- A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers by Hugh Kenner
Barrie and Jenkins, 290 pp, £16.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7126 2197 0
One day a long while ago Philip Larkin dropped a remark in passing about the difficulties of his current private life. He made it in the form of a jokey generalisation about the impossibility of relations between men and women, and added that the women ought really to marry each other, but that would be wrong, wouldn’t it? I forgot the remark for over thirty years until I bumped into it as an observation by one of the characters in Kingsley Amis’s latest novel, Difficulties with girls. It may not have been the same remark, of course: but since Amis was Larkin’s close friend, and Larkin a great letter-writer, and since the words on the page served suddenly to bring back a long-past occasion, it seems possible that a series of sentences has survived.
What interested me was the degree to which the piece of recall failed to affect the novel in any way. Amis is mentioned in Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island – which is to say that like Hughes and Heaney his name appears briefly without discussion (Larkin himself gets a dismissive page or two); and they all feature as examples of what happens to a culture when it gives way to its own philistinism. The presupposition seems to be that British culture is innately, and has always been, an enemy to art and intellect; it can’t dissociate art from life, and is always falling back into the gutter of mere morality, biography, and all other forms of snobbish gossip. This is why things are as bad as they are in Britain now.
There is a great deal of philistinism in the British Isles, true, and it does a great deal of harm. But in trying to construct a thesis, Kenner finds himself working back and back to find when we started sinking, and absent mindedly includes both Wordsworth (page 235) and Shakespeare (page 240) in the process: Wordsworth never used really hard words like ‘incarnadine’ and Shakespeare himself ‘hadn’t thought of his playscripts’ being preserved’. As it happens, Wordsworth used ‘diurnal’ in a lyric, and if Shakespeare hadn’t preserved his early plays through changes of company, we shouldn’t have – as we do have – evidence of early copy in the Folio. More important is the simplicity of a notion of philistinism which can fail to see that if philistines created the longest and strongest and richest literary tradition in existence, there must be something interesting and complicated about some forms of philistinism. It puts tough literary minds on their mettle, say, and gets the best out of gentler characters who might want to entertain but would hardly venture on ‘Art’.
Amis is listed by Hugh Kenner as an example of the post-(Second-World-) War trough in the English arts, a case of ‘anarchic energies ... there to draw applause’. Amis doesn’t always, of course, draw applause-there are English readers too who reckon him a philistine, and who neither like nor admire the books; and he clearly isn’t very young people’s cup of tea at all. This still leaves Kenner’s position unconsidered. I began by mentioning the fact that Difficulties with girls happened to bring back suddenly an actual conversation. What struck me was the degree to which the novel was left curiously unaffected by the kind of connection of art with life, even confusion of life with art, which Kenner presupposes as the English vice – by the recall, in one reader’s mind, of a kind of random ‘source’. Nothing in the novel got better, or worse, as a result, or seemed any different; a piece of vaguely factual information, whether or not true, remained entirely incidental. This suggested two conclusions, of which the first is general. I myself read writers’ biographies, and sometimes with large pleasure and interest. All knowledge of life and lives, and indeed of history, is a good in itself, and seems likely to inform literary intelligence; and in addition Amis’s novels would rather confuse if thought to be the work of an early Tudor writer. Beyond this, the use of biography, its actual ability to throw light (rather than just to be entertaining and nice to have around), seems to be a fantasy.
More particularly, the failure of connection I have mentioned appears to bring in its train a literary fact about Amis himself. Cited by Kenner as one of the philistines, and as liable to give his readers the pleasure of the artless, even the amateur, Amis has nonetheless his own obvious doctrine of what Modernism made its watchword, ‘Impersonality’. If his novels call up memories of the actual, even glimpses of known personalities, these at once disintegrate into the irrelevant. The reason for this is that the books are powered by forms and fictions quite of their own, not liable to interconnect in the wrong way with the stuff of real life. The Larkin-character in this most recent novel, who actually gives the book its title by speaking of his ‘difficulties with girls’, adds that part of his problem is that he gets tired of ‘pretending’, and perhaps as time has gone by Amis himself has found the same problem as a writer: for the energy with which his artistry Works to disguise itself seems to be thinning a little, and leaving a world which – though finely realistic in a sense – at the same time more plainly sets out what can only be called the given idea of the novel in question. And yet to speak of Amis as getting more and more Modernist can’t be right. It must be truer that Modernism merely took to itself, in extreme forms, principles that any good writing exercises. Eliot’s separation of the man who suffers from the artist who creates is up to a point just good sense: all art, indeed all language, abstracts, de-forms, dissociates.
