The English novel is often thought to be realistic because it is about class: how Clarissa and Elizabeth Bennet find their ways to marriages beyond their station; how Pip, within the infinitely complicated world of High Victorian occupations and family lives, as those are so meticulously observed by Charles Dickens, will become a middle level bureaucrat even though he also had the Romantic ambition of regaining his first love. But that is to forget that the father of the English novel is Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe is a figure on a desert island and so there is no class conflict at work there, only his interaction with someone who acts as his servant. It is therefore perhaps better to think of the English novel as being not about social class but about the virtues of the middle class: these people are ambitious and they are good at taking advantage of opportunities to improve themselves, even if those plans do not always work out. The middle class novel is engaging because it is filled with hope, people being capable of at least sometimes overcoming their adversities and making their lives what they want them to be. The protagonists act to improve their lives and so are neither pathetic, in that they are incapable of not being overwhelmed, nor tragic, in the sense that the gods or fate have doomed them to failure. The English novel therefore makes for a good read because in keeping track of the ups and downs of the fortunes of its protagonists. In the drama of whether or not they will succeed, the reader learns a lot about the social circumstances, the social reality, the protagonists must confront if they are to succeed. Success is itself a reality, not a feigned state, just as failure is a reality and not just the lack of appreciation for the inner workings of the protagonist, which are the two stories told by Camus (the first in “Caligula”, the second in “The Stranger”) and also by other Age of Anxiety novelists.
Balzac and Stendhal are the French exponents of the middle class novel, each of the main and most of the minor characters trying to make their marks upon a world into which they have shoehorned themselves. Little me; big world. But French novelists also give in to pathos and tragedy in a big way. You feel sorry for Zola’s protagonists, and the motive of revenge that drives the Count of Monte Cristo seems to have been inflicted upon him, like a curse, by his adventures in the Chateau d’If. American novelists, at least until Howells, are not about the middle class perspective on life. They are about larger themes: the hero as a legendary figure, as in James Fenimore Cooper, or the protagonist engaged in metaphysical battle with a nemesis come from myth as well as found in reality: Melville’s great white whale.
Even Mark Twain cannot be accurately described as a realistic novelist, however much he did indeed portray the circumstances of both Missouri and Deep South slavery and did travel writing that was meticulous in telling what he saw and not just what people were supposed to see when they went to Europe and the Middle East. He is too caught up in the mysteries of the Mississippi River, of Huck’s recollection of the repressed and his imagination of the evils of others, of the mythic exchange of identities in “The Prince and the Pauper” and of the dystopian modernity of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, of the ghost that haunts Hadleyville, to be considered a writer who just tells it like it is. His acolyte, Ernest Hemingway, could do no better in that he also felt forced to mystify his pointillism, even as his contemporary, Scott Fitzgerald, was more keen to look behind mysteries and so unravel them.
American novelists of more recent vintage are also caught up between mystification and telling straight-forward stories of making it, and so bring a twinge to what might otherwise be a satisfying tale of people living in a world where doing well is the only ambition that is needed, no requirement for a plunge into the enormities of the universe. A good example of this combination of the American interest in the supernal with the British interest in ordinary ambition is what is perhaps the best and most ambitious of John Updike’s late novels: “In the Beauty of the Lilies”. It is a saga of four generations each one caught up in making their way amidst the priorities of their social class or occupation and collectively caught up in what happens to people who have given up on conventional religion.
In the first section, a minister in a Protestant church in Paterson, New Jersey at the turn into the Twentieth Century gives up his calling for the sufficient reason that he does not believe in it any more, the words he utters ringing hollow in his ears. His wife does not understand why he can give up his employment and have to become a door to door encyclopedia salesman, a fitting symbol, I suppose, of his new found secularism, the only person to support him being a wealthy member of his former congregation who, good Christian that he is, does not judge but simply comes to succor the former clergyman. The born again non-believer succumbs to what is both a real and a symbolic heart condition, his young son at his bedside, and so ends as something of a saint, having given up his career and his life for his non-beliefs.
The minister’s son never overcomes the trauma of what happened to his father. He settles into the life of a postman because that is the least stressful work he can find, even spurning a promotion to becoming a local postmaster as being too taxing, his only satisfaction in life coming from his sexual life with his wife, a girl who came from the other side of the tracks. For those like himself, being in the working class means finding satisfactions outside of work to make life worthwhile and fulfilling. His daughter, picking up on the sexual nuances of her upbringing, becomes a movie actress fully inhabiting her ability to turn her sexuality into a way of gaining power, and so becoming both a slut and an artist, creating films that become part of the canon of great Hollywood comedies. That is about the peak of what you can achieve if you find no substitute for your grandfather’s religion. Her own son, exposed to too many father figures, becomes a self-loathing loner, deep in incestuous feelings, who gravitates towards a religious cult modelled on that of David Koresh, one that also comes to a bad end because of outside intrusion. Updike is particularly good at portraying how the young man can at the same time know the cult leader is a fraud who psychologically manipulates his followers and is someone he calls “the real thing” because he embodies some fundamental religious experience which transforms himself and his followers into being something entirely different from what they seem to be, which is a set of people who live in a ramshackle and remote compound that is filled with mutual recrimination and sexual exploitation. So people return to religion, even if of a very deformed kind, because there is nowhere else to turn when self-loathing takes over, that the original sin for all four of these generations.
Updike can be faulted for being overly topical in that he gins up his own rendition of cult politics by stitching together academic research with newspaper accounts of what happened in Waco and with Jim Jones in South America, those enhanced by his own intuitions about psychology and what constitutes a story. He did the same thing in “Terrorist”, his account of the mind of a terrorist, that villain rescued from accomplishing his deed by the intervention of a good natured federal agent. Salvation, it would seem, can come too easily; tragedies are not allowed to take place. But “In the Beauty of the Lilies”, tragedy in the sense of a fate difficult to avoid does disable the lives of every generation, however mightily they struggle against it or however mightily they embrace it, the characters each granted both free will as well as a psychologically based nemesis. Updike is usually credited with being a great stylist, which he is, but is not given enough credit for fashioning narratives that do justice to both the circumstances people find themselves within and the initiatives people take to better or come to terms with their lives. And so Updike is forever hopeful, which is pleasing and true to the middle class reader, and quite a relief from the gloom and doom that characterized the literature in the generation that preceded Updike, though that accounts, I think, for Updike not being treated as the great writer that he was.
Now that the Man Booker Prize is open to and has been won by two Americans in a row, perhaps there is no longer a need to distinguish American from British and Commonwealth literature. But I have always resented the inability of the Nobel Prize committee to understand how American literature was different from European literature. Their ignorance could be offered as an excuse for their not recognizing the work of American novelists except for those who were either politically correct for the era, like Toni Morrison or I. B. Singer, both also worthy of the award, while limiting American awards, for the most part, to the hopelessly middle brow, like Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck. The Nobel committee thought of Philip Roth, that great fabulist, as a pornographer. American literature retains a great appeal throughout the world, despite its distinctiveness, and so let us not forget to continue noticing that.