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What Obligation To The Truth Does A Novelist Have? PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:23

What Obligation To The Truth Does A Novelist Have?

Justin Cartwright


I’m sometimes described as ex South African, but it is true that I’m not really an English novelist or necessarily a South African novelist, although it depends on the occasion I find myself in. My feeling is, if you’ve got a niche, why not? I often review South African novels; I don’t review any British novels. What I’m going to do with your kind permission is quickly fill in my own life. I wasn’t going to do this but having discussed various issues of identity, place and landscape which I find deeply interesting; I’m going to quickly describe my own progress from South Africa to this present time and then I’m going to read a few pages of my new novel which was actually delivered on Friday to me, so this is a world exclusive!


I left South Africa after 3 years at Wits and went to Oxford to do BLitt in politics. Then I fell into advertising. I really enjoyed advertising, but my plan was to be a major film director; an ambition I find is now shared by almost half the young people under 21. I did do advertising films and have done some documentaries, but I started writing in a rather strange way. There was a chap in my agency who was called Christopher Wood who was an account man but he also wrote a series of books which began with the words, “Confessions of…” and the most famous of them was “Confessions of a Window Cleaner” which sold one million to two million copies. He said to me one day “I’ve got six of these to write and I think we’ll write a new series and its going to be in a female voice. He asked me if I’d write one and he’d give me a month. And so I wrote a book which was called Rosie Dickson. It became a film after which I then started directing commercials. It’s a thing about South Africa or Africa in general, certainly about landscapes; that you can leave a country but you are never immune to the emotional processes. Through I think 35 or 36 years I have lived in Britain now, I’ve never been immune to the sense that there is something about the landscape, something about Africa that is speaking to me. Oddly enough I find this works for lots of people who come to Africa. The serious point I think is that we do see things in different ways [in the sense that] Claude Levi Strauss’s observation that all explanations are valid. He used whatever was at hand to explain things. I have noticed when I researched the Masai that every image they used to describe was a cattle image … in terms of the colouring of cows. This has some relevance because I’m going to talk about what obligations to truth a novelist has. One of the things I believe to be the case is that this truth can be seen as imaginary. I’m now going to read a bit of my new novel quickly. My novels tend to have some kind of an African theme. They tend to have an African theme or else have been quite sharp observations. This novel has been in departure for me because like most novelists all the characters are just simply disguised versions of themselves, but in this novel they are not. The five characters are what I take to be typical English middle class family members, living in London, but their lives have been subjected to a sort of cataclysm in that the star of the family is arrested in New York. The question I’ve posed in the novel which the family poses themselves is the question if she deserved it or not. This bit I’m going to read, each chapter or each section is one character’s point of view; this is the father who is a retired accountant. And I apologize for the fact that there is a lot of playing in the beach in this first chapter, but it is relevant to the whole story in the end.


 (From Chapter One, he reads the following…)

Charles Judd has walked on the beach almost every day for the last four years. When it is cold – it’s early spring, but freezing – he needs to pee more often than is natural. Away from the house, where Daphne is heroically trying to cook something fishy from Rick Stein’s cookbook, he often pees in the open. There’s nobody around, and it reassures him that when he’s out of the house he can pee freely. There’s none of that gush of youth, of course, and he has to be careful of the wind direction, but still he feels calmed. When he was a young man, peeing imperiously into the urinals at Fox and Jewell, he used to direct a strong stream at the cigarette butts or the blue cakes of deodorant that lay on little rubber mats. This deodorant had an unnatural glitter, and released an unnatural smell of pine. Why do deodorants smell worse than the odours they are disguising? Minicab drivers in London always make their cars stink of resin, issuing from little Christmas-tree things swinging from the rear-view mirror. When he used to send the company car to be washed, he told the fleet manager, Arnie Prince, to ask them not to wipe it down or spray it with Fruits of the Forest or Bavarian Conifer or whatever it was. But it always came back stinking: What canyer do, Mr Judd, they’re Nigerians. I’ll try sending a runner wif a cleft stick next time. Arnie Prince was a card.


