I find that I want to enjoy contemporary literary fiction much more than I actually do. Too many literary novels have I started and then set aside because, whatever the brilliance of the writing, there simply was not enough of a plot, or far too turgid a plot, to hold my interest.
For with the death of [Henry] James the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of the importance of the human act. It was as if the world of fiction had lost a dimension: the characters of such distinguished writers as Mrs. Virginia Woolf and Mr. E.M. Forster wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin. Even in one of the most materialistic of our great novelists–in Trollope–we are aware of another world against which the actions of the characters are thrown into relief.
Trollope’s characters exist, as Greene puts it, “in a God’s eye.” But having by and large rejected the theological backdrop against which human action and character is thrown into appropriate relief, what is left to today’s literary novelists? Greene saw them as taking refuge in what he called “the subjective novel”: “It was as if he thought that by mining layers of personality hitherto untouched he could unearth the secret of ‘importance,’ but in these mining operations he lost yet another dimension.”
The literary novelist must plumb the depths of human personality (there is no one who does it better than that most traditional of novelists, Jane Austen). But Greene is right: psychological mining is a danger if in doing it the novelist forgets the importance of the Sun. And likewise dangerous for the novelist are exotic locales, eccentric characters, illicit love affairs, childhood traumas, and satiric glances at the folly of human beings, if these elements are not viewed–by the novelist, if not by his or her characters–as God would see them.
Graham Greene himself of course, at his best, stood athwart the modern tendency in fiction. So did the man whose work he discusses in the essay I’ve been reading, Francois Mauriac.
Enjoy this and the other gems in Greene’s Collected Essays.