‘He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’: T.S. Eliot writing of Henry James in the Little Review of August 1918. I want to take exception, not to the truth of Eliot’s pronouncement (he was right about James), but to the set of lofty assumptions calmly towering behind it.
The young Eliot’s epigram summed up with cutting brevity a creed that for Modernists appeared beyond dispute. Implicit in it is the snubbing notion, radical at the time but by now canon doctrine, of the novel as a fine art and of the novelist as an intelligence superior to mere intellect. In this patronising view, the intellect’s crude apparatus was capable only of formulating concepts, which then underwent the process of diffusion, so that by dint of repetition they fell within anybody’s reach. The final, cruel fate of an idea was to turn into an idée reçue. The power of the novelist, insofar as he was a supreme intelligence, was to free himself from the workload of commentary and simply, awesomely, to show: his creation was beyond paraphrase or reduction. As pure work of art, it stood beautifully apart, impervious to the dry rot affecting the brain’s constructions and to the welter of factuality.
Thus the separation was perceived as twofold. The reform programme for the novel – soon to be promulgated in a position-paper like Jacob’s Room (1922) – aimed at correcting, not only the errors of the old practitioners, who were prone to philosophise in their works, but also the Victorian ‘slice of life’ theory still admitted by Matthew Arnold, and later, permissive notions of the novel as a ‘spongy tract’ (Forster) or large loose bag into which anything would fit. Obviously novels of the old, discredited schools – the historical novel, the novel of adventure, the soap-box or pulpit novel – continued and continue to be written despite the lesson of the Master. Indeed, they make up a majority, now as before, but, having no recognised aesthetic willing to claim them, they tend to be treated by our critical authorities as marginal – examples of backwardness if they come from the East (Solzhenitsyn) or of deliberate archaising if they come from the West (say, Iris Murdoch). The pure novel, the quintessential novel, does not acknowledge any family relation with these distant branches. It is a formal, priestly exercise whose first great celebrant was James. The fact that there are no Jamesian novels being produced any more – if there ever were, apart from the Master’s own – does not alter the perspective. The Jamesian model remains a standard, an archetype, against which contemporary impurities and laxities are measured.
The importance of James lies not so much in his achievements as in the queerness of them. He did not broaden a way for his successors but closed nearly every exit as with hermetic sealing tape. It is undeniable that this American author, almost single-handed, invented a peculiar new kind of fiction, more refined, more stately, than anything known before, purged, to the limit of possibility, of the gross traditional elements of suspense, physical action, inventory, description of places and persons, apostrophe, moral teaching. When you think of James in the light of his predecessors, you are suddenly conscious of what is not there: battles, riots, tempests, sunrises, the sewers of Paris, crime, hunger, the plague, the scaffold, the clergy, but also minute particulars such as you find in Jane Austen – poor Miss Bates’s twice-baked apples, Mr Collins’s ‘Collins’, the comedy of the infinitely small. It cannot have been simply a class limitation, or a limitation of experience, that intimidated his pen. It was a resolve, very American, to scrape his sacred texts clean of the material factor. And it was no small task he laid on himself, since his novels, even more than most maybe, dealt with material concerns – property and money – and unrolled almost exclusively in the realm of the social, mundane by definition. Nevertheless, he succeeded, this American prodigy. He etherealised the novel beyond its wildest dreams and perhaps etherised it as well.
To take a pleasant example, he managed in The Spoils of Poynton to relate a story of a contest for possession of some furniture in immense detail without ever indicating except in the vaguest way what the desirable stuff was. We gather that quite a lot is French – Louis Quinze and Louis Seize are mentioned once each (‘the sweetest Louis Seize’) – but we also hear of Venetian velvet and of ‘a great Italian cabinet’ in the red room, though with no specifics of place, period, inlays, embossment, and of a little Spanish ivory crucifix. When you think of what Balzac would have done with the opportunity! Actually The Spoils of Poynton is a Balzacian drama done with the merest hints of props and stage setting. James’s strategy was to abstract the general noun, furniture, from the particulars of the individual pieces, also referred to as ‘things’. He gives us a universal which we can upholster according to our own taste and antiquarian knowledge. In short, he gives us an Idea. The Spoils of Poynton is not a novel about material tables and chairs: it is a novel about the possession and enjoyment of an immaterial Idea, which could be any old furniture, all old furniture, beautiful, ugly, or neither – it makes no difference, except that if it is ugly the struggle over it will be more ironic. James, however, is not an ironist; no Puritan can be. And the fact that with this novel we can supply ‘real’ tables and chairs from our own imagination makes The Spoils of Poynton, to my mind, more true to our common experience, hence more classic, than most of his fictions.
