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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

    £17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

    £450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

    Project Manager - Pensions

    £32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone