The Sense of Life in the Modern Novel
“Books,” mourned E.M. Forster, “have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they contain. A few savage tribes eat them, but reading is the only method of assimilation revealed to the west.” Still, the harassed reviewer hopes, Forster may not have been talking about books of criticism. Take Arthur Mizener’s book, for instance: it has a title and an index from which a great deal can be learned.
What is “the sense of life”? A phrase that Professor Mizener would underscore in red on a student’s exam and describe in the margin as “pretentious and meaningless.” What is “the modern novel”? Here the index is useful. The longest continuous passage is devoted to Trollope, thirty pages of it, plus mention on four other pages. Next, Anthony Powell: twenty-six consecutive pages. Allen Tate gets twenty-one, plus five mentions; Salinger, twenty; John Updike, twenty; Fitzgerald, the largest number of pages, though not consecutively; Faulkner, James, and Hemingway pretty close to Fitzgerald; Dos Passos and James Gould Cozzens, not far behind. Strangely, in this strange constellation, Hardy has a chapter to himself; so we cheat a bit, skim through that part of the text, and are relieved to find out that Mizener considers Hardy’s Jude in order to dismiss it. Conrad and Joyce are mentioned on a half-dozen pages each; Wyndham Lewis on two (not of course—a quick peek confirms—as a novelist); Lawrence on one and Compton Mackenzie on three; Flaubert on one and Fenimore Cooper on eight; Tolstoy and Archibald MacLeish on four each. No entry for Dostoevsky; nor for Turgenev, Verga, Mann, Proust, Kafka, Gide, Colette.
The modern novel, then, appears to be almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon: invented by Trollope; threatened by that maverick, Hardy; rescued and carried on by James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner; interrupted by such occasional footnotes as Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence; grandly moving into our time with the fiction of Anthony Powell; brought up to the moment by Salinger and Updike; culminating, if not chronologically, at any rate qualitatively, in a single novel by Allen Tate—with a chapter on which Mizener concludes—The Fathers. Having come so far, the reviewer is seized by a severe fit of vertigo, and decides, now really, that cannot be what Mizener means at all.
Well, there’s nothing for it but to open the book; perhaps at a page on which the index locates an unexpected presence, unexpected even in this antic company—say, Archibald MacLeish, as he materializes on page 120:
Many of these expatriates did return to America in the early thirties to express a renewed interest in the peculiar country they belonged to; as Archibald MacLeish put it in 1929, writing to Gerald Murphy, the dedicatee of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and Philip Barry’s Hotel Universe and nearly every American expatriate’s Bayard:
This is our race, we that have none, that have had
Neither the old walls nor the voices around us,
This is our…
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