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THE MODERNIST ART OF FICTION

literature

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CRITICISM AND FICTION (1891) By William Dean Howells ON REALISM, CRITICISM AND THE SOCIAL EFFECT OF LITERATURE (title in Jane Bernadette’s selection)

THE MODERNIST ART OF FICTION



One possible way of approaching modernism is to place it within a larger cultural framework, by establishing its position to other ‘–isms’ emerging at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. This is what we  tried to do in the previous chapter, by having a look at the obvious interrelations between various trends whose main characteristics are the innovation in form and the modification of the worldview. Another approach, which we consider equally profitable and rewarding, is to profit from the theoretical and analytical effort of the modernist novelists themselves, whose essays may fully document our interpretation of the modernist work. If the former approach essentially encourages a view of modernism within a cultural context, the latter provides the interpreter of modernism with a highly nuanced view from inside modernism.

Given these two possibilities, this chapter will focus on the critical contribution of some turn-of-the-century and twentieth-century novelists, which is expected to cast proper light upon the artistic intentions and the creative mechanisms involved by the modern novel as it distinguishes itself from the nineteenth-century novelistic conventions. For grounding our decision to devote a whole chapter to an ‘inside’ approach to modernism, we shall start from a statement Woolf made in her essay ‘The New Crusade’. We specifically value it as it has given us, in a way, the indication one sometimes needs as to what pathway to follow for an appropriate analysis of a literary phenomenon which, even if turned into a canon by now, is still prone to controversy.

[…] of all the makers poets are apt to be the least communicative about their processes, and, perhaps, owing in part to the ordinary nature of their material, have little or nothing that they choose to discuss with outsiders. The best way of surprising their secrets is very often to read their criticism.[1]

The students of modernism may maliciously find in this statement the confirmation of their fear of modernism, as well as a comfortable explanation for their being reluctant to come to grips with such difficult pieces of writing as the modernists’ novels. Why should one take the trouble of reading such novels, if the modernists themselves are unwilling to communicate? Why should one make an effort to sympathise with the creating artist, if it is only an elite, if at all, that the modernist addresses? Why should one try to identify the meaning of a world made of such intricately woven ordinary words, if one is not even allowed to aspire to the position of an insider?

Just like any instance of literary language, Woolf’s words have a certain degree of ambiguity, which could, no doubt, encourage hypothetical questions like those we have formulated above. Yet, these same words may generate a totally new perspective on modernism, according to which reader and writer are part of the same creative act and contract, according to which the reader is cherished and praised as an invaluable contributor to meaning creation. It is no longer fear that one should feel when confronted with the modernist writer and his experiment, but pride and satisfaction that one has been drawn into the process of creation and consequently made into the creator’s peer.

There are several key terms in the above quotation whose disambiguation and proper understanding are likely to give us the key of access to the meaning of modernist fiction. 

‘Maker’ represents, in ordinary speech, ‘one that makes’, meaning which is far too general, and therefore vague, for Woolf to have chosen it in her discussion of literature, unless she assigned to it a sense that would fruitfully fit in her argument. As a synonym of ‘creator’ and ‘author’, ‘maker’ is the one who brings something new into being or existence. “Written with an initial capital letter all three terms designate God or the Supreme Being; without the capital  they  ascribe  comparable  but  not  equivalent  effects  and  powers to a

person. ‘Maker’ is likely to imply a close and immediate relationship between the one who makes and the thing that is made and an ensuing responsibility or concern for what is turned out.[…] In many of its human applications (as in king maker, a maker of men, a maker of phrases) maker suggests the use of appropriate material as an instrument through which one gives form to one’s ideas.”[2]

The noun ‘poet’, which at first sight may pass unnoticed because of the vulgar sense associated to it, i.e. ‘one who writes poetry, a maker of verses’, acquires in Woolf’s text an extended and deeper meaning in accordance with the word’s etymology. A poet is “a creative artist of great imaginative and expressive gifts and special sensitivity to his medium.”[3] Only in the light of this latter acceptation of the term do we comfortably and logically place the poet in the larger class of makers.

‘Communicative’ may be taken to literally mean ‘talkative’. Yet the term proves far more open and rewarding if it is interpreted as relating to communication. Communication implies the necessary existence of a transmitter willing and able to transmit information, but also of a receiver, whose contribution is indispensable to the process of meaning creation. Literary communication is to a certain extent similar to ordinary communication, mainly due to the ordinary nature of the poets’ material, that is language. The distinction between the two resides in the ‘processes’, in Woolf’s terms, ‘technique’ and ‘style’, in more specialised terms, the knowledge of which makes readers be seen as insiders, and consequently as active participants in the process of making. Since knowledge of processes and technique is not implicit in reading, Woolf indicates the possibility to approach a modernist writer’s creation from two sides, the creative and the critical, in other words to contemplate the creator as doubled by the theorist and critic. It is in this combination that Woolf seems to see the code of access to the meaning of the writer’s work.

