How novelists think they ought to live
IN his witty new work, ``Flaubert's Parrot,'' the English novelist Julian Barnes sets up rules for other novelists. He wants a partial ban on novels about growing up (one per author), a 10-year ban on novels set in colleges or universities, and a total ban on novels in which the main character is a journalist or a television personality. These are fair and reasonable requests that could not help but reduce the number of novels flooding the market, while improving the quality of those remaining.
Mr. Barnes is careful not to outlaw novels written about writers in particular or artists in general. Such a condition would cost us the pleasure of his book, and a great many other novels of this century as well.
It is the vocation of storytellers to dramatize struggles, but the modern novelist has given up the classical forms of struggle that pitted, say, the Greeks against the Trojans or Ahab against the whale in favor of the struggle of the Artist vs. Society.
The story the modern storyteller chooses to tell, above all others, is how the story gets written in the first place -- and this turns out to be the hardest struggle of all. Writing is the most demanding of callings, more harrowing than a warrior's, more lonely than a whaling captain's -- that, in essence, is the modern writer's message.
For the novelist of the 20th century, writing has become such an intense, such a dedicated, struggle that Joyce, and a lot of others, have not hesitated to describe the writer as a kind of priest. To choose art means to turn one's back on the world, or at least on certain of its distractions.
The radical choice becomes an either-or one: to write or to live. Flaubert, the father of the writer-as-his-own-hero, made the famous decision that a dedicated artist could not afford the distraction of a family, concluding, as Mr. Barnes reminds us: ``If you participate in life, you don't see it clearly.''
What news this would have been to Johann Sebastian Bach, father of 20 children! What news this would have been to almost any pre-modern artist, accepting himself as an ordinary member of the community, assigned by his skills to express the sentiments and shared experience of that community.
By contrast, the modern novelist has seen his struggle directed precisely against the temptations of middle-class life. To be a reader of the modern novel is to be subjected, again and again, to portraits of the artist as a young man -- and at every other age -- heroically fighting to keep himself pure and apart, even at the cost of alienation.
At the same moment that the literary scene is abuzz with Mr. Barnes's sophisticated tribute to Flaubert, the patron saint of the modern novelist, Mary Gordon's new work, ``Men and Angels,'' has arrived, reminding us that the latest theme of the novel is the portrait of the artist as a young woman -- and at every other age.
The patron saint of the modern woman novelist, Virginia Woolf, may have come to somewhat the same ascetic conclusions as Flaubert, conveying in ``A Room of One's Own'' the suggestion of a priestly cell where one could retreat to one's calling. But subsequent women novelists, like Miss Gordon (and Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates and Alison Lurie and Edna O'Brien and Alice Walker), have not chosen to make their books their only children, according to the old metaphor. Mary Gordon has a husband, two children -- and a cabin study of her own, in which to be a modern novelist. An artist (and a mother) is one of Miss Gordon's protagonists. Rather than regarding family life as a distraction, Miss Gordon and the others accept it as part of their nourishment, and their subject matter.
Does the male novelist, embarking on his lonely quest to scrutinize that quest within mirror after mirror, show a peculiarly male vanity? It is easy to become sexist, in one way or another, considering such questions. But Margaret Drabble, another novelist, another mother, saves us from complacent simplifications. In reviewing ``Men and Angels,'' she finds Miss Gordon taking ``an artistic life, a family life'' and ``reaching for a sense of wholeness, for the possibility of inclusion rather than exclusion, for a way of connecting the different passages of existence. . . . Her book disturbs, rather than reassures, for it demonstrates that family life itself, that safest, most traditional, most approved of female choices, is not a sanctuary: it is, perpetually, a dangerous place'' -- perhaps the ultimate risk as well as the ultimate opportunity.
Women novelists today, like men novelists today, may not match Flaubert at his art. But they seem to be broadening and enriching his severe prescriptions for the artistic life that have served as the governing model for more than a hundred years.
One can almost hear the sound of a cell door opening. A Wednesday and Friday column