But that, for the moment, is beside the point. What I should like to bring out now is another peculiarity: that though James’s people endlessly discuss and analyse, they never discuss the subjects that people in society usually do. Above all, politics. It is not true that well-bred people avoid talk of politics. They cannot stay away from it. Outrage over public events that menace, or threaten to menace, their property and privilege has devolved on them by birthright (though it can also be acquired), and they cannot help sharing it when more than two meet, even in the presence of outsiders, which in fact seems to act as a stimulant. This has surely been so from earliest times, and James’s time was no exception, as we know from other sources. But from his fictions (forgetting The Princess Casamassima, where he mildly ventured into the arena), you could never guess that whispers – or shouts – ever burst out over the tea table regarding the need for a firm hand, for making an example of the ringleaders, what are things coming to, and so on. Dickens’s Mr Bounderby, although no gentleman, put the position in a nutshell with ‘the turtle soup and the gold spoon’ – his own blunt résumé of the trade-unionist’s unmistakable goals. As James’s people are constantly telling each other how intelligent they are, more subtlety than this might be expected of them, but we can only hope it. What were Adam Verver’s views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labour? We do not know. It is almost as if James wanted to protect his cherished creations from our knowledge of the banalities they would utter if he once let us overhear them speak freely.
Or let us try art. These people are travelled and worldly and often in a state of rapture over the museums and galleries they visit, the noble façades of mansions and dear quaint crockets of cathedrals. Yet they rarely come away from a morning of sightseeing with as much as a half-formed thought. They never dispute about what they have looked at, prefer one artist to another, hazard generalisations. In real life, they would certainly have had their ideas about the revolutions that were occurring in painting and sculpture. In Paris, if only out of curiosity, they would have rushed to seè the Salon des Indépendants. Wild horses could not have kept them away. A bold pair, armed with a letter from Lady Sackville or Isabella Stewart Gardner, might have penetrated Rodin’s studio. His bronze statue of Balzac in a dressing-gown, shown at the Salon des Beaux Arts, would already have led the travellers to take sides, some finding it disgusting and incomprehensible while others were calling it a ‘breakthrough’. What would they have made of the nude Victor Hugo in plaster in the Luxembourg Garden? Or ‘The Kiss’ (‘Rather too suggestive’?) in marble. Unfailingly, one would have heard judgments as to what was permissible and impermissible in art.
James himself, however unversed in politics he might have been, had no deficiency of art-appreciation. He wrote well and copiously about painting, sculpture and architecture. But not in his novels. There all is allusion and murmurous, indistinct evocation of objects and vistas, in comparison with which Whistler’s ‘Nocturne’ is a sharp-edge photograph.
In the novels, a taboo is operating – a taboo that enjoins him, like Psyche in the myth or Pandora or Mother Eve, to steer clear of forbidden areas on pain of losing his god-sent gift. The areas on which neither he nor his characters may touch are defined by the proximity of thought to their surface – thought visible, almost palpable, in nuggets or globules readily picked up by the vulgar. Art in other hands might have been such an area, but James took the risk – after all, it was his own great interest, and he dared make it the ruling passion of several of his figures – at the price, however, of treating it always by indirection, as a motive but never as a topic in itself. If you think of Proust, you will see the difference.
With religion and philosophy, though, James is as circumspect as he is with politics. As son and brother, he must often have heard these subjects earnestly discussed, which perhaps accounts for his dislike of ideas in general. Or was this only a sense, which grew on him as he sought to find his own way, that he must not trespass on father’s and brother’s hunting preserve? In any case, with the exception of The Bostonians – a middle-period extravagant comedy, which he came almost to disavow, full of cranks, cults, emancipated women, do-gooders, religious charlatanry – neither he nor his characters has a word to say on these matters, nor – it should go without saying – on science. With so much of the stuff of ordinary social intercourse ruled out, the Jamesian people by and large are reduced to a single theme: each other. As beings not given to long silences, who are never seen reading, not even a guidebook, that is what they are condemned to. Whenever a pair or a trio draws apart from the rest, it is to discuss and analyse and exclaim over an absent one – Milly or Maggie or Isabel. Yet here, too, there is a curious shortage of ideas of the kind you or I might formulate in discussing a friend. In their place are hints, soft wonderings, head-shakings, sentences hanging in the air; communication takes place between slow implication and swift inference: ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ The word ‘Wonderful!’ returns over and over as the best that can be said by way of a summing-up.
