Allan Massie

Life and Letters

Experience is only the beginning

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A fortnight ago Sam Leith, reviewing Neil Powell’s book on the Amises, father and son, wrote:

Powell is insistent — and for all I know dead right, but that’s hardly the point — that Kingsley was a sufferer from depression. Of the last sentence of The Anti-Death League (‘There isn’t anywhere to be.’), he writes: ‘This — the last sentence especially — is the authentic voice of depression, and only a depressive could have written it.’ You may wonder where that untestable assertion gets us.

You may indeed, though the answer is pretty obvious: not very far. Powell has fallen into a trap that catches many critics and also, though perhaps less often, ordinary readers: the assumption that everything in a novel or play derives from the writer’s experience, rather than his imagination. It’s absurd.

Take another example: ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time;/ And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death.’ Here too we may say, with Powell, ‘is the authentic voice of depression’, at least as authentic as that heard in the line he quotes. But would you say that ‘only a depressive could have written it’? Or would it be more sensible to conclude that Shakespeare has imagined how Macbeth should feel as this moment when he has just been told of his wife’s death and when the props of his existence are shuddering? Shakespeare had no need to be himself on the point of despair; all he had to do was imagine Macbeth’s feelings and find the right words for him to speak.

It’s easy to demonstrate the idiocy of the sort of assertion Powell makes. Suppose you write a nasty and violent rape scene so well that it is utterly and horribly convincing. You might be rather pleased with it. But you would reasonably be offended if some critic came along to assure the world that ‘only a rapist could have written it’.

Almost 20 years ago my friend, the poet Robert Nye, wrote a remarkable novel about Gilles de Rais, once a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc, then brought to trial charged with witchcraft and heresy, sacrilege and the practice of unnatural crimes against children of both sexes, ending with their murder for his delight. He was convicted and executed at Nantes in 1440. Now I can think of no one less like Gilles de Rais than Robert Nye, also of nobody more capable of thoroughly imagining him. He could do so because, in the words of his narrator — a priest who served as Gilles’ chaplain — he understands that ‘Not madmen or monsters do these things. We do. The imagination of man is evil from his youth. The only hope for us is: some do not.’ Reviewing the novel, I observed, ‘This is as true in the age of Auschwitz as it was in the 15th century.’

None of this means of course that novelists and playwrights don’t often draw on personal experience. Most of the best novels about addictions are written by addicts. Nevertheless experience only takes you a short distance. Fiction — plays and films as well as novels — is made from experience, observation and imagination; and the last is the most important of the three, for it is imagination which enables you to illuminate what you have lived through, and what you have seen or heard, and by playing on this double experience give it the significance which a bald recital lacks.

Experience provides material. Observat- ion adds to it. This is important, for without material there is nothing to work on, and indeed many writers exhaust their material, and their work withers. But material without imagination is worth very little. Some of the greatest writers have, outwardly, led quiet lives without much incident; one thinks, for instance, of Henry James and Thomas Mann, both of whom indeed seem to have chosen self-denial rather than self-fulfilment. It is quite possible that Shakespeare too belonged to this category, and that self-denial fostered his extraordinary imagination, enabling him to inhabit the characters he created and find the words in which they reveal themselves. The source of a story may be the merest incident on which the imagination plays. The sight of a couple in a restaurant had V. S. Pritchett asking, ‘what does he see in her?’ and then employing his imagination in the search for an answer. The writer can imagine a man in despair, suffering acute depression, and then contentedly joining his wife for tea and scones.

Incidentally I’ve just picked up The Anti-Death League, and the last sentence is not that quoted. It is in fact, ‘The steering failed to respond’: a road accident in which a dog is killed. Kingsley Amis, a non-driver, nevertheless managed to write this sentence. Which may prove something; my argument perhaps.