In these closing stages of our meeting, I should like to give you some of the impressions which I and the other members of the English delegation have received of the various speeches, and draw some conclusions.
In my country, in Great Britain, I am always urging English writers and critics to pay more attention to the great writers of the Continent, and to contemporary writing there. I don’t think there exists an enemy which makes more ridiculous, nor has worse effects on, English literature, than does our insularity. Yet what I have heard these last days has had a strange effect on me. Those who have spoken have tried naturally to name their examples and models among the great novelists of the past. We have often heard the names of Balzac and Tolstoy: less often, but still quite frequently, those of Stendhal and Dostoevsky. I would now like to offer you the following list of famous novelists now dead, none of whom was ever mentioned in the course of our discussions: Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Meredith, Hardy, Conrad, Henry James, Galsworthy, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence. Please forgive me for this nationalist disgression, but my intention is only to show that there is more than one form of insularity.
Until yesterday I think that most of the English delegates listened with surprise to the unfamiliar, and for us sterile, disputations, expressed in a distorted metaphysical jargon. Even Ehrenburg, who to a great extent avoided such disputation, found inspiration, like the other speakers, in the same French sources, by now almost dried up. However yesterday we heard the addresses of Tvardovsky and of Aksyonov, which were expressed in the simple direct, personal tone which we are used to: for us, it was like a breath of fresh air.
It has too often seemed as though the future of an art form as great and varied as the novel consisted necessarily either in the rigid socialist realism, which so many of our Soviet colleagues offer us, or in the almost equally rigidly limited nouveau roman of which Robbe-Grillet gives us so brilliant an example. The English certainly cannot accept so restricted a choice.
For my own part, I write in a realistic way, as do many of the most interesting of my colleagues in England today. But the interpretation which we give to the realistic form is much wider than that given by our Soviet friends. For example, I am sure that English writers would not refuse Marcel Proust the title of realist, though many Soviet writers have so vigorously labelled him as ‘decadent’. And another of
There are many English writers—and those of us who are realists appreciate and respect them—for whom realism seems inadequate for the contemporary needs of narrative literature. In this meeting they have been offered the dogmas of Robbe-Grillet; but this is an insufficient choice. For me, if I understand Robbe-Grillet correctly, the mistake in his theories lies mainly in his historical analyses. For him the bourgeois realist novel appears from nowhere with Balzac; (is there really any form of art which comes into being already mature and fully equipped in this way?). Everything which comes after this until the stirrings of revolution in Kafka and the formulation of the revolutionary manifesto by Robbe-Grillet himself, is only a tedious series of novels derived from Balzac, given the collective name of bourgeois realist novel. This seems to me an absurd schema. How can one satisfactorily group together Balzac, Flaubert, Meredith, Dostoevsky, Henry James, Selma Lagerlïf, Italo Svevo, Thomas Mann? It is as if when a child asked what a fox, a sow, a monkey, or a kangaroo was, we answered that they are mammals. This category exists, but gives us no information.
No, the past of the novel has been diverse and so will be its future. I should like to end by outlining some of the various paths which contemporary English novelists are exploring. There are young realists like Sillitoe and Barstow who study the habits and the life of the working class; there are working class novelists like Storey, who are carrying on the vital tradition of D. H. Lawrence; there is Iris Murdoch, who explores the relations between the novel and theatre; there is my colleague here, William Golding, whose allegories are to my mind among the most important novels to have come out since the war anywhere in the world; then we have studies which mingle realism and fantasy, as in my own last novel, The Old Men at the Zoo; studies of dialogue as the only means of writing novels, in Henry Green and Ivy Compton Burnett; the picaresque novels of Kinsley Amis and John Wain; Graham Greene has explored every important aspect of the adventure novel; C. P. Snow has shown what depths can be found in the form of the detective story; Muriel Spark has used fantasy as a means of social satire. And this is only a partial and impromptu selection. The fact is that the English novel today, whatever its faults, shows a great variety of forms. The novel, we have all agreed, reflects human life, and its strength must therefore lie in the variety of the individual visions which are at its origin.