As James aged, his reticence, or the reticence he imposed on his surrogates, grew more ‘wonderful’ indeed. With The Wings of the Dove, we arrive at a heroine of whom we know only three things: that she is rich, red-haired and sick. She is clearly meant to be admirable, as we infer from the gasps and cries of the satellite figures around her: ‘Isn’t she superb?’ ‘Everything about you is a beauty,’ ‘beautiful’, ‘a dove’, ‘Oh you exquisite thing!’ But vulgar particulars are never supplied. As James himself observed in his Preface, ‘I go but a little way with the direct – that is with the straight exhibition of Milly; it resorts to relief, this process, whenever it can, to some kinder, some merciful indirection: all as if to approach her circuitously, deal with her at second hand, as an unspotted princess is ever dealt with ...’ And he continues: ‘All of which proceeds, obviously, from her painter’s tenderness of imagination about her, which reduces him to watching her, as it were, through the successive windows of other people’s interest in her.’
It is an extension of the method, of course, that worked so successfully in The Spoils of Poynton. There the ‘treasures’ had only to be called by that name two or three times, the astonished words ‘rare’, ‘precious’, ‘splendid’ to drop one by one from soft young lips, to convince the reader that ‘the nice old things’ were worth squabbling over, at least to those engaged in the squabble. But the moral splendour of a human being needs more demonstration than the museum quality of mobile property, at any rate in a novel. One can decide that the fuss being made about furniture is ridiculous or justified or a little of both, and, as I have been saying, it does not greatly matter which. It is unnecessary to fully sympathise with Mrs Gereth’s emotions to be amused by the lengths to which she will go in single combat, and in fact one senses James’s own moral reserve on her subject. But the fuss made over Milly Theale makes one irritably ask why, what is so admirable about her that cannot be named, unless it is just her money? Similar doubts may be felt about the Ververs, father and daughter, in The Golden Bowl.
Their creator’s reluctance to furnish them with identifiable traits that might let us ‘place’ them in real life has curious consequences for the principals of the late novels. These figures, one realises, must be accepted on faith, as ectoplasms emanating from an entranced author at his desk – in short, as ghostly abstractions, pale ideas – which explains, when you come to think of it, the fever of discussion they excite in the other characters. Those by comparison are solid. They have bodies and brains, however employed. Motives are allotted to them, such as plain curiosity (the Assinghams, Henrietta Stackpole) or money greed or sexual hunger (both seem to be working, though sometimes at cross-purposes, in Kate Croy, Merton Densher, Charlotte Slant), motives that give them a foot in the actual world. And if, despite their efforts, the principals evade definition, if, unlike furniture, they cannot be established as universals standing for a whole class of singulars, Milly and Maggie and Chad remain nonetheless ideas of a sort. That is, ideas, expelled by a majestic butler at the front door, return by another entrance and stand waiting pathetically to be dressed in words.
Before leaving James, hoist – if I am right – by his own petard, I want to ask whether his exclusion of ideas in the sense of mental concepts was connected or not with the exclusion of common factuality. The two are not necessarily related. Consider Thomas Love Peacock. There the ordinary stuff of life is swept away to make room for abstract speculation. That, and just that, is the joke. It tickles our funny-bone to meet the denizens of Nightmare Abbey – young Scythrop, the heir of the house, and Flosky, who has named his eldest son Emanuel after Kant, and Listless, up from London, complaining that Dante is growing fashionable. Each has his own bats in the belfry; there is a bad smell of midnight oil in the derelict medieval structure, where practical affairs are neglected for the necromancy of ‘synthetical reasoning’. In hearty, plain-man style (which is partly a simulation), Peacock treats the brain’s sickly products as the end-result of the general disease of modishness for which the remedy would be prolonged exposure to common-or-garden reality.
