There was a very thought-provoking essay by the late Susan Sontag in the papers this weekend on novelists and writing.It was full of ideas that I'm still pondering in the context of my reading and I've sent for a book of her essays because though I know of Susan Sontag peripherally now I want more depth.
"Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically.They tell stories.They narrate.They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own.They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate - and, therefore, improve - our sympathies.They educate our capacity for moral judgement..."
All that seems highly relevant to my latest read because here's a book that has made me think about things at a unique and very different level.
What if you were given eternal life?
As in the life you live now just went on and on and on.
Loving Mephistopheles by Miranda Miller and published by Peter Owen has actually taken me several lifetimes to read, 285 pages but with probably twice the print you'd find on the average page, so I'm guessing this would spread out to about 500+ pages in an ordinary paperback edition.
It comes with endorsements from two highly respected authors, Hilary Mantel who calls it "a wonderfully generous novel" and Lyndall Gordon "a brilliantly ambitious novel" and the blurb is intriguing.
"When Jenny a pretty but third-rate music hall chanteuse in Edwardian London, remarks to her mentor and lover Leo, also known as the Great Pantoffsky, that she never wants to grow old she has no idea who he is. But her contract to love him will reside at the Metaphysical Bank in High Street Kensington for ever"
Leo makes a blood pact with a very drunken Jenny and before she knows it eternal life is hers and the book sets off on one of those journeys you can't even begin to imagine or describe.
Jenny quickly discovers, as she starts to enjoy the fruits of this strange existence,
"There's no point in having eternal life if you don't have eternal fun"
and there is masses of it and it's all very clever.Inevitably the fun runs out and it is was at this point that I could then identify with another comment from Hilary Mantel
"several books wrapped into one, and I would have been very happy to stay with any one of the strands or in any of the places it takes us to"
Enter Susan Sontag again
"Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know we can't tell all the stories - certainly not simultaneously"
Loving Mephistopheles is ambitious in its reach and in a way that meant there was almost too much for this reader to cope with. A marked and probably intentional slowing of pace as Jenny's circumstances changed in the final third of the book but for me the narrative seemed to lose its flow and direction at this point.I was left yearning for a little bit more of what had gone before and then The End, probably a 100 pages sooner.I can just imagine any writer screaming "Nooooooo you've got it all wrong" at the very idea of hacking away a third of their precious baby but I feel sure I would then have been telling you that I'd just experienced a tightly packed triumphantly fantastic read rather than a sprawling good read.
Less would ultimately have meant much much more.
Let none of this detract from the fact that this is the work of an amazingly vivid imagination producing a book that is without doubt brave and different and unusual as Miranda Miller deals with this "ingenious reworking of the Faustian legend".
Back to Susan Sontag
"A novelist then is someone who takes you on a journey.Through space.Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not"
Miranda Miller most certainly does this and more and I look forward to more of her writing.
I've emerged the other end feeling as if I have indeed been on some strange and magical journey and yes, you have to agree, eternal life in this form would be a disaster, for a start you'd never get anything done because actually you'd have all the time in the world.
Hilary Mantel feels this book has "the wild and joyful inventiveness of an Angela Carter story" and someone asked me ages ago if I'd read The Magic Toyshop and I still haven't so now I will.