Friday, May 1, 2015

N is for the Novel

Okay... here's one that I knew very little about before discovering it last month.  D. H. Lawrence became (in)famous for racy novels such as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Sons and Lovers, but he also wrote reams of essays on a huge range of topics.  In 1923, he wrote a scathing manifesto about the future of his craft (shades of our friend Jerry!)  titled "Surgery for the Novel -- Or a Bomb."

It was a bit hard to find information on this essay.  It has a slightly more famous cousin ("Why the Novel Matters," online here).  "Surgery" was heavily edited when it was first published in a periodical, and the original sat in a drawer for much of the 20th century.  But after seeing just a few choice quotes in various places, I knew I had to find the whole thing.  Hooray for libraries!
How do we feel about the novel? Do we bounce with joy thinking of the wonderful novelistic days ahead? Or do we grimly shake our heads and hope the wicked creature will be spared a little longer?
Is the novel on his death-bed, old sinner? Or is he just toddling round his cradle, sweet little thing?
It turns out that he wasn't a fan of the introspective, stream of consciousness style that James Joyce and Thomas Mann were pioneering at the time.  Lawrence considered that the height of childishness...
It really is childish, after a certain age, to be absorbedly self-conscious. One has to be self-conscious at seventeen: still a little self-conscious at twenty-seven; but if we are going it strong at thirty-seven, then it is a sign of arrested development, nothing else. And if is still continuing at forty-seven, it is obvious senile precocity.
Thus, this 1923 essay was essentially a manifesto for the novel to wake up, grow up already, and cut out the navel-gazing.  Interestingly, he looked to the past to find examples of "little novels" that he found worthwhile: the Gospels and Plato's dialogues.
They don't care about how it is just now, or how it was in the past.... What they want is to put a new impulse into the world.
For Lawrence, those ancient texts were a healthy blend of religion, philosophy, and STORY.  Ever since those days, he claimed, the emotional, personal engagement was leeched out of philosophy... and the deep meaning was leeched out of fictional narrative.  Put 'em back together, he says!
The novel has got a future. Its future is to take the place of gospels, philosophies, and the present-day novel as we know it. It's got to have the courage to tackle new propositions without using abstractions; it's got to present us with new, really new feelings, a whole new line of emotion, which will get us out of the old emotional rut. Instead of snivelling about what is and what has been, or inventing new sensations in the old line, it's got to break a way through, like a hole in the wall. And the public will scream and say it's sacrilege: because, of course, when you've been jammed for a long time in a tight corner, you get really used to its stuffiness.... You back away from the cold stream of fresh air as if it was killing you.
Hey, there's that blood-pumping manifesto verve.

The weird thing is that -- to me -- Lawrence seems to embrace many of the same modernist tropes that Joyce was exploring... honest reporting of sexuality, themes of exile and loneliness, and a playful syncretism of ideas made possible by 20th century travel and communication.  I think that Joyce was trying to achieve much of the same thing Lawrence describes in this essay.  But Lawrence was kind of an expressionist, and Joyce was a cubist.  :-)


  1. Ironic, as I find something so beautifully unselfconscious about those who are 12.

    1. They're also pretty good at putting new impulses into the world.

      (And here I am, right in the midst of DH's definition of senile precocity...)