At this time of year at the beach the scents are deeply marine. The air itself is loaded with fishiness and iodine and dislocated mussels. He sees a fishing boat coming in over Doom Bar, trailed by freeloading seagulls. The sight still stirs him: that the basics of fishing haven’t changed; that the fish lie in the boxes lustrous and dying; that the fishermen throw nets over the side. But he knows that the sight of the dumpy little boats coming up the Camel Estuary doesn’t stir him quite as deeply as it used to when they first came down here. He tries to imagine the last breath he will take and the last view he will take in. (Although you don’t `take in’ views in the way he had once imagined: science has shown that the brain assembles the images according to its own plan and that you have no control.)


No, his last view is not going to be of The Maid of Padstow or The Cornish Princess butting up the estuary. He is trying to avoid these thoughts, which suggest the death of hope. He remembers with a pang the last uninhibited fuck he had with a young woman – she was a trainee at Fox and Jewell – and for a few weeks they had fucked blithely in the office after hours. He was so happy, and so was she.

`You love this, don’t you?’ he said.

`Yes, with you.’

`Come on, you love it anyway.’

`It’s true, I love fucking,’ she said, `but I’ve got a steady boyfriend, you know.’


He knew. That was twenty-three years ago. He walks up the path through the dunes across the tenth hole of the golf course, towards the church, which had once been buried in sand. A squall is coming in off the estuary and he shelters under the lychgate. The church still has a half-excavated look, as though they had dug it out of the advancing sand dunes only sufficiently to let the congregation in the door and some light in the windows. He goes to church occasionally, because Daphne is on the flower roster and helps with fund-raising. He once took charge of a donkey at the church fete. The donkey took off at a fast, deter­mined scuttle and he had run along beside it holding on to a screaming child. When the donkey tried to duck under a barrier he had pulled the child off just in time. Daphne was horrified: God, you’re useless. You’re embarrassing. All you were asked to do was lead a donkey and you turn it into a Wild West drama. It was true that he had tried to liven things up by making the donkey trot, but the bony, dusty, fundamentalist, biblical creature took umbrage. (People don’t use phrases like `take umbrage’ any more.) The child’s parents had taken umbrage too: You fucking near killed her, you wanker, said a short, pot-bellied man in a West Country accent. No good protesting, because it was true that anything could have happened if he hadn’t just managed to snatch the child off the donkey’s back before it ducked under the barrier. Donkeys are intractable, highly unsuitable for children. Jesus rode a don­key. Appropriate transport for a humble man. And maybe Jesus didn’t try to make it trot. Last spring they were going to Jerusalem on a Holy Land tour with Cox and Kings, but the situation in Israel had deteriorated. They got the deposit back. Perhaps they would go when things calmed down.

As he stands under the lychgate he sees the little boat battling its way towards Bray Hill, following the channel, which at low tide is nothing more than the river bed, a dark thread in the water, a bit like the thread they take out of the lobsters from the fish market. In the beginning they used to congratulate themselves: Look, we’re eating lobster once or twice a week. Some foods seem to confer status on the consumers, the way salmon did before it was farmed. Now salmon is cheap, slimy, and strangely mutant. And now they only have lobster when visitors come.


The rain is moving on; it goes in curtains, drawn along the estuary. There is a connection between all this water – the estuary, the scudding rain, the boat sending up a small frothy bow-wave – and his bladder. There’s no one about. As he pees he reads the gravestone:

John Betjeman


He doesn’t like the fancy-curlicued, arty script of the headstone. It seems to him to contain volumes of smugness; of taste; of self­ congratulation. He walks across the thirteenth fairway, minutely faceted by the rain. You have to hit a pretty good shot to get up in two. Although he was flattered to be given membership so quickly –fast track – he has been staying away from the clubhouse itself since Ju-Ju was arrested.


Their house, Curlew’s End - `Which end?’ said Clem – stands between the golf course and a lane that leads down to the bay. It is double-storeyed, white-pebble-dashed and slate-roofed, built in 1928 for holiday-makers. The garden is half rabbit pasture, which he mows sitting on a Hayter 13/40 tractor mower. He never told Daphne that it cost nearly two thousand pounds not including the optional disk which prevents crankshaft buckling. He has become quite adept at zipping around the meadow, the two-stroke Strat­ton engine hammering away, until he stops to empty the rear grass collector. Over by the hydrangeas – the only flowers that truly love life by the sea – he has a compost heap. It is protected by a dry-stone wall and some yew trees, which lean away from the wind. They don’t bend at all and yet they appear to be fastidious, trying to distance themselves from something unpleasant. In this way they are very English, he thinks.

