The Quick and the Dead

John (Room at the Top) Braine’s Writing a Novel was written in the 70’s, which dates some of his references.

But he finishes by identifying as definitive the following D.H.Lawrence passage on the nature and function of the novel, and it’s still a good’un:

You can fool pretty nearly every other medium. You can make a poem pietistic , and still it will be a poem. You can write Hamlet in drama: if you wrote him in a novel, he’d be half comic, or a trifle suspicious: a suspicious character, like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot. Somehow, you sweep the ground a bit too clear in the poem or the drama, and you let the human Word fly a bit too freely. Now in a novel there’s always a tom-cat, a black tom-cat that pounces on the white dove of the Word, if the dove doesn’t watch it; and there is a banana-skin to trip on; and you know there is a water-closet on the premises. All these things help to keep the balance…

We have to choose between the quick and the dead. The quick is God-flame, in everything. And the dead is dead. In the room where I write, there is a little table that is dead: it doesn’t even weakly exist. And there is a ridiculous little iron stove, which for some unknown reason is quick. And there is an iron wardrobe trunk, which for some still more mysterious reason is quick. And there are several books, whose mere corpus is dead, utterly dead and  non-existent. And there is a sleeping cat, very quick. And a glass lamp, alas, is dead.

What makes the difference? Quien sabe! But difference there is. And I know it.

And the sum and source of all quickness, we will call God. And the sum and total of all deadness we may call human.

And if one tries to find out wherein the quickness of the quick lies, it is in a certain weird relationship between that which is quick and- I don’t know; perhaps all of the rest of the things. It seems to consist in an odd sort of fluid, changing, grotesque or beautiful relatedness. That silly iron stove somehow belongs. Whereas this thin-shanked table doesn’t belong. It is a mere disconnected lump, like a cut-off finger.

And now we see the great, great merits of the novel. It can’t exist without being ‘quick’. The ordinary unquick novel, even if it be a best-seller, disappears into absolute nothingness, the dead burying their dead with surprising speed. For even the dead like to be tickled. But the next minute, they’ve forgotten both the tickling and the tickler.

Secondly, the novel contains no didactic absolute. All that is quick, and all that is said and done by the quick, is in some way godly. So that Vronsky’s taking Anna Karenina we must count godly, since it is quick. And that Prince in Resurrection, following the convict girl, we must count dead. The convict train is quick and alive. But that would-be-epatiory Prince is as dead a lumber.

The novel itself lays down these laws for us, and we spend our time evading them. The man in the novel must be ‘quick’. And this means one thing, among a host of unknown meaning: it means he must have a quick relatedness to all the other things in the novel: snow, bed-bugs, sunshine, the phallus, trains, silk-hats, cats, sorrow, people, food, diphtheria, fuchsias, stars, ideas, God, toothpaste, lightning, and toilet-paper. He must be in relation to all these things. What he says and does must be relative to them all.  (A Selection from Phoenix, 1968)

This vivid relatedness applies, I think, to life; we are all that character in our own stories.

The difference is we self-realise, we reach others, before we have the opportunity to edit. We don’t get to cherry-pick the plot highlights.

So our challenge is not just to find the God-flame in the quick (hard enough!) but also to find it in the dead.


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