Jonathan Derbyshire reports that his fiction reviews written for the Financial Times over the past year are now available online.
Readers who survey these reviews will find there a critic admirably free of ideological distortion and political pleading. While some highly-regarded novelists come in for their share of criticism (Umberto Eco and Nicholas Mosley, for example), such assessments are always made in a measured and informed way that shows considerable literary intelligence.
This passage from the review of Mosley's Look at the Dark illustrates one of Derbyshire's most notable strengths:
The moral and aesthetic difficulties signalled explicitly by the narrator are precisely those that Mosley has explored in his critical writings. He locates his fictional practice in the “great tradition” of novelist-moralists (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James), whose work doesn’t so much prescribe the way to live as stimulate in the reader, through its attentiveness to the messy privacies of human lives, the cultivation of a properly moral sense. For Mosley, what distinguishes human beings from other animals is what he calls “creative consciousness”. Achieving an authentic existence is a matter of self-creation, which the form of the novel is well-suited to describing or exemplifying.
The English novelist Mosley most closely resembles in his philosophical ambition is Iris Murdoch, who also regarded the novel as embodying a kind of moral outlook. As with her, it seems reasonable to measure Mosley’s novels against the standards set by his criticism. And by these, Look at the Dark must be judged a failure. This isn’t, as with many English novels, a failure of ambition - it’s an aesthetic failure that is felt at the level of the sentence, in the grimly unmetaphorical prose and in the carelessness of Mosley’s descriptions. . . .
Derbyshire wants to situate the novel under review in its appropriate context, to let the reader know where it fits in the trajectory of the author's career and to make the appropriate standards of judgment clearly known. In other words, he wants to describe the work at hand as accurately as possible, even if the judgment to be passed on that work is ultimately negative, or includes pointing out the work's flaws. This does not mean simply providing some perfunctory plot summary or an account of the reviewer's degree of emphathy with the novel's characters--although another of Derbyshire's strengths is an ability to sketch out the immediate particulars of plot and character in just a few paragraphs. It means offering the reader as full a sense of what the experience of reading the book might be like as a relatively brief book review allows, as in this explication of Joyce Carol Oates's Rape: A Love Story:
As if to unsettle readerly sympathies from the start, Oates filters this account of what happened in Rocky Point Park through the scepticism of Teena’s neighbours, who recall what she was wearing (cut-off shorts and a vest), wonder why she would risk her daughter’s safety in the park after midnight and conclude that “she had it coming”.
A second-person narrative voice, which alternates throughout the book with a more conventional third-person style, tells Bethie that these are some of the things that “would be said of your mother... after she was gang-raped, kicked and beaten and left to die”. And it is in this second-person, occupying Bethie’s point of view, that Oates scrupulously anatomises the assault, most notably in one breathless, page-long paragraph in which the characteristically interrupted rhythms of her prose, inflected by a fiercely controlled lyricism, are refined to a point of rebarbative perfection: [example follows]. . . .
(Note: Derbyshire thinks more highly of Oates than I do, but his reviews contain many such passages as this, which relies on close and alert observation.)
Derbyshire does not evade the task of evaluating the books he reviews, supplying the kind of "consumer guidance" mainstream print publications, especially newspapers, usually demand, but he assumes some intelligence and interest on the reader's part and avoids simplistic verdicts. Here is a paragraph from his review of Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which attempts to get at what is finally (in Derbyshire's view) most rewarding about the book:
The so-called truth of fiction lies in the way it reveals what, in ordinary life, remains hidden; its “solace” in the glimpse it allows us of a “more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race”. Smith’s earlier books may have suggested that her commitment to this novelistic doctrine was merely formal (in White Teeth, for instance, the Forsterian injunction “only connect” is recast as a post-colonial, multicultural platitude); but On Beauty follows Forster’s example by allowing its characters to fail at knowing themselves - and others.
This is a rather nuanced insight, not the sort calculated to create controversy by exaggerating a work's strengths or flaws and thereby deflecting interest away from the work itself and onto the reviewer's own inflated rhetoric. Perhaps it ought to go without saying that the kinds of virtues Derbyshire brings to his reviews--attentiveness, a willingness to consider a work of fiction according to the critical standards that seem appropriate to it and to it authors work as a whole rather than those dictated by doctrine or ideology, an appreciation of fiction's subtleties--are those we expect to find in a literary critic. But at a time when reviewers for well-known publications are encouraged to mine novels for their "ideas" (which then become the subject of tedious "think pieces" about "issues") or to substitute equally tedious "edge" for literary analysis, the cultivation of these virtues is all the more welcome, and all the more necessary.