Where Are the Novelists?

I

AN article appeared recently in the Western Mail asking, ‘Where are the Novelists?’ and reproaching writers because they are not finding in this war matter for their pens. It is not true that no novels are coming out of the war. They are coming abundantly, but none has come that does more than tickle the surface and appearance of things. None has come that is significant, none that does more than the daily record of journalists can do as well. I have my opinion as to why this is, and I sent this letter to the editor of the Western Mail:

‘My attention has just been called to your interesting leading article “ Where are the Novelists?” Let us consider the general question of the novelist’s and poet’s job in wartime.

‘The poet first. You quote some beautiful lines from Binyon and Rupert Brooke. These are concerned respectively with the consolations survivors lay to their hearts and with the finer aspirations of the soldier-patriot: the aspirations that take men into battle.

‘But these were not the significant poems of the war. As the war went on the significant poetry began to flow from the pens of the men in the thick of it: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, to name but two. To me, three words by Wilfred Owen are poetry’s greatest contribution to all that concerns the last war: “death’s extreme decrepitude.” All the ghastly landscapes of Passchendaele and the Somme are summed up there — in the silence of night when the fighting is over.

‘It was something new for English poets so liberally to express themselves instead of leaving their experience and emotions to be expressed in a more or less bogus fashion by laureates, and it was inevitable, as the war dragged on, that the enchantment of Rupert Brooke should dissolve into the disenchantment of Wilfred Owen. . . . As the emotional content of the war changed and a great unescapable “Why?” hung over all thinking men’s minds, there was no longer any room for the poetry of exultation.

‘We have had no poetry of exultation thus far in the present war, and that is because we have come upon it with that “Why?” still heavy in men’s hearts. Any meaningful poetry that we get out of this war will come later, and I think it will have an even more bitter taste than Sassoon’s and Owen’s. . . .

‘Your writer refers to Sonia and Mr. Britling as good examples of the last war’s fiction — and they are good enough, though not, I think, notable or durable. The trouble is that Mr. Britling this time is not only seeing it through, he is also seeing through it, and in time he will give us the result of his seeing. Don’t try to hurry the novelist. His is a longer and more reflective job than the lyric poet’s. He has to digest both facts and the implications of facts. Before he is able to do anything effective he will have to be able to see a little further round the corner of time than is possible at present. Remember that the important novels (and plays) of the last war were written after the war. Remember that Tolstoy was in the Crimea in 1854 and began to write War and Peace in 1864.

‘You will get no good poetry or fiction by trying to hurry up the poets and novelists. I remember an amusing incident in the last war. A well-known artist had been given permission to come to the Somme front to paint pictures. He remained for a long time apparently doing nothing (though I can well imagine that his heart and mind were doing a great deal). Impatience about this inactivity caused a general to break out vehemently one day, “Tell him to do something. Tell him to draw a horse.”

‘It’s no good telling the novelists to do something. If they don’t want to waste their time drawing pretty pictures of horses that’s their affair. Believe me, their pictures will come, but I should be the last to expect them, when they come, to be pretty pictures.’

II

If this were an autobiography, there would be much to say about my three and a half years in the B. E. F., about the stately rise of a private to the rank of Warrant Officer Second Class, and about that teeming warren of activity, G. H. Q., France. I never saw the statue of Haig that they put up in Montreuilsur-Mer, that sweet township of the Pas de Calais where G. H. Q. was situated behind the ramparts on the hill above the green swiftly flowing Canche. The Germans are there now, and perhaps they have done away with the statue, which, anyway, would look a reproachful object to the local French, who so often saw, as I did, the field marshal ride out through the octroi barrier, one with his horse like a centaur, a posse of lancers behind him, with their pennons undulant and whickering in the winter air, towards his chateau outside the town.

