In the Company of Confreres

Terry Eagleton

  • On Modern British Fiction edited by Zachary Leader
    Oxford, 328 pp, £14.99, October 2002, ISBN 0 19 924932 6

During the half-century since 1950, Lindsay Duguid writes in an essay in this collection, ‘the lady novelist turned into the woman writer,’ the historical novel became respectable once again, crime fiction became respectable for the first time, and the English novel was reborn as the British novel. Indian novelists revealed a ‘fondness for identical twins’, while angels, giants, babies and women who pass as men grew curiously fashionable. ‘In 1999, three British novels and one American novel featured a heroine in a coma.’ Stuffed with literary graduates, publishers’ offices are increasingly coming up with paradoxical comparisons for dustjackets: ‘Brighton Rock written by Charlotte Brontë’; ‘the Camus of the backpacking generation’.

Not all ladies have become women. In a chapter here on P.D. James, Martin Priestman records her distrust of ambitious professional women, approval of loyal housekeepers and disdain for people who say ‘toilet’ when they mean ‘lavatory’. At one point she feels the need to remind herself that not everyone wants to live ‘in a quiet Georgian house in Greenwich’. Indeed, some of James’s characters would much rather live in Elizabethan manor houses. Stepping out of his car to survey one, James’s detective Adam Dalgleish instantly registers its symmetrical mullioned and transomed windows with a heavy carved coat of arms above the dripstone, while his plebeian sidekick murmurs that it’s a ‘nice-looking place’. Of such aesthetic distinctions is Jamesian humanity composed. Her more recent novels, Priestman concedes, have grudgingly gone in for a spot of incest and unmarried motherhood – in A Certain Justice we are even given a ‘black smudge of pubic hair’ – but they still feel more at home grousing about the lower orders or condemning as racist the charge that the Metropolitan Police Force is institutionally racist.

One might define fiction as the kind of writing in which it is impossible to tell the truth and very hard to make a mistake. If authors insist that what they are saying is actually true, we would take this as a fictional pronouncement. If they place the Prado in Lisbon, we would assume that this, like everything else in a piece of prose labelled ‘novel’, is to be taken as deliberate. Novels come complete with a number of invisible instructions, one of which reads: ‘Take everything here as intentional.’ Martin Priestman’s essay, by contrast, suggests a new definition of literary criticism as a form of writing in which you are allowed with impunity to give away the endings of whodunnits. We are told on page 248 who strangled Sally in James’s Cover Her Face (it wasn’t, of course, the loyal housekeeper), and a page later Priestman coolly lets the murderer of A Certain Justice out of the bag. If this kind of thing catches on, one can imagine the Crime Writers Guild threatening to withdraw their labour.

Whether Iris Murdoch was a lady or a woman is hard to say. In a busily energetic, impressively wide-ranging chapter, Valentine Cunningham lavishes the customary critical praise on her conception of human life as sprawling, contingent and delightfully muddled. This delight in messiness was not in fact confined to her art, as Martin Amis points out in a brief, reprinted piece: in the Murdoch-Bayley ménage, ‘even the soap is filthy,’ while odd shoes and socks lie about the house as if, in Bayley’s words, ‘deposited by a flash flood’. No wonder her most famous essay is entitled ‘Against Dryness’. A large meat pie is simply swallowed up by their crammed maw of a kitchen, never to resurface. Murdoch and Bayley, Amis comments, are ‘the kind of people who like being ill and like getting old, who prefer winter to summer and autumn to spring’. These Babes in the Wood crave the rainy, stained and soggy.

Yet the later Murdoch was a hard-line Tory, who may well have been liberal in her aesthetics but was hardly so in her politics. She had right-wing views on most topics, and lambasted the work of Derrida while having only the flimsiest notion of what it was about. Not much warm-hearted jumble there. On the contrary, it is remarkable how stringently unambiguous Murdoch’s vision could be when it came to political views she found distasteful. Socially speaking, the generous amplitude of her imagination was rigorously exclusive. Cunningham writes enthusiastically of the ‘ordinariness’ of her world, which is not the general view of North Oxford and the posher bits of London. Some who live in such places can afford to see life as deliciously haphazard and higgledy-piggledly, a sentiment which might not have struck a Victorian housemaid. Not many Johannesburg miners rejoice in the richly blooming confusion of their lives. Virginia Woolf saw the world as a bundle of vivid fragments, but one wonders if her gardener did.

