Monday, August 21, 2006

Class Reaction

Writer Elizabeth Baines, in her response to my "Brick Lane" review below, wonders about my reference to Zadie Smith's "middle class conventions." It's long been my contention that class remains at the heart of British fiction, is responsible for most of its failings and some of its successes; and that writers simply cannot ignore it, or by their choices of settings and characters are reinforcing it. This is not just as simplistic as a London-based media writing of and for itself; you see it in unapologetically working class prose from David Peace or Irvine Welsh. What I'm still waiting for, and if anyone can supply a name I'd be surprised, but will investigate, is a British writer who can observe and comment on class in this country in a dispassionate way. You get a societal novel like Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" and its fascination is almost entirely with the rich. An arriviste outsider might be the commentator on their lives, but he is also participant, and, in Hollinghurst at least, intoxicated by that life. In Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love" the terrifying balloon accident at its start brings together people from different walks of life, yet McEwan can't these days handle characters unless they are Cabinet Ministers (at the top, in "Amsterdam") or criminals (his last 3 contemporary novels.) This is a rarified cast. Zadie Smith was praised, rightly, for "White Teeth", but, wrongly in my opinion, for it being primarily about London's melting pot; the awfully middle class white family, though butt of many of her jokes, were also the place that you felt she was writing from. As I've written about "On Beauty," she has little interest in the working class street poet, and for more in the internal politics of a patrician university. Whereas Fitzgerald wrote that the "rich are different", Hemingway's riposte, "yes, they've got more money" is perhaps the approach I'd like from a British writer. And, of course, the middle England, of car boot sales, and package holidays, and working in middle management - a world I think William Hague was far more emblematic of than Blair, Cameron or Brown - is unwritten. American writers as varied as Bellow, Updike, Wolfe and Roth have managed to write about the real country that they see before them - the British - mostly the English - still hanker for Iris Murdoch's country house intrigue; or a Sunday supplement lifestyle. I think we have to give up on the A-List writers like Smith and McEwan being able to write with any kind of classlessness these days; anymore than Oasis were able to write songs about aspiration once they'd made the jetset. The downside of all this for the reader is that whilst I might go to McEwan for an accurate portrayal of a top surgeon's life and practice (as in "Saturday"), I won't go there for any real insight into life in this country here and now. Yesterday, I went to Hay-on-Wye for the first time. I can't find the link, but I think it was George Saunders who did an irreverent diary for the Guardian recently about his recent visit there. During the festival at least, a particular London-based literati class visits en masse, which he amusingly detailed; but it was more a mixed bag on Sunday; walkers there for the afternoon, foreign tourists, even book loving fathers with their literate daughters ("Would you like it, dear?" he said, picking up a boxset of Tennyson for £100, "Not really, I only like one poem", she replied). I'll go again, though not particularly for the books. Betwixt and between the vast warehouses of overstocks, and old novels; and the antiquarian specialists; I found a few gems, but not the book nirvana I'd hoped for. It's a little like Charing Cross Road, for that; I'll find more of my kind of books elsewhere, and at keener prices. Though looking through so many books, one does occasionally wonder "Why?" The Poetry Bookshop was worth many hours, (and probably many more pounds) of my money, though they didn't have the two books I was looking for. I saw books I'd never seen before which is part of the pleasure. I came back laden with Cummings, Pirandello, Aylett, Creeley, Marvell and Ashbery; a good midfield in anyone's book.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Baines said...

Actually, Adrian, I think the thing that makes Zadie Smith 'middle class', if that's what you want to call it, is precisely a literary convention. She adopts the superior kind of ironic third-person mode which, to my mind, is indeed colonising and middle class. (Not that I'm saying I blame her!)