Margaret Drabble Essay - Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 2)

Drabble, Margaret (Vol. 2)

Drabble, Margaret 1939–

English novelist, short story writer, and playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Margaret Drabble's latest novel is a difficult, humorless and brilliant book, an unrelenting study in self-discovery. The single voice in "The Waterfall" belongs to Jane Gray, a fiercely intelligent young woman who deliberately holds her coldness, her love affair and her sexuality up to the same strong light in a narrative without protective shades or romantic heights. The author's style, consistent with Jane's painful omniscience, is persistently cool and elegant: holding fast to the task at hand, she will not for a moment allow the gentle ironies of her more amiable novels….

As a novel "The Waterfall" is intellectually topheavy. Since Miss Drabble, like her heroine, will not dissemble, the manner is bleak and uninventive. The vein she is working is closer to Bergman's in a film like "Persona" than to any novelist who comes to mind. Both the character of the mute actress in Bergman's film and Jane Gray fear their coldness yet cherish their personal disaster. But in the film the actress, though silent, moves against an artful background of starkness and order; there is a buildup of violent symbols from both personal and public history. The film gains in density, while the story of Jane Gray, despite her articulateness, seems to lack resonance.

Maureen Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1969, p. 67.

Miss Drabble, in The Needle's Eye, establishes herself in the tradition of George Eliot—and that is meant as a compliment. Quite simply, she has taken a serious, meaty theme and treated it with the seriousness it deserves; and again, quite simply, the theme is social responsibility. It makes a refreshing change from the monotonous stew of sexual deviation and violence with which many fashionable novelists attempt to ingratiate themselves with the public….

The Needle's Eye could only have emerged from a nonconformist tradition, a puritan ethos that never quite accepts the adman's advice and the colour supplements' blandishments. It is a 'think' novel full of analytic passages that tremble on the brink of Eliotian (George rather than T S) earnestness. One could have wished for more action and less expertise on Trade Union legislation. Sometimes there is wearisome cataloguing and repetitiveness.

One must admire Miss Drabble for taking a serious theme and grappling with it—good heavens, I nearly said manfully—with so great a degree of success. It ought to add to her already considerable reputation and give us reason to hope that she will write a novel free from the defects I have mentioned. If and when she does, it will be one of real authority.

Robert Greacen, in Books and Bookmen, May, 1972, pp. 68, 70.

Our yearning for meaningful novels, for novels that will truly change us for the better, is so constantly thwarted that when we come upon the work of a contemporary who has written such a work our first reaction is astonishment. It is something we no longer expect. We have lost faith in many of our imaginative writers; we have begun to look elsewhere for the experiences that only the novel—when it is at its best—can really give us.

Margaret Drabble's "The Needle's Eye" is an extraordinary work: It not only tells a story deftly, beautifully, with a management of past and present (and future) action that demonstrates Miss Drabble's total mastery of the mysterious form of the novel, but it succeeds in so re-creating the experiences of her characters that we soon forget they are fictional beings (perhaps they are not …?) and we become them, we are transformed into them, so that by the end of the novel we have lived, through them a very real, human and yet extraordinary experience….

How to live a saintly life, and yet live fully, ordinarily, even vulgarly …? How to live without exploiting anyone, and yet to resist the self-satisfaction of being "good"? These are questions no novelist has, to my knowledge, attempted with the seriousness and the humor Miss Drabble exhibits here….

Only a truly serious novelist can be funny; "black humor" juxtaposed to more "black humor" simply cancels itself out. Laughter can only grow out of a sense of human participation, a foundation of real (though not necessarily realistic) human life. So "The Needle's Eye," while addressing itself to a spiritual dilemma so profound that many readers—and writers—will not grasp it at all, is at the same time immensely humorous, readable, "unserious" in its depiction of total human beings….

Like Doris Lessing, that genius of the forcefully "creating" work of fiction, Miss Drabble presents characters who are not passively witnessing their lives (and ours); she is not a writer who reflects the helplessness of the stereotyped "sick society," but one who has taken upon herself the task, largely ignored today, of attempting the active, vital, energetic, mysterious re-creation of a set of values by which human beings can live….

Each of Margaret Drabble's novels has been an extraordinary leap forward: from the well-written, entertaining, but not disturbing "The Garrick Year," to the moral ambiguities of "The Millstone," to the rather strange, disturbing "Jerusalem the Golden" and its remorseless "survivor," to the half-mad narrative of "The Waterfall." Though I have admired Miss Drabble's writing for years, I will admit that nothing she has written in the past quite prepared me for the depth and richness of "The Needle's Eye."

