Howard Jacobson: If it's not feel-good and involving wizards, then it must be melancholy and difficult

You cannot call yourself a reader of novels if you do not sometimes read to wish you were dead
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The Independent Online

We don't discuss prizes in this column. We try to stay above the fray. But critical responses to Banville's novel raise interesting questions about what a novel actually is. We aren't saying we know better than anybody else. As a general rule, it is probably better never to know what a novel is, so that we may go on being surprised. There are, however, some things a novel is not obliged to be.

The first of these is cheerful. Among the sensible comments John Sutherland, chairman of the judges, made when he announced the prize, was: "It's very sad that you have to have a gladiatorial combat to get people to read good novels."

Too right. The Man Booker has succeeded over the years in connecting readers looking for a novel, to novels looking for a reader. Why it needs a prize to do this is a mystery. John Banville has been writing distinguished books for decades. There is no excuse for hungry readers not to have found him long ago.

Part of the explanation, presumably, is that novelists of Banville's seriousness don't fit into the feel-good, almost-a-children's-story category with which bookshops like to stock their windows, or which critics with an eye on their own popularity like to recommend. Even as he was praising Banville, John Sutherland noted - almost by way of warning, as though it compromised its victory somewhat - that The Sea was a melancholy novel, reading it a "slit-your-throat" experience.

Since which remark I have been trying to think of any novel that isn't melancholy. I can't come up with one. Some novelists, I concede - Graham Greene, for example - are depressing as a point of intellectual and religious principle. But the activity of writing fiction is melancholy in the first place. It presupposes - since it aims to remake the world - dissatisfaction with existence as it is.

He who finds human life entirely to his taste will not become a novelist. It matters little, where melancholy is concerned, whether the writer is what we crudely call a comic-novelist or not. Phantom figures are conjured into life; they strut the stage as vainly as we do in reality, and their hour passes. The sadness we feel when we come to the last page of a novel we have been enjoying is not only the sadness of a specific ending; it is an intimation of all endings.

In the final chapter of Kafka's The Trial a knife is twisted in K's heart and he is left to die, in his own last words to himself, "like a dog". Kafka calls that chapter "The End". The end of everything. A great novel, The Trial, not despite its quality of slit your and everybody else's throat, but because it defies us to find a cheerful, remotely rational explanation for existence.

You might not want to feel this every time you read, but you cannot call yourself a reader of novels at all if you do not sometimes read to wish that you were dead. Feel-good, in truth, is an insult not only to our intelligence, but to our dignity as well.

The other thing a novel is not obliged to do is bother us with turbulent event. The Sea has come in for some stick for failing to deliver in the areas of plot, character and suspense. As though a novel is a pie that can only ever be made with the same ingredients.

It is poor critical practice to separate the elements of a novel in this way, let alone to cite them as expectations. Character is plot as Henry James never tired of saying, and suspense, for those able to read, waits as much upon thought and language as it does upon event. Just as it is impossible to write a novel that is without melancholy, so is it impossible to write a novel without a story.

A story, mind, not a plot: it is a mistake to confuse the one with another. For it is a story for a person of a particular appearance to walk into a particular room wearing a particular expression. No more need ever happen for my money, always provided that something or other is made vivid - maybe the person, maybe the room, maybe the expression, or maybe nothing other than the way the author feels or doesn't feel - absence of feeling being as good a story as any - about one or all of them.

That a murder must be committed, that a love affair must be undertaken, that a wizard must descend before we are prepared to entrust the novel with our interest is utter philistinism. One might just as well complain of an abstract painting that it doesn't have a haywain in it, or a still life that it lacks a singing butler.

Though Dickens plotted like a dervish, I would swap every coincidence and denouement he contrived for a single passage of description of the torpor of a Victorian Sunday in London, or the rains coming out again in Lincolnshire.

In feeling made sensuous there is narrative enough for any reader, and all the story you want in the progress of a sentence or a thought. You crave excitement and adventure? Engross yourself in syntax. What is the adjective doing to the noun, and does the noun deserve it? - there's a question to keep you on the edge of your seat. Will the adverb make it up with the doing-word, or will it lose its heart to a split infinitive?

I'm hoping that The Sea, the Sea, the Sea, when it comes out, has no plot and makes me want to kill myself. I also hope it will not be what the illiterate call "a good read".