From Trollope to Updike

The Sense of Life in the Modern Novel

by Arthur Mizener
Houghton, Mifflin, 291 pp., $5.00

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 land, this is our ancient ground—
The raw earth, the mixed bloods and the strangers,
The different eyes, the wind, and the heart’s change.

There is a hint here of a commitment to James’s complex fate, a commitment central to the achievement of the best American novelists of the next two decades. But for several years this commitment was obscured by a widespread excitement among opinion-makers over Marxist ideas and a much publicized longing—an ideological need not unlike an earlier age’s need for remote Bermooths and Noble Savages—for the imagined natural sincerities of working-class life and proletarian heroes. For a few years there was a great hullabaloo over various proletarian writers…

One dip of the bucket is no proof of the pudding; but a commitment central to the achievement of this review is that the nose is a reliable organ. Whoever Archibald MacLeish may be, from the evidence of this dreadful pastiche he is no poet; or rather, as Coleridge neatly put it in 1798 to his good friend Wordsworth, one of the leading figures in the Romantic movement, indeed the Prospero if not the Ariel of that movement, and a man suspiciously fond of his sister: He is not only not a poet, but a bad poet. And whatever Mizener is trying to say, he is writing a prose as smeary in its pretense of breadth and exactness as the introduction to any anthology of literary bits and pieces.

Nevertheless Forster is right: a book—even a book of criticism—must be read, if only to justify our misgivings about it. The inference to be drawn from title, index, and random sample is that Mizener has a tropism toward the refined second-rate. It is an inference that nothing in his text begins to challenge.

Once more, a book on the novel admonishes us that “We have no established theory of the novel.” (Mizener seems to believe that we do have established theories of poetry and drama—though he does not tell us what they are—and that such theories allow us to read poems and plays more sensibly than we read novels.) Not that he will venture to provide a theory of his own: “our ideas about the novel are confused and contradictory and…the best thing we can do at present is to concentrate on certain immediate questions raised by novels.” What he does provide is a term, “nature,” which he defines as “in any given period…a sense of the way things are.” He disclaims, for his purpose, interest in specialized techniques of fiction, in the “well-made novel”; or in the novel of doctrine, though he acknowledges that doctrine is a source of energy for certain novelists, and though he goes to the trouble of demonstrating—as Lawrence beautifully demonstrated a half-century ago in his essay on Hardy—that Jude the Obscure spites its best insights because it sacrifices “nature” to doctrine.

For his clinching argument against novels he intends to ignore, Mizener borrows Wayne Booth’s complaint (in The Rhetoric of Fiction) about the “privacy” of Joyce’s irony in the Portrait, and uses it to belabor the novelist who cultivates “an alien sense of nature”: if the novelist does not have “an unexpressed understanding with the audience about the way things actually are,” he will be thought “brilliant or mad and often just plain mad, and, like such victims of the Elizabethan malady as Hamlet, he is, in an important sense, truly mad”; he must not “conceive the nature of things in a way radically different from the way his audience conceives it.” Since, however, the major novelists of the twentieth century, including Joyce and Lawrence, have so conceived the nature of things; since their “alien” and “radically different” ways of conceiving the nature of things have penetrated, modified, and developed the consciousness of all audiences; since, in any case, the alien and the private are by no means identical, the alien being that which can become familiar whereas the private is only that which can be made public—since this argument of Mizener’s is false and foolish in every particular, it is difficult to attribute to him any but the shoddiest aim in advancing it: to clear the field, no matter how, for the sort of novel he obviously dotes on, the novel of “nature,” of “the way things are.”

Now by “the way things are” Mizener does not mean Bloom in the privy, mingling olfactory and literary satisfactions as he peruses “Matcham’s Masterstroke”; or Anna and Will Brangwen languidly entranced in the aftermath of honeymoon pleasures; or K. in quest of the secret springs of authority. These events may take the fancy of mad novelists, but plainly they do not issue from “an unexpressed understanding with the audience about the way things actually are.” By “the way things are” Mizener means gossip, small talk, indefinite speculation about the gummy surfaces of experience, what can be talked about in pubs and drawing-rooms, the costive rhythms of routine, life as a busy and genial traffic of complexly motivated cadavers.

