Bringing back the author

After years of literary theory, is it safe to speak of 'characters' again? By Michele Roberts; Imagining Characters Six Conversations about Women Writers by AS Byatt & Ignes Sodre Chatto, pounds 16.99
Click to follow
One of the pleasures of reading involves giving free rein to drives of desire and curiosity. To that voyeuristic indulgence, this book adds another: the satisfaction of eavesdropping on its two authors chatting about the novels they enjoy. The reader's sense of glueing a greedy ear to the keyhole is highlighted by the evident delight each speaker takes in her interlocutor's insights and comments. They're happily wrapped up in each other, in the give and take of ideas.

The book was conceived after its two authors met during a discussion on George Eliot at the Cheltenham Festival in 1992, one of whose themes was psychoanalysis and literature. That first conversation led to others, and so to this book, whose editor Rebecca Swift organised the tape-recording and tweaked the final text into shape. The six novels chosen for discussion are Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, Villette by Charlotte Bronte, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, The Professor's House by Willa Cather, An Unofficial Rose by Iris Murdoch and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Each dialogue is preceded by a synopsis of the novel under consideration, a page and a half of faintly absurd plot summary. You can't summarise paintings and I don't think you can summarise novels either. A book like Beloved, made precisely to investigate the possibilities and failures of languages, cannot be reduced like a sauce. Better to skip these summaries and go straight to the talks they introduce.

Byatt and Sodre have set out to re-capture and re-experience a fulfilment they believed all readers want: the sheer, simple pleasure of sitting about passionately telling each other what they think about what they read. The rise of literary theory, they appear to suggest, has made the "common reader'' (famously addressed as such by Virginia Woolf) lose confidence in his or her capacity to make literary judgments. You could assert the opposite too: that literary theory, having declared the death of the author, has made space for precisely the active, curious reader that Byatt and Sodre represent. At the same time, reading has moved back into the public domain after having been seen for so long as a private activity. Literary festivals celebrate not just the notion of the celebrity writer, but the participation of a lively and demanding audience of readers bursting with opinions and questions. One of the charms of this book is that it allows its authors to be both writers and readers at the same time.

Sodre, as a psychoanalyst, and Byatt, as a writer who loves storytelling of both the realist and fairytale traditions, believe in personalities, in selves. They can talk about Fanny, the heroine of Mansfield Park, as though she were a real person they both know well. This, they insist, is how all readers operate, or wish to do. It's only the thought police of literary theory who stress that novels are made of language, that characters represent flows of words. They seek to return to us a lost pleasure, that of indulging in delicious literary gossip about whether we love Fanny or loathe her, just as we might do with a mutual acquaintance. The other fashionable taboo they break is daring to talk about the author's intentions, which are not spelt out in the text and must remain a matter for speculation. They let themselves assert how Jane Austen felt about Christianity, about morality, about the individual characters. It's all shameless good fun. Oddly, however, the more they talk about characters as real people, the more artificial it sounds - treating characters as patients suffering neurotic disorders or helping each other to make mature life choices.

The contribution of psychoanalysis to creative reading seems to lie in its capacity to see a novel as an entire landscape, a geography of connected metaphors whose interplay, often "below'' the explicit surface of the text, suggests the weaving of conscious and unconscious in the dreamer's and the writer's minds. This sensitive and generous approach lets Byatt and Sodre link writing to the invention in other art forms of the Psychomachia, the battle of the soul. The section "Dream and Fiction," at the end of the this enjoyable book, is almost the most interesting. In it, both writers pay passionate homage to the creative process of their chosen fields and to conversation as the best route to profound thought.