The Claim of the Living

Review of A Novelist on Novels, by W. L. George.

From The Literary Times Supplement, June 13, 1918

EDITOR'S NOTE: If Virginia Woolf does not admire the writing of A Novelist on Novels, she definitely finds commendable the author's courage to write about his contemporaries. And, in this, another unsigned book review, Woolf comments on the difficulties of describing the new writing. I have highlighted sections (in green) in which Woolf deals most specifically with modern writing.
   Mr. George is one of those writers for whom we could wish, in all kindness of heart, some slight accident to the fingers of the right hand, some twinge or ache warning him that it is time to stop, some check making brevity more desirable than expansion. He has ideas and enthusiasms, prejudices and principles in abundance, but in his fluency he repeats himself, bolsters up good arguments with poor illustrations, and altogether uses more paper than the country can well afford. The following sentence shows how his ideas tend to overlap each other owing to the speed at which they are composed: "Autobiography has had its way with him [Mr. E. M. Forster] a little in A Room with a View, and very much more in that tale of school-masters the Longest Journey, but it was Howards End, that much criticized work, which achieved the distinction of being popular, though of high merit." Thus hooking one statement to another Mr. George rambles over a great many ideas connected with novelists and their art, and abuses the public at great length for its insolent neglect of the artist. Proof is added to proof. When Lord Curzon, the Bishop of London, and Mr. Conrad come into a room which of them causes "a swirl in 'the gilded throng' "? "The attitude of the State to the novelist defines itself most clearly when a royal commission is appointed." What novelist has ever been asked to sit upon a royal commission? What novelist has ever been welcomed as a son-in-law? To cut the matter short, if the present Lord Nelson owns 7,000 acres of land what is the amount of the pension enjoyed by Leigh Hunt's daughter?

    But Mr. George's chief claim to attention lies not in this voluble and elementary satire but in the courage with which he has faced his contemporaries. It is a courage that overshoots its mark, but still it needs considerable courage to declare that one has found "more that is honest and hopeful in a single page of Tono-Bungay than in all the great Victorians put together." It needs, oddly enough, some quality rarer than courage and more desirable to have read all the novels mentioned in this book and to hold a serious opinion as to their merits. For it is extremely difficult to take the writings of one's contemporaries seriously. The spirit in which they are read is a strange compact of indifference and curiosity. On the one hand the assumption is that they are certainly bad, on the other the temptation assails us to find in them a queer and illicit fascination. Between these two extremes we vacillate, and the attention we grant them is at once furtive, intermittent, and intense. In proof of this let anyone read over the list of seven young novelists accepted by Mr. George as the most promising of their generation-- Mr. Beresford, Mr. Cannan, Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Compton Mackenzie, Mr. Onions and Mr. Swinnerton.* The list is fairly representative, but certainly if our income depended upon passing an examination in their works we should be sweeping the streets to-morrow. We feel sure that such a test would produce a large army of street sweepers. It is not that we have neglected to order a certain number of their novels from the library. It is not that, on seeing them before us, we have neglected to read them. But our knowledge is perfectly haphazard and nebulous. To discuss the point of view, the growth, nature and development of any one of these writers in the same spirit that we discuss the dead proves impossible. The difficulty which lies at the root of this attitude affects Mr. George too, in spite of his enthusiasm for modern fiction and his proud claim for the prose form. He does not find it at all easy to make out what is happening.

The literary tradition is changing and a new one is being made. Perhaps we may divide these seven writers into three groups-self-exploiters, mirror-bearers and commentators.... They stand midway between the expression of life and the expression of themselves.... A new passion is born, and it is a complex of the old passions; the novelist . . . needs to be more positive, to aspire to know what we are doing with the working class, with the Empire, the woman question, and the proper use of lentils. It is this aspiration towards truth that breaks up the old form: you cannot tell a story in a straightforward manner when you do but glimpse it through the veil of the future.
Fiction is becoming chaotic and formless and omnivorous. But the attempt at a general survey, or at any grouping of tendencies, is very vague; and Mr. George turns not without relief to the criticism of the novels in detail, to biographical sketches, and even to memories of garden parties on Campden Hill. The criticism is not bad criticism, but it has too great an air of the personal and provisional to be accepted with conviction. There is no perspective, no security about it.

   But the fault hardly lies with Mr. George and scarcely at all with the novelists. They must live before they achieve the repose which is so much more ornamental than life. They must appear at garden parties and achieve, or fail to achieve, the "swirl" which Mr. George thinks a proper tribute to their powers. But they must be content to forgo authoritative criticism until they are long past the age at which they can profit by it. They must put up with the random patronage of people who subscribe to libraries and to the snapshots of reviewers. Meanwhile they enjoy a kind of homage which is not altogether to be despised. We should judge it an immense calamity if all the writers whom Mr. George speaks of were destroyed in a single night. Yes, in our condescending, indolent way we are proud of them; we need them; we have a dim consciousness of a band of light upon the horizon which is due to their incessant imaginative fervour, and sometimes we seem to see that from all this agitation and confusion something of great importance is taking shape.