You Better Believe It

The Middle Ground

by Margaret Drabble
Knopf, 277 pp., $10.95

Setting the World on Fire

by Angus Wilson
Viking, 296 pp., $12.95

Since the early eighteenth century, the dominant tradition in English fiction has been the realistic novel. I should say a word or two about what I take realism to mean, especially now that its assumptions have begun to wobble, as in the two new novels under review.

Realism, like any other convention, is a contract between writer and reader. A realistic novel asserts that reality is well indicated by its signs and the ordinary ways In which the reader construes them. The novel is transparent, you are supposed to see through it to the world it mimes. No distinction is enforced between what is imaginary and what is real. The relation between the events described and the world they denote is established by a social convention: what the reader of a realistic novel needs to know is what he already knows. Verisimilitude governs what a character does or fails to do. A character is allowed to change, subject to the proviso that the change is consistent with his basic identity.

Mostly, what happens merely illustrates the character, works out the principle he embodies. The pleasure of reading a realistic novel is the satisfaction of verifying that the world we think we know is known in common. We are gratified in this way by reading novelists as different in other respects as Fielding, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, Joyce Cary, Graham Greene, and, at least till recently, Angus Wilson. Such gratification is dislodged, if not confounded, when we read Sterne, Scott, Emily Brontë, Beckett, Iris Murdoch, and William Golding.

You know you’re reading a realistic novel when you find yourself thinking about its themes and characters as if they also existed apart from the novel. Margaret Drabble’s Kate Fletcher is a product of the Sixties, a feminist journalist now getting tired of her calling. She has sexual dealings with various men, for reasons most people would find uncompelling. The differences between her husband Stuart and her lover Ted are trivial. London, a pregnancy, an abortion, a dinner party, a TV program about women from Kate’s hometown: these matters make chapters in the novel and episodes in Kate’s life. The novel certainly invites us to ask: would it be like that, given the circumstances and the people? The official theme of The Middle Ground is the middle years, “caught between children and parents, free of neither: the past stretches back too densely, it is too thickly populated, the future has not yet thinned out.” Kate’s most intense relation is with herself, and especially with her feelings of irritation, pointlessness, her sense of being the victim of the rhetoric she has turned into a career; feminism, as it happens, but it wouldn’t matter or change things if it were something else.

In Drabble’s previous novels, there was always something to work for and live by. In The Millstone Rosamund Stacey had a child, Octavia, and suffused her with feasible metaphors. In …

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