I LIKE A PLOTTED NOVEL as much as if not more than the next person–obviously, or I wouldn’t have written so many of them. No reader, I hope, is above the pleasures of characters on collision courses, fast-ratcheting rising action and exciting climaxes. And there’s no reason why a tightly plotted book can’t be deep and thoughtful, though it’s hard to pull off. But sometimes I prefer to settle down with a quieter, more intimate book, just as, writing, I’m drawn, after passages of great urgency, to moments of stillness.
The first time I heard the term “the pastoral novel” was when I opened John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain and saw that tag attached to the title–something I’ve never seen again. I wasn’t quite sure of its use as a technical term, and thought of it more as a blanket description, a strange and convenient, even provocative, handle for this particular work of the genre-bending writer.
Nickel Mountain is set in a fictionalized rural section of upstate New York, far away from any cities. The main characters are locals not involved in the larger turnings of the outside world, though well aware and somewhat distrustful of it. So there’s an element of isolation at play, possibly self-imposed, as well as an appreciation of the countryside and of nature, a quieter life. The movement of the book is measured, even stately, sticking close to the characters’ hidden and mostly homely desires.
Not being an English major, my initial reference point for Gardner’s striking sub-title was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with its programmatic movements–Shepherd’s Song: Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm. And then Handel’s Il Pastor Fido, the faithful shepherd. The countryside, stereotypically, was a simpler, happier place filled with simple, happy people who lived entirely separate from the bulk of society.
Later, in a more complicated way, I saw nods to the pastoral in Shakespeare’s woodsy comedies such as As You Like It–the use of a bucolic, enchanted setting as a stage for his troubled lovers. And in The Tempest, too, he chooses to conduct the play on the Edenic but removed space of Prospero’s island, far from the tumult of Milan and Naples.
The more I looked for it, the more I saw the pastoral as a formula: take a group of disparate people and plunk them down in a strange and isolated setting, whether by misadventure (is “Gilligan’s Island” a pastoral comedy?) or design (the weekenders vacationing at the country manor in Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party, the guests in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game). Mix with locals or homeowners (as in William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It) and watch the melodrama and romance of everyday life unfold.
Occasionally I’d run across twists on the same basic frame. A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night becomes Sondheim’s A Little Night Music becomes Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. In this light-hearted version of the genre, the freedom of this more natural world–the glee of being away from the grind of everyday life and basically on vacation–sets loose feelings in the characters and gives them an opportunity to reveal themselves to one another.
Chekhov takes us to country estates in his major plays, as does Turgenev in A Month in the Country, but I think the deepest use of the form is Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, exiling the Ramsays and their guests to the rain-swept summer house so they can’t escape one another or themselves.
To the Lighthouse and Time Will Darken It fit into a peculiar subset I’ll call the vacation pastoral, the form I’ve used for my new novel, Wish You Were Here. The vacation itself is the stage for the action, as well as providing an enforced limitation–leasing the timeshare for two weeks, say, or, in the summer version (Summer of ’42, for example, or my beach novel A World Away), the closing-up date of Labor Day. The opportunities for drama are marvelous, as the characters are forced into close, sometimes uncomfortable proximity. Not having their everyday worries and chores to occupy them, they naturally dwell too much on one another and–literally and figuratively–have nowhere to hide. Fights are inevitable, and hurt feelings, but truth too, and kindness, unaccustomed mercy. Everything good and bad.
That’s what I like most about the pastoral–the illusion of an escape into simplicity and beauty being replaced, quickly enough, by the complexity of human relations and the self. Because desire never takes a vacation.
The paradox is, the vacation pastoral is the ideal book to take on vacation and really live with at that unhurried pace you share with the characters. Spend part of your summer with Mrs. Woolf’s Ramsays or Mr. Maxwell’s Kings or Mr. Cheever’s Wapshots and you’ll see your own family differently and appreciate your own slow time away from the world that much more.