Loose Canons

Edward Mendelson

  • History and Value: The Clarendon Lectures and the Northcliffe Lectures 1987 by Frank Kermode
    Oxford, 160 pp, £15.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 812381 7
  • Nya by Stephen Haggard and Frank Kermode
    Oxford, 475 pp, £5.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 282135 0
  • British Writers of the Thirties by Valentine Cunningham
    Oxford, 530 pp, £30.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 19 212267 3

Frank Kermode’s History and Value reads the literature of the Thirties as ‘a love story, almost a story of forbidden love’. The story is usually told in political terms, but the characters and actions in Kermode’s version and in the conventional version are the same: the poets and novelists who hoped to serve a proletarian revolution that would abolish their privilege and consume their class. In the received version of the ‘Thirties myth’, the middle-class writers who took up left-wing views succeeded only in deceiving themselves and betraying their gifts. In Kermode’s counter-myth, these writers braved a dangerous passage across a social and psychological frontier in the hope of offering their work and their lives to a class that, to them, was a strange and wondrous Other, the image and agent of apocalyptic power. Their border-passages were transgressions. They violated social and artistic tabus. Transgression always evokes pious horror among those who, in Auden’s words, ‘would rather be ruined than changed’. But these transgressions were acts of conscience, imagination and love.

Most of Kermode’s authors came to regret their transgressions. The ‘Thirties myth’, articulated first by Orwell, received its strongest sanction in the reproaches made by the older Auden to the younger Auden. For Kermode, their regrets do nothing to diminish their acts. His brief, he writes, does not require him to assert that his bourgeois authors were never glib or false in their politics, and he is urbanely devastating when he finds sleek condescension stalking beneath the rags of pity. But his book is a lover’s discourse. Where others find fault he is not embarrassed to praise. He hears in the political literature of the Thirties a lucid note of awe and wonder. His authors began with a generous wish ‘to learn about and possibly love the unknown, the Other’; the consequence, more passionate than they had hoped, was a literature ‘splendid in the moment of its enforced engagement with the almost unthinkable Other’ – and ‘capable of fineness even in its moment of withdrawal’.

The love that Kermode writes about is as visionary as it is transgressive. The revolutionary virtues that the writers admired among the workers were not the virtues that the workers generally detected among themselves. Kermode recalls from his proletarian adolescence in the Thirties that the working class showed no sign of growing ripe with revolutionary transformation. Families like his own ‘managed fairly well’ on a manual worker’s £3 a week. Among those who lived as he did near the bottom of the ladder ‘animosity was reserved largely for those who were a rung lower.’ This makes the political commitment of the poets all the more admirable: ‘consciousness of the need and possibility of action was to a very considerable extent an affair of middle-class conscience. And it is surely to the credit of the intellectual left, now somewhat despised for naiveté that they were so moved, that they came to believe that they must do something about the whole system that in their view made poverty and war equally inevitable.’ If their work seems to us now a record of their failure to understand or alter the conditions of their age, ‘we need to ask in what degree it is our failure rather than theirs.’

Kermode’s theme is the virtue of transgression – virtue in its double sense of merit and power. He begins with a forgotten Thirties novel that he regards as an agreeable minor work, not a neglected masterpiece. It failed to survive because, despite its merits, it ‘mimes transgression but never crosses the boundary’. Stephen Haggard’s Nya is the story of the love between a young man and a 13-year-old girl. Readers of Lolita will imagine such a book as a hotbed of sexual and linguistic transgression. But in Nya nothing untoward happens. Sexual innocence is not even tempted into experience; the girl first plays among street-boys but returns as if by instinct to the middle class into which she was born. While the more brutal representatives of conventional morality are challenged, conventional morality itself is affirmed. The book plays it safe, and without the disturbing, unresolved energy of transgression, no book can survive. In making this argument about the way books survive Kermode focuses on transgressive love and transgressive language and form. He could equally have argued that no book can be taken seriously if someone doesn’t get murdered in it, or if someone doesn’t fall under the threat of murder.

None of this implies that the canon of remembered books constitutes more than a small fraction of the transgressive works that deserve a place in it; Kermode’s book is in part a brief for the undeservedly forgotten. Nor does it imply that everyone should commit three transgressions before breakfast. The transgressor always stands in moral and mortal danger. In the background of this book is Eliot’s remark that it is better to do evil than to do nothing, because when we do evil we at least are human. Kermode prefers the irrational hatreds and disgusts of Wyndham Lewis to the sober rationalisations of Lewis’s interpreters who ‘smooth him out’ into a principled critic of an unruly age. But he prefers even more the sacrificial transgressions of forbidden love. He sees in Christopher Caudwell’s conversion to Communism a ‘loving surrender to necessity’ that could only have occurred through a ‘psychic revolution in the lover’.

Caudwell’s commitment to the proletariat was complete. The politics of less committed writers has plausibly been attacked as an exercise in sentimental sublimation: what they really wanted from the workers was sex. Kermode sees the matter in a different light. The intertwining of sex and politics is a forbidden transgression that is also a universal fact. He draws a transgressive moral from Robert Musil: ‘The many sexual combinations exhibited in The Man without Qualities testify to the great truth that all knowledge of the other, all intercourse between opposites, is analogous to carnal knowledge. It is an idea ready for political applications. The love between individuals who represent collectives, classes, is a union of political opposites that aspires to inseparability, androgyny.’ Kermode is not alone in noticing the ‘overtone of that sexual interest in the completely other that one often sees in the bourgeois writing of the period’. He illustrates it with a shrewdly chosen scene from The Road to Wigan Pier in which Orwell admires the miners’ ‘most noble bodies’. But Kermode also notices that this transgressive interest goes both ways. The proletarian writer Lewis Jones, whose novels portray political struggles at a Welsh mine, praises the enviably ‘magnificent body’ of the coal-owner’s son.

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