Viewpoint: Hints of Fiction


One of the few lamentable elements of REASON's history is the lack of solid cultural pieces in most of the issues published thus far. There is plenty of politics and economics, some social commentary, and some technology and science, but there just isn't enough to satisfy the literary, artistic desires of the reader. And, please believe, the editors are more distressed than the readers appear to be.

Of course a magazine does not have to be all things to all people. There is plenty of culture in Harper's, Atlantic, Saturday Review, Encounter, and Commentary. If times were generally better, these should suffice for us as sources of cultural, literary, and "arts & manners" understanding. But times aren't so good.

Which means that, most likely, what readers of REASON will like in books, theater, music, poetry, film, etc., will rarely be discussed in other magazines. Not that our readers are of one taste in these realms. But even the ball park where they dwell is likely to be missed by the prominent magazines.

I will not remedy these shortcomings here, obviously. That is really not my forte. But given the absence of competent coverage of such topics as I have listed, and the definite value of some pertinent information, I want to make a small contribution. The best I think I can do is list the authors whose works I have enjoyed recently and give some indication why. These may not be the best reasons for enjoying works of fiction, but then again they might be—I am not prepared to figure it out.

In the last six or so years I have come across the following fiction writers whom I can recommend as entertaining and even inspiring. These people have written enough novels to last for quite a while. I hope that some budding literary critic, who is unpretentious but knows the field of literature well, will be inspired by my amateurish efforts to advance our knowledge and pleasure far beyond what I can do here.

My first rewarding author was David Karp, now an executive at Paramount Pictures (I believe), and a well-known television writer (who did, again if I recall), the Stalin play for Playhouse 90). A friend recommended his novel entitled One. This book, just reissued as a Penguin Classic, is placed in the future, in a society that has been completely centralized. It presents the story of a mild-mannered, gradualistic but heroic resistance to the totalitarian conditions by one individual. The novel may seem to be just one of many "brave new world" types to have come along since the original, but there is plenty here that is good and unavailable in the others.

Karp also wrote several other novels, the best of which are All Honorable Men, The Last Believers, and The Sleepwalkers. The first concerns the moral difficulties faced by those at the helm of what we now call a think tank, a sort of Hoover Institution or Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The next is a story of the relationship between a once-left-radical father and his communist-leaning contemporary son. The last involves an editor of a big publishing house in New York faced with the task of deciding about a new sociology magnum opus.

In each of these works, and in others by Karp, the central theme is integrity. The stories are not ponderously intellectualized, but the mind is entertained and stimulated aplenty. These works are all worth at least a try by those who have found little to enjoy in contemporary literature. I am also sure that those who consider Herman Hesse, Karl Barth, or Norman Mailer the giants of contemporary literature will find Karp useless. Indeed, if Thomas Mann is your cup of tea, forget it.

The next author I enjoyed very much is Gwyn Griffin, although I have managed to read only one book by him—An Operational Necessity, which I quote in my Human Rights and Human Liberties in view of its keen perception of certain problems in morality. It is concerned with moral dilemmas that arise in emergency cases, only here we get a book-length description of the emergency, the minimum needed to really develop a viable solution. Aside from its philosophically titillating subject matter, the work is plain good reading. Or so it seemed to me.

Griffin has written nine other novels, I believe, and then he died of brain hemorrhage. I am planning to read the other works and may report on them later.

I come now to my recent favorite, Winston Graham, an English novelist. I discovered him, that is, the first book of his I read, at a Canadian airport. His works are in paperback (Fontana) throughout the English commonwealth, and only some can be obtained in hardback (Doubleday) in the United States. Graham wrote the novel Marnie, which was later made into a Hitchcock movie with Sean Connery and Tippy Hedrin. The Walking Stick, the first novel by him that I read, was also made into a very faithful and good movie, starring David Hemmings and Samantha Eggar.

I cannot begin to recount the specific themes of the numerous Graham works I have read in the last two years (thanks to a friendly supply line from Canada). I believe it is accurate to say that an overriding theme is that individuals are morally responsible beings and, while they might often forget this, the universe tends to remember it on a regular basis! The many intense, delightful, complicated, and most of all intriguing plots and characters that carry this theme home in the several Graham novels have never even come close to boring me, someone whose patience with fiction is very short indeed.

Graham mostly writes crime novels, but of a very special variety. There is no standard mystery to speak of, but there is plenty to worry about. The "insides" of the criminal—not usually a special sort of person but a bloke who has gradually driven himself to crime—are followed in a nonpsychologistic, commonsense, value-laden fashion. Graham is the sort of author whose lines could be used to decorate an entire wall with memorable sayings.

Here are some of the Graham novels: Take My Life; The Sleeping Partner; Angell, Pearl and Little God; Fortune Is a Woman; After the Act. These, and others I cannot remember or haven't yet read, are all placed in modern settings and take the reader through the lives of some ordinary, some extraordinary, characters. A theme interwoven with the main one about responsibility is the subtle romantic intrigue, where someone is caught in the conflicts of passion versus loyalty.

But Graham has also written some fine period novels, most importantly his four-part Poldark novels Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, and Warleggan, set in 18th-century Cornwall, as well as his one-volume Cordelia. These rely on all the props of a period novel, which are well developed by Graham, but also treat universal and quite timeless themes.

I cannot guarantee that one will enjoy each of Graham's books equally—I have not, nor have my friends. But they are, collectively, the most enjoyable reading I have encountered for a very long time. If available, they are worth at least a try.

I do hope I have not been mistaken in my decision to tell you about these works. They have given me, a very reluctant reader of fiction, entertainment and pleasure.

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. Dr. Machan's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy.