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Made in (20th Century) England: Curtis White

Highlights from Issue 26: i>The U.K. Issue

Top (L) Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley / Bottom (L) Graham Greene, Ford Madox Ford

ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEVIN CHRISTY

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

By Curtis White

For more information on the U.K. Issue, click here


A reading course demonstrating that the greatest period in the history of the English novel was between 1925 and 1975 could be easily constructed, but it would consist almost entirely of writers whom you’ve never heard of, or who are rarely spoken of anymore, or when they are spoken of are dismissed as being of no particular use ideologically (i.e., they lack the cleverness of being post-colonial). What I particularly like about this period is just how English the novels are. They are obsessed with two stereotypically English qualities: sensual frigidity and faith in the powers of reason. I’d like to divide the writers of this period into three groups. The novelists in the first group seem to be sunning in a post-Nietzschean refusal of British coldness; the writers in the second group seem to have come to comfortable terms with their Englishness; and the writers in the last group seem to have experienced the eternal return of the same, and with a vengeance. They are mad with the contradictions of being English, a madness that is driven down into the formal qualities of the work.

Before I proceed, an observation on the English novel after 1975. It is as spare and starved as its American counterpart, at least as realized through mainstream corporate publishing. There may be works of genius in some hidden stream, but I have to confess that I don’t know about them if they do exist. Of the work that has been visible to us on these shores, the outstanding figure is clearly Martin Amis. Amis’s strange contribution has been to turn technical brilliance into an expression of self-contempt. Amis stands on the shoulders of giants but only in order to capture the last rays of the setting sun of literary fame. His intuition that the novel must now be willing to share its stage with scandal and celebrity is a depressing acknowledgment of how our cultures have changed.

But on with my history.

The novelists that I identify with the first part of this period were in revolt against English coldness and rationality. Theirs was an appeal for life over coldness, instinct over reason, and a healthy human sensuality. These novelists include Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier), Aldous Huxley (Point Counter Point) and Henry Green (Concluding).

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915 — I cheat a bit) is reputedly an expression of annoyance with Henry James’s novels of innocence, as in The Wings of the Dove with its fragile, naive heroine, Milly Theale. Ford’s take on James seems to be, “No one has the right to such innocence. An innocence that extreme is just stupid. And stupidity in a human context is provision for disaster.” The novel’s narrator, Dowell, is the English type of intelligent, calm reflection, except that he gets everything really wrong. Most dramatically, he fails to perceive that his wife is not an invalid as she claims, but that her illness is just a pretext for not having sex with her husband while she debauches his friend, Ashburnham. Dowell’s frigidity drives his wife to a desperate sensuality that ultimately destroys her and those around her. All of which is lost on Dowell, who concludes limply that “it’s all a darkness.” A work of comic, satiric genius.

In Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928), the Nietzschean themes are prominent. As Philip Quarles (Huxley’s alter-ego) says in a passage that could be taken directly from The Genealogy of Morals, “One should be loyal to one’s tastes and instincts. What’s the good of a philosophy with a major premise that isn’t the rationalization of your feelings.” It’s parallels like this that have pigeonholed Huxley as a “novelist of ideas.” But what’s wonderful about Huxley’s characters is their complex humanity. These are not talking barnyard animals. The Lady Edward Tantamount, for example, has married the arid biologist Lord Tantamount for money and social prestige, but she screws the painter Walter Bidlake like a confirmed sybarite. She lives for the elite gratification of her evening parties, to which only the best people are invited, but the only pleasure she seems to take is in subtly mocking the pretensions of her guests. Better yet, she sees through the dangerous fascist Webley in a moment, commenting, “He wants to be treated as though he were his own colossal statue, erected by an admiring and grateful nation.” To discover the early work of Aldous Huxley is to remember why you loved novels in the first place.

