One of the more striking aspects of post-second World War British history has been the development, in this once proud emperor, of a full-on cultural cringe to the United States. Labour Prime Minister Blair?s continuing close support for his Republican counterpart Bush in this Iraq war has been but the latest political manifestation of a genuflection that has been going on a while in various spheres, from corporate culture to the arts. Management mores are one thing, but culture – wasn?t that what Britain, Old Europe, was supposed to be good, to be better, at? Something more than the US?s ubiquitous economic strength, I think, is needed to explain the fact – to take one example – that in the immediate post-war years a third of the fiction (and films) being produced by Britain?s closest neighbour, France, was translated or distributed in this country. Now, those figures have shrunk to 2%, whilst the American presence on the books pages of our newspapers has mushroomed.
Probably the dominant theme in the ongoing British praisesong of American literature has been a reverence for the scale of it: the epic road novels of a Kerouac, the panoramic, State-of-The-Nation efforts of a Wolfe or a Roth or a De Lillo or, in more recent times, a Frantzen. These are participants in a great tradition, say the critics, that has had few British takers since Dickens and Eliot.
Well, maybe. It always struck me that a true State-of-The-Nation novel, in a nation as diverse and stratified as the US, must surely be a doomed venture. What magician could juggle so many different perspectives, plot a curve through all those points?
And anyway, I was rarely a fan of those big-bottomed, births, marriages and deaths – style novels. I had fallen, instead, aged thirteen, for another, a book that seemed to sneer at such styles, a book which began, If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you?ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don?t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth…
That novel, JD Salinger?s The Catcher in the Rye? (American again, as it happens), which followed a week in the life of a troubled middle-class teenager on the brink of breakdown, was the first OEadult? piece of fiction that I fell madly, deeply in love with; the first novel I had read that I totally wanted to write.
Flicking though it now, I?m pleased to see that I?ve stayed true to my first love: many of its qualities the particularity and immediacy of its voice, its deceptive casualness, that sense of a character?s thoughts being caught on the hop, as it were, in all one?s individual patterns and rhythms, remain, for me, amongst fiction?s greatest pleasures.
I like small. I like local, specificity, microcosm; secrets, vernacular, point-of-view, all the things that make you you; believing, with English poet WH Auden, that God is in the detail?, that truth – now more than ever, in a country, and a continent, that is increasingly multicultural – is best served that way…..