"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

More Thoughts on the Novel

"The novel tells a story, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story."  From memory that is what EM Forster wrote in his treatise Aspects of the Novel.  I suppose he meant that what we want from a good novel is something more than just an efficient narrative.  A book is about more than its plot. Ideally, one might object, why can't we have both – and in the best novels that is what we get, a compelling narrative and all manner of additional richness.  When my 'novel' A Short Book About Love was published in 2001 several people said to me "It's not a novel" and they were right.  But what does one call imaginative prose fiction that makes up its own rules?  Borges' ficcion is not a bad one.  We know we oughtn't to be fixated on genre and its rules but we are nonetheless.

Reading for the first time Richard Aldington's pugnacious and racy 1929 novel Death of a Hero I found his prefatory remarks to echo the theme of the criticism of Malcolm Lowry in the last post of mine.  He writes: "This book is not the work of a professional novelist. It is, apparently, not a novel at all. Certain conventions of form and method in the novel have been erected, I gather, into immutable laws, and are looked upon with quite superstitious reverence. They are entirely disregarded here. To me the excuse for the novel is that one can do any damned thing one pleases...I am all for disregarding artistic rules of thumb. I dislike standardized art as much as standardized life...I knew what I wanted to say, and said it."

He certainly did!


Andrew K said...

Not meant in any way flippantly but I've always been happy enough with 'book', which is partly why I suppose I got such pleasure from Huxley's works. You mention in your Huxley biography of- I forget where- Huxley's generous recognition of DH Lawrence's genius as a novelist compared to his own talent, and I agree in the sense meant, but then the form of the novel is obviously best suited to people with a deep natural affinity for immersion in external life, but when artists are generally by temperament introverts, then many artists drawn to the medium of writing will simply not be equipped with the kind of raw experiential material for novel writing, which presumably helps explain Borges' short fictions, for example, or perhaps also a fleeing into excessive self-conscious concern with technique.
Trying to tie back to the Lawrence Huxley point which is that I think Huxley's genius can be unnoticed so effortless is his dealing with ideas & history. You would never get Huxley writing some of the, frankly, gibberish produced by Lawrence, for example, in his thoughts on Dostoevsky- his view of The Grand Inquisitor especially ludicrous, & such utter conviction in his bull-headedness! Though Lawrnece's essays are always enjoyable.
Sorry to go on & I realise this is very much tangential but I htink there's an analogy to be made with the chess-player Capablance- though here I am trusting in someone else's explaining the apparent nature of Capablabca's genius at that cerebral game- the point being that if one looked at Capablanca's games, & he was the greatest of his day, it all seemed so easy and effortless; that each move would flow so naturally onwards, nothing difficult or obscure, whereas another great Alekhine of the same era, everything is difficult to discern, complex, strange. And to a certain view, genius should conform to the latter- tortured- perhaps if we allow ourselves analogical looseness, perhaps Kafka could fit the Alekhine model.
Afraid I've wandered all over the place there, & I doon't think I've managed to quite pin down the original idea, but anyway...

Andrew K said...

Meant to compare Huxley somewhat with Capablanca. As a more 'proper' novelist, Tolstoy might be the grand example.

Nicholas Murray said...

I agree, Andrew, about Lawrence who could 'go on a bit' though a relatively recent re-reading of Women in Love convinced me of his genius. And also of his wonderful powers of description and evocation such as the evening market in the mining town. Huxley was too 'cerebral' (and intelligent and self-aware enough to know it) to be a really great novelist in the nineteenth century mould but ,as you say, he is still a compelling and fascinating writer and it is interesting that the really interesting writers now are those like Sebald or Coetzee (random examples) who mix everything together. All that matters to me is that the reading experience is rich, provoking, enjoyable in its language, full of meaning. Who cares about the label?

Andrew Kenneally said...

Oh I'm convinced of Lawrence's genius too; in fact, I can't think of another English language novelist of the last century I'd personally prefer; so vital, full of life and violence & that very violence which could produce sometimes such contrary & simply wrong views I suppose Lawrence probably felt, insofar as he might have cared to be self-reflective(which he probably wouldn't have) preserved the integrity of his living self in a world so overwhelmingly inimical to his insticts. He needed to be violently himself, even if at the expense of being wrong!

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