Perhaps Murdoch evolved against the grain of her age, starting off as a woman writer and ending up as a lady novelist. The latter title might also be reserved for Muriel Spark, who, as Liam McIlvanney points out in an essay here on Scottish writing, displays ‘a contempt for the wretched, a relished indifference to suffering’. Far from overlooking the poor, she ‘turns from their plight with a meaningful flourish’, as her young ladies pick their dainty way around that ‘reeking network of slums’ which is Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Social class, inevitably, raises its head from time to time throughout these essays. Elaine Showalter sees the anti-heroes of Ladlit as obsessed with class distinctions, as well as being ‘funny, bright . . . charming and excruciatingly honest’. They are not gentlemen, but neither are they yobs. The volume reprints a moving, excruciatingly honest piece by the distinctly unladdish Ian McEwan about his working-class mother, which only a writer of McEwan’s emotional stringency could have saved from being sentimental. As a woman who ‘never owned the language she spoke’, she communicated this verbal wariness or unsureness of touch to her rhetorically accomplished son, so that it becomes possible to see the achievements of his own prose style – masterfully crafted and unnervingly exact, but rarely fluid or spontaneous – as rooted ironically in his mother’s failure. Like a lot of working-class people, Rose McEwan and her friends were fascinated by gory accounts of operations, a fact which may well represent the economic base to the son’s macabre superstructure. Working people talked a lot about illness partly because they were afraid of being off work, partly because they were more subject to it than the better housed and nourished, and partly because not much quite as dramatic as a coronary ever happened to them. As Rose sinks into senile dementia, McEwan watches as the mother tongue which he has spent most of his life unlearning finally slips away from his mother, too.

James Wood contributes a typically perceptive piece on V.S. Prichett and English comedy, a topic scarcely taxing enough to stretch his capacious critical talents. He sees Pritchett’s petty-bourgeois world as a realm of ‘velvet-lined pubs, cocky salesmen with poor teeth, tired municipal grasses, inflamed women and sherry-fed courage’. Presumably the tired municipal grasses are threadbare bits of public lawn, not weary informers in the pay of local authorities. Wood describes one of Pritchett’s characters as a ‘shy fantasist’, a phrase which brilliantly captures something of the essence of the English comic imagination from Dickens to Monty Python. It is a combination of gauche public submissiveness and savage private dissent which can be found everywhere in English fiction from Jane Eyre to Lucky Jim. It is a pity that Wood, having put his finger on this quality with delicate precision, should then round off his essay with an imprudent patriotic flourish about the ‘Englishness of metaphor’. It is bad enough that the English knocked off Mysore without laying claim to metaphor as well.

Is there indeed an essentially English kind of humour? In a scintillating, slightly dishevelled chapter on Waugh and Wodehouse, which usefully distinguishes between the cruel comedy of the former and the innocent humour of the latter, Christopher Hitchens quotes the unbeatable opening sentence of Waugh’s short story ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’: ‘“You will not find your father greatly changed,” remarked Lady Moping as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum.’ This is really a form of English irony, bringing the momentous (insanity) and the everyday offhandedly together. In an anecdotal chapter on Angus Wilson, P.N. Furbank quotes a similar passage from his Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, in which a bossy woman hectors a small boy, ‘so creating a deep psychic trauma that was to cause him to be court-martialled for cowardice many years later in World War Three’.

The stiff upper lip lurks somewhere behind this comic device, as the grotesque or catastrophic is taken impassively on the chin. But Waugh’s sentence is also a fine example of English understatement. We assume that Lady Moping’s son or daughter is sitting beside her in the car, and that Lady Moping is married to the father she alludes to, which makes her nonchalance about his plight even more callously amusing. But all of this is readerly inference. We also assume that Lord Moping, if that is indeed the father of Lady Moping’s interlocutor, is a patient in the asylum and that they are there to visit him, though there is nothing to confirm this. That the father is not greatly changed amusingly suggests that he was as mad as a hatter in supposedly normal life, though it could in fact be Lady Moping’s way of assuring his offspring that despite his incarceration he is as sweetly reasonable as he always was. The syntax of the sentence hints at the shadowy presence of a chauffeur, Lady Moping being too grand to drive herself, though this, too, is pure inference. The point, anyway, is that the English gentleman does not need laboriously to spell out what he means, moving as he does in the company of confrères. He is saved the tedious spade work of which one Wodehouse character suddenly catches a horrifying glimpse, when the person to whom he is speaking seems not to understand the word ‘pig’.

The above paragraph suggests yet another definition of literary criticism, as the systematic undermining of an excellent joke. Yet Waugh’s sentence is not exactly a joke. Jokes are the kind of thing that Martin Amis comes up with, in a passage from Money about Los Angeles quoted in Elaine Showalter’s chapter on Ladlit: ‘You can get your chimp shampooed, you can get your dick tattooed, but can you get lunch? And should you see a sign on the far side of the street flashing beef – booze – no strings, then you can forget it. The only way to get across the road is to be born there.’ This is humour as the American wisecrack, pacy, racy and histrionically aggrieved. The stand-up wisecrack or snappy one-liner is a latently puritanical brand of humour, since by flagging its own jokiness so flamboyantly it paves the way for a return from this comic interlude to the properly serious business of everyday life.

The English have their jokes, of course, as Hitchens illustrates in an exchange from Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters. ‘You know your Shelley, Bertie,’ breathes one of Bertie Wooster’s woman friends admiringly, to which Bertie replies: ‘Oh, am I?’ But English humour is less a matter of wisecracking than of an amused attitude to life in general, one which smacks of the patrician rather than the puritan. Adopting this witty, self-ironising style has been the quickest route for expatriates like Wilde, Wittgenstein, Ernest Gellner, Isaiah Berlin or Tom Stoppard to become English. In doing so, they compensate for their outsider status by becoming honorary aristocrats, superior to the very middle classes who have marginalised them. In modern England, the patrician is an idiosyncratic, déclassé figure without a regular job, and thus one with whom the equally rootless, déclassé writer or intellectual may identify. Identify, but not quite become: Hitchens misses the point that figures like Waugh and the later Kingsley Amis really are irascible old buffers but also play the part with theatrical gusto.

