Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Filling the holes in fiction..

So, to recap, fictional worlds have ‘holes’, pockets of the unknowable: the universe we reconstruct in our minds while reading a novel is full of 'holes', not yet fully constituted: when Conan Doyle describes Sherlock Holmes's flat, it is meaningless to ask exactly how many books there were on the shelves.
Such details are eternally absent and cannot be asked about, as opposed to “...the naive reader’s supposition that there has to be an answer to such questions as: Did Sherlock Holmes have eggs for breakfast on the day that Dr. Watson met him?”

There are perhaps no such 'naive readers' – only children or philosophers broach such questions. But a variant of this ‘naivety’ is essential to the reading of fiction. Sometimes these kind of questions are valid ones, answerable through recourse to the historical world that the fiction presupposes. This is from Joyce’s “The Dead”: 

Gabriel found himself partnered with Miss Ivors. She was a frank-mannered talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes. She did not wear a low-cut bodice and the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto.
When they had taken their places she said abruptly:
"I have a crow to pluck with you."
"With me?" said Gabriel.
She nodded her head gravely.
"What is it?" asked Gabriel, smiling at her solemn manner.
"Who is G. C.?" answered Miss Ivors, turning her eyes upon him.
Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand, when she said bluntly:
"O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren't you ashamed of yourself?" 

We can ask, first of all, what kind of paper the Daily Express is – it is a “conservative English-sympathizing newspaper.” And, with slightly less certainty, we can ask about Miss Ivors brooch: “presumably the silver replica of the Cavan Brooch, symbol of Maud Gonne's organization, Inghinuidhe na h-Eireann ("Daughters of Ireland”)". Such details are metonyms of a world outside the text. Indeed, these details are the hooks that attach the text to an historical world. Fictional worlds presuppose and are porous to the real, historical world, and this world fills some of the 'holes'.  
 A slightly different point. Here is George Steiner on Simenon:

There's a Maigret novel which opens with a loud noise. At three in the morning in Pigalle, the old Paris red-light district, a nightclub owner is pulling down the metal shade, to close up. Out of that single noise, focused against the first milk cart, focused against the steps of those who go home to sleep at that time and those who start coming into Les Halles to get the food ready for the day, Simenon gives you not only the city, not only something about France which no historian can surpass, but the two or three people who will matter in the story are already before you.

Again, we can of course ask questions about Pigalle and Les Halles, and the answers we get, not from the fictional world, but from historical France will light up our reading. But Steiner is also taking about something else, the way in which significant details, metonyms, bring with them a whole world which, strictly speaking, is not present in the letter of  the text. So it is that when we read a novel, we have the sense that we are been given glimpses of a world, a world that exists over and above the partial representations that confront us and which envelops them in its atmosphere. Despite the fact that we are offered only a few parsimonious details about, say, a library or a bedroom, we in some sense populate the 'holes' - the pockets and regions of the unknown - that surround these details. Given only parts - Holmes's hat and pipe- we nonetheless construct the man.

In fact, fiction needs its holes. The narrative pauses at the bedroom door rather than going inside. It creates a block, a blindspot, and also a region of the unknown, a pocket of mystery. It is the holes which give to a fiction its enigmatic density and which, paradoxically, hold the fiction together. 

It is these pockets and regions that a director would seek to explore and to fill in a cinematic adaptation, but the director is only doing at a highly conscious level what we all do as readers of fiction. 

1 comment:

  1. What is the title of Simenon's Maigret novel that Steiner was talking about? Thanks.