Monday, 22 September 2008

Voyeurism and The Mathematics of Love

Goodness, I feel so very dilatory at the moment as far as the blog’s concerned. Nearly every bit of creativity, effort and focus I possess is being poured into the work in progress and, if there are any scraps left, it goes into being a halfway decent person for my family to live with.

But something has made me want to post. A couple of days ago, Emma Darwin put up this intriguing post on her blog and it got me thinking, both about her book, The Mathematics of Love, and my own writing.

Having explained far more cogently than I have ever been able to (go on, read the post) why it’s easier to achieve the distance necessary to lift a story out of the morass of detail and on to a more abstract plane when dealing with historical narratives rather than with an all-too-familiar contemporary world, Emma goes on to say:

Fiction.. doesn't always want to be either abstract and eternal, or contemporary and particular: I don't think I'm unique in demanding of myself that it should be not either-or, but both-and.
I want to write particularities so that something - often I don't know quite what - emerges, is sensed and felt, which goes beyond the particular.

I admired and enjoyed The Mathematic of Love very much so, having read this post, I asked myself what she was using the particularities of the two narrative strands in her novel to say. What emerges from the particular circumstances of Napoleonic war veteran-turned landowner, Stephen Fairhurst and the naïve, worldly-wise 1970s teenager, Anna Ware?

Though it’s a little while since I read the book the word ‘voyeurism’ springs to mind. I was struck by how many times the word itself – or one of its grammatical relations – is used in the text and it is the concept of the voyeur that is the most definite ‘something’ that I felt behind the particularities of the text.

There is some blatant voyeurism (though I’m using the term somewhat loosely here to mean anything which gives the viewer a kind of illicit or societally shocking thrill rather than anything explicitly sexual) in that Stephen Fairhurst supports himself in the immediate aftermath of the war with France by doing battleground tours for parties of curious English tourists. These people have heard about the war from afar but now – now that it’s safe – they want to see the places that they’ve only heard about in the newspapers. Some want to see where loved ones died, others just want to see the place where unimaginable carnage took place, to get a safe echo of it.

But The Mathematics of Love also concerns itself with a kind of voyeurism which is nearer to the novel-writing bone and I found myself asking whether all artists (and, by extension, those who consume art) might be seen to a greater or lesser extent as voyeurs - as those who watch but don’t engage.

Lucy, a young woman frustrated by and intolerant of the social conventions of early nineteenth century gentility, is an artist; she hides behind her sketchbook and pencil, using them as a socially acceptable buffer between her and the censure of the world. Her art gives legitimacy to her need to look at things, however societally shocking, and to see them for what they are.
But, for whom is Lucy drawing? Whatever her stated reasons, whatever society’s complacent nod, it seems to me that she is drawing for herself, as a way of both seeing the world in a more objective way and of engaging with it in one of the few ways which is open to her.
So much, I suspect, is familiar to most novelists – isn’t that what we do – watch, interpret, produce something new as a way of communicating a vision of the world?

Is Lucy a voyeur – feeding on other people’s lives because she isn’t allowed to choose one of her own - or a clear-seer, someone for whom her sketchbook is not just a buffer but a lens?

In the twentieth century strand of TMOL, during the famously desiccated summer of 1976, fifeen year old Anna is also seeing things differently. During an enforced stay in what was once Stephen Fairhurst’s house and is now a struggling boarding school owned by her uncle, she becomes involved with photographers Theo and Eva. They introduce her to photography – both theirs and, as the novel progresses, her own – and, as Anna learns to look, to see, her excitement at watching things and people form before her in the red darkness of the developing room is the thrill of observing those who have been unaware of being watched. They come into view, coaxed by enlarger, developer and fixer and suddenly exist – the little strips of time represented by the negatives now a positive version of what the photographer has seen; her own take on the world and the people in it. And all seen from the anonymity which exists behind the lens.
The artist as watcher rather than participator.

But does the camera ever lie? More importantly, can a photograph ever tell more than a tiny part of the truth?
When Anna asks Theo what became of the Spanish woman he photographed during the Civil War, he is forced to tell her that he doesn’t know, that it was the moment that counted, he needed to capture that moment, the truth of it, the story of it.

But snapshots – though they tell a kind of story – can never give us the whole thing, can never tell us what came next.

Do novels, I wonder, do better or just differently?


David Isaak said...

Better. We can do x-rays.

Alis said...

Now there's a metaphor for a future post!