This fact brings chaos into Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island: for it is vital to his fast and intensely clever effects – and Kenner is the most brilliant critic of Modernism, who never writes less than amusingly – to presuppose impatient positions, never questioned or argued out. He assumes an audience totally complicit, and an enemy tacitly shared: the book takes it that Eliot and Amis are as near to being pure antitheses as can be imagined. Yet Difficulties with girls is much more like The Waste Land than Kenner leaves room for guessing it is. Partly this is a matter of the book’s being, in an oblique way, more explicitly imaginative, romantic or even poetic than Amis’s realistic comedies usually lead a reader to expect: an effect owed to some extent to the story’s being set back twenty years, and to the fact that its two chief characters, who mainly share the narration, are continuations of the late-Fifties Patrick and Jenny from Take a girl like you, thus giving the story its own recessive and wistful casting-back posture. In addition, though a light and easy and genuinely funny book, Difficulties with girls has a good deal of commerce with violence, darkness and death. An adulterous middle-class ‘girl’ is beaten up by her husband; one of two homosexuals, a dry but conversable civil servant, stabs the other; there is an alarming death in a restaurant, seen out of the corner of the eye. The death arouses in the hero a desperate dependence on other human beings, a need of his wife which, since Jenny is virtuous and disciplinary, is itself a form of death to the restless ego. As Karl Miller pointed out in his LRB review (29 September), the novel involves love with death.
It is because Amis’s novels have come more and more frontally to feature these inextricabilities, as of love with death, that any attempts to politicise them remain obtuse. Insofar as Difficulties is any good, it isn’t either ‘for’ or ‘against’ Girls. In fact, such attempts defeat the aesthetic, even poetic drive of the story, to show how things hold together, like the row of interdependent neighbours living in the novel’s main setting, ‘Lower Ground’. At its opening, the hero and heroine have just moved to a little block or rather series of flats, five in a row, with this curious name. The dwellers in four of the flats have ‘difficulties’ in getting on with human beings. These difficulties derive from helplessly seeing human beings as in effect ‘Girls’, love-objects – both interesting and desirable but also antithetical and impossible – largely conceived by the imagination of the individual, which is why the ‘Girls’ may equally be ‘Boys’ (as with the pair of homosexuals). The original definer of the ‘difficulties with girls’ is a solitary who rarely inhabits his empty flat; in the course of the novel he tries to convince himself that he might be homosexual but ends violently aware that he isn’t. Kind, friendly but often lonely, his ‘difficulties’ are plainly just that he is – as the book reveals rather than telling – a natural loner with a vivid life of fantasy. And the condition of this man, the imaginative barrister Tim, is a kind of key to the book as a whole. The ‘Girls’ are as much as anything creatures of individual imagination – a fact handled charitably or uncharitably by the characters who happen to be actually girls (and who have of course problems of their own).
This finely-structured situation is equally beautifully-rooted in the actual by Amis: but the effect of reality in the book derives as much from the sound of individual minds voiced through speech-styles as from anything more locally objective. Patrick and Jenny’s little London flat shines with the light of the place affectionately remembered from the past; it isn’t any more particular than that. Altogether, Amis’s ‘world’ is a fictionalised pattern of love-relationships, all in breakdown and all in one way or another (mostly painful, if comic) put together again by the ending. In this presentation of conjugal love as fairly dreadful and character-testing, but lacking any real alternative in experience, this theoretically realistic and humorous novel is not unlike The Waste Land, the show-piece of Modernism and Impersonality. And it’s interesting that the novel reaches nostalgically back, not merely to the Fifties where Jenny and Patrick began, but further, towards the more or less sociological forms of art in the Twenties and Thirties, stories like Angel Pavement and films like Grand Hotel, all showing how big cities cram together people very different who have to get on with each other. Both crowded and feeling, metropolitan and dehumanised, The Waste Land is in this sense as well as others the masterpiece of the modern.
