‘Come, my friend,’ said Smirnoff

Joanna Kavenna

  • The Radical Twenties: Aspects of Writing, Politics and Culture by John Lucas
    Five Leaves, 263 pp, £11.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 907123 17 1

In 1916, D.H. Lawrence wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith of his abiding ‘sadness’: ‘for my country, for this great wave of civilisation, 2000 years, which is now collapsing’. Driving to Garsington, Ottoline Morrell’s country seat, he was overwhelmed with a sense of

so much beauty and pathos of old things passing away and no new things coming ... my God, it breaks my soul – this England, these shafted windows, the elm trees, the blue distance – the past, the great past, crumbling down, breaking down, not under the force of the coming buds, but under the weight of many exhausted, lovely yellow leaves, that drift over the lawn and over the pond ... It has been 2000 years, the spring and summer of our era. What then will the winter be?

Lawrence wasn’t alone in forecasting the unravelling of everything. Hardy wrote in 1914 of his feeling ‘that we are living in a more brutal age than that, say, of Elizabeth’, which ‘does not inspire one to write hopeful poetry, or even conjectural prose, but simply make[s] one sit still in an apathy, and watch the clock spinning backwards’. For Henry James, the war seemed ‘to undo everything’: ‘My sense of what is generally happening all about us here is only unutterable,’ he confessed to Brander Matthews. The country house, that central prop of the idyllic British afternoon, figured prominently in the catastrophe, as a retreat that was no longer a retreat, a bastion of pan-European culture which had proved devastatingly permeable. Beyond Britain, Edith Wharton used the same image when she described a ‘final trumpet’ sounding through Paris: ‘we shall never summer in that house again.’

The question this generation of writers laboured to answer was what to do with apocalypse: how was it to be withstood, comprehended, conveyed? How could art have a place in a brutal new age? One possibility was to side with newness, the strategy favoured by the Futurists, Egoists and Vorticists: Pound, Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis, Dora Marsden, Hilda Doolittle. Pound ‘took on’ technology: ‘what the analytical geometer does for space and form’ he compared to what ‘the poet does for the states of consciousness’; ‘as the abstract mathematician is to science so is the poet to the world’s consciousness’ – it was a case of Lawrence’s fainting ‘civilisation’ striking back. The ‘Georgians’ buried their heads: between 1912 and 1922 Edward Marsh stubbornly published best-selling poetry collections, featuring Walter de la Mare, John Drinkwater, Harold Monro, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Blunt, nervously commemorating a threatened pastoral. Other writers, more diffident or isolated, threw in their lot with entropy: Charlotte Mew’s poetry of the early Twenties is littered with speakers on the verge of disappearance, clutching stillborn children as they sink into dream landscapes; Anna Wickham harbours fantasies of purgatorial fires raging over steeples and relics, dreary suburbs and dozing villages.

Another option, once the war was over, was to skitter on the surface. John Lucas argues that it is this amnesiac partying which has informed ‘standard accounts’ of the so-called Jazz Age, crammed with bright young things enjoying a hop and a skip before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. His suggestion is that the times were more political: less cocaine, more coal-face; less hangover, more pit-closure. The defining moment, he argues, was not the Crash, but the General Strike of 1926, and the unstill centre was not the urbane South, but the industrial North. The Radical Twenties is an eclectic sweep of hitherto undiscussed socialist novels, ‘feral’ women’s writing, drug subcultures, patricidal stirrings; it moves away from the metropolis and the canon towards the obscure and the regional to consider ‘the millions who could not be Bright Young people, yet who lived through the war and began adult life just after it’.

While redefining the period, Lucas mounts an attack on the critical confidence trick of cajoling what ‘was actually a mess of immediacy into a narrative’, giving us ‘the illusion of ... knowing a culture first hand while actually shaping it into a form, a generality’ (in the words of Alison Light, quoted in the book). To avoid a charge of shaping and labelling, he offers ‘radical’ as an anti-term: ‘not’ the jazz age, ‘not’ the metropolis, ‘not’ the Wall Street Crash, ‘not’ the Bright Young Thing, ‘not’ the canon. In the introduction to Writing and Radicalism (1996), a collection of essays, Lucas was more explicit: ‘radical’ is a ‘resistance to orthodoxy, to the accepted’: ‘radical groups are minority groups, radical opinion is a departure from the norm.’ Two forces circle around each other and sporadically clash in this more recent book: an attempt to rename the period as ‘radical’ and a commitment to a methodological ‘radicalism’ which dissents from critical norms.