But then so am I, and increasingly ridiculous.

The compost is used in the more sheltered part of the garden behind the house, where they have a proper lawn and some flowers, presided over-patronised even – by more hydrangeas. Here he tries to enrich the sandy, thyme-bound soil. As he mows in summer he inhales the scents of grass and thyme voluptuously. The Hayter has six settings and cuts this lawn – the proper lawn – very close. But he has lost his early enthusiasm for jumping on to the driving seat and he has allowed the first rule of lawn-mowing, little but often, to lapse. The rabbits help by nibbling assiduously. At first he had tried to control them, but they live in a bramble jungle between Curlew’s End and the golf course, so thick and impenetrable that he began to see them as the Vietcong of this little set-up. He concentrates now on keeping them away from the flowers and the shrubs, using netting that makes the garden look like a small concentration camp. The mower is in the garage for the winter.


I must get another dog. The last one – a dachshund – fell over a cliff in full cry.

Now he can see the light in the kitchen and the outline of Daphne moving about. He pauses to watch her and in that instant he sees not only her but himself yoked in ghostly outline to her.


By what paths have we arrived here, beside the sea?

As she pauses to catch Rick Stein’s drift, her head bowed for a moment, her self – her thickening body, which is beginning, like the yew trees, to take on a defensive posture – is stalled for a moment. He can’t see her face – she is silhouetted – but he knows that she will be frowning fiercely at the page. She hates cooking, but she resolved to master it when they moved here. She felt that she should make a pact with seafood – crabs, lobsters, sea bass, mussels et cetera. It would indicate her commitment to the new life on the seashore, to an active retirement. He has never used the word `retirement’. To her this cooking could be evidence of a new closeness between them. Maybe she thinks they are living off the land in some way, he a hunter-gatherer, she tending the flame. To him, retirement sounds like the first word of his epitaph: retired, withdrawn from life, in preparation for the long sleep to come, the retreat back into the inorganic world, under a few feet of thyme ­infused turf, like Betjeman. Like Betj.


As he looks at Daphne, now chopping something, he sees for a moment Ju-Ju. It is unfair on Daphne that Ju-Ju is taller and more graceful, but still there’s something in the quick positive move­ment of Daphne’s head that reminds him painfully of Ju-Ju. Once Daphne said to him, `She’s the love of your life.’ And he said, `It’s just fathers and daughters,’ dismissively. But it was true that he loved Ju-Ju, and it was a physical passion. Sometimes when he was lonely he longed to sleep next to her as he had done when she was a child, although he had never allowed himself to think of her having sex with anyone, least of all himself.


Coming down here, leaving London, was a mistake. And yet whenever he goes to London he sees something repulsive: on the tube with Charlie, he saw opposite them a boy and a girl, with studs in their lips and tongues and ears, kissing. The girl – probably a drug addict – looked about twelve; she was wearing mittens of rainbow colours and her pale, paper-thin skin was sooted around the eyes. (He can remember chimney sweeps and the smell of soot.) As these children kissed, smiling narcotically, he thought of those magnets he had had at school, which produced a sort of metallic skating between sheets of paper, or made a hay­stack out of paper clips. Their tongues might become stuck together. Charlie, ever sensitive, said, `It’s nothing, Dad, it’s nothing,’ when he had sighed, probably loudly. What did he mean? And this is something he has rystall about families, that they have rystalli expectations of each other. On the one hand more allowances are made, but also more is demanded. There seems to me a sort of Koranic law inside the family, no matter what chaos and madness and laxity rules outside the house. Charlie was really trying to say, `Lighten up, Dad, you don’t want to look like a cunt.’ Other members of the family want you to look good, because they share your flesh and blood. And it is true that we all have unrealistic expectations of our family: for example, he often wanted Daphne to be wittier and taller and more graceful because that was what he aspired to himself. At Fox and Jewell he had always been seen as urbane, with a light touch. The clients liked him.