I don’t want to suggest that Difficulties with girls and The Waste Land really have much to do with each other. I have laboured at some length only to make the point that it may be dangerous to assume that they are (in a state of nature, as it were) antitheses and enemies – that if one is Literature the other can’t be. One of the important effects of a culture in many ways philistine is to keep aesthetic fields necessarily large. Aestheticism tends to be exclusive, and narrows the area covered by serious writing. Philistinism, by having no aspirations, lets anything in. This is why British writing includes so many kinds of the good, and why the really great writers – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens – manage to include nearly all of them (Socrates argued that the truly good writer ought to be able to do both tragedy and comedy, but most of the few cases in point wrote in English). Because of this complexity of literature written in English, easy assumptions about Modernism, and about modernistic English writing, may be a mistake. It has to be said that as many of these assumptions as seems humanly possible are crammed into Hugh Kenner’s attack on the English, on their literature, and particularly on the last ninety years of it.
Modernistic criticism may-be like the literature itself: a critic, like a poem, may not mean, but be. The most seductive and conscious of rhetorical objects, A Sinking Island is all but unreviewable, partly because it has no substance. Everything in it is a baseless dazzling structure of anecdote, ejaculation and gesture, which disintegrates into air the instant a page is turned. The title is a case in point. There are a worrying number of things about British life and English literature which the transatlantic Kenner seems not to know (until relatively recently, a London Cockney could say ‘I reckon’ to mean that he or she opined; Kenner attacks Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet for cheap ‘Strand Magazine realism’ in making a cab-driver display what Kenner takes to be ‘American speech’ by saying ‘I reckon’). Hugh Kenner may therefore genuinely not know that neither England nor Great Britain is actually ‘an island’. Or he may intend a learned allusion. Gulliver’s Travels satirises the scientific Establishment of England as Laputa, the ‘Flying (or Floating) Island’; Kenner, who has Augustan interests – a comment on the end-wrapper compares this book to the Dunciad – perhaps sees himelf here in the line of Swift, and is hinting that our culture is less flying than sinking, a verb reserved by Augustan satirists for literary incompetence – ‘the Art of Sinking in Poetry’.
All this would be in key with Kenner’s usual furious elegance of mind and style. And the book obviously intends to attack something or somebody. But to invite the Augustan comparison is ambitious. The objects of satire in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels are limited but they are clear. Kenner’s exact satirical ends are as hard to locate as the meaning of his title. A huge and personal survey of English literature in its social and cultural context, from 1895 to the present day, A Sinking Island contains, though it doesn’t address itself to, an extremely interesting question: ‘What happened to Modernism?’ The book doesn’t address itself to this question because it assumes it knows the answer: the Sinking Island sank it. The unbelievable corruption of English social and cultural life at present (this is Kenner’s case) derives from our large-scale betrayal of a Modernism which came to us in our post-Industrial-Revolution and pulp-fictioned hour of need, early in this century, but which our deep and characteristic philistinism and provinciality fought back against and finally overcame. This is why things are as bad as they are now, with Messrs X and Y (named, their careers itemised as for Who’s Who) in positions of power in publishing-houses; our true literary talents – David Jones, Basil Bunting, Charles Tomlinson and Geoffrey Hill – not forming a group, as they should, and in any case not read; and the food on British railways simply terrible (page 238: ‘Have you travelled on a British Railway? Gagged on its unthinkable food?’).
