Three years ago Carmen Callil, until recently powerhouse and presiding genius at the publishing house of Chatto and Windus, insisted to me at some drinks party to celebrate or drown an author’s masterpiece that it was time I wrote another novel. I hadn’t – haven’t – published one in more than a decade. Carmen was one of the few who remembered that in my eager youth, between 1971 and 1980, I had published half a dozen, and three collections of stories. She’d been goading me on the subject for a year or more, saying I was wasting my time as a literary agent – which, in my experience, pays the mortgage and feeds young mouths more than writing novels does. But to be invited by a publisher to write one is, of course, immensely flattering.
‘I’d want a great deal of money,’ I said. ‘How much?’ she asked, her eyes beginning to focus. I named a preposterous figure. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ she said. Then a pause. ‘I’d pay you half that.’ ‘Done,’ I said. These days a literary agent is open to any offer from a publisher which isn’t derisory. There was another un-Pinteresque pause. ‘World rights,’ she said, rather cunningly. I had immediate visions of being translated into Finnish, Urdu, Swahili. I nodded slowly: ‘All right.’ She then asked me what the novel would be ‘about’, as if novels are ‘about’. But I told her what I had in mind and she seemed enthusiastic. ‘None of your experimental stuff, though. I want a comic novel.’
And that was that. The contract was signed, the comic novel remains unwritten but it will be, it will be. Instead, poor Carmen took delivery of my recently published ‘stern account of literary, publishing and theatrical folk’. I was given a surprise party at, inevitably, Soho’s Groucho Club. Among the sixty-odd faces present was one I didn’t recognise. ‘We haven’t met,’ the smiling proprietor of the face, bearded too, said to me. ‘The first book I reviewed as a young man was a novel of yours. I’d never seen anything like it.’ My interlocutor was Valentine Cunningham and he had been invited to the party because I’d quoted in my memoir a remark of his, in the TLS, about a subsequent book of mine: ‘There is even a case to be made for Giles Gordon being the only true inheritor of the late B.S. Johnson’s mantle as one of the serious Anglicises of French modes.’
Heady stuff. No British reviewer or critic would write like that now. Many younger readers (older readers too) have no awareness of B.S. Johnson’s work, though I gather he’s big in the US thesis market. Yet the ICA devoted three evenings in September to his achievements as writer and film-maker. Surprisingly, D.J. Taylor doesn’t even mention him in his new survey of post-war fiction.
In the late Fifties and after, Kingsley Amis, Johns Wain and Braine, Alan Sillitoe and Co struck a new, demotic note. The ‘traditional’ English novel of good and bad manners was radicalised and updated. Karl Miller helped to institute a new criticism which seemed to owe more to a modest, clean, unadorned English than to the tenets of academe. Metaphor and pretty prose were not much favoured.
In another part of the forest, some writers were questioning the plainness and primness of all this, the moral greyness. Why bother to portray life in fiction as it is in non-fiction, and as it tends to be memorialised by journalism and in documentary newsreels? Why not aspire to something more ambitious, more visionary? In the introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, his 1973 collection of stories (or, rather, ‘shorter prose which he wishes to keep in print’, as the blurb puts it), B.S. Johnson sets out his list of authors ‘who are writing as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter ... Samuel Beckett (of course), John Berger, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Angela Carter, Eva Figes, Giles Gordon, Wilson Harris, Rayner Heppenstall, even hasty, muddled Robert Nye, Ann Quin, Penelope Shuttle, Alan Sillitoe (for his last book only. Raw Material indeed), Stefan Themerson, and (coming) John Wheway (stand by): and if only Heathcote Williams would write a novel’.
In 1968 Penguin published Writing in England Today, edited by Karl Miller. The prose was exemplary, clear but a bit dull; the overall effect curiously journalistic, perhaps because the anthology included a surprising number of travel pieces. In 1975 Hutchinson published what was to have been Bryan Johnson’s and my antidote to Miller’s Penguin, but I fear we were too late. Unhappily, I put together Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction on my own; Johnson had killed himself in 1973. The next generation of writers was beginning to man the barricades. Quite the bloodiest nose that Beyond the Words: received was in the New Statesman from young (I know he’s still young) Martin Amis.
Johnson’s credo was that ‘telling tales is telling lies.’ Trust the teller, not the tale. He revered Tristram Shandy, his first novel, Travelling People (1963), even reproducing some of its visual tricks (tricks?). It was one thing for Tolstoy to describe mighty battles in War and Peace but it was absurd, in the era of celluloid, for novelists to attempt such a feat when the cinema could do the job so much better. The novel should find a new function for itself. Back to James Joyce, in a way, who opened the first cinema in Dublin in 1909. In 1973 Johnson suggested that the human craving for storytelling was served by television soaps. It still is.
Johnson’s prose is, in itself, Orwellian in its lucidity. It harbours much humour too, not all subversive. The language is welded (more than melded, more than married) to visual and other technical experimentation. The physical shape of his books mattered crucially to him. For instance, The Unfortunates (1969) was delivered in a box, without a binding case. The signatures (sections) are of varying length and, apart from the first and last chapters, alpha and omega, Johnson encourages the reader to confront them in any order. The object is to recreate in terms of the book the randomness of his characters’ lives. On this occasion Bryan Johnson was bizarrely thwarted in finding a larger readership. Public librarians declined to stock the novel because, the signatures not being ‘bound’, any reader could purloin a section or two and keep it as a souvenir. There could also be no paperback edition in that there was no hardback edition. Secker and Warburg and Panther published jointly.