But for James, mental concepts, far from being opposed to the ordinariness of laundry lists and drains, seem themselves to have belonged to a lower category of inartistic objects, like the small article of ‘the commonest domestic use’ manufactured by the Newsome family in The Ambassadors – I have always guessed that it was a brass safety-pin. But, safety-pin or sink-stopper, it could not be mentioned in the text, any more than Milly Theale’s cancer (if that is what it was) or, let us say. The Origin of Species. I confess I do not easily see what these tabooed subjects have in common, unless that they were familiar to most people and hence bore the traces of other handling. Yet, though both were in general circulation, a safety-pin is not the same as the idea of natural selection. More likely, James wished his fictions to dwell exclusively on the piano nobile, as he conceived it, of social intercourse – neither upstairs in the pent garrets of intellectual labour nor below in the basement and kitchens of domestic toil. And the garret and the basement have a secret sympathy between them of which the piano nobile is often unaware. That, at any rate, seems to be the lesson of the greatest fictions, past and present.
What is curious, though, is that ideas are still today felt to be unsightly in the novel, whereas the nether areas – the cloaca – are fully admitted to view. I suppose that the ban on ideas that even now largely prevails, above all in English-speaking countries, is a heritage from Modernism in its prim anti-Victorian phase. To Virginia Woolf, for instance, it was not a question of what might be brought into the novel – sex, the natural functions – but of what should be kept out. In the reaction against the Victorian novel, it was understandable that the discursive authors, from Dickens to Meredith and Hardy, should stand in the pillory as warning examples of what was most to be avoided. When the young Eliot complimented James on the fact that no rough bundles of concepts disfigure and coarsen his novels, he at once went on to cite Meredith (‘the disciple of Carlyle’) as a bad case of the opposite.
Actually Meredith, with his tendency to aphorism, was in his own way an experimental writer, which made him exciting to the young. This may have been why he was singled out for rapid disposal. That he went counter to the ‘stuffy’ realist tradition, jested with the time-honoured conventions of the form, even gave hints of something like the interior monologue, did not excuse him. In fact, he has not lasted, except, I think, for The Egoist; the mock-heroic vein, which he worked and over-worked, failed to undermine the old structure and became a blind alley. Brio was not enough. In any case, his way with ideas, wavering between persiflage and orotund pronouncement, was too unsteady to maintain a serious weight. His contemporaries seem to have known what he was ‘about’, but a reader today finds it hard to determine the overall pattern of his thought.
This can never be said of Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, in this country. Nor abroad of Hugo, Stendhal, Balzac, even Flaubert, of Manzoni, and of all the Russians except Chekhov, who was relatively non-committal. The talkative novelist was evidently the norm and always had been. In America, those who have survived – chiefly Melville and Hawthorne – seldom expressed themselves on topics and issues of the day, and their utterances could be somewhat riddling on the great themes of good and evil. Nevertheless they cannot be charged with unsteadiness, lack of serious purpose. They were sermonisers like their contemporaries in the Old World; it was only that their sermon, like the Book of Revelations, required some decoding; the apocalyptic imagery, as with any allegory, called for interpretation.
The 19th-century novel was so evidently an idea-carrier that the component of overt thought in it must have been taken for granted by the reader as an ingredient as predictable as a leavening agent in bread. He came to expect it in his graver fiction, perhaps to count on it, just as he counted on the geographical and social co-ordinates that gave him his bearings in the opening chapter: the expanse of Egdon Health at sundown crossed by the solitary reddleman and his cart; the mountain heights of the Lecco district looking down on the lone homeward-bound figure of Don Abbondio. Or ‘A rather pretty little chaise on springs, such as bachelors, half-pay officers, staff captains, landowners with about a hundred serfs ... drive about in, rolled in at the gates of the hotel of the provincial town of N.’ Or ‘About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good fortune to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton.’ We are so much in the habit of skipping pages of introductory description and general reflections that interrupt the story that we can scarcely believe that such ‘blemishes’ once gave pleasure, that a novel would have been felt by our ancestors to be a far poorer thing without them. They can be dismissed by the modern reader as ‘mere’ conventions of the genre, but in the old times a novel that lacked them would have been like an opera without an overture, which of course is a convention too.
