Saturday, 31 March 2012

'Deputy Sid's Gift' - Or Anthony Trollope and Tim Gautreaux

In his Autobiography, Anthony Trollope wrote that, "if the extension of novel-reading be so wide as I have described it - then very much good or harm must be done by novels. The amusement of the time can hardly be the only result of any book that is read, and certainly not so with a novel, which appeals especially to the imagination, and solicits the sympathy of the young. A vast proportion of the teaching of the day, - greater than many of us have acknowledged to ourselves, - comes from these books, which are in the hands of all readers."

He goes on to write that, "The writer of stories must please, or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no." He also comments that, "Thinking of all this, as a novelist surely must do, - as I certainly have done through my whole career, - it becomes to him a matter of deep conscience how he shall handle those characters by whose words and doings he hopes to interest his readers."

One author who, like Trollope, sees fiction in moral terms is Tim Gautreaux. His wonderful short story, 'Deputy Sid's Gift' (from Waiting for the Evening News), is as authentically Catholic a piece of fiction as I've read in a long time.

Gautreaux, as I've mentioned before, is the master of the intervention story. When trouble arrives, his characters get up and help. Existential angst is not Gautreaux's thing. In 'Deputy Sid's Gift', for example, the first person narrator finds himself drawn into the orbit of a local alcoholic, an alcoholic who has no interest in kicking his drinking habit. However, as the narrator gradually learns, this does not let him (the narrator) off the hook. As Deputy Sid explains in the story's last line, "we couldn't do nothing for him but we did it anyway."

Other links between Gautreaux and Trollope sprang to mind as I read the latter's Autobiography. He wrote, for example, that: “The ordinary talk of ordinary people is carried on in short, sharp, expressive sentences, which very frequently are never completed, - the language of which even among educated people is often incorrect. The novel-writer in constructing his dialogue must so steer between absolute accuracy of language – which would give to his conversation an air of pedantry, and the slovenly inaccuracy of ordinary talkers, which if closely followed would offend by an appearance of grimace – as to produce upon the ear of his readers a sense of reality.”

That describes Gautreaux's work perfectly. His dialogue is always spot on.

But I shouldn't exaggerate the similarities. This wonderful passage, for instance, could not be applied to any of Gautreaux's work: "Short novels are not popular with readers generally. Critics often complain of the ordinary length of novels, - of the three volumes to which they are subjected; but few novels which have attained great success in England have been told in fewer pages. The novel-writer who sticks to novel-writing as his profession will certainly find that this burden of length is incumbent on him."

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