Now Daphne catches sight of him and waves. He opens the gate, the one that leads from the Vietcong maquis and the golf course, and crosses the lawn. Even after rain it is firm. In London the lawn was sodden and heavy. Their house looked over a patch of lawn at a Victorian church that was always weeping, like those saints in Ireland, salts and dead rainwater. At the back door, which has its own lean-to atrium for tools and coats and sticks – where the deceased dog’s lead still hangs – he removes his coat. It’s a National Trust fleece, unobtrusively decorated with an acorn motif. He shakes the coat once, and then changes into his indoor shoes.


`You’ve still got that hat on.’

`Oh yes. What are you cooking?’

`Rick Stein’s mackerel with gooseberry sauce.’

`Sounds good.’

`I’m struggling.’ Four mackerel corpses lie on a board. Neither of them likes mackerel – oily, dark fish with tough raincoat skin – but Daphne feels obliged to buy them once in a while because they are plentiful, cheap and, so all the cookbooks say, nutritious, full of life-giving oils and omega fats. Perhaps she worries about his brain cells. `You have to remove the backbone and then sort of dust them with flour before lightly pan-frying them.’

`Do you want me to help?’

`Please. It says how to fillet them on page twenty-one, but ... He looks at the recipe. The picture shows the fish lying neatly on a plate, crisp, decorated with a small, casually composed salad of rocket, with a glistening mound of gooseberry sauce and a generous – not too refined – lemon wedge next to it. `I couldn’t get gooseberries but luckily we have a jar of

lingonberries that we got in Sweden.’

`That was six years ago.’

`Do you think they will have gone off?’ `Everything goes off.’ He sharpens the knives and cuts off the heads and tries to remove the backbone. The flesh of the mackerel is bloody. When  he finally pulls the backbone free, what’s left of the fish looks like a swab from an operating theatre. Daphne has opened the lingonberry sauce. `It’s a little crystallized around the top, but deep down it looks all right.’

`Fine. Let’s have diced mackerel chunks with crystallized lin­gonberries and while we are at it why don’t we see if we can find those Italian artichokes in oil which we have been keeping since 1967 for a special occasion. We’ll just throw them casually around the plate, a la Rick –‘

`Charles. Please don’t.’

He stares at her. His head is full, bulging from the inside against the walls.

`Daphne, do you mind if I bin these fishy remains?’

`You’re not cross, are you?’

`No, why should I be? Shall we forget about mackerel for ever? We don’t like them and they make the place stink.’ He slides the mackerel off the board and into the bin, and then he scrubs the board.



I’ll stop there for a moment. The reason I’ve read this today which I have not planned is because the locus of where truth resides for a novelist presents problems for a lot of people, and they don’t know where the boundary is in literary fiction. That is what I’m going to some extent focus on in this talk. What is the point of literature, what do we mean by that, what is the point of fiction, and what we mean by the term Literature? Neither of these is a simple question. For a start the question: What is the point of fiction, suggests that there might be other more relevant activities…it’s sitting down in front of a piece of paper to communicate to the world. What obligations to truth does the writer of fiction have? I can put this in a very simple fashion and ask, what obligations do I feel to truth when I sit down to write and do I ever think consciously about this question. The answer to the question is Yes, but I should qualify this by saying that the truth I’m interested in is literary. I hardly ever in my fiction try to make any evaluation of ideologies although I do increasingly touch on ontological problems and broad philosophical problems such as moral philosophy.


 In 1966 when I left I was at Wits. I felt at the time that the moral issue was a straight forward one because it struck me in terms of politics. I didn’t see myself spending my youth anyway devoted to a struggle which seemed to me very clear cut…not so much the resolution but the actual understanding seemed very clear cut. It was almost embarrassing to say look….this is a Human Rights problem, it will and must be solved but I can’t personally join some movement and spend the rest of my life devoted to a cause. I didn’t want it to be my literary career; I didn’t want to write about these subjects. I find the single biggest misconception of the students is the belief that because something is deeply felt it is by definition interesting, I’m sure a lot of you have had these experiences as students, but particularly in writing literature can become a form of therapy. The writing of fiction is concerned with the arrangement and presentation of ideas and experience; it is the process of transformation; in fact it is the creation of art.


