A New Verismo

John Bayley

  • The Master Eccentric: The Journals of Rayner Heppenstall 1969-1981 edited by Jonathan Goodman
    Allison and Busby, 278 pp, £14.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 85031 536 0
  • The Pier by Rayner Heppenstall
    Allison and Busby, 192 pp, £9.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 85031 450 X

It seems likely that critics in the future will see the literature of our age as being peculiarly obsessed with a perverse version of mimesis. They will have no trouble in classifying its tendencies, and attributing them to the waning influence of classic 19th-century doctrines – realism, naturalism, verismo. They will also note that our own fashionable critics bent over backwards to point out that the whole thing was a con: that literature, of no matter what kind, can never in the smallest degree be like life but only like other examples of literature. The paradox may briefly amuse them. They may conclude that whereas writers – novelists particularly – were instinctively conditioned to make reading seem like living, critics were programmed in the opposite direction – to point out that all was artifice.

When he was 18, Tolstoy wrote ‘A History of Yesterday’, which was just what it purported to be: an account of everything he had done or thought during the 24 hours. Never published in his lifetime, it is neither interesting nor uninteresting to read. What matters is impression, an impression of the humdrum and ordinary, the daily grind of consciousness, just as, in a run-of-the-mill modern play, the writer accepts the convention of conveying the daily grind of speech. The effect is bound to go against the other convention – of performance.

The voyeur is really the centre of this version of mimesis, which could be compared to the pleasure we derive from looking in through a lighted window and seeing what thus appear to be the curious stylised motions of everyday life – getting up, sitting down, opening one’s mouth. Anything dramatic, like a girl undressing or a man stabbing another, would be unsuited to this spectacle; would, as it were, form part of another convention of viewing. Ben Jonson in his plays was exercised about the possibilities of such a type of voyeur, both on and off the stage. Sir Politick Would-Be, in Volpone, is his own voyeur, observing all his movements with exact care: ‘On the way/I cheapened sprats, and at St Mark’s I urined.’

To be interested in oneself in this way is to be interested in others in the same way, and the process is its own reward. It is hard to imagine Shakespeare doing it, because he appears not to exist in and for himself but only as the vehicle for high designs and colourful goings-on. The outward and the inward gaze – the grand description or the introspective sonnet monologue – are the same for him: what would not have occurred to him was to note for us the shape of a stain on his breeches or how his mistress took her skirt off to go to bed. Coleridge liked to jot such things down, and Coleridge, like a modern writer, must privately have thought that everything about him must be fascinating to any reader.

The new mimesis is thus really a question of the writer saying: anything is interesting if I see it and imitate it in my language. My task is not so much to be interesting myself as to provide interest for others – to be both the movements inside the lit living-room and the consciousness looking in. It would be easy to reply: it all depends upon your personality, but that would be misleading. The reader of Rayner Heppenstall, for instance, is, I think, not in the least interested in his personality as such, but in how it translates itself into actions – very small daily actions. A writer like Heppenstall is not a ‘camera’, a convention of seeing and writing allied in terms of fashion to Mass-Observation, the movement in which Heppenstall himself worked for a time. He is a recorder of events and experiences, reached by a process of association which is concealed from the reader, but to the writer is obviously as familiar as the impulses that prompt a migrating bird.

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