Sunday 6th May 2018
Masks and characters
In my novel, the lead character is called Adrian. He is a young writer, intent on a literary career. In my novel, Adrian begins write a book – a work of fiction describing the people and events of the period (1967 to 1971). I have reflected my own work – as a novelist – in my story, showing Adrian writing his novel. In writing about the people he meets in London, Adrian is concerned with how to portray characters. Adrian reveals his characters, sometimes, through their faces and what their faces suggest about them as people. He unravels the idea of the mask – a device used to display emotions and personality through visual symbolism.
In September 1971, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, in South Kensington. Before my visit I had been reading a book by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst. Jung developed the idea of the persona, which, he argued, was a mask for the ‘collective psyche.’ At the museum, I spent several hours looking at exhibits – masks collected from many continents, some of them very ancient, other more modern. I then wrote an article on the subject.
In ancient Greek theatre, masks were worn by actors to portray an emotional type or to conceal the true identity of a character. Adrian is aware that the mask of the face expresses emotions inside the bearer, but can be used, in the drama of life, either to communicate feelings or to conceal them. As he studies those around him, Adrian begins to analyse the way that people either use masks to portray who they are or to conceal their inner realities. This then becomes one of the themes in his book. In a work of fiction, some characters can hide behind masks and others can be seen trying to probe behind such masks to discover the reality of the individual. Adrian comes to realise that fiction writers can sometimes simplify complex characters in order to make them easier to understand for the reader – whilst, at the same time – exploring and uncovering some of those complexities. Novelists can, sometimes, use literary masks to enable recognition of certain kinds of characters. The danger is that such a device results in a stereotype, if not handled sensitively.
Adrian reads widely. He often visits libraries in West London to pursue his studies and interests. During one of these sessions he delves deeply into the topic individuality. He considers that the individual comprises a unique identity but also a persona derived from the collective unconscious of the community he was born into or has become a part of. In his writings, Adrian explores the meaning of individuality and how identity is formed both personally and collectively. This might make Adrian sounds like an academic – in fact, he never went to college and rejects the idea of going to university. At one point, he describes himself as being like the ‘autodidact’ – a character in Sartre’s novel Nausea. Adrian prefers to build up his own knowledge and intellect rather than being defined and moulded by the English educational system, which he distrusts.
In my novel, Adrian is criticised for being too intellectual in his approach to fiction writing. He refutes this criticism by arguing that it is necessary to explore and portray contemporary London as it is seen and witnesses by audiences. Themes, subjects, plots and dramas are complex and sophisticated. That is what makes London such a vibrant and entertaining city, he argues. As part of his background research for his novel, Adrian visits many places where the varieties and shades of masculinity are seen. He writes about the subject of twentieth century masculinity and tries to define and portray types of men that he observes. This becomes part of his other theme – the way that boys become men as they mature into adulthood. Again, his friends criticise him for being too ‘theoretical’ in his narratives. He retorts that he is not an academic and insists that many playwrights and film-makers of the time have dealt with such subjects but not in an academic way.
In writing novels set in a specific milieu or period we must be able to convey what it was like to be there. If we were to write a novel about our own time – 2018 – we would be foolish to ignore its main currents of thinking, politics, philosophy and beliefs when presenting our picture of its arts, drama and literature. How would readers in the distant future get the feel of our age if we neglected to present its depths by concentrating solely on its trivialities?
Adrian faces a similar set of issues as he writes his novel.