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“The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918” and “The Windsor Faction”

It’s been D. J. Taylor week here. I expect that something like 0% of you (rounding to the nearest percentage point) have heard of D. J. Taylor, and that’s ok. He’s an English literary critic. Several years ago I picked up a copy of his book, A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Then last week I bought The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918, and read most of it on the plane back from London. It’s been a long time since I’ve put my work aside and just relaxed and read like this, and I hadn’t remembered how long it can take to read a book. 7 hours on the plane and I still wasn’t quite done. I’d also picked up a copy of Taylor’s most recent novel, The Windsor Faction, and reading it has been a revealing experience too. I don’t always want to read a novel by a literary critic, but the novel was ok and it also gave me insight into the criticism.

All of this is a pretty obscure hobby so most of you can just stop reading at this point. I have no statistical insights coming. And, just to be clear, I don’t there’s anything particularly special or admirable about enjoying literary journalism; it just happens to be an interest of mine. If you don’t care about the topic, again, you can skip reading, just as Shravan skips the baseball posts and other people skip anything on politics.

I hate to even have to say all this but there’s so much reverse snobbery out there that I feel like I have to apologize for writing about literary journalism.

The Prose Factory

Anyway, I enjoyed Taylor’s book of literary history, but there was something a bit, umm, off about it. I wasn’t quite sure what it was about. I understood that it’s not primarily a work of literary criticism, so there’s not so much discussion of individual stories or novels or nonfiction prose. It’s more about what it was like to be a writer or critic during this period. But there’s next to nothing about large classes of professional prose writers, including writers of genre fiction (no Agatha Christie or John Le Carre, also nothing on the many less-successful writers in their fields), plain old newspaper writers, playwrights, etc. Nothing on Michael Frayn, for example, who did various of these things. Next to nothing on writers of popular or scholarly books on history. That’s fine—the topics Taylor does write on are mostly interesting—I’d just’ve appreciated some discussion of what he felt the book was really about, along with some consideration of all the prose he’d decided not to write about.

I did a quick search and found this review by Stefan Collini that covers Taylor’s book well. So if you’re interested I suggest you start with Collini’s review.

Also Terry Eagleton wrote this review which I really hated. Actually much of Eagleton’s review is excellent: he knows a lot and has all sorts of interesting thoughts and reflections. Actually, I recommend you read it. But it still irritated me because it seemed to be all about taking sides. Eagleton kept picking fights from nowhere. For example:

The Bloomsbury group, he [Taylor] admits, were a jealously exclusive elite, but so what? ‘It was their club: why should they be expected to let non-members through the door?’ he protests. Does this extend to banning Jews from golf clubs?

Where did that come from?

Or this:

Lord David Cecil’s ‘gentlemanly and rather old-fashioned scholarship’ is duly noted, but ‘this is not to disparage Lord David’s accomplishments, either as critic or biographer.’ Why not?

Why not? It’s right here, dude! Taylor’s very next phrase: “his life of Max Beerbohm (1964) is still the standard account.”

That’s good enough for me: if you write a book of biography and criticism that is still the standard account—over fifty years later!—that’s an accomplishment. At the end of this sentence, Taylor characterizes Cecil as “at best backward-looing and at worst deeply reactionary.”

As I said, Eagleton has a lot of interesting things to say. I just am so sick of his attitude: he hates this David Cecil so much that he can’t accept that maybe the guy wrote a good book once!

The Windsor Faction

The Windsor Faction is Taylor’s most recent novel. I enjoyed it. The plot was fine, the characters were . . . well, they were ok. They didn’t really come alive, I don’t think they had any agency. Where the book really stood out was in its atmosphere. It took place in London in 1939-1940 and it seemed so real, much more so than in many other historical novels I’ve read. Not just the scenery and decor, also the way the characters wrote and talked, how they used their language. Here I can really see the influence of Taylor’s immersion in the English literature and journalism of that period.

(Just to interject: I recently read Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe. Now he’s a real writer. It’s fine for craftsmen such as Taylor to write fiction—if nothing else, it’s gotta make him a better critic—but it’s good to be reminded by reading Coe what a real novelist can do. I assume (hope) Taylor would agree with me on this one.)

