The Middle Ground
Setting the World on Fire
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 The Needle’s Eye Simon Camish had Rose Vassiliou, or at least a sufficient relation to her to know that eventually she would go back to her husband, leaving behind her a sense that this was the right thing to do. But in The Middle Ground feminist journalism is the only sign of Swinging London, and now the swing has stopped. Drabble’s theme is not boredom but the morbid nervousness that goes with it.
Realism asks you to take an interest in this theme and in the characters who deal with it. So it makes a difference if we find Kate, Stuart, Ted, Kate’s friend Hugo, and the other characters trivial. Drabble invites us to read their minds, but those texts are not very interesting. We are left feeling that feminist journalism is good enough for Kate, and that it matters little whether Hugo goes to Baghdad or not. Mostly, we meet these characters through an anonymous narrator, personalized to the extent of not claiming to be omniscient, but still in fairly continuous possession of, say, Kate’s feelings or Ted’s or Hugo’s. Sometimes the narrator hands over the job to Hugo, on the grounds that he is a writer, getting ready to write a book about the Middle East. So he warms up by writing a few pages about Kate.
But sometimes drabble allows the narrator to suspend our belief and to underline the fictiveness of the narrative by an arch reminder that this is the case.
And if you find Hugo a depressing spectacle, that’s your choice. He is at the moment quite happy, even mildly inspired. Let us leave him sitting there, and divert our attention to Ted, who is a busy man and spends very little time worrying about paralysis, but a good deal of time in aeroplanes, where, as you know, one has to think about something.
After a gap on the page, the anonymous narrator takes up her (yes, from the sound of the voice) duty and reports that Ted is sitting next to one Chloe Harlech on a British Airways flight from Bombay to London, as if it mattered.
The problem the writer of a realistic novel faces is that if the reader gives up believing in the fiction, all is lost: the same effect is reached by giving up caring. Reading The Realms of Gold, I gave up believing when Drabble offered me the following as proof of Frances’s feeling for her lover Karel:
He was far, far beyond her in some different land. She would never be able to join him. She would return to her trivial round of excavations and lectures and television series and parties, suffering in the upper mountain reaches of her being, while his nature lay deep and opaque, levelled to base level, without the jagged cataracts of the self, deep, persistent, continuous, deep like the river meeting the sea.
In this passage Drabble has merely conspired with Frances’s pretentions, she has not exerted any intelligent pressure upon them. The reader is urged to swoon with the prose, and to let the swoon take the place of earned belief or valid conviction. The empurpled equivalent of the passage comes in The Middle Ground mostly near the end, a difficult place for many novelists and requiring more vigilance than Drabble brings to it:
Excitement fills her, excitement, joy, anticipation, apprehension. Something will happen. The water glints in the distance. It is unplanned, unpredicted. Nothing binds her, nothing holds her. It is the unknown, and there is no way of stopping it. It waits, unseen, and she will meet it, it will meet her. There is no way of knowing what it will be. It does not know itself. But it will come into being.
It is hard to avoid calling this trash. But Drabble has also written well, within severely restricted limits of merit, and there is no reason to think that she is permanently afflicted with the gaucherie of her high style. It is nicer to assume that the air of forced significance which disables her writing in The Middle Ground is a symptom of her false relation to the realistic novel. On the evidence of this book, she is in bad faith with the realism she professes. She merely goes through the motions of belief, and winks at the reader from time to time to indicate that she is not taken in by the rhetoric she practices. I can’t think of any other reason to explain why she has given the reader so many occasions not to believe and not even to care about not believing.
Angus Wilson’s new novel is based upon the myth of Phaethon, toned down a little by the old song that begins, “I don’t want to set the world on fire.” The myth says that Phaethon went to Helios to ask for confirmation of his divine birth, a sign to prove to the whole world that he was indeed the son of Helios. Helios swore that he would give such a sign. Phaethon then asked Helios to let him drive the sun’s chariot for one day. In the event, the horses rushed wildly through space, out of every control. The chariot came too near the earth, the rivers dried up, the soil began to burn. The world would have been destroyed by fire had not Zeus struck the rash Phaethon with a thunderbolt and sent him tumbling into the waters of the Eridanus. Phaethon was buried by the nymphs. His sisters, the Heliads, came to weep beside his tomb and were changed into poplar trees, their tears becoming amber.
In Wilson’s novel, Phaethon’s story is painted on the ceiling of the Great Hall of Tothill House in London. The main building is the work of a classical architect, Sir Roger Pratt, but the Great Hall is a later interpolation by the wilder genius of Vanbrugh. The story begins in 1948. There are two brothers, Tom, nicknamed Pratt, and Piers, nicknamed Van after Vanbrugh. Tom is cautious, solid, prudent, a hard worker, Saturday’s child, a lawyer in the making. Piers loves the sea, risk, games, brilliance, he must go in for the theater, become a great producer.
The second part of the novel, dated 1956-1957, has a performance of the school play, Shakespeare’s Richard II, and plans for a production of Lully’s opera, Phaethon. There are family quarrels, ending in a big row when Grandma refuses to have the boys’ mother under her roof. Ten years pass. In the third part, we have at last the first night of the opera at Tothill. Piers has inherited the great house, Grandma has died. The head gardener, Ralph Tucker, has written a play, The Neutral Priest. During rehearsals, the police arrive, they have discovered that Tucker and his friends are terrorists using an old tunnel between Tothill House and Westminster Hall so that they can blow up the Houses of Parliament. Tom is killed by a bullet intended for Piers. Piers must now live for both of them, taking over Tom’s role as well as his own.
