Of Heroes and Heroines

Every summer our newspapers show an insistent curiosity about the holiday reading of political leaders. I suppose the hope is that they will study some serious self-improving works, whereas the politicians’ own wish might be for simple escapism.
Years ago, as a young civil servant, I worked as private secretary to a government Minister. When the parliamentary recess arrived, he and his wife took three weeks by the sea in a quiet cove in England’s west country. He was a hard-working politician and insisted that his office should send him the red despatch boxes, carried by rail in padlocked canvass sacks. Each day he continued to work, conscientiously writing in his neat hand in the margin of memoranda. Sometimes the boxes were returned with sand in them. Indeed once he returned a note that he had dropped in the sea: from a senior adviser, written by hand; the ink had run and the Minister asked for the note to be rewritten.
I took my Kindle on holiday this year. Do you also read e-books? The great advantage is their practicality: you can take an entire library away without lugging an extra suitcase. I was reading Joseph Conrad’s novel of civil war and a silver mine in South America, Nostromo. Full of big characters and colourful moral dilemmas. Stirring heroism. In every way a big book and one to leave you wondering whether you yourself might live up to the standards of integrity shown by the principal characters. 

The hero is the eponymous figure Nostromo, dashing and courageous, relied upon by the business and political elites to undertake all manner of difficult and dangerous assignments. What motivates him? There is almost no reward. But as one of the characters says:
“It is curious to have met a man for whom the value of life seems to consist in personal prestige.”
As a boy, many of the stories I brought home from the library fired me with daydreams of heroism. Perhaps that is one of the traditional functions of stories. Recently, however, I have seen more than one discussion on Facebook about male and female roles in modern society that question the image of the hero in fiction. Boys, we are told, should not be ashamed to cry; they should acknowledge their fears and weaknesses. It is good that gender stereotypes are being challenged and that girls are encouraged to seek fulfillment for their talents. But some of the protagonists of Facebook have wanted to take away male role models of heroism. Joseph Conrad would not have approved.
Although I took my Kindle, in the cottage where my wife and I stayed was a short shelf of books. This is where the printed book triumphs: a row of paperbacks tempts you to browse, and in browsing, you can find yourself drawn into a book you would not have gone looking for.

One I found was a contemporary novel called Larry’s Party by the Canadian writer Carol Shields. This was expressly about men and women, and more particularly - written by a woman - it was about the place of men in modern western society. It’s the story of a man who occupied a modest position in society. He had two marriages but both wives left him. His one success in life was almost accidental. Having begun work as a florist he found his path as a designer of garden mazes for the wealthy. The symbolism of the maze in this book must have been deliberate. The story ends with a set-piece scene, a dinner party at which both former wives are present and the conversation revolves around the place of men in the modern world.

From this, I moved on to P D James: A Certain Justice, a murder mystery to be solved by Inspector Dalgleish. This is not my favourite genre, although late in my career, travelling with a different Minister, I learnt that he liked best to unwind with a crime novel. In A Certain Justice the central figure – until she is murdered a quarter of the way in – is a professional woman, a highly successful criminal barrister at London’s Old Bailey. P D James, therefore, offered a modern female role model. She had also created a capable woman detective, the assistant to Inspector Dalgleish, and the author takes us into a world of rivalries with male colleagues and incidences of male prejudice - some real, some imagined.

Then Slade House, by David Mitchell, well-known for his Cloud Atlas. Like the latter book, Slade House is a modern book which experiments with the structure of the novel. Although it is a kind of ghost story, it plays with time and sequence. A strong tale. Like the PD James, it is carefully constructed to present the reader with a puzzle to solve. It’s escapism, not a book to hold up moral challenges, although it does present characters who take up arms against evil. And the most successful, because she is both courageous and sharp-witted, is female.

Finally, I turned back to my Kindle and to W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. You probably know it. It is a ‘bildungsroman’, a story of growing up. It gives us an anti-hero: the boy struggling to become a man through the slow discovery of his own strengths and weaknesses, making mistakes and moving on. Orphaned at a young age, he was also born with a deformed foot, which greatly affects his confidence, not least in relations with women. Published in 1915, it is told in a traditional manner - quite unlike the transforming work of James Joyce whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published the following year.
Nonetheless, like Joyce, Somerset Maugham shows us a person from the inside: we hear his character’s thoughts as he puzzles out his ordinary life. Not a hero. But an inspiration.