21 AUGUST 1982, Page 24

Fair play

David Williams

The Literary Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society Laurence Lerner (Haryester Press £18.95)

Here Professor Lerner collects trine excellent pieces about how good i1 aginative writing comes to be written. They don't slip down smoothly. Lerner thinks hard and expects his readers to be up there alongside him, keeping up and sweating it out. I read the first one, 'The Determinants of Literary Work', reclining on a sort of palanquin in my garden and nodded oil Waking up I went at it again and got profit. Tradition, individual and society, he sub' gests, are the three factors determining how a piece of writing comes out, but concedes that trinitarianism is losing ground at Pre: sent to the doctrine of the prime mover, an ° that the prime mover must be society. The, individual is only specific 'within the social forms of his time and place' he reminds us' quoting Raymond Williams, but reminds us also, further on, that Dickens is a difficult horse to coax into a single-entrance starting-stall. Lerner, in fact, is a sensible' middle-ground man; he refuses to be ab" solute and speak by the card; he shows II° alarm at the prospect of being undone by equivocation. He says in his preface that his essaYs `are.. concerned with the points where theory and particularity meet...' e recognises that much theorising and strait' jacketing has gone on since — arbitrarily t° put a date on it — Quiller-Couch became the first Professor of English Literature (t11 1912) that the University of Cambridge ever had, and he states quite clearly where he stands on the business of 'schools' and `theories'. `... I care passionately about literature, and strongly about interpreting it, but I do not greatly care about taking LIP a rigid theoretical position from which t° do so. Hence the pluralism that is implicit all through the book, and explicit in the first essay.'

This is a safe and sensible watchtower

Position from which to survey with your binoculars the battleground of words going on all round you. After your tour of duty is over you can report back to base on what You have observed with less chance of hav- ing mud on you? face or of having to pick bits of shrapnel out of your frail flesh. Pro- fessor Lerner can type up his final sentence and know that when he turns round to face Possible hostility nobody is going to be able to make a monkey out of him.

He has a better linguistic range than most literary critics writing in English. He has Plenty of interesting things to say for exam- Ple about Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) the Berlin novelist who is little read here but Who is none the less the best of German novelists ( and I'm not forgetting the long, low rumblings of Thomas Mann). And he is excellent on Moliere of whom few English writers (and I'm not forgetting George Meredith in his 'Essay on Comedy') have Much to say that is at all apt. Lerner thinks of Moliere as 'all structure, all situation, and linguistically blank' — which gets pret- ty close to him (yet 'Vous l'avez voulu, Georges Dandin' has somehow lasted on, though I can't think why).

He has a splendid piece which he calls ,

The Bourgeois Imagination'. In this there's a beautifully subtle analysis of Blake's London poem CI wander thro' each chartered street'). What he has to say about the third stanza particularly (about the chimney-sweeper's cry) is stunningly revelatory. But it does bring up the basic question one so often finds oneself obliged to ask when reading Lerner: are his poets and novelists as clever, as subtle and as Perceptive as he is? This is a general ques- tion I'd want to pit not only to Lerner but to large numbers of current academic critics. Are all the instinctive creators (Shakespeare supremely, Blake too) busy scratching their transfigured heads up there as they read the modern commentaries, and are they turning to their mates and saying: bid I mean all this? Was I this clever? Do We have a sort of divine accident situation here?'

, The proof-reading in this book is very ,und — shockingly so really because it con- trasts so sharply with the brilliance and acuteness of what Lerner has to say. But don't be put off by this. Here is a sensitive and observant student of literature who tonics before and after before he puts 1OYthing down on paper and never gets drunk on theory. He's also wonderfully lair-minded. How gently for example he deflates that stupendously boring, one- , track-minded Marxist Lukacs: `...1 do not believe Lukacs has the facts right...' No, in- deed. If Lerner had just come from a re- reading (if he could bear this) of what Lukacs has to say about Scott in his The Historical Novel he might have re-phrased his sentence more trenchantly. But Lerner Prefers always to keep his cool — and his insights. 'Dickens has the opinions of a reformer, but the imagination of despair.' Quite so.