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The Novel Dedicate

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

In the prosecution of any wholly rigorous Five-Year Plan, no one will be more likely to give trouble than the Comrade Novelist. All would be well if he could but content himself as alert chronicler, discreet amateur philosopher, serviceable propagandist, mild closet dramatist, engaging impressionist, and whatever else he used to be a generation or so ago. At his desk in a wing of the paper factory, he should scribble busily the prescribed hours, turn out his chapter a fortnight, and rejoice that, by hard work and decent humility, he could have sound boots to his feet and only a bit less good black bread than the adjacent Comrade Typographers. Unfortunately this cannot be. One after another the very best of the Comrade Novelists will begin offering Comrade Censor quite useless stuff, and will end, one day, by refusing to punch the time-clock, and, forgetful of soul-warming cabbage soup and cozy, comrade-crammed lodgings, will off with the banned, hounded, hunted, and raggle-taggle poets, O. And as those who try to remain faithful gain proficiency, their work will ever be revealing to an alarmed and exacerbated commonalty traces of that un-usualness which can only be called poetic. The symptom of distemper will be an inclination to wring from facts not merely an easily comprehended significance but an essence, a quintessence, an ineffability, an experience that apparently cannot be fully comprehended save at the moment it occurs, hence can never be formally defined, the limitations of the human mind being what they are.

Happily, this phenomenon may be viewed with more sympathy than is permitted a Comrade Alarmist. It is a portent quite evident, of course, in the less conservative novels of our day; but even there it may be obscured, occasionally, when one becomes as a little child and falls a-babbling and a-burbling, or runs naked with grim innocency, or philologi-cally constructs a new language, or becomes viscerally atavistic or sophisticated beyond all emotion, or brings grotesquely the unconscious to consciousness, or talks as one asleep and drifts from night dreams to day dreams and fantasy. Some of this has been mere cavorting and needful unstoppering of things too long corked up. In part, however, it is a gallant attempt to carry by storm the citadel of ineffability.

As exponent and exemplar of this, Virginia Woolf at once comes to mind. By her true predecessors and her kindred but less discerning contemporaries, the urge to follow the road she has taken has been indirectly voiced in the familiar complaints about the primitive understanding of human nature possessed by the elder novelists, about reticence, about inadequate technique, and about the age-old, pious belief that great writing could be done only in metrical verse and that the novel must therefore remain second-rate. Almost while these impediments were being named they were dashed aside by the New Psychology, the New Poetry, and the Age of Shamelessness. There came, then, a sharper sense of the dynamic and energizing values in literature evinced by a mode of referring not so much to the something done by Shakespeare or Shelley as to the something done through them, whereby issued a device capable of transmitting at least a measure of the activity latent within it. But that Something Doing could no longer be thought of merely as an understanding of life or as vicarious experience; it must be regarded as an interpenetration by a cosmic and protean force of which we are more percipient when it takes the guise of truth and beauty and high benevolence than when it assumes the disguise of falsity, ugliness, and cruelty.

To achieve this dynamism, direct and rather violent action commends itself. If there are unicorns to capture, make nets from a steel-strong, fire-new alloy of silver, and go forth at midnight to the very pools along whose margins and nowhere else have been heard the neighing and the trampling of dim proud-necked shapes. Granted the ineffability of the deeper values in literature, why not cease trying to make them explicit, yet, at the same time strive for them more directly than ever before, using strange, half-master implements, adopting, perhaps, the tongue of incomprehensibility itself as most native to the thing desired—hoping always for a miraculous flashing-forth of clairvoyance?

It is a brave attempt and much has come of it. Yet there are dangers, some of them insidious. The hunters may become so mindful of their derring-do and so entranced with their equipment that they rather forget about the unicorn; and, he being, as it were, eternally invisible, there is difficulty in knowing for sure whether you have him or have him not. Applause of novelty and ingenious experiment easily becomes applause of achievement. Retaining its true nature, however, such applause should never be withheld. Whoever has nerve for the exploit should be encouraged to balance Ossa on Pelion and cap them with spidery platforms, upon which to stand teetering with fingers stretched starward. If he make a painful exhibition of himself atop his scaffold, he should be informed of the fact with all kindness; but if he lay finger on Orion or even but feel the warmth of Betel-geuse—gloria in excelsis.