The turn-of-the-century writers, whose works record the clear passage from the realist to the psychologically-oriented novel, agree that, if there should be a change at all in point of novel writing, this change should reside in a shift of focus from the description of the outer world to the representation of the inner world. This shift of interest is accompanied by an increased concern with the mechanisms of the art of writing, with the instruments writers should develop in order to meet the requirements of their newly formulated content purposes. The turn-of-the-century novelists, and, following the tradition they set up, the modernists as well develop explicit theorising tendencies mainly because they seem to be aware that they are supposed to face at least two essential questions. The first one necessarily refers to what they mean by reality under the new circumstances. The second is even more compelling. If reality, or life, or spirit has changed, which seems to be the case, then it is clear that the novelistic conventions that they inherited from their predecessors are no longer satisfactory and need changing. Both questions require clarification on their part, which may be the reason why these novelists always combine the creative activity and the theoretical effort.

Yet what is interesting to notice in such a discussion devoted to the writers’ contribution to the delimiting of what we are to see as the modern(ist) novel is that not only the novelists who adopt a new standpoint to reality and try to impose significant formal changes are keen on elucidating what they feel to be a turning point in the novel’s theory and practice. Both the novelists that Virginia Woolf calls ‘materialists’ and those that she praises as novelists concerned with the spirit consider it necessary to express a specific view relating to the future of the genre. No matter what their attitude is to the formal changes likely to occur as a result of a changing reality, most turn-of-the-century and twentieth-century novelists see it as their duty to clarify aspects relating to the destiny of the novel.

The letters exchanged by H.G. Wells and Henry James at the beginning of the twentieth century are revealing in this respect. While openly disagreeing on the purpose and practice of their art, the two writers seem to share the conviction that the novel as an art form remains indispensable to the understanding of the twentieth-century civilisation, although it clearly distinguishes itself from the nineteenth-century novelistic offer. If this is an attitude easy to accommodate within James’ system of thought, it is highly unexpected from a writer like Wells, directly accused by a modernist like Woolf of being a materialist. Yet, no matter what the two writers’ standpoint is, what one can read behind the statements they made in their letters is that literature, we may call it novel at this point, is ultimately a form of art. In 1915, H.G. Wells wrote:

To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use … I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it.

Henry James replied, his answer representing an implicit statement of the principles of modernist literature to come.

Meanwhile … I hold your distinction between a form that is (like) a painting and a form that is (like) architecture for wholly null and void. There is no sense in which architecture is essentially for ‘use’ that doesn’t leave other art exactly as much so … It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance … and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.[4]

In much more radical terms, T. S. Eliot will see in James’ “it is art that makes life” the only possible way of redemption for the modern spirit. Referring to the technique Joyce used in Ulysses, Eliot considered literature to be an antidote to the twentieth-century chaos. James had created in a period of relative stability. Eliot sensed and experienced the disintegration of the nineteenth-century value system and he found in Joyce’s use of myth, through the parallel with Odyssey, the only possibility of facing and coping with the twentieth-century pervading entropy.

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. […] It is simply a way of controlling and ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.[5]

What is, however, surprising is that it is precisely the ‘materialist’ Wells who signals the change of use of the modern novel. In his essay ‘The Contemporary Novel’, he announces the end of the period when the novel had been considered a favourite form of entertainment, this being, in his opinion, the main distinction between the modern and the Victorian novel.

There is, I am aware, the theory that the novel is wholly and solely a means of relaxation. In spite of manifest facts, that was the dominant view of the great period that we now in our retrospective way speak of as the Victorian, and it still survives to this day. [6]

Yet Wells does not seem willing to completely give up the idea of the novel as a means. He only tries to associate to it a different purpose, which, in his view, is the moral one. Thus, although apparently departing from the Victorian novelistic tradition, he follows in the steps of his predecessors, by insisting on the practicality and effectiveness of the novel as an instrument and vehicle.

It is by no means an easy task to define the novel. It is not a thing premeditated. It is a thing that has grown up into modern life, and taken upon itself uses and produced results that could not have been foreseen by its originators.[7]

According to Wells, the value of art resides in the power to effect changes upon the social and the individual. Wells also makes the mistake of judging the novel by standards other than the artistic ones, mistake for which he is penalised by the finely ironic reply given by Henry James in the above quoted letter.

