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Gareth Jenkins

Novel questions

(Spring 1994)

From International Socialism 2 : 62, Spring 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Malcolm Bradbury
The Modern British Novel
Secker and Warburg 1993, £20

D.J. Taylor
After the War. The Novel and England Since 1945
Chatto and Windus 1993. £17.99

Is the modern British novel in terminal decline? Taylor certainly thinks so. In a tone of ‘Where are the novels of yesteryear?’ he lashes both contemporary novelists and the social condition we find ourselves in for the departed glory of fiction. Bradbury takes the opposite view. Looking at the state of the novel as we come to the end of the millennium he refuses to share the kind of pessimism that provokes Taylor to such passionate denunciation. There is, he claims, after 100 years of the modern novel, no signs of exhaustion. On the contrary there is growth and renewal, enough of both to take us confidently forward into the third millennium.

Both critics at least share common ground in their conviction that the novel has to be understood as part of its social context. By avoiding the academic jargon common on both sides of the Atlantic, which derives from post-structuralism, deconstructionism and postmodernism, they make their books very readable and avoid the sense that arguments about culture are the preserve of an inward looking elite. Indeed, one element in Taylor’s polemic is to let fly at approaches to fiction which ignore the historical and social foundation to culture leaving texts prey to an endless play of interpretation. Bradbury is altogether more polite, as befits a long established professor at the University of East Anglia. He is not averse to dipping into some of the categories of postmodernism. But he does so lightly and deftly, without committing himself to them (indeed, quite what he is committed to is unclear).

Of course their desire to root fiction in material circumstances does not make them Marxists. If anything, Taylor’s approach derives from a type of materialism which sees culture as determined by environment (he quotes the 19th century French critic Hippolyte Taine favourably), and Bradbury’s approach is reminiscent of an older sociological approach which insists on a ‘background’ to literature. In dealing with what he calls the literary consequences of Mrs Thatcher, Taylor is generally fairly rude about the left (with the exception of Stuart Hall). When talking about the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 Bradbury assumes that Marxism is dead (though he is not particularly complimentary about capitalism). Both writers could be described as having an allegiance to common sense. In Taylor’s case this is a no nonsense approach – all very welcome as a contrast to theoreticism but not without its rightward moving political consequences; in Bradbury’s it is the common sense of liberal tolerance for diversity – so that you don’t really know where he stands. [1]

Taylor’s first passion is for the great Victorian novelists, whom he loves with a filial affection (indeed, his introduction paints a cosy family scene with the teenage Taylor settling down in front of the gas fire in his father’s study to discover the delights of Dickens’s Dombey and Son). It is almost with a sense of the family being betrayed that he attacks the illegitimacy of the descendants of the Victorian novel, ‘the bastard great-grandchildren of a once unsullied family’. ‘We know,’ he insists, ‘we just know, that no modern writer – certainly no modern English writer – can hold a candle to them’. [2] The crucial difference lies in the field of character creation:

One of the touchstones of the Victorian novel is the faith which we display in the characters who populate it, characters whose behaviour is always plausible, and somehow, owing to the underlying strength of the portrait, that much more plausible when they behave out of character. Compared to David Copperfeld and Lucy Snowe, Jim Dixon and his descendants seem pale, pallid creations, the ‘people in paper houses’ of Graham Greene’s essay on Mauriac of 1961. [3]

The reason for this inferiority has nothing to do with the author’s creative ability but with ‘the prevailing social circumstance’. Investigating the ‘links between modern English fiction and the historical process’ [4] is the task Taylor sets himself.

In the 12 chapters that follow his polemical introduction, Taylor attempts to establish the shifting contours of English cultural life in the post-1945 period. He examines the exaggerated fears of the right, and the equally exaggerated hopes of the left, which arose from Labour’s sweeping election victory in that year. He looks at the consequences of diminished international status, of confusions over national identity and of awareness of class in the 1950s. He explores what he sees as an antagonism between working class culture and the beliefs of a largely non working class left. He wonders about just what degree of class war there was in the 1960s, what follows from the decline in religious and ethical belief, the consequences of being able to write more freely about sex in the aftermath of the Lady Chatterley trial (he thinks that greater freedom tends to mean less good writing) and just what the quality of women’s writing is in an era of greater opportunity for women. In the last chapter he reviews the literary consequences of Mrs Thatcher (not too hot, in his opinion) [5] and in the epilogue returns to his first love – the Victorian novel – and his sense that the late 20th century novel has betrayed it.

