Puppeteers

The Three Suitors

by Richard Jones
Little, Brown, 320 pp., $6.00

Cocksure

by Mordecai Richler
Simon and Schuster, 256 pp., $4.95

Enderby

by Anthony Burgess
Norton, 412 pp., $5.95

Love and Work

by Reynolds Price
Atheneum, 143 pp., $4.50

Probably not many literary people today would agree with my belief that self-consciousness more than any other fault spoils novels. The general feeling is that the novel is a form no longer entirely natural to our culture (any kind of audio-visual slop requiring the services of an army of technicians being more “natural” in our time) and that the novelist, aware of working within a fenced-off literary enclave, must needs be self-conscious. The experimental writer has always been self-conscious in a harmless way (hoping the reader will attend not only to what he is doing but also to the way he is doing it), but once the experiment has been seen to work and the method absorbed, there is a healthy tendency to return to the broad highway of naturalness, telling a story because it is about people and events in which the reader might be expected to take an interest, something that impinges on his own life without the mediating presence of “literature.” I admit that this attitude has produced some famous critical gaffes, starting with Samuel Johnson’s “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” But was it such a gaffe? Didn’t the major achievements of the novel, in England at any rate, come out of the unforced naturalness of Fielding rather than from the narcissistic tradition represented by Sterne? Doesn’t Tristram Shandy live as a wonderful oddity rather than as a seed-bearing tree?

Mr. Jones writes out of a sense of the richness and variety of human beings and their history, and since this involves him in seeing every character and every incident in their full perspective, it would be difficult to say in one phrase what his book is “about.” In one sense, it is about Wales; in another, it is about old age; in another, about the nature of family life; in another, about the impact of the modern world with its formless emptiness on the last remains of a more ordered existence. But to say that it was “about” any one of these things, or all of them, would be to put too cramping a limit on one’s pleasure in the book’s vitality. All these issues crop up in the lives of the characters, as they crop up in our own lives; they occur as causes of antagonism and alliance, of outrage and shock and illumination, and also as opportunities to be seized, continuities to be held on to, tragic facts to be faced. This is a first novel, but it has none of the Look-Ma-I’m-Writing quality of most novels; one feels a personality behind the story, but it is a personality that does not intervene; it is content to preside.

MR. JONES’S STORY concerns an old couple, the widowed Lady Mignon Benson- Williams and her brother Freddy, a clergyman. They live together in the ancient farmhouse in (I think) mid-Wales, where their father was born, though the farm is no longer in production and …

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