A Likely Story

Geoffrey Heptonstall

William Frederick Yeames is not a name certain to stir the blood. He was successful enough as an artist to be elected to the Royal Academy, but even in Victorian times he received little critical acclaim. He did leave one work that lingers in the public mind, And When Did You Last See Your Father? The scene is familiar from countless reproductions. In Cromwellian times a young boy of good family is being interrogated by roundheads. We can imagine the stern inquisitor prefacing his question with, ‘Do you know it is very wicked not to tell the truth?’ We can only speculate on the boy’s reply.

Narrative pictures of this kind may not be great art. There is no technical advance. Yeames did not respond to the aesthetic challenge posed in his day by the Impressionists. But there is a quality in that picture not easily dismissed. It compels the viewer to consider the general narrative context of which this is part, as if it were an illustration in a book, most obviously Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest. Considering the picture, we write our conjectured narrative. We can venture into the moral dilemma facing the child. Which is the worse: telling a lie or betraying his father?

No, this is not an aesthetic question, but because the picture arouses such interest it has its value as an illustration. We want to know more. We are stimulated to conjecture, and that is no bad thing.

Another work of this kind is a New Yorker cover of 1950. The artist, regularly used by the magazine, was Edna Eicke. She deserves to be remembered. The cover illustration in question is of a quiet, leafy, very American suburb, perhaps in New England. The lawns are spacious, the houses quintessentially American with their wooden porches that in England you see only on the outside of cricket pavilions.

There are two neighbouring houses. Outside one we see men carrying furniture from their truck. A family is moving in. We know it’s a family because there’s a little girl walking tentatively to the fence. On the other side of the fence is another little girl. She has a doll in a small baby carriage. She is watching the unloading, and waiting to greet her new neighbour.

It’s an everyday domestic scene, yet one infused with so much poignancy. The two girls are going to be friends. They will play together, grow up together and perhaps maintain that friendship beyond childhood. They are never going to forget their first meeting, the moment that promised to be life-changing.

Or perhaps it wasn’t like that. After a few years one of the families moved away. The girls agreed to keep in touch. We know from experience that friends separated become Christmas cards for a time, and often not even that. You forget or barely remember someone who once mattered to you. There are new friendships to be made, and these matter more than anything now.

There is no way of knowing what happened because each of us is required to offer our personal narrative. We can write and rewrite the scenario a number of ways. We bring our own experiences and expectations into imaginative play. Incidence and coincidence weave their threads. Because of these things that New Yorker cover lingers in the mind.

Not least of the effects of that cover is our gratitude that the moment is frozen in time. Those girls will always be children. Life will not betray and disappoint. They are for all time in the same moment.

At the end of a story we are not told what happens next. There is no next. She stands at the station as the train departs. He opens the door to see a parcel on the step. The two embrace and vow never fall out of love. The knife in her hand waits for the intruder. The End. That is so unlike life. The endings in life are often unsatisfactory. There are too few neat conclusions. That is why we like stories. They reach a conclusion.

Having resolved the matters raised, the story has no further to go. It is complete, and that is why sequels are, with rare exceptions, a disappointment. Tom Sawyer prepared the way for Huckleberry Finn. But who reads Tom Sawyer Abroad now? Some, but not too many perhaps. Of course we wish to know more. The most satisfactory fictions leave us hoping for more, although a conclusion has been reached. We feel the story cannot end because there is more somewhere over the horizon. There it must remain, forever close but out of reach. Please do not write a sequel to Jane Austen’s Emma. And don’t let it be called Mrs Knightley.

Unless, of course, you have the talent and integrity of Jean Rhys. With great care Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as a prelude to Jane Eyre. Rochester’s first wife takes centre stage. Before her madness in the attic she was a Creole beauty in the West Indies. Rhys, herself a Creole, explores with a depth of feeling the circumstances that led to Antoinette’s tragic exile in England. This is not pastiche Bronte but a work of a rare vision written in a particular voice. It is the book Charlotte Bronte could not have written.

We may say the mythopoeic quality of the original story invites, or even anticipates, further commentary and variations. These by their nature explore the latent possibilities of the narrative. Their purpose is not to satisfy mere curiosity about what might happen next.

Wide Sargasso Sea works because, like its source, it leaves the reader with unanswered questions. The source of Antoinette’s madness is unclear. Was it the intensity of her love for Rochester? Or was it Rochester’s apparent dissatisfaction with his bride? Was it the sense of exile from her homeland? Or was it the awareness that nowhere ever was going to feel like home? Jean Rhys opens a door but provides little light in the darkened chamber.

Candles and lanterns are the lights of narrative. So much is sequestered. What really happened in the caves at Malabar? If we knew with certainty there would be no story worth telling, no Passage to India worth the cost of the ticket.

And what is that cost but the priceless value of a reader’s engagement with a narrative that is moving in and out of the reader’s consciousness. The words drift from the page into the mind’s eye. A fiction works if we can see it. This seeing can be so intense that we may half-believe we have seen the film (which does not exist) of the book. Christopher Burns’s About the Body is such a novel, so crisply and clearly written, so acute in its perceptions.

Yet how rarely if ever does the dramatization live up to the nature of the original story? Sometimes perhaps, rarely though because the images each of us has are particular to the individual eye.

It is easy to mistake this deeply personal response as a symptom of isolation. It is, rather, a characteristic of a freedom worth its name. It is not a communal act, but it is a means of communication. The reader is connected to the author by the act of reading that then connects the single reader with a wider community of readership.

