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Novel Is a Piece of News
Anthony Powell (1905 – )
The Historical Novel
The expression "the literary novel" has entered common usage in the last twenty years; it is a useful, but unhelpfully restrictive, term. Employed to differentiate novels which have some ambition to be works of art from those which have not but seem to aim only for popular success, it loses value if it excludes from critical consideration novels which belong to particular genres, but which may nevertheless be written with true imagination and artistic integrity. In fact, genres like the historical novel, science fiction, mysteries and the novel of espionage may all yield work of a quality which transcends the limitations of the genre's conventions.
This is most obviously true of the historical novel, if only because so many of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century fell into that category. Yet dull and conventional practitioners have endangered the critical validity of the genre. Most historical are tripe, sentimental fantasies which offer no challenge to any reader. Conversely, therefore, the writing of a historical novel offers a peculiar challenge to the novelist for he or she is required to liberate the form from the easy assumptions with which it has become encrusted. At the same time its attractions are obvious: it allows the writer to consider permanent qualities of mind and character simply by setting a distance of time between the novelist and his material; it frees him from the tyranny of the here and now.
Two approaches to the writing of historical fiction seem both possible and fruitful: the first is that which investigates grand politics by means of a scrupulous and detailed recreation of a particular time. The outstanding modern practitioners of this form have been the American Gore Vidal and the South African Mary Renault, who in her last novels, the trilogy dealing with Alexander the Great and with the disintegration of his empire after his death, achieved remarkable effects by her manipulation of the point of view and her refusal to sentimentalize or romanticize her material. These novels, which were popular successes but underrated by many critics, are likely to last longer than many of the books which have won literary prizes.
Both Anthony Burgess (The Kingdom of the Wicked) and William Golding (the Rites of Passage trilogy) have experimented with historical fiction. Burgess's has his characteristic virtues of erudition and verve. Golding's pastiche enables him to explore the moral implications of action and the development of sensibility.
The second type of historical novel allows its author greater freedom, for it treats history as myth. Novelists like Robert Nye, Peter Vansittart and John Banville are less interested in creating a simulacrum of historical reality than in capturing the essence of an age and in tracing the mythical elements which connect it, psychologically and imaginatively, with modern sensibility. Nye's characteristic theme is the erotic nerve that trembles behind our thoughts, imaginings and actions. His outstanding novel, Falstaff (1976) is the masterpiece of this sort of fiction. It is at once homage to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan vitality, and a comic portrayal of the waste land created by power politics. It is a celebration of man and God; its crudities are as much part of the human edifice as the gargoyles are integral to a medieval cathedral. Written in a rich, yet abrupt and incomparably rapid prose that makes no pretence to belong to the age in which the fiction is ostensibly set, it is nevertheless a timeless novel; modern, yet not confined to the twentieth century. It delights in the exuberance of the life force while keeping the reality of death, and of the fear of death, ever before us.
A concern with different modes of thinking and feeling is also manifest in the novels of J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock. Both began by writing conventional science fiction; both transcended its barriers to write novels which, retaining the genre's virtues of directness, imaginative freedom and intellectual enquiry, discarded its reliance on arbitrary and whimsical resolution of narrative.
Both Ballard and Moorcock are prolific – at one time Moorcock was writing a novel a month. This is the way they have come up, through the science fiction magazines. It has a curious double consequence. On the one hand, each is capable of writing with a direct lucidity which makes for easy reading; on the other both are capable of mandarin opacity, the result perhaps of fast writing against deadlines: Moorcock's A Cure for Cancer (1971), for instance, is, in his own words, "too pretentious and obscure, too many private jokes, everything I dislike in someone like Nabokov."
The great strength of these writers is that they look beyond the world of orderly social fiction. They are both conscious of the imminence of a dehumanized world, dominated by technology, a world in which traditional values appear to be obliterated. Neither welcomes this; quite the contrary. Yet they are willing to confront it. Both have at the same time a range which makes it possible for their work to change direction abruptly: Ballard has written a realistic novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), about a Japanese internment camp. Moorcock is engaged on a series of novels set in Edwardian England.
They have weaknesses in common too. Both appear to find little difficulty in turning out well-structured and convincing novels; at the same time these seem insufficiently pondered. They have written so much that they can resolve difficulties of narrative by their mastery of structure rather than by the force of imagination.
