Strange, isn’t it, how deeply consoling a novel can be. Amid depths of distress that no therapeutic or amicable or even connubial lead-line can sound, the words of a Trollope or a Nabokov or, I suppose, for some, a Dickens, can send the noonday or the midnight devil into a corner and shut him up. For the time being.
Escape fiction? Perhaps; but what other kind is there? Why would we make up stories, otherwise? And as somebody once observed, every prisoner wants to escape; why shouldn’t he? Modernism is a doctrine that teaches us to love our chains. Or try to. So the hell with it.
I would like to record here my personal gratitude to Anthony Trollope, fox-hunter, post-office bureaucrat, ‘advanced Conservative Liberal’ as he described himself, and a very present help in time of trouble for me since I was sixteen.
There are so many things to like about old Tony. For one thing, he has no use for suspense. He says somewhere — I am quoting from my very fallible memory, so forgive me — ‘I disdain to be in possession of any secret not known to the reader’.
For another: he has no use for the arc. His characters don’t develop. The bad ones get worse and finally throw themselves under a train, or emigrate to North America and are heard of no more. The good ones — or rather, the good-enough ones — blunder around, shoot themselves in the foot, entertain all sorts of crazy notions, and after they’ve been beaten up for a while, through their own folly, finally come round to a certain grudging accommodation to their circumstances. And godlike Anthony rewards them with a Trollopian happy ending.
No writer was ever better at the happy ending — not even the divine Jane Austen. What’s lovely about the Trollopian happy ending is that it goes on for a hundred pages. Most novelists, once they have contrived their marriage-cum-inheritance, polish off their protagonists with an audible hand-washing: At last I’m rid of those tedious puppets. They lived happily ever after. Finis, and not a page too soon. Splash. Somebody hand me a towel.
Tony doesn’t do that. He follows the assembly of the trousseau, the selection of the bridesmaids — not altogether satisfactory to anybody, especially the bride — the backward glances at paths not taken — the perfectly justifiable, and usually justified, anxiety about how it will all turn out — the deplorable smarmy demeanor of the oleaginous Low-Church clergyman who will preside over the nuptial solemnities.
So what, you ask, is so consoling about this? Doesn’t it just sound like the usual depressed bleak modern fiction?
But it isn’t. Tony, the old fox-hunter, was often disappointed in his sport, but always ready to saddle up anyway. Clear-eyed as he is, he recognizes that the odds are always against a good run, much less being in at the kill; yet he retains a certain rational openness to the possibility. So his creatures can rise to the occasion, when the occasion demands it; sometimes fire off a good quip and even, once or twice, land a telling punch; often die resigned and true to themselves and their friends and faith, and leave a kindly and generous will.
This is not an impossible demand. It is within the scope of humankind. Tony is realistic but not hopeless.
A good guy to read, early in the New Year. May all our stories be Trollopian rather than… oh, let’s say Faulknerian.