A few bright memories survive from those weary years, and most of them are of persons. Taking it all in all, we were lucky in our officers, though there was a sprinkling of nameless swine. I remember John Buchan, a cavalier if ever there was one, always commanding our respect but never forgetting how to unbend. It is a mystery to me how he got through the days as he did. He was doing his work as an Intelligence officer; he was writing his history of the war; and he was somehow fitting in novels as well. For a little time, at Beauquesne, he was unwell, and a sergeant had to call on him in his billet. He found Buchan lying in bed, unable even then to rest, the pages of Greenmantle strewing the blankets. Buchan went home on leave towards the end of that year, and told the sergeant he would like to bring him back a Christmas present. I never knew another officer give an ‘other rank’ a Christmas present, but this was typical of Buchan’s warm human personality. The sergeant had the sense to say flatteringly that he would like an autographed copy of Greenmantle, a reply which suggests an aptitude for the diplomatic service.

G. S. Duncan, Haig’s chaplain, introduced me to John Drinkwater, who had come out to read poetry to the troops. Abraham Lincoln had not then been written. Drinkwater was unknown save as a man connected with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre who had published a few thin volumes of lyrics. I remember that a high-up staff officer who would have to meet Drinkwater asked me who he was and what he had done.

Drinkwater was born seven years before me, so that at that time he would be in his early thirties. I remember him as a burly clean-shaven young man with thick abundant dark hair, very friendly and unassuming, dressed in a vaguely military khaki uniform. He was very pleased with the success of his mission, which was simply to read poetry wherever men would listen. They listened everywhere. I had plenty of evidence in Montreuil of the success of that astonishing experiment. Men filled the rooms where he read, and listened breathless — men of every rank, commissioned and non-commissioned, and of every sort, down even to those one would have considered hopeless ‘toughs.’ It was a remarkable demonstration of the appeal of pure poetry, and it confirmed my own belief that the way to commend poetry to those who think they do not like it, or who imagine even that there is something gutless and effeminate in it, is simply to read it to them. Granted, that is, that the reader knows his job.

I often think of those occasions when I hear of ‘Garrison Theatre’ and what it considers ‘the stuff to give the troops’ today. What was in the air of those times? No very great poetry was being produced; but an enormous amount of it was appearing and being read. For myself, the impulse to write verse slowly faded out when the war was over. I did not meet Drinkwater again for many years. He was then silver-haired and broad and episcopal, living stylishly in a big house at Highgate. He asked me how the poetry was getting along, and I told him I had written nothing for years. ‘Poetry is still for me,’ he said, ‘the most exciting thing in life.’

That, I think, was the secret of his readings; that was what he communicated to us. For an hour or two we were lifted above boredom and the gray tedium of our days; the most exciting thing in his life flowed over and was communicated to ours.

The reception which Drinkwater had in France threw some light, in my own mind, on the enthusiasm which once flowed between poets and their public: an enthusiasm which is seen no more because a poet is no longer a representative man, touching and ennobling common chords. No poetry is ‘successful today except poetry which is successful with a coterie, and clearly writers of this poetry can never stand in such a relation to the public as that which used to bring marching processions of students to hail Hans Andersen, and crowds of the devout to listen to Charles Dickens. It is impossible to imagine torches and banners going out above a host intent on honorably besieging the home of Mr. T. S. Eliot. Communication has somehow failed between the poets and the people.

The blame for this must fall half on one side and half on the other. There is a very real sense in which this English people is worse educated than when it was illiterate. We pride ourselves on there being no illiterates. We say that everyone can now read, and, insofar as to have the ability to con a sequence of words is to be able to read, the claim has some foundation. We say that everyone can now write, and that again is true if writing is forming letters with a pen. But the quality of what is read and written by the common run of people has declined in the last half century. I think the truth is that when reading and writing were accomplishments not so easy to come by they were for that reason the more highly prized and were exercised upon loftier subjects. A man who could read, read the best so far as he could lay hands upon it; and, reading the best, he was not likely in his writing to be satisfied with the worst. When reading became an accomplishment which every man must have, whether he wanted it or not, there sprang up and multiplied enormously cheap and nasty means for the exercise of these new talents. The ability to read was exploited rather than nurtured and led along the most satisfying lines. It is not surprising that so readily accessible a mass of cheap and common food has caused the public palate to deteriorate. The flavor of poetry, in particular, was too delicate and subtle for a taste gone astray, and poets came to be looked upon, not as representative men with a communication to make that was vital to everybody, but as beings dedicated to a dalliance that was altogether outside of common life and unconnected with it.

