Books: A novel way to go

Valentine Cunningham disputes a po-faced view of current British fiction and raises a cheer for our native novelists
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We Brits love lament and elegy. Our literature is full of it. We see death everywhere, and especially in the culture. The old days were, naturally, better. Actually they always were, even in the old days. The ancient Hebrews, ancient Greeks, ancient Romans were as sure of it as we are. "Ichabod, Ichabod, the glory has departed from Israel". It always has: but especially, we keep on being told, from the novel.

The going feeling used to be that the Novel as such was Dead. But swathes of very lively examples kept rising up all over the world. So our gloomsters turned their drooping gaze to the specifically British, and particularly English, scene. It's the English Novel, they say, that is over, finished, simply washed-up.

George Orwell once claimed that you would get a Jonah in the Whale story in the papers every three years or so. What we now get every six months is a Jeremiah on the Novel story: some pundit, often a feisty youth, who tells us that everything's up with English fiction.

The latest voice in the choir of grumblers, adding his mite to this tedious, unhistorical and dismally parochial jeremiad, is Jason Cowley, Times critic and one of this year's Booker judges, in the December issue of Prospect. Here they all come, the old canards. The fictional home team is simply not up to snuff, and comparison with utopias elsewhere proves it. In the US, they had Faulkner and Nabokov and have Pynchon and DeLillo; continental Europe boasted greats like Kafka, Mann and Proust; in our own past, we had Lawrence and Woolf, Joyce, Conrad and (surprisingly, but for once an alert inclusion) V S Pritchett.

Our present novelists can't write about the present. It has struck Jason Cowley, as it has struck all recent Booker judges, that many current novels are steeped in a pastness thst they seek to re-write. Of course, there is no fiction on earth which has not been mired in the past for most of this century. But Cowley is very wobbly about history - the history of the novel, as well as history in the novel.

Why, for instance, is it thought a good idea to beat our current novelists over the head with the likes of Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Joyce and Proust? As Conrad might have said: Mr Proust, he dead. And if it should be replied that Nabokov, say, is only recently dead, then we are entitled to bring up his actual contempories: our own recently dead great novelists, William Golding or Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett or (still alive, though impaired by illness) Iris Murdoch. Like generations really must be compared with like.

But the Cowley-esque vision of current ruin depends heavily on discounting any cases that might break the rhythm of this argument. Everyone, except a few of the harsher feminists, knows that Martin Amis is superb. He is engaged vigorously in the present as well as the immediate past, a master of linguistic inventiveness, morally and politically trenchant. But, of course, he's besotted by Nabokov and by American cultural pizazz, and keeps saying that he's off to the US as soon as the kids are through school. Night Train is a cop-fic trying to go there, so can we forget him as an English writer?

Of course, we can't do that. He remains one of ours, son of Kingsley; godson, so to speak, of J G Ballard. Even Jason Cowley thinks of Ballard (above) as "one of the most consistently innovative of the older generation". But Ballard is roped in as a fellow-accuser because he bad-mouths his contemporaries for their submission to bribes from the British Council and other managers of the culture; which means you can discount his crucial role as midwife and godfather to so much recent writing.

But if Ballard is good, then there's some likelihood that his adoptive progeny, who include Will Self as well as Martin Amis, might be some good too. And they are, like the host of novelists who, in comon with Ballard, transgress generic boundaries between high and low modes. They do what Ballard did with SF and marry mainstream seriousness with, say, the crime mode (Michael Dibdin, John Harvey, Ruth Rendell), the thriller (John Le Carre) or Gothic (Patrick McGrath).

It's silly to prate about our need for a revolution of the word and then dismiss our canniest stylists (such as Julian Barnes) as too poshly literary, or to leave out the likes of Jim Crace and Jeanette Winterson: our grittiest, stoniest wordmongers. Cowley's trick with Winterson is to say she was good once but has gone off. He has to acknowledge the power of a career launched with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, that small stroppy classic. But the allegation goes that her force has abated; as has Kazuo Ishiguro's, Ian McEwan's, Salman Rushdie's and, by implication, Martin Amis's.

I didn't much relish Ishiguro's last novel The Unconsoled, but he remains impressive by any standards. You cannot write off Remains of the Day, nor McEwan's Black Dogs and Enduring Love. And what about Amis's Time's Arrow, London Fields and The Information, Rushdie's latest magic-realist excursion The Moor's Last Sigh, not to mention Winterson's incursions into bodily verbalism in Written on the Body and Gut Symmetries? Where has this critic been?

But, you see, the kinds of things our novelists are good at are for Cowley and his like the very essence of trivial pursuits. That means fiction that reanimates and remythologises the past; novels that dream the bad dreams of history, ghosted by our culture's hideous practices towards Jews, women, blacks and the poor; novels soaked in the bloody sweat of the past.

Such novels signally failed to flourish at the hands of Cowley and his Booker colleagues: Jim Crace's Quarantine (a stark wilderness encounter with a starving Jesus); Michele Roberts's Impossible Saints (crowded with all the overlooked God-smitten women the church forgot); Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (the enticing return of Dickens's Magwitch to London; John Banville's The Untouchable (a lovely intertextual meshing of treacherous Anthony Blunt and the Ulster poet Louis MacNeice). They represent what Cowley calls an "inability to picture ourselves in the present"; a "turning away from the defining particulars of our time".

Well, if the historical preoccupations that have energised our fiction for so long - from Durrell to Golding to Burgess to Carter to Swift - denote failure; then we fail. We do have, I suppose, to allow for the maverick astute readings of Lisa Jardine. Adjudicating this year's Orange Prize for women's fiction, she criticised Graham Swift's assured rewriting of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Last Orders as feeble and small-minded, because it was about a group of blokes taking a friend's ashes to throw into the sea at Margate. It surprises me that anybody could be embarrassed by such an extraordinarily moving, elegiac text about memory and war and death, and be unable to spot moral and human vastness just because it comes wrapped in the particulars of small-time lives.

Of course, it's clear what anxieties such cunning encounters with past lives and past stories seek to allay. They confront the fear of being marooned and belated as mere moderns, a people come too late for literary glory, mere ventriloquists and parrots of great past voices (the theme of Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot). We wonder whether our aesthetic daemons are in fact demons: the possibility that troubles A S Byatt in Possession and Angels and Insects.

But the strategies our best novelists adopt to outwit such fears do not denote failure. Far from it. They are precisely the strength of present British fiction, as of the best South Americans, Europeans, Indians and North Americans - including the Russian-American Nabokov. They're what the unrivalled Joyce is all about. And they are the empowering force of writers whom Europeans queue up to hear at readings, and the world hastens to get hold of in translation. Deriding and demeaning what such writers do comes from a bogus knowingness: a strutting appearance of worldliness which is only a Little Englandism by another name.

Valentine Cunningham celebrates current English fiction in his series `Novel Concerns', to be broadcast daily on Radio 3 between 5 and 9 January 1998