A reply to Professor Plumb
PERSONAL COLUMN MARTIN SEYMOUR-SMITH
In an article whose enthusiasm for literature is infectious, Professor Plumb suggested in these columns last week that good fiction in western Europe, but particularly in Great Britain, is on the way out. 'Yet at that time,' he writes of the early 'thirties, 'what a feast of fiction there was . ..; and he sees the fact that the sales of non-fiction have now surpassed those of fiction as symptomatic; 'there is a sense,' he says, 'that fiction is losing its position ... its authority.' There is much less, he feels, to be excited about.
I should like to challenge this pessimistic view; but not without conceding several of the points Professor Plumb makes or implies. Society is more opportunistic than it was thirty years ago, if only because there are more people, more machines and much more extensive mass media. Dedication to 'are and to the humanistic tradition seems old-fashioned, and the change has not been easy to accept. The general reader is on the whole less well-informed: he tends to read popular accounts of the classics where once he read the originals. He is more superficially fashionable. Furthermore, the cult of the new is frequently superficial, too: the literature of the past, and the work of those who continue to write competently in its tradition, is often under- valued or—worse still—ignored.
But literature still thrives. No one is as ex- cited in their fifties as they were in their twen- ties, partly because they are more critical. If Professor Plumb re-read Proust now he would probably find that his 'involutions' were less 'ornate than he thought they were in 1930; but I doubt if he would find the prose of Richard Aldington as sharply 'acid' as he then did. And he might well find that Faulkner would not 'die' on him as he then did (I have had the same experience myself).
To take up a few of the points he makes against contemporary literature's power to ex- cite. Who would 'exchange' Colette for Sagan? Who would want to? Who would have com- pared Colette with Ethel M. Dell? One might as well condemn all modern British drama be- cause Harold Pinter is not Shakespeare's equal. Surely it is an idiosyncratic view that Simenon is 'the novelist of greatest talent and potential in Europe'? But to say that 'he wastes his genius in crime stories' is to miss the point. Without crime Simenon's genius can seldom operate at full power. As for 'a renaissance in Russia,' for which Professor Plumb hopes, how can we tell what is going on in Russia? More vital creative work is coming out of America, both north and south, than anywhere else because pressures of all sorts are more severe—but censorship is relatively light or non-existent. In Russia it is absolute—but we have still had Dr Zhivago, which certainly compares with, probably excels, any works by Professor Plumb's 'giants of the 'thirties,' Gide and Roger Martin du Gard.
However, the chief weakness of Professor Plumb's position—and it is one shared by many readers—lies in his view of the nature of fiction, which is a static one. It is 'symbolic,' in the term he uses of Camus's abandonment of fic- tion, that he has not mentioned Joyce as among his early enthusiasms, that he should have con- fined his reading of criticism to weekly reviews (thus largely missing Eliot, Empson, Burke, to mention only three), and that he should in- accurately speak of North American fiction as 'eschewing the outrageous experimentation and dilettante amateurism that mars so much of the fiction of Western Europe.'
This attitude, with which anyone brought up on good novels written in a realistic or natural- istic tradition must have some sympathy, ignores the simple fact that literature develops. It may not progress in the sense that its quality im- proves, but, as knowledge expands and human beings become more knowing, it must change. Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel, as Professor Plumb rightly points out, brilliantly accounts for the differences between a book such as Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller and Fielding's Tom Jones. But the breaking-down of class- barriers, the work of Freud and his suc- cessors, and the failure of politicians to catch up with these developments—to name only three factors—mean that it is no longer pos- sible to write novels like Middlemarch and achieve the same large-scale effects. The best novelists know too much to try. Professor Plumb alludes to James Gould Cozzens as a 'major' novelist. But his best-selling By Love Possessed—if not his earliest work—provides an excellent example of just bow feeble over- ambitious attempts to achieve total realism can be. Dwight Macdonald has demonstrated the inadequacies, and worse, of this novel in his deadly essay By Cozzens Possessed. Competent novels written in the realistic tradition tend to be more modest and more limited in their range.
