15 OCTOBER 1954, Page 18


Compton Mackenzie

WHEN Sir Harold Nicolson declared recently that the novel was dead my telephone for the next few days suggested that I should presently be called as a witness in a murder trial and that if I were not very careful what I said I might even find myself in the dock beside Sir Harold Nicolson as an accomplice . . . Burke and Hare, Browne and Kennedy, Milsom and Fowler . . . Nicolson and Mackenzie. . . . I took comfort from the fact that a couple of trisyllables did not provide the authentic ring of words for a classic pair of murderers.

' While I would not say that the novel is dead yet, I often wonder whether anybody will be writing novels fifty years from now.'

Then as I held the receiver pusillanimity would manifest itself.

' No, I'd rather you didn't quote me as saying that. I really don't want to be dragged into this argument.'

And if I did not possess an exigent conscience I would not let myself be dragged into it now. However, honesty compels me to stand beside Sir Harold Nicolson and confess that I share his doubt whether the novel will survive as a form of literary expression for more than fifty years.

I heard recently. one of the Third Programme critics, whom. I propose to call Tertium Quidnuncs or Tertiaries because ' highbrow' is now too debased a coin for verbal currency, proclaim (if proclaim be the right verb for the voice of the Tertiary who too often talks as Agag walked) that today criticism was a more significant form of literary expression than creation, the implication being that the quality of con- temporary criticism compensated for the lack of it in creative work. I would argue that an accomplished mediocrity is as much the mark of most criticism as it is of the great majority of novels today. However, until about 1890 the great majority of novels were so positively bad that by the beginning of this century a literary seer might have been excused for prophesy- ing the death of the novel by now. I do not base my belief in the death of the novel on its merits or demerits now or in the future. I think it will be killed by circumstance. With all respect to the Tertiaries I submit that the function of the novel is to entertain by the representation of life. If this sounds too banal an ambition I shall fall back for justification on Aristotle who believed that poetry originated in humanity's instinct for imitation and in the enjoyment people always took in representation as such. Aristotle was unable to apply analysis to the novel because the novel did not exist in his time, but it is reasonably safe to maintain that if it had he would have demanded for it something of what he demanded for tragedy and something of what he discerned in comedy. The first demand was for a story or mythos (myth), and it is noteworthy that the mythopoeic faculty is as characteristic of modern as of ancient Greece. The novel is not less funda- mentally based upon the story, and there may be a consciousness at the back of the minds of the novelist and the dramatist today that, while they have not yet been super- seded completely as entertainers, the competition is growing more formidable all the time. I cannot imagine that fifty years from now, when lifesize, coloured stereoscopic television is a commonplace and travel at a thousand miles an hour is taken as much for granted as a motorbus, people are going to derive the slightest pleasure from floating down the stream of consciousness in a novel. I noticed that one or two of those who rallied .to the support of the novel disowned its old-fashioned reliance on a story and pinned their faith in its survival to a Tertiary Period for the novel in which it would have emerged from the primeval ooze of story-telling. That a good many people will try to escape from the bewildering world of the future by taking refuge in reading is my confident hope, but if that is their object they will not want- to read novels about the world they are trying to avoid; they will read about the past in works of the past. I cannot imagine any child born about 2000AD nourishing his fancy with tales and growing up to weave them for others when the world is at his elbow from the cradle. Besides the Tertiaries who took the chance of putting a foot on the old-fashioned notion that the job of a novel was to tell a story by arguing that the novel would survive by ceasing to be a novel, the poets sailed in to argue that poetry would take the place of the novel. I was reminded of the days of the London Mercury thirty years ago when the Georgian poets entered into a carnivorous pact to devour not novels but novelists.

However, before they had managed to digest and eliminate even one novelist they were themselves devoured by their poetic successors. Whether Euterpe will ever return to inspire lyric verse I shall not speculate, but I cannot believe that the tormented cerebration ,of modern poetry will develop into a form durable enough to take the place of the novel. Indeed, if poetry continue on its present lines it may expire before the novel by cutting its own communications.

And why should we expect the novel to be immortal when epic verse, Greek tragedy, Elizabethan drama, and so many other great manifestations of art have been killed by material progress ? The novel, which has endured for two centuries because it has been able to grapple with the ever-growing complication of external circumstance more successfully than the drama or narrative verse, will in its turn succumb to that complication. Moreover, the favoured place in entertainment it once shared with the drama has been taken from it. If the modern stage and the films that ruined the old stage cannot survive the competition of television in the future, why should the novel be able to survive it ? Even the miserable fidgety little blue contraption being gazed at today is already a menace to reading in the United States.

Meanwhile, is the novel holding its own with other reading material ? Publishing statistics indicate that it is and the danger to its popularity from works of travel, scissors-and- paste reminiscence and palatable biography does not seem to me more serious today that it has been at any time during the last fifty years. I think that too many novels are published but that opinion may be inspired by an instinctive dread of the market's being flooded by those in the same line of business as myself. There wefe often moments when I was reviewing six books a week for five years without a single week off, in which I groaned at the torrent of new novels pouring across my desk; vithen I was on the advisory committee of the Book Society I used to wish fervently that fewer novels should be written and play with the notion of inventing a contraceptive fountain-pen. That mood, however, was a passing fatigue. I know perfectly well that novels have been published for nearly 200 years on the principle pursued by fish in depositing their roe and that there have always been thousands of novels published for one to survive. No critio can feel secure of his ability to recognise a book's life of its own: time is the only judge. I look at a publisher's list of forty years ago and I read of a novel by Miss which The Times declares to be ' worth keeping on the shelves, even by the classics, for it is painted in colours which do not fade.

Today a mere handful of readers would remember even the name of that novel or of its author. The pages of forgotten novels will lie as thick as autumnal leaves at the end of this year as they have lain at the end of every year for a couple of centuries. I believe that the novel will ultimately die not because it is exhausted as a literary form but because it will seem less worth fighting for than higher literary forms when the future, of literature itself is threatened.