It is a communication that crosses continents and generations. It is not confined to a single moment. It is not primarily social. There is no applause at the end of a scene. There are no drinks in the interval. Even in a group listening to a storyteller each of us is alone with our receptive imaginations. Reading can be a social activity, but the picture that usually comes to mind is of the reader alone, immersed in the fabric of the metaphysical realm of fiction.

This image is contrary to the spirit of the age which is brightly lit with a soundtrack. There has to be sound because silence is the enemy. There can be no contemplative reflection, only a constant sense of motion. The soundtrack is loud, mechanical and repetitive. The emphasis is on the moment because the young shall never grow old, and history began with Thomas Alva Edison. Before sound and vision could be recorded there was an unimaginable void. Now you may find everything you need is available on the screen in your hand.

The irony is that so much now is ephemeral.  Permanence remains in the territory of print. The record of the present is likely to fade with time. This contrasts with the freshness that is a vital culture where the guiding wisdom of history is close at hand. But that is not a popular point of view. The lasting reality is indeed in the shadows. In there may be found the truths and enchantments that engage both heart and mind, preferably in a single moment.

There are several ways of walking down a street. One way is to notice the people who pass by. Another is to look up at the architectural styles assembled by design or chance. You may be lost in your thoughts, seeing with your mind’s eye. Or you may gaze intently at your screen. Those people, those styles, and those thoughts make for an approach to life from which a living narrative may emerge. ‘You’ll never guess what I saw.’ That is the beginning of a tale worth telling. It will be your story, not someone else’s. It will be from your imagination, not from an impersonal technology.

An impersonal world without regard for the human imagination might resemble the life we know now, but it would feel lifeless. To visit there would be to walk into a play in constant rehearsal. The same scenes would be repeated endlessly. All the contours of thought and feeling would be flattened into an infinite space with a horizon never reached. A story without end. A story without a plot. A story that never moves from the beginning.

It may seem obvious, but it is worth saying that interesting writing comes only from writing about the things that interest you. That was the advice of Ted Hughes, and its simplicity of truth glows with good sense. It is only obvious once you have heard it said. Isaac Bashevis Singer put it like this: ‘If you write a story it may be a good story, but not if you write according to a formula.’ Follow the footsteps you chance upon.

Who wants to read of a vanished history, a culture that the world barely knows except through the work of writers like Singer? Read, say, The Magician of Lublin and you will walk, perhaps barefoot and ragged, the shtetls of Nineteenth Century Poland. You will hear Hebrew at prayer and Yiddish in the market place. It is another world. Because Singer knew of it and had lived within its shadows he could recreate it so vividly that the dead rise from their resting places to speak to us.

I have not lived that life. Yet if I can find my way into another world then perhaps I can write of it. Not every detail will be known to me, but a general feeling may be within reach. Let me see: I was making my way homeward from the market when out of nowhere came the horsemen. Though I ran for my life they caught me, and took me captive into a distant country from where there was no escape.

I have not known that to happen, but I have feared it, or something like it because lonely roads are fearful places. The truth is that a writer must lead many lives. The received advice to write what you know must surrender to the wiser counsel: write what you feel. On a hot summer’s day I was writing about winter, and at one point I shivered. I was there in the winter cold. To write you have to be there. You have to be the characters you are depicting. At the moment of writing their virtues and vices are yours also.

This is strange territory. There are many potential dangers to the psyche of a writer of imagined worlds. Actors, notoriously, may suffer from identity confusion. Writers may find themselves in an experience that is neither an illusion nor common sense reality. What is it but the truth of the open door in what is actually a blank wall? A door into many possibilities.

This is more than a capricious musing. Reality may seem to be on firm ground, but the spirit of things is no less substantial in its effects. There are imaginative truths as tangible as stone and wood.

One day in 1927 or 1928 (the exact date is unclear) a young Georges Simenon walked into the Quai des Orfevres to meet Inspector Maigret about whom he subsequently wrote many detective stories. The meeting is recorded in Maigret’s Memoirs. These, of course, were written by Simenon. His most famous creation took on a life, so it seemed, independent of its creator. Who is to say Maigret is not real, alive even now because it is always 1950 in a back street bar in Montmartre where Arlette overhears of a crime being planned?

Reason whispers that fiction is not fact. It is the case that popular culture encourages a confusion between enacted drama and actuality. This can be dismissed as infantile. What cannot be dismissed is the experience of fiction as a metaphysic.  There are dreams whose present effects occasion a sense of a reality beyond the imagination. So, too, with the written word. We cannot visit a physical location to see living people who are fictive characters. What we may find within the words is truth of a kind beyond the common sense world.

Look again at And When Did You Last See Your Father? See the inquisitor’s expression. What comes to mind is Auden’s line: ‘All we are not stares back at what we are.’ The puritan is defined by what he is not. He abhors the fallibility of human thought and feeling, the very source of all that makes for a living world. He denies colour and vitality and joy. He denies art. In his world imagination is an evasion of reality. It is not a version of the truth as it is in artist’s mind. Telling stories is telling lies, as B.S, Johnson once observed. He was being ironic. The puritan inquisitor had no regard for irony.

The diminishing of intellect in the puritan mind is evidenced by the narrow focus of purpose and the obsessive means employed to a bleak end. The conclusion has to be that the narrative art of fiction, and the expressive art of drama, enhance not only sympathy and generosity but our capacity for a perceptive and coherent intelligence.

Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of Heaven's Invention, a novel (Black Wolf 2017) and three poetry collections published by Cyberwit: The Rites of Paradise (2020), Sappho’s Moon (2021) and The Wicken Bird (2022). A new collection will appear soon.

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