Part of the impact of Kenner’s books comes from the amount he manages to get into them. There’s nothing wrong with the way that he takes over the Leavises’ territory and tries to see the culture as a whole, British Rail and all. And indeed large tracts of the book are both informative and illuminating, from the descriptions of the founding of Everyman’s Library to the onslaughts on the English ‘bookmen’ of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. There are virtuoso pages like 71, where Henry James and Edmund Gosse bicycle through the text (‘Those were bicycle times ... The Time Machine with its saddle was itself a transfigured bicycle. Wells’s third novel The Wheels of Chance (1896), had been all about bicyclists’). The book offers a cornucopia of notions and observations. It’s impossible to open it without starting to read and admire: but it’s impossible to read half a page without being stopped by something like that glancing swipe at British Rail, which gets its name wrong.
Caught up in its theme of the English betrayal of Modernism, A Sinking Island doesn’t slow down to consider whether self-betrayal might not be more interesting and important than the other kind. At one moment Hugh Kenner, characteristically whisking all external phenomena into his pattern, says that in ‘Little Gidding’ Eliot ‘meets the shade of Yeats’. It’s true that Yeats was an older contemporary of the poet’s. It’s truer and more significant that in this poem Eliot meets the shade of himself. The ghost, a ‘double part’, is a doppelgänger or mirror-self, the emissary of death; and though Yeats may well be among the many ‘dead masters’ who seem for an instant to flicker through its face, the fact that the face is ‘down-turned’, like the defeated eyes of the crowds in The Waste Land, makes identification officious. The ghost (in its final echo close to Hamlet’s father) is in its chief role ancestral, paternal and above all moral. Kenner ignores here the element of self-incrimination, of super-ego, in Eliot’s great gifts. And to do this is to fail to understand much in English literary history over the last half-century: it was a movement of self-incrimination within Modernism itself which preserved alive the best of its writing.
The philosopher Ortega y Gasset described Modernism as a movement emerging defensively against the neglect or hostility of modern mass-societies; it pursued an absolute élitism, well beyond the old aestheticism, in the belief that an art too difficult for most people to understand was thereby too difficult for them to destroy. Its chief characteristic was abstraction, an abstraction so much more intense than is commonplace in all languages and arts as to make Ortega coin for its effect the well-known phrase, ‘the dehumanisation of art’. To this description might be added a coda. Abstraction will purge statement of the limitations of the personal – just as Pound’s breaking of Eliot’s form in ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ created a Waste Land far more absolutely, obscurely classic than before, a new poetry of inhuman laws. In this age of blatant power-politics, an art that is dehumanised will exert a special and perhaps dangerous authority: authority is defined in the dictionary with simplicity as ‘the power to enforce obedience’, and obedience is enforced by arts which we love and are spellbound by, but to whose full meaning we are not made rationally complicit. It is for this reason that the question of Fascism comes nagging back over and over again into discussions of Modernist literature, often enough irrelevantly and unjustly.
The late Hugh Sykes Davies, a Cambridge English lecturer possibly as gifted even as Hugh Kenner himself but less productive, left a record of a conversation with Eliot, whom he admired and revered. Invited to contribute to the Criterion, Sykes Davies found himself writing-blocked; Eliot drily but comfortingly told him to remember that his readers would only require to be told what to think. The audience of Modernism required to be told what to think, and Modernism told them. The arrangement gave the arts a brief enormous oil-gush of new power. But the Twenties, Thirties and Forties were not a good period for the writer to exploit the freedom of unrestricted authority. Of the major talents who wrote in English, Joyce moved logically to writing Finnegans Wake, the least-read and least-readable book ever written by a man of genius; Pound’s life-work drifted through long slow deliquescence into self-acknowledged shame and failure, and finally into years of silence; Wyndham Lewis, a man of extraordinary abilities, hardly exists now as a writer. Admiring sympathy may make the reader and critic assume, like Kenner, that ‘the culture’ betrayed their talents. Perhaps the most fully achieved and most surviving master of the group, Eliot, worked from a different presupposition.