Taylor backs this story of decline and fall by referring to well known novelists such as Anthony Powell, Antonia Byatt, Margaret Drabble, John Fowles, Evelyn Waugh, Ian McEwan and Alan Sillitoe, as well as some rather obscure ones. But there are some curious omissions: William Golding, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch barely get a mention. Taylor’s explanation – that his is a particular type of book best illustrated by a particular set of writers – is hardly convincing. Salman Rushdie gets a single mention, which seems strange for anyone wanting to look at the link between politics and literature during the Thatcher years.

How illuminating is the result? It is all very well to say that the diminished circumstances of our era, rather than the abilities of the writers, are to blame for the decline in the novel. But that makes the task of any novelist paying attention to Taylor’s thesis a fairly hopeless one. All one can do is regret the passing of the Victorian age. Much of the time the book appears as a no nonsense polemic against trendy notions, as if Taylor were a latter day George Orwell (of all the cultural and political critics referred to in the book Orwell’s name appears the most frequently). But the Orwell which floats up from the pages of the book is not the Orwell at his most acute; it is rather the robustly commonsensical Orwell that on closer inspection proves dogmatically assertive. Particularly in the opening and closing pages, with their nostalgia for a good Victorian read, the author (who was born in 1960) comes across as the youngest of old fogeys.

If there is a specific target in this polemic, it is Kingsley and Martin Amis, the two novelists, father and son. In the introduction Kingsley Amis is compared to the comic villain in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, Mr Jingle, always popping up throughout the long narrative of the post-war novel, ‘a figure of monstrous symbolic intent, a representative of all those earnest young Bevanites who fell out with the Labour Party ... and regarded the Conservative election victory of 1979 as a national deliverance’. [6] ‘Monstrous symbolic intent’ seems pitching it a bit high. But the character Taylor really has it in for Jim Dixon, the hero of Lucky Jim (1954), Kingsley Amis’s first and most famous novel. Not only does he regard him as the bastard descendant of his 18th century fictional forebear (the young man in search of fame and fortune), he also speculates on what might have happened to him in some 1980s sequel. In the style of a Victorian epilogue, Jim Dixon is given a future: he grows up, enjoys a better standard of living, watches television, stops voting Labour and buys ‘shares in a newly privatised utility’. [7] In short, his life becomes the life of one of Martin Amis’s degenerate ‘heroes’ (a fitting son for a fittingly ‘monstrous’ father, so to speak), like the character of Keith Talent in London Fields (1989), to whom Taylor returns in the epilogue as the rotten ripe fruit of the Thatcherite revolution which followed the 1979 election victory.

Fun though this is – and in its way quite a telling illustration of the continuity within the changing consensus from welfarism to the market between the 1950s and the 1980s – there is something slapdash about Taylor’s method. It is not altogether clear whether it is the character’s life or the novelist’s that is being attacked. True, Kingsley Amis’s transition from ‘angry young man’ to Sir Kingsley can stand for a particular kind of shifting with the times, and maybe his lack of real radicalism was implicit from the beginning. But the novel can stand independently of its author’s ideological beliefs and motivations. Taylor half recognises this but seems unable to resist the temptation to blur the distinction if the reward is an elegant and witty aphorism.

