Front cover, The Wool-Pack by Cynthia Harnett, 1951 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
I have lived my life half in this world, half out of it. Hours, weeks, by now it must be years, have been spent in imagined elsewheres. Sometimes these other worlds have been invented by me—although ‘invented’ seems too deliberate a word. I daydream. Actually, most of all, I bedtime dream. Waiting for sleep (and its passage into a whole other array of fictional experiences) I make up stories in which I play the heroic part. I might be an aristocrat, or a war lord, or a billionaire. I can order the world pretty much as I like. Once my money and power has been established, I tell myself elaborate stories in which I intrepidly go about setting the world to rights.
Some of these invented fictional worlds I return to again and again. For decades now I’ve told myself a story in which, having taken a job as an investment banker in London in the early eighties, I appropriate billions of dollars and invest them to build up the world’s largest fortune: 500 billion dollars, let’s say. Then, going underground, I organize the assassination of folk like Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump as my anonymous contribution to making the world a better place.
Of course, these private, daydreamy worlds shame me. Aren’t they’re just escapist fantasies which a mature person like me, a professor no less, should have long forsaken? It’s embarrassing. But neither shame nor embarrassment banishes them.
These are not the most powerful of the fictional worlds I inhabit. No. The most engaging other worlds came from the outside, usually in the form of books, but also, of course, in films and tv shows. By and large I prefer novels to films because you can pause to savour and elaborate them as you go, in your own time. Film’s unspooling is too relentless and external for that.
Fictions have been my other life forever. I began to have a conscious sense of the intensity with which they could connect to me when I was about ten years old, reading Cynthia Harnett’s historical novels. The Wool-Pack, the now all-but-forgotten Harnett’s once most well-known story, and my favourite, was set in Cotswold wool country during the late medieval period. A boy about my age (along with his affianced bride-to-be!) learns that devious Lombardy bankers are defrauding his father and he bravely leaves home for the larger world in order to set things to rights.
I guess I enjoyed Harnett’s stories so much because structurally speaking they were so close to the heroic do-good ones I imagined for myself. But a separate pleasure might also have been at play even though, aged ten, I can’t have been consciously aware of it. Harnett’s novels are written in the mandarin prose of the British upper-middle class. They assume that class’s values. I think there was something reassuring for me about that: this was a confident, self-possessed ethos that I sensed I should absorb even though I had never come across it in Wellington, New Zealand circa 1960.
Most of all, Harnett knew stuff. Her novels are crammed full of exotic but true facts about historical conditions that, although they’ve now disappeared, once actually existed. So I was gaining mastery as I read: learning things, true things, that lots of other people I knew didn’t know. Her books, fictional as they were, offered information, and, with it, a sliver of command.
I think it was this merger of these two non-presences— history and fiction—that elevated Harnett’s novels above the mass of children’s literature. To me, those books were as real and true, if not as actual, as the Wellington in which I lived.
As I grew older my fictional identifications became more complicated, my tastes more distinctly literary. By the time I was fifteen or so I was devoted to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and André Gide’s The Counterfeiters. These too were tales of young men—in Gide’s case, adolescents of my own age—but young men whose sense of themselves, whose sense of the world and of their interactions with others seemed almost infinitely more open and plural than anything available to me, stuck as I was by that time in a dull boarding school, and, when not, under fairly stringent parental control.
In Journey to the End of the Night, , a young Parisian, Ferdinand, shadowed by a mysterious chance acquaintance, Robinson, spontaneously joins up to fight in the First World War. He soon deserts and travels across the world—Africa, the US—meeting devious, grasping, desperate people everywhere. Whatever enthusiasm, faith and hope he began with, seeps away. By the novel’s end, all he trusts is death.
Again, looking back, it is difficult to untangle what I then thought of the novel from what I remember of it now but I’m convinced that it had such an impact on me because its cynicism and despair protected me from the fear that, when I grew up, I too might find nothing in the world to hang on to.