The function of geographical descriptions – naming of counties, rivers, and so forth – and social topography is to make the reader feel comfortable in the vehicle he has boarded, like passengers in a plane having landmarks below pointed out to them and receiving bulletins from the pilot on altitude and cruising speed. Yet it was not essentially different from the function performed by ideas. Both gave depth and perspective. And the analogy to air travel is illustrative. The briefings supplied by the pilot (‘On your left, folks, you’ll see the city of Boston and the Charles River’) are a relic of earlier days of aviation – a mere outworn convention we ‘put up with’ in a contemporary airbus. Scarcely anybody bothers any more to rise in his seat to try to make out the landmark being mentioned; you cannot see anything anyway – the plane is going too fast and the view obstructed. Besides, who cares? The destination is the point. But if you put yourself back in fancy to the propeller plane, you will see, as with the novel, what has been lost. So intrinsic to the novelistic medium were ideas and other forms of commentary, all tending to ‘set’ the narration in a general scheme, that it would have been impossible in former days to speak of ‘the novel of ideas’. It would have seemed to be a tautology.
Now the expression is used with such assurance and frequency that I am surprised not to find it in my Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms, which is otherwise reasonably current. For example, under ‘NOVEL’, I read: ‘In the late 19th and 20th centuries the novel, as an art form, has reached its fullest development. Concerned with their craft, novelists such as Flaubert, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, E.M. Forster and Thomas Mann have used various devices to achieve new aesthetic forms within the genre.’ I do not know what Flaubert, who died in 1880, is doing there, but the tenor of the list is clear. If the ‘NOVEL OF IDEAS’ does not figure as an entry (though ‘NOVEL OF THE SOIL’ does), it may be that the authors were not sure what the term covered. I must say that it is not clear to me either, though I sense something derogatory, as if there were novels and novels of ideas and never the twain shall meet. But rather than attempt to define a term that has never been in my own vocabulary, I shall try to discover what other people mean by it.
Does it mean a novel in which the characters sit around, or pace up and down, enunciating and discussing ideas? Examples would be The Magic Mountain, Point Counter Point, in fact all of Huxley’s novels, Sartre’s Les Chemins de la Liberté, Malraux’s Man’s Fate. The purest cases would be Peacock – Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, Crotchet Castle – if they could be called novels, which I doubt, since they lack a prime requisite – length – and another – involvement of the reader in the characters’ fates. You might also count Flaubert’s unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet, where the joint heroes are busy compiling a Dictionary of Received Ideas, and Santayana’s The Last Puritan, by now forgotten. But though the term would seem clearly to apply to the works just mentioned (The Magic Mountain being the one everybody remembers best, having read it at 19), there are not very many of them and they are rather out of style.
Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, which belongs to our own time, roughly conforms to the type. Like The Magic Mountain, it takes place in a sanatorium, where patients who have come to be cured have little else to do after their treatments and medical examinations than muse and argue. Isolation is crucial to this type of novel: the characters are on an island, out on a limb, either of their own choosing – Peacock’s crochety castles, Huxley’s grand country house presided over by Mr Scogan (Crome Yellow) – or by force majeure, as in a hospital or a prison (Solzhenitsyn’s The Third Circle). Or the island may be moral, self-constituted by a literary clique (Point Counter Point), by a group of like-thinking, semi-political bohemians (Les Chemins de la Liberté), by a cell of revolutionaries (Man’s Fate). What is involved is always a contest of faiths. The debates on the magic mountain between Naphta and Settembrini oppose nihilistic Jesuitry to progressive atheistic humanism but also pan-Germanism to pro-Russian sentiments, prophecies of war to firm belief in peace, repose to work – in other words, you might say, night to day. Beneath the circus-like confrontation of current creeds lies a clash between very ancient faiths. Settembrini is a monist, Naphta a dualist. Settembrini, asked to choose, exalts mind over body: ‘within the antithesis of body and mind, the body is the evil, the devilish principle, for the body is nature.’ It is like a game of preferences with the aim being self-definition, which no doubt is why young people are dazzled by it.
