Ever since I started to write for a living in 1945, I have been devoted to the English language, and astonished by the many forms in which good writing can appear. I admit I am no model of writing, but I have always had before me the hope that I can express clearly what I am trying to say. In that I have always thought Bertrand Russell is a model, because it seemed he could take any subject and make it comprehensible to any reader.
I think I can say I have read widely, although my preference has always trended away from really serious writing such as great novels (I am an extravagant admirer of, for example, Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy, although I am very far from having read all of their works, or even having studied any of them in extenso.)
I grew up with a ridiculous prejudice that held that only fiction was serious writing, only fiction was “creative”, and I have expended a lot of energy fruitlessly in writing novels and plays, of which I have hidden away somewhere in drawers probably as many as 10 or a dozen. It has taken books such as “Memory of Fire,” Eduardo Galeano’s monumental and thrilling three-volume history of Latin America, and such a masterwork as “The Age of Extremes: a Short History of the 20th century,” by Eric Hobsbawm, a book that seemed to be describing my own life, to convince me that “creative” writing need not be works of the imagination, as fiction is so often described.
Recently I have begun reading a work that has been enthusiastically recommended to me by my partner, The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence. I once interviewed this remarkable woman author, child of a poor family in Manitoba, and I also interviewed another Manitoba woman novelist, Adele Wiseman, whose Afterword in the edition of Laurence’s book explains in letters she received from Laurence, the agony, uncertainty, self-doubt, and yet ferocious certainty that always seems to accompany the birth of a real work of literature. I interviewed Wiseman because I was a reporter in Winnipeg when her first novel The Sacrifice was published in 1956, establishing what became a theme in her career, that of the experience of immigrants from the Old World, especially of Jewish immigrants, and their difficulty in coping with the New World in which they found themselves. She, too, like Laurence, went on to become an important figure in Canadian literature as a chronicler of the life of the Jewish ghetto, as it might be called, in North Winnipeg. She was born in the same year as me, 1928, and I was surprised to discover that she died at the age of 64 in 1992.
(Incidentally, I myself dipped into the life of North Winnipeg on one occasion when I wrote a 40,000-word unpublished monograph about the father and mother of a friend of mine, a wonderful couple whose early life was lived in such intense poverty that as a child the husband’s family used to change their residence every month because they could never pay the rent. The mother worked for years in laundry sweatshops; the father worked for 50 years as a printer for the same company. Yet they put all three of their sons through university. So much for the common prejudice that Jews are all rolling in money!)
The Stone Angel purports to have been written by a 90-year-old woman, Hagar, and to reveal by stages everything about her life. I have read only 30 or so pages so far, but already I am beginning to doubt that I have the stamina to see it through. Perhaps if I had been younger I might have taken more easily to it, but I am myself almost as old as the heroine of the book, and I am not sure I want to examine any dying life in such detail, just for pleasure. With similarly meretricious argument, I keep on putting off reading more of the novels of Dostoevsky, although I have been a great admirer of those few I have already read. I feel it would probably be just too hard a slog to get through them. I need something lighter these days.
Which brings me on to the purpose of this essay: to defend two lesser writers whose skills I immensely admire, even though I know some critics would say that neither of them plumb the depths of human experience as do the master novelists.
First of these is Patricia Highsmith, an American who spent most of her life living in Paris and Switzerland, where her 22 novels (of which I find I have read 12), are regarded as psychological novels in the full sense of the term, although classified as mere thrillers in Britain and the US. She was a master in creating characters who found themselves trapped by circumstance and forced to do things that they would never normally consider doing, thus creating a sense of mounting horror, as her characters struggled to fulfil what began to seem to them like their destiny. Her first popular success in 1950 came with Strangers on a Train, in which a perfectly innocent man became embroiled in a weird conversation with a stranger that led to sickening and horrifying results when his new-found “friend” turned up and forced him to fulfil some promises that he claimed were made during their casual conversation. I found Hitchcock’s film of the novel, though still a highly regarded one, not a patch on the terror of the novel. And when I began to read others she subsequently wrote, I found she had perfected the genre so that one became caught up in the self-imposed trap the characters had created for themselves to the degree that it became entirely rivetting, impossible to put down. In her later years, the criminal element of the stories disappeared from her work, it seemed, and what was left, as in the book I recently read, People Who Knock on the Door, were simply the horrors into which family life can descend. It is the story of an ordinary family living in a small American town, an inadequate father, insurance-salesman type, pompous and self-important, an obedient wife, and two sons. The eldest son Arthur is clear-eyed about his parents’ weaknesses, and refuses to follow his father when he ascribes the youngest son’s miraculous recovery from a severe illness, to the work of God. The father almost overnight becomes a born-again Christian, and the book is a pitiless examination of the horrendous consequences that this kind of absolutist belief can have on everyone connected with the believer. The eldest son opposes his father at every turn, but the youngest son becomes a believer even more fanatical than his father, and when the father disappoints him the result is truly tragic.