In the South African context I think many novels, including White Lightning, demonstrated a very deep feeling; but I don’t think that this is, in itself, an excuse for going to print. So fiction isn’t necessary about deep feelings, what it is about, I’m going to declare here is that fiction is about consciousness. I recently interviewed Ramachandran, an expert on the workings of the brain. The brain is a very wonderful thing, one and a half kilos of green jelly; a piece of machinery which can go wrong and is also the locus in which resides our very essence. We are each of us unique and nobody will ever share - not even in identical twins - the same consciousness. We spend a good deal of our lives clearly thinking about ourselves and our relationships to other people, but also our relationships to mortality. Even if we try not to think about it, we are never unaware of it. Consciousness and mortality is the basis of all religions, I believe, and what might be called ‘faith’. We could spend a long time really discussing this, but I embrace the subject ‘Consciousness’ for a very specific reason. Ramachandran, the Professor, believes that language started from a series of grunts and progressed by what called metaphor. It was the ability to make connections initially between danger and refinements of grunting, progressing to a general understanding of, and discussion of, life’s dangers. A scientist, it seems, is endorsing the role of imagery and metaphor in the development of human consciousness. It seems to me that writing, one of the preoccupations of human beings, is in fact the defining principle. It’s a question of what it means to be human. You have to look at fables or children’s stories to see if their object is prescriptive to take a specific example, animals in these stories have been given qualities that have an instructive purpose: owls are wise and dogs are faithful and so on. This of course has nothing to do with Zoology, but everything to do with the desire of every human being to fix themselves in the universe, to make sense in their beliefs and moral stances. So, story-telling became a way of both entertaining and passing and receiving wisdom. All stories contain truth, but what distinguishes literature from what is called by publishers, general fiction or popular fiction - my first publisher was a very grand person indeed who described general fiction as the sort of thing you could bring on a journey. In these kinds of tale, people sometimes have a look of anger and amusement on their faces at the same time. I don’t recommend you try this at home, it’s very painful – is that literature is consciously about the nature of being human; it has a further refinement in my opinion. It advances the human consciousness. This may sound like a rather grand claim. So I’m just going to give you two concrete examples from my own background. As we all know, Nadine Gordimer has been doing literary fiction for the past 50 years. She has also been, as we know, an active participant in the political life of this country. I once asked her how she was able to combine these two. She said nothing is as true as my fiction. If you want to understand the recent history of South Africa, you could probably get a better sense of it, certainly the human traces, from Gordimer’s novels from any official account. But I’m not going to embark on any sort of theory about the role and importance of writers in South Africa. Firstly because I’m sure that most of you know a lot more about it more than I do and secondly we all know the great, and even the not so great, South African writers have had a powerful effect on the understanding of society.


We often see places and understand social histories through the writers or painters that had become synonymous with that place at that time. Probably all of us know what Dickensian street or tenement might be; we know what a Dickensian character is. The interesting thing is that Dickens, far from defining aspects of London, has become a mirror in which London defines itself. I think this is possibly even more applicable to Dublin at the moment. There is a great mass movement to make Dublin the non-pareil of literary cities. I once interviewed the Critic, Herald Bloom in New York. He told me that Shakespeare is culture. He didn’t say that Shakespeare has contributed immeasurably to culture, but that Shakespeare is world culture. And Shakespeare, through his soliloquies, he said has in effect created the human consciousness. You might think as I do that these views are more than slightly barmy, but I believe they do contain truth, mainly that cultural facts become part of our fabric and so defines us. I think of Holland, I think not just of cafes in Amsterdam, but of Vermeer and Utrecht. When enter certain parts of East Anglia in Britain I read signs saying ‘Constable Country’. I think incidentally this partly explains some of the unease people feel with what they call Modern Architecture. It seems to have no connection with their own culture.


