Once, novels were really novel. The form emphasized the characters’ total freedom, their emancipation from the prearranged order of neo-classical art. True, their progress might in many cases be predictable, just as life is often predictable, but it was not preordinated. And novelists used their characters’ freedom of action as a central principle of composition: Anthony Trollope described in his autobiography how he would begin a novel with the characters firmly established in his mind and very little idea of how it would develop; he simply let them get on with it. Parallel with this freedom of behavior there went, from Richardson onward, an ever-increasing flexibility and subtlety in the formal devices open to the novelist, until with James’s insistence on a totally dramatized form we see the novel trying to deny its origin as a narrative, as a story that someone has told. Both kinds of freedom, of physical or psychological action and of formal expressiveness, culminated in the work of Proust and Joyce, which in many ways brought the free development of the novel to a halt. Naturally, the impulse to continue the advance persisted among serious writers, but the history of the avant-garde novel since the publication of Ulysses—not excluding Joyce’s own attempts in Finnegans Wake—suggests that, in almost all instances, it could only move towards disintegration and incoherence. One need only compare the progress of the Western novel in the forty years before 1922 with what happened in the subsequent forty years. For most practitioners since then, excluding both disintegrators and commercial mass-producers, the choice has been, at best, consolidation, at worst, imitation.
As a result, the novel has in many cases quietly denied its emancipating origins and become generic, tracing variations on already established themes or situations. The profoundly ambivalent Ulysses already pointed the way: on the one hand, it carried the freedom of nineteenth-century naturalistic techniques to the furthest imaginable extreme; on the other hand, Joyce denied his characters’ freedom of action by underpinning his story with the fixed fable of the Odyssey, recalling the way in which the still neo-classically inclined Fielding had underpinned the plot of Amelia.
The novel still asserts its “novelty,” its freedom, and Lawrence’s great claims about the splendid things the novel can do for humanity are still invoked, but in terms of current, and foreseeable, fictional practice it is all rather a pretense. That this state of affairs isn’t confined to fiction in English is apparent from the four translated novels—two by Frenchmen, one by an Italian, one by an Argentinian who lives in Paris—that I have to write about.
Thus, anyone who was pressed for time and who thought of reading Lambs of Fire, which is about rightwing terrorism in Paris a few years ago, might do better to re-read Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Again, Zola described working-class life better than Signor Pratolini, and the central situation of his novel, an oppressive triangle involving a young workman, his possessive widowed mother and his mistress, takes one straight back to Sons and Lovers. The Winners, which is by far the best of the four, is unashamedly generic, for it draws on and gives symbolic elaboration to a very traditional archetype, the Ship of Fools.
The two French novels, both set in a wintry Paris, both dealing with the experiences, in extremis, of a solitary hero called Alain, offer some evident parallels as well as fundamental divergences. The Fire Within was, in fact, first published as long ago as 1931, and its reissue now seems to be part of an attempt to rehabilitate the literary reputation of Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, who began life as a surrealist, became an intellectual of the Right and, during the war, an active supporter of the Vichy government; he committed suicide in 1945. The Fire Within is a cold, painful book, full of a Baudelairian misère, which, if nothing else, shows that Drieu la Rochelle was a writer of very genuine talents. His novel covers a few days in the life of Alain, a ravaged playboy of thirty, who has always found living off women a more respectable method of getting money than working for it, and who, despite futile attempts at a cure, is a confirmed heroin addict. At the end of the book, having exhausted both life and himself, we leave him contemplating suicide: “A revolver is solid, it’s made of steel. It’s an object. To touch an object at last.” The point is made: Alain’s predicament is not merely personal, the result of self-indulgence, but is part of a metaphysical anguish. Nevertheless, there is something remote about Drieu la Rochelle’s novel, even in his treatment of such a contemporarily interesting topic as drug addiction. If Alain gets himself a fix, like a modern junkie, his fellow-sufferers prefer a pipe of opium, in a manner that recalls fin de siècle debauchery. There are passages in which Drieu la Rochelle precisely embodies his theme; they give the book an intermittent poetic intensity but don’t compensate for its novelistic thinness:
The two friends were walking along the Seine. The river flowed gray, under a gray sky, between gray buildings. Nature that day could be no help to men; the square stones softened in the humid air. Duborg shivered; the man walking beside him had no recourse: neither woman nor man, neither mistress nor friend, and heaven was silent. Perhaps it was his own fault; since Alain had never learned to count on himself, the universe, centerless, revealed no consistency.
