Literary anacondas

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There is very little that is novel in Joseph Epstein’s account of “the fate of the novel”, apart from the asides, which consist of comments and incidents vaguely ascribed to the author’s (usually unnamed) acquaintances. This small book covers a lot of ground, rapidly and rather thinly, and cites some surprising pundits, including Percy Lubbock, George Lyttelton (of the Rupert Hart-Davis letters), David Cecil, Desmond McCarthy and Ian Watt, who rub shoulders uneasily with briefer and more up-to-date references to Lionel Shriver and Cynthia Ozick. An innocent reader might assume these were all twenty-first-century names, as the bibliography gives publication dates only of recent reprints – “F. R. Leavis 2000”, “Saintsbury 2019”.

Epstein also cheerfully owns up to his reliance on Wikipedia, which he says he uses to check quotations, although on several occasions he must have found them there in the first place – it is easy to track an interesting Arnold Bennett declaration (“My work will never be better than third-rate, judged by the high standards, but I shall be cunning enough to make it impose on my contemporaries”) to Wikipedia without the trouble of searching through one’s own Bennett library to verify it. On occasion this cursory attitude to research and scholarship lets Epstein down rather badly: he bolsters his deep dislike of John Updike by stating that the author is likely to be remembered “for the unhappy phrase ‘cunty fingers’”. This didn’t ring true to me, for I had always known this striking coinage to be from Henry Miller. Indeed, I had a clear vision of Miller sitting up in bed in an attic in Paris, cheerfully eating buttered toast with those very fingers, and was sure this image had been evoked by a colourful passage in a contraband dark green Olympia Press edition of Sexus or Tropic of Capricorn given to me by an antiquarian bookdealer in the 1960s. I was wrong, though: it was neither Updike nor Miller who coined the phrase, but, I now realize, Henry Green, in an interview with Terry Southern, published in the Paris Review in 1958, which must have been cited by Updike in his 1978 introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Green’s Loving. We can all make mistakes, but it’s as well to check before going to print.

If you like sentences such as “Reading The Kreutzer Sonata is the intellectual equivalent of a splendid workout at the gym”, or unverifiable claims such as “Kissinger is famously said to have remarked …”, or reminders of what Oscar Wilde said about the death of Little Nell, then this book may amuse you. Epstein declares his admiration for Willa Cather and Paul Scott, for Tolstoy and Conrad (though Tolstoy and Conrad can be a little “tendentious”), and his disapproval of student protest and Philip Roth and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He quotes Lyttelton on Lady Chatterley (“an extremely dull and portentously silly and pretentious book”) and Truman Capote on Henry Miller (“balls-achingly boring”). He is not altogether stuck in the past, for much the longest quote in the book is from a New Yorker short story by Sally Rooney, published in 2021, the function of which in this context is not wholly clear; it may be that Epstein is deploying it to deplore the influence of the internet on fiction. There are many things in the modern world that he doesn’t like at all, including graphic novels, political correctness and creative writing programmes. He reminds us that “Esau sold his birthright … for a mess of pottage, but the politically tendentious novelist is willing to sell his or hers for a pot of message”. He must have been pleased with that ingenious jeu de mots.

Peter Kemp’s Retroland: A reader’s guide to the dazzling diversity of modern fiction is, in contrast, impressively capacious and exhaustive, as befits a study by a critic who has spent many decades reviewing contemporary fiction. Kemp has read more novels than most of us could manage in a lifetime, even if we read a book or two a week, and from this vast survey he has developed an interesting and challenging thesis about the modern novel’s obsession with the past. Towards the end of the volume he comes to A. S. Byatt and her characters, “whose appetite for print is prodigious. To call them bookworms would be a miserable understatement. They are literary anacondas, ingesting books voraciously and in bulk”. But Kemp himself rivals any of Byatt’s creations in his extraordinary range of reading and reference. He omits nothing, embraces everything. Just when you think you may have caught him out in an oversight – where is Jim Crace? Where is Alan Hollinghurst? Where is Rose Tremain? Where is Russell Hoban? – up they pop, sometimes at length. (I read an uncorrected reading copy lacking an index, relying instead on the pages of endnotes, interesting and amusing in themselves. The index promises to be, like the big-as-the-world map in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science”, almost as long as the work itself, and it will tell the reader more certainly than I can whether I saw the name of David Caute somewhere in there, or whether I dreamt it.)

