Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Joyce Cary on when a novel is finished

If you missed Joyce Cary's most famous novel, ``The Horse's Mouth'' (1944), you may have caught Alec Guinness playing the eccentric artist Gully Jimson in the 1958 movie version. Cary himself studied art in Paris as a teen-ager but decided he could better express himself in writing. ``Art and Reality,'' excerpted here, draws on a study of philosophy and the arts he took up to improve his fiction. He quotes Ivy Compton-Burnett, who wrote ironic novels set in English country houses. Poets gradually construct both their verse and their meaning by continued test and alteration; novelists discover new aspects of their theme, and also new limitations of their technique, as they work.

I was once sitting at tea with the great artist and brilliant technician, Miss Compton-Burnett, and she said, ``Mr Cary, I have been wondering when your novel is to be published. I saw it advertised at least a year ago, but it doesn't seem to be out yet.'' I said that I had run into difficulties; the novel had indeed taken nearly three years. But I thought it was nearly finished because when I changed it for the better in one place, I found I had damaged it in some other. Miss Compton-Burnett answered me at once, ``I know exactly what you mean. It happens to me too. At a certain point my novels set. They set just as hard as that jam jar. And then I know they are finished.'' That is to say, the writing of a novel is not only the exploration of a theme, of character, of possibility, but of technical limits.

About these ads

When Proust was writing his masterpiece he had a letter from Mme Schiff to complain that he had made Swann ridiculous. Proust answered that he had no wish to make Swann ridiculous, far from it. But when he had come to this part of the work, he had found it unavoidable. That is to say, he had been compelled by the logic of the craft to do what he had not intended or imagined himself doing. For if he had not made Swann ridiculous, the whole work would have suffered. I don't know to what passage Mme Schiff referred, but I have supposed it was to Swann's jealousy. Now without jealousy Swann would lose much of his actuality for us: much, therefore, of our sympathy: and the whole book would lose enormously by this failure in one of its major characters. And jealousy that makes a man ridiculous is all the authentic, all the more (as we say, truly) real. From the book ``Art and Reality'' by Joyce Cary. Copyright 1958 by Arthur Lucius Michael Cary and David Alexander Ogilvie, executors, estate of Joyce Cary. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.