Why Doesn’t Everybody Love Literature?

The neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, the main character in Ian McEwan's Saturday, is not a literary man. He has read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, at his daughter Daisy's instigation, but got little out of them. "At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were just once so. If, as Daisy said, the genius was in the detail, then he was unmoved. The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down. These books were the products of steady, workmanlike accumulation."

In his infamous review of Saturday, John Banville claimed to find Perowne's illiteracy implausible -- particularly the fact that Perowne has not heard of Matthew Arnold. I am quite sure there are neurosurgeons who have not heard of Arnold, just as there are literary critics who aren't sure what the amygdala is. A very successful computer programmer once told me that there was no reason to read Madame Bovary, now that societal attitudes towards divorce have changed. When I tried to protest, he said, "What, you're not going to say the book's really well written or something, are you?" I could only reply, "Well... um.. yes," and the programmer shook his head in distaste. A banker once told me Anna Karenina was boring, and was incredulous that anyone could dispute his verdict. All one can say here is that what I experience when reading those novels is not what the programmer and the banker experienced. I should stress that these are worthy, witty individuals, better able to support their children than I am, and so on -- one of the brilliancies of Saturday is that the thuggish Baxter proves more capable of appreciating Arnold's poetry than does the noble-spirited Perowne. Enjoying literature gives one no claim to the moral high ground.

Perowne is certainly right that Flaubert accumulated a lot of details. All the variants of Madame Bovary can now be consulted on this website, which contains not only the published text and images of the different drafts, but interactive controls which allow you to re-instate passages corrected or cut by Flaubert or his publishers. What emerges from Flaubert's "steady, workmanlike accumulation," at least for those of us who enjoy Madame Bovary, is an overwhelmingly-convincing world.

James Wood writes in How Fiction Works, "The realist feels Flaubert breathing down his neck: Is it well written enough?" An uncomfortable image, but one that comes closer to my own experience of Flaubert than does the programmer's argument that the book has a single point to make and is now obsolete.

But there it is, Tolstoy hated Shakespeare, Banville hated Saturday... writing is like trying to design a program that has to run on hundreds of thousands of completely different operating systems -- every individual human brain being a different operating system. Under the circumstances, there's no way around the fact that, however good your program is, there'll be many operating systems on which it completely fails to work.

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