A learned, indeed an erudite little book; but also one that is so absorbing, so readable, so quietly and deftly humorous, that it shows up all the dull pretentiousness of nine-tenths of the stuff that gets written nowadays about Eng. Lit. A fascinating and major paradox is involved; but what would be the point of the author displaying it when a fabulous gathering of fictional puzzles will do it for him? The best critic, like the best novelist, leaves the reader to decide. The paradox remains, however. On the one hand, the novelist must tell the truth, and want to tell nothing else: on the other, he has the irresponsibility of a creator whose fondness for his creatures is no guarantee that he will not kill them or save them at a whim, show them up or let them down. You want a happy ending? Dickens, Hardy and above all Thackeray will oblige, however much with tongue in cheek. Dickens and Hardy will do it, while taking the opportunity, in letters or prefaces or afterthoughts, of making clear that it goes against their artistic consciences. Thackeray will exhibit the absurdity of novel-writing with a shrug and a smile of apparent shamelessness.
LRB 19 September 1996 | PDF Download