You see now the scope of the claim I am making for the novel; it is to be the social mediator, the vehicle of understanding, the instrument of self-examination, the parade of morals and the exchange of manners, the factory of customs, the criticism of laws and institutions and of social dogmas and ideas.[8]

For the same mistake, Wells is held responsible, together with Galsworthy and Bennett, for not having been able to adapt his technique and views on art to the changing spirit of a new age. The Victorian writers are still praised by the moderns for the way in which they made their work into an appropriate response to a specific social, political and economic challenge. However, the novelists who chose to follow in the Victorians’ steps when confronted with a radically novel environment are severely indicted by a modernist like Woolf.

Our quarrel, then, is not with the classics, and if we speak of quarrelling with Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy, it is partly that by the mere fact of their existence in the flesh their work has a living, breathing, everyday imperfection which bids us take what liberties with it we choose. […] If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we should say that these three writers are materialists. It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only into the desert, the better for its soul.[9]

Though harshly criticised by Woolf, Wells sees the novel’s contribution to the reflection of the effervescence of the age as a certainty and a necessity. It is true that he fails to be too specific as to what modifications the novel should undergo in order to fit into the modern frame of mind. That is why, instead of insisting on how the novelistic form should be turned into a more appropriate instrument of expression of the modern civilisation’s complexity, Wells prefers enlarging upon what the novel should be made to express. In line with the Victorians against whom he seems to make a stand, Wells gives prominence to the novel’s content to the detriment of its form and medium, that is he disregards exactly what keeps the novel distinct from the reality which it reflects.

And it is inevitable that the novel, just in the measure of its sincerity and ability, should reflect and co-operate in the atmosphere and uncertainties and changing variety of this seething and creative time.[10]

Unlike Wells, Henry James and Joseph Conrad focus on what gives specificity to the novel, on what distinguishes the novel as an art form from any other art forms, on what keeps fiction distinct from reality while establishing a necessary relationship with reality. At the turn of the century, the two writers set up a new tradition, that of the modern(ist) novel, of which Wells had only an intuition and for which he could offer only much too vague technical solutions. James and Conrad revolutionised the theory of the modern novel not by ostentatiously rejecting the Victorian conventions, which they assimilate to a certain extent, but by privileging form and language as specifics of the art of literature.

Henry James’s theory of the novel, and especially that of the point of view, plays a considerable part in the definition of the new conventions of the modernist novel. By his essay ‘The Art of Fiction’, Henry James largely contributes to the practice of modernism in the field of novel writing, adopting a considerably different standpoint from that of the nineteenth-century novelists.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the novelists develop a sense of self-awareness, considering it their task to depart from the tradition of the novel as an overflow of story-telling gift, on the part of the writer, or as entertainment, on the part of the reader. This is the tradition that H.G. Wells also delimited, but never counteracted. James pleads in favour of fiction being autonomous, thus entitled to exist in its own rights and by its own rules, and not as an offspring of reality, whose complexity was far greater than whatever a work of fiction could presumptuously assume it possible to express.

Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call discutable. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it – of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison.[11]

Adopting the standpoint of the theorist of literature, James considers the nature of literature, restoring it to a dignified status among other cultural manifestations. Reference is made, it is true that just in passing, to the old dispute between Plato and Aristotle regarding the ‘wicked’ nature of fiction.

The old superstition about fiction being ‘wicked’ has doubtless died out in England, but the spirit of it lingers in a certain oblique regard directed towards any story which does not more or less admit that it is only a joke. […] It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a ‘make believe’ (for what else is a ‘story’?) shall be in some degree apologetic – shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to compete with life. [12]



In Plato’s opinion, art was a harmful and imperfect form of knowledge, inferior to the phenomenal reality and the Idea. Art was equated to lie, to the untruth as compared to the truth of the knowledge acquired through the dialectical science. Aristotle answered Plato’s accusations, reinstating art, and especially the art of the word, in its cognitive rights. He insisted on art as a form of knowledge superior to history, basing his assertions on the opposition between the true and the possible. Poetry, literature in an extended acceptation, can have access to the universal, which history, as a neutral rendering of events as they occurred, cannot. The relationship between art and reality exists under the sign of the possible, and art is not to be interpreted as a non-truth. Consequently, literature is neither true nor false, but it can become true and take part in the process of knowledge since it functions according to the laws of the verisimilar (conformity to the real) or according to the laws of the necessary (conformity to the logic). Literature, poetry in Aristotle’s terms, is and is not reality at the same time.[13]

The fundamental condition of existence of literature resides in the opposition between fiction and reality. Relying on the Aristotelian concept of mimesis understood as representation, it may be argued that fiction is, paradoxically, different from reality, while simultaneously using reality as its material. What distinguishes fiction from reality is the former functioning as a sub-assembly of the linguistic system. The autonomous status of literature can be defined only starting from the centrality of language to the literary system.[14] Without being particularly specific about it, James pleads in favour of the autonomy of fiction as art, by focusing on the similarities between the art of fiction and the art of painting. If the status of painting as art has never been contested, as it benefits from a medium of expression which is only its own, the fact that fiction represents reality by sharing the medium with ordinary communication has very often contributed to it being relegated to a position of subordination, of subservience to reality. The essence of the lesson James tries to teach his fellow novelists is to be found in the concept of form, i.e. literary language. Only by admitting the centrality of language to the creative process can one help fiction out of the impasse of being “treated as a parasite which draws sustenance from life and must in gratitude resemble life or perish.”[15]

