TWENTY-SEVEN PAGES INTO The Eye (1965), Vladimir’s Nabokov’s narrator, hitherto a picture of sardonic indifference, suddenly goes all political on us:
It is silly to seek a basic law, even sillier to find it. Some mean-spirited little man decides that the whole course of humanity can be explained in terms of insidiously revolving signs of the ziodiac or as the struggle between an empty and a stuffed belly […] and begins a wholesale trade in epochs and masses; and then woe to the private individuum, with his two poor u’s, hallooing hopelessly amid the dense growth of economic causes. Luckily no such laws exist: a toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle cancel an insurrection. Everything is fluid, everything depends on chance […]
This passage is significant for two reasons. Most obviously, it is a caustic snipe at the political philosophy that inspired the Russian Bolsheviks, whom Nabokov deeply despised. But it also serves an instrumental function: prefacing a series of reflections on ‘the wavering nature of life’ and the chaotic interconnectedness of our various worlds. For Nabokov, the poetry of life consisted in this muddling through of the ‘private individuum’ in the face of — and, he implies, in telling defiance of — history’s iron laws.
It is interesting, then, that the overall timbre of The Eye — a curious little novel about shifting identities and appearances in an émigré community — should be so distinctly bleak. Why is it so hard for a novelist to do justice to individual subjectivity without hitting a brick wall of apathy and alienation? The answer, suggests Raymond Williams in The Country and the City, is that the novel form itself is essentially a product of our history. Williams identifies, in the genesis of the modern novel, the expression of consecutive processes of social change as understood through human experience. The twin upheavals of industrialization and urbanization precipitated a social condition in which apathy and estrangement became ‘a general phenomenon … a way of life’. The rural-urban schism alluded to in the book’s title is, in truth, only one manifestation of this phenomenon, a point of departure for a broader survey.
First published in 1973, The Country and the City has been re-published by Spokesman Books at a highly apt moment, as today’s novelists, from Jonathan Franzen to John Lanchester, compete to capture the zeitgeist of a society locked in a seemingly permanent emergency. The experience of atomization, fragmentation and alienation described in novels like Freedom (2010) and Capital (2012) — so-called ‘state of the nation’ novels — is but a continuation of those very processes which so preoccupied the likes of Eliot, Dickens and Hardy. Since the dawn of industrialization, humanity has hurtled at breakneck speed through successive phases of seismic change; the literary novel, then, represents a kind of marking out, a record of how we, as individuals and communities, have fared in the face of this storm.
Williams’ comments on George Eliot’s Felix Holt offer a remarkably cute summary of the social contradictions that lie at the heart of so much great literature, the essence of the modern novel as the reflection of a social crisis: ‘a crucial history in the development...read more