English Novel Since 1950

The years around the termination of World War II (1945) constitute something like a watershed in the history of the English novel. Both Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, who were among the greatest of the Modernists, died in 1941. And it seemed that a great era had come to an end with them. Thereafter is a perceptible decline in the British novel. The post-Ulysses novel lacks, what Karl Calls, “the moral urgency of a Conrad, the verbal gifts and wit of a Joyce, the vitality and all-consuming obsession of a Lawrence.”

On the whole, there has been less of experiment and innovation in the post-1950 English novel and more and. more of parochialization and what is called “Little Englandism,” Lacking the force and originality of their great Modern predecessors, the English novelists of recent years sometimes look like feeble imitators of the giants gone by. “One common characteristic” of most novelists of recent years is, in Karl’s words, “their inability to deepen and develop with time. When Elizabeth Bovven, for example, experiments in The Heat of the Day, she does little more than what Virginia Woolf had tried in Mrs Dalloway fifteen years earlier. When Joyce Gary in The Horse’sMouth and elsewhere tampers with language, he barely scrapes the surface of what Joyce attempted with words. When Durrell talks about love in his Alexandria Quartet, he points towards but hardly reaches Lawrence’s examination of love. When Graham Green uses moral issues without a religious frame of reference, he is dealing with a subject that many nineteenth-century novelists wrote about extensively and with greater range.”