The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life. When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass. It is not expected of the picture that it will make itself humble in order to be forgiven; and the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same, their success is the same. […] Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another. Peculiarities of manner, of execution, that correspond on either side, exist in each of them and contribute to their development.[16]

James tries to contradict the view that “the novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding”[17], adopting the position of the creator with complete knowledge, and thus in perfect control of his art. This is the main heritage that he bestows upon his fellow modernist writers. The distinctiveness of modernist fiction has, more often than not, been accounted for in terms of a severe break with and rejection of the eighteenth or nineteenth-century novel. Yet, on a closer reading of modernism, one could discover that the modernist novelists are more deferential to realism, and to the readers of realism in particular, than it may superficially show. The distinctiveness of modernism, in line with the tradition set up by Henry James, resides in the novelist’s determination to approach fiction as art less than in his stubborn intention to depart from the literary conventions of the preceding centuries. Under the pressure exercised by a changing reality, or ‘life’ in James’s terms, that they wish to express, the modernists consciously investigate the inherited forms, trying to adapt them to the new meaning requirements.

In a manner, implicitly or explicitly adopted by all the twentieth-century modernists, James does not discard the Victorian novel as artistically inferior to the modern one. He also refrains from qualifying it as inappropriately equipped to express the depth and complexity of life. The epithets James selects to point to the difference between Victorian and modern literature are the French naïf vs. discutable. These epithets suggest in no way James’ looking down upon the artistic achievements of writers such as Dickens or Thackeray. They are part of the contained critical vocabulary of a person whose obvious intention of challenging the inherited novelistic forms does not necessarily imply rejecting them from a position of superiority. What James tries to hint at is that the changes in sensibility at the turn of the century require new forms of expression, but, even more poignantly, a new attitude of writers to the institution of literature.

[I]t would take much more courage than I possess to intimate that the form of the novel, as Dickens and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness. It was, however, naïf (if I may help myself out with another French word) and, evidently, if it is destined to suffer in any way for having lost its naïveté it has now an idea of making sure of the corresponding advantages.[18]

This is an idea clearly expressed later on in the twentieth century by an undoubtedly modernist novelist like Woolf. If James only appreciates whole-heartedly the artistic performance of novelists like Dickens and Thackeray, Woolf is more explicit in her establishing the relationship between the modern and the old art of the word.

In making any survey, even the freest and loosest, of modern fiction, it is difficult not to take it for granted that the modern practice of the art is somehow an improvement upon the old. With their simple tools and primitive materials, it might be said, Fielding did well and Jane Austen even better, but compare their opportunities with ours! […] We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle.[19]

 

Woolf’s statement contains an internal contradiction, in the sense that she sees the modern, we may also read modernist, art of fiction as an improvement upon the old, while insisting, at the same time, on the circularity of the creative process associated with different cultural periods. Woolf never claims to be a methodical and professional critic. She considers herself to be only an interested and attentive ‘reader’ of literature. The truth, from our point of view, lies somewhere in between the two positions, but the latter variant may account for the inconsistency, possibly inaccuracy, of her statement. Yet, if it weren’t for the contradiction traceable in the initial paragraph of Woolf’s ‘Modern Fiction’, we would say that her argument is very much in line with T. S. Eliot’s standpoint expressed in more general terms in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.[20]

T. S. Eliot goes even further in his analysis of the relationship between the present and the past. By relying on the concept of ‘tradition’, the critic emphasises the indispensability of the creator’s awareness of the present-past relationship to the creative process. Awareness of the past means implicitly internalising its values, no matter if these values are assimilated or rejected. Under the circumstances, it is impossible for Eliot to accept the idea that the new implies an improvement upon the old. From Eliot’s point of view, what matters is exactly the circularity of the process, which Woolf also noticed. It is not improvement that the modern art presupposes, but change of the premise from which it starts.

[The poet] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. […] That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement. […] But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.[21]

The definition of the modern art, from James’ point of view as well, is underlain by the idea that any form of novelty is perceived as such only against the background of the existing forms. Novelty is not to be judged in absolute terms. Moreover, newness, and this is the point that James, so much accused of ignoring his audience, seems to make, is dependent on the reader’s perception, as much as it is on the writer’s innovation. Awareness should lie central to any artistic enterprise, as the essential ingredient of a process of development. The modern mind is characterised by inquisitiveness and it is the power to question and challenge that makes all the difference between the literature of the turn of the century and the Victorian one.

Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints, and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of genius, are not times of development, are times possibly even, a little, of dullness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter in the former, I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilising when they are frank and sincere.[22]

 

The key word in the above quoted passage is ‘art’, concept that becomes central to all the modern theory of the novel. In Conrad’s opinion, shared by all the other modernist writers, the novelist is an artist, or a craftsman, whose condition of existence resides in his being capable of ‘speaking’, in expressing life through language, which is the specific medium of literature. It is only by language that the artist can investigate and interpret outer or inner reality.

The artist in his calling of interpreter creates (the clearest form of demonstration) because he must. He is so much of a voice that, for him, silence is like death […].[23]

If James related the art of fiction to painting, Conrad’s definition of literature implies an analogy to music, which he considers “the art of arts”. Yet, irrespective of the terms of the comparison, both novelists agree on the status of literature that they feel it their duty to impose against the nineteenth-century cultural background. Literature is art. Both James and Conrad are aware that this status can be argued for only starting from the centrality of language to the literary system, Conrad being, however, more explicit and straightforward than James in this respect. He has the perfect intuition of the twentieth-century option in matters of novel writing when presenting the novel as exclusively an art of the word or, better said, as an art of words. Its success and quality depends on its integrity, i.e. on the blending of content and form, as well as on an exquisite and new use of words.

And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.[24]

James draws attention to the fictional character of fiction. The art of fiction exists only to the extent to which it can properly create the illusion of reality. The only problem that the writer must face is that the concept of reality, or better said one’s view of reality, finds itself in a constant process of redefinition. The formal renewal proposed by the modernist novelists is not the result of an intention to break with the conventions of the nineteenth century. The innovation in form rather springs from a conscious understanding of the fact that reality has changed, and so it requires new moulds in which to be cast. The novelist who aims at producing an art object must, according to James, have the sense of reality. He is expected to invent forms and methods able to contain   the   meaning   of   reality.   Form   becomes   thus   an   investigation

instrument with the modern writer. Literature no longer shows submissive and apologetic reverence for reality, it starts existing in its own right as a superior form of knowledge.

Humanity is immense and reality has a myriad forms. […] Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative, much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.[25]

In the quotation above James essentially refers to the quality of experience and emphasises the indispensability of the novelist’s contribution to the investigation of life’s complexity. In a less explicit manner, he also states that the inner reality is far more complex than the outer one. He thus opens the way for a new type of literature centred on consciousness with all the modifications of form required by the necessity of rendering the mind transparent and foregrounding consciousness. He goes even further in praising the art of fiction when he intimates that fiction is capable of (re)producing reality. The fragmentary quality of experience is formally paralleled by the emergence of a multitude of subjective, though not reliable, points of view. According to James, the exquisiteness of the creation is dependent on the quality of the impressions. What gives the extent of a writer’s value is his power of seeing. The novelist is a keen observer endowed with imagination. Yet to reach the status of the artist, the novelist should be in perfect control of his medium, of language and form. Prominence is given to the subject as the only able to reconstruct the object of perception.

The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe.[26]

 

Just as in the case of the twentieth-century modernist literature, whose tradition James initiated, veiled but compulsory reference is made to the reader, on whose presence and contribution the meaning of the literary work depends. The effect that James mentions absolves him from the guilt of having ignored his audience, intending his art, in the best of situations, for a reading elite. The existence of an effect implies the necessary and active presence of the one on whom this effect can be traceable.

Although the novel is probably the most protean of all literary forms, being at the same time doomed to remember that reading can be performed only from left to right and from beginning to end, and that it always takes longer to read a novel than to contemplate a painting, what Henry James theoretically expresses and practically proves by his novels is that the novel represents a structure and, in consequence, it can be properly approached only in its integrity. Character, incident, narrator, point of view, plot are relevant only to the extent to which they contribute to the interpretation of the novel as a whole. The integrity of the novel, as the expression of the writer’s intention, is to be found in the interaction of these categories.




As a creating artist, James develops an acute interest in form, the intricacy of his style sometimes tending to blur the content of his novels. As a critic, he is determined to see fiction as art only in the unity of form and content.

The story and the novel, the idea and the form, are the needle and thread, and I never heard of a guild of tailors who recommended the use of the thread without the needle or the needle without the thread.[27]

 The artist is allowed complete freedom in the choice of subject and method. He assumes thus the whole responsibility of making them fuse and turn them into the vehicle of expression of his intention. The inseparability of form and content prevents the reader from judging the work of art by any other standards than the artistic ones, as Wells seemed to propose. The rest of values (ideological, ethical, political or economic) potentially present in the work, likely to produce various attitudes on the part of the reader, of acceptance or rejection, should be subordinated to the artistic value. Moreover, critical evaluation should start from criteria that are certainly not definable in terms of likes and dislikes. Evaluation, which generally offers verdicts as to the artistic achievement, should logically be based, in James’ opinion, on the artist’s standards and not on the critic’s.

