I keep coming back to the same question, in reading and writing: can genre fiction aspire to literature? Can a police procedural or a spy novel be written so well that becomes a work of art?
One way to approach the question is to find a comparable pair of works from these very different worlds, and then compare them. A great work of literature can set the standards for such categories as plot and theme, character and setting, technique and language. But there is a seventh quality perhaps more important than all the others put together: ambition. I do think literature is defined to some extent simply by what you attempt. Finding out who killed the vicar during the Easter services just doesn’t have the same resonance as exploring the nature of evil in the mad hunt for revenge on the great white whale. Melville just has a huge jump on Agatha Christie, right from the start.
So, gradually, we can begin to break this monolith of ambition down into its component parts: iconic characters; a deep understanding of the social and political worlds and the way they penetrate the private lives of ordinary people; poetic language; fascination with the form of the novel itself; a resonant sense of place; and finally, a pervasive curiosity about human relationships, the negotiations and passions, the flaws of perception, the delusions and desires that pull people together and drive them apart.
Few books better embody these qualities than Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet; indeed I have devised this list from the materials of Durrell’s masterpiece. The reasoning is inductive but the result is fair: despite his flaws and foibles, Durrell sets a high standard, one that few practitioners of popular literature would even attempt to meet.
But it can be done; and in my opinion it has been done.
In the thirteen years between 1983 and 1996, English spy novelist Len Deighton composed a series of ten books that stand with any sustained work of literature in the late twentieth century. Their setting was the Cold War, their hero was one Bernard Samson and their subject was nothing less than the nature of love and betrayal, personal, political, spiritual, on every level from the violated intimacy of a marriage to the treason of a selling a country’s secrets to its enemies. But the books also deal with how these duplicities affect each other, how friendships and marriages are battered and undermined by the breach of National trust; or the appearance of it. Because nothing is quite as it seems in the Bernard Samson novels, and the failures of human perception that animate The Alexandria Quartet also help enliven Deigton’s books.
These are two massive projects, built with a strikingly similar blue-print: a story narrated for most of its length by a narrator whose basic grasp of events is tenuous at best; a revelatory volume in the third person that reveals the extent of the narrator’s misunderstanding, followed by a return to the first person.
In the concluding sections of both works, the reader has acquired a jaundiced eye for the narrator’s opinions and conclusions. Durrell felt that the reader could extrapolate further volumes, extending the Quartet with a newly gained perspective, an overlay of hard-won knowledge about Darley and his foibles. Does Clea love him, really, any more than Justine did? Or would another ‘intralinear’ from Balthazar reveal that she, too was using him for her own purposes?
The same effect energizes the last trilogy of the Bernard Samson books. Bernard is hard on people, often dangerously underestimating them. We can laugh at his contemptuous dismissals of Dicky Cruyer for instance, as Bernard searches for the truth of his sister-in-law’s death in the later books. But from the objective revelations of Spy Sinker, we know Dicky for the shrewd operator and cunning strategist that he really is. Whether Bernard will ever figure it out remains an open question. Similarly, Darley never grasps the hard truths about Justine related in Mountolive. He’s dreamy and poetic; Samson is cynical and snide, but they are both destined to remain trapped in their narrow views of the world -- and amusingly clueless -- to the very end … just like you and me, and everyone else.
According to Deighton’s deliberately self-effacing comments, the Samson novels were written merely to entertain. In an author’s note at the beginning of Faith (the first volume of the third trilogy) he says, rather disingenuously, “Like all the other books, Faith is designed to stand alone, and be read without reference to the other stories.”
Durrell takes a radically different tack in his introductory note before the beginning of Balthazar:
Modern literature offers us no unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.
Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern … The subject-object relation is so important to relativity that I have tried to turn the novel through both subjective and objective modes. The third part, Mountolive, is a straight, naturalistic novel in which the narrator of Justine and Balthazar becomes and object, i.e., a character.
This is not Proustian or Joycean method – for they illustrate Bergsonian “Duration” in my opinion, not “Space-Time”.
So the question I plan to investigate is this: can the plain-spoken, unpretentious Deighton put his Samson books beside the exotic vapors of the Alexandria Quartet and claim a freemasonry of high art?
Can a spy novel be literature?
If it is indeed possible, this is the one.
And so I plan to let these two epic stories face off -- in plot, theme, character, setting, technique and language -- hoping that a point-by-point comparison might prove instructive, even illuminating. If in the process, we can develop a working definition for literature, so much the better.