III

I am often called a Manchester man, a Manchester novelist; but I am nothing of the sort. I was thirty years old when I went back to the city in 1919, and before that I had lived there for only a few months. After the war, I remained in the city for eleven years before leaving it forever. If that makes me a Manchester man, I am one. I like the ascription. I should not mind if it were true. It certainly is true that Manchester entered more deeply into my blood and bones than any other place I have lived in. To Manchester I took my young wife; in Manchester my sons were born and were brought up till they went away to school; in Manchester I found much happiness.

Southern people think I am joking when I say that I was happy in Manchester, that I enjoyed living there. But all this is true, even though my life there began in dreadful post-war economic conditions. I have no figures on record, but my wages were about six pounds a week. I remember paying twelve and sixpence for a kettle, and twenty-eight pounds for a secondhand Underwood typewriter. It was a wonderful machine, and after more than twenty years of heavy use it looks like seeing me through a lifetime.

These difficulties were not Manchester’s fault. Manchester was all right. More and more, as I came to know the place, I came to love it; but not till I had left it and begun to write novels about its scenes and people did even I realize how deeply it had bitten into my consciousness. To my dying day, live where I may, I shall be able to call up the nostalgic loneliness of its commercial back streets and alleys on a hot Sunday, not a soul stirring, a few cats and pigeons the only living things; the colored stir and tumult of its Whitmonday celebrations ; the raw lamplit air, full of roaring incandescent trams, into which one emerged from the Palace or the Hippodrome on a winter s night; the backwash of centuries dead and gone round that small area known as the Shambles, now, alas! smitten to extinction by the efficiency of modern barbarism.

When my call came to London I left Manchester with a salute for its gallantry in difficult years when financial bloodsuckers played the devil with its men and its machines; with thanks for a multitude of intangible gifts; with a sense of debts that cannot be repaid.

IV

Why blame the politicians? Weren’t we all to blame for the inertia, t he sloth, and the blindness that made contemptible the decades between the wars? Of course we were. We are awake now, and, looking back, most of us are amazed and ashamed, I think, at the condition into which we drifted. Lytton Strachey seems to me one of the significant figures of those twenty deadly years. Look at the celebrated portrait of him by Henry Lamb; the dry, desiccated, juiceless, cynical man whose very contact is enough to freeze all generous emotion and immobilize all noble endeavor. And we took him to our hearts! He bowled over our idols, and we applauded him. He jeered at nobility, pretending it was humbug, and we said, ‘Yes, of course it is humbug.’ Florence Nightingale, Arnold of Rugby, anyone who had opposed endeavor to sluggishness, faith to despair, was an appropriate butt of his harsh, despairing, and faithless creed. He raised the banner of negation, and we were all ready to enlist beneath it. A war had been won, or so we thought, and peace was here; and what was a man to do with peace save enjoy the plenty that proverbially accompanies it? What did it matter to us that this proverb was as cockeyed as most? The Rhondda was a long way to the west and Jarrow a long way to the north. They need not disturb us. The great thing was that here, at last, was Peace, and this time we were going to keep it.

Nothing effective was done, though throughout those years when even yet some defense might have been prepared the knowledge accumulating in government archives must have been immense and frightening. Unlike us who could only guess, they were in a position to know. All the resources of an Intelligence organization were at their finger tips; and in every European capital diplomats were observing the accelerated rush to the abyss. What was done about the diplomats’ reports? In the House of Lords on July 2 of last year the curtain was lifted a little. Diplomat after diplomat complained that his advice had been ignored. Lord Rennell of Rodd, a former Ambassador in Rome, said: ' In my long experience, there have been few occasions on which the advice given by the head of a mission has not been right. The difficulty has been to get it acted upon.

I could quote instances that would astound you of advice given by men on the spot which was entirely ignored at home, and of great difficulties and enormous expense consequently incurred.’