The way, then, in which we may regard our more venturesome writers is not difficult to determine; but effectively to separate admiration for a novelist’s purpose and method from appreciation of his accomplishment is never easy. It is a particularly troublesome distinction when the thing attempted and the method employed provoke something like a bit of Ossa-balancing by the critic himself. I (“we” and “you” and “the reader” no longer seeming adequate) find Willa Cather’s “Shadows on the Rock” of this sort. Like Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” it is high emprise. In both books there is an attempt to liberate the “breath and finer spirit” of what, from other hands, would have been a full-bodied novel. “The Waves” is the wraith of a fiction streaming up toward the unattainable; “Shadows on the Rock” seems to me a patient walk in the valleys with head bared, a waiting for unimaginable, silent rays of stellar energy. In this book, Willa Cather has indeed carried her “novel de-meuble” to the point where it must be regarded as dedicated. “Death Comes for the Archbishop” was something of a lingering farewell to the world of varied fictional delights; “Shadows on the Rock” is almost a complete withdrawal from all the mechanic lures, an abnegation, an exercise of high spirituality like that of the religious devotees whom the author has sympathetically depicted.

I am relying here not merely upon impression but upon Willa Cather’s abundantly declared and demonstrated sincerity and aspiration in her chosen art. From this viewpoint “Shadows on the Rock” appears rather less than great save as an aspiration. Yet that is much. One may well be but moderately stirred by the permanent artistic accomplishment in the book and yet glow with admiration of its method, of all that can underlie it, and of what might come to pass if it could be more frequently employed.

Possibly it is being applied more widely than we know. Some approach toward it may have denied publication to many a worthy and dull first novel. Perhaps it has tempted many a successful novelist, to be regretfully abandoned out of practical considerations. In truth, to employ it happily one should be a clear spirit indifferent to fame and an author assured of wide circulation for everything he produces.

Briefly, the method, in its most rigorous application, requires denial of nearly all the obvious strategems of either the conventional or unconventional novel. There must be no dramatic moments. Also that sense of some imminent change, physical or spiritual, affecting vitally people whom we wish well or ill, must be rejected or sternly minimized. There must be little of the progressive quality, the attempt to forward understanding of an intricate, many-sided theme or of complicated personality. In truth, there should be no easily phrased concept or impression of the life depicted. With like severity, all gusto in the treatment of any part or detail will be repressed. Characters will not be permitted to display themselves too engagingly. Descriptive bravura will be throttled down. There should be no conscious attempt to reveal the recondite quintessence of anything; even conventionalities of expression, figurations somewhat moribund, may be used if they come naturally and gratefully to the pen, as—”the mighty St. Lawrence, rolling northward toward the purple line of the Laurentian mountains, toward frowning Cap Tourmente which rose dark against the soft blue of the October sky.” There will remain, then, as more obvious devices, merely a gentle reiteration of properly vague master purpose and, in each element of the novel, a mildly literary exactness of specification.

All this, I know, has a rather perverse air and reads like a plea for drabness, flaccidity, and laziness. It is offered, however, as an acknowledgment of restraint and perchance of fine technique in the selection and collocation of materials. I see dimly a possible and not fully recognized development of the art of fiction—details chosen not only with reference to the major purpose but with reference to their interfluence: in short, a subtle refinement upon such devices as contrast and upon dramatic intensification; and withal a dependence upon the readily discernible and commonly felt value of materials unheightened save by the most restrained of literary phrasing. Thus, if it were the description of a market day in Old Quebec, there would be no metaphysicizing, and no agonized search for the mot juste; but there would be the utmost care as to what images lingered in the reader’s mind and what his mood when he approached the market place, and what the mental state in which he quitted it for the cathedral or the water front.

In this manner, a reader might be roused to that creative activity which we are finding more and more essential in living literature. He would not be flogged to it or shocked into it or vulgarly enticed. He would be offered familiar, easily manageable material upon which the author had done just enough work to indicate the possibilities, a fireside scene, perhaps; and straightway he might be given a characterization so sketched that the faculties stimulated by success with the fireside scene would gain values which the characterization would hardly yield if otherwise approached. Thus the reader might be made to come a progress without the aid of narrative or expository propulsion, and what might seem to one thumbing the novel casually a rather aimless and low-toned work, might prove upon careful reading quite the reverse and might end with a veritable climax in some such mild sentence as that with which Willa Cather concludes “Shadows on the Rock”: “While he was closing his shop and changing his coat to go up to his daughter’s house, he thought over much that his visitor had told him, and he believed that he was indeed fortunate to spend his old age here where nothing changed; to watch his grandsons grow up in a country where the death of the King, the probable evils of a long regency, would never touch them.”

