Ian Watt: The Novel and the Wartime Critic 
by Marina MacKay.
Oxford, 228 pp., £25, November 2018, 978 0 19 882499 2
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‘My​ military career was on the comic side.’ Self-protective irony was Ian Watt’s chosen register when describing his wartime experience some twenty years later. That experience began when the 24-year-old Lieutenant Watt was posted, along with the rest of the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, to the Far East in the winter of 1941. After a 20,000-mile journey by sea, the Suffolks arrived in Singapore on 29 January 1942. Unfortunately, the Japanese arrived less than two weeks later. Singapore had been heavily fortified against the expected attack from the sea, but proved to be calamitously unprepared when the Japanese arrived across the narrow strip of land connecting it to the Malay peninsula. ‘I was chosen to deny Singapore Zoo to the enemy,’ Watt recalled, and having decided that ‘certain buffalo, orangutan and other large caged animals would be dangerous to leave at large once the balloon went up,’ he began to take preventative measures with an anti-tank rifle (they may have been the only shots Watt fired ‘in action’). The troops under his command objected to such summary treatment being meted out to the zoo’s two zebras; they were released and followed the retreating soldiers ‘at a wary distance’.

One of the things we learned from Freud, according to the literary critic Graham Hough, is to see ‘what might appear to be a rather perverse literary device’ as meeting an unobvious need: ‘The elaboration of a raw personal situation into a form in which it can be more readily accepted is not a matter of evasiveness or decorum, but a profound psychological necessity.’ Watt’s Far East narrative is most certainly a ‘literary device’ in that sense. The image of a unit of British troops in baggy shorts being shadowed by two stripey stalkers evokes those classic moments in surreal comedy in which human beings try unsuccessfully to shoo away the unwanted attentions of an animal. It’s an image of both absurdity and futility. But therein, of course, lay its appropriateness as a way of coping with what had been a particularly extreme kind of ‘raw personal situation’.

Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February, after only a few days of fighting. For the British it was, militarily and symbolically, one of the worst disasters of the war. It proved to be an intensely personal disaster for the more than eighty thousand Allied personnel who were captured that day. Worst of all was life in the makeshift camps set up in the jungle for those sent to work on the construction of the railway line linking Thailand to Burma. Thousands died from malnutrition, disease, exhaustion and ill-treatment. Those condemned to this liminal existence looked back on the notoriously harsh Changi prison camp in Singapore, where they had first been incarcerated, as a haven of order and plenty.

Lieutenant Watt was believed to have been killed in the defence of Singapore, the War Office informed his mother. Ten months later, a message came via the International Red Cross advising her that he had in fact been taken prisoner (he had been wounded by mortar shrapnel). After this brief, hope-stirring snippet of information nothing more was heard until after the end of the war in the Far East in August 1945 and the liberation of the labour camps. It turned out that in the autumn of 1942 Watt and 39 other prisoners had been squeezed into a closed freight-wagon and sent on a gruesome five-day journey into northern Thailand, where he spent the rest of the war as a forced labourer. In the course of his captivity he contracted malaria, beri-beri, diphtheria and permanently scarring tropical ulcers, as well as suffering the psychological and physical effects of frequent beatings and the near daily sight of ugly, painful deaths. The damage to his health was sufficiently serious to require hospitalisation in Burma after the end of the war; he wasn’t finally demobilised until March 1946.

So, not exactly ‘on the comic side’. Watt was one of those – the extremity of their experience makes me hesitant to describe them as the ‘lucky’ ones – who survived, but he never wholly recovered. Like most of his fellow survivors, he found it almost impossible to convey the real character of his wartime experience to his family and friends, and this became a psychological burden that had to be handled in indirect or displaced forms, though not, as Hough pointed out, ‘a matter of evasiveness or decorum’. (Hough is a particularly pertinent witness: he too went on to become a prominent literary critic after being captured at Singapore and spending the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese.)

