- The British Novel Since the Thirties: An Introduction
This book should be on every reference shelf. Although not much provocatively new is said, nearly everything of importance is. Stevenson shows the development of the postmodern British novel superbly by focusing on general patterns (for example, [End Page 731] "Satire and the Right Wing," "Innocence and Experience") to which novelists' works contribute, with the careers of major writers presented in some detail, and those of minor writers through a concentrated look at a few representative works. His prose is filled with primary and secondary references and quotations but avoids the dangers of a shopping-list presentation by consistently pointing out relationships and similarities among the authors considered.
Stevenson discusses the Thirties in the usual context of politics, focusing on the "new realism" of Isherwood's style, Orwell's political consciousness, and Greene's humane concerns, but noting also the escape into the fantasies of Upward and Warner, who nevertheless maintain a political concern. A refreshing note is Stevenson's suggestion that various studies of the Thirties have contributed to the myth of an homogeneous period during which modernism somehow disappeared, resulting in a few major figures being considered the most representative rather than those most accomplished. For example, the first novels of Beckett and Durrell appear, which should inspire a rereading of the decade that would then show a more promising future for the novel.
Stevenson believes the years 1940-1956 are considerably less depressing for the life of the novel than most critics suggest. The Thirties' political interest is now replaced by considerations of moral and religious questions, often using the methods of the Victorians. British novelists moved toward examining childhood—not as an escape from the war but as a parallel to it, with innocence and its disillusioning loss working as contexts reduplicating "the coexistence in the imagination of . . . memories of peace anomalously juxtaposed with actual experience of the war." Fiction in the Fifties demonstrates the realization that war had completed irrevocable changes in life. Novelists such as Lowry and Cary eschew earlier writers' use of past history to judge current events by concentrating instead on the contemporary scene. A renewed interest in class, conduct, and manners is displayed with modernist emphases renounced for a realistic method reflecting the unsettled times and a moral voice appearing through such writers as Golding, Murdoch, Burgess, and Spark. The Sixties and Seventies move away from angry-provincial-neorealist writings to a more wide-ranging and sophisticated fiction integrating the moral awareness resulting from the war and the technical resources learned from the moderns; women's writing and their use of new narrative forms are a particular innovation.
The final chapter somewhat overlaps the rest of the book in examining the experimental novel since 1930. For Stevenson, British experimental writing is not so much innovative as simply an extension of modernism, but because England only accommodates experimentalism in traditional forms, the most experimental writers, such as Durrell or Burgess, are forced into exile. Because Stevenson structures his work chronologically, relying heavily on tying the fiction to the concerns of the times, his focus on one particular kind of fiction works against our seeing the strains at work as the novel progresses. But this is a minor quibble inasmuch as he is very good at making connections among writers—which he does with a vengeance.
Not often does one read about William Gerhardie, Alexander Baron, Mervyn Peake, William Cooper, Eva Figes, William Trevor, Rayner Heppenstall, [End Page 732] or Alasdair Gray. But Stevenson shows their contributions to various styles and developments, and, in sending us back to their novels, as good criticism should, he may very well cause us to reconsider the standard canon.