- Ah, but your land is beautiful by Alan Paton
Cape, 270 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 02 241981 0
- A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone
Secker, 402 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 436 49681 X
- Something Else by Virginia Fassnidge
Constable, 152 pp, £5.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 09 464340 7
- The Air We Breathe by Gabriel Josipovici
Harvester, 114 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 7108 0056 8
It is a curious thing that while so many critics are busy telling each other that literature is a linguistic game, that novels are purely formal structures and that their pretensions to represent the world are illusory, novelists continue to write what in any serious sense must be considered historical novels. By a historical novel I mean, not period romance, but a fiction that is tied by close and numerous links to a real place at a real time, its essence being to tell a truth about an independently verifiable world, outside the realm of fiction. One of the most famous of these came out in 1948: it was Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country, so intimately bound up with South African history that Paton had to write a preface to distinguish those parts which are formally fiction. ‘As a social record,’ he concluded, ‘it is the plain and simple truth.’ Of course it is not merely a social record: it is the deeply imagined story of an individual life. And Paton has had to devise a language to tell the story in, for the simple Zulu parson who is the protagonist does not deal in the current coin of modern English speech. So that the literary question was as demanding as the historical one; the political act cannot be separated from the work of art. Now, after thirty years, comes Ah, but your land is beautiful, with similar themes and settings, the date of the action a few years later, the conflicts more distinctly those of the modern world. And though the continuity with Paton’s earlier work is complete, this is a different kind of book. Cry, the beloved country is an exploration both of the racial problem and of personal suffering; and its quasi-Biblical language is a means of penetrating into a sorrowful and bewildered consciousness. Ah, but your land is beautiful is a panorama, a chronicle, with a wide variety of characters and the interest distributed between them. It is a less lyrical and more political book, in part an evident roman-à-clef. The period is the 1950s, the time of the Passive Resistance campaign, the Sophiatown removals, the emergence of the South African Liberal Party and the early stages of the Nationalist government.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 4 No. 1 · 21 January 1982
SIR: It seems to be a convention that writers of critical and scholarly books may answer hostile reviews but novelists should not. It is easy to see why this convention should have arisen. What seems to be at issue in a book which deals with other books or with some aspect of the real world is something checkable, while, novels being mere stories, approval or disapproval of them is simply a matter of opinion. I have some sympathy with this view. At least I pity the poor fiction reviewer who has to spend so much of his life reading novels he doesn’t like – it’s as bad as having to spend one’s time shut up in a room with a person one doesn’t like, and I can’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would want to do such a thing.
However, matters are not as simple as this. On the one hand, as epistolary controversies in journals show, it is rare for a debate over a critical or scholarly book really to centre on checkable facts; while, on the other hand, reviewers of fiction have the unfortunate habit of suggesting that they themselves are dealing with matters of fact and not simply of opinion. Thus Graham Hough, in his review of my recent novel (LRB, 3 December 1981), even goes so far as to use the editorial ‘we’: ‘It is always a worry to know who is being talked about. Also to know where we are. We flit confusingly and often in the same paragraph between a hotel bedroom, a car, a house in the country.’ This, however, can be dealt with quite easily by the reader who does not like the sensation of flitting in this way, and Hough shows how it is done: ‘Readers of the French novel of 25 years ago,’ he says, ‘will recognise the symptoms – enigmas which never become compelling because they do not arise out of the material but are just put in to make it harder.’ I don’t think this sentence makes much sense as it stands (surely something needs to follow ‘harder’?), but one can see roughly what Hough means. Yet how does he know why ‘enigmas’ are ‘put in’? I cannot speak for that hybrid animal, the French novel of 25 years ago, but I can assure Mr Hough that as far as my own novel is concerned nothing was ‘put in’, either to make things harder for the reader, as he suggests here, or ‘to enrich the reader’s apprehension’, as he opines later.
I would not raise the matter were it not that there are two premises to Hough’s review which it may be of some general interest to bring to the surface. The first is enshrined in the dismissive phrase: ‘a lingering but still severe case of the Robbe-Grillet syndrome’. It’s a pity your journal had to make use of a reviewer so ill-informed that he still has to evoke the name of Robbe-Grillet as though it were synonymous with ‘the French novel of 25 years ago’. Pinget, Duras, Simon and Sarraute, as well as Robbe-Grillet, are still writing, and more interestingly than most novelists in the English-speaking world, it seems to me, and their novels differ from each other as much as, say, Muriel Spark’s differ from William Golding’s and Saul Bellow’s from either. Actually, if my novel owes a debt to anyone it is to Claude Simon. But the important point is this: why do people of Mr Hough’s persuasion not talk about the bulk of novels being produced today as ‘showing a severe case of the Charlotte Brontë syndrome’? Or of the ‘George Eliot syndrome’? Why is there this presumption that the novel as written by these two writers is somehow natural, while that written by Robbe-Grillet is fabricated-with-intent-to-confuse or with-intent-to-be-clever?
That is one question. The second is related. Mr Hough begins his review of my novel by saying that I am ‘prominent among those who are anxious to free the novel from any hampering subservience to the outer world’. I have no idea what this strange sentence means. How could any novel do that? Why should anyone want to do anything so peculiar? I can assure him that I have no wish to do so, and certainly no anxiety to do so. He also seems to think that a person would want to spend his life ‘exploring the possibilities of narration’. I can just about see that a structuralist critic á la Propp might be interested in this, but I can assure him that this particular novelist only wants to try and say what he feels he needs to say in the best possible way. That Hough may not like that way is his prerogative. As I said at the start, there seems to me no more reason why one should like a particular novel than why one should like a particular person. However, if one gets paid to review novels one ought to make an effort not to confuse gut reaction with matters of fact, and one ought to be particularly careful not to impute motives to authors. I can see, though, that ‘I hate it I hate it I hate it’ would not look like a very intelligent review. But then what we have does not look particularly intelligent either.
Graham Hough writes: I thought of mentioning Claude Simon as well as Robbe-Grillet in my review of Mr Josipovici’s novel, but in the end decided to use only one example. In what I said about his views on the relation of the novel to the outer world I was thinking mainly of his essay ‘The Lessons of Modernism’, with its demand for ‘other rules than those of verisimilitude, formal rules perhaps, such as exist in chess or football’, and its interest in stories constructed around sentences containing words that can be changed into other words by altering a single letter, etc. I confess to a certain impatience with all this, and if it has led me to misrepresent his opinions I am sorry.