A Reading Life

Trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t

By Katherine A. Powers
August 9, 2009

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It is a great mystery to me why the South African-born, London-dwelling novelist Justin Cartwright is not better known in this country. I was put on to him by a friend last year, and since then have insisted that a number of my other friends read him. All who did have been impressed, even smitten, and one has made securing all of Cartwright’s novels a cause - a bothersome one as until now only two were in print in this country. They are “The Promise of Happiness’’ and “The Song Before It is Sung.’’ Now Cartwright’s ninth novel, “To Heaven by Water’’ (Bloomsbury, paperback, $15) has appeared here, as has his paean, of sorts, to Oxford University, “Oxford Revisited’’ (Bloomsbury, $18)

The latter book, though part of a series, “The Writer and the City,’’ is really about the university, avowedly the most important influence in Cartwright’s view of the world. He is a writer who presents ideas and thought itself as part of life in the way that most contemporary writers present sex - not, lest you be scandalized, that Cartwright shortchanges sex. Oxford, he says, “plumped up’’ his “dry colonial heart’’ and made him what he is. Still, it was not the university that was formative so much as the idea of it: “something deep in the Anglo-Saxon mind - excellence, a kind of privilege, a charmed life, deep-veined liberalism, a respect for tradition.’’ These, I should say, are words to irritate the sort of well-adjusted, forward-looking people who make up the unsympathetic characters in his novels.

“Oxford Revisited,’’ though a nicely paced tour of the university and its ways, is most interesting in its treatment of famed intellectual Isaiah Berlin, the man who is key to Cartwright’s view of the world, and who, as Elya Mendel, is a character in “The Song Before It’s Sung.’’ Enter the hedgehog and the fox. The inseparable pair prowl every novel I’ve read by Cartwright. They are, of course, best known as Berlin’s way of characterizing the two essential ways of viewing the world: The first sees everything as explicable by one encompassing idea; the second sees a miscellany that no one idea can govern, and, indeed, sees the danger that arises out of believing in one idea that makes sense of the whole.

Cartwright, a fox if ever there was one, has transferred this conceit from the history of ideas to the everyday world, showing in his novels how indefatigable is the human impulse to fabricate specious narratives as shelters of mental ease from the meaningless chaos and violence of existence. The central character of the present novel, David Cross, is a retired news anchor, a man who now looks back with shame at his part in framing the fairy tale that passes for reality on television. He knows the “whole rickety business conducted from a few warehouses off Archway was a fraud . . . His apparent omniscience, the ramped-up glamour and intensity, the special reports . . . the cynical nods toward community . . . the trivialization of politics . . . the fascination with celebrity.’’ All a fraud, with him at the center, “attended by little producers coming to see him in streams, holding scripts and revised running orders, like leaf-cutting ants.’’

Television’s easy-to-follow narratives pander to emotion, and feeling, fabricating an impoverished though sensational reality, which in turn has the curious effect of making life increasingly unshared. David, pondering the 24-hour news cycle with its immense, hyped-up vacuity, wonders “if they were living in a time of madness or merely the same world charged by the clamor for sensation. The areas of agreement in society are shrinking; it’s not possible to prescribe behavior or belief.’’

In contrast, the novel presents David’s brother, Guy, now dying in Africa after an anchorite life spent attempting mystical communion with nature. The novel spends most of its time in England, however, following the tribulations of David’s son and daughter and their domestic arrangements. Suffice it to say that this novel, like all of Cartwright’s, is very funny in a bleak way, and poignant, and fresh with a brisk and penetrating intelligence. It is punctuated by shocking turns and revelations - a specialty of his - and embellished with entertaining riffs on the bathos of modern social, psychological, and cultural pieties, often couched in their own ghastly argot.

It is clear from Cartwright’s writing that he is not religious - indeed, quite the reverse. “One of the things that has struck me all my adult life,’’ he writes in “Oxford Revisited,’’ “is the extraordinary amount of energy that has been wasted on the hope that life has meaning.’’ It doesn’t, he says; but it is also clear from his novels that he laments the squandering of the moral currency that was built up by the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is the shared understanding and unexamined acceptance built over a couple of millennia that there really is such a thing as right and wrong, that, to put it in Cartwright’s terms, behaving decently and ethically is “the only way to live.’’ It may be that all the badness we see today - and which fills his novels - went on just as much in the past as it does now, who knows? But since David Hume, shall we say, and the permanent sundering of “is’’ and “ought,’’ no writer has really been able to explain morality. The great book on this subject is Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue,’’ and if you find you have become a fan of Cartwright, you will read that book with satisfaction and, perhaps like me, find yourself wandering around the place locked in interior debate with both writers.

There is no solution to the general dissolution of Western civilization. The abstracting and dissolving forces of the market are too powerful. But here, in the words of one of Cartwright’s characters, is a way to endure it: “We are living in a new Dark Age, an age of mass ignorance; we are squeezed in the embrace of triviality and infantilism. . . . We readers have a sacred duty, to keep alive our literary tradition, to save our language from the barbarians, to read until our eyeballs burst.’’

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at

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