Céline’s style was the opposite of Harnett’s, and its seduction of me marked an epoch in my life. Like my bedtime fantasies, Journey to the End of the Night is a first person narrative but one in which Ferdinand’s injunctions to, and interrogations of, himself take the place of the genre’s more usual use of introspection and glorification to present main characters. Ferdinand does not possess anything like a thoughtful, self-reflective consciousness. It’s not just that he has no tabs on himself but that he has no special interest in himself.
Journey to the End of the Night was largely written in dialogue and in sentences connected elliptically by three dots which elided the usual connections, emotional and rational, that make a fully developed self. This unusual stylistic device was capable of conveying a way of being more directly connected to the world than anything I could imagine for myself. It carried a message. It showed that identifying with cynicism and despair wasn’t necessarily just giving up. Cynicism and despair too could be experimental and expressive. And authentic.
Gide’s The Counterfeiters, written around the same time as Journey to the End of the Night, took another route into me. The novel is about an adolescent boy, Bernard, who, learning that his father isn’t his biological parent, leaves home and ends up in a relationship with an attractive, sophisticated older man. As far as I can recall, the novel’s queer aspects, its brush with paedophilia even, passed me by. I was interested not in its sex but in its world.
This was a wonderful world in which stylish and elegant boys, possessing considerable autonomy, frequented Paris’s bars and cafés, read widely and thought philosophically. Adults respected and paid attention to them because, although barely older than I, they were in effect adults themselves. Again nothing like that existed in my New Zealand.
What also came with Gide’s invented world was a new and exciting mode of interiority. I still remember a passage in which a drop of sweat drips from Bernard’s nose and falls onto the letter he is writing to tell his father that he’s leaving home. How does Bernard respond to the tiny splash? He pauses, reflects that the sweat is ‘pretending to be a tear,’ and then jumps to the conclusion, ‘it’s better to sweat than to weep.’
A standout moment this. I couldn’t imagine myself believing that a drop of sweat might masquerade as a tear. That was too figurative a leap. In fact I still think it’s a thought that is foreign to the world any of us live in. It lacks, as they say, verisimilitude. But it was—and is—amazing. Sweat that believes it is tears: poetry. And Bernard’s injunction to himself—better sweat than cry—is seductive too. It says, ‘don’t feel hurt, don’t be a victim: work, act, strain yourself.’ Poetry with toughness: some formula for an adolescent boy. A promise of strength which is at the same time poetry.
It wasn’t surprising then that I studied English at university. But I didn’t enjoy it. For me, literature still belonged to the nexus in which fiction-reading, reverie and dreaming joined one another—the dreaming continuum let’s call it. Of course, my university teachers thought of literature as something quite else. From their point of view, literature was an archive or a library, not a bunch of invitations to enter other worlds. In English departments, literature possesses a history longer and wider than any individual reader can grasp, across which various styles, genres, purposes and readerships come and go. And they come and go as moved by wider social shifts. Despite everything, for the academy, literary works were—and are—governed by context.
The disciplined study of literature required students to gain command of the large literary archive and its contexts. We were taught how to recognize the historical moment at which a text was written (to that end, we carried out a daunting exercise called ‘dating’) as well as to understand the logics of—the reasons of and causes for—transformations of genre, tone, style and values across history.
Because the English department I joined was dominated by Leavisites—followers of the controversial and pugnacious Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis—it also taught us how to discriminate. It insisted that we exercise literary judgment, extremely strict judgment at that. For Leavis, only a very few works in the archive have enduring value and we were trained to recognize which those texts were and to understand the principles upon which the judgments that picked them out for special praise were made. We were required to know why, for instance, George Eliot was an insuperably better novelist than Anthony Trollope; and John Milton a worse poet than John Donne.
As an amateur reader I had never made judgments of this kind. I simply liked a work or I did not. And ‘liking’ meant being drawn into it. The more solid my submission to its fictionality or its inventiveness the more I liked it. Liking was a fact about an encounter and not the result of an aesthetic judgment. But now I was being asked to understand that a tiny group of authors’ use of language had more value than all other uses of language whatsoever.
