In 1978, the critic Hugh Kenner coined the term ‘the Uncle Charles Principle’ to describe a particular literary realist technique. Kenner was responding to Wyndham Lewis, who in 1927 criticised James Joyce’s style, pouncing on the phrase ‘Every morning … Uncle Charles repaired to the outhouse.’ For Lewis, Joyce’s language was pompous and inflated: ‘people repair to places in works of fiction of the humblest order.’ For Kenner, the pomposity was the point: ‘repaired’ comes from the language an affected man like Joyce’s Uncle Charles might use to describe his morning routine. The Uncle Charles Principle ‘entails writing about someone much as that someone would choose to be written about’.
In his strange, skilful, spellbinding eighth novel, The Promise, the South African author Damon Galgut modifies this principle. Galgut’s third-person narrator swings, like Joyce’s, effortlessly from character to character, but catches them less in moments of self-inflation – playing on their self-importance – than in the embarrassed self-overhearing that follows.