SHOULD NOVELS ARGUE?
MARY McCARTHY'S new book transcribes the Northcliffe Lectures she gave some months ago at University College, London. Her main argument is that the classic novel in the 19th century grew up and grew strong upon ideas and arguments provoked by public issues, politics, religion - the questions of Free Trade, Empire, women, Reform and so forth. It was assumed that a serious novel would deal with such questions in their bearing upon the themes of power, money, sex and class. The novelist's relation to his readers was sustained by a shared assumption that these matters constituted reality. Miss McCarthy believes that this assumption was undermined by Henry James, and that James's sense of the novel has dominated the general understanding of fiction from that day to this. She argues that in the typical Jamesian fiction ideas, concepts and public issues are mostly replaced by images, hints, guesses, sensations, nuances of sensibility. James's characters, she says, are mostly interested in themselves and in one another, not in anything as external as Free Trade. They visit art galleries, but they never argue about the pictures they have seen.
According to Miss McCarthy, the damage James did in practice was given currency and respectability by T.S. Eliot's theories: It was Eliot who praised James for having ''a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.'' Eliot's influence was such that readers started thinking that ideas are crude things, good enough for journalism but not for a work of art. The serious novelist in our own day, Miss McCarthy argues, is discouraged from dealing with ideas or from making debate and argument an important part of his fiction. A few Jewish novelists, including Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, have demanded the right ''to juggle ideas in full view of the public,'' but this right ''is never conceded to us goys.''
Miss McCarthy's thesis is not convincing. James did not banish ideas from the novel. His novels ''The Bostonians,'' ''The Princess Casamassima'' and several other of his fictions are full of ideas and relentless in debating them. It is true that James was never content merely to represent an argument as if its interest consisted solely in the nature of the ideas deployed; he always insisted that ideas are vivid when they become motives in the person who holds them and lives by them. His interest in ideas was not in their intrinsic quality, but in the part they played in the imagined lives of his characters. Miss McCarthy finds it odd that in James's ''The Spoils of Poynton'' we are not told in any detail what the furniture is like or why it is valuable, although the entire novel turns upon a quarrel over its possession. This seems to me beside the point: What divides the several characters is not the market value of Poynton and its furnishings but their different relations to these things, differences of taste and appreciation.
But even if it could be shown that James tried to disqualify ideas as constituents of the novel, it would still be clear that he failed. Miss McCarthy thinks that he closed off some of the most vital possibilities of fiction by excluding ideas; but in fact James did not prevent Proust, Joyce, Mann, Lawrence or Forster from writing novels in which ideas and the arguments they provoke are important matters. Miss McCarthy tries to enforce some distinction between ''the novel of ideas'' and ''the novel of images.'' The distinction is unreal. There is no such thing as ''the novel of images,'' for it is impossible to sustain a narrative simply by moving from one image to another - and Miss McCarthy produces no examples as proof. Such categories have more to do with theory than with actual novels, but there is some merit in countering Miss McCarthy's argument by noting that ideas and arguments are incorporated with little or no fuss in many contemporary novels. Think of novels by Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, Solzhenitsyn, Mailer, Styron, Updike, Pynchon, V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch. Indeed, the more one thinks of Miss McCarthy's thesis, the more bizarre it appears; almost as weird as that extraordinary remark about Jews and goys. Who are those readers who have denied to gentile novelists the argumentative rights given to their Jewish colleagues?
But even if the proposed distinction between the novel of ideas and the novel of images is unreal, it is still useful to Miss McCarthy if she is mainly interested in defending the kind of fiction she has written. I think whatever verve ''Ideas and the Novel'' has arises mostly from that consideration. As an account of the 19th-century novel, or even of the presence of ideas in it, the book is not persuasive. Miss McCarthy has some fine things to say about ''Les Miserables,'' especially about Jean Valjean's conscience as a dialogue. But her exposition of the larger subject is fragmentary and eccentric. The book becomes interesting not in its bearing upon the official theme, but in its relation to Miss McCarthy's own fiction, especially to ''A Charmed Life'' and ''The Company She Keeps.'' Her later fiction has received a pretty cool response. Is it the case that it has been ill-received precisely because it is, according to Miss McCarthy's enforced distinction, fiction of ideas?
Miss McCarthy's 1973 novel ''Birds of America'' began with a quoted epigraph: ''To attempt to embody the Idea in an example, as one might embody the wise man in a novel, is unseemly. ...''
I don't recognize the quotation; but no matter. ''Birds of America'' made yet another attempt to embody an Idea, and to show ideas in circulation, like Miss McCarthy's Peter rattling around Europe, a few chapters in Paris, a few in Rome, wherever he can find people willing to argue about democracy, Communism, the C.I.A., the Sistine Chapel or Hanoi. This is the kind of fiction Miss McCarthy likes to write and many people, evidently, like to read. Where then is the problem?
I think it is to be located in Miss McCarthy, and not elsewhere. She seems to feel that seriously-minded critics of the novel have taken James and Eliot at their word and have conspired to put a low value upon the novel of ideas. She believes, however, that civilization will be saved, if saved at all, only by the force of ideas. This belief was more widespread in the years immediately after World War II than it is today. Such writers as Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv and Miss McCarthy believed that the novel was one of the best means of showing how contingency may be converted into thought, and thought into action. The problem was to distinguish between good thought and bad thought, good ideas and bad ideas; and then to make the good prevail. ''Ideas and the Novel'' issues from the same context of feeling. Miss McCarthy's implication is that ideas are having a hard time and that, so long as this state of affairs persists, civilization can't be saved.
But the case is not as simple as that. Miss McCarthy distinguishes between good ideas and bad, but she does not admit that even a good and true idea may go stale and die. Or rather, she has forgotten the fact. In her essay on Flaubert's ''Madame Bovary,'' reprinted in ''The Writing on the Wall,'' she noted that for Flaubert ''all ideas become trite as soon as somebody expresses them,'' and that this applies ''indifferently to good ideas and bad.'' An idea may begin full of life and spirit but by repetition it is delivered into a dictionary of idees re,cues, as Miss McCarthy noted, ''borrowed ideas and stock sentiments which circulate tritely among the population.'' It is curious that Miss McCarthy accepted the dismal fate of ideas when she wrote about Flaubert, but now, writing from other needs, has persuaded herself that it may be ignored or transcended. She still thinks of ideas as valued objects, social treasures currently held in low repute: She assumes that the mind has a privileged relation to ideas and that it cannot survive without that relation. These assumptions remain, however, unexamined. ''Ideas and the Novel'' takes its own ideas on faith and is consequently diminished.
Denis Donoghue is the Henry James Professor of Letters at New York University. His new book, ''Ferocious Alphabets,'' will appear this winter.
|MM & VS West|