Referring to Henry James in the essay ‘Henry James: an Appreciation’, Conrad shares his fellow writer’s idea that art, the art of fiction included, implies choice, which makes it escape morality. What Conrad insists on is that art should be judged only by aesthetic standards, his view being perfectly consonant with James’.

[…] it is obvious that a solution by rejection must always present a certain lack of finality […] Why the reading public which, as a body, has never laid upon a story-teller the command to be an artist, should demand from him this sham of Divine Omnipotence, is utterly incomprehensible.[28]

In matters of form, there can be no prescriptions. Form is unique and its merit resides in being flexible enough to be turned into the perfect mould to contain a subject of the writer’s choice and to incorporate, in union with the content, the artist’s intention. The novel, as James imagined it, is the literary form able to deal with “all particles of the multitudinous life” in a way that can hardly be called dogmatic. In this respect, James sees in the novel “the most magnificent form of art.” James seems to anticipate the modernist theories according to which there are not subjects more poetic than others, therefore more appropriate for poetic treatment. Poeticity resides exclusively in the treatment of subject. James excludes thus the idea that there are taboo subjects, that had been carefully avoided by the Victorian novelists, and paves the way for the modernist literature in which the trivial or the vulgar are selected as subject-matter of the novel as peers of the exceptional or the extraordinary, yet all as part of the miracle of life.

We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. […] If we pretend to respect the artist at all we must allow him his freedom of choice, in the face, in particular cases, of innumerable presumptions that the choice will not fructify. Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions, and some of the most interesting experiments of which it is capable are hidden in the bosom of common things.[29]

 At some moment later, Woolf proves that she pays similar attention to form considering it indispensable to the expression of the writer’s intention. Woolf stresses the creator’s freedom to choose that method that he considers appropriate for a proper relationship between writer and reader to be established. In her view, any method will do on condition it is properly used to serve the novelist’s intention. Yet, from the way in which she encourages the use of any method, one may wrongly believe that the effect of disorder and randomness that the modernist work sometimes produces on the reader is the result of an imperfect, if any at all, choice of method.

Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist’s intention if we are readers.[30]

To dispel such possible misunderstandings, Woolf becomes more explicit and she insists herself on the inseparability of form and content, of the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of literature. The difference between the novelists of the past and the modern ones does not reside ultimately in the method employed, as we may expect, but in what both categories of writers want to express through the method they opted for. Artistic value or beauty, however, is to be found neither in the beauty of the represented material, nor in the beauty of a particular convention, but in the quality of the fusion of the two, which is nothing but the literary work of art.

The problem of freedom of choice of subject matter and form recurs in Woolf’s, as well as in all the turn-of-the-century and twentieth-century writings, as a sign of the self-awareness condition towards which literature directs itself.

[…] the problem before the novelist at present […] is to contrive means of being free to set down what he chooses. He has to have the courage to say that what interests him is no longer “this” but “that”: out of “that” alone must he construct his work. For the moderns “that”, the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology. […] the emphasis is upon something hitherto ignored; at once a different outline of form becomes necessary, difficult for us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors.”[31]

By the same token, one major problem for the modernist novelists, prone to constant controversy, is whether certain subjects are more poetic than others, or some are more likely to become the proper stuff of literature. The answer Woolf finds is that poeticity is inherent in the treatment of the subject and not in the subject as such. Whatever is life, no matter how trivial or extraordinary, should become part of the novelist’s interest. The essence of life or reality does not necessarily lie in the obviousness of sonorous events. It is more likely to appear in the ordinariness of the small thing. 

A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin.[32]

Without taking her words literally, we may find in this statement an explanation for the modernists’ pushing their novels towards zones which had not been previously explored and which, in their opinion, represent the true province of literature. Moreover, this conviction makes the modernist novelists challenge at first and then deal with most of the taboo subjects of the Victorian period, subjects over which much of the turn-of-the-century discussions were centred. Under the circumstances, it is absolutely necessary that the methods of novel writing should be rethought and adapted to the new spirit of a new age.

Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.[33]

Yet, much as Woolf may have insisted on the novelist’s freedom of choice, her work does not lend itself so openly to criticism in the age on account of its subject matter. It is the formal features of Woolf’s novels that draw the reader’s attention and make critics consider her an experimental modernist.  Joyce, on the other hand, whose propensity towards realism, even naturalism is obvious in his focusing on the trivial, sometimes the obscene, seems to have generated the widest range of contradictory points of view with the twentieth-century novelists and critics. However, no matter if their position was in favour of Joyce’s experiment or against it, most of those who formulated a view to Joyce’s work apparently reached some consensus on the idea that something new, ‘hitherto ignored’, in terms of form and subject matter was coming into existence.

