A S Byatt

On Judging the David Higham Award

 

They said when they invited me to judge the David Higham award for first novels this year that it would not be too onerous – about 20 books, they said. There were, in fact, 37. I took the job on out of various kinds of curiosity. I thought the novels would provide an interesting survey of the state of British fiction – what kinds of things people are writing about, what forms they are using. I thought it would provide me with some insight into the state of mind of publishers faced with larger number of manuscripts most of which, even if published, will not themselves make a profit – what do they think is promising? Or more than promising? I thought I might find something new – a new kind of writing, a new subject matter. The other Higham judges this year were Walter Allen and Elizabeth Berridge: although our decision about the winning novel was genuinely and immediately unanimous, I must stress that anything else I write about the reading represents only my own inexperienced views, not theirs.

I suppose the first impression I formed was that the ‘fjrst novelists’ were a more cautious and conservative body, in general, than one might have hoped. Most of the novels were reasonably well made, but most fell into a few easily recognisable categories. Besides the thriller and science fiction, there was a category of softly, sweetly, nostalgic novels about the English past, rather like television serials. There were a cluster of spine-chillers, flirting with the gruesome or the supernatural. There were, as one would expect, several novels about the discovery of identity – Virginia Fassnidge’s Finding Out is a good title to exemplify this – and in these, competence seemed also to be promise. Then there were novels which attempted to explore larger social issues – David Hanly’s In Guilt and In Glory, which is an ambitious but somewhat wooden run at the ‘real Ireland’ and Irma Kurtz’s The Grand Dragon, which besides being a Finding Out novel also sets a Jewish Heroine against a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon to whom she is involuntarily attracted. Then there were five or six less easily categorisable novels, which were also, in my view, the best.

During the reading, one began to form criteria to separate the sheep from the goats, promise from simple self-indulgence, a live sense of form from hackneyed imitation. The ‘science fiction’ category contained, rather to my surprise, considering what the young seem to read and buy and care about, only one rather odd jokey contender – Richard Francis’s Blackpool Vanishes, a story about the ‘gobbling’ of Blackpool by a minuscule species of flying-saucer inhabitant: I enjoyed this book, which was crossed with a certain amount of stock English-comic-whimsy, but had some extraordinary scenes which were originally imagined, and a lot of real vitality.

There were more thrillers – four at least I would categorise as pure thriller, written to a genre pattern with tough male heroes, a lot of blood, and depending on narrative pace. None of them was remarkable, but reading them with the other novels made one realise just how much the life of a novel depends on the author’s capacity to judge the right length of telling for an event, or an idea, or a dialogue, or an excursus. Several of the ones that felt dead (including most of the nostalgic-British-life ones) felt dead because the writers had got the paragraphs and sentences too long or too short. This was also crucially important with the spine-chillers, the neo-Gothic, of which there were four or five, all by women, all running the normal into the supernatural and horrid. The most accomplished of these, I thought, was Margaret Tabor’s The Baker’s Daughter about a mother’s help from a Scottish island who is really a murderous owl – there were real moments of fear and vision in this, but also something unsure about the relationship between the pace of the humdrum world of London parties and divorced or widowed television men, and the swooping savage feathered things.

The ‘finding out’ novel, particularly as written by women, tended to run into the social-comic novel, and if there was any convention, as opposed to single author, which showed real vitality it was this one – the witty, wise-cracking woman toughened by disaster, the far away descendants of Spark’s black comedy, or the brave comic voice of the Dud Avocado (not to mention early Drabble). Carole Snape’s The Churching had some splendid lines, but a wholly implausible plot, tending to the Gothic (local midwife witch takes over church where vicar becomes redundant and starts selling beauty goods). She got whimsy, wit and horror hopelessly out of kilter but can write, and can imagine. Victoria Branden’s Mrs Job is an American-style female Rake’s Progress, or Victim’s Progress, and was one of the books I really enjoyed – Victoria Branden got her pace right, and if her people sometimes seem stock (woman and child and homosexual nice friend in Pantisocracy), she also invents original plot movements (lots of them, moreover – she has energy), and has a fine eye for the ludicrous and the moving. If I was a publisher I’d bet on her writing something very polished. But I’m glad I’m not a publisher, after all this unusually amorphous reading.

‘Sensitivity’ is the British vice, and a British necessity, and there was a lot of real vitality in the ‘sensitive’ explanations of single characters which are one of the likeliest themes of first novels. Florence Evans’ The Headmaster is a surprisingly competent study of a man whose parents were mad, religious and murderous: it is accurate· and again well paced. Virginia Fassnidge was heavily praised by Auberon Waugh for her study of a young girl’s sexual awakening, as she becomes involved with a self-declared wife-killer. Finding Out had its moments of precision but was, I thought, finally a bit pallid and unknowing.