Just how ‘displaced’ were the forms in which Watt was to explore aspects of an experience that could scarcely be approached directly is the subject matter of Marina MacKay’s deft and thoughtful study. In 1957 Watt published The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Few works of criticism from the second half of the 20th century have been more influential. The Rise of the Novel, MacKay reports, ‘continues to be amplified, supplemented or attacked – it must somehow be reckoned with – by every critic concerned with the novel’s emergence, that vast field of inquiry for which Watt’s very title, with or without sceptical quotation marks, remains the usual short-hand designation.’ From the 1980s onwards, attack was the dominant mode of engagement. Parodying the accumulating barrage, Lennard J. Davis wrote that Watt ‘made some really big mistakes’:

He thought there was ‘a’ novel; he thought it had a beginning; he assumed it was a narrative fiction that displaced previous narrative fictions and had a ‘rise’ located in metropole [sic] England. In doing so, he was naive, sexist, racist, Anglophilic, logocentric, essentialist, positivist, vulgarly materialistic, and probably homophobic. But nobody is perfect.

As Davis’s hyperbole implies, these charges owed more to fashion than to actual failings on Watt’s part, but although they reveal his book to have been of its time in ways that now excite opprobrium, his framing of the issues has retained its centrality and pertinence. As Nicholas Seager, in a study cheekily entitled The Rise of the Novel, put it: ‘“The rise of the novel” is one of the most widely circulated narratives of English studies.’

There has for some time been a tendency to condescend to the literary criticism of the two decades or so after 1945 as falling in the last age of innocence (or, in more hostile accounts, benightedness) before the arrival of Theory. But to reread The Rise of the Novel now is to be reminded what a wide-ranging and, in its way, theoretically sophisticated work it is. Watt cites Lukács in German and Durkheim in French, alongside works by Weber, Troeltsch, Mannheim, Merton, Parsons, Radcliffe-Brown and more. In his preface he thanks Adorno, Henry Nash Smith, I.A. Richards, Talcott Parsons and Peter Laslett, among others. The standard caricature of the Cambridge-influenced criticism of the postwar years represents it as blunderingly empirical and cosily parochial: these stereotypes wilt and shrivel when confronted by Watt’s ambitious, analytical and intellectually restless book.

MacKay’s study is not a biography: her focus is on the ways in which Watt’s wartime experiences helped to shape his literary criticism, especially his most famous book. But rereading that book makes me want to know more than MacKay provides about his intellectual development, especially in the years immediately before and after the war. Watt’s wartime experience may have affected the tenor of his criticism for the rest of his life, but obviously it was not the sole determinant of his approach (MacKay, it should be emphasised, never proposes anything so crassly reductive). To understand his development, one would also need to know more about, among other things, the critical models he was responding to or reacting against. One can piece a few more details of his life together from other sources, but he fully shared the reticence of English men of his generation, a trait reinforced by the survivor’s unwillingness, or incapacity, to talk about the most extraordinary period of his life.

Born in 1917 to a French mother and a Scottish father, Watt’s life was to involve more than the usual amount of displacement and resettlement. Having excelled in the English Tripos in late 1930s Cambridge, he embarked on research for a PhD, in the course of which he spent a term (it was to have been a year) on a postgraduate scholarship at the Sorbonne – he was fluent in French. The comic interlude of the war interrupted his academic progress, but in 1946 he returned to Cambridge. Another scholarship provided him with two years in the United States (where he met his American wife), following which he took up a research fellowship at his old college, St John’s. In 1952 he moved to a job at Berkeley, staying there for ten years; and then, after a two-year interlude at the newly founded University of East Anglia, took up a post at Stanford in 1964, where he remained for the rest of his career. He died in 1999.

