Friday, August 31, 2018

Thoughts on Tradition in the 20th-century Brit Novel

     When I look at the men writing novels in the U.K. in the twentieth century, I see many great performances but nothing like a tradition. Not so with the women. Joyce and Orwell and Lawrence and Forster, Green and Greene and Waugh, the Amises, Burgess, Lowry, Golding, Fowles, and Ishiguro all seem to be working separate lodes. With the women there seems more continuity, more obvious signs that they noticed, if not emulated, each other. And absorption from the men, whom they do not ignore. When Woolf writes in the first version of her “Modern Fiction” essay about the “incessant shower” of impressions “composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself” and asks whether that isn’t what novelists need to convey, she also gives Joyce credit for trying. Woolf has read Joyce and Proust carefully, and it shows, but she also has read Sylvia Townsend Warner and Vita Sackville-West. These three in their turn are read by Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor, and all are read by Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym and A. S. Byatt. These women after Woolf are not experimental writers, but neither are they anti-experimental; they all try to get down the incessant shower of impressions that we call life itself, though they might not make fireworks out of the shower.

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