Nicholas Lezard, in The Guardian, recommends the work of Helen Simpson. He’s a strange one, Lezard. He reminds me a lot of that coterie of avant-garde loving British bookbloggers we don’t mention here (you know, the ones who are into continental philosophy): they’re all much of a muchness: – that is to say, their opinions about dead authors are exactly what you’d expect – they like Beckett, for instance – but as soon as they get on to judging modern works, where the opinions they should hold haven’t been laid out for them, they make the maddest claims.
Helen Simpson? – I’ve read one short story by her (in the Best of Young British vol 2). It’s not a story I’ll easily forget; and I’m not intending that as a positive thing. It’s the story, in fact, which Lezard is referencing in his piece. As far as I recall, it involves a family (a mother, a father, their small children, their petty domestic problems and grievances) going on a trip one bank holiday to a cottage that used to be owned by Thomas Hardy (now preserved). As they look around, the woman reflects on the miserable drudgery of the domestic life she’s now living, and contrasts it with the romantic dreams which Hardy wrote and which inspired her and she comes to this remarkable conclusion: that Hardy has lied to her with all these romantic dreams, and has omitted from his work the tedious drudgery which is the real lot of everyone.
My thought on reading this was: yes, and that’s exactly why I can read an entire novel of Hardy quite happily; whereas I’m really struggling with the 10 pages of your short story; and isn’t that perhaps what’s wrong not merely with this story but with all of contemporary literature (an idea I shall no doubt be exploring in my survey of the same), namely that – as Obooki put it so well in his remarkable (though as yet largely unwritten) essay, “How To Write a Contemporary Novel” – “Life is tedious; Novels should reflect life; Therefore Novels should be tedious too”. The syllogistic reasoning of this is indisputable.
But – I find myself also thinking – what kind of individual, other than a character in a modern short story, would ever think such a thing? – A literary critic, perhaps? Someone who had studied English Literature at university? – Maybe, but that’s about it. Because, believe it or not, even I – who’ve spent a lot of time reading and who’ve read an awful lot of Hardy – even I haven’t drawn all my conclusions about life from the work of a single author, or of authors in general – but, and I know this is hard concept to grasp, have in the main been influenced in my views on life, by life itself – the things going on around me, the people and situations I’ve come into contact with – and actually literature hasn’t taught me a great deal. No, I wasn’t expecting life to be like a Hardy novel; and it wasn’t.
Besides, I’m pretty sure – though I can’t remember exactly now – that Hardy does talk about these issues quite a bit in his poetry. And, in any case, the reason a fair few of his characters never became embroiled in domestic drudgery is that, as far as I recall, they’d had the sense before then to kill themselves.