Although he owed his initial intellectual formation to a version of ‘Cambridge English’, his early sojourn in the US expanded his horizons in various ways: for example, he discussed his ideas extensively with Adorno in Los Angeles and with Parsons at Harvard, neither of them staples of the Scrutiny world. But non-literary friendships in Cambridge in the late 1940s and early 1950s also left their mark. His meditation on the distinctive functions of print, for example, bears the impress of his collaboration with the Cambridge anthropologist Jack Goody, and his analysis of the development of family structure in early modern England shows the influence of conversations with the historian Peter Laslett. For Watt, as for several other literary critics of his generation, the traditional institutional division between English and history represented a mild practical inconvenience, not the embodiment of a distinction between natural kinds. When he helped establish the new University of East Anglia in 1962, he set up a single department that combined what elsewhere was divided between history and English. More generally, he believed that the right route for English studies was ‘to combine literary criticism with historical and sociological scholarship’.

The Rise of the Novel was published in 1957; Watt could scarcely be accused of having rushed into print: he had, after all, begun research on the topic 19 years earlier. But along the way the questions had changed. He had started from some fairly conventional notions, traceable back to Leslie Stephen and Queenie Leavis, about the emergence of the novel form and how it was bound up with the growth of a reading public in the first half of the 18th century. Returning to his studies after the war, he didn’t altogether abandon this concern: an introductory chapter on the reading public is included in the eventual book. But, prompted by his friendships with historians and social theorists, he began to ask more ambitious questions. What, exactly, distinguishes the novel from all earlier forms of narrative fiction? How does social change influence the evolution of literary form? He also asked some more specific, local questions. What distinguished Defoe’s emphasis on the inner life from the Puritan tradition of spiritual self-inspection? Why were Richardson’s long and in some ways cumbrous novels – which were both enabled and constrained by their epistolary form – so successful? There was nothing parochial about Watt’s inquiries, despite the modest focus announced in his subtitle. In trying to pin down the distinctiveness of the novel he ranged across Greek tragedy, Roman ‘lives’, medieval fabliaux, Renaissance romances and French classical drama, touching on authors from Boccaccio to Rabelais to Cervantes to Bunyan, and more. But later critics, in their eagerness to convict him of one or other kind of culpable naivety, tended to lose sight of all that. As Seager observed, The Rise of the Novel ‘has unfortunately become a book more often caricatured than consulted’.

In his opening chapter, Watt tentatively offered an approximate answer to his main question: ‘The novel is surely distinguished from other genres and from previous forms of fiction by the amount of attention it habitually accords both to the individualisation of its characters and to the detailed presentation of their environment.’ This was the essence of what he dubbed ‘the realism of presentation’. The larger historical or meta-historical story within which he placed these formal innovations was ‘the rise of individualism’, a conceptual compound that, in its general or abstract form, owed most to German sociologists such as Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, though its empirical uses had a longer pedigree in British social and economic thought. Defoe provided Watt’s first and most compelling exhibit here, as the creator of such uncompromising individualists as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, both distinguished, in a phrase Watt used of fellow prisoners who survived the camps, by ‘the unreasoning vigour of their urge to live’. But Watt is no less interested in the democratisation of the spiritual life that was a legacy of the Puritan tradition, and here his emphasis shifts from economic survival to the inner life, the validation of which he sees as the sine qua non of the development of the novel.

As a preliminary to his discussion of Richardson, Watt embarks on a learned analysis of ‘individualism’ in its more domestic aspect – namely, the evolution of the characteristically modern pattern of the conjugal unit out of the larger, multi-generational, retainer-laden, medieval household. Changing family and work patterns resulted in, among other things, a marked increase in the early 18th century in the number of ‘genteel spinsters’. At the same time, a further aspect of the legacy of Puritanism was the ‘redefinition of virtue in primarily sexual terms’. Between them these changes provided the historical conditions for Richardson’s peculiarly intense engagement with the contemporary situation of women. Watt teases out with much delicacy the ways in which Richardson is alert to the self-deceptions accompanying repressed desire: the social code may require absolute sexual restraint on the part of the woman, but such conduct only generates the dramatic tension that drives the narrative forward if there are strong and potentially disruptive forces needing to be restrained, a tension that was to provide the germ of so much later romantic fiction.

