How a Novelist Begins
THERE are many things which a novelist learns by writing novels, and the pity is that this knowledge does not seem to be a transferable value; it is something that has to be acquired at a great cost and cannot be left to anyone else in a will. I have often wondered why. If I were a watchmaker and talked to people who happened to be interested in watches, I suppose that I should derive some pleasure from taking a watch to pieces, metaphorically at least, simply to show those people its inner structure, but nothing of the sort can be done in the case of a novel, because a good novel is not a piece of machinery with wheels and springs, all producing the desired effect at the right moment; a good novel is a living organism, and when you take a living organism apart and put it back together again, all you have is something dead.
Of course, some novels can be dealt with as clocks and watches. An expert critic can pick them apart, name all the intricate little bits of steel and explain their movement, then readjust all the hairlike springs and infinitesimal wheels, wind up the watch, give it a shake or two, and the watch, being constructed according to rules, behaves the way a watch is supposed to behave: it ticks, and the critic feels proud because he has made clear the secret workings of that particular watch, and the author feels proud because his watch is being noticed, and the watch runs, and the book sells, and everybody is pleased.
I believe there are infallible methods of constructing such books as the ones I have in mind in a way that will prove commercially lucrative, but I do not think that a born novelist can really be interested in these mechanical feats of ingenuity. Few novelists have been as awkward as Balzac, or Emily Brontë, or Conrad, or Marcel Proust. They proved more than once indifferent watchmakers, but this distinction can be made between their novels and, let us say, ‘clever’ novels: the latter emit a thin, regular, and to some ears immensely satisfactory ticking, whereas the former throb from page to page with the beating of the human heart.
A curious sound, the beating of a heart, a sound which cannot be imitated in books and which only living books can give, nor can I think of any rule for writing a living book other than ‘Be alive and your book will live.’ It seems to me, however, that something a little more definite can be said on the subject. About ten or fifteen years ago, a French journalist interviewed a certain number of writers and asked them the following question: ‘Why do you write?’ It was an impertinent question, and, like a great many impertinent questions, a very penetrating one. Dr. Johnson said on one occasion that nobody but a fool would write for anything but money. No such answer was given by any of the writers interviewed, although quite a few, I believe, might have endorsed Dr. Johnson’s bold and clean-cut statement. They thought of pleasing intellectual reasons which they dressed up in fine words, and, having successfully evaded the question, mentally mopped their brow. But the question remains, and should keep any man awake who is about to begin a novel.
Very few could give the only possible answer, which is: ‘ I write because I was born to write, and if I do not write I cannot live. To be sure, I can breathe and sleep and overeat like other people, but I cannot really live if pen and paper are taken away from me forever. It matters little whether I be rich or poor; I carry something in my heart which must be expressed.’
If all living authors were suddenly presented with very large sums of money by, let us say, prosperous lunatics, there would be a dearth of novels in the coming years. This, I am afraid, would be the test of many but not all spurious talents. ‘Would you write if you were rich?’ is a question which should turn away droves of authors from the literary pastures, but I can think of another question which should be asked the obstinate few: ‘Would you write if you were alone, for instance on a desert island, with a lot of paper and all the ink you needed?’ Or ‘Would you write if you lived among people who could not read? Would you write if your writings were invariably jeered at?’ And this last and more searching question: ‘Would you write if you could never get into print?’
To write without any prospect of ever seeing one’s writings in print would no doubt be as tiresome as perpetually talking to one’s self for lack of anyone else to talk to. We need an audience, we need appreciation and criticism, we need a certain amount of opposition (a lot of that is given free). The welcome, warm or cold, extended to an author’s first book is bound to have some kind of influence on the second book. Should the welcome be too warm, the second book stands a fair chance of being born lame or constitutionally weak. Should the reception of the first book be rude and unfair, a loud, defiant second book may come into the world.
I suppose vanity is at the bottom of all this. The urge to write is very fine in itself, but the urge to write without being admired, what of that? Does it exist? We may doubt it, and yet a man can write a book simply because he feels that if he does not he will burst, and he may write it knowing very well that all the public he can ever count on having is himself; or he can write a book which will demand years of toil and burn it, like Gogol.
