His famous trilogy was published in London in 1959, whose English titles are Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. The trilogy proved to be the most innovative fiction of the fifties. Another, and early, notable work of Beckett was a volume of interconnected short stories put together under the title More Pricks than Kicks (1934), in which he had already presented the typical, unconventional, absurdist hero. His novels, as well as plays, have been described by several readers of repute as illustrations of Sartre’s Existentialism. For a summing up of Beckett’s concerns in his work, an excerpt from Martin Esslin would do more justice to the novelist than any fresh attempt:
The most important writer who emerged in mid-50’s was Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), who was an Irish by birth but remained in Paris and wrote in French much of his dramatic and fictional work. Although better known as dramatist, because of his radical innovations, his contribution to the English novel is no less significant.
The search for man’s own identity—not the finding of the true nature of self which for Beckett will remain ever elusive, but the raising of the problem of identity itself, the confrontation of the audience with the existence of its own problematical and mysterious condition; this fundamentally is the theme of Beckett’s plays, novels, prose, sketches, and poems.
Such a quest, despairing and nihilistic as it may appear (for at the center of being there is a void, nothingness) is nevertheless a very lofty enterprise — for it is totally fearless, dedicated and uncompromising; it is, in the last resort, a religious quest in that it seeks to confront the ultimate reality.
True to the spirit of Postmodernism, Beckett’s novels could not be interpreted as ‘representations’ of real life’. In his work the text is maintained as an object of questioning, the working of codes, rather than a series of situations and allusions to a subtext which the reader or audience ought to feel. One can feel an infinite openness (about his texts) to significance and a space for perpetual deferment of any conclusive meaning. Beckett’s experiments with the technique of the novel, and with the dis-integration of its conventions, were followed, though not as ruthlessly, by some of the writers of popular fiction, such as Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990). Durrell, incidentally, was born in India of families who had been on the subcontinent for several generations. He is best known by what is called “Alexandria Quartet” – Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960).
A novelist better known than Durrell was William Golding (1911-1993), who came into prominence with the publication of his Lord of the Flies (1954). Deriving his title indirectly from Milton (Beelzibub, one of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost, is called the lord of the flies), Golding sets his novel on a desert island. Here lands on the island a marooned party of boys from an English cathedral choir-school. They gradually deteriorate from their genteel tradition which shaped them into barbarism ending with murder. The novel is actually a moral allegory, making a systematic undoing of R.M. Ballantyne’s adventure story, The Coral Island (1857). Golding reverses the Victorian tale of optimism into a post-Darwinian pessimism. In a sort of deconstruction of the Victorian novel, an interrogation of the conventional values and attitudes, Golding’s novel reflects the spirit and mood of Postmodernism. It measures up to John Barth’s conception of the contemporary ‘literature of exhaustion’. Golding’s other novels include The Inheritors (1964), Pincher Martin (1956), Free Fall (1959), The Spire (1964), and The Pyramid (1967) His Darkness Visible (1979) is once again dependent for its title on Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the blind epic poet uses the expression for Hell. The novels that followed in Golding’s later life include Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), Fire Down Below (1989), and The Paper Men (1984). Of these Rights of Passage has been most successful. Its hero, Edmund Talbot, faces the problems of “too much understanding” and tries to comprehend “all that is monstrous under the sun.” In a sense, the central concern in Golding’s fiction remains what T.S. Eliot puts down in his Gerontion: “After such knowledge what forgiveness.” There is, thus, in the post-War novel an exploration of the darker regions of human psyche and the nothingness of human existence, pessimism being the keynote in the fiction of the fifties.