Notoriously, Fielding, the third member of Watt’s select club, does not appear to fit the pattern. The illusion of realism is constantly punctured by authorial interventions, the development of character is subordinated to comic effect, and the presentation of the hero’s adventures recalls the picaresque reworking of epic rather than the new blending of interiority and social realism. But Watt’s identification with Fielding’s genial worldliness and commitment to maintaining the fragile fabric of social order is palpable. Fielding may not exhibit ‘the realism of presentation’ that Watt explored in his first two authors, but he does represent ‘the realism of assessment’, an implicit wisdom about certain human qualities and where they stand in our judgment of the well-lived life in society. This is presented as the necessary corrective to the corrosive power of individualism: Fielding reminds us that all our activities are dependent on submission to collective constraints and the social norms that inform them, a view that had been given the starkest possible endorsement by everyday life in Japanese prison camps.

Just as it is important to remember that, contrary to the caricature, The Rise of the Novel does not endorse or celebrate ‘individualism’, so we should not overlook Watt’s ambivalence towards Richardson. He found much to admire, above all in Clarissa, but he also unsparingly identified the ways in which Richardson, especially in Pamela, encouraged the most unrealistic romantic fantasies. Watt found him guilty of using the technique of realism – or what he also nicely termed his ‘unselective amplitude of presentation’ – to ‘re-create the pseudo-realism of the daydream’, and picks out a line of descent from Richardson to the wish-fulfilment at the heart of the modern popular novel. Interestingly, Watt’s implicit contemporary cultural critique did not confine itself to the novel, but was extended to the medium which had taken over some of the novel’s functions, the Hollywood film. This is one of the areas where we would like to know more about his friendship with Adorno. Watt declared in a later reminiscence that his year in California in the mid-1940s ‘was to bring me into touch with someone who was certainly to be more responsible than any other single person for the intellectual shaping of The Rise of the Novel, and for the long delay in its completion, the late Theodor Adorno’. MacKay has unearthed an exchange in 1955 between Adorno, now back in Germany, and Watt, in which Adorno is soliciting a contribution for a projected book of essays on popular culture and Watt appears to be thinking of proposing a piece along the lines of ‘from Richardson’s P to 20c Hollywood’. The essay remained unwritten, but it is interesting to consider whether the later reputation of The Rise of the Novel would have benefited from being more widely seen to have a kinship with the radical cultural critique of the Frankfurt School.

Watt’s censure of Hollywood was not confined to generalities: he wrote a stinging attack on one of its most successful products, a film which appeared in the same year as The Rise of the Novel and which touched painfully on Watt’s wartime experience. Among his objections to David Lean’s blockbuster The Bridge on the River Kwai were its ignorant unrealism about the possibility of escape from the Thai railway camps and its concentration on the improbable exploits of its American hero, Shears (played by the hunky William Holden). In both respects, Watt argued, the film embodied the characteristic defects of fantasy-entertainment down the ages, exaggerating individual agency and gratifying the desire for happy endings. Both Pamela and Lean’s film were found guilty of these charges, and MacKay suggests that this is another place where Watt’s wartime experience underwrites his literary scholarship. For, as he wrote in a later essay about his time as a prisoner, ‘all our circumstances were hostile to individual fantasies; surviving meant accepting the intractable realities which surrounded us, and making sure that our fellow prisoners accepted them too.’ The need to accept ‘the intractable realities which surround us’ became something of a leitmotif of Watt’s scholarship, an emphasis evident in his admiration for the only writer to whom he devoted a full-length book, Joseph Conrad.