All of which, however, does not mean that great books have not been written for the sake of money or for the sake of admiration. Balzac produced a number of novels to pay his debts, and Racine proudly said that he wrote for fame; but Balzac would have written as much had he been a millionaire, and Racine had he been totally unsuccessful, because they had in them this driving force which produces plays, novels, and poems. On the other hand, I believe that if Balzac had been prevented from writing he would have been, as the saying goes, fit to be tied, whereas Racine under the same circumstances would have died of melancholia; but I do not think that there are many authors in this or any other country who would run the same risk, should, let us say, unhappy circumstances compel them to give up their profession.
A writer is not a loafer; a writer works as hard as any business man; a writer toils; a writer feels sometimes, like Carlyle, that his brain is made of mud, yet he must go on because that which is in him must be expressed. I take it for granted he has something to say and if he is not allowed to say it he is going to feel wretched; and the longer he waits, the worse it will be, so he may as well begin at once and reach for his pen.
There is something very exhilarating about writing the first lines of a novel. They contain a promise which may or may not be fulfilled, the promise of a good book. Five or six lines more, and the promise may be broken then and there, and the author not know about it until the whole book is written. The importance of these opening sentences can hardly be overestimated. In a way, they are the nucleus of the book, and all the other sentences in the book are somehow the continuation of these initial words. Baudelaire once said that you could really begin a novel at almost any point, but that you had to begin with what he called de très belles phrases, very beautiful sentences. This is the point of view of a great artist who knew the importance of giving tone to a piece of writing by striking the right note at the outset. However, the real difficulty does not begin until after the opening sentences have been written, because a number of people are capable of writing two or three good sentences which may serve as a fair beginning, — although, goodness knows, it is difficult enough to write a good sentence anywhere, at any time, — but precious few are capable of following up those sentences with other sentences that will, if I may say, justify them.
So we must beware of that feeling of elation which takes possession of us as we embark on a novel, but we must bear in mind that the opening sentences of our book are those which probably stand a better chance of remaining in the reader’s memory than almost any other. They are like the first glimpse we catch of a face: the face pleases or repels, and more will be found out about it later when it is more closely studied, but what catches our eye in the very first seconds is what really counts — that hasty but deep and all-informing impression will seldom be revised in its fundamentals; and if, on closing a novel which you have just finished, you remember the way it begins, it may strike you how strangely prophetic of the whole book those opening sentences were.
I can illustrate what I mean only by giving an example or two taken from famous books. One of my favorites is this: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say: I’m going to sleep. And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of the book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between Francis I and Charles V.’
We may know nothing about Marcel Proust and never have read a page he wrote, but these opening chords warn us that we are listening to a man who has a great deal to say and is going to say it with infinite complexity, and with such a feeling for nuance and such a hatred of the obvious that we shall soon be wondering at the mysteries of everyday life. It is very characteristic of him to begin his huge work with the word longtemps, ‘for a long time,’ because in no other book that I know has time ever been so magically brought to a standstill and the duration of things treated as a sort of element which allows as much exploring as the space in a room. So here we have a man with an almost infinite quantity of time on his hands because he is ill in bed and will be ill until he dies. A certain dreaminess is induced by this condition — not a haziness of the mind, but a new and marvelous faculty to see the world from the inside, as it were, to get at the substance of things which we glance at absent-mindedly. With this man, we stand on the threshold of a strange new world, and, if you will follow him through the ten or twelve volumes of his extraordinary novel, you will realize that the whole work was, as philosophers say, infieri in the first half page of the first volume.
I should now like to quote the first sentence of a book which I should perhaps have mentioned before. It is a very plain sentence, but it is connected in my mind with early childhood memories. When I heard it for the first time, I felt a vague and indescribable longing to make up stories of my own, to write stories, to write a book. I was about nine, and the book from which this sentence was taken was a French translation of the most famous novel in the English language. It began as follows: —
‘I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.'
