Notes on the Late Twentieth Century British Novel


“ … we are not personalities, but personages.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald


“Postmodernism consists in essence of the view that nothing would ever again happen for the first time.”

Christopher Hitchens






            At the beginning of the third millennium, when even the post-modernist trend seems to have exhausted its possibilities, the question that has haunted writer and reader alike ever since the middle of the 20th century, whether the novel has any future and, if it does, where is it headed, seems as irrelevant and preposterous as Barthes’s overrated theory of the  ‘death of the author’. Not only has this question been asked so frequently that its reiteration today makes any sensible reader or writer shrug and continue to read/write novels, but it has also become quite obvious that the novel is not going anywhere in particular, that it has chosen to dwell in the same old spheres of human interest and to stay faithful to its old allegiances. The postmodernist poetics of the novel, to the extent that it exists, has had a considerable contribution to the coming back in force of fiction, having countered many of the potentially destructive aesthetic tenets of high modernism, among which its banishment of traditional literary conventions, its elitist stance, its propensity towards high-blown experimentalism. Linda Hutcheon shows that postmodernism does not oust modernism completely, that “the modern is ineluctably embedded in the postmodern, but the relation is a complex one, of consequence, difference and dependence.”[1] Postmodernism has been tolerant, democratic and ironic and, rather than operate a clean break with tradition – as the spirit of high modernism required –, it has been concerned with salvaging anything that can be re-used from that tradition, and also from the tradition of modernism. Hence a new life even for realist fiction, placed, nonetheless, in a different, more relativised, context and perspective.

            A really important issue to tackle here, when discussing the relationship of postmodernism to modernism, is that of the canon, more precisely that of the modifications that occurred inside the canon after the consolidation of postmodernism and of the constitution of the postmodernist canon itself. The canon, Harold Bloom insists, “once we see it as the relation of an individual reader and writer to what has been preserved out of what has been written” (and not as a list of books for required study) is “the Literary Art of memory”.[2] It is the literay memory’s way to preserve and transmit aesthetic value. In his influential book, Harold Bloom examines the Western canon in three epochs: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age and the Chaotic Age, with some limited reference to the Theocratic Age, which precedes the Aristocratic. Ours would be the Chaotic Age, which, however, contains not only postmodernism, but also modernism, in fact the entire 20th. century. It results that one can only discuss the canon profitably if one assigns a given canon a precise historical delineation, as differences are considerable from one century to another and sometimes, as in the case of modernism vs. postmodernism, even within the same century. Postmodernist writers are, par excellence, anti-canonical; postmodernism itself is pluralist and relativist, willing to accept variety and consequently opposed to a unique canon, probably to the very idea of canon, but postmodernist novelists and the critics supporting them cannot fail to project a new light on the existing canon and to modify it through their own works. Many theoreticians maintain that postmodern literary works are necessarily situated at the periphery of the modernist canon, others think that they constitute a separate canon. The issue is still apt to genrate much heated controversy. The question is whether what Harold Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” (Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians etc.)[3] will manage to persuade the readership that the authors who constitute the canon are but “dead white European males” not worth reading any more (because they do not reflect the socio-political temper of the new age). Another question is whether the postmodernists have published sufficient significant new works to have a canon of their own. In that respect it is significant that, for all postmodern critiques of modernism, no postmodernist writer of comparable stature to Joyce, D. H. Lawrence or T. S. Eliot has yet emerged.

Despite the various ways in which the accomodating form of the novel has been stretched and twisted by ambitious technical innovators, despite the stunning diversity of texts on which the label ‘novel’ has been slapped, despite the great variety of personal visions informing it, the basic function of the novel has remained practically unchanged through the centuries: to tell a meaningful story about man in his social milieu. Radical fictional experiments that have attempted to ignore this fundamental imperative have, for the most part, ended in dismal failures.[4] Reversely, it has been noticed that when fiction

[1] Linda Hutcheon, The Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction, Routledge, New  York and London, 1992 (1989), p. 38.

[2] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, Papermac, Macmillan, London, 1994, p. 17

[3] Idem. p. 527.

[4] The handiest example is that of the nouveau roman, very attractive in the sixties to practising novelists, but which predictably failed to arouse the interest of the public at large. A radical form of ‘antiliterature’, the nouveau roman was responsible, in our view, for the devitalization of mid-20th century West-European (especially French, but, through its influence, also English) fiction, for the declared preference of many fiction-makers (including those belonging to the Romanian ‘textualist’ school) for a species of plotless, structureless, indeed at times idea-less, fictional discourse. Anthony Burgess did not hesitate to hold Alain Robbe-Grillet responsible for the ‘death of the novel’. In the global village in which we live, the vision and techniques of the nouveaux romanciers contaminated to a moderate extent American fiction (R. Coover, D. Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, R. Sukenick), and echoes of it can be found in British fiction in W. Golding’s work (Pincher Martin, The Paper Men) or in John Berger’s. An intelligent commentary on the nature of Robbe-Grillet’s texts was made by Matei Calinescu in Rereading (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1993): “Unreadable under ordinary circumstances, Robbe-Grillet becomes a highly readable and rereadeble author [ …] under special, mostly didactic, circumstances: this would explain the academic [our italics] succes of such an otherwise difficult, artificial, quirky, often pretentious and sometimes absurdly contrived author.’ (p. 219) Calinescu shows that readers conceive and pursue their games of make-believe primarily in terms of fictional truth, and that in the writings of Robbe-Grillet the markers of fiction within fiction are absent, whence the reader’s difficulty in putting together a fictionally true narrative line. Robbe-Grillet indulges in ‘a game with rules’, consisting of a system of ingenious traps , snares and textual ambushes for the reader. ‘But this cannot change the fundamental rule, without which one cannot speak of a fictional world (as opposed to a meaningless, arbitrary fictional chaos), namely that within a fictional world one should be, in principle, able to separate between fictional truth (or potential truth) and fictional types of fictitiousness’ (p. 220). In the case of Robbe-Grillet and other nouveaux romanciers, the demarcation line between fictional truth and the self-delusions of the protagonists is not as clear as in Cervantes or Kafka. But ‘without the dramatic ingredient of fictional truth, the literary reading of  works of any great length is simply impossible. If the fictional truth is not there, unambiguously provided by the text, one will always look for signs by which to orient oneself in unknown territories. Thus, ‘even in Robbe-Grillet’s polemically anti-realistic novels there is actually more fictional truth (and quasi-realistic truth at that) than meets the eye’ (p. 221). By unearthing elements of this fictional truth,Calinescu contends, we can forge a summary of the story and prove that it is fictionally true. It is not less true that such a double-crossing technique greatly contributed to the alienation of the reader from ‘high-brow’ fiction in that period.


sticks to the function mentioned above and applies itself enthusiastically, with gusto, to its task (whether the vision be tragic, tragi-comic, allegorical, symbolical or what have you), it stands a fair chance to become noteworthy, even to stand out in the context of world literature.[1] Of course, the recent novel should be conceived as morphologically complex and thematically diverse. David Lodge describes it as ‘ … a new synthesis of pre-existing narrative traditions, rather than a continuation of one of them, or an entirely independent phenomenon – hence the great variety and inclusiveness of the novel form [ … ] [ …] if Scholes and Kellog are right in seeing the novel as a new synthesis of pre-existing narrative modes, the dominant mode, the synthesizing element, is realism’.[2] It should be emphasized that “postmodernism has not replaced liberal humanism, even oif it has seriously challenged it.”[3]

            During the first half of the 20th century, English fiction lived under the sign of experimentalism. Taking advantage of the Protean genre’s fantastic malleability, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf freed the novel from its dependence on socio-historical contingency in order to refer the microcosm of individual psychology to myth and archetype. Their fresh visions and audacious approaches all but shattered the almost artisanal simplicity of old narrative conventions, making room for new ways of perceiving reality, in keeping with the mutations produced in the sensibility of 20th century man, consonant with the new theories in physics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and, of course, linguistics. It is undeniable that the writers of ‘high modernism’ gave the form a new lustre, a new intellectual status and new substance, by annexing new territories (especially the ‘inscapes’, too superficially explored by the writers of the previous century) and by drilling to unsuspected depths. And yet, somber warnings about the imminent death of the novel could be heard in those very years. This, for two reasons. First, because the new novel, deliberately taking an elitist stance, made it impossible to perpetrate the harmonious relation between sender and receiver: it was, as it were, way ahead of its time. Running too far ahead of his readers, the writer became not only socially, but also culturally alienated. Second, these authors’ experiments all but exhausted the possibilities of the form, leaving only dead-ends to the coming generations, which were more or less forced to fall back on traditional formulas, for after the total novel, what? Such thoughts, reinforced by a certain amount of professional jealousy, made Alberto Moravia refer irreverently to Proust, Joyce, Musil and their ilk as ‘the gravediggers of the novel’. What is undeniable is that with the fiction of the ‘high modernists’ one witnesses a ‘breaking down of traditional realisms’ (Frederic Jameson) and an unballancing of the synthesis commended by Lodge. ‘ … the disintegration of the novel-synthesis should be associated with a radical undermining of realism as a literary mode.’[4]

            However, reading the literary critics and literary historians, one is tempted to conclude that in 1941, with the passing away of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the modernist novel was dealt the first mortal blow. This was partly confirmed by the rather precarious state of post-war fiction in most of the countries that had built, until World War Two, a fairly solid national narrative tradition. A certain tameness characterized, in the first decades after the war, the fictional output of such countries as England, France and Germany, a return of the flow of narrative to its natural course, after the violent dam-breaking of the first third of the century. However, when taking into consideration the contributions made by several national literatures – Latin American, Scandinavian, Central European – one is forcibly reminded of Mark Twain’s reaction, on reading about his own demise in the papers: ‘The news of my death is highly exaggerated …’. In what regards the state of the contemporary British novel, in the sixties and seventies the situation seemed to be rather disappointing, so one was tempted to take Malcolm Bradbury's wry remark, ‘the novel is not dead, it has merely run away; it is safe and sound and lives in the United States’[5] at face value. However, as I hope to prove in the next chapters, since then not only has the situation changed, but, placed in a new perspective, even the fictional harvest of the fifties, sixties and seventies appears richer and more challenging.

                For a period, nevertheless, in Great Britain fiction displayed the symptoms of exhaustion, of insularity, of a ‘reaction against experiment’, of a return to the traditional mimetic conventions that contrasted sharply not only with the narrative art of half a century before, but also with the significant mutations and renewals in other arts and in the humanities. Could the long and honourable tradition of English fiction have led to a devitalization of the genre, to a new ‘Barren Age’? Could the crisis of the European novel have been deepest and most hopeless in the very heartland of fiction? Such questions were raised by leading literary critics in the United Kingdom and elsewhere[6], and it is difficult to say whether the arguments supporting this conclusion outnumber the ones infirming it. Bernard Bergonzi thinks that the insatisfaction caused by contemporary

[1] The Latin American novel, far from being a mere fad, as one could have believed in the sixties and seventies, has demonstrated its vigour and value based on precisely such qualities. Another interesting segment of postmodern fiction is the rural novel written in the erstwhile Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties, and the East European novel (written mostly in exile), firmly anchored in history and with an unflinching devotion to reality, even though receptive to formal experiment.

[2] David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1971, p. 4.

[3] Hutcheon, The Poetics of Postmodernism, p. 4.

[4] Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads, p. 5.

[5] Malcolm Bradbury, Possibilities, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1973, p. 167.

[6] It is not altogether pointless to remark that two of the few book-length studies of contemporary British fiction have been written by American scholars, Frederick R. Karl’s A Reader’s Guide to the Contemporary English Novel and Charles Shapiro (ed.), Contemporary British Novelists, whereas two Britishers, Tony Tanner and Malcolm Bradbury, were among the most astute students of American fiction. Geographical perspective probably helps.

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