Shuddering Organisms

Jonathan Coe

Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx has been one of the more intriguing literary successes of recent years, and one which raises some interesting questions about the always fraught and problematic relationship between contemporary novelists and the reading public they like to imagine themselves serving. Briefly, the situation is this. In 1989, Palliser published The Quincunx, a narrative of some 400,000 words (1,191 pages in the recent ‘Collector’s Edition’) which so scrupulously recreated the language and conventions of mid-Victorian fiction, its labyrinthine plotting, its vivid characterisation and breadth of social canvas, that it was an immediate success with thousands of readers hungry for a return to the narrative and moral certainties of Dickens, Eliot and Collins. Deservedly, this unusual and ambitious book – 12 years, we are told, in the researching and writing – became an international bestseller.

Somewhere along the way, however, Palliser seems to have become dissatisfied with the way his novel was being read. Although the impulse to write The Quincunx came from his ‘early love of Victorian fiction’, his intention was ‘not to imitate these novels passively but to re-contextualise them, to offer a critique like an academic work, but in the form of another novel’. It appears that the nature of this ‘critique’ went unappreciated by some of his readers, because when The Quincunx was reissued in hardback last year, he added an authorial Afterword which explained patiently that it had always been intended as ‘neither a historical novel nor a passive pastiche, but rather ... an ironic reconstruction of the Victorian novel’. He alluded to several of the ambiguities and unresolved mysteries at the heart of the plot; pointed out that in creating these he had deliberately breached the ‘implied contract’ between writer and reader upon which the Victorian novel is founded; indicated that at the very mathematical centre of the book – ‘the middle of the middle section of the middle Chapter of the middle Book of the middle Part’ – there lies a crucial missing portion of manuscript which means that ‘the linchpin of the whole novel is therefore a gap, a dizzying void’; and explained that the intended effect of these gaps and ambiguities was to make the reader aware of ‘suppressed issues’ which would ‘disrupt the unruffled and seamless surface that Victorian public ideology – like any ideology – tries to present’. At the same time he conceded that the book had found many readers who, ‘reading the novel as if it had been written in about 1850, had seen no reason to look for any ambiguities’.

The most obvious deduction to be made from this is a troubling one for Palliser, and he does not mention it in his Afterword: that if The Quincunx can be read with a great deal of pleasure by people who have misunderstood what he regards as its raison d’être, the real source of this pleasure is likely to lie not in his own work as an inheritor and manipulator of literary conventions, but in the work of those Victorian novelists from whose writings he has borrowed so skilfully.

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