There is a category of novel - The Constant Nymph, The White Hotel, Love Story - which is read by everyone for a while and then sinks into limbo. Have such best-sellers anything in common? Obviously they are not - like War and Peace, say - hardy perennials. Their appeal is to something specific in the temper of the time. Going with that, perhaps, is a capacity to have their cake and eat it, and to give their readers the same treat. In Margaret Kennedy's novel the constant nymph is both satisfyingly bohemian and reassuringly respectable - a combination appealing to the period. She is constant because she dies, and virtuous because she dies a virgin, thus releasing her paramour (and the reader) for further adventures combined with a beautiful memory. Love Story takes the formula a stage further by giving the couple a full and perfect sex-life before the heroine dies, thus releasing etc. As might be expected, the process is more subtle and more comprehensive in such a case as The White Hotel, a more ambitious and imaginative affair. But something similar is going on, enabling the reader to enjoy at the same time the authority and dignity of Freud and the pleasures of pornographic daydream, which combine to license and disinfect the genuine and disgusting horrors of a mass extermination. It seems typical of the literary appetite of our time that the three go together, and that the first two enable art to obtain a sort of false grip on the third, a grip that the Polish poet Herbert says, in his poem 'The Pebble', that art should never try to obtain.
LRB 7 February 1985 | PDF Download