So, is there a place for plot in literature? I would say Yes – if the novel’s access to the inner life of characters brings the schematic outline to life.
I had a glimmer of this tonic synergy recently in rewriting my novel Owners. The plot had taken over – insidiously, as it always does. A central character’s role obscured his actual responses to the human truth of what was happening to him. It’s a kind of check-the-box thought process. The character has to find this out, and then he has to do such and such … but the real effect of the news gets lost in the mechanical details.
In the first draft of Owners, when housepainter Mike Henderson finds out that homeowner Preston Lomax’s plan will render him destitute, he more or less goes on about his plot-appointed business. But a brush with financial melt-down in my own life taught me the folly of this narrative choice: Mike would have done one thing and one thing only at that point: shamelessly and utterly freaked out. As I did, as anyone would. The interesting thing is that when I went back and incorporated this bit of human truth into the story, it supported and enriched the plot, bound the characters to their actions with a sturdier twine of authentic motivation and heart.
Both Deighton and Durrell employ the device of gradually revealing the truth of their story through the use of (sometimes contradictory) different narrative voices.
In Justine we are presented with the confessions of Darley, an Irish writer and self-professed gasbag, who seems to have accumulated an extraordinary group of people around him: Nessim, the millionaire Coptic banker, his mysterious wife Justine; the painter Clea, the exotic dancer Melissa (All of whom seem to have fallen for Darley); Pursewarden the gnomic writer and professional diplomat, Balthazar, the old mystic who teaches Cabbala class, rather like the ones Hollywood celebrities indulge in today. Then there is Darley’s landlord Pombal (another minor diplomatic functionary), the all-knowing barber Menemjian, and the mysterious Capodistria.
It seems that Justine has become estranged from her powerful husband, but (as we learn in the second volume), her dalliance with Darley is merely a sort of smoke screen designed to conceal her actual affair with the writer Pursewarden. Or so Balthazar thinks. In fact, even this is false, as we find out in the third volume. Nothing is as it seems. Nessim is not a dreamy mystic drifting away from his wife. He is rather something we might call today a terrorist, running guns to Palestine, assuming that a strong Jewish state is the only hope for the Copts (and other minorities) in the Middle East. His fanatical politics draws Justine to him and informs their every decision. They really are the “great two headed beast” that Darley had first imagined, viewing their marriage from afar. He just has no idea what really draws them together.
Justine spends time with these various writerly fops because they can give her information (indirectly, even inadvertently) about the British government, and how much the various Intelligence services know about their plans. It couldn’t be less romantic. Darley’s amorous flights of fancy seem more fanciful (and more absurd) with every page.
Deighton owns this category. It may seem like an easy victory, since genre fiction traffics in plot, supposedly to the detriment of other narrative virtues.
Durrell’s contempt for plot is evident on every page. It’s a form of snobbery. Plot seems to mark a novel, in the class structure of literature, like the wrong accent at an English race-track. I think the real issue is where the plot stands in the axis of author, reader and character. If it weighs too heavily on all of those points, we can’t take the book seriously as literature; if it rests too lightly, the book seems ungrounded, in love with the sound of the author’s voice, happier to tell than to show the unfolding action of the story.
This is where Durrell fails the reader. Everything in the Quartet is elided, glimpsed through a haze of memory and poetic invention. The questions and answers that would anchor his novels firmly in the world of political reality never get asked or answered: how does one organize a political cell under the noses of English diplomatic corps; how does one really go about smuggling weapons across the Red Sea? More importantly how do these powerful bonds of political passion form between people? Over and over again we are told that people “talked all night” in the course of “extraordinary conversations”, but Durrell offers only random disconnected snippets of those crucial exchanges. I marked these moments in the margins with the phrase “MFA nightmare.”
Some typical examples, from Justine:
He said many things which struck her then but later when she came to try and write them down, they had vanished.(101), Though I have searched my mind I can recall little of out actual conversation.(118), It was conversations like this, conversations lasting far into the night, that first brought me close to Clea,(130),… he is never happier than when he can sit over a microscopic wood-fire in winter and talk One by one the memories leak through the faulty machinery of his mind, until he no longer knows them for his own. (123), and What interested me was the extraordinary fidelity with which he reproduced the whole conversation which obviously in his memory ranked as one of the great experiences of his life. (108).