While there has been a continuation of modernist experimentation with the narrative technique and novel’s form among the writers of the fifties, there has also been a reaction, rather strong, against experimentalism. A leading practitioner of this reaction was Angus Wilson (1913-1991), who deliberately tried to restore the traditional Victorian narrative style. Adopting the realism of Zola and comic sense of Dickens, he produced a large body of fiction, including The Wrong Set (1949), which is a collection of short stories, and Such Darling Dodos (1950), yet another volume of stories. Among his novels, the better-known are Hemlock and After (1952), Setting the World on Fire (1980), The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958), Last Call (1964), Old Men at the Zoo (1961) and As If By Magic (1973). His best-known novels, however, remain Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) and No Laughing Matter (1967). Anglo-Saxon Attitudes has become a sort of classic. Panoramic like a Victorian novel, it is focused on an archaeological fraud whose ramifications ruin the ageing historian, Gerald Middleton.
The most philosophic among the novelists of the fifties was, of course, Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), although she followed the conventional novel form. Starting with her study of Sartre, Sartre, Romantic Rationalist (1953), she produced a large number of novels, which clearly reflect her stance of anti-empirical view of mankind. Her moral philosophy is best illustrated by her The Sovereignty of Good (1970) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). Samuel Beckett’s Murphy has been one of the influences on her, to which she pays homage in her own early novels Under the Net (1954) and Bruno’s Dream (1969). Her other novels include They Flight from the Enchanter (1955), The Sea (1978), The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), The Bell (1958), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), The Black Prince (1973), The Time of the Angels (1966), The Sand Castle (1957), A Severed Head (1961), An Unofficial Rose (1962), The Unicom (1963), The Italian Girl (1964), The Red and The Green (1965), The Nice and The Good (1968), An Accidental Man (1971).
Murdoch’s article, “Against Dryness,” argues that we are living in an age (the post-modern) in which “we are left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality,” in which the relation between art and morality has dwindled “because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself.” Like the modernists, she seems firmly to believe in the salvaging power of art. As she argues in The Sovereignty of Good,
Good art, unlike bad art, unlike ‘happenings,’ is something pre-eminently outside us and resistant to our consciousness. We surrender ourselves to its authority with a love which is unpossessive and unselfish. Art shows us the only sense in which the permanent and incorruptible is compatible with the transient; and whether representational or not it reveals to us aspects of our world which our ordinary dull dream—consciousness is unable to see. Art pierces the veil and gives sense to the notion of a reality which lies beyond appearance; it exhibits virtue in its true guise in the context of death and chance.
This view of art and life, of man and age, is reflected in all her fictional work, although not equally powerfully in each. Her The Time of the Angels is still rated by some as her best, although there is no critical unanimity in her case.
Another female novelist of the fifties, this prolific decade, was Muriel Spark (b. 1918), who also shares with Murdoch and Golding, a firm commitment to moral issues in relation to fictional form. One of her early novels is The Comforters (1957), which focuses on the life of a neurotic woman writer, who is working on a project, Form in the Modern Novel, having difficulty with her chapter on realism. This writer, Caroline Rose, is determined to write a novel about writing a novel. Spark also did her biography entitled Curriculum Vitae (1992). She not only made a critical study of Mary Shelly (Child of Light), but also wrote some novels in the Gothic style, namely Memento Mori (1959), The Ballad of Lekham Rye (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). However, the novel that made her famous is The Driver’s Seat (1970), which deals with the first-person account of a woman with a death-wish, who goes to the extreme of plotting circumstances of her own violent murder. Among her later novels figure Not To Disturb (1971), which has its opening quotation from The Duchess of Malfi, and The Abbess of Crewe (1974), making an investigative study of a convent, but avoiding all Gotihc temptations. All in all, the focus in her novels, too, remains, just as in the novels of her many a contemporary, on the irrational and darker side of human nature, reflecting the mood and spirit of postmodernism.
A not-so-well-known novelist of the 1950’s was Leslie Poles Hartley (1895-1972). Besides a trilogy called Eustace and Hilda (1944-1947), she has left behind some novels with catchy titles, such as The Hireling (1957), focused on class conflict, and The Go-Between (1953), where the novelist’s discomforting feeling about contemporary society becomes manifest.