It is well known that Wilson has been complicating his art in the later novels, beginning with No Laughing Matter (1967). His early novels, notably Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, sat comfortably if not comfortingly within the tradition of English realism. They were about what they appeared to be about, no more and no less. Mainly, they were about the comedy, irony, and tragedy of social existence, of being present to oneself by being present, necessarily, to other people. Wilson showed a critical interest in his subject, observing the instances of personal and social life with an eye keen enough for every decent purpose but not self-consciously sharpened for the occasion. As in the short stories of Such Darling Dodos, what was observed was not humiliated by the mind that observed it. In Hemlock and After and the other early novels, Wilson was vigilant about characters when vigilance was what they deserved, but he did not imply that they existed only to be detected or to appease his ironic zeal. His eye for revealing detail, his ear for nuances and idiosyncrasies of speech were acute within the limits imposed by generosity: he did not presume to dispose of his characters merely by finding them fallible. Fallible in one degree or another, they were unfailingly interesting, it was easy to care about them.
Some of this interest is carried over into Setting the World on Fire, especially in a passage where Miss Lantry’s “social certainty” meets social muddle in the person of Mr. Brownlow, who can only live by making exceptions, seeing things afresh, starting over. But very little of the new novel ministers to such expectations. A passage in No Laughing Matter alerts the reader to look out for a new relation among the constituents of Wilson’s fiction: it comes when the writer Margaret Matthews is described as beginning something new, “something fuller, something that, instead of putting a sharp line under life’s episodes, would capture the fusion of all the moments, happy, unhappy.” Putting a sharp line under life’s episodes is what Wilson’s early short stories and novels were engaged in. Capturing the fusion of all the moments is evidently what he has been trying to do since No Laughing Matter.
The effort has involved, in No Laughing Matter, As If By Magic (1973), and the new novel, a more explicit relation between events and meanings. Wilson’s art has always veered between confidence that the events shown will bring their meaning with them and determination that the meaning will be declared, at whatever cost to the vagary of the events. It is a problem of the relation between detail and pattern; detail so abundant that it threatens every possible pattern; pattern so resolute that it threatens to impoverish the detail.
I am afraid the new novel is all pattern, and that the fusion has not been achieved. You can’t read a page of it without feeling the novelist nudging you to appreciate the meaning; similitudes, contrasts, Tom and Piers, Pratt and Vanbrugh, the Great House containing its constituents in powerful balance, Vanbrugh and Lully as wild men thriving upon solid ground, classic and romantic, the King of France, “the parallel of Lully’s brilliant art and Louis’s solemn regality.” And of course, the House, which is also the House of Fiction. To say that Piers is Phaethon is to say also that he is more Phaethon than he is Piers; except that in the uplifting end he is saved from Zeus’s thunderbolt. Setting the World on Fire achieves its portentous meaning at the cost of its life; meaning has done the work of the thunderbolt.
Emotion in Wilson’s fiction has always been acute but limited, limited to its provocation by the social muddle, acute in the expression mainly of distaste. In his recent novels the distaste is directed against those in power, the old men at the zoo, running things and running them amok. What the recent novels have lacked is energy, so that even their intelligence seems weary of itself and its perceptions. There is some evidence that Wilson the novelist and Wilson the critic of the novel are thwarting each other. Teaching fiction, these days, is no help to the release of a powerful creative urge. I am aware that there is more to the urge than its release. No matter. My point is that Wilson seems to have allowed recent arguments about the theory of fiction to inhibit the spontaneity so clear in Hemlock and After and the other early novels. Teaching fiction, he is bound to ask himself: after such knowledge, what forgiveness?
It is well known that the assumptions of realism have been, as some critics like to say, put in question. The only quality of realism still in high standing with avant garde critics is its intermittent tendency to destroy itself. Many critics seem to be delighted to hand over the realistic enterprise to popular fiction, the TV drama, and the minor efforts of film. Till recently, these conveyances have mostly been French and American. But it is evident that many English novelists who have professed realism in one degree or another are now themselves losing faith. Normally, critics explain matters of style, form, and structure in terms ultimately metaphysical: we claim to discover a writer’s ontology in his sentence. What is happening in English fiction seems to require rather a political explanation than anything as high as metaphysics. Wilson’s querulousness, his contempt for our masters, his insistence on induced meanings and willed relations do not issue from a deep creative source but from post-imperial disappointment. The relation between the English novel, bourgeois liberalism, and the certitudes of empire is still unclear, but a tetchy sense of it as issuing chiefly in frustrated idealism and guilt seems to correspond to Wilson’s new novel.
It may also help to explain Drabble’s willingness to settle for a novel in which minor characters are allowed to engage in big talk about their small feelings:
You know, looking back, I realised I felt as light as air, all these years. I felt as though I was walking on air. I did feel free, I felt so—so undetermined, so unforced, so unpushed in every way. And now I realise it wasn’t like that at all. It was all an illusion.
That such flabby yearning for significance is taken seriously, not only by Drabble but apparently by many of her readers and critics, is bewildering. Nothing in The Middle Ground makes it at all certain that Drabble has detected in her Kate the shallowness and triviality that issue in her speech. Instead of an appropriately sharp irony, Drabble has her Hugo answering one self-besotted folly with another:
I don’t see why it has to be called an illusion, just because you feel differently now.
And so the novel twitches from one page to the next, its only source of energy the dreariness that passes for enlightenment.