Here is a real novel.

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 11, 1972, p. 23.

Margaret Drabble already has a following. She is a writer that many already find they prefer to her elders and presumed betters, Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing. [She] writes about people not in themselves very interesting but for the care she pays them. One knows, especially after having read a number of her books, that this care is not the result of self-identification but of a deep curiosity and absorption in the facts of daily life.

The Needle's Eye is her richest book to date…. What keeps it interesting is the intensity of Miss Drabble's absorption, her sense that life has meaning that cannot be rendered in narrative and that is far too tremblingly ordinary to be subjected to experimental prose. In the average person's thoughts over a ten minute span a great deal happens. To render the span as a stream of consciousness is to insist that the actual motion of the thoughts is crucial, and we all know that is a little bit clinical and therefore fake. To put the same span into a strong narrative is to insist that the thoughts be important and lead to important events, and that too can lead to falsities.

To take the span, and to reassemble the images, memories, and odd thoughts so that the merely associative is thrown away and the importance, say, of a disturbing memory is heightened, is to do some injustice to the ten minutes themselves, perhaps, but it may begin to do great justice to the life being lived. Margaret Drabble takes away the unit of ten minutes, transforms the disturbing memory into a vignette or a meditation, showing that this is how to clarify the facts and quality of our lives. Her intelligence and sensibility are so traditionally novelistic that it is easy to overlook the originality of her method….

[The Needle's Eye] is the work of someone who seems on the brink of being a major writer. Margaret Drabble has come a long way from A Summer Bird-cage, even from Jerusalem the Golden. She is much freer, much more conscious of what she can do, than before, and this leads to a wonderful freshness of tone and detail. However flawed, The Needle's Eye is that rare thing, a book one wishes were longer than it is.

Roger Sale, "Plunging into Life," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), October 5, 1972, pp. 34-6.

The Needle's Eye is her sixth and best novel, and it is good enough to give Margaret Drabble claim to being the best young novelist in the world. One need get no further than the second paragraph to see that…. One settles in, grateful that there are 370 more pages, regretful that all novels can't be like this one. The details exist here, first, for their own sake, then for the sake of what a character can make of them, last for what we can make of the character. It takes a loving and intelligent author to do this, someone who herself loves to think and who knows what circumstances give rise to what thoughts.

Given this, it is rather a shock to realize later on that the person wonderfully created on this opening page is mostly a bore. It feels strange to say that after six novels Margaret Drabble has yet to create a male character successfully. It is a shock because page-by-page almost everything is interesting, and our sense of Margaret Drabble's limitations comes to us only later on. The book is chock full of good things…. Yet the hero is dull, the ostensible villain is unreal, the dialogue is stiff, the story is trumped up, and that's a puzzlement….

My guess is that Miss Drabble became so absorbed in her heroine that she just forgot to see what else she had on her hands…. Despite all that's wrong with The Needle's Eye, it shows its author on the verge of being a major writer.

Roger Sale, "Enemies, Foreigners, and Friends," in Hudson Review, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 703-14.

The novels of Margaret Drabble often seem so many lessons in "how-to" for a modern woman. How to be an unwed mother by chance and by choice in The Millstone (1966); how to drown in the ecstasy of orgasm and achieve love and humanity in The Waterfall (1969); how, as a rich British heiress, to attain an ascetic grace and spiritual goodness in a grossly materialistic world, where "affluence is a question of texture," and possessions make the man or woman (The Needle's Eye, 1972)….

Few contemporary writers possess Drabble's talent for delineating character and balancing points of view, male as well as female. In … The Waterfall, she constructed an Emily-Dickinsonian framework of neurotic sensibility and claustrophobic physicality that resolved itself when her heroine was able to break out of her house and her frigidity. In The Needle's Eye … she piles on careful details almost at the expense of her story, but true to an organic pattern. Yet the closer her characters come to their various gates of heaven, the more degenerative her own view of mankind becomes…. It will be interesting to see what direction Drabble's work will take from here; whether towards Boschian nightmare or a return to Eden. It is comforting to know that the Madonna in her sky, looking down upon us all, is a figure like the Rose [of The Needle's Eye] pictured at the end; a "normally" neurotic if mis-directed woman, with an eccentric bounty of self-sacrifice and a silly sense of generosity.

Celia B. Betsky, in Harvard Advocate, Winter, 1973, pp. 81-2.