- The English Novel at Mid-Century: From the Leaning Tower
Michael Gorra brings two considerable talents to his study of "The English novel as written by the 'second generation' of this century's novelists." He can stand back from a work, a career, or a generation and provide an incisive, convincing overview, and he has the uncanny ability to select a passage or a scene that unfolds the entire novel to a perceptive, informed reading. That these talents are so evident in a first book promises much for his future.
One may question why Gorra selected Henry Green, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, rather than, say Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, L. P. Hartley, or if he wanted to engage in rescue work, Rayner Heppenstall. His metaphoric subtitle, taken from a Virginia Woolf essay, well justifies his decision to concentrate on a vision, however "slanting, side-long," much conditioned by class, privileged education, distance from the political bent of the Auden generation, and shared Oxford experiences, all enjoyed by the authors at the very time history was changing, perhaps even invalidating, these advantages. Gorra is particularly interested in the "formal similarities" of these four authors' novels, especially their avoidance of "any close exploration of their characters' interior lives," their crises of belief, and "the aesthetic difficulties faced by the novel in the aftermath of the modernist revolution."
His strategy is to take four or five novels from various points in the author's career and to use them to delineate the thematic stages in the career. For instance, he takes Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter , The Comedians, and Monsignor Quixote for discussion in tracing Greene's "attempt to bridge the gap between his sense of man's tragic fate and comic existence, an attempt to suggest deep emotion despite the artificiality of the words he uses to present it." His judgments, observations, and conclusions strikingly agree with those made by Judith Adamson's recent Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge, although they are approached and gained through very different lines of thought. Gorra [End Page 789] notes Greene's "reportorial" interests in his early novels, the congruence between his religious topics and his requirement of "a fictional world capable of supporting that sense of evil," and his lifelong commitment to describing life "in the world's 'foully governed' places collectively known as Greeneland."
Gorra's approach leads to numerous sound conclusions while also giving a sense of totalization to the careers. His discussions of Green, Powell, and Waugh are every bit as good as the chapter on Greene. One comes quickly to appreciate his observation that aligns Greene's landscapes with those of Hardy, his placing Waugh in the comic tradition of Oscar Wilde and Ronald Firbank, and his willingness to venture evaluations such as calling Decline and Fall "in many ways a perfect novel" in the aesthete tradition and Brideshead Revisited not the best although "nevertheless the most crucial book in [Waugh's] development." I particularly appreciated the wit evident in his comment that Henry Green "had . . . almost every gift a novelist requires . . . every gift but one—the ability to discipline his talents into a coherent whole. " Throughout the discussions, Gorra pursues a high standard in both style and interpretation.
These four novelists may indeed have written under a sense of limitation, under a sense of diminished creative spirit, that denied their work "the modernist's sense of innovation as both an adventure and a necessity" as well as "the expansiveness of traditional realism," but given the amplitude achieved by John Fowles, Margaret Drabble, D. M. Thomas, Graham Swift, and others in recent years, I have difficulties seeing this "dwindling toward twilight" Gorra finds in the works of Green, Powell, Greene, and Waugh continuing as the dominant feature in contemporary British fiction.