[Editor: This article by P. I. O’Leary was published in The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 30 May 1929.]
Whither? A note on the novel
Thoreau can be read for his manner. He can be read for his matter. He can be read for both. That is how I read him — for both. I am not by nature a back to nature-ist in the Thoreauesque sense. However, I agree with much of what he wrote. I also disagree with much of what he wrote, though I write myself down as an admirer of his excellent prose, which is a sinewy, direct, and often beautiful instrument of expression. One of the things upon which I do not share Thoreau’s view is his claim that one is allowed to slander one’s own time; a claim upon which he censurably acts, by belittling the moderns and glorifying the Elizabethans, who are not quite in need of glorification.
I do not think it is the duty of criticism to slander one’s own time or any time. Its duty is rather to seek out the valuable, the true, and the beautiful in all times. It is most difficult to understand with complete sympathy the age in which one lives, the age which has not had time to join the ages, as it were, has not been subjected to the selective and eliminating process of the years, to the judgments, mostly silent, of the tens of thousands of readers.
Is there in Lamb or Hazlitt or any other man of a century ago a direct, inclusive statement of what we now know to be true — that they were living in the midst of the second greatest age of English literature? I have not read any such statement by that combination, which, with apologies to Mr. Bernard Shaw and to two other respectable writers of English, I might call the Hazlamb. There are many passages which proclaim the beauty of this and that contemporary poet, but no estimate of the period as a whole. What presses too closely to our eyes is blurred and blinding.
If we try to estimate the literature of our day, and trace out some of its tendencies, endeavour to gauge its drift, and plumb each pool (or sea) over which it adventures, we should always remember that we are attempting something that cannot, perhaps, be adequately done until after we are dead. We may make, with all supposed knowingness, our selections and choices. Posterity will most likely honour with its bays some writer who is just around the corner, of whose existence we are unaware or whose merits we fail to appreciate. And we may be sure that the same wise judge, posterity, will have forgotten many whose literary achievements are the talk of the hour, or whose promise we hail with such confidence and supposed discernment. The real entertaining and instructive work of classifying, grouping, mapping out influences and charting the currents in which our contemporaries are sailing must be left to our grandchildren.
With no intention of slandering my day, and with no hope of arriving at a satisfactory generalisation upon the lasting quality of present-day literature, I am moved to say a word or so concerning some aspects of fiction as our writers contrive it to-day. The reaction from the homely romance of the Victorian period, as exemplified by the novels of Dickens, has reached a stage of decline, when one may be pardoned for taking stock of the situation and attempting some brief estimate of the gain or loss to the readers of fiction.
A rough analogy.
The reaction of which I write was, broadly speaking, against the presentation in leisurely fashion of only selected scenes, characters, and incidents, as typical pictures of humanity — against what were alleged to be half-truths only, as regards mankind and the activities of mankind, on behalf of the conventional novel reader. The art which these writers had practised to such perfection of eliminating what was not really necessary to their stories became a neglect of literary craftmanship, and was superseded by the methods of the so-called realistic and psychological schools of fiction, with their not mildly expressed claims to present life as it really is.
An analogy — it is, I admit, not a perfect one — may be drawn, in this connection, between novel writing and pictorial graphics. Victorian fiction may be likened to the selective features of the painter; more recent fiction to the embracing picture of the photographer. This is, as I say, a rough analogy, for it cannot be seriously contended that the difference in artistic quality between the painting and the photograph represents the pure literary superiority of the Victorians as compared to the Georgians — for in technical skill and in the art of words, the latter are, I think, greatly advanced.
A Truer “Actuality.”
There is, of course, much to be said for the “camera” method on paper or canvas. It may be a triumph of artistic skill. It may be mentally and even morally stimulating. It can, good or bad, be very interesting. But as mere art, at its best, it is no improvement on the best of the methods of the old school. Romance, so far as novel-writing is concerned, is not necessarily — as the term is so commonly misunderstood to apply — is not necessarily the reverse or the dimming of actuality. In its true and best form, whether it deals with life in the past or the present day, it is the exercise of the imaginative faculties on a basis of actuality. It adds an entertaining glamour to the story without obscuring the truth, and undoubtedly gains in charm what it may lose in strict and drab reality.
In any case the Victorians, and other novelists — for we have romantic novelists to-day, and “realistic” novelists too, whose works are artistically true and attractive — picture the salient features of nature and humanity, not in the raw state as they presented themselves to their observing faculties, but toned down by their selective judgment towards the definite end of securing the sympathy and interest of their readers. Later schools, at their worst, foul and pornographic as they are, have without restraint or artistic scruple thrown before their readers revolting pictures of the repellant — this, often with great power and force.
What school will prevail?
No school of modern fiction is more deceptive than the school of so-called “realism.” The morbidity and the unhealthy influence of one of its arch-exponents, Zola, are still to be observed in some of our present-day writers; though its palpable falsity to life leaves it little, or claim to be regarded as literary art.
The vogue of the psychological novel has proved more tenacious than the “realistic” novel. It is largely exploited in present-day fiction by many writers whose powers of analysing human motives are greater than their ability to tell a story. Even their examination of human motives is, as a rule, curiously one-sided. All those modifying influences of personality which are a redeeming feature of even the worst communities are almost, if not quite, ignored, with the result that the atmosphere created is such as does not exist, and could not exist, in actual life, outside a hospital or a lunatic asylum. Even when the aim is not so morbid, the methods by which it achieves its literary effectiveness is generally cheap and worthless.
Another aspect of novel-writing to-day is that the average novel possesses a low measure of energy. Our writers appear to want wind and gusto. They are poorly supplied with enthusiasm and vigour. They have great qualities and, technically, as I have already observed, are well equipped. But they appear to lack joy and ecstasy in their drab work. They are sophisticated, often brilliant, if wrong-headed, and not seldom, curiously arresting. But they are slow-pulsed and grey, and with depressing tendencies.
What school — the realistic, the psychological, the romantic or any other — will dominate the novel of the near future? Frankly, I do not know. At the present every form and every subject, good, bad, and indifferent, is being exploited in a bewildering output. Unfortunately — but let me not slander my age.
— P.I. O’L.
The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 30 May 1929, p. 3
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]