Great literature makes you think. The frontiers of language are advanced. When I do teach creative writing occasionally I stress the importance of imagery. I tell the students the main thing do to is to work on imagery. There is absolutely no place in literature to for banal descriptions of weather or of faces or of clothes. There is no point in soap opera situations, or in familiar similes. In literature, there is no such thing as wallpaper. You will gather I have a very high regard for Saul Bellow. Bellow allows us into recognising the complicity of a cliché when we see one.


Of course, literature can also have a powerful moral effect. In my own experience of growing up in this particularly distorted society, literature provided an alternative world – I particularly loved The Water Babies and The Wind in the Willows and moved pretentiously onto War and Peace – and literature provided an insight into the place I lived in. At a very early age I read Cry, the Beloved Country and I also read a book Return to Egoli by Peter Abrahams. The sense that there was a grave injustice going on in our society was impressed upon me not by my father, who as I said was editor of the Rand Daily Mail, but by these literary accounts. As Graham Greene says in his collected essays, “We never read again with the intensity of our childhood”. He also says, and I think this is very perceptive, that, “after a certain age, we look for reflections of ourselves in literature, whereas when we’re young, the world is being made new for us”. Maybe this is why I valued the power of the literary so highly. “It captures the world new” as Professor Ramachandran suggested.


I went to Montreal earlier this year for a literary festival. I was commissioned to write an article about the city. It [the city] wasn’t real for me until I read Mordecai Richler’s account of the old Jewish quarter of Montreal. His descriptions of the street, which was a brief account of vanished Jewish Montreal,  told me more than any history about the complexities of the city and why its conversion to a Francophone monolith has caused so much pain.  So it is my view that you can be somewhere and never leave home which is the tourist experience, or you can stay at home and be transported by literature. If literature can be an insight to place, it can also form in a very deep fashion in your consciousness.


When I reported at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a few years ago, I found the experience overwhelming. What I think happened is that I again heard the voices (in this case, the actual voices) of the mothers of young men who had been killed or tortured. Something which in my boyhood South African writers had captured and which had made such a deep impression on me. But novelists don’t set out usually to be polemicists or to produce books which are entirely schematic. David Lodge’s reply to a question about his book Therapy from a rather literal interviewer is very revealing: ‘You articulate very clear thematic opposition, but for me these things are all rather intuitive: following my characters, trying to imagine how they would react to each other in particular circumstances.” “I’m not saying” said David, “that your reading is illegitimate, but it is not the way that I created the book. Novelists don’t want to give away too much of their thought processes because they may invalidate, or make too personal a general truth they try to articulate in their work”. This sounds to me like the true voice of the novelist: a voice that tries to faithful to the range and subtlety of human life, while being all too aware of the fragility of the enterprise.In a sense, a good novelist is not so much exploring consciousness as adding to it by enriching – albeit in fiction – understanding of the human condition. It follows and I think it could be demonstrated that the most interesting and humane societies have the most developed literature. This is probably in a sense why your project is so important. I think in the English speaking world, we’re particularly blessed - literature knows no national boundaries and we’re all part of this great freemasonry, this great society.


There are many aspects of fiction which I haven’t touched on. I would have liked to talk about the study of writing but I will restrict myself to giving my own creda on the subject. It’s from Gertrude Stein. She said: “What does literature do and how does it do it and in what ways does it use to do what it does?” I have not talked about these ways but I have suggested that the writing of fiction is not some far, little backwater, but in a sense, heroic, difficult.


I just want to make one brief last point. In my view literature and culture have no end. They don’t have an end in view. It has no ideology. In 1994, I was here [South Africa] for two years and was involved in the making of a BBC film about art and culture. The sense that I got at that time was that they were going to be enlisted into the struggle in some way to ‘heal the wounds’ of society. The central question that we tried to tackle in the film is whether art and culture could in some sense heal the wounds of South Africa. It seemed to me broadly speaking that the answer was No – that you cannot in fact enlist art and culture for specific political and cultural ends.


So, I think that the writer’s only obligation to truth is, in a sense, to craft and I believe that the important thing in any free, open, society is that writers should be given every freedom, every opportunity to write and their only loyalty is to their craft and to being truthful. It isn’t necessarily that one is going to produce results immediately - the truth is that human consciousness advances slowly. We’re all involved in the process of making it creep in a snail-like fashion forwards.


Thank you very much.