ANGRY YOUNG MEN
The novelists of the 1950’s that we have discussed so far did not constitute any group or movement. They might have had broad similarities among them shared by most post-War or post-modern writers, but they did not have any common manifesto or ideology to bind them into a homogeneous group. There was, however, during the same prolific fifties, a definite group of writers who consciously and deliberately followed an agenda in their novels (in some cases, also plays). This group got the brand-name of Angry Young Men of the 50’s. It was John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (performed in 1956, published in 1957) which supplied the tone and title for the movement. This group of writers, mostly novelists, represented the typical mood and flavour of the decade. These “angry young men” belonged to the middle or lower-middle sections of society, educated not in Oxford or Cambridge, but in what are called Red-brick universities. They had not experienced the War, and were not bitten by the bug of absurdism. Their anger was directed against the old establishment, the liberal-human, largely upper-middle class, Bloomsbury intelligentia (Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey) symbolized by Horizen. The movement was part social, part cultural. However, the anger they displayed in their novels (and plays) was not of a very serious order. It was not the kind of anger we associate with D.H. Lawrence or Wyndhan Lewis, which emanated from a firm commitment to an ideology or morality. The anger or protest of these young men of the 50’s was rather of a lower order, closer to an ordinary disgruntlement. Actually, what they demanded was social and cultural accommodation among the privileged, an extension of upper-class comforts in privileged jobs, etc. Once that was extended to them, the anger was soon subsided. No wonder the movement did not last beyond the decade of the 1950’s.
Among these “angries” Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) is considered the leading novelist. His Lucky Jim (1954) provides not only a catchy title but also an effective metaphor for the protesting young men. It is also a campus novel, which exposes the academic racket in the British universities, their social pretentions and pseudoculture that so often accompany it. Amis went on exploring further the various dimensions of the aesthetic cant and snobbery in his subsequent novels, such as I Like It Here (1958) and The Uncertain Feeling (1955), One Fat Englishman (1963). Jim Dixon, the hero of Lucky Jim, remains a representative angry young man of the 1950’s.
Another “angry” novelist of the decade was John (Barrington) Wain (1925–), whose Hurry On Down (1953) constructs a more careful portrait of the Angry Young Man. Like other protagonists of the 1950’s, this one is actually an anti-hero, who wishes to opt out of the society he despises and yet stays in it without any commitments. In the categorization made by Raymond Williams (in his The Long Revolution; 1961) of the forms of protest, the Angry Young Man is a tramp who only wishes his individual rights and freedom without responsibilities. As Charles Lumbey, the protagonist of Hurry on Down, reflects at the end of the novel, “Neutrality; he had found it at last. The running fight between himself and society had ended in a draw.” The novels by Wain include The Contenders (1952), A Travelling Woman (1959), Strike the Father Dead(1962), and the short stories Nuncle (1960) – the Fool in King Lear calls Lear ‘nuncle’.
Still another “angry” novelist of the group is John Braine (b. 1922), who produced, in the most productive decade, his popular Room at the Top (1957), with Joe Lampton as its hero, and Life at the Top (1962), both of which expose the emptiness of upper-class life. Depicting the no-holds-bar race for material prosperity and social status, these novels show that when one has made it to the top, he only finds himself trapped and lonely, conscious of the social contempt he has earned. The same theme is elaborated in his Stay With Me Till Morning (1970), depicting again the desperate quest of the rich for excitement in sensuous pleasures of sex and social gatherings or business deals. Similarly, the need of such a lot for pretending eternal youth and reassure oneself by promiscuity is at the heart of his The Crying Game (1968), The Queen of a Distant Country (1972), and Waiting for Sheila (1976).
Another significant novelist of the period is Alan Sillitoe (b. 1928), whose plots are generally placed in Nottingham. He depicts the working-class characters, still haunted by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He is best known by his Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), The Loneliness of the Long-Distant Runner (1959), The Death of William Posters (1966), A Start in Life (1970), and The Widower’s Son (1976).
