But to repeat, what is a character? I am thicketed in qualifications: if I say that a character seems connected to consciousness, to the use of a mind, the many superb examples of characters who seem to think very little, who are rarely seen thinking, bristle up (Gatsby, Captain Ahab, Becky Sharp, Widmerpool, Jean Brodie). If I refine the thought by repeating that a character at least has some essential connection to an interior life, to inwardness, is seen “from within,” I am presented with the nicely opposing examples of those two adulterers, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest, the first of whom does a lot of reflection, and is seen internally as well as externally, the second of whom, in Theodor Fontane’s eponymous novel, is seen almost entirely from the outside, with little space set aside for represented reflection. No one could say that Anna is more vivid than Effi simply because we see Anna doing more thinking.
If I try to distinguish between major and minor characters—round and flat characters—and claim that these differ in terms of subtlety, depth, time allowed on the page, I must concede that many so-called flat characters seem more alive to me, and more interesting as human studies, however short-lived, than the round characters they are supposedly subservient to.
The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism. There is no such thing as “a novelistic character”. There are just thousands of different kinds of people, some round, some flat, some deep, some caricatures, some realistically evoked, some brushed in with the lightest of strokes. Some of them are solid enough that we can speculate about their motives: why does Hurstwood steal the money? Why does Isabel Archer return to Gilbert Osmond? What is Julien Sorel’s true ambition? Why does Kirilov want to commit suicide? What does Mr Biswas want? But there are scores of fictional characters who are not fully or conventionally evoked who are also alive and vivid. The solid, nineteenth fictional character (I count Biswas in that company) who confronts us with deep mysteries is not the “best” or ideal or only way to create character (though it does not deserve the enormous condescension of postmodernism). My own taste tends towards the sketchier fictional personage, whose lacunae and omissions tease us, provoke us to wade in their deep shallows: Why does Onegin reject Tatiana and then provoke a fight with Lenski? Pushkin offers us almost no evidence on which to base our answer. Is Svevo’s Zeno mad? Is the narrator of Hamsun’s Hunger mad? We have only their unreliable narration of events.
Perhaps because I am not sure what a character is, I find especially moving those postmodern novels, like Pnin, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, or Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, in which we are confronted with characters who are at once real and unreal. In each of these novels, the author asks us to reflect on the fictionality of the heroes and heroines who give the novels their titles. And in a fine paradox, it is precisely such reflection that stirs in the reader a desire to make these fictional characters “real”, to say, in effect, to the authors: “I know that they are only fictional—you keep on suggesting this. But I can only know them by treating them as real.” That is how Pnin works, for instance. An unreliable narrator insists that Professor Pnin is “a character” in two senses of the word: a type (clownish, eccentric émigré), and a fictional character, the narrator’s fantasy. Yet just because we resent the narrator’s condescension towards his fond and foolish possession, we insist that behind the “type” there must be a real Pnin, who is worth “knowing” in all his fullness and complexity. And Nabokov’s novel is constructed in such a way as to excite that desire in us for a real Professor Pnin, a “true fiction” with which to oppose the false fictions of the overbearing and sinister narrator.
What does it mean to “love” a fictional character, to feel that you know her? What kind of knowledge is this? Miss Jean Brodie is probably one of the “best-loved” novelistic characters in postwar British fiction, and one of the very few to be something of a household name. But if you dragged a microphone down Princes Street in Edinburgh and asked people what they “know” about Miss Brodie, those who had read Spark’s novel would likely recite a number of her aphorisms: “I am in my prime”; “you are the crème de la crème”; “the philistines are upon us, Mr Lloyd”, and so on. These are Jean Brodie’s famous sayings. Miss Brodie, in other words, is not really “known” at all. We know her just as her young pupils knew her: as a collection of tags, a rhetorical performance, a teacher’s show. Around her very thinness as a character we tend to construct a thicker interpretative jacket…
Spark was intensely interested in how much we can know about anyone, and interested in how much a novelist, who most pretends to such knowledge, can know about her characters. By reducing Miss Brodie to no more than a collection of maxims, Spark forces us to become Brodie’s pupils. In the course of the novel we never leave the school to go home with Miss Brodie. We never see her in private, off-stage. Always, she is the performing teacher, keeping a public face. We surmise that there is something unfulfilled and even desperate about her, but the novelist refuses us access to her interior. Brodie talks a great deal about her prime, but we don’t witness it, and the nasty suspicion falls that perhaps to talk so much about one’s prime is by definition no longer to be in it.