This was because these authors’ writings embodied what Leavisites called a ‘moral sensibility.’ A moral sensibility is a capacity to respond fully and intensely to the world’s complexities, depths and ethical potentialities. It affirms life’s energies. Moral sensibilities are directed outward, at the world. They are not subjective or personal. They are communicated in language, and, more particularly in literary works whose sensitivity and intelligence is displayed in their wit, creative use of figurative language, and mastery of form. The texts which most persuasively express moral sensibility’s full reach are our society’s greatest inspirations and monuments, bar none. That was the Leavisite doctrine.
Not much of this rubbed off on me at the time. My undergraduate studies certainly didn’t stop me still spending much of my time between reverie and miscellaneous novel reading. But at least I now knew that reverie wasn’t what literature was always for. I understood that the literary archive was, as we used to say, impersonal, and to take it up merely for your own ends was to do it no kind of justice.
It took me longer to understand that an academic discipline —English—and an academic profession also existed. I know this may sound odd: how could someone with an English BA not realize that he was being inducted into an established discipline in which people made their living? Well I didn’t. For me, university English was a continuation of English at school and its primary objects were the books we were taught. I hardly thought about my teachers at all. I certainly did not contemplate following in their footsteps or exploring the conditions that would allow me to do so. As it happens, Leavisites did not believe in research and frowned upon postgraduate study, so maybe that helps explain my lack of attention to the discipline and profession.
At any rate, it was only some years after finishing my undergraduate degree, having tried out other jobs, that I fully realized that you could study English at a postgrad level and maybe go on to make a living of it. Once I understood that, and determined that I’d rather be a university teacher of literature than anything else, I returned to my studies. I finished an MA at Auckland University and then, after considerable delay and difficulty, a PhD at Cambridge.
Even my postgraduate training did not break my habits of reverie and miscellaneous fiction reading. Perhaps that explains why I struggled to finish my thesis at Cambridge. But at least my choice of a topic—George Eliot—wasn’t connected to my dreamy life, at first anyway.
I decided on Eliot because I had been convinced by the Leavisites that she is one of our greatest novelists. I also chose her because by now I had understood that the academic world, just like the literary world, had its own archive (the long history of scholarship and criticism) and, like literature itself, continually moved with the times. It experiences trends and fashions, and in the nineteen seventies, fashion had landed on the Victorian era. If I wanted an academic job, it was in my interests to focus on a major Victorian writer even if my spontaneous likings fixed more on the twentieth century.
Then an untoward thing happened. It turned out that my private dreaming continuum could insinuate itself even into my academic research. I began vaguely, dreamily, to think of certain writers and their oeuvres as individuals related to me. Three special writers moved out of the literary-historical archive into my interiority that way: George Eliot, Henry James and Franz Kafka. In my reveries, I added them to my family circle.
George Eliot was my mother. Franz Kafka was my father. Henry James was me—not the actual me but a promise of me: the promise of my becoming an urbane, cosmopolitan, competent man of letters.
It wasn’t as if I told stories to myself about Eliot, Kafka and James as family members. They didn’t become characters in the kinds of fantasy narratives I had so long invented as I fell asleep. Rather it was a matter of mood and image. In reverie, my relations to these writers acquired something of the quality of feeling I felt for those who had been closest to me for longest: my father, my mother and myself. My sense of these writers, their images, merged with images of myself and my family. I intuited—or created—resemblances between us.
George Eliot was my mother because both were moral, public-spirited, free thinking and, most of all, solid figures. My mother was a committed Fabian—an adherent of that socialist movement which believed that scientific experts should be given power to guide society towards a juster, happier, more collective, future. She lived out her political/social commitment as a public health doctor, and also as a campaigner for various progressive movements: nuclear disarmament, homosexual law reform, abortion rights, anti-apartheid, breast milk for babies, and alike. George Eliot’s beliefs were different from my mother’s of course, but she was moved by the same earnest social hope. Just as my mother acted out her beliefs working as a district medical officer, Eliot put her beliefs into action in her fictions. This rough equivalence was enough for them to merge in my dream continuum.
