…on the one hand, high-level ratiocination, and, on the other, the “low-level” system of rutting and coupling. His mating plots tend toward the banal, and are written in a prose that is at once showy and anxiously explanatory (“decided to pull an Aschenbach”). So his novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery; the reader has to learn to switch voltages, like a busy international traveller. What falls in the gap is any subtlety of insight into actual human beings."
This is vintage Wood. Immensely entertaining clarifying metaphors, coupled with insight and a consistent vision of what constitutes merit.
Some may look to novels for discussion of abstract (hysterical?) ideas and philosophies, I don’t. I want firstly to be caught up in the lives and losses, loves, achievements of others. There is a very distinct feeling of excitement and anticipation – an urge to know more – one gets when transfixed by and in a novel. It’s this experience – a rare one – which overwhelmingly determines greatness. I can think of only one novel in which the discussion of abstract ideas is as captivating as the story of the lives of those who discuss them, and that – as Wood mentions – is The Magic Mountain. There really is something magical about, for example, the way ‘time’ as a subject is explored a top that snow covered peak.
As I recall, Mann’s Satyr ( Mountain goat?) was sturdy enough to carry its heavy load…sure footed enough to enable me not to worry about falling; shifting metaphors here: a net of sufficient strength and woven fineness to allow me, without being torn out of life with its characters – characters who embody and express ideas naturally, and who I don’t have to force myself to believe in – to allow me to fully concentrate on and appreciate the intellectual points being made. There was Balance. A balance that again is extremely rare. Tolstoy may go off raving about his theory of history in War and Peace, but it’s not – by a long shot – enough to loosen the hold the characters’ lives have over us. It’s just a potty bit of essay writing plopped in for no good reason. Not many can get away with this sort of thing without irreparably damaging the whole.
Which gets to the point: while ideas can be welcome additions to stories capable of holding attention – of creating the experience mentioned above – in the vast majority of cases they are best presented as essays. Sure, I’ve heard authors (Denise Mina here for example) argue persuasively in favour of using ‘the novel’ as a tool with which to convey concerns to audiences larger than might otherwise be reached, but if the story isn’t there, and the wind blows, the cradle falls…
Aldous Huxley wrote brilliant essays. His novels were criticized for being essays by other means. Nothing wrong with trying to meld the two. Just takes skill-sets which often don’t reside simultaneously in the same writer.
* While I love the Satyr metaphor…not sure how clarifying "fiddling in the foyer of the mind" is….fiddling while Rome burns perhaps? Fiddling with themselves…fiddling irritatingly with their fingers…C.S. Lewis I recall talks about not being able to fully appreciate the grandeur and significance of earthly faith until one has stepped from the foyer into one of the rooms of religion.