Part III of my conversation with Theodore Dalrymple: the art of fiction, Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess.
AV: Maybe 90% of everything you’ve written is non-fiction, but you’ve also tried your hand at fiction, you’ve published several short story collections. Non-fiction comes more easily to me but I would also like to try my hand at every form. What are your thoughts on this? I am very interested in what is prompting you to attempt fiction as well.
TD: Well, because I think you can say things in fiction which you can’t say any other way. Fiction shouldn’t just be a kind of putting forward an idea by other means. I’m not sure whether I’m any good at it. As far as you’re concerned, you see, you should have or may have lots to write about, even in your prison work. I was very fortunate. I began at a time when it was still possible to send an article to a magazine and they would look at it even though they didn’t know who you were. That is no longer the case.
AV: Anthony Burgess was talking about this idea that sometimes when a work of literature is too didactic, it will fail artistically. He actually said this of A Clockwork Orange: ‘It’s too didactic to be artistic.’ He also said that we normally don’t regard our greatest artists – Shakespeare, Beethoven, Wagner – as teachers. We don’t go to Shakespeare for our ethics.
TD: I’m not actually 100% convinced that that’s true. If you just take Shakespeare – it’s true that you can’t just say ‘Shakespeare thought this’ or ‘Shakespeare thought that.’ He was so protean in his understanding. I’ve been thinking about this. If you take the idea of equality: Shakespeare does make very clear – through the mouths of his characters, e.g. Shylock or Richard II – that there is a kind of existential equality of people. He makes that point so powerfully that anybody who reads it or listens to it, I don’t think can forget it.
AV: Yes. “When you tickle us, do we not laugh?”
TD: Yes, that kind of thing. And also with Richard II: “I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends.” And these are very powerful speeches. They are unforgettable in their effect. You could say, ‘Well, Shakespeare is just putting powerful words into the mouths of people for artistic purposes,’ but I don’t find that absolutely convincing, because Shakespeare himself is so protean that he must have an idea that we can understand everybody and so on. If you take Measure for Measure, it’s quite clearly a play that is against moral enthusiasm, to my mind. I don’t see how you could read it any other way other than as an attack on a kind of puritanism. Because he’s saying ‘This is horrible and it’s impossible.’ So I think you can say he would not have been a Puritan. And the idea that the human world is so complex, that it’s not amenable to simple lessons, is itself a very important lesson. And there are characters like Falstaff. He is in many ways a terrible person and yet one is glad that he exists. He’s a thief, he’s a liar, he’s cowardly, drunken, a parasite. And yet you love him.
AV: What was Burgess thinking when he said that if something is too didactic it won’t be artistic?
TD: Well, what he means is that you’ve got a lesson you want to teach, like Chernyshevsky in his terrible novel What Is to Be Done? That is a didactic novel. What else would be didactic…You couldn’t say that 1984 or Animal Farm is not didactic in a sense, or Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. They are didactic – well, not in the sense that they’re teaching you a lesson on the blackboard: here, this is what you must learn today – but it’s not possible to say that they’re not trying to communicate some lesson or other.
AV: There’s a boundary, I think, between too much didacticism and pure artistic creation. Cross it and it will be a disappointment.
TD: The reason why Shakespeare – apart from the wonderful language – speaks to us, is because the problems that he writes about go across time. They’re not just of his day. Suppose someone were to try and write a novel about Brexit. Well, that’s bound to be of limited interest in a short time.
AV: It will be obsolete soon.
TD: Obsolete and boring. I suppose it depends on what kind of things the lessons are about, as well. I know what Burgess means, of course. If you take a novel like Fathers and Sons by Turgenev…
AV: I haven’t read it. I listened to your lecture on it on YouTube and I know that I must read it because it’s a must-read.
TD: It’s a wonderful political novel in the sense that you don’t feel as if some lesson is being pushed into you and at some point you’re going to have to regurgitate it as in an exam. And at the end of it, you just feel life is extremely complex and there’s not going to be an easy solution to things. But that is a lesson. It’s something that you learn. And it’s very difficult to believe that Turgenev didn’t mean you to learn it. I’m just trying to think of a really didactic piece of work. Much of the theatre today is, I think, didactic. It hits you over the head with a message.
AV: I am mindful that this interview will be read by people in prison, unless they just decide to toss the magazine. How can we squeeze in something didactic or at least inspirational for them to read in this interview? Let’s say, what is your advice for someone very young who is now in prison?
TD: Well, that’s very difficult. I haven’t really thought about it. What I would say is this: Try to imagine that the world is larger than the world that you have grown up in.