What I read into this sentence, I cannot recall. Probably I was taken by the names of cities where I had never been, and also by the date, which carried one back to exciting times. Now I like the sentence for different reasons: it is bare and it rings true; it is precise with no desire to please, but rather with a wish to convince the reader of its veracity by its very artlessness. If this man is going to tell us lies — as indeed he is prepared to do during five hundred pages, because he is the most magnificent liar that ever wielded a pen — he is going to tell them in such a way as to make us stare and gape like children, for, try as we may, it is difficult to outgrow Robinson Crusoe.
To go back to our modern author who is enjoying the bliss of turning out a few pleasing sentences at the top of page 1 of his new novel, I think it may be as well for him to stop after having written ten or twelve lines, call it a day, and go to bed with the happy thought that he is perhaps embarking on a sensational bestseller, or even on a masterpiece. His troubles will begin on the following day when he rereads what he has written and wonders how he is going to follow it up.
Being interested in technical questions of this kind, I have asked a number of novelists to tell me how they proceeded. Some of them write out, usually at considerable length, not only the plan of their book, but the detailed plan of each chapter, so that the actual writing of the novel means no more than piecing together a large quantity of notes and polishing them up in order to give them what is called style. The polishing, I may say, takes considerable time and all the talent one can afford. Most authors, however, are content with a sketchy plan which leaves more freedom to the imagination; and some authors — but very few — go nervously ahead with no idea as to what their characters are going to do and follow them as best they can until the last page is reached.
Racine, when he had written the outline of a tragedy in about a page and a half, used to say, ‘ I have written my play,’meaning, I suppose, that writing out the speeches in verse was the easier part of his task. I am quite aware that there is a large percentage of excellent authors who believe that to begin a book without first having carefully thought out the plan is, to say the least, rash and unreasonable, and I allow that it is dangerous. Should an author be too unmindful of the way in which his book is to be constructed, he might very well find himself in the plight of the Italian architect who hastily built himself a house and only when the roof was up, and each door in place, realized with a pang that he had forgotten the staircase. And yet there is much to be said for those who are averse to plans and who prefer to make up their story as they go along, not knowing what the morrow will bring or how the book may end; and here, I believe, we are reaching a very essential point in the study of the novel.
It has always been my opinion that too careful a plot can kill a book, for the simple reason that it is apt to turn the characters into automatons; their task is to carry out a plot, whether they like it or not. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, and they usually take their revenge by behaving like animated dolls. Some books are obviously written for the sake of the plot, and the characters are made to fit in as best they can. If the plot is an exciting one, the faulty or superficial psychology will not be noticed except by a few fussy specialists. The average detective story, for instance, stands or falls by the quality of its plot. The same is true of Dumas Père’s novels: adventure is the theme of all his books, and characterization — a hasty, childish, Punch-and-Judy-like characterization — is thrown in like a dash of pepper in a ragout. To borrow one of E. M. Forster’s phrases, his characters are flat instead of being round.
It seems plain enough, then, that the plot of a story should serve to express what is going on inside the characters. A plot by itself is as gratuitous as a fairy tale, and can be just as charming, but, in the last analysis, it is not the essential part of a book. To be sure, a novel without a plot is apt to be tiresome, and after all ‘What is going to happen?’ is a very natural question to ask one’s self when reading a story, but it is a fact that the plot can dwindle to almost nothing and the story remain a good story.
The problem of thinking up a plot is one of those false problems over which much valuable time is wasted. The question is not, ‘Can I invent a story worth writing?’ but ‘Can I create characters capable of actions worth recording?’ It is not the novelist who should be the author of the plot, but the characters to which the novelist’s brain has given birth. Let the novelist create characters worth creating, and the plot will take care of itself — that is, the characters will take care of the plot. The book is their book, not the author’s. If they are constitutionally strong, they will try to wrest the book from each other, or, as we say, to steal the show. Thus it happens that characters that were meant to be of secondary importance come to the fore, by sheer vitality, and remain there in spite of the author. An excellent example of this is Sarah Gamp. The other characters and the plot of Martin Chuzzlewit may fade somewhat from your memory and entirely disappear in time, but Sarah Gamp will ever remain among the ruins, with her bottle of gin and her strong language.
