Trouncing the Literary Lads
AFTER THE WAR: THE NOVEL AND ENGLAND SINCE 1945 by D. J. Taylor Chatto, £17.99, pp. 310 Journalism, like everything else, has its fashions. In the 1970s, for instance, the hippest thing you could do, hack-wise, was to write about pop music — preferably for the New Musical Express. In the Eighties, anyone worth their Italian sea salt was a style guru (whatever that was) — prefer- ably for The Face. And in the Nineties, sur- prisingly, the wildest thing a poor boy can do is review books for The Spectator and the Sunday Times. It says something about me — probably something really horrible, such as that deep down I'm pretty shallow — that I've done all these things for all these journals at all these times.
But try as I might, my age (advanced) and my gender (not quite right, somehow) will forever keep me clear of the epicentre of the latest louche clutch of lounge lizards to sweep café society, the Literary Lads. In the Soho rooms they come and go, talking of Michelangelo (the teenage mutant turtle, not the painter), drinking more than seems humanly possible and chasing beau- tiful young women who work at the Inde- pendent — truly, it is their time. And, of course, they're outrageous, these Toms, Nicks and Harrys — they hate novels!
Imagine! It's just like when we punky rockers used to boast that we hated music! So obvious, so brilliant; yet when I say 'novels' I should specify the post-War English novel, above all. Especially loathed are the monstrous regiment: O'Brien, Brookner, Byatt, Drabble, all those mopey women mooching around after men. There is a sort of Literary Lad look, upon hearing of a new Brookner novel, which is the Oxbridge equivalent of 'All she needs is a right good .. Strangely, literature has become the one area of creative endeavour in which a critic can say, 'They don't make them like they used to', and not be written off as an uncool old fogey, but instead be welcomed as a groovy, clear-eyed, modern boy. D. J. Taylor is not strictly an LL — he's married, and he rather charmingly dedicates every book he writes to his wife — but he pitches this line louder and better than any of
them. His relationship to the LLs is some- thing akin to that which John Rotten's was to the hoi polloi of punk; aloof, authorita- tive, absolute. The initials have it; no one calls this boy 'Dave' and lives to dine out on it.
He has been D. J. since he first appeared in 1989, still in his twenties, with the bril- liant polemic, A Vain Conceit, which gave the British novel a right good kicking even if it was about ten pages long. Now he is back with a proper sized book about how there aren't any great characters or big ideas in the British novel anymore. Between A Vain Conceit and this one, he wrote a novel with no great characters or big ideas in it. But let's not mention that.
This is a great book. Without even open- ing this book I knew I was going to love it. For the past 15 years or so, men have been scolding me for only reading detective nov- els. My argument that I did my highbrow reading, including all of Nabokov, before the age of consent cut no ice with them whatsoever. But now I know that I was right and they were wrong, because what passes for the English literary novel is just a load of old toot which doesn't even fulfil the first duty of literature — to create great, believable characters. Think about it: when you last finished an Edna O'Brien book, did you think 'Oh, sod it! That's the last I'll ever see of Siobhan/Maire/Caitlin! Oh, what a barren wasteland my life will be from now on!' No, you didn't. And the same goes for Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes — with knobs on.
In fact, re-reading the Sherlock Holmes stories recently, I was struck by the fact that though the plots are complete and utter twaddle — 'The Engineer's Thumb' deserves a particular mention as very prob- ably the most slapdash story ever written, though 'Charles Augustus Milverton' and 'The Blue Carbuncle' are almost as bad — the characterisation is brilliant, especially 'Call me that again and I'll take you to the Race Relations Tribunal!' with reference to Holmes' cocaine addic- tion and Watson's painful, shameless wor- ship of the great man. The same is true of Christie and Poirot (brilliant portrayal of a celibate obsessive), Allingham and Campi- on (dazzling analysis of the smart set between the wars) and Sayers and Wimsey (Lord Peter's pursuit of the clever, bitter Harriet Vane marks him out as the first New Man in literature.) What does it say about the current state of novel-writing that the supposedly 'cheap' genre novels of the past contain more memorable charac- ters in one murder mystery than you can find in the entire canon of most contempo- rary 'literary' novelists? Something a bit scary, I'd say.
And so does Mr Taylor, in no uncertain terms. He has been dressed down else- where, by a selection of toothless wonders, for being a namby-pamby Oxbridge babe, but I found him quite staggeringly robust and populist, sometimes a bit too much so. When writing of Lady Glencora Palliser's reaction to her brother-in-law's proposed marriage to Madame Max Goesler,
What a blow it would be, should some little wizen-cheeked half-monkey baby, with a black brow and yellow skin be brought for- ward and shown to her some day as the heir!
Taylor calls this 'an understandable human reaction'. Where I come from, some people would call it filthy, mindless racism.
Elsewhere, Mr Taylor displays a great many attitudes that would warm the heart of the great Sir David English. He speaks warmly of Little Man novels; he has a nice old go at Amis Minor (very minor):
Keith Talent . . . is not 'real' even in the sense that a Dickensian grotesque is real: always in a novel like London Fields you are aware of the author running into the room to arrange the furniture before the characters arrive.
He takes a tilt at Salman Rushdie — 'tired and petulant' — for his refusal to under- stand exactly why so many ordinary, decent people voted for the Divine Margaret; and in a moment of rather rash self-exposure, tells us that he voted Labour in 1983 while secretly wishing them to lose. If only our knee-jerking anti-Thatcher novelists had displayed such emotional honesty — over, say, their own very real desire for success and wealth — then at least one decent Thatcher's Britain novel might have been written.
Occasionally Mr Taylor's determination to provide such a detailed account of British social history as he does can cause the reader to lose his drift; rest assured that if he does, Mr Taylor will find it for him. It's a bit boring at times, and he does seem to make a point of telling you loads of things about writers you've never heard of and don't think much of when you do, but on the whole After the War has sent me back to my murder mysteries with a sense of renewed vigour and righteousness. And in my book, you can't ask much more from literature than that.