A film version of The Fire Within, directed by Louis Malle, was released last year, and I suspect it will not be long before Lambs of Fire is given the same treatment. The novel exhibits its cinematic possibilities with some insistence; like Graham Greene, Pierre Gascar seems to write with more than one eye on the screen. This, very possibly, accounts for the book’s weaknesses as a novel, which might be summed up as a certain woodenness in the action and a degree of mindlessness in the supposed intellectual content. If Lambs of Fire were simply a thriller, there would be no great problem in assessing it, but, like Greene’s entertainments, it obviously aims to be more than just than that. It ought to be a political thriller, but it has turned out as a political thriller minus the politics. Whereas Drieu la Rochelle’s hero had tried to find reality in heroin, M. Gascar’s Alain, who is a good deal younger, turns to the politics of extremism, and joins a campaign which is trying to harass the French government in its handling of the Algerian situation by setting off plastic bombs all over Paris. M. Gascar presents Alain as a mixed-up boy from a good home, and there is some thrillerish vigor in the description of Alain’s exploits; as I’ve suggested, there is a strong echo of Conrad, notably in the little backstreet taxidermist’s shop which is used by the terrorists to hide their explosives (sewn up inside a number’ of stuffed lambs), presided over by the decrepit M. Goes. But there is very little sense of the political motivations and hopes of Alain and his associates, nor of those of their rivals in a left-wing vigilante group. This omission is more important in the novel than it would be in a film, where intellectual content is apt to be a drag. Once it gets to the screen, Lambs of Fire might manage quite nicely.
I’m going to be dismissive about Bruno Santini, a fundamentally worthy book by a distinguished Italian writer. Bruno grows up after the war in an industrial town near Florence, has a difficult relation with his mother, becomes a factory worker and a communist; he falls in love, and his girl dies, very horribly, of tuberculosis. The book is worthy because of Signor Pratolini’s positive feelings about humanity; but the writing is so drab and unselective, the naturalistic detail so pointlessly piled up, that I found it a grinding bore to read. This, too, might have made a better film; at least, I can well imagine it being turned out a few years back by a lesser neo-realistic director. I would probably have sat through it without great pleasure, but at least without the positive resentment I experienced when reading the novel.
The Winners is the only book of the batch that gives the sense of energy and large grasp on experience that distinguished the novel when it was riding high in the last century, and that James probably meant when he talked, in a vague but necessary phrase, of “felt life.” The book opens excellently, with a cross-section of Buenos Aires citizens, who have all won, as a prize in a lottery, a vacation “mystery cruise” waiting expectantly in a café for their summons to the ship. Once aboard, they find the ship finely appointed, but mysterious in more ways than they anticipate. Apart from the stewards, the crew are all concealed behind locked bulkheads and there is talk of an outbreak of typhus in their part of the ship. Señor Cortázar’s passenger list contains a rich variety of Argentinian—or, for that matter—human types and they exhibit a wide range of responses to the growing crisis on board, dividing themselves into a “peace” party and a “war” party. The set-up is, of course, symbolic, though not obtrusively so; if anything Señor Cortázar has established his world-in-miniature with almost too much realism. Finally, the crisis breaks, rather bloodily; then the navis stultorum is abandoned (a little lamely, I thought) and the travelers are disappointedly returned to Buenos Aires by flying boat. Señor Cortázar doesn’t altogether maintain the remarkable promise of the novel’s opening; nevertheless, he has made a spirited and original use of an unoriginal archetype. And this, perhaps, is the way the novel will have to go in the future.
March 25, 1965