Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 12 March 2014

How much does our enjoyment of a novel depend on the extent to which we find the characters likeable? How much does our engagement with it depend on the way in which our sympathies are divided between them? The answer, I think, is quite a lot. In fiction as in life we like some people more than others, make moral judgments and observe with varying degrees of sympathy their pleasure or their pain. Novelists use this propensity, this human capacity for sympathy, by creating a fictional world that operates in the same way as the real world but, through some form of exaggeration or distortion, a change of perspective or a re-ordering of the rules of time and space, persuades or seduces or forces us to see the world as the novelist sees it. If we don’t believe in what we read, the trick won’t come off.

The characters have to be credible, but do they have to be likeable? The question arose from my reading of David Golder, a novel by Irène Nemirovsky, in which there is little or nothing to like about any of the characters. The usual opposition between good and bad, moral and immoral, generous and mean, is absent. All we have is a set of characters who are motivated wholly by self-interest. David Golder is an elderly Jew who has made a fortune buying and selling on the money markets. The novel begins with his refusing to lend money to his long-standing business partner who, as a direct consequence of his refusal, kills himself. The reader’s expectation that this will lead to some change in Golder himself is disappointed. Life for Golder continues as before, except that he has even less regard for his partner after his suicide than he did before. This is quickly followed by a sequence of events in which it becomes apparent that Golder will do anything for his eighteen year old daughter who has expensive tastes and no scruples about asking him for the money to satisfy them. If this leads us to expect a story something like Père Goriot, in which a father’s indulgence towards his daughter leads to his own impoverishment, we are again mistaken. She turns out not to be his daughter anyway and he cuts her off without a penny. So it goes on. Husband, wife, daughter, friends, hangers-on, not a likeable person among them. Which leaves us with the narrator, who remains impartial from beginning to end, giving no preference to one character over another, but simply reporting what they say and do. The result is a curiously flat narrative about a group of people who have little or no feeling for each other, their mutual inter-dependence giving rise only to resentment and hostility.

But the answer to my question is yes. The absence of anything to like about these people makes the novel painful to read, but they are all utterly believable and you keep hoping that something will change. It never does, but that’s the point. Our belief in human nature, our hope for a change of heart, is what keeps us going, our disappointment is what the author intends us to feel.

Every reader, male or female, is able to identify with the hero or heroine of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Written nearly a hundred years ago, its cavalier way with the conventions of English literature, its constant springing of traps for the unwary reader, the power of its language and its insights into the cultural history of England continue to fascinate. I was bowled over by it when I first read it as a young man and enjoyed it as much, though necessarily in a different way, when I read it again recently. Orlando, at first in his Elizabethan childhood and early manhood, then in his eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century maturity as a woman, from pupa to imago, takes us on a journey through five hundred years of English history (mainly literary history, it has to be said) reacting to the changing ‘spirit of the age’ with various degrees of delight and disgust.

A stage adaptation of Orlando is currently playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which is why I read it again before going to see the play. Most of what are generally thought of as the essential ingredients of drama are missing from the novel, whose main attractions are the quality of its prose and its observations on English literature. There is one central character (albeit one who begins as a man and turns into a woman) and several minor characters, but no conflict on which to hang a drama, only the conflict between maleness and femaleness in the character of Orlando him or herself. In spite of which, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation succeeds by taking advantage of every opportunity the novel provides for theatricality. It remains faithful to the text, virtually every word spoken being taken directly from the novel, follows the narrative faithfully from beginning to end and is faithful to the novel’s central themes. Inevitably, it leaves a lot out. Most of Orlando’s encounters with English poets, which make up a good part of the novel, are missing. And rightly so. Interesting as they are to read, they would be tedious on stage. The most effective moments are those in which Virginia Woolf’s prose is transformed into another medium, as in the scenes which take place on the frozen Thames during the Great Frost, beautifully described in the book and beautifully presented on stage in a display of aerial acrobatics by the actors playing Orlando and Sasha (who in Virginia Woolf’s day would have been called actresses).

Regretting what had to be left out, while enjoying the theatrical transformation of what remained, I was left wondering whether it might not have been better to leave it all out and find a theatrical equivalent. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Orlando would make a wonderful ballet.

orlando 01

The next post, Honest Iago, will be published on 19 March.

The Readers’ Diary will be back the week after that.

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