MacKay, not unreasonably, sees Watt as part of a wider intellectual style that flourished in Britain in the ten or 15 years after 1945. It emphasised clarity and plainness in writing rather than obscurity or ornament, valued concreteness rather than abstraction, and respected the ordinary and everyday more than the surreal or exotic. But we should be careful not to slide from this plausible Zeitgeisty thought to seeing Watt as a kind of academic Orwell. Watt had none of the belligerence with which Orwell thrust his carefully constructed plain-man persona into the reader’s face; Watt’s is a conversable critical prose, reminiscent in this respect of Empson in his chattier moments and having much in common with the easy, unshowy critical penetration of Watt’s contemporary Frank Kermode. But, as his intellectual trajectory suggests, considerable scholarly resources stood surety for this agreeable surface manner. As Watt reflected, his aim had been ‘to transcend what I had learned from the idealist modes of German thought by translating it into empirical categories of commonsense language’. In keeping such resources largely out of sight, he was following the recommendation of I.A. Richards, who, after reading an early draft of Watt’s first book in which all the theoretical scaffolding was still in place, advised: ‘If I were you, Ian, I would keep away from the big transportation companies.’

The question of what he called, with characteristic courtliness, ‘the appropriate linguistic decorum of literary criticism’ preoccupied Watt, who was temperamentally and culturally antipathetic to the heavily armoured units which dominated so much humanities scholarship in the later part of his life. He acknowledged that ‘all more or less specialised pursuits have their own vocabularies; plumbers make a nice distinction between a coupling and a union.’ But he went on: ‘The vocabulary of criticism should be as commonsense as possible in its attempt to achieve clarity and accessibility of statement. It should also avoid unnecessary abstraction as a courtesy to the reader, and to the subject.’ Just how much abstraction was necessary was a matter of tactical judgment in individual cases.

His commitment to this relaxed pragmatism was sorely tried when, relatively late in his career, one of the readers of the typescript of his Conrad in the 19th Century for the University of California Press in effect recommended that the book be turned down because it lacked a clear statement of methodology. Watt’s magisterial reply should be kept on file for use by all authors subject to this not uncommon form of persecution.

The full critical justification of my Conrad enterprise which the Editorial Committee asks me to add to my preface would not be particularly difficult to do (examples are available in most doctoral dissertations); but, through its necessary abstractness, over-simplification, and implied self-importance it would remove the book from the particular literary sphere where I think it belongs; and if I began the book with such a statement, I would immediately bore, offend or deter many of my readers … I don’t think anyone is entitled to assert as a general principle that every book of criticism should contain ‘a forthright statement or explanation of the rationale of its critical method.’ I stand with Samuel Johnson in rejecting ‘the cant of those who judge by principles rather than perception’.

The publisher backed down, and Watt’s very good book went out into the world with its admirably modest two-page preface.

Clearly, Watt was far from being a naive reader, but he did believe, with unashamed steadfastness, that the critic’s primary obligation was to do justice to the literary object and to communicate his impressions to other, no less sophisticated but sometimes less well-informed readers. He liked to quote Erich Auerbach’s assertion that in reading literature we need an ‘empirical confidence in our spontaneous faculty for understanding others on the basis of our own experience’. As all this suggests, Watt didn’t go in for grand methodological pronouncements: confronted by one attempt to pin a label on him, he replied that ‘My basic reaction is a yawn followed by a plea of nolo contendere.’ Still, writing in 1969 to the man who had been the much admired commanding officer 0f the British prisoners at the camp on the River Kwai, Brigadier Philip Toosey, he did offer a brisk vindication of his own choice of career as an academic: ‘Whatever other disadvantages it has, one is never selling oneself, or saying or writing things other than for what one believes to be the objective truth.’ ‘The objective truth’ may not be a phrase that finds much favour in English departments these days, and Watt might have had to modify his confidence about not ‘selling oneself’ had he had to suffer the imperatives to self-advertising that now govern university life. Even so, this sturdy conviction served him well: he wrote only when he had something to say that he believed was true, and he always said it with the minimum of fuss. There are many worse ways to conduct an academic career.

