London Letter: August, 1922
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[ 411 London Letter: August, 19221 The Dial, 73 (Sept 1922) 329-31 The Novel It is sometimes supposed, when any new and excellent work of art appears, that a new era of creative work will be directly propagated. Certainly, great works of art do in some way mark or modify an epoch, but less often by the new things which they make possible, than by the old things to which they put an end. After Shakespeare, very little; after Dante, nothing; after Henry James, nothing in that kind. So the intelligent literary aspirant, studying Ulysses, will find it more an encyclopaedia of what he is to avoid attempting , than of the things he may try for himself.2 It is at once the exposure and the burlesque of that of which it is the perfection. And Ulysses is not a work which can be compared with any “novel.” And it is almost as difficult to compare what are called “novels” with each other. When a novelist is worth the pains, the only task is to find his particular topography, the characteristics of his universe, and judge their consistency; he can only be compared with others for the purpose of illustrating the general differences. Only in detail is comparison possible. There are at present, so far as my knowledge extends, three main types of English novel. Whether any one type has a future is doubtful, but a future novelist may still learn something from each. And so I do not know how to compare them with each other. I must mention them separately, without the shadow of a comparison between any representatives of each. There is first the old narrative method, the tale, traditional in English fiction. The novelist has depended for his success upon a gift of invention, in plot, and an accurate knowledge of a social milieu. As Wells knows the Cockney(whomhehaslatelyabandoned)asBennettknowshisMidlander (whom he has abandoned) so Mr. Compton Mackenzie knows a certain theatrical world of London.3 Mr. Mackenzie lays on, not so much sentiment , as coloured detail; and the reader has to accustom himself to the calcium light by which the actor is made visible. But a clever writer of this type, like Mr. Mackenzie, simply because he is satisfied to write about what he knows, not complicating it with any striving to attain a point of view 1922 412 ] not his own, may produce an interesting or even valuable document. Mr. Mackenzie is better worth reading than many more pretentious and sophisticated writers. He is not admired by the intellectuals, but on the other hand there is a popularity which he will never attain. No book of his will ever have the success of If Winter Comes.4 I should be sorry to see this type of novel disappear, unless it is to be replaced by something better. Another interesting type, but of a very short ancestry, is the psychoanalytic type, notably illustrated by Miss Sinclair’s Harriett Frean and by a less finished, but commendable book, Miss G. B. Stern’s The Room.5 In Miss Sinclair’s book a method seems to have been carriedaboutasfarasitwillgo;andbecauseitisascientificmethod,andrests upon a dubious and contentious branch of science, I doubt whether even Miss Sinclair can carry it much further. Miss Stern does not reduce us to quite the state of lucid despair of Miss Sinclair, but that is because she does not carry the method so far. The conclusion of Miss Sinclair’s book (it has already been reviewed in The Dial – I only refer to it in describing a type)6 extracts as much pity and terror as can be extracted from the materials: but becausethematerialissoclearlydefined(thesoulofmanunderpsychoanalysis )7 there is no possibility of tapping the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed and which psychoanalysis has not yet analysed . So that if I may predict, it is that Miss Sinclair will find herself forced to proceed from psychotherapy even to the supernatural, or at least to that transfinite world with which Henry James was in such close intercourse. Both Miss Sinclair and Miss Stern – this type of fiction would appear to be practised rather by women, and rather by extremely intelligent women – are too shrewd, I imagine, to pass on to the third or Dostoevsky type of novel. I recall one very interesting essay in this kind, Mr. Murry’s Still Life, an excellent study of a peculiarly revolting form of spiritual corruption: but the method has produced more...