‘Lend us a loan of your noserag to wipe my razor.’
Dickens receiving his characters, William Holbrook Beard, 1824-1900
How is it possible that even when I know nothing about a novelist’s life I find, on reading his or her book, that I am developing an awareness of the writer that is quite distinct from my response to the work? I might enjoy a book while feeling a certain dislike or even hostility for the person I take to be its writer, or I might be attracted to both work and author, but in different ways. Philip Roth’s novels are provocative to the point of bludgeoning, the confrontation is invigorating. At the same time I find myself endeared to the writer who needs to do this, who is determined to get away with it. To me he seems attractively vulnerable.
Of course my intuitions regarding the author may be quite wrong, but all the same I have them. It seems impossible, at least for me, to read almost anything without being aware of the person behind it and without putting that person in relation to what he or she has written and indeed to readers of the book, to the point that I sometimes wonder, in the teeth of a literary critical tradition that has always told us the writer’s personality is irrelevant to any appraisal of the work, whether one of the pleasures of literature isn’t precisely this contemplation of the enigma of the person creating it. We know so little about Shakespeare’s life, and yet as we read his sonnets, or watch his plays, we develop an idea of Shakespeare, and we are aware of a continuity of “personality” behind the writing. We have the impression that if someone ever did find the full story of his life, we would immediately recognize the person we had in mind.
It is difficult to pin down where and how this awareness of the writer starts. Like so much of what happens when we read, it has an elusive, shadowy existence. However, over the last year or two, I have found it clarifying to play this game: I try to identify a kind of conversation, encounter, or transaction in a novel that seems to be characteristic of its author, something that recurs frequently; when I’ve established that, I try to think of the reader’s relationship with the writer in the same terms.
First the recurrent encounter, or exchange. An easy example might be the question of loans in Ulysses. An awful lot of the book is about characters asking each other for loans, or favors, errands, and chores, and every request is a little power game. People make demands—Stephen on Buck Mulligan, Buck on Stephen, the Englishman Hine on both and both on him, and others define themselves in the way they respond.