When poets decide to write in prose, and a fortiori to undertake so substantial a piece of prose writing as a novel, they are apt to leave unmistakable traces of their poetic craft. Indeed a certain class of novelists, not far below the very best, makes it an axiom to inform us from time to time, in case it has slipped our mind, that they rest their case in the end on a much more precise theory and practice of language than the on-going bustle of narrative will allow for. George Meredith, to take a good example, plays havoc with the expected sequence of events, expanding and contracting particular elements of the plot so that we can feel the sinews of narrative creaking and cracking under the strain. Then he turns round and reminds us that metaphor is the writer's real business. Metaphor is the sign of our fallen state, of the irretrievable fact that we are estranged from the blissful, natural communication which took place in the Garden of Eden. But metaphor is also our only way of momentarily overcoming and forgetting that estrangement. The poet, whether in the person of the novelist or through those numerous surrogate figures who belong ambiguously to the world of the novel, is continually breaking through to remind us of his creative priority. Images, he suggests, are superior to actions.
LRB 5 July 1984 | PDF Download