Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 62-72
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A.N. Wilson and Marcel Proust:
Morton P. Levitt
We will never, I fear, fully comprehend the mystery of the English hostility to the Modernist novel after the Second World War, a rejection so profound that it seems to the outsider to be positively perverse. No one of the arguments advanced to explain it manages, by itself, to convince; even taken together, they do not quite compute. The loss of the Empire — and, with it, the failure of national confidence — may well be a factor, but it can hardly account for the extreme, reactionary chauvinism that motivated English critics and novelists alike from 1945 until well into the 1980s. Nor can the fact that many of the major Modernists of England — Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Beckett, among others — were not even English. Nor the claim that Modernism was an elitist activity, while it was graduates of the red brick universities — sons and daughters of the working class, that is — who dominated the literary scene post-1945 (an argument advanced to account, in particular, for the continuing hostility to Virginia Woolf, presumably a social as well as an intellectual snob). I have been sorting through this dilemma for a quarter of a century now and am no closer to a satisfactory resolution than I was when I started. It remains one of the great literary mysteries of the second half of the twentieth century. We can be certain only of its disastrous effect on the English novel during this period: no national novel of the time less warrants our attention or respect.
Less mysterious, if far more encouraging, is the recent movement, not toward Modernism, to be sure, but toward an acknowledgement at least of its presence, even to an intertextual use of Modernist models. The nearly universal denial of "Modernist experimentation" — each word a pejorative when used by such critics as C.P. Snow or F.R. Leavis or such novelists as Kingsley Amis or William Cooper — seems finally to be giving way. For an entire generation, however, anyone who attempted to avoid narrative omniscience, no matter how cautiously, was likely to be accused of betraying the English novelistic tradition, defined as inherently realistic, uniquely moral and, implicitly, omniscient.1 The principal way out of this morass in the 1980s and 1990s has been history, [End Page 62] English history especially, of course, as it appears in the novels of Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker, Graham Swift, Jeanette Winterson and others.2 But some contemporary English novelists have confronted the Modernists directly; among the most surprising of them is A.N. Wilson, a conservative with a certain penchant for Proust.3
The Lampitt Chronicle of A.N. Wilson seems at first yet another of those reactionary English dips into what may accurately be termed pre-Modernist waters. There is nothing in Incline Our Hearts (1988), the opening novel, for example, to lead us to believe that its author has ever even read a Modernist novel. It seems so traditional as to be comfortably reactionary, recalling William Cooper, say, rather than Anthony Burgess or Anthony Powell or even Evelyn Waugh and their more Modernist chronicles. An undemanding first-person narrative, it appears to abjure ambiguity both in its method and in its events. An air of realism and morality — the narrator has been raised in a country parsonage, after all — pervades its pages, and while there is no obtrusively omniscient author here, a narrator who speaks in the first person and the past tense of the events of his own life, as Julian Ramsay does, is likely to prove just as reassuring. We can have little doubt that F.R. Leavis would feel comfortably at home in this world, so English is it that not even the most adventurous of readers is likely to be reminded of one of those French writers, Flaubert or Proust for example, of whom Leavis, like Snow, so determinedly disapproves.
The Julian of Incline Our Hearts — the character, that is, and...