Wednesday, 21 November 2012

English Fiction To-day by Elizabeth Bowen

This article was written by Elizabeth Bowen in 1950, and appeared in John O'London's Weekly.

In general, something is expected of, or at, the turn of a century. A Term of time by being demarcated acquires character, which, as such, makes itself evident as it matures. So a century halfway along its course may be considered due to declare maturity, to have reached culmination-point, to make seen the fruition of its inherent ideas.
The twentieth century's development, however, has been in some directions so violently forced, in others so notably arrested as to seem hardly to be a development at all, or at least to be difficult to recognize if it is one. In European countries, certainly, life and art are still seeking their footing in their actual time - both have the stigmata of an over-long drawn-out adolescence. The mid-century call for an exhibition may therefore be said to have taken us by surprise, and found us unready, in disarray.
As to art, it is not that there is nothing to show; the difficulty is rather in presentation - arrangement, classification and rating order. Individually, no potential exhibit is not expressive: how, however, is each so to be placed as to bring out its relationship with the others? For the warrant and point of an exhibition must be its overall significance and expressiveness. In this case, one is tempted to ask, of what? 

In England - if one may press the display analogy further there would be particular difficulty in arranging the fiction stall. The novel, onward from 1914, has in different ways reflected the sense of flux. The cracking and splintering of the social mould during and after the first World War accounted for a shift, as to the subject, from outer to inner, from man as a public being to man as a seat of isolated and in the main suffering private sensibility. For the greater part of the inter-war years, subjectivity hazed over the English novel; there was disposition to follow the stream of consciousness "from caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea." With this went, it may now be felt, a misuse or perversion of some influences - the overheated for-or-against reaction to D.H. Lawrence, the attempted segregation of Henry James and Proust from their beau-monde, of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev from their thriving social-sensuous universe, of Thomas Hardy from his Wessex exhuberance.
The intellectually respectable English novel for some time concentrated upon, insisted upon the victim-hero - whether at school, in love or at large in the jungle which by overgrowing the ruins of fixed society succeeded to what that used to be. There was almost a convention of disillusionment. The forte of the novelist was analysis. The alternative to the analytical was the caustic - the iconoclastic novel of ideas: for this, Aldous Huxley gave the prototype.
The English inter-war novel, it seems now, was somewhat "out" in its concept of what makes tragedy. It did not finally diagnose the modern uneasiness - dislocation. Dorothy Richardson (still owed full recognition) and Virginia Woolf did best, in their stress on the interplay between consciousness and and the exterior world; but these two delicate novelists of the senses cannot be called, in their last implication, tragic.
The salutary value of the exterior, the comfortable sanity of the concrete came to be realized only when the approach of the second World War forced one to envisage wholesale destruction. The obliteration of man's surroundings, streets and houses, tables and chairs sent up, for him, their psychological worth. Up to now, consciousness had been a sheltered product: its interest as consciousness diminished now that, at any moment, the physical shelter could be gone. 

To be continued.