This anti-canonical trail-beating throws up a host of names, some of them forgotten: Douglas Goldring, Leslie Welsh, Edward Shanks, J.D. Beresford, Ethel Carnie, Patrick Hamilton, Alick West, H.R. Barbor, Miles Malleson. To Lucas, these writers differed from the more self-regarding literati in their search for ‘a little-told story: a story not of despair, but of resistance, even vision’. The patricidal disaffection of Berjeman, Waugh and the Sitwells, defined in Lucas’s account as Bright Young Things, was, in contrast, little more than depressive adolescence, hardly justified by material circumstances: ‘they weren’t usually out of work, and if they were, jobs of a not too demanding kind could be found for them, or failing that, money, a legacy or a loan.’ Goldring wrote with a mission: ‘we are forced to become politically-minded at the expense of our art.’ His novel of 1920, The Black Curtain, dedicated to D.H. Lawrence, is ‘about envisaging a possible socialist future for England’. It plots protagonist Philip Kane’s brush with Woman (in the guise of Anne, a smoking, free-loving acolyte of the feminist, socialist and gay sociologist, Edward Carpenter) and with Soviet Communism (in the guise of the Russian exile, Ivan Smirnoff, a barfly and violinist, whose music expresses ‘all the agonies of the proletarian class the world over ... their longing for deliverance, their faith in the future’). Reading the novel for ‘vision’, Lucas argues that The Black Curtain ‘does not end in despair. Though Anne is dead (imprisoned for her part in yet another antiwar meeting, she dies in childbirth on 11 November 1918) ... the novel ends, “and the red Dawn – cold, terrible, relentless, but bearing with it the promise of the new day – was breaking at last over the desolate world. ‘Come, my friend,’ said Smirnoff, ‘God himself has given you your answer! Let us rest now, for we must work.’ ” ’ This sidelong glance at the future would evolve into the dystopian prophecies of Welsh (The Underworld), Beresford (Revolution), Carnie (This Slavery) and Shanks (The People of the Ruins): nervy forebodings of Communism as mass destruction. Lucas struggles with the failure of these writers to fashion the novels he would have liked: the energies of This Slavery are ‘directed towards a defeatist vision where suffering seems endless and injustice a fact of life that no amount of protest can surmount’. The Underworld ends with the death of the main character: ‘Such a death, in a mining accident during which Robert has been trying to help his companions, is both plausible and tragic, but it is also in a measure defeatist.’ The People of the Ruins ‘glumly looks forward to Europe ... a century after it has been taken over and wrecked by Communist revolution. All traces of decent civilisation have disappeared.’ Revolution ends ‘mistakenly’ with downbeat musings: ‘It seemed to her that all human life was but a little candle burning in the great dark house of the world, a trembling light of aspiration and endeavour that would presently be quenched by the coming of the dawn.’ For Lucas, placing this ‘right at the end of the novel dissipates the issues which Revolution has so interestingly and intelligently raised. It’s as though they now don’t matter. People will fall into the pit and that’s that.’

From other male writers of the period there are victim parables and gender-bending allegories: David Garnett’s Lady into Fox (a wife goes feral, is tolerantly fed and clothed by the husband, and ultimately gets run to death by hounds); David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman (the rejected male lover gives up and dies just as the heroine decides she might have him after all). Meanwhile, female writers (Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Mew, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Nancy Cunard, Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner) allowed the old Victorian spinster a few escape-routes: killing off the controlling father who kept her at home (Mansfield’s ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’); investing her with milk-curdling powers (Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, in which a polite maiden aunt discovers she’s a witch). But revolt could founder, as it does in Mansfield’s devastating story, ‘Miss Brill’. Miss Brill lives in a ‘little dark room’, from which she sallies on Sundays, in her fur coat, to meander by the bandstand in the park. One Sunday she hears a young couple snorting and snickering at her ‘funny fu-fur’, and retreats to her room, replacing the fur neatly in its box, to the sound of ‘something crying’. Lucas sees in this story ‘the pathos of the necessarily incomplete lives of women who can conceive of completeness in no other way than through marriage’. But this seems too precise: a thousand non-marital fears and flickers could be cantering across Miss Brill’s mind: friends lost, loves lost, lesbian affairs lost, age, death, futility. To paraphrase Malcolm Bradbury on Woolf, she could be thinking of eternity, or she could be thinking of potatoes. Lucas is torn between reading these female writers as representative of gender trouble and testing their class-consciousness: while the ‘sharply individualised’ pathology of Mrs Dalloway is ‘unradically’ middle-class, the ‘formal radicalism’ of Lolly Willowes is ‘intrinsically political’. The definition of ‘intrinsically political’ is sharpened by a closing comment on Townsend Warner: her ‘decision to join the Communist Party in the early Thirties does not present a new departure, still less a change of heart’ – it is presaged by her early writing. Woolf does not affiliate, and her portrayal of gender, war, loss, madness, suicide is, for Lucas, unmistakably bourgeois.

