Not so long ago, there was something of a craze in publishing for books about reading, one for which I didn’t much care at the time. But Christina Lupton’s Love and the Novel has little in common with the platitudinous manuals that particular trend delivered to the common reader. Its author, an academic with a special interest in the history of reading, doesn’t hope to turn fiction into a form of self-help, nor is she particularly interested in whether a character’s predicament “resonates” with her own situation. Long years of teaching have taught her not only that novels are not blueprints for living, but that the job of a writer is not “to tell us what we’re really like”, nor even how we should behave. In short, Elizabeth Bennet is not, and never will be, your friend.
Lupton’s narrative, part memoir, part literary criticism, isn’t cuddly or confiding. It asks more questions than it answers; there’s something withholding (though interestingly so) at its heart. But it is a clever, well-written book, and I often found myself underlining whole paragraphs as I read. If it is sometimes unintentionally comical – Lupton grew up in a commune in rural Australia, and she has a quaintly earnest hippy side – it is more often wonderfully insightful. Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall, the letters of Simone de Beauvoir to Jean-Paul Sartre, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: I’ve never read accounts of any of these texts that manage to be at once so searching and so wondrously concise, and Lupton made me want to go back to them all (a particular achievement in the case of The Waterfall, a novel from the 60s that seemed of its time even in 1984, which was when I somewhat furtively first picked it up).
When Love and the Novel begins, it’s 2018. Lupton, who is in her late 40s, lives a replete-sounding life in Copenhagen with her husband and two children; they have a home by the sea in Sweden, and she is employed by a British university, travel to which provides her with a certain, much-wanted autonomy. But even happy, satisfying lives are sometimes derailed by desire, a force that can assail a person out of the blue at any moment. At a conference, she meets Shannon, with whom she falls in love: a drama that leads her to feel that she must completely reorganise (a word that may be a polite euphemism for bulldoze) her old life.
Love and the Novel is about these events, and how she tries to work out what to do for the best; how to live in a new way. Can books help? She has always been a passionate reader. As a child, she devoured Helen Garner’s classic Monkey Grip, a novel that then seemed to her to explain the adult world, and there is a sense in which this feeling has never left her: at moments of crisis, the urge not only for wisdom, but for a personal narrator, is powerful, a kind of longing that is akin (I think) to homesickness. But books are also, as the poet said, a load of crap. We are not characters on the page. What needs to be said in life must sometimes go unsaid in a novel, and vice versa. Lupton’s book, in essence, is about coming to terms with the gap between the two at a point when the plot of her life has suddenly developed a new twist.
I have strong feelings about what she has done in Love and the Novel; I would really like to write a long essay about it, with many footnotes and references to Freud. But in the absence of that opportunity, let me just say that she gives the reader so much to think about. Do novels, those great vehicles of democracy and generosity, really change the way people think? Is love, as Hannah Arendt believed, not just apolitical, but anti-political? What is to be done with desire that is prohibited? Should adult happiness always be sacrificed on the altar of children? (Lupton, unfashionable to the last, thinks not, and I’m inclined to agree with her.) Like Jane Austen, to whose novels she gives particular attention, she can be both kind and caustic. In the cause of fathoming how to live life to the full, she spares neither herself, nor anyone she has ever read, no matter how brilliant.