As for Bradbury’s book, we have here an ambitious attempt to cover the last 100 years or so, without weighting the account in favour of the tried and tested classics of the first 30 to 40 years of our century. Bradbury is scrupulously fair in dividing his book evenly between the two half centuries, thus providing us with a survey of post Second World War fiction to compete with Taylor’s. It is not easy to prevent a survey turning into a glorified but ultimately boring list of novels. Bradbury, however, succeeds by and large in overcoming this. He situates major trends in novel writing in their cultural context and at the same time finds the space to give reasonably full analyses of key works of 20th century fiction. He begins with the break from Victorian conventions in the 1870s and the development of a more self conscious form of fiction, moves onto the pre-First World War avant garde and the post-war flowering of modernism, then looks at the impact of politics in the 1930s, the retreat from experiment in the post-Second World War period and ends with examining the continuing variety of novel writing. At each stage he suggests the complexity of fiction’s development, both the persistence of older traditions and the emergence of new forms, as well as the dominant trends. Even in the chapters where he is covering the same ground as Taylor, Bradbury provides a better sense of the relationship between fiction and the historical process than Taylor. One can only hope that the book will soon appear in paperback. [8]

But if Taylor is too crusty, Bradbury is too bland. Where Taylor jumps in, fists flying, to sort out the novel, Bradbury sits on his hands, hesitating to pass any judgements whatsoever. Taylor – in a kind of cultural back-to-basics – wants to shake up the received new wisdom. Bradbury appears to befriend each new ‘ism’ or fictional tendency as it comes, on its own terms. To criticise him is not just a question of yearning for a bit of literary rough and tumble of the type Taylor provides. It is because Bradbury sidesteps an argument which has been around for a long time – whether the advance from realism is a real step forward – which Taylor does at least stir up in his crude way.

What does one mean by realism? In the ordinary, common sense use of the term, realism is the sum total of effects used by novelists to provide us with a sense of life. Characters resemble real people; plots resemble real histories. There is what Henry James called a ‘solidity of specification’; in other words, we are provided with an accumulation of detail which persuades us that what we are reading is a chronicle of real existences, subjected to the same cause and effect as the world we live in and unfolding chronologically in the same way our lives do. Typically, the language of realism does not draw attention to itself. To do so would be to undermine the illusion that we look through the pages of the novel we are reading onto the world itself. Language seeks to be transparent, as if it were a window. It tells us what is happening without getting in the way of the action. The merit of the realist novelist is that he or she succeeds in perfecting the illusion of lifelikeness, such that the characters and plot are perfectly credible.

But will that ordinary, common sense meaning of the term do? The difficulty is that it covers too broad a spectrum. The criterion of lifelike characters, as solid, concrete and specific as anything you might meet in real life, would appear to include virtually anything from Balzac to Brookside. It reduces realism to a set of techniques which the writer deploys (consciously or unconsciously) to achieve certain effects. What this weak sense of the term leaves out is that realism is not simply a formal technique; crucially and centrally it involves the ability to convey the dynamics of social development in ways that do not involve an apologia for the status quo. Balzac’s realism is able to do that in a way that Brookside’s ‘realism’ never can. This is because the realism of soap opera, whatever the authenticity of detail or concern with actual issues, cannot approach the sense of social totality evident in the range of fiction Balzac wrote about the human comedy of the early 19th century French upper classes.

This was the kind of argument put forward by the Hungarian Marxist, George Lukacs, who wanted to make a sharp distinction between realism as a mode of aesthetic comprehension of the world, with concrete individuals and particulars standing for more general types, and a ‘realism’ which set itself no greater task than representing discrete surface phenomena. This retreat from totality carried an ideological message. It was a retreat from an understanding linked to changing the world to contemplation of a world that was apparently unchangeable, simply a ‘given’ against which human beings were powerless elements in the landscape, driven by dark forces they could not in the nature of things control.

The point of the contrast is not just to reinforce the evident point that the realism of Balzac is qualitatively superior to the ‘realism’ of Brookside. It is also to say something about different novelists within the 19th century itself – a point of some relevance as far as Taylor is concerned, given his indiscriminate adoration of Victorian fiction. Let us take Anthony Trollope, reputedly John Major’s favourite novelist and one praised by Taylor for his ability to create ‘memorable’ characters. Just how realistic is he in the Lukacsian sense? While it is true that Trollope painted an interesting picture of life at the top of society (particularly the lives of the aristocracy in politics, much less so when it came to the lives of the clergy and bishops) his work possesses no real sense of totality in the way Balzac’s novels do. He has his moments (particularly in the late novel, The Way We Live Now, with its attack on the power of money). But even this novel lacks the critical edge of realism proper. By making the villainous central character, Melmotte, a plutocratic Jewish outsider, the target of his criticism Trollope diverts attention, in a way Balzac never does, from the internal social dynamic of English society. The ‘memorableness’ of Trollope’s characterisation, which Taylor so admires, carries with it a strong dose of acceptance of traditional, i.e. class, values. So we need to discriminate among the Victorian novelists in a way which Taylor’s weak sense of realism never does.

