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Book Review: Real Writing: Word Models of the Modern World by Michael Lydon

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Michael Lydon’s writing is warm and lucid, even when touching on the most academic and complex of subjects. Though his book Real Writing is certainly literary and sophisticated, analysing six of the world’s most well known realist authors in extraordinary detail, there’s always an intimacy and humour rarely found in academic writing. Each chapter begins with an author image, and then a series of very close readings of the entire oeuvre of each author’s work, always using textual examples and exploring the work in the context of the writers’ lives.

The overriding thesis that extends through the book is that, in their own unique ways, each of the six writers featured — Honore de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Theodore Dreiser, James Jones, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn — use language to not only create an accurate portrayal of life, but to get at the heart of what it means to be human. This is what Lydon calls “the truth of life,” and he demonstrates clearly that this truth is to be found in abundance in these great works.

Each of the chapters also includes a hand drawn diagram showing the relationship between writer, reader and character, to help illuminate, among other things, the key differences in the way in each of the authors create reality. For example, with Balzac, the writer is the biggest circle, addressing the reader directly:

“Balzac the man, the intellect, the genial companion, is extraordinarily present on the pages of his books. He describes every fact and fiction exactly as he sees it and dives unabashedly into long digressions because whatever thought he wishes to explain interests him. Balzac’s interests range all over the map, but we hear about them from one consistent, spirited, and personal point of view.” (17)

From Balzac we move to Trollope, who shrinks the writer slightly and makes the writer, reader and character equivalent, using plain, simple prose to create a realist portrait of the “common man” and common English life. George Eliot, on the other hand, uses her skill as a realist writer to bond the reader, writer and character tightly, in a shared sympathy of understanding. Theodore Dreiser’s realism is one that keeps the narrator at a distance from the reader. Using additional hand drawn diagrams, Lydon examines the way Dreiser builds his characters lives through links with other characters, and complex relationships that reveal their true natures. 

Like Dreiser, James Jones’ work is compared to Homer’s. Both Homer and Jones tackle great war through personal experience. By moving deeper inside his characters, Jones mingles grim dramatic irony born of impending death with the multi-charactered action of his settings.

Henry James is also included in this book, though his chapter is much shorter, and less complimentary than the others. Like Dreiser and Jones, Henry James is considered one of America’s most respected realists, but unlike the others, his work doesn’t resonate with truth for Lydon. This is partly because of the convoluted and refined nature of James’ writing.

Lydon saves the best for last in his two chapters on Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Not only does Lydon’s extensive and detailed knowledge of Solzhenitsyn’s work create an illuminating and powerful analysis, it also provides a fascinating biography of a writer working under the most extreme conditions:

“Writing is not writing until it is written down. Bold thoughts set the pen in motion, but until they have left their trace upon the page, the thoughts remain to some degree amorphous. They need to be scratched down once, read, scratched out and written again, slept on overnight and rewritten on the morrow and the morrow after that. Only then does thought become writing true and lasting. Prison denied Solzhenitsyn this process integral to the art, yet he determined to write nevertheless.” (204)

Throughout Real Writing Michael Lydon creates a solid thesis for the power of realism. Though each of these writers are products of their own times, with settings and themes determined by the key concerns of the day, there is a timelessness to their themes and characters. Pain, joy, love and desire haven’t changed a bit since Balzac’s day, and the novels explored in Real Writing speak strongly to modern readers. For fans of these authors, Lydon’s charming, easy-to-read prose will provide new insights and links. For others, Real Writing will likely tempt readers to further examine the books explored within.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.