Upper-Class Contemplative

John Bayley

  • The Fountain by Charles Morgan
    Boydell, 434 pp, £4.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 85115 237 6

There is a category of novel – The Constant Nymph, The White Hotel, Love Story – which is read by everyone for a while and then sinks into limbo. Have such best-sellers anything in common? Obviously they are not – like War and Peace, say – hardy perennials. Their appeal is to something specific in the temper of the time. Going with that, perhaps, is a capacity to have their cake and eat it, and to give their readers the same treat. In Margaret Kennedy’s novel the constant nymph is both satisfyingly bohemian and reassuringly respectable – a combination appealing to the period. She is constant because she dies, and virtuous because she dies a virgin, thus releasing her paramour (and the reader) for further adventures combined with a beautiful memory. Love Story takes the formula a stage further by giving the couple a full and perfect sex-life before the heroine dies, thus releasing etc. As might be expected, the process is more subtle and more comprehensive in such a case as The White Hotel, a more ambitious and imaginative affair. But something similar is going on, enabling the reader to enjoy at the same time the authority and dignity of Freud and the pleasures of pornographic daydream, which combine to license and disinfect the genuine and disgusting horrors of a mass extermination. It seems typical of the literary appetite of our time that the three go together, and that the first two enable art to obtain a sort of false grip on the third, a grip that the Polish poet Herbert says, in his poem ‘The Pebble’, that art should never try to obtain.

In these cases, appetite soon sickens. The succeeding age is indifferent to what had pleased the former, or it protects itself from a touch of pudeur with amusement or derision. Granted that the examples are different, they all provoke disillusion after the spell has ceased to work. But having the cake and eating it is not the whole story: it could be argued that War and Peace itself does just that, letting the reader share both the excitement of warfare and the calm of a Russian idyll, the experience of both aristocrat and peasant, patriotism and pacifism. Probably all successful art works by having things all ways, but great art appeals to what is continuous in human nature. The interest of superior best-sellers, which flourish and fade, is in detecting why they appeal as they do to the spirit of the age in which they appear.

The Fountain, the novel which made Charles Morgan’s reputation, came out in 1932 and had a very considerable succès d’estime. It was much admired in France, where Morgan still has a solid reputation. Valéry admired it, writing that in Morgan’s novels ‘the song of life is always perceptible,’ that ‘a poet is latent in each of his principal characters,’ and that ‘his prose gives to love, even in the suggested presentment of its physical powers, a universal tenderness.’ All that, we might now be inclined to feel, is just the trouble. Morgan writes like a Frenchman, and the ‘beauty’ of a French style is apt to sound uneasy and false in English. Every sentence is admirably finished, so that a man scratching his head or taking down a book becomes as spiritually significant, in terms of the solid gleam of the prose, as a waterfall shining and occulting in the grounds of a great house. To make everything significant in this way, or poetic, is indeed the object of the fine writing. That a book was ‘beautifully written’ was a great and straight recommendation in the Twenties and Thirties, and The Fountain is written as beautifully as it is possible for a book to be.

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