When people describe the characters in a book as the children of the author’s brain, they are seldom aware of the truth hidden in this figure of speech. I have always found it a singularly apt phrase, because it seems to me that most authors treat their characters exactly as some parents treat their children — that is, they bring them into this world and expect them to obey them until they, their parents, die. It is naturally to be expected of children that they obey their parents, but if the parents live long enough, and the children grow up into men and women with ideas of their own, conflicts are bound to occur whenever parents try to enforce their views on the younger generation. As a rule, parents do not attempt this; they usually resign. Now authors are very often like unwise parents who will not realize that their children are no longer children. ‘After all,’ they think, ‘whose characters are these? I’ll make them do exactly as I say.’ So they write a nice, detailed plot even before the characters are born.
But suppose the author is really talented and, instead of creating people made of paper and ink, actually creates living people, — I mean characters that breathe and have human hearts that beat and don’t tick like watches, people who think thoughts of their own and want things, — something very curious is going to happen. These characters are going to obey the author for a while, until they are fully equipped mentally and physically, and then they are going to revolt and tear the plot to pieces, and nothing more fortunate can happen to any author. They are going to live their own lives because they don’t care for the destiny which has been mapped out for them.
How is this going to happen? At what point of the plot will they begin to get out of hand? Only the author and a very subtle reader could say, but it may also happen that the author himself cannot tell.
I have said that nothing more fortunate could happen to an author than to see his plot taken in hand by his characters. This means that, instead of just adding another book to his list, he has actually brought living people into this world. His characters have blood in their veins, not ink. When we have turned the last page, well, the characters walk out of the book and go on living with us. I need not tell you that this happens very seldom. The very great can bring it about, sometimes, and once in a while a second-rate author does it too, just as we see a second-rate actor who night after night plays his part wretchedly and one evening — when no one is paying attention, probably — is suddenly transfigured and for a few minutes seems to own the world. This is not a trick. People call it vaguely, but not inaptly, inspiration. And what is inspiration?
We are all familiar with the stories about Gustave Flaubert’s agonies when he wrote his novels, and in particular Madame Bovary. Just a few miles from Rouen, in an old house facing the Seine, he would sit from morning until night in front of a sheet of paper on which, sometimes, only a few lines had been painfully written. We know that, occasionally, several hours would go by without his stirring as much as a finger, absorbed as he was in a gigantic struggle for expression, or lost in a sort of inner contemplation of his characters. It took him five years to write his book, but time seems grateful to him for the long weary months he spent on this work, which we still read with interest and emotion.
Madame Bovary, which may well outlast almost every novel written since, affords a good example of a novel constructed around a character rather than around a plot. If you reread the book and bare the plot of all nonessentials, you will see that it is an extremely simple one, so simple that it might well be summed up in two or three sentences. Of course, its very simplicity was one of the elements in the lasting success of the book, but the book was not written for the sake of success. Flaubert was too great a writer to confuse, as so many people do, success and fame; he wrote, like Racine, pour la gloire — that is, for the sake of fame. He knew his ability to write sentences which could not die, but he was a genius, and, like many geniuses, he fell short where writers of ordinary talent would have excelled. It is quite possible that a man of ordinary talent, had he had the idea of a plot like the plot of Madame Bovary, would have made a better story of it — that is, a more exciting story, a story with a more ingeniously complicated action; but it is also possible that his book would be today as dead as a Bulwer-Lytton romance. Other novels by Flaubert suffer from — or should I say benefit by — the same lack of plot inventiveness.
