Gods That Failed B y MALCOLM BRADBURY T HERE are a number
of instances of works of art being rewritten after their first appear- ance and their acceptance by the critical public.
Thus Evelyn Waugh has recently been making minor changes to his novels, while Auden's con- siderable revisions of his early poems, radically altering their perspective, have been a critical
cause celebre. For if such revisions are grist to the mill of the literary scholar, they are apt to disturb the literary critic. Modern criticism has
tended towards two assumptions: that the work of art has its whole existence on the printed Page, where it forms a self-sustaining whole; and that the work of art represents a determined, ideal order of words, is not paraphrasable. Such views assume that there is a unity in the single, published artistic experience which can be identi- fied by the critic. But valuable as such assump- tions are, they don't always coincide with the experience of writers, who are more likely to feel that by the very nature of the artistic process nothing they do is totally 'whole.'
Why might an author wish to change a work of art? Apart from any dissatisfaction with its competence, he might have undergone a conver- sion of views which he wishes to represent in all his work; he might feel capable of extending its scope; or he might wish to universalise, from an objectivity gained through the passage of time, Work that has emerged from, a particular histori- cal context. Ignazio Silone, now engaged in re- writing some of his novels, seems to have the
last-mentioned motive. Two of his rewritten books from the 1930s, Bread and Wine and The School for Dictators, have just appeared,* with revealing prefaces. Silone is, of course, a political novelist of great quality. His perspective is that of a socialist liberal humanitarianism with strong religious, and strong agrarian, overtones.
In the Bread and Wine preface, Silone com- ments that *the writer moved by a strong sense
of social responsibility is exposed more than anyone else to the temptation to exaggeration, the theatrical, the romantic, and the purely ex- ternal description of things, while the events in the inner life of the characters are what count
in literary works.' That last remark doesn't, of course, fit every case; it certainly doesn't fit The School for Dictators. Both of these novels were, and remain, political novels. Bread and Wine deals with human beings in a particular histori-
cal situation, their lives and standards being determined throughout by that situation; by
laying rather less stress on the situation and More on the human response, the book can, and has been, 'universalised,' but remains essentially Political. The School for Dictators is a political
novel of ideas, with abstract characters engaged Ill debate standing for well-defined points of view; here the ideas can be, and have been, made more abstract--but also more topical. Political novels? Well, we are being told more and more that all novels are 'political,' and so !hey are to the political critic. But these are novels 'n which political organisations and ideas play a
large part, in which the- characters are defined Politically and in which their movements and connections with others are based upon political duties and political affinities. The hero of Bread BREAD AND WINE. By Ignazio Silone. Translated 01, Harvey Ferguson II. (Gollanez, 21s.) THE SCHOOL FOR DICTATORS. By lgnazio Silone, translated by William Weaver. '(Gollancz, 21s.) and Wine is a socialist revolutionary, returning to Italy in disguise at a clearly defined historical period, that of the outbreak of the Ethiopian war. The three debaters in The School for Dictators, the would-be American fascist Mr. Double You, his aide Professor Pickum, and their European mentor Thomas the Cynic, are linked by a single interest. But Silone is also a political ironist, and in a sense both these novels are concerned with political disillusion.
So it is that his Thomas the Cynic, the nearest thing to a hero in the cogent, witty and thoroughly politically aware debates of The School for Dictators, can only assert, against the totalitarianism he describes as virtually an in- evitable consequence of modern mass-society: 'I don't believe that the honest man is forced to submit to history.' It is a comment that moves out of the political context altogether (Thomas is an effective exile) towards the notion of the few eternal free spirits who alone give man hope. Silone has always tended to comprehend and understand urban cosmopolitanism, and this gives his book their vastness; but having in- cluded it, he can only retreat into a sophisticated liberal agrarianism. In this sense, Pietro Spina in Bread and Wine constitutes his essential modern hero. Spina's success is not in his ability to prevent history, but simply in his ability to fuse dialectically two ideas.
The novel concludes when a girl named Cristina, devout and intending to become a nun, follows the fleeing Spina on to a mountain- side and becomes an emblematic sacrifice, being devoured by wolves. It is an odd but assertive ending; Spina is shown to us as finally heroic because he is able to command such a sacrifice from such a person. It is, however, a mystical success. Spina's mild triumph has been built upon all the ironies of the situation of the liberal humanist hero in the modern world of mass- democracy and totalitarianism. He may not, is unlikely to, succeed, because politics, though significant, works against humanity. As Brian Cox points out in The Free Spirit, disillusion- ment with political action, and deep fascination with it, are common themes in the liberal human- ist novel.
The danger of the liberal humanist viewpoint is that, in its openness, it offers room to those who would destroy it; it demands that men act always in good will, but this is so rarely forth- coming as to suggest the viewpoint is a radical delusion about the nature of man. So, as Thomas the Cynic indicates, liberal democracy can be a step on the way to mass-society totalitarianism. Many writers have examined this irony; Silone is among the most successful. He is, in these novels, a Forster of the 1930s, capable of writing with lyricism, poetry and mystical intensity be- cause he retains a deep faith in the countryside and in the impulse of a few men towards noble defiance in the tradition of early Christianity. His irony must run deep; but it is not total. His cast of mind turns him, as it has turned others, towards a recognition of the role of literature itself in the humane endeavour; his novels are part of the testament. That is why they are important, because literary concern and in- tensity have entered into their making; this is why he has chosen to rewrite them and regard them as of continuing relevance. It is good to have them available again.