Moorcock has an exuberance Ballard lacks. Though Ballard is pleased to deploy pop images throughout his fiction, he does so as an act of criticism, revolted by the naive acceptability of his original image. His novels accordingly are rarely affirmative; he is dismayed by the squalid commodity-dominated urban world. He has suggested that "the writer's job is no longer to put the fiction in ... people have enough fiction in their lives already." He sees it as the writer's job to question the subliminal goods which pass for reality. When he employs realistic techniques, he does so as a means of criticism of conventional notions of what is real.
... The idea that shadows can assume a superior reality is central to the concept of spy fiction. The unquestioned modern master of this genre is John Le Carre, unquestioned at least since his early rival Len Deighton temporarily deserted the spy novel in favour of thoroughly researched and documented recreations of war, Fighter (1987) and Bomber (1970), and alternative history, SS-GB (1978).
Le Carre is the legitimate heir of John Buchan and Eric Ambler. Like them, he uses the form of the spy novel as a means of assessing the moral condition of the nation. Like them he is aware of the precarious nature of civilization. Yet he has taken the form further, perhaps beyond a valid point. Whereas Buchan and Ambler characteristically portrayed the murky world of secret politics as an interruption in the decent and orderly lives of their heroes, Le Carre makes it an image sufficient in itself. There is no world beyond it for his characters, who have been so formed and corrupted by their experiences in the secret world that they are incapable of conceiving any decent way of life as a practical possibility. At times Le Carre seems to share this delusion. The Secret Services of which he writes have lost their reason for existence: they have come to protect nothing except themselves.
Yet there is a moral force in Le Carre's fiction, particularly evident in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and Smiley's People (1980), his best two novels, which makes a great deal of conventional literary fiction seem trivial. If Robert Nye shows how the erotic nerve disturbs and reforms moral attitudes, Le Carre in a very different manner never allows us to forget how the lust for power, even in a stale bureaucratic world, can become a dominating and subversive force.
This is the strength of his fiction, and it is scarcely vitiated by the frequently pretentious and convoluted style in which he writes. Le Carre has taken the spy novel so far from being in any normal sense of the term a novel of action that one might more exactly describe his world as one of mandarin inaction. His fondness for the indirect approach makes a virtue of secrecy and of deception of the reader, which serves as a parody of the moral attitudes that he critically dissects.
Science fiction, historical novels and spy novels all lend themselves to formulaic treatment which allows the author to manipulate stereotypes whenever invention flags. Even the best rarely avoid giving off an impression of deja vu, at least in parts. Familiarity of this sort makes for easy reading; nothing is so undemanding as the formula novel. This criticism can be levelled with even more force at the classical English mystery novel, which in the hands of its best practitioners like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Michael Innes achieved the remarkable feat of rendering even the bloodiest murder abstract. Raymond Chandler claimed to have given murder back to the people who commit it, but he did so by restricting crime to a criminal milieu. P.D. James and Ruth Rendell have avoided this limit while restoring the seriousness of the act of murder.
James writes only orthodox detective stories, scrupulously adhering to convention, creating an intellectual puzzle, which nevertheless do not exclude complexity of emotion. Rendell is extremely prolific, writing police detective stories and psychopathic studies under her own name, and also dense explorations of buried crimes, decorated with Gothic motifs, under the name of Barbara Vine. Both are addicted to an excessive degree to literary allusion – James's police detective is a poet himself, while Rendell's is an omnivorous reader with a remarkable memory. Despite this, both writers have succeeded in reintergrating genre fiction in the mainstream novel. James's last, A Taste for Death (1986), could most accurately be described as a novel of character turning on the investigation of a murder; in this it was closer to the Victorian master Wilkie Collins than to Christie and Sayers. Rendell's fecundity and understanding of psychopathic personality recall the Franco-Belgian Simenon, whom Andre Gide once described as "the best living French novelist." Rendell has not perhaps marked out her territory as decisively as Simenon did; but her work is of quality comparable to his.
The novel has always been a loose and capacious term; for every discernible trend it has been possible to find contemporary countercurrents. So, today, while it may seem that the future of the novel is to appeal to an international readership, it does not follow that this excludes the local or particular writer. The Japanese author Shusako Endo is an example of one who has achieved international success without diluting his native culture.
In remains certain, however, that the novel can only flourish if it remains aware of its own definition as a piece of news. Novelty may rest in subject matter or manner, and the degree of novelty may be hard to identify. It must nevertheless be there if the book is not to stink of stale fish. All the writers considered here are to some extent at least conscious of their responsibility in this respect. They respond to changing social values and the changing shape of society with new perceptions. They are aware, even the most apparently naturalistic of them, that reality can no longer be complacently defined. They are aware too of paradox: the concept of character has been challenged by physiological and psychological advances and theories; yet perception of "real" character remains central to the way we try to understand the world. It is the novelist's task to explore this paradox.
