perhaps the lesson here is that those grand Gallic campus slogans – The author is dead! There is nothing outside the text! – were right after all, and one should never trust writers discussing their own work. Of course, Edmund White might say the lesson, if there is one, is more that you can always rely on an Englishman to sign off with a weak parting shot at the French.
Barbarians by Tim Glencross is published by John Murray and will be out in paperback on March 26th.