Unless we make this distinction between realism in its strong and weak senses, we abandon the field to its great 20th century rival, modernism. If Taylor’s nostalgia for the Victorians is the only thing meant by being in favour of realism, one is tempted to say to hell with it – the experimental nature of modern fiction has got to be better. The danger is that if realism is identified with conventional bourgeois writing then modernism must be its revolutionary challenger. But that fails to see that there is nothing inherently radical about modernism – for the same reasons as those which Lukacs advanced in his criticism of the retreat from realism in the strong sense to ‘realism’ in its weak sense. The same ideological message is still there. If ‘realism’ in its naturalistic, photographic sense implies human powerlessness, so too does modernism. If that appears provocative, let us look at the question a bit more closely.

The classic justification for modernist experimentation in the novel is that it was a qualitative step forward from a type of writing that had become flawed and compromised. The techniques of realism could work no longer. It was impossible to regard language as a transparent medium, to think of characters in a photographic way or to trust narrative to reveal the significance of events. Realism could not deal with the new reality of the primacy of fragmented experience, the complexity of the inner workings of the mind, the ways in which the mingling of past and present in the act of memory do greater justice to events than setting them out in merely chronological fashion. Above all, the function of language had to change. No longer a self effacing medium to provide with a window on life, it had to draw attention to itself, to the ambiguities of meaning, the resonance of words and their power to create a world of its own. A new reality – the reality of a world torn apart by the advent of mass communications which broke up a settled society, of increasing conflict which destabilised the previous certainties of identity, including sexual identity – required new techniques of writing. The collapse of the old world just before or during the First World War finally destroyed the notion of progress which had underpinned the 19th century’s sense of itself and its culture of realism. In its place, history was reduced to ‘an immense panorama of futility and anarchy’ (to quote the modernist poet, T.S. Eliot) or a ‘nightmare’ from which the central character (if character is still the right word) of that modernist epic, James Joyce’s Ulysses, is trying to awaken. Modernism was the new technique of writing to deal with this reality; indeed, it could claim to possess a higher realism than realism itself.

This classic justification is one that Bradbury articulates effectively and which provides the context for many illuminating commentaries on early 20th century fiction. But there are limitations. For one thing, English modernism was wedded to a particularly conservative view of history (futility, anarchy, nightmare) which was not true elsewhere. In other countries the smashing of the old order and the collapse of traditional culture went with an upsurge of confidence that a new revolutionary culture could be created alongside a new social order. One has only to think of the direction taken by some versions of modernism in post-revolutionary Russia. Here the notion of the avant garde shed some of its elitist tendencies (the idea of a beleaguered and inward looking cultured minority) and began to take on the political notion of a vanguard, in advance of the masses but existing to bring them forwards. [9]

That brings us to the second, and altogether more important problem. Just as there is a tendency to see realism as a set of techniques, rather than the ability of a culture to grasp the underlying dynamics of an epoch, so there is a tendency to do the same with modernism. The important point to grasp, however, is that, whatever the merits of particular modernist works, the notion that reality is necessarily plural and fragmentary (which is the justification used to underpin the plural and fragmentary nature of modernist experimentation) is not an ideologically innocent characterisation. This brings us back to Lukacs. Realism in the strong rather than the weak sense assumes that it is possible to grasp reality aesthetically and understand it in a way peculiar to culture. Historically, it goes with the confidence of a rising class to subject all aspects of social development to fearless (‘realistic’) appraisal, not just for its own advancement but on behalf of humanity as a whole, which is why realism as a movement coincides with the rise of the bourgeoisie, the advance of science, the enormous growth of human productive powers and the overthrow of social relations which hinder progress.