Anyway, to return to The Windsor Faction . . . Lots of other influences too: There was a certain clever trick that Taylor described in his nonfiction book, something that this novelist from the 1920s or 30s did—I can’t remember the name of the author or his books—this author would describe certain actions occurring in the background of the scene which would subtly and humorously advance the plot, a sort of cinematic trick. Anyway, Taylor does this in his own novel. It works fine but it was a bit disconcerting to know exactly where it came from. Also the book had lots of observation of social class that would fit in with Orwell’s writing. Taylor doesn’t quite have the bucket-of-water-falling-on-the-hapless-hero’s-head style of Orwell or Jonathan Coe, but the early scene of the guy working in the junk shop and ripping off his boss had a bit of that Aspidistra feeling. There were also some scenes that mix broad comedy with deep discomfort—in particular I’m thinking of a scene of an awkward party where one of the guests simultaneously attempts suicide and floods the bathroom—that remind me very much of Kingsley Amis, another favorite subject of Taylor. And, finally, in its general air of foreboding, the entire book could be taken as a gloss on the unforgettable final three paragraphs of Homage to Catalonia.

And I think Taylor would have no problem at all with us closing out this review with those paragraphs from Orwell’s classic:

I think we stayed three days in Banyuls. It was a strangely restless time. In this quiet fishing-town, remote from bombs, machine-guns, food-queues, propaganda, and intrigue, we ought to have felt profoundly relieved and thankful. We felt nothing of the kind. The things we had seen in Spain did not recede and fall into proportion now that we were away from them; instead they rushed back upon us and were far more vivid than before. We thought, talked, dreamed incessantly of Spain. For months past we had been telling ourselves that ‘when we get out of Spain’ we would go somewhere beside the Mediterranean and be quiet for a little while and perhaps do a little fishing, but now that we were here it was merely a bore and a disappointment. It was chilly weather, a persistent wind blew off the sea, the water was dull and choppy, round the harbour’s edge a scum of ashes, corks, and fish-guts bobbed against the stones. It sounds like lunacy, but the thing that both of us wanted was to be back in Spain. Though it could have done no good to anybody, might indeed have done serious harm, both of us wished that we had stayed to be imprisoned along with the others. I suppose I have failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain meant to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing: the smell of the trenches, the mountain dawns stretching away into inconceivable distances, the frosty crackle of bullets, the roar and glare of bombs; the clear cold light of the Barcelona mornings, and the stamp of boots in the barrack yard, back in December when people still believed in the revolution; and the food-queues and the red and black flags and the faces of Spanish militiamen; above all the faces of militiamen—men whom I knew in the line and who are now scattered Lord knows where, some killed in battle, some maimed, some in prison—most of them, I hope, still safe and sound. Good luck to them all; I hope they win their war and drive all the foreigners out of Spain, Germans, Russians, and Italians alike. This war, in which I played so ineffectual a part, has left me with memories that are mostly evil, and yet I do not wish that I had missed it. When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings. And I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

Because of the feeling that we ought to be doing something, though actually there was nothing we could do, we left Banyuls earlier than we had intended. With every mile that you went northward France grew greener and softer. Away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm. When I had passed through Paris on my way to Spain it had seemed to me decayed and gloomy, very different from the Paris I had known eight years earlier, when living was cheap and Hitler was not heard of. Half the cafés I used to know were shut for lack of custom, and everyone was obsessed with the high cost of living and the fear of war. Now, after poor Spain, even Paris seemed gay and prosperous. And the Exhibition was in full swing, though we managed to avoid visiting it.

And then England—southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

THE END

14 Comments

  1. We are the <0.5 percent! I say "we" not to be royal or anything but to acknowledge that I am not the only one reading this post with enjoyment and interest. (I say that with over 95% confidence, so it's true.)

    I have not read Taylor, but there are certain critics I particularly enjoy. Recently one of these has been Virginia Woolf, whose comments on second-rate literature may be pertinent here.

    In "How Should One Read a Book?" she writes:

    "Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase? How delightful to stop reading and look out! How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan. The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished."

    But then she points to the main defect of such literature (related, I think, to your point about agency):

    "But we tire of rubbish-reading in the long run. We tire of searching for what is needed to complete the half-truth which is all that the Wilkinsons, the Bunburys, and the Maria Allens are able to offer us. They had not the artist’s power of mastering and eliminating; they could not tell the whole truth even about their own lives; they have disfigured the story that might have been so shapely. Facts are all that they can offer us, and facts are a very inferior form of fiction. Thus the desire grows upon us to have done with half-statements and approximations; to cease from searching out the minute shades of human character, to enjoy the greater abstractness, the purer truth of fiction. Thus we create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry; and that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it."