The shifting sense of the term ‘radical’ becomes most apparent as Lucas turns to the Jazz Age itself, and the hedonism it embodies. What is to be done with the subversive potential of pleasure – specifically drink, drugs and music? In Writing and Radicalism, Lucas suggests that radicalism’s ‘frisson of the disreputable, the outré’ makes it prey to a ‘non-kosher bohemianism’ which drags it from the periphery into a form of radical chic. He dismisses the hedonism of the Bright Young Things as a posttraumatic stress disorder which falls short of active rebellion and declines into inward-looking gnosticism. Yet the jazz which served as theme-music for a whirl of aristocratic pill-popping was also ‘linked to radical political causes’, some of them ‘popular’. Lucas wants a clear distinction between ‘those who played at radicalism – the Bright Young Things – and those for whom radical thought and activity were altogether more vital’, but his book sweats under the strain of maintaining it.

Arriving at ‘the high seriousness of Modernism’, he begins with a critique of élitism: ‘by 1922 Eliot’s rejection of the “large crawling mass” ... means that he regards the Criterion as a way of saving civilisation for the fit few.’ But this is followed by a defence of The Waste Land against the charges of ‘intolerable snobbishness’ and ‘bourgeois tradition’, drawing attention to ‘the poet’s desire to make his poem a truly radical utterance, an assemblage of voices which ... create an imaginative landscape that everybody can recognise as their own’. In his oxymoronic reading of The Waste Land – whose ‘fragmentary, “disordered” state implies a coherence, an awareness of standards which transcend historical and social relativities’ – Lucas offers a striking synopsis of his own enterprise.

Primarily concerned to quiz texts for their sensitivity to the class struggle, Lucas swings strangely at times into psychoanalytical criticism – the spy in Auden’s Paid on Both Sides ‘can be interpreted as John’s Id or pleasure principle, whom John shoots in order to keep faith with his self-imposed desire to “fight to the finish” ’ – and into Leavisite absolutism: ‘I am not persuaded that Huxley is a particularly important writer of the period’; ‘That was what women wanted’; ‘The Waste Land is a technical masterwork in the Renaissance sense of that word’; ‘Gurney’s greatness as a poet is inseparable from his political vision.’ The scatter-referencing lends itself to unforced errors: Charlotte Mew’s poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ is a response to male ‘postwar’ fantasies, despite being published in 1912; her collection of poetry, The Farmer’s Bride, appeared in three editions, in 1916, 1921 and 1929, although this ‘final edition’ was a new collection entirely, called The Rambling Sailor.

Era-branding is, as Lucas testifies, a common pursuit. Publishers want names, readers want reasons for reading, critics want points of reference. The difficulty at the heart of Lucas’s book is that of reconciling his own sectarian reordering with his denunciation of sectarian reordering as a practice. And in assembling even a broad sweep of writers as ‘the’ radical Twenties he is open to the charge that others are omitted. Where are black writers? Where is the working class, implicit only in his attention to a left intelligentsia? Where is the promised North? The literary decade Lucas records is flighty, hedonistic, depressive, immature, terrified, apocalyptic, messianic. Lucas won’t let the Twenties be fumbling and transitional, but he can’t entirely command them either. Ironically, it is ‘radical’ which comes out of the book in a state of suspension: packing its bags for a place of indeterminacy but continually transfixed by values, hierarchies, positions – the beckoning lights of home.