K___’s library has a small but rewarding stock of English books. i like the very smallness – i see the books change every time i go. i’ve taken out Jane Austen’s complete novels, half of which are new to me. i read Sense and Sensibility over the weekend, what a joy, one of the very best English stylists, i feel.

i was reminded at times of Kierkegaard and Philip Roth; i’d read the latter’s I Married a Communist a fortnight ago, with similar pleasure and admiration. Austen and Roth both make it look easy; it all seems so effortless, casual, till you reach the end and look back, with wonder. It’s not just technique – the achievement is of maturity, understanding, good sense. Hence my own novel’s limitations – although i’ve been obsessively tinkering with it since 2004, its essential form is a fossil of my 26-year old self – at the moment it began, that was all it could ever be – and i lacked understanding, and sense. It may be possible to be a great chess master, or logician, or mathematician, without being a half-way decent human being, but it’s certainly not so for novelists. While many novelists have been monsters, i feel that even with a narcissist like Thomas Mann there is some fineness of character – even if it was only deployed in his novels.

The Roth and Austen novels both privilege an ordinary, everday goodness, common sense as against the fiery idealism, and often the inhumanity and stupidity, of the revolutionary and the romantic. The Willoughbys and Mariannes, the Ira Ringolds, are mesmerising in their folly and hubris, while the Elinors and Murray Ringolds seem so drably sane and decent – but i think goodness really lies with the apparently dull common sense of the latter. It has been the misfortune of the human race to be so readily susceptible to the Messianic, the utopian, to monsters of vanity and cruelty.

Roth and Austen could have depicted Elinor and Murray as wise, stay-at-home saints, and Ira and Willoughby as sadistic monsters. But it is fitting that both Roth and Austen, precisely because they prefer common sense decency to romantic ideals, also create fully-lit, shaded, rounded characters, as resistant to definition as are all human beings. So the switchbacks and revelations of Austen’s novel, as each character is differently spotlit, angled, becoming deeper, more mysterious, and so more human. Murray and Elinor are evidently good human beings – but the word i want is not the religiously-tinged ‘good’ – they are decent. They would not think of themselves as ‘good’, i guess, but as being decent, proper, of “doing the right thing”. It seems dull indeed next to Ira’s socialist rants, his (empty) rhetoric, or Willoughby’s Byronic zest and elan, but then one need only consider the awfulness of both Ira and Willoughby to consider the matter aright.

i think both Austen and Roth, as great novelists, see that human goodness (in all senses of the word) lies in the particular, the local; for a great artist, the local is the general. Stray from the warmth of human contact, from face to face encounter, and you open the door to the inflation and emptiness of rhetoric, to the endless deceit of human vanity. Barter rather than banking.

i have, in the past, been susceptible to precisely this rhetoric, to the Utopian, to idealism. i think, in this life, i’ve moved away from such grandiosities to the human, to the particular, to individuals; and this is part of why i am a novelist of sorts. It is when you consider people as a mass that you must lose all subtlety, gradation, all sense of what is good about humanity. The idealist’s temptation is to take up a loudspeaker, so he can address crowds; but too much is lost, the human voice loses its warmth, its very humanity, it becomes coarse and unfeeling, and, in the end, opens the door to any wickedness.

Wordsworth’s lines here:  “little, nameless, unremembered acts/Of kindness and of love”. One should try to be kind and decent – not as a grand, Messianic spectacle, the revolutionary storming the barricades and casting down the ruling class, while everyone applauds, etc. etc. (then, La Peur) – but habitually, as a part of one’s life – as an ordinary, everyday, human thing.

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