Karl’s wholesale deprecation of the recent and contemporary English novelists seems to ignore the work of some genuine and bold experimenters and innovators like Beckett, Fowles, B.S. Johnson, and Golding who have made solid contributions to both the range and technique of the novel. We shall consider these novelists later. Here let us point out a feature of recent British novel—its growing provincialism and tendency to sever international links. Interestingly, while the novel in other countries—such as France, America. Germany, and even India to some extent—is becoming more international, the novel in England is becoming parochial and provincial. Earlier English novelist were much more catholic than their descendents. Take Lawrence for example—the most English of English novelists. And yet look at his range and the breadth of his mind. He has written novels set in please about Mexico. Australia, and Italy. The growing narrow English outlook is well represented by Kingsley Amis in his novel with the suggestive title I Like It Here (1958) which in,the words of Bradbury and Palmer “deveoted itself to mocking the experimental and expatriate tradition in the novel, blamed on Henry James, and celebrating the common-sensical realist. English virtues of Henry Fielding, while also indicating how much better England was than anywhere fancy abroad.” Most new English novelists were not much bothered by the dilemmas of Existentialism and Absurdism, nor were they keen to experiment with new fictional forms. Karl trenchantly remarks : “The novel in Joyce’s hands was internationalized; in Gary’s and Waugh’s Anglicized.”
Tradition and Innovation:
We can well understand the implications of such paradoxes as Bergonzi’s that “the novel” is no longer “novel” and Karl’s that “contemporary English novel is not modern.” The lack of “novelty” and “modernity” makes the recent English novel look like a poor cousin of the French or the American novel in which bold experimentation with both theme and technique is more a rule than an exception. However, it will be extremely unjust to say that all English novelistsof recent years are sedate and spunkless traditionalists harking back to their Victorian compatriots. Beckett. Fowles, and Johnson, for instance, are as bold innovators as any in the Continent or in America, and even novelists like Golding. Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark, who accept tradition in some respects, yet open up new horizons in some others. Only time will decide the comparative merit of contemporary novelists— like it has already done that of their predecessors like Lawrence, Forster, Joyce. Woolf. and Conrad. So we have to wait for time to do the sifting and say what is grain and what is chaff.
Let us now consider the work of the experimentalists and the traditionalists one by one. (It must be understood, however, that these two group-names are only relative terms and not absolute like, say, “sheep” and “goats.” A sheep cannot be a goat at the same time, but a novelist who is largely a traditionalist can also be an experimentalist and vice verse. Further, as the number of practitioners of the craft is unmanageably large, we shall have to limit ourselves to just a handful ofthem).
The Experimentalists and Innovators:
Samuel Beckett (1906-89) is indeed among the most daring of recent novelists. According to Andrew Piasecki “Beckett is one of the most singular and original writers to appear in English, or possibly in France, since 1945.” A friend and associate of the Irish expatriate James Joyce, he was greatly influenced by him as also by the French novelist Marcel Proust. His fascination for words and his use of the stream-of-consciousness technique are strongly suggestive of the influence of Joyce. Beckett is better known as a dramatist than as a novelist: his play Waiting for Godot is a modern classic, a locus classicus of Modernist Absurd drama. His vision as a novelist too is strongly laced with Absurdism and even Nihilism. In his 1950s trilogy comprising Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable aged outcasts tell their own stories with grimness and black humour which underline the futility of their pastime. Beckett’s novels, in the words of Andrew Roberts, “represent the ultimate breakdown of the classic realist novel.”
John Fowles (1926- ) carries on Beckett’s exploration of the possibilities and nature of narrative and fictionality. His distinguished work The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) is of the nature of a pastiche combining passages in the nineteenth-century novelistic style, quotations from sociological reports, frequent authorial comments, passages from Darwin, Marx, Arnold, and Tennyson, and so on. In the course of the “novel” (if it may be called one), the author himself becomes a character. And last but not least, Fowles offers two alternative endings, inviting the reader to choose the one he likes.
B. S. Johnson (1933-73) went farther than Fowles in making daring experiments with the form of the novel. His overwhelming interest in the nature of narrative and fictionality together with his penchant for Postmodernist techniques makes him an avant-garde author of recent times. He is credited with the attempt to write a “non-fictional novel” in See the Old Lady Decently (1979) by making use of authentic documents and photographs. The Unfortunates (1969) is another path-breaker. It comprises twenty-seven loose-leaf sections, twenty-five of which may be read in any order, almost like the five sections of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Johnson’s intention seems to highlight the arbitrariness of the structure of fictionality as also the radical circularity of the mind.
The two directions in which English experimental novel of recent years has progressed are, according to Andrew Roberts, “documentary objectivity” and “perspectivism.” The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) of Lawrence Durrell (1912-90) represents both these directions. The intricate relationships within a community are intimated by a variety of narratives with different perspectives.
The Traditionalists:
Retaining the socio-moral moves of the novel and its classic form, the traditionalists, too, made substantial contribution to the English novel. Let us consider a few of them.
First, we have the group Of novelists like Angus Wilson (1913-91), and C.P. Snow (1905-80) who carried on the tradition of social analysis, criticism, and satire of their predecessors like Huxley and Waugh. Wilson’s characters have a vast variety and all of them are rooted in the soil. Snow is known for his series of eleven novels Strangers and Brothers (1940-70). He is good at delineating the conflict between personal ambition and social conscience. He was a great champion of science and technology as against literature. This made him the bete noire of writers like F. R. Leavis.
The 1950s also saw the emergence of the so-called “angry young men” who employed both drama and the novel for ventilating their criticism of English middle-class values and institutions. In the 1950s middle-class respectable values were getting eroded by a large number of disaffected youth who were jobless and were becoming angry with almost everything time-honoured—morality, religion, parental authority, social stratification, and so on. The “angry young men” include novelists like Alan Sillitoe (1928- ), John Braine( 1922- ), John Wain (1925-), Stan Barstow( 1928- ), and David Storey (1933- ).
Moral Philosophers:
Finally, there is the important group of novelists like Graham Greene (1904-91), William Golding (1911-93), Iris Murdoch (1919-), and Muriel Spark (1918- ) who are partly experimentalists and partly traditionalists, but whose main contribution is their deep metaphysical exploration of the foundations of morality and the nature of good and evil both in human and non-human contexts. Greene does not merely depict right and wrong but fundamental good and evil. Instead of Original Sin he seems to believe in Original Charity as the chief characteristic of man. Golding has shown impressive technical virtuosity as well as metaphysical profundity in his novels. While novels like Pincher Martin (which attempts to delineate the post-mortem. experiences of the protagonist) manifest the fonner, others like Lord of the Flies amply show the latter. The novels of Iris Murdoch, who is a philosopher as well as a novelist, have considerable variety. She addresses herself to the existential issues of identity and freedom as also ethical problems. Andrew Roberts observes about her: “Although her works are novels of ideas, they combine this with exciting and sometimes macabre plots, elements of the grotesque and supernatural and touches of social comedy.” Muriel Spark appropriately started her career as a novelist with The Comforters (1957) which, in her own words, is “a novel about writing a novel.” Her later fiction combines the comic and the sinister. Her novellas such as The Driver’s Seat (1970) are extremely precise and concise in form and style and still some others show the influence of Golding.

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