Action and Suffering

Marilyn Butler

  • Ideas and the Novel by Mary McCarthy
    Weidenfeld, 121 pp, £4.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 297 77896 X

Why is the novel frightened of ideas? When did the dominant literary form of Western society turn away from dealing with large issues? Mary McCarthy’s 1980 Northcliffe Lectures begin by asking such questions with verve and elegance. Perhaps, she thinks, it is all the fault of the old maestro Henry James. As a critic, and even more as a practitioner, he got the public used to the doctrine of the novel as fine art, ‘a creation beyond paraphrase or reduction’. In James’s novels, the characters are typically made to talk of one another, and not of the issues that in real life are exercising the author’s fellow citizens. ‘What were Adam Verver’s views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labour? We do not know.’ But if the number of concepts allowed into James’s fiction is drastically restricted, compared with the ideas that are kicked around in, say, Little Dorrit or Middlemarch, so too are the specific things. What are the ‘spoils of Poynton’, the exquisite treasures for which Mrs Gereth and Fleda Vetch care so much? Furniture? Objets d’art? Have they the consistency of a collection, or are they heterogeneous treasures, linked only by their beauty and by their commercial value? The hints James gives are scarce and confusing. ‘It was a resolve, very American, to scrape his sacred texts clean of the material factor … He etherealised the novel beyond its wildest dreams.’

James’s purge was designed to expel two kinds of gross matter – concepts, and common factuality. Mary McCarthy darkly suspects a kind of snobbery in his association of the two. ‘I do not easily see what these tabooed subjects have in common, unless they were familiar to most people and hence bore the trace of other handling ... Henry James wished fiction to dwell on the piano nobile of social intercourse – neither upstairs in the pent garrets of intellectual labour nor below in the basement and kitchens of domestic toil.’ Since James, the basement has been flung open to view; those who choose to write about kitchen sinks, cabbages or cunts do not offend against literary decorum. The point which bothers Mary McCarthy is that a taboo still operates for the garret of hard, prosy thought. As a 20th-century novelist herself, she feels limited to an arbitrarily narrow intellectual range.

It must have occurred to many of her listeners that other would-be intellectuals have not been entirely put off the novel by James’s prescription. Wasn’t D.H. Lawrence full of the general theories he wanted to propagate, and didn’t his novels become vehicles for them? Yes, but, as Miss McCarthy points out, Lawrence’s message was itself anti-intellectual: his cult of more trust in the body entails less attention to cerebration. Meanwhile he also perversely denied that he was using the novel for so intellectual a purpose as preaching a message. ‘If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’ This is like Joseph Conrad’s mock-horror at being told that he had at last, in an essay, revealed his philosophy. ‘Do I have a philosophy? Shall I die of it?’ At the very least, the modern intellectual novelist has felt a strong inclination to cover his tracks.

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