Powered by energies sometimes scarcely in touch with his conscious mind, Eliot’s work also manifests a moral character in tension with his energies, a morality at once self-punitive, disciplined and deep. The ‘Police’ of his draft-poem’s title were, after all, merely borrowed from a literary context (Dickens’s novel) in which they were a joke. More seriously, the figure at the centre of Eliot’s art is a ‘broken Coriolanus’ – a figure which continually taunts its maker by gaining new authority and power even from its ruin (‘Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours/Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus’). The patient quest to be absolved from the corrupt authority of his own art, to be always more humanly remorseful for his own dehumanisation, gives Eliot’s career its continual renewals, from drowned Prufrock at the beginning to the Elder Statesman at the close, departing harmlessly at last into the evening air.
Eliot’s struggle both to achieve yet to be guiltless of authority in his work seems to me to dominate his career. His creative stability derives from the fact that in him, perhaps alone of the brilliant group of Modernist writers in his time – and his feeling for Henry James in the previous generation may be relevant here – literary purpose was equalled by moral passion, almost obsession; after every major poem he feared that he had finished for ever, and the fear was perhaps partly hope. While critics mull over the poet’s religious, philosophical and political leanings, little attention seems given to the straightforward moral burden of The Waste Land, a painful illumination that fuses all its contrasts. The ‘heap of broken images’ is presided over by a voice that preaches:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of Man,
You cannot say, or guess.
The Waste Land is as good as it is because its power is aesthetic but its life is moral; it wrestles internally with the torments and glories of subordinating and being subordinated, of the heroic and the ruined; and without this struggle, its morality bled out of it, the poem would be no more than what from certain angles it is, a superlative Modernist game (after nearly seventy years of discussion, critics still don’t seem to have noticed that the title of ‘What the Thunder said’ is a mocking echo from the old paper-game of Consequences). In its emotional course, even the preacher himself is superseded in the poem by the figures of women such as the three Thames daughters, girls at once degraded and serene – images holding an extraordinary originality of moral beauty, moral light and darkness.
This is an aspect of the poem A Sinking Island doesn’t find much room for. Inserting here his interesting discussion of the poem’s relation to Augustan modes, Kenner doesn’t pause to note Augustanism’s own stress on forms of imperium and authority, or the irony of Eliot’s echoes from that world. Yet the inward debate of authority seems to me Eliot’s chief literary bequest to English writing. To see Eliot working in this way to humanise and to moralise Symbolism is to read the last fifty or sixty years of literary history rather differently from Hugh Kenner. Eliot’s most direct heir, Auden (whom Kenner contemptuously calls ‘Cleveland to Eliot’s Donne’), brings up to date and domiciles in the English landscape the Eliotic or Modernistic voice of power, the wide scrutiny always looking downward to give its urgent instructions: ‘Go home, now, stranger ...’; ‘As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman ...’
The ‘mad clergyman’ was Auden’s favourite youthful party-piece, and what he most felt later regret for was ‘the preacher’s loose immodest tone’ given licence by his own early poetry. As Eliot worked in the Quartets to reconcile Symbolistic freedom, Modernistic vastness with a rooted English moral centre (‘History is now and England’), so Auden in his turn humbled the magnificence of his early work, obscure, erotic, and magically suffering, into modes resembling that un-American, un-European form, English light verse. All of this Kenner misses. Auden’s large effort he finds immeasurably less striking than the delicate but slight grace-notes of Basil Bunting.
It could be said that while still a schoolboy of 17 – in 1940, already writing brilliant imitations of Auden’s lighter verse – Philip Larkin was more attentive than Kenner is now to the true movement of English literature, the need really to ‘make it new’ and not merely to derive. Larkin is more graciously treated in A Sinking Island than the simply named-in-passing Hughes and Heaney, but Kenner’s few pages of discussion of the poet’s ‘scrupulous drearness’ do as little for him as elsewhere is done for Amis. The critic supposes creative powers of intelligence, once ebbed with Modernism, to be tellingly absent from Larkin’s work. The poet ‘lived in an England of unabashed bleakness, and ... he found ways to write about it’; his address is ‘a sceptical slouch, hands in pockets’; his subject, ‘simply what’s there, the weather of today’s English soul’.
