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Answering the criticism that his characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray were not drawn from life, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Quite so. If they existed they would not be worth writing about. The function of the artist is to invent, not to chronicle. There are no such people. If there were, I would not write about them. Life by its realism is always spoiling the subject-matter of art. The supreme pleasure in literature is to realise the non-existent.” (Letter to the editor of The St James’s Gazette, 20 June 1890).

Aristotle had talked about “imitative processes” in his Poetics, suggesting not simply that the artist represented reality by creating an imitation of it — that is, by shaping a basic form of realism — but that the artist was engaged in the far more complex exercise of mimesis. Long before Wilde, the idea had developed that a faithful imitation of nature was insufficient to create art unless the artist could make that representation in a form so shaped by his individual style that it exuded a glow, which was a hidden aspect of mimesis, one that originated with the artist’s attempt to present that image which was a projection of the soul’s perception, a vision that sometimes revealed itself in a disturbingly surprising or even a shocking form.

Anyone could hold up a mirror to nature, but before the artist did so he invariably crafted a distorting mirror to produce his version of reality to convince the viewer that the image that appeared shockingly perverse was indeed a credible reality — as was literally demonstrated by Anish Kapoor’s installations in his 2009 exhibition at the Royal Academy where the variously curving mirror surfaces of polished stainless steel showed the viewers their bodies in twisted unflattering forms that had the effect of ridiculing one’s conceited idea of the self. In poetry, reality as an image in a distorting mirror was brilliantly presented in John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975), in which the poet asserts that when we gaze at the reflection in the mirror “We see only postures of our dream,” hitting it just right with “postures”. We make figures of ourselves and imagine we see our self.

That no serious artist draws directly from life ought to be undisputed: certainly in the visual arts, when looking at the remarkably far from life-like portraits of the human face by Modigliani or Emil Nolde or Picasso we experience an inexplicable attraction, which plucks from our interior self a recognition that is both emotional and intellectual. It is the formal digression crafted by the artist’s unique style, not the ordinary mirror reality of the human face, that makes us accept the extraordinary deviation as the character’s true likeness. One would need to believe in what Pound dismissively called “the hurried realism of ignorance” to reject such portraits and to demand the facile realism of street artists who do a customer’s quick flattering sketch for a few euros; in fact, we scorn portraits that present a photographic likeness of the sitter and value as high art the distortions of Expressionism or Cubism or any other style that takes an object and converts it to a startling, but in the end believable, vision. In writing novels, however, what is amazing is not only that Oscar Wilde should have been criticised for not drawing from life but also that 120 years later novelists are still expected to present the street artist’s version of superficial realism.

In photography, where the captured image is presumed to resemble closely the reality of the scene at which the lens had been pointed, we reject as ordinary and banal even a striking picture of a scene that appears exactly as it is ordinarily perceived, but we are always awestruck when an Ansel Adams or a Sebastião Salgado captures an image in his unique style and transforms the scene so that it takes on a metaphysical sheen. In the work of the great photographers, we are still looking at mountains and valleys and the spectacle of the human race, but their images show us a world we had never seen before, which, once seen, becomes a truer perception than the one we had previously held; indeed, our very way of seeing undergoes evolutionary change when an artist’s variant form makes us impose his style on the scene before us, instilling in us the habit of seeing inchoate shapes through his lens.

What we see is not what our eyes show us but what our eyes have been taught to see by the visionaries we call artists, scientists, philosophers, and the revealers of sacred texts: subtract any one of them from the sum of your knowledge and you will see a very different world.

Some readers are drawn to novels and plays in which they can identify with the characters and observe how the fictional figures survive the trials and tribulations and the drama with which they themselves are familiar, only the experience of the characters is more intense and so heightened as to provide the readers with an absorbing narrative, with perhaps an encouraging moral.

This, however, is a primitive level of reading favoured by the ill educated. Nabokov states that “the worst thing a reader can do” is to identify with a character and brands such a reader as belonging to a “lowly variety” of the human species. Wilde would have applauded him. From both Wilde’s and Nabokov’s aesthetic point of view, and indeed that of any serious novelist, readers ought to be fascinated by characters who are so remarkably extraordinary as to be unbelievable and yet, once encountered, continue to have a credible presence in their imagination; such extraordinary characters are the immortal inhabitants of literature while the so-called believable characters are no more than the transient glitterati in the anonymous community of the mass-market whose fate is to end up in an unmarked mass grave.

It has been true throughout literature that the major novelists were always interested in subverting commonly experienced reality in order to advance the alternative universe invented by their imagination; indeed, all the writers whom we continue to re-read with wonder and awe — Rabelais, Cervantes, Gogol, Kafka, Beckett, etc. — are creators of a reality so unbelievable that we laugh at it and yet end up accepting it as a valid and not at all funny insight into the essential nature of existence. Their characters, who are afflicted with some obsessive mania, such as Beckett’s Molloy who has worked out a complicated mathematical order for sucking the sixteen stones placed four each in the four pockets of his trousers and greatcoat (which, incidentally, is one of the most hilarious passages in all literature), become our secret companions. No one who has read Cervantes can travel across Spain and not have a smile light up his face on seeing a windmill in the distance. And after reading Kafka, who, waking up at night and seeing a cockroach in the bathroom, has not thought of Gregor Samsa and felt a sudden shiver?