Is it that he lacked imagination? But who would dare say that one of the greatest novelists of all times lacked imagination? No, it means simply that his powers of imagination were directed toward creating characters rather than developing a plot. If a child had asked Gustave Flaubert to tell it a bedtime story of his own invention, I have an idea that the novelist would have had considerable trouble in pulling through the test. Yet it was this man who probably gave away the secret of all great stories when he said of his best-known character, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi!' — ‘I, Gustave Flaubert, am Madame Bovary! ‘
How can such a thing be? Isn’t it rather funny to think of Gustave Flaubert, with his bald head and long red moustaches, pretending that he is Madame Bovary? He was the son of a surgeon who had given him something of his own professional toughness. There was nothing maudlin about Gustave Flaubert. He was a man of violent passions and enormous appetite. What affinity could exist between this person, who prided himself on looking like a Norman pirate, and the provincial lady whose story he told so convincingly?
If you have read his letters, you know how strongly opposed he was to anything like a literary attitude, how ready to laugh at poseurs, how ferociously honest with himself and others. Words were not things to be used in vain; to Flaubert they were, in a way, sacred, each one to be weighed with almost fanatical care before it was spoken or written down; so that ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi!' is not an utterance lightly to be ascribed to literary excitement. What he meant, presumably, was that by concentrating on his character he had succeeded in identifying himself with it.
This is a process well known to novelists who deserve that name, and also to actors whose methods are sometimes so curiously linked with the methods of novelists. We are all familiar with the story of the second-rate actor who has so often played the part of Napoleon that he finally comes to believe, or halfbelieve, that he is Napoleon, and carries on this tiresome impersonation in his everyday life until a home is at last provided for him by the medical authorities. But the characters that actors have to deal with are necessarily static. Napoleon on the stage knows that he must be rude to the Pope, amorous with Josephine, and that he must eventually die in a narrow bed murmuring names of battles. His business is to put life into a gray coat and a black hat, whereas the novelist who is creating a character of his own lives a sort of second life which may be full of surprises. He is not simply animating a part; he creates with his own flesh and blood a being capable of suffering, and what happens to the character is primarily experienced by the author.
All this, I realize, is more easily described than explained. Flaubert tells us in a letter that, when writing about Emma Bovary’s nervous fit, he practically had convulsions himself. To work one’s self up to such a pitch requires, need I say, such enormous concentration that very few novelists are ready to face the ordeal. Most novelists are lazy, and therefore inattentive to the inner vision which they should try to call up. They do not see what they are writing about. They delude themselves by writing clever sentences that serve as mirrors in which they can admire their own wit, but it is impossible to read a page they have written without feeling that they never saw what they endeavor to describe. I do not mean that they never saw it in what is called real life — I mean that they did not see it whilst they were writing. In consequence what they write is a mere pretense, or, if you please, a lie; and lies are just as tiresome in books as they are in everyday life.
In the popular conception, genius is something more or less equivalent to facility; uncanny facility, as they would say now. If a man is capable of playing ten games of chess simultaneously, he is a genius. If he can paint a complete picture in thirty minutes, he is a genius, provided he sells the picture for a good price. If he can write thirty pages a day for thirty days and win a prize by doing so, he is a genius, at least for a little while. But if we read the lives of the very great we see that genius is almost always synonymous with effort, and that, more often than not, it is unaccompanied by any kind of facility.
The result of intense concentration on the part of the novelist is the bringing up of that inner vision which I mentioned before. The born novelist is a seer, and the more he believes in what he sees, the greater he is. This leads us to a very interesting point. What truth is there in fiction? Fiction, from a certain point of view, could well pass for a series of gratuitous statements concerning people who do not exist, and I am afraid that this definition would fit a staggering majority of novels, ancient and modern. But why quibble? The truth of fiction depends largely on the accuracy of the author’s observations.