Spark always exercises ruthless control over her fictional characters, and here she flaunts it: she spikes her story with a series of “flash-forwards”, in which we learn what happened to the characters after the main action of the plot (Miss Brodie will die of cancer, Mary Macgregor will die at the age of 23 in a fire, another pupil will join a convent, another will never again be quite as happy as when she first discovered algebra). These coldly prophetic passages strike some readers as cruel; they are such summary judgments. But they are moving, because they raise the idea that if Miss Brodie never really had a prime, then for some of the schoolgirls their primes occurred in their schooldays.
These flash-forwards do something else: they remind us that Spark has ultimate control over her creations; and they remind us of . . . Miss Brodie. This tyrannical authority is precisely what Miss Brodie’s most intelligent pupil, Sandy Stranger, hates, and finally exposes, in her teacher: that she is a fascist and a Scottish Calvinist, predestining the lives of her pupils, forcing them into artificial shapes. Is this what the novelist does, too? That is the question that interests Spark. The novelist adopts God-like powers of omniscience, but what can she really know of her creations?
To argue that we can know Jean Brodie just as deeply as we can know George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, to argue that lacunae are as deep as solidities, that absence in characterisation can be a form of knowing as profound as presence, that Spark’s and Saramago’s and Nabokov’s characters can move us as much as James’s and Eliot’s, is to concede nothing to Gass’s scepticism. Not all of these characters have the same amount of realised “depth”, but all of them are objects of perception, to use Gass’s words, and things that can be correctly said of persons can also be said of them. They are all “real”, but in different ways. That reality level differs from author to author, and our hunger for the particular depth or reality level of a character is tutored by each writer, and adapts to the internal conventions of each book. This is how we can read W.G. Sebald one day and Virginia Woolf or Philip Roth the next, and not demand that each resemble the other. It would be an obvious category error to accuse Sebald of not offering us “deep” or “rounded” characters. I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or “deep” enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author, unfairly, for not giving us enough—the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.
Even the characters we think of as “solidly realised” in the conventional realist sense are less solid the longer we look at them. There is probably a basic distinction to be made between novelists such as Tolstoy or Trollope or Dickens, who seem unselfconsciously to create galleries of various people who are nothing like them, and those writers either less interested in or perhaps less naturally gifted at this faculty, but who nevertheless have a great deal of interest in the self – James, Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence, Saul Bellow, Roth, Michel Houellebecq. Iris Murdoch is the most poignant member of this second category, precisely because she spent her life trying to get into the first. In her essays, she often stresses that the creation of free and independent characters is the mark of the great novelist; yet her own characters never have this freedom. She knew it, too: “How soon,” she wrote, “one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense ‘interested in other people’, this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself. It is impossible, it seems to me, not to see one’s failure here as a sort of spiritual failure.”
But Murdoch is too unforgiving of herself. There are scores of novelists whose characters are basically like each other, or rather like the novelist who created them, and yet whose creations stream with a vitality that it would be hard not to call free. Does The Rainbow possess any characters who don’t sound like each other, and ultimately like Lawrence? Tom Brangwen, Will, Anna, Ursula, even Lydia—they are all variations on a Lawrencian theme, and despite differences in articulacy and education, their inner lives vibrate very similarly. When they speak, which is rarely, they sound the same. Nevertheless, they do possess blazing inner lives, and always one feels how important this inquiry into the state of the soul is for the novelist himself…
…In the same way, it often seems that James’s characters are not especially convincing as independently vivid authorial creations. But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them…
…So the vitality of literary character has then, perhaps, less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility – let alone likeability – than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character “Isabel Archer”, even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remember an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here.