Some characters in novels appear so lifelike that the reader feels convinced they must be drawn directly from life and is filled with a gossipy sort of curiosity to discover who the real-life people were on whom they appear to be modelled. The characters in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time are presumed by many readers to have been real people behind their fictitious names; even the settings and some of the events in it are believed to be identifiable as taken from life. Some critics have encouraged such a reading — The World of Marcel Proust by André Maurois, a coffee-table book filled with beautiful photographs of people and places, seems to suggest that the characters of Charles Swann and Odette were based on Charles Haas and Laure Hayman, and proceeds to provide us with a key to unlock the identities of some of the other characters. However, one has only to read Proust’s letters to know that this is false, for he wrote to a friend on April 20, 1918, “I repeat, my characters are completely invented, and there are no keys at all.”

Of course, invention does not occur in a vacuum, for invention is the synthesised projection of several observations. In the same letter, Proust describes his conception of “Vinteuil’s Sonata,” the piece of music that appears throughout the novel as a haunting refrain presented in so precise a prose that the reader hears melodies associated with the music of Proust’s contemporaries. He writes: “To the extent that I drew on reality, a very limited extent, in fact,” the little phrase from this Sonata when heard at a soirée is “the charming but mediocre theme from a Violin and Piano Sonata by Saint-Saëns, a composer I dislike.” After touching on that theme from Saint-Saëns, he brought in, he says in the letter, a phrase from Wagner’s “Parsifal,” and a violin and piano passage from César Franck’s Sonata. In another chapter in the novel where Vinteuil’s Sonata is played, the passages of the music “were suggested by the Prelude to ‘Lohengrin,’ but the phrase itself at that moment by a piece by Schubert.” Before that performance ends, it “becomes a ravishing piece by Fauré.” To make the reader hear a piece of music, Proust has drawn upon several sources and made a composition which, though it is assembled of snatches from Saint-Saëns, Wagner, Franck and Fauré, is his invention.

The same synthesising process occurs in the creation of characters. Novelists who give us the illusion of having drawn from life succeed not because they are good at copying models but because they are the masters of creating superb prose. The three supreme novelists of the 19th century — Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens — created a vast gallery of the most memorable characters, each one so believably real that we marvel at the authors’ power of observation and their ability to transmit the observed image as a living portrait. What gives them that power is not some superior eyesight — just as a great photographer is not especially empowered merely by possessing an expensive camera — but the quality of their imagination, which, to quote Henry James, “takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” The writer may have glanced at a person he chooses for his character but what he looks at for far longer is the sentence in which he makes that person come alive: the writer’s cosmetic palette contains only words that he must patiently apply, layer upon layer, till the surface glows with that beauty which we call art.

No English-language novelist coming after Dickens can be unaware of Dickensian characters or escape borrowing the Dickensian technique of giving a character a peculiar mannerism by which he or she is identified. But the people these novelists create — and this is true even of such eminent writers as George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence — are literary contrivances by comparison: e.g., in Middlemarch, George Eliot makes a character repeat the phrase “that sort of thing” in his conversation almost every time he speaks, as if that characteristic guarantees his life-like status, but such a device, which originates as a transformative technique in Dickens, becomes a cheap trick in his imitators, and is so transparently deployed that it becomes irritatingly boring.

Several novelists have written on the subject of characters in fiction. E. M. Forster, writing on the craft of fiction in his book, Aspects of the Novel, reduces all characters to two principal types, the flat and the round, which is a simplistic formula, one still commonly favoured by writers whose interest is limited, like Forster’s in his own novels, to producing a journalistic documentation of popular and easily appreciated sociological subject-matter. Forster’s contemporary Elizabeth Bowen is more to the point when she states that characters are not “created,” but “found”: “The novelist’s perceptions of his characters take place in the course of the actual writing of the novel.” She is correct in emphasising the notion of discovery that the artist makes when absorbed in the act of creation. A spontaneous recklessness sometimes releases an original impulse. Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the best modern French novelists, finds the very idea of characters untenable after Kafka, Joyce and Faulkner: “the creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets.”

Post-modern reality is a fluid speculative imagery that permeates human consciousness. Anyone who understands this concept, and can produce no objection that could invalidate the idea, must reject a world inhabited by the flat and round puppets glued together by hack writers who the lowly variety of readers mistake for serious novelists.

The characters who interest Robbe-Grillet’s kind of new novelist are the unnamable lost ones who open doors of perception and go in search of a convex self in a concave void while novelists who still manufacture wooden characters on the Dickensian assembly line merely populate an anachronistic world with caricatures.

Wilde, who had disdained Emile Zola’s naturalism, again showing how right he was in his aesthetic thinking, would have sided with Robbe-Grillet. In “The Portrait of Mr W. H.,” Wilde wrote: “Art, even the art of fullest scope and widest vision, can never really show us the external world.”

That external world does not enter human consciousness as pre-packaged images labelled with infallible dogma, like nutrition facts that encourage an illusion of robust health, but as revelatory glimpses that defy any simplistic diagnosis. Art’s only business with external reality is to keep inventing new pictures of it.

And what does such an art show us with its centuries-long parade of varying pictures like placards held up in an unending demonstration? No one has as yet improved on Wilde’s answer: “All that it shows us is our own soul, the one world of which we have any real cognisance. And the soul itself, the soul of each one of us, is to each one of us a mystery. It hides in the dark and broods, and consciousness cannot tell us of its workings.”