So deeply convinced of this were the naturalists of the nineties that they accumulated great masses of notes before daring to begin their novels. Whenever they saw something which they thought they might use, they scribbled a few words on a slip of paper, or, if they had none, on their shirt cuffs, and that was observation number 55 concerning the way the heroine carried her sunshade or blew her nose. So, piece by piece, the portrait was made up, and the extreme accuracy of every detail persuaded the author that it was as true a portrait as could be painted. Yet we all know that, of all novels ever written, few can be more artificial than some novels of that period. This is very strange. Can it be that life is something which we are not able to photograph? Why are certain books lifeless in spite of the fact that they present a perfectly correct picture of life? Why is it that the more accurate they are, the more they seem to be telling lies? Why is it that certain novelists succeed in getting at psychological truth when they make up a story whereas they fail disastrously when they report on something they have actually witnessed?
This is a revenge of the gods. You identify fiction with lying; therefore lying — that is, inventing — will be your only means of creating something like truth. You can’t empty a bagful of facts in a novel and expect them to remain true to life; they have to be transmuted into something with life in it. You can’t just take a heavy portion of reality, dump it in a book, and expect it to live: it will be as dead as something fished out of the river and put on a marble slab. Life in itself cannot be copied and imitated in books; it must be recreated. A real novelist is neither a photographer nor a dreamer indulging in idle fancies; he is a man with a strange power to substitute himself for life and to create destinies. Or, if you prefer to reverse the terms of the problem, you might say that life itself is the greatest of all novelists; we cannot successfully imitate her novels, but we can learn a great deal by studying her methods.
A very uneven novelist is life, at times a very poor one, using unnecessary repetitions, heavily insisting on obvious relationships, proudly dragging in coincidences by the hair as if to say, ‘Ha! You didn’t expect that, did you?’ But, at other moments, what superb flashes of genius, what a way of sending you back twenty-five years in the space of a second and casting light on a whole destiny by referring to an incident which the reader had utterly forgotten! ‘Quel roman que ma vie!’ said Napoleon at Saint Helena. Most of us can say as much, and if, for a moment, we try to think of ourselves as characters in a novel, we realize that the working out of our destinies is in the hands of a very great artist. The book may not always afford very good reading; I allow that much of it seems tiresome; but there are moments when a glimpse of the general plan is caught and the secret meaning of a dull chapter is brought to light.
Almost any writer with moderate cleverness can make up personages and endow them with speech of a kind, but it takes a little more than mere talent to convey the impression of an unseen force perpetually at work in the lives of these characters. This is a gift, and a rare one, not something that can be acquired by dint of hard work and determination. It is something as gratuitously bestowed as an ear for music or an eye for color. It is akin to religious feeling. Sophocles had it to an eminent degree, and in our times Tolstoy. It is a sense of what is really permanent behind what passes, and we can only feel like school children in the presence of the great novelists who are possessed of this knowledge. We cannot imitate them, — that might be dangerous, — but we can at least try to see things from their point of view, and a glimpse may be afforded us of what we desire to know. What is genius but a knowledge of what is going on behind the stage while the play is being performed? What is a higher form of intuition but genius? This intuition cannot be acquired any more than a gift can be acquired, but surely concentration must be a step in the right direction. Intuition is not the reward of long and patient efforts to concentrate, but concentration awakens the dormant power to understand what is hidden from most human beings.
It is sometimes said, and I believe this is true, that childhood often shows traces of genius which education causes to disappear, because the object of education is to help a percentage of minds to reach a certain level, whereas some children are virtually above the average level and are, in a way, being forced down instead of being helped up. They could ascend much higher, but their innate superiority is not taken into account and they are slowly and patiently fashioned into average human beings, and by the time they are seventeen or eighteen whatever originality was in them is stamped out unless they are strong enough to fight and assert themselves. This is no fault of education. Education is made for the many, not the few.
If we study the lives of great writers from this point of view, we shall be struck by the fact that much of the child remains in the man, when the man is really great. He is so dependent on his childhood that in spite of his experience, in spite of his technical ability to write a book and fulfill his career, he is a child. He has retained the intensity of feeling of a child, he believes in his own stories as completely as a child believes in the stories told by a grown-up, he marvels at things or is repelled by them with the same whole-heartedness as a child. This is particularly true of a man like Charles Dickens, who went through life with the soul of a boy and was able to the end to draw on the magnificent imagination of childhood.