Yet another notable writer of this terrific decade – perhaps, no other decade in the history of the English novel can claim such a huge crop of fiction – was Anthony Burgess (1917-1993). Making use of his long stay in Malaysia, he produced his Malayan Triology (1956-1959), which, like A Passage to India or The Raj Quartet, depicts life in that country at the end of the colonial regime with emphasis on relationships between different races. What made him famous, however, were his later novels, namely A Clockwork Orange (1962), The Wanting Seed (1962), and The Clock-work Testament (1974). His novels are full of teenage violence and horror, with farcical humour – an example of dark comedy. There is in all the narratives a hovering sense of doom and nothingness (nadsat). Thus, this group of writers, though not quite homogeneous, shared some of their antipathies and a few of their sympathies with each other; they certainly shared a common sensibility which established itself as a new voice of the post-war literary world. Their little narratives and dark humour reflect the typical mood and spirit of Postmodernism.
WOMEN NOVELISTS IN LATER DECADES
The broadening of opportunities for women paved way for some of the radical social changes in the later decades of the twentieth century. A “New Morality” emerged to challenge the established values and perceptions of gender, sexuality, marriage, etc. “New patterns of women employment, especially in the professional sector, made a rapid stride after the War was over in 1945. One of the most inspiring books in the feminist movement came from Germaine Creer (b. 1939), namely The Female Eunuch (1970), which is, in her own words, a part of the second wave in which “ungenteel middle-class women are calling for revolution.” One of the male characters in Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook (1962) echoes the phrase Creer has used here: “The Russian revolution, the Chinese Revolution – they’re nothing at all. The real revolution is women against men.” For both of these women writers that revolution was to be perceived in the female sensitivity to the unfair or highly limited roles of women, to their restricted representation in society and its literature.
Lessing’s career as writer had begun in East Africa with the novels she had written about the growth of political awareness among black people and the white settlers. She had experienced the colonial situation in that part of Africa. Her monumental work in five volumes, Children of Violence (1952-69), focuses on the growing political involvement, and the subsequent disillusion, of Martha Quest. This English woman in East Africa is shown growing from childhood to youth to age, experiencing the acute and complex problems of race and class. It is an epic sequence covering, in a sense, the entire history of the twentieth-century world. Lessing calls her fiction, and its type, “inner space fiction,” by which she means a fiction that has methodically moved in a different direction from conventional realism. The Four-Gated City (1969), the last of the sequence, is an illustration of the type. The significance of her central work, The Golden Notebook, lies in relating her concept of mental fragmentation to the disintegration of fictional form. Here woman’s creativity is to act as instrument of freedom for the fair sex. As the novel’s heroine, Anna Wulf, reflects, “women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists.”
Another notable woman novelist of the period was Angela Carter (1940-1992), whose unconventional essay on pornography, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979), pleads that even pornographic fantasy could be legitimized in literature if it could be pressed into the service of women and if women could cease to be considered as mere commodities. She is best known by her novel The Passion of New Eve (1977) and the two volumes of Gothic tales, Fireworks (1974) and The Bloody Chamber (1979). Her novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), as the title itself suggests, has a male protagonist. Her later work includes two major theatrical novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991).
Perhaps the most representative of the later twentieth century novelists in England is Margaret Drabble (b. 1939), whose very first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage (1963) registered a new presence. It deals with two sisters of the “new” consciousness, who are gossipy, sexually emancipated, university educated, fond of parties. Still better than her first novel is Jerusalem the Golden (1967), which, too, focuses on the same themes, but comes out more assured and less jerky. Her most artful novel of the 1970’s is, however, The Ice Age (1977), which brings out a sharper picture of contemporary English society. Her favourite themes include corruption, IRA bombs, broken marriages, alienations of upward social mobility, etc. The feminist crusade of these women writers is in tune with the theory of Postmodernism.