Modernism on the other hand makes no such assumption. It rather coincides with a sense in which the growth of productive powers cannot be mastered by the human subject. To argue that reality is plural and fragmentary may well be to point to an important aspect of modern experience, which the modernist techniques of fragmentation reflect. But this is to reinforce the ideological notion of human impotence – a notion that depends on disguising the continuing potential for humanity to become the subject rather than remain the object of history. Realism in its weak, naturalistic sense concentrates on the impotence of human beings as objects in a social spectacle which it is at pains to describe. Modernism as a tendency shares the same assumption about impotence and views it from the other side of naturalism. It denies the potential of the human subject either by withdrawing into a private space of subjectivity or by making the subject as inhuman as the forces which confront it in the public world. Either way, the condition of alienation is accepted as a given, whether despaired of or rejoiced in.

It is this ambiguity which explains the ambiguity of Futurism. The thrill of the machine, its novelty and dynamism, all of which were central to Futurism and symbolic of new powers breaking through the inertia of tradition, could move in two directions. One was towards praising power over human beings for intensified exploitation. This is why the pressure of fascism pulled Futurism sharply rightwards in Italy (as it also did to its paler Vorticist offshoot in Britain under the artist and novelist Wyndham Lewis, who was to write one book extolling Hitler and another entitled, The Jews – Are They Human?). [10] The other was towards praising the power of human beings for intensified control over nature, which is why the pressure of the Bolshevik revolution pulled it sharply leftwards in Russia. Even so, as Trotsky’s comments on Mayakovsky and Futurism show, its radicalism had difficulty moving beyond individualism, with serious consequences for its aesthetic method. But if modernism is ambiguous in its politics, it has to be said that the pull is towards human powerlessness. Fragmentation, plurality, the dehumanisation of the subject, the aestheticisation of experience – all of which remain key elements within the modernist movement, even at its most radical and challenging – emphasise the sphere of individual refusal as the only meaningful sphere. [11] The public world at best can only be a given, raw material for the self to devour. The idea of collective transformation based on an objective understanding of historical movement is foreign to it.

This is why a certain caution has to be exercised in respect of the high points of modernist fiction. There can be no denying the brilliance of Ulysses, its extraordinary exploration of the inner self, the sexual side of experience and the power of language. But, despite its detailed reference to the topography of Dublin as explored by two wanderers in a single summer day, the novel is a real retreat from an understanding of social and historical interaction of the sort we are given in realist fiction. Beyond the universe of the mind, there is little except fortuitous encounter or an imposed pattern which derives from myth (hence the title). The novel compensates in part for this precisely because the theme of the novel – identity, culture and homeland – as experienced by a son who denies his father (homeland) and a Jewish father, who lacks a homeland and a son, gains real strength from the impact of the movement for independence in Ireland, at once positive in its struggle for freedom and negative in its allegiance to nationalism.

Compare Ulysses with any novel by Virginia Woolf and one can see how hollow the radical pretentions of modernism is. Woolf is often praised as quintessentially fulfilling the exciting promise of modernism to explore the myriad complexity of human consciousness. Yet one cannot escape the feeling, beneath the richness of language, of artistic impoverishment which follows from impoverished grasp of social reality. The turmoil of national upheaval at least enters and informs the modernism of Ulysses. Absolutely no significant social experience informs that of To the Lighthouse or The Waves (though something of the madness and horror of the First World War enters Mrs Dalloway). What is striking is not that the public world of earlier types of fiction is replaced by a more complex and challenging complex range of inner voices, which truly explores the diversity of different individual consciousnesses, but that if you abolish the social you abolish real individuality. In the end it is always the same consciousness, however much the names of the characters vary (as anyone who has read that excruciatingly boring novel, The Waves, is forced to recognise).

