Once I tried to live by the magic of believing, in which positive thoughts always attract good circumstances into our lives – until I realised success and failure in this world cannot be understood in such a simplistic way. How straightforward life would be if that was so.
The truth is none of us know for sure to what we must attribute success or failure in life. Some flourish in this world who by any moral law should not do so – including those dictators who hold onto power and wealth for many years by the sheer force of terror. And sometimes people can think positive thoughts, and it leads them on a path of suffering. I think of the young girl at my daughter’s school who learned she had been diagnosed with leukaemia, smiled and said, “I’m lucky to have lived until now,” and then lived out the rest of her brief life with a sunny, cheerful, positive attitude.
I’m also reminded of the group of nuns who went out to El Salvador to offer care to the oppressed people, and all met violent deaths. Their story is told by Sheila Cassidy in her book Good Friday People. Here she gives other examples, too, of people who set their faces towards suffering, just as Jesus “set his face towards” Jerusalem (where he would be arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court, sentenced to death, and crucified).
I write this on Good Friday, when we reflect upon Jesus whose love took him on a path of suffering. It led to the Cross – in worldly terms the ultimate failure. And yet the true significance of Good Friday is the triumph of love over evil. We do not flinch from the Cross but dare to wait at the foot of it – not to wallow in shame and guilt (as some suppose) but to receive the grace, love and peace poured out freely for us. And when I think of that grace, love and peace, there at Golgotha, the darkest of places, I can see the Christian resonance in these words from J.R.R. Tolkien: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
This was the question my teenage daughter posed when I said: “Ask me any question about writing novels. What would you like to know?” So I replied, “Put it in italics.” But I hasten to add that I don’t think that was the answer she wanted. Nor do I believe it really does provide the solution. So I’ll just try and unpack what I think she meant.
There are of course, at a superficial level, ‘different ways to write people’s thoughts’. The author tells you what the character thinks; or the thoughts are given directly in italics; or the novel is written in first person narration and gives thoughts direct to the reader. Certainly, novels which have directly conveyed the character’s thoughts are most powerful, and they haunt my memory. Among them is John Fowles The Collector. Indeed, this is a terrifying example. Here we are taken by the hand and led into the world of a first person narrator who is criminally insane. We are inside his head. And of one thing we can be sure: we wouldn’t like to be at his mercy, or meet him down a dark alley. The second part of the book is told through the viewpoint of his victim. This is a stunningly successful device. With novels like this, any kind of value judgement by the reader is cancelled. I read the book in a state of concentrated attention that was devoid of any sort of “background chatter”. I had a similar experience when I read Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of survival in Warsaw 1939-45, The Pianist. There are some stories which are so razor-sharp and the events so stark that descriptions of emotion or on-the-spot evaluation by the first person narrator are redundant. A third example can be seen in Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men when she takes us inside the mind-set of the killer. Again no judgement is placed upon this by the author; it’s unnecessary. His chilling worldview alone makes its impact, alongside our knowledge of the various deceptive roles he plays in society, for the benefit of his victims.
Ultimately the answer to my daughter’s question is: be scrupulous, sparing and self-disciplined in the way you show your viewpoint character’s thoughts. It’s a difficult lesson to learn. Over-indulgence is a sure sign of amateurism. And it’s a lesson all but the most brilliant writers never stop learning.