It seems necessary to say at the outset that I find the English novel a problematic entity, difficult to be properly sensible about. The language now is so much larger than the culture, and somewhere between them is the literature: the sphere of influence–that sense of being at the centre–seems always to be shrinking. It shrinks but, importantly, hardly disappears: it is not a new centre but new centres which emerge. Wells saw this, and in the War of the Worlds, the martians, in a brilliant depiction of our smug, arrogant provincialism, do not invade London; they invade the home countries. And although Wells wanted his readers to see themselves dwarfed by this interplanetary point-of-view, colonized, naturally he also felt that suburban life in the home countries was the cosy plateau of human achievement. You were, there, at the centre of things, even for a hungry martian.
English writers are potentially experts in some of the great formal problems of contemporary fiction: the problem of removing yourself from, or confessing yourself at, the centre; the problem of the microcosm that no longer necessarily implies a macrocosm, but proclaims its own marginality. I say ‘potentially’, because adopting the alien viewpoint, seeing yourself in the long perspective, goes against the grain (Wells doesn’t strike one as a fair example). John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman identified the capacity to stand outside as one of Hardy’s most prophetic achievements: in pasticheing his famous narrative awkwardness (‘a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong probabilities about…’). Fowles was claiming kin, and acknowledging that a contemporary English novelist is standing on an island that has something uncomfortably in common with Wessex.
Explicitness on the matter, however, is still uncharacteristic. John Bayley in his Essay on Hardy, in defence of the implicit, found The French Lieutenant’s Woman vulgar and exploitative. This isn’t as much of a digression as it may seem: Iris Murdoch, married to Professor Bayley, remains the grandest and most teasing exemplar of continuity with what for brevity’s sake I’ll call the pre-martian past. She is an awesome shamateur, who uses or abuses or ignores the prestigious techniques of alienation (Beckett and Queneau were amongst her early mentors) with a gusto and fine carelessness that make self-doubt seem small minded. Worries about ‘where next’ recede when you produce a novel (almost) every year; her answer to such questions is as triumphantly and infuriatingly pragmatic as Dr Johnson kicking his famously unphilosophic stone, and indeed the inventiveness of her fiction and its deliberate impurity are buttressed by her conviction–reiterated in her book on Plato, The Fire and the Sun–that art is at best second-best. She is, as I want to argue English writers have tended to become, an allegorizer, a speculator, deeply aware of the bad faith involved in seeing yourself at the centre of things. But her fantasy monsters (The Sea, The Sea), her UFOs (The Nice and the Good), her aliens (Luca in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine) are never allowed to take over. She may, in the Plato book, contemplate almost enviously cultures that eschew complex and illusionist fictions, but she shamelessly relishes not belonging to one. Her doubts serve her: that her characters are all sustaining a more-or-less theatrical sense of their own importance must seem to her, I think, merely ‘natural’, the result of being cumbered with the particular set and wardrobe they were born into.