The journalists, the diplomats, the public speakers were not alone in raising a warning cry. Mr. George Gibson, the President of the Trades Union Congress, speaking in Manchester on August 21 last, said: ‘As far back as 1934 we received through our own channels reports of the building of underground aerodromes in Germany. We passed the information on to the Government, but I am not sure that what we did was appreciated as it might have been. In 1935 Sir Walter Citrine, the secretary of the T.U.C., on behalf of the T.U.C. General Council, made a declaration deploring the lack of resistance to Hitler. In 1936 Mr. Ernest Bevin told the T.U.C. that Hitler was not going to be defeated by mere resolutions, and the T.U.C. then undertook to meet the Government and promise support for a rearmament program. A year later the T.U.C. and the Labor Party jointly declared themselves ready to assist to raise and maintain any armed force that might be necessary to fulfil our obligations under the League of Nations Covenant.’

Never, it would seem, was the reality of a situation dinned into ears more clearly or persistently than this situation was dinned into the ears of our Government for ten years before the bolt was loosed; and all we got was complacency, evasion, lies.

V

I had always intended to write novels, but now, when I had entered into my forties, there was nothing to my credit save Darkie and Co., the book for children which I had sold outright for fifty pounds. It hardly seemed a book at all. It had been written for fun. The boys had been brought up on Kipling and Doolittle, Milne’s When We Were Very Young, The Wind in the Willows, and all that sort of thing; all good, I thought, though the teasing poor Mr. Milne received for his Christopher Robin amounted almost to persecution. It was a completely nonsensical exhibition of spite and possibly of subconscious jealousy. To read some of the things that were written about the book, one would have imagined that, in the opinion of the writers, it was every author’s business to cater for minds attuned to high philosophy and what is so absurdly called ‘new writing.’ New writing! In plain fact, it was Mr. Milne’s business — and how magnificently he understood it! — to cater for small children; and as a parent whose small sons read every word that Mr. Milne wrote in that fashion I bear this testimony to his complete understanding, and thank him for giving my children many delightful hours.

But the time came — they were such devourers of books — when the problem of finding something new and good was difficult to solve; and they said: ‘Why don’t you write us a book?’ So I wrote Darkie and Co., reading each chapter to them in bed as it was finished. I hey were the only critics who have ever caused me to alter something that I have written. They objected so strongly to a chapter in my next children’s book, Sampsons Circus, that it was completely rewritten, to the book’s gain.

When I went to London, Darkie was my only book. I had not been reviewing for long when I was impressed by the number of indifferent novels which earned for their authors if not celebrity at any rate a moderate reputation. It seemed to me that, if I did not succeed in Writing something of real worth and quality, I could anyway produce a book as good as these. So one night I began to write Shabby Tiger.

My days were very full. I could not give more than a bit of the evening to novel-writing. I arranged that dinner henceforth should be at half past six; and at eight o’clock I sat down to write till ten or eleven. It depended on how I got on. When I had written a thousand words I was finished for the night.

Never more than in the writing of Shabby Tiger did I cast myself completely upon chance. When I first sat down to it I had not one idea of what the book was to be about or what sort of people were to appear in it. I wrote an opening sentence that came out of nowhere: a sentence that seems to me now shamefully melodramatic and twopence colored: ‘The woman flamed along the road like a macaw.’

How does one write a novel, with no more material than that to begin with? Well, here at any rate is a woman, and already we have begun to give her characteristics: she is a striking, flamboyant creature. Moreover, she is on a road. Where does the road come from? —which is to say, What is her past? I began at once to see her, to know something about her. I gave her a name in my mind, and that again somehow made her clearer. Being on a road, she will meet someone if she goes far enough; so that she has a future as well as a past. The thing to do now is to go along with her and see whom she meets. When they meet, the impact of the two will have something to do with shaping this future; and what the past of the woman has been, and the past of the man she is going to meet, will perhaps have even more to do with it. So, by the end of the first evening’s writing, Anna Fitzgerald had met Nick Faunt; ‘and all you have to do,’ I said to myself, ‘is to follow these two wherever they choose to go, and when they come to the end of the journey you will have come to the end of the novel.’