But these references to “Shadows on the Rock” may seem to reverse my judgment upon it and to imply that it is a triumphant illustration of the technique I have outlined. I repeat that I do not think it is a triumph of execution; nor do I think it was written throughout in the manner I have designated. I do not know of any novel so written. I have been postulating. Doubtless “Shadows on the Rock” was composed merely with the determination to avoid all excess or strain and to produce only what gave pleasure to the author and seemed to her sanative and reassuring in a distracted world.

I hope, in truth, that Miss Cather put her faith in something above technique. At any rate, there is in writing of the sort she has recently done much that calls to mind Wordsworth’s “wise passivity,” his waiting, as Pater has phrased it, for “a power not altogether his own, or under his control, which comes and goes when it will” and endows him at moments “with a creative language which carries the reality of what it depicts directly to the consciousness.”

This is a critical hypothesis connected with the indisputable fact that there is something in the nature of a free force in art, an emanation from units and unities, from passages of Blake or Donne or from a novel by Thackeray, Dickens, or Dostoevski, a power serenely ascendent over triviality, sordidness, ugly barrenness, childlike prattle, supersubtle complexity, and downright maladroitness. It is perhaps most compulsive when it emerges from simplicity and therefore is not to be confused with the easily discerned and very satisfying intellectual and fabricative energies for which it is usually mistaken.

Any such attainment has but recently seemed possible in the English novel. Even yet we are not confident of what the distinctively prose novel can do. To be sure, of late years there has been talk about “allotropic” values, “distinguished reality,” and the like; but our more ambitious narratives still take poetic form, either patent as in the work of E. A. Robinson or in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body,” or covert, perhaps not apparent even to the author, as in many a novel by our recent quintessentialists and fantasiers. Whenever there appears a division into lines, it is, of course, only a typographical presentment of those concisions, ellipses, stressings, potent rhythms, and, indeed, of that veritable take-off almost with the first few phrases into rarer atmospheric levels — all of which are not alone indications of an essay at unusual intensity and noble thought but also tacit acceptance of a convention and medium of expression that must thereafter be employed until the work is finished.

The novel that, for its degree of emotive intensity, would not warrant the lineation of verse until somewhere past the middle of the book, and no part of which in isolation ever would warrant it — that might well be called the prose or true novel. It would be free to employ any well established device, first-personal introspection, narrative through an observer or through an impersonal, omniscient author; but its devices must never be obvious or strained or intense in their application, nor must its basic actualities be too vivid. Save in its total effect it must never compete with the verse narrative. It will be at its best when it treats the familiar and commonplace, not enhancing it greatly or concealing it or transforming it detail by detail but in fine effecting a miraculous transubstantiation. If it deal with romance, it will reject the glamorous and will reduce the chosen substance to a sort of acceptable commonplaceness and contemporaneity. In so far as the separable parts of this novel do have power, it will be such as now and again visited Wordsworth, such as abides, so his more ardent admirers declare, with Robert Frost and enables him to freight a single word with both a fact and its elusive significance, though he be attempting apparently nothing but simple clarity and the telling of plain truth. Where it engages us with sight and touch and sound, it will not dazzle or deafen, but will find, illumine, and set at work some secret, creative part of us that life rarely makes active except by momentary detachment from sense and outward things. But, in all, the great value will be evident only to the properly sympathetic reader when he has properly turned the last page.

And now—what of the venerable convention compelling one who writes of literature to find somewhere the complete embodiment of his dreams? I refuse to be governed by any rule so eternally detrimental. I do not know of any novel entirely such as I have described. “Shadows on the Rock” is an approach toward it; and without that charming book I could not have ventured as I have. Perhaps it comes closer to my desire than I am aware, for I have had to cross out sentences in which it seemed to me that I was falsely persuading myself and writing assuredly of excellences that for me do not exist.

No, the truth is I have erected an ideal; frankly I admit it. And it is a difficult ideal, more difficult even than that represented in the adventurous Ossa-Pelion type of narrative. Consequently, what I have called the true novel can never be abundant; but if something like it can be attempted often enough by Willa Cather and others of similar mind, realism can be given a refinement and a deepened value beyond anything yet accomplished in it. We have not reached the end of possibilities in that complex thing which came out of mingled epic, romance, drama, rogue tale, and who knows what else. It is in the novel that the artifices of artistic narrative can be reduced to the vanishing point; and in the novel there can be cleared, as it were, a spacious zone of serenity in which the spirit can move. Doubtless, as in Quaker meeting, there may be periods of waiting, in which no great thing is spoken and some of the Friends sleep sweetly and blamelessly beneath forward-tilting hat or bonnet; but now and again the Word will descend and golden speech be uttered.


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