Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Widow for One Year

A sound like a literary novelist trying not to sound like a literary novelist?

This novel is rather like a set of rolling, often interlocking anecdotes that naturally emerge like bubbles of different volumes from the very natures of the characters assembled. Most of them are either writers or readers of fiction, and the theme that runs throughout is the interplay of lived experience with the literary imagination.

It's not the kind of thing I'd usually pick off the shelf, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed reading it. It served to remind me how long it is since I read a loose, sprawling story on the nineteenth century model, where the action is driven by several different key protagonists at different times, all supported by a well-conceived secondary cast.

If this book has one central character it is Ruth Cole, but in the first part she is only eight and a not-so-knowing witness to the drama of her parents' marital end-game. It's a novel of three unequal sections, but essentially two stories, only the first of which would work as a standalone plot. It was indeed the movie adaptation of this, The Door in the Floor (starring Jeff Bridges), which prompted me to seek out the source.

The grown-up Ruth, a successful novelist herself, identifies Graham Greene as one of her favourite authors. He's certainly one that provides a striking contrast with Irving's own style, which has none of the tightness of prose composition or really any of the English modernist's attention to the aesthetic experience of reading. Add to that no end of contrivances, implausibilities, ludicrous coincidences and a rather obtrusive narrator telling us what to think and dropping in plot spoilers at will.

Yet it works. Irving may not be as significant an author as Dickens, but his clear preference for character and story over ideas and artistic impression has taught me a few important (indirect) lessons about the writer's craft. There's a superficial absence of intellectual complexity, which I think cloaks the cleverness of the novel's underlying architecture.

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