Kafka was my father because both had been born into a Prague Jewish family. In fact, my father’s father may well have had a real life acquaintance with Kafka. Kafka’s family lived a few blocks from his. They were more or less contemporaries, Kafka being three years younger. They went to the same high school. They both studied law at Prague University at around the same time. As young men, both were interested in avant-garde literature.
Like Kafka, my father was uneasy, opaque, sensitive, self-reflective, not thoroughly socialized. Like Kafka’s father, he was authoritarian and a bit frightening. Indeed the tensions between Kafka and his father mirrored my own tensions with my father: tensions which probably had driven me so strongly towards fictional worlds to start with. And just as my parents’ marriage was a delicate balance between two utterly different personalities, literary- historically speaking, Kafka was George Eliot’s opposite.
My plucking family connections from out of the vast literary archive like this probably helped me survive Cambridge. That cold, simultaneously grimy and grand town, oppressed by its past and sense of its own importance, weighed on my spirits. At least to start with, I was often lonely. Imaginatively surrounding myself with authors as family helped me out.
It helped too that these writers novels were often about reverie and its moral and epistemic problems. Eliot, Kafka and James were all themselves interested in relations between reality and private daydreams—relations which, as it turned out (and as academic literary history teaches you) had been a central concern of modern fiction from the beginning, from Don Quixote on.
In Kafka’s novel The Castle, for instance, a land surveyor, enigmatically named K., travels to an enormous Castle under the impression that has been invited to take up a job there. It turns out, however, that not only was he probably not invited to the Castle at all but that he isn’t a land surveyor either. Unless—and this twist is characteristic of Kafka—K. was indeed invited to the Castle but for mysterious reasons the Castle is now gaslighting him, shunting him aside, leaving readers to think that his whole relation to the place exists only in his head.
Kafka is playing with the epistemological instability which results from a close proximity of real and imagined worlds, an instability certainly familiar enough to me personally.
Henry James deals with the topic differently. In The Portrait of a Lady for instance, Isobel Archer attracts three suitors and chooses the wrong one because she has constructed a misleading fantasy about him and the life he will enable her to lead. In The Ambassadors, more subtly, Lambert Strether is sent by a rich American family to Paris to bring home the family’s son and heir, Chad. Chad has fallen in love with Madame de Vionnet, an older women of dubious morals and status, and who, from the respectable American point of view, threatens to corrupt Chad. Then, in a startling reversal, Strether himself falls for Madame de Vionnet and begins to fantasize about rescuing Chad not by returning him to the States but by encouraging him to stay in Paris with his mistress. As Strether sees it, that way Chad will become a cosmopolitan man of the world, a more remarkable, more polished, person. But Chad turns Strether down and returns to the US.
In this case, Strether’s fantasy of liberating Chad and putting a dent in American narrow-mindedness seems more attractive than the moralistic, philistine reality that the novel ruefully acknowledges holds sway. Here, to a degree at least, literature consciously affirms the dreaming continuum.
It is George Eliot, however, who owns this old, old theme. Famously, in Middlemarch, the high-minded Dorothea Brookes, frustrated at the limited opportunities available to her as a young upper-class woman living on a landed estate, decides to marry Mr Casaubon, a much older man, a clergyman and scholar. She mistakenly believes that Casaubon is wise and benevolent and that she can help him complete a masterwork which will transform all understanding of myth and religion. The painful collapse of her fantasy chastens Dorothea. But it does not so much lead her to adjust to reality as to embark on another fantasy relationship, this time with a handsome young would-be Liberal politician. This time it’s a fantasy the novel can endorse.