    I do not mean to imply that Taylor's fiction is "rubbish"–I have no basis for saying anything about it at all–but Woolf here implies that even rubbish is often quite good. What it lacks, though, is that "power of mastering and eliminating."

    Speaking of which, I consider Julio Cortazar's story "End of the Game" a work of brilliance, precisely on these terms (and others). I mention it because I have been thinking and writing about it over the past few days, and have read and reread it over many years.

  2. L says:

    What makes it reverse snobbery?

  3. Kyle C says:

    For readers who enjoy both British literary fiction of the 20th century and the “cinematic trick” Andrew mentions, I highly recommend the first three volumes (nine “books”) of Anthony Powell’s 12-book “A Dance to the Music of Time.” It is a story of upper-class Britons in which, except for an interlude about the Army in WWII, most of the narration is about dinner parties, weekend vacations, evenings at the theater, weddings, funerals, and other social life, while almost all of the key events happen “offstage.”

    I can’t recommend the last volume because at that point the narration reaches the 1960s and 1970s, and Powell’s stuffy Tory conservatism begins to deform it, so that the nastiest characters get ridiculous comeuppances only after improbably becoming leftists and an old Tory man’s version of “hippies.” Christopher Hitchens wrote this excellent review, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1998/05/28/powells-way/ but I recommend reading only the first few paragraphs of the review before jumping into the first volume.

    • Kyle C says:

      By the way, according to Hitchens, “Powell knew Orwell, shared his interest in Bohemia and Fitzrovia (and his contempt for Bloomsbury), and often discussed arcane ideological and sectarian matters with him. In his Journals, Powell, a supporter of Franco, claims to have elicited from Orwell the admission that even the victory of the Generalissimo would have been preferable to a triumph of the Spanish Communists. Yet there is no character remotely corresponding to Orwell in the twelve novels…. Virtually every… political radical is represented throughout as either a knave or a fraud or a crook.”

  4. Carol says:

    Andrew, you’ve missed your calling — you’d have made a great salesman. I just ordered THE WINDSOR FACTION.

  5. Malcolm says:

    I worked in a bookshop when I was an undergraduate and picked up a remaindered copy of “A Vain Conceit”. It did a fine job of fanning my prejudice against English writing fullstop (Pynchon was my big fave at the time). I should pick it up and re-read, because I suspect that wasn’t Taylor’s intention.

    I was happy to reject contemporary English writing on the basis of “The Rachel Papers” and I don’t think I’ve read anything of that vintage since. But now that I’ve worked my way happily through Huxley, Waugh, Orwell and Iris Murdoch, it might be time. Anyone care to suggest where I should start?

    • Difficult to say…. I’m fond of Will Self, but I don’t know whether his work would appeal to you. It’s wickedly funny, imaginative, and grotesque. I would start with his story collection “The Quantity Theory of Insanity.” The title story begins,

      “Denver, Colorado

      A depressing day here at the special interdisciplinary conference. I suppose that as the author of the theory that has generated so much academic activity I should feel a certain proprietorial glee at the sight of hundreds of psychologists, sociologists, social scientists and other less mainstream academics running hither and thither, talking, disputing, gesturing, debating and conferring. Instead I feel only depressed and alienated from the great industry of thought I myself have engineered. And added to that I think the low quality of the celluloid they’ve used for the name badges betrays the fact that the department simply hasn’t allocated a big enough budget.”

      Incidentally, “Will Self” is not a nom de plume; it’s his real name: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34423194

  6. Malcolm says:

    Gosh, now I see that “The Rachel Papers” was published in ’73. The 80s paperback edition had me fooled.

    And I’m forgetting that I’ve read several Julian Barnes (love it) and Ian McEwans (not so much — perhaps he’s too middlebrow?).

  7. Malcolm says:

    Thanks! I will move Will Self up the list. Also been meaning to read some A. S. Byatt for ages.

    It strikes me now as rather silly how I went through a process of elimination to arrive at the “English” writers. Why should it be interesting to focus on the shared characteristics of authors who happen to be English-born, writing about English things? Or is there some better way to define an “English” strain in late C20th literature?

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