A collection of characters with no redeeming features

Detail from the cover of Grief and Other Stories by Theodore Dalrymple

When I used to read Theodore Dalrymple’s articles some years ago in the Telegraph I thought they were a well-written, mordant and probably accurate view of the people he was describing.  As a self-described “prison doctor”, he had an acute ear for the particular kind of macabre dialogues that took place in this environment. I later blogged about his book, And The Knife Went In, of his experiences in the prison milieu, in which he developed his wittily pessimistic view of the criminal underworld.

Now he has written a work of fiction, Grief and Other Stories (New English Review Press.) Curious as to how he would entirely fictionalise his gloomy mental universe, I have just been reading it. Unfortunately, his journalistic talent for creating short, blackly comic encounters with the unlikeable does not translate into fiction. There is the same reductive view of human nature, the same lightly apocalyptic vision, but without real human material to work on his imagination only creates grotesque caricatures of people, not living human beings, however imperfect they may be.

These stories are not about the criminal underworld, though they are often about underclass types such as Kirsty and Shannon in the opening story, Grief. They are hard to read, despite Dalrymple’s very readable, conversational style, because they are so bleak. The characters that populate the stories – two young women on benefits, a wealthy woman declining into dementia, the progress through life of a loveless bully of a man and so on – are never given any redeeming features. There is literally nothing that humanises them – that softens the characterisation so that we can, even fleetingly, build an imaginative bridge towards them.

Indeed, there is something clinical and cold in Dalrymple’s imagined world. The satire, a common feature of his writing, is largely ineffective because the reader cannot find any kinship with the people who populate his pages; one cannot even laugh at them.

It so happens that I have also re-read a novella by Tolstoy recently: The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I am not trying to compare an author of classic stature with this modern writer, except to make a specific point. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is not entirely dissimilar to the kind of people in Dalrymple’s short stories; his whole life has been a pretence, one of shallow ambitions, hypocrisy and trivial pleasures – a mockery of a life well lived. Then he becomes mortally ill and almost to the end we see him angry and squirming at the indignity and injustice of it all – that he should have to die.

If the novella had continued like this to the end it would merely have been a rather richer depiction of a life but with echoes of the characters invented by Dalrymple. But in the final hour of his life – indeed on the last page of the story – Ilyich is changed. Unable to move and barely able to speak, he yet struggles to communicate to his wife (in what has always been a mutually selfish marriage) the words “Forgive me.” That is what the reader has been implicitly hoping and waiting for; one small gesture that makes us sympathetic to this otherwise pompous unattractive man, something that brings him to life as a moral agent, something that humanises him.

In contrast, Dalrymple’s characters remain unforgiving, unloving and unlovable. Thus they live in a peculiar kind of hell; whether obsessive, self-absorbed or brutish, their creator keeps them dehumanised, without any possibility of redemption. Yet literature, as well as life, requires it.