Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Unicuique suum

To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

I have never been fond of thrillers, which tend to make me feel like a puppet on strings. The artifice, the manipulation, is too much for me, too conspicuous, too plain; it is often all (what little) I see. What makes reading such popular fiction so difficult for me, so unsatisfactory, so discouraging finally, is that, much like video, it is generally constructed in such a way as to merely tell you—rather than show you—a tale. By its nature, it asks very little of you, the reader, but that you be passive and receive. It imposes rather than supposes.  

A literary agent who specializes in ‘literary fiction’ recently replied to a query of mine (I’d sent her the opening pages of a novel I’d written) by chiding me, “I hope you’re not one of those writers who think that plot is secondary.” It was everything I could do not to respond, “No, I am not one of those writers. To me, plot isn’t even a tertiary concern.” It would not have been an exaggeration. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Character is plot, plot is character.” It is what I too believe, that literature is first and foremost the study of character, of what it means to be human, of what it is (may it never be discovered) that makes us tick. Reading literary fiction is nothing if not the expression of a deep-seeded desire to know others, to be less lonely, to see ourselves more truly. It is about confronting—again and again—what Neruda calls “the confused impurity of the human condition.”

Yet there is more to literary fiction than that. Now more than ever, it is also, and essentially, about empowerment and agency in an increasingly coercive,  increasingly anti-democratic world, a blooming corporate sovereignty that depends more on servility and conformity and consumption than on freedom and dignity, on courage and struggle and change. The sort of fiction I live to read (the sort of fiction TR founder George Ovitt and I have extolled for years on this blog—see again his post on The Grapes of Wrath) is that which not only invites me to participate in it, in the active construction of its meaning, its value, but actually requires it, indeed is incomplete, impossible, without me, without my intelligence, my commitment, however uncertain and imperfect they may be. Reading literary fiction is one of the great, time-tested ways of training the heart and mind to participate wholly, urgently, in the world about us, to question and resist, to engage bravely and meaningfully with others. Great fiction doesn’t simplify life but complicates it. It must—or it deceives. 

All of which is to say what? All of which is to say how strangely pleasant it was to read Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia’s perhaps best known detective thriller, To Each His Own. It surprised me at every turn—its lack of gimmickry, its depth of character, and its language itself, not to mention its brooding, ultimately fatalistic critique of the codes and culture of Sicily, the author’s own home and hell. Philip Hensher puts it best: “Some of [Sciascia’s] books, like the brilliant To Each His Own, look like bleak, inclusive thrillers, and slowly turn into grand indictments of the abuse of power. They are all very different books, united by a ruthless, unsparing gaze, and common subject in power and its abuses.”

To each his own. Yes. To each (and everyone) her own.

Peter Adam Nash

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