The Adventurers, by Margot Heinemann:
Lawrence and Wishart. 15s.
nearly three years ago, in ULR 4, Raymond Williams wrote about the breakdown in the tradition of the realistic novel.
“There is a kind of novel which in fact creates and judges the quality of a whole way of living in terms of the qualities of persons. The balance involved in this achievement is perhaps the most important thing about it. . . . Neither element, neither the society nor the individual, is there as a priority. The society is not a background against which the personal relationships are studied, nor are the individuals merely illustrations of aspects of the way of life.”
This tradition, he argued, has split into two streams, “social” and “personal”: “each lacks a dimension, for the way of life is neither aggregation nor unit, but a whole indivisible process.”
Now, with The Adventurers, Margot Heinemann has written a realistic novel. Judged beside the examples quoted by Williams—War and Peace, Middlemarch, The Rainbow—it has plenty of weaknesses; but strength, too, in comparison with other post-war novels. It breaks away from the fashionable influence of the picaresque, which has sometimes looked like the start of a return to the realistic novel. The contrast shows that the tendency of the picaresque is not unity, but division: the observer-hero, without stake o responsibility in society, the inconsequential action, the ironic humour—part of the hero’s vision—which is both criticism and withdrawal.
Miss Heinemann has written a novel of involvement, set in the world of post-war Labour and Union politics. Any weakness in conception isn’t in the relationship between background and character, but between one character and another. The central characters aren’t brought forward from the others rounded out so that they don’t always feel like fully created human beings, at once subjective and objective. A major character ought to seem capable here and there of changing his mind, choosing another course of action. Miss Heinemann doesn’t always give hers the option. She has seen the danger lying in wait for the political novelist, of taking sides, of loving or hating her characters. Her great virtue as a writer is a kind of lucid insight: she can always understand, often forgives, but she never, never gets involved. One of the results, in such a big novel, is a curious same-ness of focus. To borrow a metaphor from films, she has taken it all in longshot: too many tiny figures in the middle-distance, against a detailed background of mines, terrace houses, party conferences and industrial journalism.