In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster used the now-famous term “flat” to describe the kind of character who is awarded a single, essential attribute, which is repeated without change as the person appears and reappears in a novel. Often, such characters have a catchphrase or tagline or keyword, as Mrs. Micawber, in David Copperfield, likes to repeat “I will never desert Mr. Micawber”. She says she will not, and she does not. Forster is genially snobbish about flat characters, and wants to demote them, reserving the highest category for rounder, or fuller, characters. Flat characters cannot be tragic, he asserts, they need to be comic. Round characters “surprise” us each time they reappear; they are not flimsily theatrical. Flat ones can’t surprise us, and are generally monochromatically histrionic. Forster mentions a popular novel by a contemporary novelist whose main character, a flat one, is a farmer who is always saying “I’ll plough up that bit of gorse”. But, says Forster, we are so bored by the farmer’s consistency that we do not care whether he does or doesn’t…
…But is this right? If by flatness we mean a character, often but not always a minor one, often but not always comic, who serves to illuminate an essential human truth or characteristic, then many of the most interesting characters are flat. I would be quite happy to abolish the very idea of “roundness” in characterisation, because it tyrannises us—readers, novelists, critics—with an impossible ideal. “Roundness” is impossible in fiction, because fictional characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people. It is subtlety that matters—subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure—and for subtlety a very small point of entry will do. Forster’s division grandly privileges novels over short stories, since characters in stories rarely have the space to become “round”. But I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s 10-page story “The Kiss” than I do about the consciousness of Waverley in Walter Scott’s eponymous novel, because Chekhov’s inquiry into how his soldier’s mind works is more acute than Scott’s episodic romanticism.
Forster struggles to explain how we feel that most of Dickens’s characters are flat and yet, at the same time, that these cameos obscurely move us – he claims that Dickens’s own vitality makes them “vibrate” a bit on the page. But this vibrating flatness is true not only of Dickens, but of Proust, who also likes to tag many of his characters with favourite sayings and catchphrases, of Tolstoy to some extent, of Thomas Hardy’s minor characters, of Thomas Mann’s minor characters (he, like Proust and Tolstoy, uses a method of mnemonic leitmotif—a repeated attribute or characteristic—to secure the vitality of his characters), and supremely of Jane Austen.
Take Shakespeare’s Henry V. If you asked most people to separate King Harry and the Welsh captain Fluellen into Forsterian camps, they would award Harry roundness and Fluellen flatness. The King is a large part, Fluellen a minor one. Harry talks and reflects a lot, he soliloquises, he is noble, canny, magniloquent and surprising: he goes among his soldiers in disguise, to talk freely with them. He complains of the burden of kingship. Fluellen, by contrast, is a comic Welshman, a pedant of the kind Henry Fielding or Cervantes would nimbly satirise, always banging on about military history, and Alexander the Great, and leeks, and Monmouth. Harry rarely makes us laugh, Fluellen always does. Harry is round, Fluellen flat.
But the categories could easily go the other way. The King Harry of this play, unlike the Harry of the two Henry IV plays, is merely kingly, in rather a dull fashion. He is very eloquent, but it seems like Shakespeare’s eloquence, not his own (it’s formal, patriotic, august). His complaints about the burdens of kingship are a bit formulaic and self-pitying, and tell us little about his actual self (except, in a generic way, that he is self-pitying). He is an utterly public figure. Fluellen, however, is a little terrier of vividness. His speech, despite the “Welshisms” that Shakespeare puts in—”look you”, and so on—is idiosyncratically his own. He is a pedant, but an interesting one. In Fielding, a pedantic doctor or lawyer speaks like a pedantic doctor or lawyer: his pedantry is professionally bound up with his occupation. But Fluellen’s pedantry has a limitless and slightly desperate quality about it: why does he know so much about the classics, about Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon? Why has he appointed himself the army’s military historian? He surprises us, too: at first we think his windiness will replace valour on the field, as Falstaff’s did, because we think we recognise a type—the man who speaks about military action rather than performing it. But he turns out to possess a touching valour and loyalty; and his rectitude – another inversion of type—is not merely hypocritical. And there is something piquant about a man who is at once an omnivorous roamer of the world’s knowledge and literatures, and a little Welsh provincial. His monologue on how Monmouth resembles the classical city of Macedon is both funny and moving:
I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the world I warrant you shall find comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is both alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also more- over a river at Monmouth.