Traditionally, the English novel has not been at ease with abroad. The last fifty years, however, have powerfully transformed its provincialism. Indeed, the immense number of English novels of this period set overseas might suggest that postwar, post-Imperial, economically ailing Britain has not been the most fertile of contexts for the literary imagination. Before that, something like the reverse was true: Henry James knew that his art needed the kind of ‘complex social machinery’ or intricate tapestry of manners which his native America lacked, while Sean O’Faolain can be found making much the same complaint about stagnant, spiritually oppressive Ireland. It was, he remarked, too ‘thin’ a society for fiction, more attractive to the anthropologist than the man of letters.

James Wood sees Pritchett as both deeply English and in full flight from Englishness, though he might have mentioned that the latter has often enough been a component of the former. Conversely, becoming plus anglais que les Anglais has traditionally been the ambition of the non-English emigré: the book quotes a fuddy-duddy smack at Surrealism from the Czech-born Tom Stoppard. Michael Wood quotes V.S. Naipaul’s country-pub-landlord comments of 1951 on the passing of Oxford’s golden age, having just arrived in the place as a young-fogeyish 18-year-old: ‘Gone are the days of the aristocrats. Nearly everyone comes to Oxford on a state grant. The standard of the place naturally goes down.’ It’s a bit like Don Juan complaining of a surplus of women.

Pritchett, however, was culturally speaking a paid-up European, while McEwan spent part of his childhood in Singapore. Even Wodehouse became an American citizen, almost as bizarre a transition as Noël Coward becoming Nigerian. So did Christopher Isherwood, on whom there is an uninspired contribution from Katherine Bucknell. Wendy Lesser remarks on what she sees as Penelope Fitzgerald’s uncanny ability to re-create alien cultures. In his deceptively off-the-cuff critical style, Michael Wood writes sensitively of Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, pointing out that for Rushdie there’s no place like home in a rather more sombre sense than the phrase has in The Wizard of Oz. Wood’s thoughtful, subtle piece is one of the few in the collection concerned with complex ideas, which was never quite criticism’s strongest point.

As abroad has come to Britain, so bits of Britain have become abroad. Liam McIlvanney quotes Cairns Craig’s remark that when it comes to the novel, perhaps no period in Scottish culture has been so rich as that from the 1960s to the 1990s. Hilary Mantel, adopting like Amis and McEwan the autobiographical mode (since one way to write about modern novelists is to write about yourself), recalls her Irish immigrant background as well as her spells in Africa and Saudi Arabia. She is, she feels, a European novelist, in no sense an English one. Northern Catholic women of Irish descent are English geographically but not ideologically. She is right to point out that ‘to be Irish has, recently, become suspiciously fashionable,’ but she can also comment without pretentiousness on the great personal sadness she feels about the loss of the Irish language, even though she has never spoken it. There are plenty of Irish people who can manage no more than a few phrases of the language, yet who nevertheless feel obscurely deprived by its decline of some vital part of their spiritual inheritance.

In a revealing comparison of Pritchett’s fiction with Chekhov’s, James Wood writes of the Russian that ‘the prose has the texture of its content: it doesn’t seek to illuminate its perfection but lightens a path for its own developing cognition.’ This sonorous, self-flauntingly metaphorical kind of language, on which meaning only just manages to impinge, is exemplary of what one might call Eng-Lit-speak. It constitutes the acceptable, as opposed to the unacceptably theoretical, jargon of the subject. Seamus Heaney is one of its leading perpetrators. Another instance, this time Alan Hollinghurst on Graham Swift’s Waterland, is quoted by Lindsay Duguid: ‘The prose itself falls into a recurrent pattern of question and answer which imitates syntactically the historical inquiry it furthers.’ From Sydney to San Diego, the speakers of this patois recognise each other as surely as Masons do by a crooked finger.

In general, however, the volume is free of such portentousness. Indeed, some of its chapters could even profit from a dash of it, as (like Patrick Parrinder on science fiction) they mostly give us plot summaries along with the odd low-key critical comment. Wendy Lesser ends her hymn to Penelope Fitzgerald by teetering on the brink of throwing a Gwyneth Paltrow: ‘when I spoke about her in Los Angeles she felt very alive to me, very immediately present. I had the sense, up at the podium in front of the conference audience, that I had to live up to what she asked of me, as a reader and a critic. It made me nervous, but it also gave me courage.’ Valentine Cunningham’s racily right-on survey is one of the few to investigate questions of form, though McIlvanney offers some shrewd observations about James Kelman’s ousting of the middle-class Standard-English voice-over, a device which puts the author on a democratic level with his working-class Glaswegian protagonists. Nobody is predicting the next fifty years, though Elaine Showalter believes that Ladlit, with its ‘losers and boozers, liars, wanderers and transients’, is on the decline. But they probably said that about Tom Jones.