Small Hearts

Terry Eagleton

  • The Green Road by Anne Enright
    Cape, 310 pp, £16.99, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 224 08905 0

Hegel believed that happiness was largely confined to the private life, a view that would scarcely survive a reading of the modern novel. A lot of fiction since the early 20th century takes it for granted that families will be dysfunctional, individual lives unfulfilled and relationships cockpits of gladiatorial combat. Almost all the characters in Anne Enright’s superb new novel are spiritually damaged in one way or another, but we are not told exactly how they landed up like this, and it would seem churlish to inquire. Do you end up an alcoholic, like one of the characters here, because you have been driven to the bottle by an exasperating mother, or is lying drunk and bleeding on the kitchen floor just the way of the world? Is it an ontological truth that families are bunches of people who get on each other’s nerves? Perhaps failure and frustration are synonymous with being alive, which is not a viewpoint one can imagine Jane Austen or Walter Scott adopting. ‘I look at him,’ the narrator of Enright’s earlier novel The Gathering remarks of her husband, ‘a big, sexy streak of misery, with his face stuck in a glass of obscure Scotch, as he traces the watermark of failure that runs through his life, that is there on every page.’

For writers like Fielding and Dickens, cheerfulness is quite as real as gloom, which isn’t the case with Sebald or Graham Greene. Suffering for them is fundamental in a way that bliss can’t be, and certainly easier to knock a story out of. For the modern age, there is, many would say, something phony about the very idea of happiness. Even the word has a naff ring to it, redolent of men in multicoloured jackets and revolving bow ties cavorting at the end of piers. ‘Contentment’, with its inescapable overtones of munching grass, isn’t much of an improvement, while ‘ecstasy’ comes in the shape of tablets.

As far as misery goes, it is modernism that made the difference. If the typical modernist novel is more realistic than realism, that is partly because it refuses to edify its readers with a happy ending. Since the dispirited can easily tip over into the disaffected, this, politically speaking, is not entirely prudent. Despondency, so the Victorians believed, is potentially subversive, and it is part of the function of classical realism to keep it at bay. As with all fantasy, from a Freudian viewpoint its task is to rectify the defects of reality, furnishing the hero after his tribulations with a comely spouse and a sizeable landed estate. Modernism, which springs from an era of genocide and global warfare, rebuffs such anodyne solutions, but only because it is as averse to utopia as it is to false consciousness. Anyone out to scandalise the literary establishment should come up with an outlandishly avant-garde piece of fiction in which all the characters are remorselessly chirpy all the time. In defiance of Tolstoy’s claim that all happy families are happy in the same way, there would be a myriad modes of euphoria on display, while glumness would be unmasked as brittle, modish and self-indulgent. The only problem is that no publisher would touch it.

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