Magazine article The Spectator

Through Glasses Darkly

Magazine article The Spectator

Through Glasses Darkly

Article excerpt

Philip Glazebrook

THE WORLD MORE OR LESS by Jean Rouaud

Harvill, 14.99, pp. 218

French novelists, the serious ones, require more work of their readers than an English writer may expect of his. `When,' exclaims the English novel reader, who scarely bothers to stoop to pick up clues to the author's intention if that intention is not plainly stated, `when is the man going to explain the point of all this stuff?' `Jamais!' declares the French novelist, immediately starting another chapter on a totally different and apparently unrelated subject, and adding as he turns his back, `If I am not elliptical I am nothing.'

A reader determined to 'understand' the novel must make of it what he can, a lost mariner judging the drift of a submerged tide from stray objects bobbing on its surface. He must accept nothing, however amusing, however beguiling, at its face value. If schoolboys are described idly pushing laden barges away from the quayside with their feet, the reader sees it as a political activity, prefiguring the anticapitalist protest of the adolescents the boys will become. Congratulating himself on catching the analogy, he misses Rouaud's marvellous description of the seagulls overhead. It is not enough, with a book which comes to us garlanded like this one, to listen to the language, to watch the pictures, to love the humour, to enjoy one scintillating page after another; you feel inadequate if you have not remained alert to the work expected of you, and you will lay the novel down with guilty looks as if caught with a thriller in the BM Reading Room. This is the man, it must be remembered, who won the Goncourt with a novel `about World War I' (so the blurb tells us) in which war is the atmosphere of the book rather than its subject. Work at it, reader.

Rouaud, mind you, works too. The strength of a trilogy (his oeuvre is three novels concerned with the same bourgeois family) is that the writer knows his subject so well that he is confident in its reality, and, by himself moving about inside it with assurance, gives us the sense of roominess which good novels have. In a profusion of images and incidents, Rouaud has created solid ground under the narrator's feet; but he shows us this world through the tunnel vision of a fumbling myopic boy at boarding school and thereafter. This narrow viewpoint (through broken spectacles) is further restricted by there being not a single line of dialogue in the book, by which constraint Rouaud has deprived his novel of characters able to create an identity for themselves, independent of the narrator, by what they choose to say. …

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