I have often wondered what kind of books Dickens — or, for that matter, any great novelist — might have written had the memory of his childhood been completely taken away from him by some freakish accident. Very artificial books, I am afraid — books lacking in anything like spontaneity and freshness. One of the most interesting traits of childhood is that it is constantly being surprised by what it sees. There are cries of admiration and wonder on the lips of every child that is taken for a drive to some new place: he is perpetually discovering the world. So it is with great novelists. Most, grown-ups can yawn at the finest landscapes, whereas a born novelist will describe a tree as if he had never seen one before and will make you share his joy. When D. H. Lawrence describes a lake in Mexico, you wonder whether you have ever looked at water before. When Conrad describes a typhoon, you feel like stopping up your ears. When Victor Hugo talks about the sea, you realize that you had hardly noticed that there was such a thing in our world as the sea. Do not be deceived: this is the vividness of childhood which has been retained by man.
As a rule it is not so much what a writer puts in his novels that surprises him as what he leaves unexpressed. In a way, you might compare a novel to an iceberg: one third above sea level and two thirds in the water; one third emerging to the light, two thirds plunging, as it were, in invisible depths. I think the proportion is just about right as far as the novel is concerned. The main part forms a sort of floating mass below the surface of — well, the surface of the page.
A good novelist is a novelist who, consciously or unconsciously, chooses what he is going to say. He can’t say everything, for lack of time and space, if he wants the story to move on, and what he does not say is sometimes as significant as what he does say. The very essence of his talent lies in the quality of his choice. We are endeared to certain writers by their reticences; nor do I mean by ‘reticence’ timidity or squeamishness. There is an exquisite sense of reticence in Stevenson, and a world of unexpressed thoughts and emotions in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for instance. Another example, and perhaps a better one, is Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, a book made dreadful by what lurks unsaid behind the characters, a book of sinister intimations; but of course it is impossible to suppose that such an experienced and self-conscious artist as Henry James was not aware of what he left in the dark when he wrote this appalling story. In the same way, we are bound to admit that Stevenson knew precisely what he was doing when, closing the door on Mr. Hyde, he omitted to tell us many things which curious readers might like to learn concerning that character.
To go back to our iceberg floating blindly on what a psychoanalyst might call the sea of the subconscious, I believe there are many such icebergs floating on exactly that kind of sea in the presentday literature. Some are made impressive by their size, some gleam and sparkle in the sun like diamonds, some are simply big lumps of frozen water, cold, heavy, and colorless. All, however, have this in common: much of their bulk is made up of something which we cannot see but which we know is there. What is it?
Let us try to find out. When an author writes ‘Chapter I’ at the top of a blank page, he is starting out on a strange and often dangerous adventure. Without knowing it always, he is going to tell us all about himself, but he feels perfectly safe because he masquerades as a dozen different people and never credits the reader with enough perspicacity to find him out. What he wishes to do or say himself, but doesn’t quite dare, he makes his characters say and do in his stead. This acting by proxy gives him a great sense of freedom. At the same time, it betrays him in the eyes of those who really know how books are written. Curiously enough, an author is much more difficult to get at when he is deliberately writing about himself, because, of course, he is then on his guard. The most sincere and outspoken confession can turn out to be the most impenetrable of masks. Only when the author pretends to be someone else does he really give himself away. He is in the situation of the Emperor in Hans Andersen’s tale: everybody believes that he is fully clad, and he does too, perhaps, when he is really walking through the streets stark naked.
I believe it was Montesquieu who said that no man knew how to write well unless he knew how to skip intermediate sentences, and I remember that saying each time I look at one of the 900-page novels which are turned out nowadays. Be that as it may, the main bulk of our iceberg is made up of intermediate sentences; although these sentences are not actually written out on the page, their presence must somehow be felt — that is, the book must convey the impression that the author knows more than he says. An author who tells you all he knows is a bore. For that reason I shall stop now, having given away some of the secrets of my trade, but confident that they can be of use only with the help of that magic and apparently gratuitous gift — talent.