Pairings: “This Is Happiness” by Niall Williams and “Light Perpetual” by Francis Spufford
By Randy Kraft
We all have to find a story to live by and live inside, or we couldn’t endure the certainty of suffering. ~ Niall Williams
Let me say up front that the pairing of these two wonderful novels is a stretch. Both take place in England, both are exquisitely written by accomplished British writers, and both have to do with that moment in time that inexorably alters a life, as great fiction often does. These are novels of what if? Otherwise, the novels are different in style and structure, and story, but they make a good pair for discussion for their rich characterization and profound insights into what it is that makes each of us who we are or who we might have been.
Francis Spufford, author of This Is Happiness, said in an interview with The Guardian, “I want the reader to be looking at life as you do when you are aware that the alternative is death,” and this might be said also of Light Perpetual. Spufford tells his tale in the voice of an old man recounting his coming of age in a traditional village when electricity arrives and when a worker for the electric company becomes a border in his home, while Williams has imagined whole lives for five of the children killed in a bomb blast in 1944.
Grand fiction: life and death and what sort of life is lived in the face of death.
In Light Perpetual we follow six decades of London life, a portrait of the post-war period, and the long, in-depth description of these imagined lives, and all the people in each orbit, makes all the more powerful the tragedy of lives cut short. The parallel in This Is Happiness is the core character, Christy, who early on denied himself passion in favor of the easier path, and spends forty years regretting abandoning the woman he loved. Coming back at last to find her is the essence of this tale, as observed, and experienced, but the narrator.
Sacrifice, loss, mental and physical illness, love and obsession, these are all present in both novels for all the characters, as in all our lives. Most importantly, these are tales told in unusually sharp elegant prose. The Brits excel at fiction and these two especially so. Read one or both and you will surely appreciate all you have all the more.
A few excerpts for the taste of the writing follow.
This Is Happiness
Everybody carries a world. But certain people change the air about them. That’s the best I can say. It can’t be explained, only felt. He was easy in himself… He didn’t feel the need to fill the quiet and had the confidence of the storyteller when the story is still unpacked, its snaps not yet released.
Books, music, painting are not life, can never be as full, rich, complex, surprising or beautiful, but the best of them can catch an echo of that, can turn you back to look out the window, go out the door aware that you’ve been enriched, that you have been in the company of something alive that has caused you to realize once again how astonishing life is, and you leave the book, gallery of concert hall with that illumination, which feels I’m going to say holy, but which I mean human raptness.
When your spirit is uneasy, stillness can be a kind of suffering. And when you’re young, the unlived life in you, all that future, urgent and unreachable, can be unbearable.
… I came to understand him to mean you could stop at, not all, but most of the moments of your life, stop for one heartbeat and, no matter what the state of your head or your heart, say, This is happiness, because of the simple truth that you are were alive to say it.
She must be changing with time, he supposes… But you don’t see it, do you, if you live with someone, if you see them all the time? The changes are too gradual. Or, more than that, the changes are additions not displacements, only ever doing their work on top of memory, in all its layers and layers.
Everyone knows that parenthood changes you; but Alec had thought that meant the rearrangement that comes at the beginning of it, when you learn that your life is going to be curled protectively around the kids. He doesn’t know what to do with this recent, new rage, where you feel the hopes and expectations you’ve had for them all this time start to shrivel…
Vern feels big as the waiter fits them into little gilt chairs not far from the foot of the stairs; but then Vern feels big everywhere. It’s just a fact of life. He waited and waited for growing up to turn him into one of those gracile kids with the spindly legs, but no matter how tall he got, and he’s six-two now, he expanded in proportion.
Both novels are available in hardcover and e-books. Happy reading.