Henry Miller, a great educationist, chose as epigraph to Tropic of Cancer the following re- markable quotation from Emerson : 'The novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experi- ence, and how to record truth truly.'
Men and women are now trying to find out 'how to choose,' and we should not quibble too much about whether they call their books novels or autobiographies. For all fiction may now legiti- mately be seen as disguised autobiography— and much that has previously passed as auto- biography may now be seen as fiction. We have had to call into question many of the concepts that underlay the traditional novel, which we can now see existed in spite of itself, and owed its vitality to intuition and imagination more than to the consciously held philosophies of those who produced it. Of course there is much 'outrageous experimentation and dilettante amateurism'; but then there always has been— the real problem in a transitional age, when experimentation is inevitable, when the forms
of fiction are totally unstable, is not to be boring.
Alain Robbe-Grillet is an important theorist, whose violently behaviouristic objections to the anthropocentricity of 'realist' fiction are bound to bear fruit, however they may mislead readers into false dismissals of past and even present literature. But his own fiction is a model for his critical theories, and I for one find it exquisitely boring; he seems to come to life only when he is breaking his own rules, as when in a piece called The Dressmaker's Dummy he speaks of an owl's eyes, in a tile-design, as being 'almost frightening.' However, Nathalie Sar- raute, of an older generation, and also the author of formidable critical statements about fiction, is never boring. Nor was Louis-Ferdin- and Cdline, whose books belong to the 'sixties and not to the 'thirties when (mostly) they were written. Pierre Klossowski's trilogy, Les Lois de l'hospitalite, can bore only those who would be shocked by its theme, who cannot in their reading come to terms with their own vital inner life of dreams and desires: this is a work that rejects the deliberately psychopathic ele- ment in de Sade, but fascinatingly develops his theme of the existentially 'free' man.
There is a distressingly solemn element in the Gallic literary temperament, which can lead readers to ignore what such writers as Robbe- Grillet, or the often insufferably pompous critic Roland Barthes, have to say. (We miss here the laughter of Henry Miller; but in Miller's Ameri- can style of inchoateness we miss, of course, any trace of Gallic intellectual power.) How- ever, not all French humour is on the level of Pierre Daninos's Maior Thompson books: Sar- raute for one can be extremely funny, and so could Georges Bataille in his capacity as pseudo- pornographer. And L'Histoire dO, by 'Pauline Reage,' is surely not shocking once the reader has realised that it is, as well as revealing about human sexual make-up, relaxedly comic.
In America, neither Bellow nor Malamud- whom Professor Plumb admires—is dull. But nor are they realists. If, on the other hand, John Barth in Giles Goat Boy is dull, then this is because in trying to be self-consciously contem- porary and avant-garde he has recklessly and without sufficient thought returned to the struc- tureless exuberance of Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller. South America. the home of Jorge Luis Borges, Professor Plumb does not even mention; but is there any more sheerly exciting writer in the world? And there are many others from the same continent.
In Great Britain, admittedly, there is more promise than performance in the new genre that tries to describe what really happens in dis- tinction to what seems to happen. And because this has become an orthodoxy in France, it is no longer very stimulating—British writers need to look in the direction of Spain (Cela, for example) and, in particular, Latin America.
But the climate for experimentation is not made any easier by readers resolutely refusing to go beyond the third page of any novel that is not wholly explicit . . . This attitude, as well as charlatanism—which has always been with us —must take its share of the responsibility.
However, there are perhaps half a dozen or so British novelists of genuine promise, and this kind of talent will eventually absorb influences from Europe and America—instead of merely imitating them: the old, 'solid' novel cannot survive; but it is in the process of turning into something just as vital. And the successful writers will still be the ones with, above all, intuition and imagination.