All of us still meet people like Fluellen; and when a garrulous bloke on a train starts talking up his home town, and says something like “we’ve got one of those”—shopping mall, rugby stadium, violent pub—”in my town, too, you know”, you are apt to feel, as towards Fluellen, both mirth and an obscure kind of sympathy, since this kind of importuning provincialism is always paradoxical: the provincial simultaneously wants and does not want to communicate with you, simultaneously wants to remain a provincial and abolish his provincialism by linking himself with you. Almost 400 years later, in a story called “The Wheelbarrow”, V.S. Pritchett revisits Fluellen. A Welsh taxi driver, Evans, is helping a lady clear out a house. He finds an old volume of verse in a box and suddenly bursts out, scornfully: “Everyone knows that the Welsh are the founders of all the poetry in Europe.”
In fact, the ubiquitous flat character of the English and Scottish novel, from Mr. Collins in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Charles Ryder’s father in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, tells us something deep about the dialectic of British reticence and sociability. From Shakespeare descends a self-theatricalising, somewhat solipsistic, flamboyant, but also essentially shy type who can be found in Fielding, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Scott, Thackeray, George Meredith, H.G. Wells, Henry Green, Waugh, Pritchett, Spark, Angus Wilson, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, and on into the superb pantomimic embarrassments of Monty Python and Ricky Gervais’s David Brent. He is typified by Mr. Omer in David Copperfield, the tailor whom David visits to get his funeral suit. Mr. Omer is an English soliloquist, and prattles on without embarrassment as he blunders his way all over David’s grief. He shows David a roll of cloth which he says is too good for mourning anyone short of parents, and then windily opines: “But fashions are like human beings. They come in, nobody knows when, why or how; and they go out, nobody knows when, why, or how. Everything is like life, in my opinion, if you look at it in that point of view.”
Something true is revealed here about the self and its irrepressibility or irresponsibility. Mr. Omer is determined to be himself, even if that means likening fashions in clothes to patterns of morbidity. No one would call Mr. Omer a “round” character. He exists for a bare minute. But contra Forster, the flat character like Mr. Omer is indeed capable of “surprising us” – the point is, he only needs to surprise us once, and can then disappear off the stage…
Mrs. Micawber’s catchphrase “I will never desert Mr. Micawber” tells us something true about how she keeps up appearances, how she maintains a theatrical public fiction, and so it tells us something true about her; but the farmer who says “I’ll plough up that bit of gorse” is not maintaining any similarly interesting fiction about himself—he is just being stoical or habitual—and so we know nothing about his true self behind the catchphrase. He is simply stating his intentions. That is why he is boring; “consistency” has nothing to do with it. And we all know people in real life who, like Mrs. Micawber, do indeed use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance. The insight afforded us into the secret costs of this type of comic public performance—think again of Gervais’s David Brent – seems to me one of the central treasures of British tragicomedy…
No one would deny that writing of this sort has indeed become a kind of invisible rule book, whereby we no longer notice its artificialities. One reason for this is economic. Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction. We must expect that this brand will be economically reproduced, over and over again. That is why the complaint that realism is no more than a grammar or set of rules that obscures life is generally a better description of Le Carre or P.D.James than it is of Flaubert or George Eliot or Isherwood: when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques. The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away most of what made those writers truly alive. And of course, the most economically privileged genre of this kind of largely lifeless ‘realism’ is commercial cinema, through which most people nowadays receive their idea of what constitutes a ‘realistic’ narrative.”
Decomposition like this happens to any long-lived and successful style, surely; so the writer’s—or critic’s, or reader’s—task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced.