Novel Since the Second World War Upto 20th Century

Also Read

      Since 1939 the English novel appears, as far as it can be judged at such close range, to have, lacked the strong sense of purpose and direction. Which lay behind the work of the most significant of the inter-war novelists. The death in 1941 of both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf deprived the novel of two of its acknowledged leaders and boldest innovators, though the influence of both has continued to make itself felt after their death. Of the other leaders in this field, E.M. Forster has produced no novel since A Passage to India, while Huxley has produced little that adds materially to his stature.

      The novel still continues to be the chief literary form in English. The more important practitioners have continued to regard the novel as a serious form, attempting in some degree an interpretation of life, and demanding the delicacy and subtlety of touch of other art forms. The uncertainty of the war years is well reflected in the emphasis on disintegration, despair, and failure in the contemporary novel, while the frequency with which violence and sadistic cruelty are made its themes is not surprising in a world familiar with the horrors of blitzes, concentration camps, and atom bombs. A strain of deliberately cultivated ‘toughness’, in the Hemingway manner, is to be found in a great deal of modern fiction.

      The Trinity of “Greens” - Among recent novelists, the trinity of “Greens”- F.L. Green, Henry Green and Grahm Green deserve attention. F.L. Green shot into fame with his ‘Odd man Out’ (1945). He has followed his success with other novels, among which his recent work The Magician, is a remarkable study of evil. His novels show much of the vigor, and something of the concern with evil and violence, which are among the most noteworthy characteristics of this period.

      Henry Green is a gifted novelist and skilled craftsman, with marked stylistic gifts and a considerable range of subject matter. He has been hailed as “our most pure, our most detached writer.” His best novels are Caught, Loving, Concluding, Nothing, all well composed and integrated pieces.

      The last of the trio, Graham Green has wielded the largest measure of influence and reputation in the realm of modem fiction. Green had a vision limited by his consciousness of evil in human life: he concentrated on the seamy side of modem life, and his principal characterization ran to a type, that of the moral defective.

      His first novel, The Man Within, had a historical setting of eighteenth-century smuggling, whereas all the others are of contemporary life. In It’s a battlefield (1934) we are in the world of twentieth-century police involved in suppressing communist inspired rioting. The full possibilities of Graham Green showed first in England Made Me (1935). Centering on a story of high international finance, this largely consists of a study of moral decline in certain English types as met in Sweden, which is the scene of the novel. In his next three novels Graham Green maintained his detachment as a narrator, avoiding emotional coloring and direct sympathy, but, himself a Roman Catholic, he presented life in terms of the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, in the main objectively through his characters, yet with some restrained personal commentary. It is the clear, constant religious approach that differentiated these novels of Green’s from those of most of his contemporaries. Other novelists dealt with the underworld, as Green did in Brighton Rock (1938); others too treated of the destructive force of materialistic tyranny, as Green did in The Power and the Glory (1940). Only Green wrote in terms of heaven and hell.

      In The Power and the Glory Green made an advance in nearly every way. His new theme, that of the struggle between Church and State, transcended the earlier themes. In The Heart of the Matter (1948) Green, except for making the scene of the novel West African in the recent war, gave up topicality. It is the human heart that is Green’s primary concern here. It is the human soul fighting in battle alone for the ultimate truth underlying the surface presently by the circumstances of the world, and in showing this Graham Green brought the novel close against the example set by Conrad, the spectacle of man at odds with destiny, though without the color and poetry of Conrad.

      Ivy Compton Burnett: The sense of evil we have noted is clearly exemplified in the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, a supreme exponent of crime set in a domestic background. Her plots are excellently well-constructed, though the amount of action is quite small. She is a mistress of revealing dialogue which constitutes her chief method of exposition, and her characterization is almost invariably of a high order. Her work really dates from Pastors and Mastors (1925), which was followed by some dozen novels including Men and Wives (1931), Daughters and Sons (1937), Parents and Children (1941) and The Present and the Past (1953).

      Elizabeth Bowen : At mid-century it is the name of Elizabeth Bowen that stands out most prominently among the women novelists. She has little in common with Graham Green, her illustrious contemporary. Certainly for both the human heart was what most interested them, and both felt the pressure of the times upon human character; both, but Elizabeth Bowen especially, watched keenly the disintegration of the survivors of the Edwardian middle class as the conditions which had bred them passed away. But while Elizabeth Bowen, like Greene, had an artistic detachment, she had as well a satiric aloofness of judgment in strong contrast with his Roman Catholicism. In place of his hard, often laconic style, she wrote a delicate, subtle style, with a feminine sensitiveness that sought precision not by brevity but by a patient use of little strokes. To put the contrast broadly, Greene, his Catholicism apart, drew near to the “tough” writing of Ernest Hemingway, while Elizabeth Bowen was close to Virginia Woolf.

      Her approach to life is far more comprehensive than that of the social satirist. With less intensity, less warmth, less richness in her humanity than in Virginia Woolf’s, she still has those qualities, and with them an interpretation of life, again less penetrating than Woolf’s, but nevertheless getting well beneath the surface. Life in her clear mirror, flows rippling on. The mirror cannot but impose something of a pattern, but the impression her tales always leave is, as with Virginia Woolf’s novels, that of continuity: nothing breaks off sharply, the edges of life are undefined. Tragedy and comedy intertwine inextricably. Though she employs only in a considerably modified way Virginia Woolf’s technique of the flow of the inner consciousness, she does similarly take us into the minds and feelings of her people.

      In The Heat of the Day (1949) Elizabeth Bowen attained her peak of artistic achievement. Her picture of war-time London has the quality given by emotion recollected in tranquility, as has the Irish picture in The Last September (1929): we breathe the essential atmosphere, but only now and then does she give that peculiar vividness which endows a scene with the urgent freshness of the actual moment. On account of her natural aversion from overstatement she does not achieve the full possibilities of her theme, the cancer of treachery which can destroy a man otherwise lovable. The reason which lead Robert to work against his country are not fully developed. Instead we are let into the secrets of Stella’s heart, from the time she is warned of her lover’s treachery until he confesses it to her. That is the core of the book, a psychological study at once detailed and reticent, suggestive rather than analytical. In her technique one of her outstanding gifts in her skill in developing character and story simultaneously by dialogue: while her people talk, they take on life, they change, and the mechanics of the story move. To sum up, where Virginia Woolf found it necessary to revolutionize the writing of the novel, Elizabeth Bowen showed how it was possible to employ similar talents in the revivifying of a traditional novel.

      Bates, Priestley and Pritchett : In days when the intellectual novelists seemed afraid to portray the ordinary emotions of ordinary people, and unable to imagine or believe in the reality of human personality, J.B. Priestley in Festival at Farbridge (1951) boldly returned to the manner of his Good Companions of over twenty years earlier, they're in a very English scene, crowded with figures humorously exaggerated in the drawing, he invited us to recognize that what still matters most is the human-heartedness of ordinary people and that in 1951, no less than before, energy laughter, and romantic love make the world go round:

      Other contemporary writers are H.E. Bates and V.S. Pritchett, both primarily devoted to the short story but also occasionally capable of starting novels. Bates’s The Scarlet Sword (1950) with its setting in post-partition Kashmir will be of special interest to Indian readers. Priestley published Mr. Beluncle (1951) which is a novel of earlier broad kind. Loosely episodic, it is a satiric comedy of suburbia and it is dominated by the title character, a bumptious genteel humbug conceived on the scale and after the manner of Dickens.

      Joyce Cary, C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell : The novelists, who have commanded greatest respect in the fifties are Joyce Cary, C.P. Show arid Anthony Powell. Joyce Cary’s early novels about African life (‘Mr. Johnson’ and ‘Aissa Saved’) were competent but in no way remarkable. His later work is both more varied and more ambitious, yet even at its best it leaves the reader with a sense of dissatisfaction not altogether easy to account for. The fact is perhaps that despite the thoughtfulness and humanity of the larger design which Cary has sought to impose on his later novels, the elements (incident, dialogue, characterization) which he uses to make up his pattern are inescapably secondhand-stereotypes which are incapable of successfully communicating his best perceptions.

      C.P. Snow’s ambitious sequence of novels Strangers and Brothers started to appear in 1940, and is still “in progress” twenty years later. The first two volumes have an uncertainty of touch, which suggests that the writer was still engaged in finding his own characteristic tone of voice as a novelist. What he found in the end, is a surprisingly old-fashioned, almost Trollopian naturalism, which resolutely turns its back on not only all “stream of consciousness” experimentation, but also on any of the complexity of narrative technique which can be learnt from Conrad and Henry James.

      Anthony Powell achieved a very modest success in the thirties with a number of satirical novels. Since 1951 he has made a fresh start with a novel sequence whose over-all title, The Music of Time indicates a conscious indebtedness to Marcel Proust. The world he portrays here is a curiously limited one confined almost exclusively to Old Etonians and their female relatives. Since the novel sequence is not yet complete, one will have to wait until the sequence is complete in order to judge it fairly. While the total effect so far is diffuse and at times confusing, much of the detail is keenly observed, and in Widmerpool Mr. Powell has certainly created a memorable comic character.

      Among the recent novelists mention must also be made of Kingsley Amis whose Lucky Jim (1954) has proved a great success. Iris Murdoch is also a talented novelist. Recently she has published The Bell (1958) which is essentially a study, penetrating yet compassionately sympathetic, of opposed types of moral and religious conviction. In the list of very young writers about whom we shall hear more in the coming years stand Ernyr Humphreys, P.H. Newby, Nigel Balchin, Miss A.L. Barker, the two Smiths, Emma and Stevie, the two Elizabeths, Taylor and Lake, Miss Julia Strachey and Miss Betty Ashwith, whose novel A Broken Engagement is very gripping indeed.

      The Future of the English Novel.
The tendencies in the late fifties have not yet become conspicuous. Most of the novelists appear to lack the strong sense of purpose and direction. “What is the future of the English novel?” One is tern opted to ask. Many will shake their heads and say that future is anything but bright, for most of the novelists lack an intensity of vision, wide sympathy and broad generosity and a real love of life. Yet it is not wise to be pessimistic or play the role of too sure a prophet. “If there is one thing, writes Priestley, “that history teaches us, it is the folly of indulging in premature headshaking. Many a good critic of the past has come to cut a foolish figure in our eyes because he gravely announced that something was all over when, in truth, we know that it was only just beginning. A hundred years ago, when Jane Austen had been dead ten years and Scott had done his best work and scribblers like Hook represented the art of fiction it might well have been thought, as indeed it was thought, that the English novel was about to enter into what is perhaps its greatest period; and our prophetic powers are no greater than theirs. The English Novel may yet pour out treason in the old generous fashion; and if it does not, we shall not be poor, for it has already left us a gigantic and imperishable legacy”.

Previous Post Next Post