Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Creative control

Sometimes I wonder how much appeal self-reflexive fiction holds for readers who are neither writers nor literature students. Still, as one of the latter (some time ago) who still occasionally harbours fanciful notions of one day being the former, I'm automatically inclined to find such novels fascinating. Michael Frayn's The Trick Of It and Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal are much more than merely books about the nature and art of writing - but, when I read both in reasonably quick succession this summer, their similarities with regard to self-reflection seemed to leap out.

Frayn's is, without a doubt, more obviously a meditation on writing and the creative act. Comprising a series of letters written to a friend and fellow academic in Australia by a male literary critic whose life is devoted to the study of a single female author, the novel begins in a lighthearted fashion: playful and ostentatious witticisms, comic caricatures of university colleagues and a performative combination of mock-coy confessional, arch self-cross-examination and titillating detail that compromises the narrator's reliability.

As the book unfolds, though, it asks a serious question of the academic: when it comes to the subject of your critical interest, how close is too close - sharing a bed? After a romantic liaison, one thing leads to another and the unnamed letter-writer is united with the fictional novelist in marriage, initially lording it over his rivals at having "cornered the market, as it were". But his boastful pride soon descends into torment and paranoia when his wife starts writing a novel based on his own family. As fiction develops from fact "like mouldy bread growing fur", the tables are turned and he is profoundly disturbed at finding himself to be the powerless subject, the omnipotent author's plaything.

Heller's Booker Prize-winning novel Notes On A Scandal is in many respects strikingly similar. What starts out with a series of marvellously vivid, snobbish and bitchy portraits of schoolteachers from the perspective of their staffroom colleague Barbara Covett slowly reveals itself to be a kind of low-key psychological thriller, an unsettling insight into the dangerous and damaging real-life impacts that obsession and fiction can have.

When new member of staff Sheba Hart embarks upon an affair with a pupil, Barbara offers what appears to be a sympathetic ear. But while Sheba allegedly finds it "helpful ... to describe it all, exactly as it was", it emerges that in what she calls her "diary" Barbara is doing nothing of the sort, indulging in creative fantasy rather than faithfully transcribing truth. A particularly notable example of an unreliable narrator, the self-confessed loner is endlessly judgemental towards others, delusional and self-justifying with respect to her own actions, and motivated by a sinister lust for power and control that compels her to treat Sheba like a character in a story, to be moulded and manipulated.

"What you've really wanted", says Sheba bitterly towards the end, "is ... material." It's a painful lesson that Frayn's letter-writer also comes to learn, about both himself and his wife.

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