About Trollope (who is an intelligent and witty novelist, and does not deserve the role of prize exhibit in a book of this kind), Mizener says that “He was not a profound thinker, but he had a profound insight into the way men think.” In fact, the chapter on Trollope is the best in the book; Mizener has a genuine relish for Trollope’s slightly arch and always omnivorous curiosity about the motives of not very interesting people. It is not easy, however, to find patience for a critic who follows a sternly denigratory chapter on Hardy with such an observation as this (the addled Eliotism is a characteristic pedantry):

It is not easy to find twentieth-century novelists with imaginations so fine that they have never been frustrated like Hardy’s by a doctrinal commitment. Perhaps the best examples are James Gould Cozzens in America and Anthony Powell in England…

and who, to illustrate the Trollopean virtues, quotes from Powell on marriage:

Jenkins observes that marriage is, “if not a sine qua non of action,” a “testing experience, surely,” as it certainly is throughout The Music of Time. “What was it Foch said?” General Conyers remarks in At Lady Molly’s, “War is not an exact science, but a terrible and passionate drama? Something like that. Fact is, marriage is something like that too.”

or from Cozzens on responsibility:

his “thin strong fingers, nervous but steadily controlled, pressing” Colonel Ross’s arm, he says: “I’ll do the best I can, Judge; and you do the best you can; and who’s going to do it better?”

A predilection for upper-class platitudes or spongily heroic stances is neither Trollopean nor otherwise entertaining. Something more, it is true, can be said for Powell, who is a chronically exasperating, fussily British, gifted minor novelist; but Mizener, though he treats Powell at extraordinary length and with an absurd deference, never says it.

As if to compound his sins against the reviewer, Mizener introduces a new thesis halfway through his book, when he turns to “The American Novel and Nature in the Twentieth Century.” It appears that the American novelist is impaled on a “dilemma,” which Mizener defines as “the discontinuity between the inner life of the consciousness and the outer life of society,” between the private vision and the public world. One would have thought that this is simply the dilemma of the civilized consciousness; but no matter, it can be used for hanging droll lists—

the fine novels of the thirties—As I Lay Dying (1930), The Last Adam (1933), The Late George Apley (1937), The Pilgrim Hawk (1940), and the like…

—as well as rather shopworn explications of various American novelists (a specially fatigued chapter trudges synoptically through darkest Salinger, character by character and event by event: a high-school crib). The fuse of the belated thesis touches off its tiny bomb, finally, when Mizener disinters The Fathers as his example of an American novel that triumphantly combines the public and private modes:

The occasion of The Fathers is a public one, the achievement and the destruction of Virginia’s antebellum civilization. Within that occasion the novel discovers the conflict between two fundamental and irreconcilable modes of existence that has obsessed American novelists and haunted American experience. The Fathers moves between the public and the private aspects of this conflict…

Who would ever have thought so, if Mizener had not said so? since The Fathers is a novel in which ladies’ eyes blaze and flash, a handsome man with cold eyes shoots like Leatherstocking and avenges insults by a paralyzing fist to the jaw, a young woman’s hair turns white overnight in shock, courtly gentlemen (cut neatly out of Dixie cups) symbolize the honor and slaves the shame of the South, the plot lurches forward in periodic spasms of melodrama, and the author delivers himself of pages of the adenoidal moralizing that Mizener regards as the soul of great fiction: “If Aunt Jane Anne had listened to Jane, would the end have been different? I doubt it…”

The modern novel remains. One hopes that Mizener will eventually come downwind of it. Even at the risk of an occasional new idea, it is worth inspecting.