Frank Kermode

  • Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 365 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 1 85619 118 4

‘Oh! Its only a novel ... only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.’ A hundred years elapsed before Lawrence spoke of novels with equal warmth or extravagance – the one bright book of life, etc – and an hour or two browsing in John Sutherland’s Victorian Fiction will be enough to persuade most readers that not many novelists of that century wrote the bright book of life, or quite came up to the standard set, unless Jane Austen is way over the top, by Fanny Burney. It is generally assumed that these lofty claims have little relation to run-of-the-mill fictions of the kind that Booker judges have lately been ploughing through.

And yet it can be argued that even in the present state of things the novel may be the best available instrument of ethical enquiry; that its own extraordinary variety of means equips it as our best recorder of human variety, even at a time when biography is challenging that position; and that its capacity for wit and humour and poetry continues to exist and even to expand. This doesn’t mean that a sequel to Sutherland won’t contain hundreds of imitative, spiritless and feeble-minded duds; all it suggests is that in respect of imaginative power the better practitioners are more remarkable than is sometimes believed. They aren’t necessarily gigantic intellects, though it would certainly do no harm if they were. Joyce said he had the mind of a grocer’s assistant, but he knew how to use its powers as well as its limitations. The point is that good novelists have found the medium to be one in which they can make unusual sense, a medium which bears them delightedly up, confers on them a self-disciplined freedom that can astonish the land-bound observer.

These unoriginal reflections arise from a reading of Rose Tremain’s new novel. In the opinion of the Booker judges there are at least six recently published novels better than this one, and if they are right we are rich indeed. Ms Tremain, I see from the jacket copy, is employed in Norwich to teach other people to do Creative Writing. Reading her, you feel she must know exactly how to go about this notoriously difficult task, and that she would do it by encouraging her pupils to immerse themselves in a potentially destructive element and either discover that it bears them up, or sink. Sadler’s Birthday, her first novel, less adventurous than her latest but still very accomplished, appeared in 1976. The central figure of Sadler’s Birthday is a retired butler who has inherited the house in which he had, indispensably, served – not an obvious choice of theme for a young woman’s first novel, but expertly handled. Over the years since that debut she has become, by means of exercise and research, a genuine virtuoso.

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