Tuesday, July 01, 2008

God and Amis in the Same Room

To Manchester University for the latest public lecture from Prof. Amis, this time with James Wood, and on the relationship between literature and God. A reasonably full Whitworth Hall, and I was remembering that the last time I was there, I was officiating at a graduate ceremony handing out scrolls. It's too big a subject of course, and the debate wasn't helped by the design - three men on a stage - and a vast hall ahead of them. Interesting that Amis quoted from Milton, Greene and Herbert; this was Amis the academic rather than Amis the satirist. The argument - a valid one - that literature is essentially secular, particularly the novel, but where the world in which it exists is a religious one, or rather where there is a struggle between the religious and the secular, then art inevitably reflects that society, that struggle, is a subtle one. As they were introduced to us as Professor Amis and Professor Wood, I got the sense that its not literature that wants to be an alternate religion, but academia itself. What is wrong with Martin and James? The professorial monikers hanging as heavy as ecclesiastical robes. Not, one thinks, an appropriate soubriquet for the writer of the scabrous "Yellow Dog." If the argument from the top table was both allusive and elusive, the audience let us down. Regulars at Manchester literature events knows the mad question is due at some point; where the questioner gives a partial biography, mentions their unpublished novel, and asks a question so oblique that the room appears to be on its side. Tonight we had pretty much five in the row, as evangelical hands shot up from the cheap seats. You have to feel a little sorry for evangelicals, not that they're the one section of society that is treated with withering contempt, as much as that they have an inability to recognise that their view of the world is a narrowcast one. It is impossible to imagine a novel that takes the evangelical seriously, after all, they take themselves so seriously - and the satirist is left with Chaucerian grotesques. Amis makes the point that even Greene's religious schematic creates an unreality that weakens the novels. For the second time in a fortnight, Cormac MacCarthy's "The Road" is a point of reference - and I have to squeeze my ears closed at the "spoilers" from the stage, I'm currently half way through it. Religion, in terms of tonight's meeting is very localised, Western, Christian, and it is Genesis and Revelations, with a nod to Job, that get the namechecks. The Bible is far richer a source for stories than its alpha and omega, but of course, it is original sin - and its fearsome opposite, eternity, that intrigues the novelist and the critic. A few interesting points were lost in the echoing space -: where are the secular novels that incorporate some kind of religious death? I wanted to bring up Louise Erdrich's "Tales of Burning Love" where the native American wife, walking out in the snow, becomes a metaphor. We live in an age, in Britain at least, where its almost impossible for a writer to give us a directly Christian story, since such a life and world would be unrecognisable in our low-key religious country. Yet, spiritualism, whether native American, or otherwise, has become the pick 'n' mix metaphor. Will Self creates his own inverted religion in "The Book of Dave", yet most novels remain both conservative and moral. Secular fiction - and Amis and Wood both seem to be hinting at this - loses out when it disconnects from the very human need to "believe."

2 comments:

Dick Madeley said...

Fantastic stuff. I was also there and I also counted five mad questions.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Indeed!