Fiction and the Poverty of Theory

John Sutherland

  • News from Nowhere by David Caute
    Hamish Hamilton, 403 pp, £10.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 241 11920 0
  • O-Zone by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 469 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 241 11948 0
  • Ticket to Ride by Dennis Potter
    Faber, 202 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 571 14523 X

A drunken American historian once lurched over to David Caute at a party and told him: ‘Having read your last novel, or part of it, I’d advise you to give up writing fiction – if you weren’t such a lousy historian.’ Caute, a connoisseur of masochism, tells the story against himself (in Contemporary Novelists, 1976). The insult was unfair on a number of counts. Not least because it assumed that Caute the historian and Caute the novelist were divisible. One of the author’s more quixotic aspirations in his varied literary career has been to make a genuinely historical – or, as he used to call it in his Anti-University days, ‘radical’ – novel: that is to say, fiction which will not just understand the world, but change it. (On the good Brechtian theory of erst fressen, Caute has also written money-spinning soft-porn thrillers as ‘John Salisbury’.)

Like his previous attempt at mixing 100 per cent proof world history with the small beer of English fiction (The Decline of the West, a title to rank with Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part II), News from Nowhere is a crashing failure. But it’s a monumental failure, a Spruce Goose or Centre Point of novels that will stand as something of a literary landmark.

First the title. Morris wrote the original News from Nowhere (1890) at a poignant moment in his career. His most utopian vision of future socialism, the work coincided with the old man’s forced departure from his paper (in which it was serialised), the Commonweal, and with his resignation from the Socialist League, ousted as a sentimental fogey by the new militant generation of theorised anarchists. Thereafter, Morris’s few remaining years were apolitically devoted to the Kelmscott Press. The hero of Caute’s News from Nowhere, who himself writes a visionary News from Nowhere, is at the end of the narrative ousted by the editorial board of a journal called Thought and Action (transparently based on New Left Review) and retires to comfortable nonentity in the BBC World Service. In short, Caute’s novel returns to that recurrent crisis of British socialism he earlier analysed in The Confrontation (1972): namely, the conflict between old (sentimental) socialism and the new (hard) left. The hero of News from Nowhere, Richard Stern, updates Caute’s earlier hero, middle-aged, middle-of-the-ideological-road Steven Bright, the fortyish academic trapped between two eras whose crack-up was portrayed in The Demonstration (1970) and The Occupation (1971). The formal advantage of the novel for Caute’s purposes is that it can (as the historical essay or political journalism can’t) give full weight to the sexual and familial complications of this conflict.

In this novel, Stern is tugged one way by filial attachment to a set of patriarchal male intellectuals older than himself (Russell, Sartre, ‘Harry Marquis’), and another way by simple heterosexual lust for a trio of younger revolutionary women: Beth the Marxist Feminist, Esther the Rhodesian dissident and Liberty the firm-breasted, AK 47-toting black guerrilla. The narrative has lots of sexy bits of the ‘he impaled the warm meat of her loins on his questing finger’ kind.

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