In the 1970s student grants went a long way. After paying for all the prescribed texts, there was still money left over for a good rummage in the second-hand bookshops. On a whim one day, I bought three novels by an author I had never heard of – Peter de Vries. I was attracted by the cyclamen red typeface on their bright yellow Victor Gollancz covers, and at 10p each they were a bargain. What I didn’t know was that 30p could set my slant on the world.
I was studying Russian and Moral Philosophy – an interesting combination, but one that sometimes felt like a vale of tears. Russian literature brimmed with existential problems and moral disorder – ungovernable passions, the possibility of redemption, the puzzle of history, to say nothing of the sheer wretchedness of ordinary people. And moral philosophy, which perhaps should have helped with all that suffering humanity, often appeared to be pitifully disconnected from it.
Peter de Vries soon became the perfect antidote to wrestling with Kant or Dostoevsky. There were philosophical problems aplenty in his books too, but his exploration of them made me laugh out loud and filled me with a kind of rueful joie de vivre, mirroring the mood of the writing. He even tackled the ontological argument. According to the Unitarian minister in The Mackerel Plaza, ‘It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that He need not exist in order to save us.’
The territory covered by de Vries turned out to be remarkably similar to that in my own chosen subjects: the ambiguities of good and evil, the uncertainties of faith, the nature of God, and the quest for happiness. Whereas Tolstoy thought that all happy families resembled one another, each unhappy family being unhappy in its own way, the suicidal poet in Reuben, Reuben asks: ‘Why do people expect to be happily married when they are not individually happy?’ In the same book another character likens the state of marriage to ‘t
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