I was very sad to hear of the passing of my literary hero, E L Doctorow, couple of weeks ago. As I write this I have a battered copy of The Book of Daniel on my desk. I’m not sure what copy number it is – I have bought it so many times over the years, and given copies away to so many people. But I always need one on my desk. It is, for me, the point of reference when I try to write. It is my touchstone.
For me, The Book of Daniel was a revelation – it was the book that taught me that you can do anything with the novel. One didn’t have to sound like ‘a novelist’, whatever that means, whatever I though that that meant. Your job as a writer was to incorporate everything you needed to tell the story. Flaubert writes that style is a ‘mode of thinking’ – and thus the novel is a method of investigation which incorporates – and is governed by – a way of ‘going on’ as Wittgenstein would say. A way, crudely ,of putting words together to create a new world.
For Doctorow, one of the fundamental categories of ‘everything’ to be incorporated was politics. I have never believed in the notion, try as I might, that one can write successfully to further a political stance – good fiction is, I believe, too complicated for that, as I’m sure Doctorow would agree. But a fundamental lesson from his work is, for me, that one cannot create a work of art without considering the political implications, the position of the characters qua society, and the form of the art work in terms of its position in the culture. It may be that, having done so, none of these imperatives affect the creation of the art work, but to ignore them is an act of bad faith (as it is, of course, in any critique – all criticism should strive to identify an political aporias in a work.) We live in a time where politicians are attempting to divorce people from their circumstances, by which I mean their political context. Writers should, I believe, not only not fall for this, but not help. Art has the power to return true complexity to human and political relationships. It must, as Henry James said, swim against the tide.
Notably, most obituaries concentrated on Doctorow’s other books – Ragtime, Billy Bathgate – political in their own way, but without the white-hot radicalism of The Book of Daniel. Forty years after its publication, it evades the easy neutering that popularity brings. As I said. for me, it is still the touchstone against which I judge anything I write. It is the greatest book I have read. Go and read it now.