Bennett, Woolf’s ‘materialist, is out of breath rattling out harsh criticism against Joyce’s narrative technique and subject matter. Implicitly contrasting Joyce’s shockingly straightforward method with the conventional more discreet and contained novelistic methods, which he himself used in his writings, Bennett voices his dislike of Ulysses, while focusing on some major narrative aspects that help him ground his argument. He may not have sensed when writing his essay ‘James Joyce’s Ulysses’ that he had managed to pinpoint exactly what represented the specificity of a modern(ist) writer’s work as compared to that of a realist.

 

It would be unfair to the public not to refer to the indecency of Ulysses. The book is not pornographic, and can produce on nobody the effects of a pornographic book. But it is more indecent, obscene, scatological and licentious than the majority of professedly pornographic books. James Joyce sticks at nothing. He forbids himself no word. He says everything – everything.[34]

It is as if Bennett feared the ‘everything’ he refers to in horror. It is clear that from his point of view, the beauty of a work of art should reside in the decency of its approach to reality or life. Yet, it is not only the subject matter that is likely to shock the English public, perhaps even the French according to Bennett, but also the narrative method adopted by Joyce, who chooses to smash the code to bits. “[F]orty difficult pages, some twenty-five thousand words without any punctuation at all”[35] sounds the sentence passed by Bennett when referring to Molly Bloom’s monologue in the concluding pages of Ulysses, which, as a matter of fact, he considers the best part of the novel. Moreover, Bennett is ruthless when he accuses Joyce of having written a novel that is “more like an official shorthand-writers’ ‘note’ than a novel.”[36] Paradoxically, it is exactly the overtly realist dimension of Joyce’s work that shocked the professed realist, not because of the abundance of descriptive and explanatory detail, but rather because of the quality of Joyce’s observation. “If he does not see life whole, he sees it piercingly.”[37] Technically speaking, a novel that reproduces the character’s thoughts on hundreds of pages can only be dull in Bennett’s opinion. Morally, such an investigation of the human consciousness, as the one Joyce performed by the new literary methods, can only lead to the contesting of man’s sense of beauty and faith.

The rendering is extremely and ostentatiously partial. The author seems to have no geographical sense, little sense of environment, no sense of the general kindness of human nature, and not much poetical sense. Worse than all, he has positively no sense of perspective. […] His vision of his world and its inhabitants is mean, hostile, and uncharitable. He has a colossal ‘down’ on humanity.[38]

It is in similar terms that Richard Aldington analyses Joyce’s work. Aldington objects to the modernist novelist’s handling of material and, consequently, to his choice of subject matter. Even if he has a correct intuition of the future influence of Joyce’s Ulysses, which he praises as ‘a remarkable book’, he is dissatisfied with the view of life the modernist offered. Aldington’s opinion is to be noted at this point for at least two reasons. It shows, on the one hand, how significant and shocking Joyce’s, and the modernists’, experiment was when it was proposed as an alternative to the nineteenth-century conventions since it aroused so quickly the interest of many of Joyce’s contemporaries, no matter how in favour or against it they were. Secondly, it served as a starting point for Eliot’s defence of modernism and his enlarging upon the capacity of art to impose order upon a chaotic reality. From Eliot’s point of view, there is nothing wrong with Joyce’s view of human life. Joyce’s effort is to be interpreted in terms of how much living material he deals with and how he manages to deal with it as an artist.[39]

When Ulysses was just being printed, Woolf praised young Joyce’s work as the most notably different from that of his predecessors. With the keen eye of an intelligent observer of the panorama of modern literature, Woolf identifies in Joyce’s work the goal towards which the modernist novelists’ literature, hers included, was striving. She has a glimpse of what distinguishes the modern novel from the realist one. Joyce’s writings give Woolf the possibility to defend the modernist enterprise by an argument which is much in line with what Henry James had anticipated several decades before.

They attempt to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist. […] Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see.”[40]

James feels it the duty of the modern novelist to free the novel from the restrictions imposed on it by the nineteenth-century sense of public value translated into the much too limiting novelistic conventions. Yet modernity, in James’ view, is a time variable and it means appropriately adapting to the spirit of the age. By elegantly, even cautiously handling the matter, James seems to prepare the reader for the advent of the modern novel, shocking as it may be. The reader is warned against the danger of traditionalism and unquestioned acceptance of shared values and invited to grant the novel the freedom it needs to become a proper expression instrument of the twentieth century.