House Mother Normal (1971), set in an old people’s home, devotes exactly the same number of pages to looking at one day in the lives of eight inmates, after which the same space is granted to the house mother, who attempts to explain everything. Christie Malry’s Own Double-entry (1973) presents a clerk’s life as if it were a double-entry book-keeping ledger, with debits and credits. It’s probably Johnson’s funniest novel. Anthony Burgess fairly wrote that Johnson was ‘the only living British author with the guts to reassess the novel form, extend its scope and still work in a recognisable fictional tradition’. Two other points. Bryan Johnson was the most professional of authors. He was deeply involved in the battle to achieve Public Lending Right although he didn’t live to witness and benefit from its implementation. He was also, in 1966, probably the first British novelist to be paid a monthly salary, by his publisher (Secker and Warburg), for three years, in return for two novels.
Johnson was quintessentially English, a Londoner in mind as in body. I think Valentine Cunningham was wrong if he thought that Johnson was taken (Beckett excepted) by ‘French modes’. But I certainly was, and the French writers being published in translation by John Calder were a revelation. Alain Robbe-Grillet was God, and his Snapshots and Towards a New Novel (1965) – fiction and criticism between the same covers – was an essential primer. Inanimate objects ruled the world with a greater coherence and rationality than messy, mucky human beings. Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (script by Robbe-Grillet) was the film. There was nothing airy-fairy about it, nothing mincing, nothing Cocteauesque. It was, almost in spite of its surface, hard, cerebral and beautiful. It aspired to art and was art.
Notwithstanding marvellously rich work by William Golding, Iris Murdoch and the grossly under-rated Angus Wilson, the English novel at this time seemed to some of us to be pottering into near-extinction as a serious art form. As Johnson put it, ‘literary forms do become exhausted, clapped out, as well ... That is what seems to have happened to the 19th-century narrative novel, too, by the outbreak of the First World War. No matter how good the writers are who now attempt it, it cannot be made to work for our time, and the writing is anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant and perverse.’
It has sometimes seemed to me that at the time of experiencing it much great art is boring. The resonances, reverberations and waves of pleasure, the illumination come later. The difficulty with so much (I wince as I write this) non-experimental fiction is that, as reader, you don’t have to work at it; there is little to work to. Thus the experience of reading is too often shallow, superficial. You read as you do an intelligent newspaper. The trouble, if we are honest (note that I slip from singular to plural), with so much English ‘experimental’ writing in the Sixties and Seventies was that it was boring to read yet didn’t subsequently reverberate. Ultimately, it didn’t provide a sufficiently rich aesthetic experience. Probably the most successful ‘experimental’ novelist of the period was Nicholas Mosley – but he wasn’t labelled as experimental. Which is something else: whenever I was described as an ‘experimental novelist’ I cringed. An ‘experimental novel’ has to be a failed novel. If it worked, no one would invoke the adjective.
Some dedicated verbal warriors continued. Anthony Burgess, Gabriel Josipovici and Eva Figes keep at it. Some, notably Rosalind Belben, have even joined them. But most, like Robert Nye and David Plante, have expanded their canvases. The Johnsonian experimental novel has been more or less buried, just as the Little England novel has been more or less buried, beneath the linguistic intrusion of the Empire striking back.
As a literary agent, I seem to be, because of my past, recipient of any and all ‘experimental’ novels being written today. They’re as unreadable as ours so often were but what is worse is that their perpetrators don’t seem to have read ours. Thus they are turning out the same kind of stuff – at its worst and most frequent, somewhere between prose and poetry – as we were. The ‘experimental’ novel in Britain (rarely described as avant-garde) has always seemed somewhat recherché. Not so in the States. Faber has recently published here Walter Abish’s densely polished, beguiling and difficult new novel, Eclipse Fever. Had the author been British, he’d no doubt be regarded as an exotic plant, a freak. Faber simply describes this ‘experimental’ book as ‘the work of a contemporary master writing at the height of his powers’. Precisely.
I sometimes think that V.S. Naipaul is probably the last master of classical English prose. The sobering fact is that many of the energetic novelists writing in English from ‘abroad’ seem more inventive in their ways with plot, narrative, character and the rest of the traditional components of the novel than erstwhile ‘experimental’ novelists here. The nouveau roman, I hate to say, was a tree that bore too little fruit, a bible that failed. It was a stimulating corrective but it wasn’t sufficient unto itself. I’d be reluctant to agree with the Reverend Sterne that ‘writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is), is but a different name for conversation’ – but much of the reason we relish the new novelists in English is that their experiences are not often our experiences, their way with our language not our way with their language.
I’d always found reading Beckett an alien if exotic experience until I first visited the Republic of Ireland: was I seeing the country through the eyes of a great writer or was Beckett somehow recording what confronted him? Would I have been bemused by (my client) Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy had I not spent a little time in India? I would not, because Seth hasn’t written an ‘experimental’ novel (unless all novels are experimental’), complex though his book is in structure. It is deceptively simple; Seth is a most sophisticated writer who has absorbed the lessons, whatever they are, of Modernism and Post-Modernism. The novel in English is once more a confident animal. We no longer need ‘experimental’ sideshows.