Better was Desmond Hogan’s The Ikon Maker, a spare tale of an Irishwoman looking for her runaway son in hippy communes, amongst the usual paraphernalia of pot, bisexuality, promiscuity, casual politics and sex – it was very ‘sensitive’ but again, the man can write. Better still, in a strange, heavy-handed way, was Paul Breeze’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a shocker about a lead guitarist who successfully sets out to murder the thugs who maimed him in a pointless attack. This is a horrid book, but properly imagined, at least as far as guitars go. Best of all the ‘finding out’ novels was Meira Chaud’s The Gossamer Fly, an account of the terrified growing up of the daughter of a Japanese father and an English mother, who cannot stand the strain of the cultural gap. This had both ‘sensitive’ psychological urgency and the toughness provided by the Japanese background, which is done precisely, clearly and without exoticism.

None of these books was surprising: of the 37, I found five which were. T. S. Eliot once said in an essay on Blake that a true sign of genius in youth is not originality, but a powerful capacity to absorb and imitate earlier works – he was thinking of Blake’s Shakespearean Edward III. In the five novels I really liked, originality, competence, and a capacity to draw on the past traditions were inextricably interlinked. I liked Don Bannister’s Sam Chard, a Yorkshire novel about the 1930s, pits, pubs, politics, poverty – brief, colloquial, aware of Lawrence but not Lawrentian, its morals a strange mixture of simple and murky, its world recalled with what one feels to be, and admires as, a real need for clarity and understanding.

I liked also John Hutton’s 29 Herriott Street, a classic murder story which the author tells us is factually related to the Wallace murder of the early 1930s. It is set in Manchester, and its distinction is in the plain English skill of the telling – the reader’s slow discovery of the real character of the man long since hanged for his wife’s murder, self-made and intellectually ambitious, but poor: his wife and her sister, rich and inhibited, his brother-in-law who is an English gentleman. In this novel. competence reaches the point of being more than simply competence: it is order, and a real understanding of one tradition of the English novel.

V S Rushforth’s Kindergarten is not wholly competent, but it is formally one of the three most ambitious of the novels, and hasn’t, in the reviews I’ve seen, been given credit for this. It is about three boys, two adolescent and one little, in a school house in Southwold : their mother has died in a terrorist shooting at an airport: on the television terrorists are besieged in a school, threatening to kill children: one boy reads, at intervals through the book, a series of letters and postcards from desperate German Jews seeking to send their children to school in England. The letters fade into silence: the children of the 1930s disappear into Auschwitz or the unknown: and juxtaposed with this again are the Grimms’ fairy tales, seen double: the horrors children need and can take to be stable: the twist in the narrative which shows the precariousness of comfort (a version in which the witch burns and eats Hansel and Gretel). P. S. Rushforth is ‘sensitive’, too much so, since he (I believe it is a he) has strength to be more than that. One critic accused him of being ‘bourgeois’ which seems irrelevant. He is writing in several styles at once, about the precariousness of the liberal, the bourgeois, the space in which we can afford sensitivity. He is one of the few novelists in this batch to show real sense of the things that threaten the conventional reader of the conventional English tale. Compared to the blank hopelessness of those postcards, Ms Fassnidge’s wife-murderer doesn’t begin to exist.

D M Thomas is already well-known as a poet, and The Flute Player, an excellent, accomplished fantasy of poet and Eternal Woman in some vague repressive Eastern state, has already won the Guardian Fiction Prize. He too is sensitive and whimsical in bits: and starkly frightening in others: he seems to regard the novel as a form for the poet to play seriously with, which he does, weaving in the fates and words of many modern Russian poets and many others – the Mandelstams and Akhmatova, Dante, Emily Dickinson, Plath, Pushkin, Rilke and Yeats. It is romantic, original, tracing the patterns of literary decadence and commitment through repression and relaxation: his people, the only ones in all these novels, are types, not characters. He is aware of the rest of literature and has done something new with it.

The literary debt of John Harvey’s The Plate Shop seems to me single and clear: it is to Henry Green’s Living, almost the only successful English novel about the industrial process which is also written in a prose extraordinary in its aesthetic and literary complexity. The Plate Shop is about the men ·in a steel factory: unions, sacking, time and motion, asset stripping. It is simple, but its sentences and vocabulary are not: its pace is not only masterful, it is constantly surprising. Its people are real enough, but are not objects of ‘finding out’ of any psychologically searching kind: John Harvey is describing precisely things seen, known and understood, about the hardening and stiffening of the old, the mental limitations of different men, the nature of work and of men’s relations and jobs. His book is not like Living: it achieves things Living doesn’t try for: but it has learned from it, or seems to have.

All in all? All in all, someone is being too timid, authors or publishers: only a few of these books are hard to finish, only three really repelled me – but not enough were exciting, and small competence was more apparent than great ambitions. Perhaps this is a low-level version of Eliot’s aperçu about genius and originality: perhaps small competence leads in due course to ambitious achievement. It will be interesting to see.

KentState_Sept2016_online

University of Chicago Press

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