As I have mentioned in previous posts, however, look beneath the surface of any novel (or painting etc) and what is unwittingly revealed is a psychological portrait of the author (or artist etc). The aforementioned novel is no different. The author, however, belongs solidly to the educated middle classes of British society (he was formerly a medical lawyer, an academic and is married to a doctor) --- the Stephen Frys, Bamber Gascoignes, University Challenge contestants etc, are all of this ilk. In modern society, there is little individuality. People conform to Types. The British educated middle class is a very identifiable Type. In other words, a clearly identifiable behaviour is associated with people from this class. If you understand this, have had experience of the educated middle classes, then it becomes clear that the portrait contained within the novel is less the portrait of an individual but of a specific Type: educated middle class British.
One of the particular features of the novel is that it is littered with often abstruse scraps of general knowledge --- and the middle classes do so LOVE to show-off what they know! So, for example, the author mentions something obscure about the painter Poussin and discusses South American politics. These scraps give the impression that the author is speaking from personal experience e.g. that he has been to South America and has first hand experience of its politics, or that he has studied or practiced art/painting. That the scraps are often abstruse adds to the illusion. This leaves one with the desire to know more --- the litter is, in fact, designed to elicit this response --- and if the author was present in person, one’s natural instinct would be to engage him in a conversation and ask more about his experiences. As I say, one’s natural instinct would be the aforementioned, except that, upon reading the novel, one senses very strongly that these scraps of general knowledge are, as I said, mere litter, picked up from somewhere or someone, and not acquired through personal experience or study. Any attempts at conversation, therefore, would threaten to expose the lie and so be met with hostility and some sort of put-down before the con is revealed. (And such put-downs have happened to me on many social occasions before I realised what was going on and learned to tread more carefully!)
Although this piece is not intended to be an assessment of AMS’s writing, the practice of dropping such “litter” makes the author’s writing clumsy and artificial: the author’s is focus is not on good writing or on characterisation etc, but on manufacturing suitable incidents and conversations and using them as a vehicle to show off his general knowledge. Unfortunately this artificiality has passed by reviewers of this novel: “Other novelists can only eye with envy McCall Smith’s apparently inexhaustible ability to conjure up characters and incidents, devise conversations…..” --- well, no, not if you understand what’s going on and can sense how manufactured and contrived the writing actually is.
So, there it is. When one looks beneath the surface, AMS’s novel reveals the typical behaviour of educated middle classes in British society: using their education to bully, tease and humiliate those of lesser education. The education is a sham. It is an accumulation of facts that add up to nothing and are of no use. It is a pretence at knowledge to gain status and power. This is the pleasure of the British educated middle classes; they have found their education most useful as a means to gratify their lust for power. Inevitably, however, the story is not quite as simple as that, as a recent dream made clear……….
…….a dream which I had the night after I read AMS’s novel and which provided further insight into middle class behaviour. However, I will not describe the whole dream but only the main image: I was in the large kitchen/dining area of a hostel. The room was full of litter. I was helping to tidy up preparatory to leaving. In the middle of the room sat a large Range Rover (a type of 4-wheel drive vehicle similar to a SUV). A monkey was leaning out of one of the windows, leering at me in an intimidating way. It invited me to pat it. The monkey knew that I knew that it knew that if I DID pat it, it would savage my hand. Sometime later, the large, intimidating, live monkey had changed into a tiny, limp rag which was lying on the roof of the car and which I was patting.
The interpretation of the dream: the litter lying about the kitchen refers to the scraps of general knowledge that litter AMS’s novel, meaning that they are no more substantial than mere litter.
The monkey is the person showing off their supposed general knowledge. That the monkey “knew that I knew that it knew” etc indicates that there is more to this educated middle class pretence at knowledge than at first appears: it is actually a game. In the game you give a pretence at knowledge, but look intimidating. (AMS certainly struck me as intimidating when I first saw him on tv: he looked big, and wore a confident, knowing demeanour as well as a smart suit and shirt with bow tie.) The strategy of looking intimidating is actually to discourage attempts at conversation (and the consequent reveal of the con). If you do, however, stray onto the other person’s territory, then you risk a verbal savaging.
The monkey was in a Range Rover which means that the knowledge was manufactured. To gather it, one “ranges” over a wide territory, speaking to an art expert here, a political expert there, picking up random scraps of knowledge from each. (In AMS’s case, he was a lawyer and will therefore have a good memory as well as the ability to question people and get information from them.)
Formerly I had, in fact, felt intimidated by, as well as somewhat in awe of, educated middle class people such as AMS. So when the monkey changed into an empty, limp rag, this indicates that a bubble has been burst for me personally; the educated middle classes have been cut down to size.