 

Most of Henry Green’s novels are short masterpieces. His novel Concluding (1948) is so good that I wish we were still allowed to talk about literary canons, because this novel belongs in one. Concluding is set at a country boarding school, where a retired scientist, Mr. Rock (“an old man in love with his goose”) and his adult granddaughter Elizabeth engage in a comic and cosmic duel with the school’s spinster governess, Miss Edge. While ordinary disaster threatens from all sides — a girl is missing and is feared drowned in a bog, there’s a plot to have old Mr. Rock evicted from his cottage, Elizabeth seems only a step from madness, and the school itself may be closed because of administrative incompetence — the real drama is bubbling beneath the surface in a struggle with repressed sexual desire. In one scene at the end, old man Rock is led by one of the girls toward a secret basement meeting-place where the other girls are preparing something. Something naughty. Something naughty between sex-starved teenage girls and an old man. And yet the feeling we’re left with at the novel’s end is a positive one, as if we’ve been shown what it might feel like to be free and happy in our human bodies.

In the middle of my three groups are those writers more at peace with their Englishness, Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory) and C.P. Snow (Strangers and Brothers).

About Greene I don’t have to say much since he’s still well-known. His masterpiece The Power and the Glory (1940) is not only an engrossing tale of the famous renegade “whiskey priest,” but it is deeply insightful about the values that unite Marxism and Christianity. Also, it would be criminal not to acknowledge that Greene, in collaboration with Carol Reed, helped to raise postwar English cinema to an astonishing height of artistic accomplishment in The Third Man.

A more controversial selection here is C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers (1938-1973). Snow is mostly remembered for his controversial essay on the “two cultures,” science and literature. This is like remembering Tolstoy for his essays on the Russian peasantry, and, oh, by the way, he also wrote this little number called Anna Karenina. Snow is, to be sure, an old-school novelist. No one has ever mistaken him for an experimentalist. His lifetime devotion to the novel as a sustained study of moral decision-making has no equal except in the work of Henry James. But what Snow dared to do is of Proustian ambition: a single work consisting of 11 novels written over 35 years. To read Snow is to sigh at the recognition that an old valued friend, the realist novel in its most accomplished form, is dead.

My last group of writers was overwhelmed by English coldness. They were made mad by their desire and the impossibility of its healthy realization. Sadly, this madness was all too real in their actual lives. Ann Quin (Three) and B.S. Johnson (House Mother Normal) both committed suicide.

Ann Quin was a force so original that she seemed to have no antecedents at all. (Maybe Djuna Barnes or a deranged Virginia Woolf.) Three (1966) is the story of an utterly parch-dry, unhappy couple, Leon and Ruth, who hate each other’s guts. Into the care of this damaged example of English marriage comes the young, vulnerable girl identified only as S. An intense but vague sexuality acts among the three. Weirdly, they are surrounded by statues left behind by Leon’s father. They float “between statues, like some ghost longing to take on human form.” Terrifying and gorgeous.

Finally, B.S. Johnson’s House Mother Normal: A Geriatric Comedy (1971). Johnson’s most notorious novel guides us through a stream-of-consciousness presentation of eight aged residents in a post-war nursing home. The residents are introduced to us in declining degrees of mental acuity, concluding with one Rosetta Stanton, 94, most of whose pages are blank. Their day consists of doing black-market slave work diluting liquor and pasting up “fancy goods,” playing a game of “pass the parcel” (the prize in the parcel is a turd from the House Mother’s dog, Ralphie), jousting with mops, and, finally, witnessing the House Mother’s impromptu burlesque, at the end of which she bares her crotch to the “probing red Borzoi tongue” of Ralphie. Grim, unhinged and, as advertised, funny.

Even those who accept my suggestion that the greatest period of the English novel was between 1925 and 1975 will quibble with my choices. No Orwell, no Maugham, no Waugh, no Donleavy, no Nicholas Mosley, no Anthony Burgess. And, it should go without saying, I have omitted Virginia Woolf who is for me, as they say of the most audacious mountain climbs in the Tour de France, haut categorie, in a class of her own along with Shakespeare, Dickens, Proust and ever so precious few. One way or the other, reviewing this period allows us to see the last time the novel mattered as a shaper of national consciousness. These writers were scientists, political servants, government ministers, journalists, and political activists. They did not teach creative writing at distant state universities marooned in something called the Heartland. Frighteningly, many of these writers (Henry Green, Huxley, Quin, Mosley) are kept in print in the U.S. only through the efforts of small presses, like the Dalkey Archive. Buy these books while you still can.

*****

Curtis White is the author of the novels Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem, as well as the non-fiction The Middle Mind. He teaches creative writing at a state university marooned in the Heartland. He is also one of the founding members of the Dalkey Archive press.

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