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A hundred years of fiction: 1896 to 1996.

Throughout 1996 Contemporary Review has featured a series on 'The English Novel in the Twentieth Century'. The series, has ranged widely throughout the century dealing with authors as diverse as D. H. Lawrence, Barbara Pym, and Kingsley Amis. In the opening article in the series I commented that 'the only rule in the writing of fiction is that there are no rules.' Standing now however at the end of this series, this year and indeed almost of this century, it is pleasant to look back and see what has happened to the English novel in this century of unrest.

Henry James was the most influential author in the transition from the nineteenth century novel to that of the twentieth century. From The Spoils of Poynton (1896), to The Golden Bowl (1904) his novels revealed a startling awareness of psychological motivation and unconscious forces within the individual which had a powerful and continuing effect on the writers who followed him for the next hundred years.

Before James, the great tradition of the English novel was marked by vivid creations of scenes and characters - stalwart heroes, rogues, social climbers, high-spirited girls and eccentric old women. Although the English novel has never entirely broken away from this rich material, after Henry James there was a marked change in emphasis. Early twentieth century novelists became less interested in character as such. They shifted their attention to the images and preoccupations which govern the inner lives of the individual. Thus the modern novel took a poetic leap in an entirely new direction.

Aside from the influence of James (either direct or indirect) the reasons for this change are complex and varied. Partly because of the Industrial Revolution the idea of a personal destiny became almost insignificant and people began to absorb less from their environment because their environment was changing so rapidly. Then the First World War shattered the English emotional climate and left the nation disillusioned and disorientated. The novels of that period reflected this collective malaise and authors began to look inward.

This inwardness does not imply self-consciousness, but rather the belief in the unique significance of every individual life. This attitude can be seen in James Joyce's novel, Ulysses (1922). In this masterly work the new subjective approach is carried so far that the reader finds himself almost continually in the minds of the protagonists. To accomplish this, Joyce invented his own technique - the stream-of-consciousness which was perhaps the most important innovation in modern literature.

In the novel the author explores the lives of two heroes: the idealistic, warm-hearted businessman Leopold Bloom and the weak, despairing poet Stephen Daedalus. In their momentous meeting, Joyce shows that despite a basic lack of communication, people of greatly different temperaments can draw strength from each other and achieve a sense of human recognition. The author suggests that this form of symbiosis is not only possible, but essential in a world in which basic human values have disintegrated.

Joyce uses the city of Dublin to create a microcosm of modern life and parallels the incidents of the Homeric legend to impose all outward structure on the flux of his characters' inner monologues. The author's achievement is not only his new subjective method, but also his construction of a strong framework which helps us to see his characters in a clear perspective.

D. H. Lawrence is a writer of that period who has become curiously difficult to assess now. There is great power in his work, but power which is often misdirected. For Lawrence it was only intense emotions which were really important. He wanted people to be primitively themselves which is often nearly impossible in civilised society. Yet because of his unique sensitivity he could describe natural scenes, animals, children and the primitive drives of love and hate between people with more intensity than any other writer of this century.

He was a genius, but he was also a tiresome and dogmatic writer who preached his personal philosophy with an intensity that was at once maddening and absurd. He wrote only one perfect novel: Sons and Lovers (1913), but many of his short stories are masterpieces. Despite the stridency of his writing, there is much to be said for his belief that if the deepest natural human impulses are thwarted, the whole superstructure of the personality will gradually crumble. The flaw in his philosophy is that he put little emphasis on reasoning power which is just as essential as our natural instincts.

In her own way Virginia Woolf was as much an innovator as James Joyce. She felt strongly that the traditional chronological novel could no longer present life as it really was. And so she strived to attain a style which could evoke fleeting images, fragments of dialogue, memories and sequences of thought which would come nearer to a new form of poetry than to prose.

In her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), she found the framework with which to hold together her impressionistic technique. By setting the action on one day in June in London in 1923 she created a tangible sense of time and space in which the characters could move freely while we learn about their lives. Her central character, Clarissa Dalloway, is a sensitive middle-aged woman with an acute awareness of the world around her, but she feels that she suffers from a basic froideur which has caused the failure of her relationships with her husband, her daughter and others. In fact she is not the cold conventional woman she thinks she is, but a complex character whose strongest qualities are her honesty and awareness of her own failures.

Virginia Woolf wrote several more novels of which To the Lighthouse (1927) is the most solid and moving, for it distils in fictional terms her own childhood and her destructive love-hate relationship with her father whom she describes in the novel as '. . . so brave a man in thought - so timid in life'. Woolf's imagination has an upward sweep which infuses her novels with a unique incandescence.

E. M. Forster who stopped writing fiction in 1924 was less experimental than some of his contemporaries. What was new in his novels was their emotional atmosphere and the moral predicaments of the characters. Using traditionally conceived plots, characterisations and ironic comedy, he presents his humanist philosophy through striking contrasts - between Italy and England, then India and England. In A Room With a View (1908) he dramatically contrasts soul-destroying English conventionality with normal physical passion. In Howard's End (1910) the crux of the novel and the major contrast is between illusion and truth. In each book the central character is pushed towards a momentous decision and a spiritual journey which sometimes leads to a lonely or disastrous destination.

In the 1920s E. M. Forster's gentle satire was replaced by the more biting wit of two novelists: Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh. In Chrome Yellow (1921) and Antic Hay (1923) Huxley revealed a sprightly satirical gift, a talent for caricature and an impressive erudition. He depicts the world of country houses and upper class Bohemia, showing how his characters' ideals usually fail to connect with the pointless lives they lead.