On a simpler level and without encyclopedic pretensions, Cancer Ward presents us with various naive faiths – from faith in Stalin to faith in the healing properties of radioactive gold to faith in the mandrake root – sometimes peacefully co-existing, sometimes at odds with each other. It is natural that in a hospital the belief in a cure, in sovereign remedies, should dominate every mind. It becomes vital to have a theory, and world theories, global diagnoses of the body politic or the human state generally, take on, as though of necessity, an importance not usually accorded them by the healthy. The pressing need to have faith, i.e. grounds for hope, gives an urgency to the abstract disputes of both The Magic Mountain and Cancer Ward. Here ideas of any and every kind become, as if by contagion, matters of life and death. It is also true that in these narratives no idea can win out over another. Nobody is convinced or persuaded. The excited debates between patients or between doctor and patient end up in the air. Hans Castorp, whose young mind has been the salient contested for by opposing forces, leaves the sanatorium and returns ‘down below’, to the plains, which should be the level ground of sound, commonplace reality, except for the fact that there he dies as a soldier in the general reasonless catastrophe of the First World War. In Cancer Ward, Kostoglotov, too, leaves his sanatorium, having been let out as cured, which should be a happy ending, except for the fact that the cancer ward whose gates close behind him has been a species of sanctuary: he is slated to return to his real down-to-earth life of penal exile. One kind of death sentence, in both cases, has been exchanged for another.
It is not especially uncanny (or no more than any resemblance or twinning) that this pair of novels, so widely separated in space and time, so widely divergent in manner, should match in a number of respects. Sanatorium life is much the same, I suppose, everywhere and always. But sanatorium life, as such, did not dictate the ending: a positive conclusion would have been possible if the novel were only about sickness and recovery. The ending is imposed not by the particular case – cancer ward or tubercular clinic – but by the fact that, in general, the so-called novel of ideas (at least the kind I have been describing) does not allow of any resolution. Nothing decisive can happen in it; it is a seesaw. Events that do occur in it are simply incidents, sometimes diverting, as in Peacock. A real event, such as the death of Hans Castorp, is reserved for a postscript; it does not belong to the text proper. The same with Kostoglotov’s re-shouldering of his penal identity. We do not see it happen; in fact, it may not happen ‘for good’, since when he goes to register with the NKVD in the town outside the hospital gates, the Komendant speaks cheerfully of an amnesty in the offing. But Kostoglotov cannot make himself believe him – he has heard of amnesties before and nothing came of them – and the reader knows no more than he. It is left in suspension, like the arguments between the sick men, which never ‘get’ anywhere.
If a secondary character chances to die – for instance, Quarles’s child in Point Counter Point – that, too, is an incident, outside the work’s proper concerns; the main characters go on arguing as before. When it occurs in a sanatorium, it is just an episode, figuring in the normal mortality rate: a new patient moves into the bed the next day, and the ripple of concern quickly subsides. The sanatorium is an ideal setting for the discussion novel, for time does not count there. Ideas, though some may age, are indifferent to time. Mann speaks of ‘the more spacious time conceptions prevalent “up here” ’. That is an effect, of course, of the routine, which makes one day like another. But there is an endlessness, an eternal regularity, in all such novels; the characters slip into their places like habitués of a corner café. The sense of eternity, of time stopped, may be represented under other aspects. In André Gide’s The Counterfeiters, which I might have included under this heading, Edouard, the chief character, is shown writing a novel in which a facsimile of him is writing a novel, in which, we suppose, still a third figure ... The black-hatted Quaker on the Quaker Oats box holding a Quaker Oats box portraying a Quaker holding a Quaker Oats box, getting smaller and smaller in infinite regress, like repeating decimals. In Point Counter Point Huxley borrowed the device.
Still, when the novel of ideas is spoken of, maybe another type of story is being referred to – a story that does come to some sort of resolution. That is the missionary novel sometimes referred to as a ‘tract’. On the surface, it may look like the kind of novel I have just been trying to analyse, in that it may have the air of a panel discussion, with points of view put forward by several characters speaking in turn and each being allowed equal time. But it soon appears that one speaker is right and the others, though momentarily persuasive, are wrong. I am thinking of D.H. Lawrence.