It’s a feature of the newly-published Collected Poems of Larkin, recently reviewed in this journal (13 October) by Ian Hamilton, to make plain the critical shortcomings of this approach. As Hamilton pointed out, the collection can at first take a reader aback. Most of the 80 new poems drawn from notebooks and added by the editor, Anthony Thwaite, are unrecognisable as Larkinian. Many of them are early: only very slowly, between 1946 and 1953 – this last the year in which the poet was 30 – did he come to write ‘like himself’. His earliest verse of quality is the pastiche Auden; Auden’s influence was shared by the Golden Treasury, and superseded by Dylan Thomas and other romantics, Yeats becoming prime among them; and Yeats was finally driven out by Hardy. Yet even after the poet had found his style, he continued to write sometimes highly competent verses that didn’t, however, qualify to go into the three volumes of poems he wished to preserve: The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, High Windows.
These are the volumes that Kenner means when he speaks of ‘simply what’s there’. He implies that Larkin simply philistinely, and for all of what Kenner calls his ‘talents’, put his life and world into verse – ‘the weather of today’s English soul’. The Collected Poems underlines the error by showing what really was ‘there’: nearly fifty years of labour, with among them twenty when an art found a voice. And it seems significant that many of the poems finally rejected by Larkin himself, though perhaps long-worked-over, were peculiarly autobiographical, ‘simply what’s there’. In ‘Good for you, Gavin’, one of the light pieces included here, Larkin mildly describes as just ‘heart-shaped hypnotics’ what this collection shows to be the large mass of his own early work. The real poems were something more than ‘heart-shaped’; were impersonal. Only the poems in the three major collections, plus a few written after High Windows, are really Larkinian, though it is of the greatest interest to have the rest to make judgments from.
Far from Larkin’s putting together ‘simply what’s there’, the effort to find himself seemed so great a labour as to make a reader wonder how the poet managed it at all. The Collected Poems offer an answer to this too. Anthony Thwaite’s Introduction mentions the five bad years, 1947-52, which were perhaps Larkin’s lowest point. One collection of verse, In the Grip of Light, was rejected by six leading publishers; the privately-printed XX Poems was received in almost total silence; Larkin couldn’t get a novel finished. But 1953 is the year in which most of the poems of The Less Deceived were written, the whole Larkinian style and voice at once solidifying and growing lucid. A simple explanation offers itself for this discovered originality. All the Larkinian earlier writing, all the six authors in search of a character, are in their different manners authoritative. The poet’s youthful styles, urgently orotund and wistfully glamorous, derive power from ‘the traditional’, from authorities false because derivative. When originality came at last to Larkin, it was through a tone exceptionally without authority. Defeated, the poet started to sound like a person: unique.
The invention of literary style is of course more than a matter of words. It includes the ‘hands in pockets’, a vision and form of truth. Anthony Thwaite begins his section of the true Larkinian poems, the point at which the style begins to be heard, with ‘Going’, first called, with more obtrusive wit, ‘Dying Day’, and the poem ends with the speaker, sensing that he is levelled by the encroachment of a nameless evening, asking: ‘What loads my hands down?’ Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island doesn’t choose to reflect that ‘sinking’ is an important human experience. In ‘Going’ Larkin’s voice was coming, his day always a dying. The poet’s great achievement was to maintain through his three flawless volumes, and then a little after, a manner as little authoritarian as poetry can be. Harsh and humorous, dazed and feeling, the poems speak with the voice of a person subject to his own experience, like everyone else: not a preacher, not a poet. Yet gradually the poems acquired that large authority which governs the best of the collections, High Windows. This volume contains poems not bettered, among short poems, in the century, even by Modernist writers – ‘The Explosion’, ‘To the Sea’, ‘The Card-Players’, ‘Cut Grass’, ‘Livings’ – yet translating the high resonances of Yeats, the severities of Eliot, the ebulliences of Auden, into what Shakespeare called ‘so quiet and so sweet a style’.