Evelyn Waugh's attitude to the same fashionable milieu is more ambivalent than Huxley's. Although he ridicules his characters for their shallowness, he also seems dazzled by their style and insouciance. In such novels as Decline and Fall (1928), and Vile Bodies (1930) Waugh presents a world of frantic amorality and cruelty. His form of black comedy, verging on hysteria, is symptomatic of a period in which society was so fragmented that life had become meaningless.

The disillusionment of the 1920s was revealed with lyrical beauty by Rosamond Lehmann in her spellbinding first novel Dusty Answer (1927) which became an international best-seller. The story of a young woman's painful transition from youth to maturity, it crystallised the emotions of the post-war generation and established Lehmann as one of the most original talents of her period. Her iridescent prose and insights into the nuances of romantic love became the hallmark of a succession of books which placed her in the first rank of English novelists.

Similar to Lehmann in themes and ambience, Elizabeth Bowen also made her mark in the late 1920s. With elegant wit and subtlety she explored the complexities of human relationships set against a formalised background in the menacing interwar years and she later produced one of our finest novels of wartime London, The Heat of the Day (1949).

While the novelists of the first twenty years of the century had turned away from social problems, those of the 1930s were forced to examine them. The financial depression, rising unemployment, the Spanish Civil War and the dangers of Fascism in Germany created a new climate of fear as the decade moved towards the Second World War.

Out of this atmosphere emerged the symbolic melodrama of which Graham Greene was a master. Such novels as Stamboul Train (1932) and Brighton Rock (1938) are variations on the traditional theme of the hunting down of a man. However Greene's books are not shown from the view of the hunter, but from that of the hunted man. These novels - crammed with gangsters, chases and murders - show his talent for giving the thriller a deeper significance with the hunted man becoming a symbol of the outcast in a dangerous world.

Greene was a novelist who was deeply influenced by the cinema. He wrote in a clipped style with sharp cutting from scene to scene. Although his novels are arresting and well visualised, his style of writing is mechanical and seems forced. The writing in Christopher Isherwood's novels is more natural, witty and memorable than Greene's. Isherwood has a subtle unselfconscious style which springs directly from his personality. His two books about Berlin, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1936) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), told by a sympathetic, humorous narrator, give a vivid picture of the everyday lives of ordinary people in pre-Hitler Germany. The underlying theme of both books is the decay of a civilisation and its tragic-comic effects on individual lives. Isherwood never bores us with political ideologies or the reasons for the rise of Nazism. Because of his unpatronising good will, the Berliners emerge as touching and understandable future victims of the demagogue.

The war years did not bring forth many new English novelists. After the war England experienced a period of austerity and a continued lull in creative writing. But in the early 1950s a new atmosphere of discontent with the class-stratified society inspired many young writers from provincial lower middle class and working class backgrounds who were termed Angry Young Men. These included John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey and Stan Barstow. There is no doubt that of these writers John Wain and Kingsley Amis were the most talented. Hurry on Down (1953) and Lucky Jim (1954) are highly original and important satires, but John Braine's Room at the Top (1957), despite its often clumsy prose, is the most powerful in its evocation the social tensions of that period.

In 1954 a first novel was published by a young woman called Iris Murdoch. Under the Net was essentially a philosophic comedy and picaresque story in which the hero goes through a kaleidoscope of farcical and satirical adventures until he arrives at his ultimate goal of self-discovery. This was an entirely new form of novel in which the author created her own genre of fiction which she continued to develop in her future work for many years to come.

Aside from Iris Murdoch, numerous other excellent writers emerged in the 1950s. These include William Golding, Lawrence Durrell, Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson and Barbara Pym. All these post-war novelists have added greatly to the richness and variety of English Literature in the last half century. Each deserves many pages of discussion but, alas, I have no room to do that here.

The 1960s may have been 'swinging' in the popular sense, but in terms of the novel that decade was a period of concentration and consolidation. The above named writers all concentrated on their art and consolidated their reputations. There were only a handful of important new authors to appear in the 1960s.

The past twenty-five years have been significant for certain basic changes in attitudes which affect us all. The Feminist Movement has made us intensely aware of the fundamental importance of sexual equality in personal, social and professional relationships. The post-imperial multi-racial society which has developed in Britain is still in the process of stamping out any vestiges of bigotry or racism that might have lingered from earlier days. The Gay Rights Movement has caused us to see at last that sexual deviation is simply another form of human experience and not an abnormality.

All these shifts in attitudes have coalesced to form a collective outlook which adds up to something far more important than tolerance and acceptance. What these movements have created is a new atmosphere in which total equality must become unequivocally the normal attitude to life. Naturally this mode of feeling has been reflected in the novels of recent years.

Jeanette Winterson in her visionary work has drawn us into a world in which the concept of gender seems to disappear and the word 'lesbian' becomes irrelevant. Irvine Welsh has opened up a previously unknown realm of violence, hallucination and the metaphysical dilemmas of the new dislocated chemical generation and he has thus issued us with a serious warning against the dangers of our competitive, frantic technological age. Because of lack of space I have been unable to mention all the novelists I would have liked to. These include Denton Welch, Rex Warner, Anita Brookner, Rachel Cusk and many others.

Just as the novel began changing its form and content in the 1890s it will continue to change and develop into the twenty-first century. As long as we live in a baffling whirlwind of pressures, joys and frustrations the novel will remain one of the ways in which we can see it, if only briefly, and crystallise it.

[Robert Rubens is the author of six novels including The Operator. A Night at The Odeon, A Shadow Between Us, and The Cosway Miniature, which was serialised on BBC Radio 4.]
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Title Annotation:The English Novel in the Twentieth Century, part 12
Author:Rubens, Robert
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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