Half a century later, Woolf expressed ideas similar to James in an essay also entitled ‘The Art of Fiction’. The modernist Woolf follows James’ and Conrad’s example, considering theory and theorising upon the novel to be essential to the creative activity.

For possibly, if fiction is, as we suggest, in difficulties, it may be because nobody grasps her firmly and defines her severely. She has had no rules drawn up for her, very little thinking done on her behalf. And though rules may be wrong and must be broken, they have this advantage – they confer dignity and order upon their subject; they admit her to a place in a civilised society; they prove that she is worthy of consideration.[41]

In the essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Woolf attempts to define her position both to the nineteenth-century novelists and to her contemporary fellow writers, being more direct, where James had been only ironically oblique. Paradoxically, if James and Conrad, half Victorians in their practice, theoretically opened up incontestable paths towards the modern novel, by a professed break with the past, the modernist Woolf, a radical experimenter, chooses to renegotiate her and her contemporaries’ relationship to the past, by an explicit effort of assimilation.

In making any survey, even the freest and loosest, of modern fiction, it is difficult not to take it for granted that the modern practice of the art is somehow an improvement upon the old.[42]



In consequence, Woolf does not reject the nineteenth-century conventions simply for being old and therefore inappropriate. The modernist innovation in form is not the result of an a priori opposition to the old. It is dictated by the findings of an examination of reality, whose complexity can no longer be rendered by the existing forms. The writer should feel free to create, without any strict impositions exercised by the inherited conventions.

Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide. Nevertheless, we go on perseveringly, conscientiously, constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design which more and more ceases to resemble the vision of our minds.[43]

The difference established by Woolf between the materialists, Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells, and the modernists, Joyce for  example,  does not reside

in the different artistic value of their work, but in their different ability to grasp the meaning of a changing reality, of what the modern writers considered life to be. This ability implies, in Woolf’s view, the re-inventing of the form of the novel.

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and the external as possible?[44]

Woolf’s conclusion is a reconciliatory one, stating a principle and not offering unique and final solutions. By an unbiased and in-depth analysis of the novelistic conventions of the previous centuries, Woolf manages to synthesise what James and Conrad had only hinted at. Fiction has changed status, more precisely it has acquired the status of art. The writer/ creator/ maker/ artist has to play his part in the definition of the new status of literature, by being willing and ready to break with the existing literary systems and reinventing new ones.

‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.[45]

 



[1] Virginia Woolf, ‘The New Crusade,’ The Moment and Other Essays  (London: The Hogarth Press, 1947) 201.

[2] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 8th series (Springfield, Massachusetts: G.&C. Merriam Company, 1983).

[3] Ibid.

[4] quoted in Christopher Gillie, Movements in English Literature, 1900-1940  (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975) 1.

[5] T. S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth,’ The Idea of Literature. The Foundations of English Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979) 224.

[6] H. G. Wells, ‘The Contemporary Novel,’ The Idea of Literature. The Foundations of English Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979) 159.

[7] Ibid., 164.

[8] H. G. Wells, ‘The Contemporary Novel,’ 172.

[9] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ The Idea of Literature. The Foundations of English Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979) 196-197.

[10] H. G. Wells, ‘The Contemporary Novel,’ 168.

[11] Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Longman’s Magazine 4, 1884 (www. esterni.unibg.it/siti-esterni/rls/essays/James) 5.

[12] Ibid., 5-6.

[13] see Gabriela Duda, Introducere in teoria literaturii (Bucuresti: Editura All, 1998)

[14] see Käte Hamburger, Logique des genres littéraires (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1986)

[15] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ The Moment and Other Essays (London: The Hogarth Press, 1947) 93.

[16] Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ 6.

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ 5.

[19] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 195-196.

[20] T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ 215.

[21] Ibid., 216.

[22] Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ 5.

[23] Joseph Conrad, ‘Henry James. An Appreciation,’ The Idea of Literature. The Foundations of English Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979) 150.

[24] Joseph Conrad, ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the “Narcissus, The Idea of Literature. The Foundations of English Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers) 145.

[25] Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ 9.

[26] Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ 9.

[27] Ibid., 13.

[28] Joseph Conrad, ‘Henry James. An Appreciation,’ 153.

[29] Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ 11.

[30] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 200.

[31] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 201.

[32] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Pastons and Chaucer,’ The Common Reader (London: The Hogarth Press, 1962) 27.

[33] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 199.

[34] Arnold Bennett, ‘James Joyce’s Ulysses,’ The Idea of Literature. The Foundations of English Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers) 209.

[35] Ibid., 209.

[36] Ibid., 208.

[37] Ibid., 208.

[38] Arnold Bennett, ‘James Joyce’s Ulysses,’ 208.

[39] T. S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth,’ 224.

[40] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 199-200.

[41] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ 90.

[42] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 196.

[43] ibid., 198.

[44] Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 199.

[45] Ibid., 202.








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