Novel Conversations

First this, from the well-fed man of action:

It doesn’t do to read too much…You get to look at life with a false perspective.  By all means have some familiarity with the standard authors.  I should never raise any objection to that.   But it is no good clogging your mind with a lot of trash from modern novels.

Then this response from the languid aesthete:

But I must say, modern books are very consolatory and congenial to my feelings.  There is, as it were, a delightful northeast wind, an intellectual blight breathing through them; a delicious misanthropy and discontent that demonstrates the nullity of virtue and energy, and puts me in good humor with myself and my sofa.

Literature is sometimes described as a conversation that takes place without regard to time or place among authors not necessarily contemporary with one another or conversant with each other’s works.  Macchiavelli in a nice passage somewhere talks about the reader’s participation in that conversation too.  But perhaps we can describe another level of talk that exists alongside or below this one, carried on between even more ephemeral interlocutors – fictional characters themselves.

It would make a tedious but possibly amusing pastime to arrange quotes like these (respectively from Anthony Powell’s Kenneth Widmerpool and Thomas Love Peacock’s Mr Listless) into the form of long symposia.  The discussion above is specially poignant because the speakers are commenting on the means of their own incarnation: Widmerpool, though it’s tempting to doubt it, only lives by the fact of other people reading him into being; Mr Listless himself is only a gust of the delightful northeast wind that blows through Nightmare Abbey.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Novel Conversations

  1. Ian Wolcott

    The quote (a little indulgent for my taste) from Macchiavelli:

    “When evening comes I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, for which I was born. There I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives for their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the course of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexations, fear or poverty, and no more tremble at death: I pass into their world.”

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