Highsmith was not a flowery writer, no purple prose: she just had this intense concentration, told in simple plain language, on the events happening in the lives, and usually in the minds, of her characters. I have no hesitation in recommending her to anyone, especially to anyone enjoying psychological novels.
A few years ago I developed a taste for the detective novels of Robert B. Parker, whose character was Spenser, a wise-cracking private eye in Boston who, whenever he got into a scrape that nothing could save him from, had the benefit of an alter-ego black man of doubtful moral stature, called Hawk, who could overcome anyone. I enjoyed them immensely, because they were sparsely written, witty, and immensely readable.
Recently I picked up a couple of his books at a remainder-table, and found both were about a new character, Chief of Police Jesse Stone, in a small town called Paradise. I read all of the first of these, called Split Image, on a train journey to Toronto from Montreal, something I would never have believed myself capable of. Much more than when I read Parker years ago, I was impressed by his style: he seemed to have discovered a new style, written around characters who seldom talked more than in monosyllables, or short sentences, and yet somehow, by what seemed to me an infernal skill, he managed to tell a story that was complex enough to maintain the interest to the end.
I gave that book to my son Robert (with whom I have exchanged many thrillers and the like over the years) and when I returned home I found the second Jesse Stone epic lying there. This one is called Killing the Blues and once again I was astounded by the brilliance of its writing technique. Jesse Stone, a police chief who prefers everyone to call him Jesse, is a guy who really would have liked to be a baseball player, but was stopped from making the show, as the Major Leagues are called, by wonky knees. He had worked as a policeman with the LAPD, but was severed from that in mysterious circumstances, the details of which haunted him for the rest of his life. Early in this story, as he went through his daily routine of dealing with minor crimes, he was advised that a man whom he had viciously attacked as a Los Angeles policeman, had recently been released from jail, and was expected probably to make his way to Paradise to exact revenge on Jesse.
While steeling himself for this coming attack, Jesse had to confront an incident in which a cynical high school student had taken a gun to her headmistress and held her hostage. Against everyone’s advice, Jesse went in to talk to the girl, discovered she had been mercilessly bullied at school, and was exacting revenge from those she held responsible for having ignored her plight. Eventually he talked her into giving him the gun, and won her confidence as he told her those responsible would be made to pay. Of course, in the end, the headmistress saw the error of her ways, the class-master who had routinely abused girls was arrested, and the bullying clique of girls offered to stand evidence against him, and to reform their own practices against weaker students than themselves. “Wow,” said the young hostage-taker, the first favorable or sympathetic thing heard from her, her conversation normally being peppered with obscenities. The headmistress offered to resign, but Jesse told her it wasn’t necessary, so long as she was determined to pay more attention to the girls under her control. This was typical of Jesse, who, still, however had a tendency to drink himself blind when something did not go as he expected.
Meantime Rollo Nurse was on his way, and like the old convict he was, he was making life difficult by staging a series of crimes --- such as breaking the necks of neighbourhood dogs --- that he knew would unsettle the police chief.
Needless to say, Jesse emerges whole from all these trials. But once again I was totally bedazzled by the technical writing skill employed by Parker. It almost seemed that, like Damon Runyon, for example, whose tales of New York low life of the 1930s were told in an entirely new kind of prose, with his own manufactured tense that makes his prose instantly recognizable --- imagine how rare that is! --- I was almost convinced Parker had invented a new form of prose that would be instantly recognizable to anyone who had read him.
Parker’s Jesse Stone, I realized as I finished the book, is unlike any police chief who ever has, or probably ever could be. But he seemed to be a model for any chief of police who might be interested in really doing the job he is chosen for. And maybe this book should be required reading by all Chiefs of Police.
I could not be so presumptuous as to recommend Robert B. Parker to anyone ---- his books have already sold millions of copies ---- I just put him forward as an example of mastery of a prose style, found in a totally unexpected place, among the practitioners of popular fiction, from a guy who wrote five hours every day of the week except Sunday, and produced 68 books of different style and content that reached an audience of millions.
Don't knock it: it was a phenomenal achievement by any standard.