In the end I chose not to write about Middlemarch but about Daniel Deronda where the most grandiose fantasy of them all is enacted. Daniel Deronda is a young Jewish man who, as a child, was abandoned by his European mother (a famous opera singer), and has been brought up by a rich Englishman. He is a dreamy, unformed youth. Under the influence of Mordecai, a Jewish mystic, he learns he is Jewish, and attaches to his race. Succumbing further to Mordecai’s pressure he comes to accept that he has been chosen, Messiah-like, to lead the Jews back to Israel. Daniel Deronda ends with Deronda improbably setting off for Jerusalem on a Zionist mission, a fantasy which, once more, the novel endorses (and which, as it turned out, had real-world effects since it helped inspire the Zionist, Theodor Herzl).
Looking back, I believe that I chose to work on George Eliot neither just for pragmatic reasons nor because I came to associate her with my mother (as in fact I did my supervisor Gillian Beer too, which intensified matters) but because Eliot’s interest in, and partial acceptance of, reverie and self-aggrandizing fantasy struck a chord in me. When you get right down to it, Eliot’s plots were not too dissimilar from the bedtime stories I had told myself ever since I was a little boy.
Whatever its reasons were, my choice of Eliot did not help me finish my PhD. After three years in Cambridge, my thesis still incomplete, I went to work for an advertising agency in London. Only years later did I finish my thesis and make my way back into academia.
Now, more than thirty years on, I also see that I found finishing my thesis so hard because reverie had seeped into my academic writing itself.
At Cambridge I wrote a lot: essays and chapter drafts galore. But these drafts weren’t properly academic. For instance, I spent over a semester writing an essay on an unnoticed and minor conundrum in Middlemarch, not even the text I was supposed to be working on.
In that novel, Hans Meyrick, a young artist, meets Dorothea and Casaubon during their (unhappy) honeymoon in Rome. Hans decides (or pretends to decide) that Casaubon would be perfectly suited to model Thomas Aquinas in a history picture he is painting. He asks Casaubon to sit for him which flatters Casaubon and thus pleases Dorothea too.
The thing is: Aquinas was famously obese and Casaubon is thin. So Hans’s choice doesn’t quite make sense. My essay/chapter explored the various difficulties and associations that this difficulty presents. Did George Eliot know Aquinas was fat? If so, did Hans? What about Casaubon, did he? What, if anything, does it say about both characters if they didn’t know it? What information about Aquinas was available at the time anyway? If Eliot did know about the contradiction between Aquinas’s fatness and Casaubon’s thinness, why did she waive it aside? What larger point was Eliot trying to make when she aligned Casaubon with Aquinas? Why was Casaubon flattered by being associated with Aquinas of all people? Was irony involved? Maybe this whole thing was a fuss about nothing: does it really matter that Aquinas was fat and Casaubon thin? Come to think of it, what does matter in a novel? Etc. etc. etc.
This line of enquiry had very little to do with the kind of research that might land you a PhD, especially in a discipline then in the middle of its struggle over ‘theory.’ It may very well be that the huge body of writing about theory produced at the time itself involved a massive collective disciplinary fantasy, but that’s beside the point here. My essay came out of private reverie. It was an associational flow of facts, speculation and questions remote from the protocols of academic disciplinarity, coming to life only in my head. So it is hardly surprising that I floundered with my dissertation.
Maybe there is a further story to be told about how I did at last succeed in finishing my PhD and gaining a foothold in the academy. That happened only after I had abandoned criticism and interpretation and moved onto literary history where obstacles to private dreamworlds are, fortunately for me, more substantial.
But even after making that switch, my academic writing has remained attached to reverie and fantasy. As indeed does the piece you are reading right now. Academic thought and expression still takes me into a zone where I can block the world out, retreat into myself and let thoughts and arguments come to life, not now, it’s true, as expressions of personal desire, but still as entertainments, escapes. This is so even if, by a generous turn of fate, these thoughts and arguments sometimes stand to my professional credit.
Simon During, a New Zealander educated at Cambridge, has taught English in British, Australian, American, German and New Zealand universities. These days he spends his time in Brisbane (and Covid willing) in Berlin, and is writing about the history of English and the humanities.