MacKay​ presents her case with exemplary tact, but some parts of the argument cannot help but seem speculative or not wholly persuasive. Pointing to the congruities between Watt’s wartime experiences and the deprivations of Robinson Crusoe is the easy part. Similarly, suggesting that Watt’s appreciation of Fielding’s commitment to the social order owed something to his own experience of survival depending on the skeletal re-creation of order in the prison camps has an intuitive appeal. But his handling of Richardson poses a greater challenge to this approach, and the three chapters on Richardson are the heart of The Rise of the Novel. MacKay makes some brave stabs, suggesting, for example, that Watt’s experience as a prisoner made him better able to sympathise with Clarissa’s sense of powerless entrapment. Perhaps so, but the strength of the Richardson chapters is the way in which Watt combines the details of social history with a responsiveness to the peculiar power of the epistolary form, as in the brilliant flash of sympathy with which he enters into the situation of 18th-century gentlewomen, secluded in their closets,

where each room has its feverish and complicated inner life. Their drama unrolls in a flow of letters from one lonely closet to another, letters written by an occupant who pauses only to listen with wild surmise to footsteps in some other part of the house, and who communicates the intolerable sense of strain which arises when an opening door threatens some new violation of a cherished privacy.

Watt credited Richardson with a particular sensitivity to this feature of contemporary female experience (within a certain class) – ‘the letter form … offered Richardson a shortcut, as it were, to the heart’ – but it was Watt himself who explored the social changes that had made such experience available for Richardson’s distinctively concentrated fictional treatment. And as his references to the ‘feverish’ inner life, the ‘wild’ surmise and the ‘intolerable’ sense of strain suggest, Watt was no less alive than his author to the intensity of erotic emotion that underwrote the daily dramas described in Richardson’s artful periods. (Echoing the ‘wild surmise’ with which Keats has ‘stout’ Cortez’s men first look upon the Pacific Ocean neatly suggests that even the smallest worlds may have their own immense horizons of unknowing.) There is some fine close criticism in these chapters that seems to owe more to the example of figures such as Richards and Empson than to the years spent in Japanese labour camps. Writing in another context many years later, Watt himself acknowledged this aspect of his formation; he professed great admiration for the dazzling symphonies of erudition composed by such scholars as Auerbach and Leo Spitzer, but also registered his distance: ‘If I am tempted to emulate the bravura with which they take off from the word on the page to leap into the farthest empyreans of Kulturgeschichte, I soon discover that the Cambridge east winds have condemned me to less giddy modes of critical transport.’

MacKay also seems to press a little hard when seeking to establish links between the idiom of postwar novel criticism and the legal processes of the war tribunals, or between the British prisoners’ literary efforts and the eventual establishment of creative writing at UEA. Still, whatever minor reservations one may have about some of her book’s more speculative claims, it offers a moving portrait of a figure who subordinated self to subject matter without quite eradicating the traces of sufferings and traumas that went far beyond the experience of the subsequent generations that made up the bulk of his readership. MacKay’s study is also a reminder of a moment when literary criticism seemed important in part because it was about so much more than literature. In 1979 one colleague greeted the publication of Conrad in the 19th Century as ‘more Watt on Life’, and there was truth as well as teasing in the quip. Watt had long admired not just Conrad’s transmutation of stoicism into art, but also his personal commitment to the traditional virtues of duty and loyalty as ways to shore up one’s fragments against the arbitrary succession of waste and loss which life otherwise comprised. Linking the novelist to another figure he venerated, Watt wrote: ‘Neither Johnson nor Conrad wrote directly about their inner lives, and in each case it is only our subliminal sense of great energies at play to keep turbulent and destructive personal feelings under conscious control which makes us feel that we are in touch with one of the great heroes of the wars of the mind.’ Neither Lieutenant Watt nor Professor Watt were, it seems, comfortable speaking of themselves in such an exalted register, or indeed speaking of themselves much at all. But, even so, there was a form of kinship here that travelled across the globe and survived the worst deprivations of the jungles of South-East Asia. Within days of his repatriation to England after the war, Watt made his own pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit Conrad’s grave.

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