The point being made here is not to deny any merit to modernism. It is clear that, as Brecht sarcastically said in his debate with Lukacs about realism in the 1930s, one cannot hold Balzac up as the model and tell modern writers to write like that. Classic realism declined with the decline of bourgeois culture into an apologia for the status quo. Nothing can bring that back and it is no use being nostalgic about the glories of 19th century fiction (as Taylor tends to be). On the other hand, it is also wrong to abandon realism as simply a movement whose moment passed. That leads simply to an uncritical acceptance of the latest ‘revolution’ in the arts, as one ‘ism’ is replaced by another.

This is the drawback inherent in Bradbury’s approach. It becomes the internal history of movements, with their reactions to one another and their interactions – despite his evocation of social background. For background description does not explain what writers make of their response to the world. Social crisis, for example, can push novelists both to the left and the right whatever their formal aesthetic allegiances (as we have seen with Futurism). More importantly, perhaps, we have to judge whether novels get to grips with the complex dynamics of social development (whether they are, in the strong sense I specified earlier, realistic) – and not simply whether they satisfy certain formal aesthetic criteria. What is missing in Bradbury’s account is precisely this element – which is evident in his treatment of Woolf, for example. If Graham Greene could savage her novels for their social vacuousness, one would expect at least some debate about their artistic merit. But it is a debate which Bradbury ignores.

Despite the disfiguring crudeness of Lukacs’s concessions to Stalinism, which has enabled all sorts of critics to dismiss what he has to say, his critique of realism and modernism offers a method of analysis which both Taylor and Bradbury could learn from. This should enable us to avoid Taylor’s uncritical celebration of the 19th century novel as a whole as well as being able to avoid what in the end amounts to Bradbury’s eclectic account of the development of the novel in the 20th century. It should mean that we do not drop a sense of what novels should be about in the interests of some fake tolerance towards the products of each new development in the novel, or towards any mix of genre which the catch all category of postmodernism permits. As we draw towards the third millennium, the question of whether the novel has a future does not depend on vanished glories or blind confidence in internal renewal of the form. As in the past, its strengths and weaknesses are tied up with the ways in which class struggle does, or does not, quicken the pulse of cultural life.


1. At one point he contrasts Stuart Hall’s understanding of the basis of Mrs Thatcher’s attraction favourably with the left’s supposed dislike of her on the grounds of her vulgarity and says in respect of Michael Foot’s ‘fissiparous and diminished’ Labour Party battalions: ‘There must have been several million electors who voted Labour in June 1983 – I was one – in the not quite conscious hope that Labour would lose’ (After the War, p. 271).

2. D.J. Taylor, After the War, p. xiv.

3. Ibid., pp. xv–xvi.

4. Ibid., p. xvi.

5. This is reminiscent of his earlier attack on novels in the 1980s in A Vain Conceit.

6. Ibid., p. xxv.

7. Ibid., p. xxvi.

8. And that the author finds time to correct minor, if irritating, errors. Aziz in Forster’s A Passage to India gets reclassified from Muslim to Hindu and at one point there is a confusion between Thomas Mann’s two novels, Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain.

9. This is perhaps an unfair criticism to make of Bradbury, given that this is a book about the English novel. But in his references to Futurism he talks only about its Italian, not its Russian, version, which was politically a very different animal. Yet if he wants to suggest the full social background, some discussion of why modernism took such a conservative form in England needs to be debated.

10. Bradbury mentions the reactionary nature of Lewis’s politics in passing but doesn’t feel obliged to consider whether this novelist of ‘extraordinary force’ (p. 195) is really as brilliant as he claims. It is fair enough to make a separation between the author and his or her work. But how good are Lewis’s novels? His fantastic satire even at its best is limited in a way that that of other right wing novelists, like Evelyn Waugh, is not – something which is connected to an extremely limited grasp of social forces.

11. It might be said that Bertolt Brecht is the exception here. It can be argued, however, that the truly modernist Brecht is the early Brecht of expressionist revolt, before he became a Marxist, and that the plays of the early 1930s suffer from propagandism (i.e. lack of true realism) in their deployment of modernist effects. Only the later plays have real greatness and this is because modernist techniques are subordinated to realism.

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