The notes categorize novels in a manner that illustrates the bizarre richness of Kemp’s material: he lists, among many more subdivisions, “novels by politicians” (including Douglas Hurd, Nadine Dorries and Roy Hattersley); novels by television gardeners (the sole contender here is Alan Titchmarsh); novels narrated by a Sumerian pot, a supermarket trolley, a fiddle-playing foetus and other oddities; a novel written in the first-person plural by Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (2007); and Next (1998), a nouveau roman by Christine Brooke-Rose that eschews the verb “to have”. He encompasses “literary fiction” (though mercifully he hardly ever mentions the Booker prize), commercial fiction, detective fiction, historical fiction, experimental fiction, Jane Austen spoofs, even self-published fiction, some of which hardly anybody can have read except me. (I don’t think he ever refers to that lone and lonely experimentalist B. S. Johnson, but I could be wrong.) His tastes are catholic: he has good words to say about The Bone People by Keri Hulme, The Book of Mrs Noah by Michèle Roberts and Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, as well as high praise for the more mainstream Robert Harris, Paul Scott, Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood. One of the few points on which Kemp and Epstein are in accord is in their admiration of Paul Scott, a novelist rarely studied in academe, but who fits neatly with Kemp’s sense of the overwhelming pressure of the past upon the present, of the weight of empire oppressing its offspring. Pages are devoted to the imperial themes of J. G. Farrell, Timothy Mo, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Gore Vidal. Kemp seems to prefer the workmanlike and naturalistic to the flamboyant and ostentatious. He doesn’t really warm to Rushdie’s “multi-ethnic hullaballoo” and Vidal’s self-conscious “penchant for classical look-alike imagery”. He is also sharp about A. N. Wilson’s “prissy prose”, D. M. Thomas’s “grubby doodling” and what he sees as Martin Amis’s gimmicks.

The breadth of his canvas is so all-encompassing that it is hard to come to terms with his proposition that the novel today is obsessed, often to its disadvantage, by its literary heritage, which spawns “literary parasites” who cannot rest from creating sequels and prequels and parodies of the classics. Fiction is haunted, Kemp suggests, by emanations from the past, by emblematic figures such as Lindow Man and the palaeontologist Mary Anning, who do indeed seem to be woven somewhat disproportionately into the fabric of fiction. In one of his more obvious frames of reference, the historical novel, he cites commercially successful historical novelists of whom the student of literature may never have heard, and boldly dissents from the current consensus on Hilary Mantel, of whose Tudor sequence he is critical, accusing her of “over-copious historical documentation and an almost fixated-seeming attitude to her central character”. Reading her final novel, The Mirror and the Light (2020), he claims, was like “wading through a Sargasso Sea of Tudor haberdashery”; it is telling, admittedly, that these novels converted so easily into highbrow costume drama. He doesn’t like A Place of Greater Safety (1992) as much as I did, but reserves high praise for A Change of Climate, in which Mantel looks back from the 1980s to the 1950s.

Kemp’s emphasis on the weight of the imperial and colonial past (English, Irish, Australian, American, Indian, African and more) gives rise to what can seem like odd distortions. Doris Lessing, for instance, who wrote so vividly of the immediate present of postwar England and its ensuing decades, and who reported from the cutting edge of lived experience, is here represented largely by an analysis of her Canopus in Argos five-book space fiction sequence, which he sees as a projection of the colonial concerns of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), into outer space, in a form of “Sufi sci-fi”, that awkwardly mixes the imaginative and the naive. This is not how we normally think of Lessing’s contribution to literature, though the points he makes are in his context fair enough, even illuminating. (Ursula K. Le Guin also thought that Lessing hadn’t really mastered the art of writing science or space fiction, describing Shikasta as earnest and unshapely.)

Similarly, Kemp’s description of my own Radiant Way trilogy (1987–91) doesn’t seem to me to describe the books I thought at the time that I was writing, though his comments are eminently reasonable and he rightly remarks that, in the condition-of-England books about the miners’ strike that I had planned, I also arbitrarily drag in Lindow Man and rather a lot of severed heads. He suggests I had become “restive” with neat and conventional fiction, and he also describes Jim Crace as “a novelist of considerable restlessness”. (Crace’s books cover a huge time range, from the Bronze Age to post-apocalyptic America.) These comments show a considerable worldly insight into the sometimes unacknowledged motivations of novelists. I like that word “restlessness”.

Kemp stretches his interest in the distant historic past to include the very recent historic past of many fictional characters, and he writes extensively of scars both physical and mental, and of child sex abuse, in earlier years seriously underacknowledged in both real life and fiction before becoming so prominent a subject in the 1980s. As Kemp searches through the literary evidence he does tend to bundle together extreme and overt examples – such as in the works of Edward St Aubyn, with their shocking paternal rapes – with less sensational or more questionable cases, as in the works of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift and others. Damaged childhoods have long been the stuff of fiction, as the life and work of Charles Dickens so clearly illustrate: is our obsession with them now, particularly in their sexual aspects, a sign of the way we live now, he wonders, or a symptom of our (unhealthy?) thraldom to earlier models, earlier paradigms? And how do we move on from here? These are good questions.

Retroland, as its title declares, is not concerned with how to move on. It is a deep exploration of recent literary history, from a critic who has had plenty of time to think about and track themes and tendencies. At times it reads like an indictment of where we are now, of the retrospectiveness of how we live and write, and of our crushing sense of the dead hand of the past. And at times Peter Kemp seems to be trying to discern or impose pattern where there is none. But he also pays tribute to the extraordinary variety of genres and the endless possibilities of the form of the novel. His professional life has not dulled his curiosity or, seemingly, his capacity for enjoyment. This is a big, baggy monster of a reader’s guide, and a challenging reading list, with something, many things, for everyone.

Margaret Drabble is writing a memoir, and six of her novels were reissued in 2022

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