Occasionally the beauty of the caramelized sugar and whipped cream of Durrell’s sweet-tooth prose makes us forget the simple protein that it withholds, as in this passage, which begins with the usual elision but ends with an image of such simple purity and beauty that for the moment at least, nothing else matters:
How we talked! Night after night in shabby sea-front cafes( trying ineffectually to conceal from Nessim and other common friends an attachment for which we felt guilty). As we talked we insensibly drew nearer and nearer to each other until we were holding hands, or all but in each others’ arms; not from the customary sensuality which afflicts lovers but as if the physical contact could ease the pain of self-exploration.
Of course this is the unhappiest love relationship of which a human being is capable – weighed down by something as heartbreaking as the post-coital sadness which clings to every endearment, which lingers like a sediment in the clear waters of a kiss. (134)
At other times, Durrell will take a single quote and drop it like a pebble into the still pond of a ruminative paragraph: “There are only three things to be done with a woman,” said Clea once. “You can love her, suffer for her or turn her into literature.” Sometimes these snippets have an ulterior motive. He uses a stray comment out of context, to illuminate his own aims and techniques:
I remember her sitting before the multiple mirrors at the dressmakers, being fitted for a sharkskin costume, and saying, “Look, five different pictures of the same subject. Now if I wrote I would try for a multi-dimensional effect in character, a sort of prism-sightedness. Why should not people show more than one profile at a time. (p. 27)
Justine would appreciate her author’s whimsical desire, often voiced during interviews, to have readers take in all four of his books simultaneously.
By contrast, Deighton seems to capture the perfect balance. His story unfolds in real time, through vivid confrontations and conversations. Important scenes aren’t alluded to or dimly recalled. They are shown, through the sharp lens of Bernard Samson’s cynical eye. At the start of Berlin Game, Bernard is headed back to Berlin to extract ‘Brahms Four’,a double agent who saved Bernard’s life many years ago. Bernard’s wife, Fiona, disapproves of the mission:
“…I still don’t want you to go.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
“You owe Brahms Four nothing,” she said.
“I owe him,” I said. “I know that and so does he. That’s why he’ll trust me in a way he’ll trust no one else. He knows I owe him.”
“It must be twenty years,” she said, as if promises, like mortgages, became less burdensome with time. (P. 27)
This grace note of acid perception sets the tone for the book, which relentlessly probes and questions the nature of loyalty and betrayal. Bernard thinks his wife is having an affair with dapper American Bret Rensselaer; in fact she is betraying her country, not her husband, and by the end of the first volume of Deighton’s epic, she has defected to the East.
Meanwhile, London Central erupts into a storm of sexual shennanigans: Fiona’s sister Tessa is betraying her husband George with Bernard’s boss Dicky Cruyer …. And numerous other people, including Russian spy Giles Trent. Bernard’s best friend Werner Volkmann has a young wife who is sleeping with the head of the Berlin Field Office, Frank Harrington -- as well as various others including a defecting Russian spy named Stinnes.
As Bernard says about young Mrs. Volkmann: Her faithfulness was not likely to be the subject of any romantic poetry. Limericks, perhaps.(Hook 82)
It’s a world where no one can be trusted.
Bernard is suspected of treason himself, until it turns out that Fiona is a double agent. The sacrifice of her marriage for the greater good strikes Bernard as another, more complex kind of betrayal. Thinking he has lost Fiona forever, Bernard takes up with another woman; now it’s clear he was betraying her as well, however unwittingly, since he was not only still married, but married to a great heroine of the Cold War.
Tessa is killed in a chaotic late night gun battle as Fiona makes her way back to the west. Bernard spends the last three books investigating what happened, rooting out the final betrayal of that road-side death. The plotting is intricate and merciless: no one is spared, least of all Bernard.
By contrast, when we finally discover the truth of Nessim’s activities, when his brother Narouz has taken the fall for the conspiracy and Justine has fled to Israel, the story lines unravel. The final volume takes its leisurely time letting Darley mature into a man of action rather than just words, but no momentum of causality propels the narrative. We turn the pages as we nibble at the left-over Halloween candy, unwrapping and consuming the disconnected treats of Durrell’s poetic invention.
So Deighton wins on plot, hands down. But that’s sort of like being the best-looking kid at the spelling bee. This isn’t a beauty pageant: the superficial appeal of a well-told tale carries very little weight in the scales of literature.
The real contest lies ahead