Following this fashion of complete improvisation, the novel was written, and I rarely knew from day to day where the next night’s work would lead me. One thing I quickly discovered: now that I was out of Manchester, I wanted to write about Manchester, that Manchester became irresistibly the background of the book, and that it meant more to me than any other city I had known. When Nick and Anna stand in Manchester’s Piccadilly with the people rushing home from their work and the red trams tolling their bells as they crash along the steel rails, and Nick says: ‘By God, Anna, it’s a grand town to come back to. I could poison anyone who runs Manchester down’ — then Nick was speaking for me.

There was nothing about the reception of this book or my next to lead me to suppose that my third novel would be successful all over the world. When it was published in England it was called 0 Absalom! When the time came for publication in the United States, William Faulkner had just published a novel called Absalom, Absalom! and my American publishers wished to avoid a clash with this title. So they themselves, rejecting several suggestions of mine, chose the title My Son, My Son! which is simply a continuation of the Bible phrase from which my title had been taken: ‘Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ Under this new title, the book was so great a success in America that My Son, MySon! was used for all subsequent English editions, too. Most of the translations were of My Son, My Son! though the Dutch stuck to 0 Absalom! and the Germans found something quite new, Geliebte Söhne. In several countries it ran as a serial story; and the films translated it into a farce. In short, I had what I can testify is the very queer experience of finding myself, in middle age, suddenly translated from the status of wage-earner to that of a more or less independent being. I had always said that I would not rely on novel-writing for my living until I had written a novel that sold a hundred thousand copies. When last I checked the figures My Son, My Son! had sold about three quarters of a million, and it is selling still.

There was no improvisation about this book. There was something so queer about its genesis that I shall set down here just what happened. I had been to Cornwall for a holiday, and traveled home on the Cornish Riviera Express, one of the most punctual and reliable trains on the British railways. One docs not expect the Riviera Express to stop except when it is advertised to stop; but that hot day of early autumn it drew slowly to a standstill at a tiny station in Somersetshire. I was reading Mr. Maurice Hindus’s book Under Moscow Skies, which had been sent by Mr. Gollancz for review.

When the train stopped I walked out into the corridor, to see where wo were. The little station bore the name Keinton Mandeville, and I did not know then that this rustic hamlet was the improbable birthplace of Henry Irving. I still have the slip of publisher’s paper that was inside Under Moscow Skies, and it is covered with notes, partly in longhand, partly in shorthand. One of them reads: ‘At Keinton Mandeville there is a—’ (I cannot now transcribe my own shorthand word.) ‘A lot of rusting iron beast-pens. A zinc water-trough on posts over all. Here he hid in the water.’

On seeing that water-trough, the thought had come to my mind: ‘What a place for a murderer to hide in!’ Why? I don’t know; but towards the end of My Son, My Son! that is where the murderer, Oliver Essex, hides.

My thoughts, as I looked at the hazy autumn landscape, were mysteriously occupied with a problematical murderer. I see I have next noted on my piece of paper: ‘Absalom — boy in train — Rupert Brooke.’ There was a boy standing by me in the corridor, strikingly beautiful, reminding me of the portrait of Rupert Brooke that used to preface his poems. ‘Why should a murderer be physically repulsive?’ I thought. ‘How much more poignant if he were beautiful — like Absalom.’ What would be the possible stages of his disintegration? Service in the war might begin it; service with the Black and Tans might complete it. ‘Black and Tans’ is the next note on my piece of paper. Then I have written‘Essex,’ and lower down ‘Fergus.’ Fergus was changed, when the book was written, to Dermot — Dermot O’Riorden, William Essex’s friend. I suppose this Essex, the murderer’s father, occupied my mind then, for I have written: ‘Married for money.’ A shorthand note follows which I cannot decipher; then: ‘Second wife young and beautiful; and Absalom.’ Well, there was no second wife; but there was Livia — and Absalom. The notes continue: ‘First wife only a little money. Small shop-keeper or something of that sort. Then the father writes best-seller or invents something.’ As it turned out, he did both. Those are all the notes, but, with my thoughts about them, they constitute the complete skeleton of a novel that had rushed into my mind from heaven knows where. The train had stood in Keinton Mandeville station for about five minutes. I began to write the book as soon as I got home, and, working only in my spare evening hours, completed it in fourteen months.