They duty of exploration may indeed be taken as the imperative which drivers the novelist. The novel is an exploratory form, seeking out routes by which author and reader can together come to a truer understanding of the world. Dealing in imperfections, the novelist understands that this understanding can itself can itself be never other than imperfect. This is why it is not a form suited to the ideologically committed. Orwell described it as "a Protestant form"; inasmuch as his phrase retains value, it has lost its sectarian significance. But it reminds us that the writing of a novel is an act of individual judgement, or rather that it is composed of myriads of such acts. Reading a novel is of the same order. Both writing and reading depend on the use of the imagination. This is true whether the novel superfically seems to set out to achieve a close resemblance to everyday life or whether it flies far away from it. Neither mode is admirable in itself; it depends on how it is done.
The most ambitious venture in postwar English fiction was brought to a triumphant conclusion in 1975. This was Anthony Powell's novel in twelve volumes, A Dance to the Music of Time. An unfolding of English upper-class and upper-Bohemian life, extending over more than forty years in time (and twenty-five years in the writing), it is too subtle, contrived and self-aware to be described as a roman-fleuve. No English novelist has matched Powell's ability to achieve an intricate intertwining of art and reality. The critic John Bayley has remarked that "nothing shows the complete originality of Powell's technique more than the way his fiction imitates memoir, and almost in a double sense, like a trompe-l'ocil painting," so that the novel becomes "an anecdote arranging itself in the elaborate composition of a picture."
A harsher note, at times even brutal, and certainly sombre, was struck in the last two volumes, Temporary Kings (1973) and Hearing Secret Harmonics (1975). No doubt this was partly in response to changes in public morality which had afforded greater freedom to the writer, but the darker mood of these last volumes was principally determined by the inner dynamic of the whole series of novels in which characters are revealed as moving figures responding involuntarily to the mysterious music which compels them to perform intricate measures in the dance of life, according to a pattern which they neither will nor understand. So, in these last two books, which crown the series, Widmerpool, the comic, yet sinister figure who has tried to shape his life by the exercise of the will, disregarding in the process those claims of affection and sensibility which alone make life tolerable, rushes towards destruction, impelled by forces over which he has lost all control, and ultimately conquered by the more powerful will of the young Scorpio Murtlock.
Powell's achievement, unmatched by any contemporary, and indeed unique in the English novel since Henry James, was to render social reality convincing, in a rich expressive prose, while at the same time revealing the inadequacy of any attempt to understand human nature, and the human condition, only in such terms. Adroit in his deployment of factual detail, the accumulation of which makes every page ring true to life, scenes of social, army and business life all being presented with fidelity to common experience, Powell nevertheless, by the vividness of his imaginative perception, bathes the world he has called into being in the golden light of timeless myth. At its simplest level, this is the personal myth – the view of self– which each of us forms and which, if maintained, enables us to get satisfactorily, or at least tolerably, through life. But at a more profound level all his characters are seen to be enacting certain symbiotic roles in the lives of others, and hence in the reader's imagination also.
One of the most difficult of the novelist's tasks is to make those characters whom he has called into being with a few strokes of the pen achieve a semblance of autonomous life; and it is Powell's peculiar and double triumph to have brought this off, while at the same time suggesting to us that we all take on alternative lives in the minds of others, and that indeed the whole of experience may be a dream by some Great Unknown. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega у Gasset asked whether "human life in its most human dimension was not a work of fiction. Is man a sort of novelist of himself?" This is the experience of Powell's characters, or rather perhaps it is the experience we have when reading of them. He contrives to make them more real than people we know – more real because they are presented with an authority we do not encounter in "real" life – while reminding us that they are only so because he has imagined them. Like Pirandello, he "pretends that the familiar parlour is not real as a photograph, but a stage containing many realities." Yet he never sacrifices common sense. His myth is always an alternative interpretation, not forced on the reader.
Powell has tackled, more effectively than any other writer of our time, the essential problem of the novelist: how to achieve a balance between what he sees out of the window and what goes on in his head. Only those who strike such a balance can convince us that their view of life is both valid and interesting.
He has another attribute, the possession or lack of which is one useful test of a writer's quality: the unmistakable personal voice. The writer who lacks this may have many virtues, but is likely to be forgotten because a common voice suggests common observation.
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Автор: Лебедева Е. А., доцент кафедры языкознания и иностранных языков Ростовского