Of course there are missionary novels that are not novels of ideas – for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is animated by a strong conviction, but, if I remember right, does not ‘go into’ the arguments for and against slavery. And there are missionary elements hiding in many tales that pass for thrillers or love stories. In fact, it is hard to think of a novel that in some sense does not seek to proselytise. But what I have in mind are books like Women in Love, Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where reasoning occupies a large part of the narrative, exerting a leverage that seems to compel the reader’s agreement. The incidents, few or many, press home like gripping illustrations the point being proved. There is something of parable in most of Lawrence’s plots.
In Kangaroo we get a powerful example of Lawrence’s method at work. The ideas, fully expounded in long conversations, far from being unresolved, are boldly lived out and tested. The Lawrence figure, Somers, finds certain already held and seductive ideas made flesh for him in the shape of the Australian working-class leader known as Kangaroo. It is an incarnation Somers had never hoped to come upon, sickened as he is by Europe. He is smitten by Kangaroo’s proto-fascist movement and by the wild fresh country of which working men and their virile matey principles seem to be a natural and harmonious part. The infatuation holds for many pages, as he is drawn into the Diggers movement as a sympathetic foreign observer. He is nearly converted when, rather abruptly, he is startled into closer inspection: Kangaroo, dying, asks for a declaration of Somer’s love, and the sickly plea lets Somers finally see the soft, weak, flabby underside of native fascism. The Australian spell is broken; Somers and his woman leave.
Up to the end, however, an equilibrium of ideas is maintained, so that the conversations remain interesting, by no means one-sided. In Somers, a genuine intellectual process, going from curiosity to attraction to repulsion and disillusionment, is shown with considerable honesty. It is typical of Lawrence at his best that even when Kangaroo and his ideas are rejected, he is not vulgarly ‘seen through’; something is left for a kind of dry pity and understanding.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is surely the most biased of Lawrence’s books. Yet Sir Clifford, Lady Chatterley’s husband, is nonetheless given his say, not too unfairly represented by and large: it is only that he and his entire set of convictions are refuted out of hand by a quiet adversary, Mellors, whose strong point is not words but performance. His performance is itself an argument, speaking for a view of natural life and sexuality that is hostile to the intellect. Sir Clifford is no intellectual: he is a retired country gentleman who sometimes writes poetry and short stories. But the weapons he is familiar with and falls back on as a disabled champion of a social order and mild way of life are the weapons his education has taught him to use: received notions and principles.
Lawrence’s hatred of the intellect, of the ‘upper storey’ (there is maybe a class prejudice here), is strange, certainly, in a man who himself lived almost wholly for ideas. The fact that they were his own made the difference, apparently; he had hammered them out for himself. They were not quite so much his own as he thought, one must add. Was he unconscious of being one of a number of writers who disliked and distrusted the intellect, who, like him, held it responsible for most of the ills of modern civilisation? He showed no awareness of such a fellowship, just as he showed no awareness of a paradox underlying the whole position: that is, that without the intellect and its systemising bent neither he nor his fellow thinkers would have been able to carry out their mission of teaching at all. His insistence on blood and instinct as superior to brain was a mental construct incapable of proof except on the mental level.
Yet if his ideas, true or false, have stayed with us, if he was a novelist of ideas in my second, missionary sense to whom we can still listen – the only one, probably – this must be because he was an artist as well as a cogent, programmatic mind – in other words, because he makes us feel as we read those novels that there is something in what he says. But while despising the intellect, he would not have liked the name ‘artist’ either. For him, it would have been six of one and half a dozen of the other – who could measure which was the less effete? He was unable to get along with any of his own kind, really, and could only associate, finally, with people who shared his ideas, which was bound to mean in practice people who consented to have no ideas of their own.
His life was a near-tragedy, and his self-infection, quite early, with concepts – which, when he took them for absolutes, made him quarrelsome – shared responsibility with his bad lungs. But if he had not been fevered, he might not have taken to the stump, and we might never have had these burning novels or, if you wish, tracts. Far more than the discussion novels with their eternal seesaw, they are truly novels of ideas. Without ideas none of them, after Sons and Lovers, could even palely exist. If you cut out Naphta and Settembrini, and the author’s musings on time, The Magic Mountain will still hold up as a story of a sort. The equivalent cannot be argued of Aaron’s Rod, say. I am not sure whether this makes Lawrence better or worse than Mann; at any rate, it makes him special. At the same time, surprisingly, it links him with the old novelists.