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 of the novel, in which the knowable community … comes to be known primarily as a problem of ambivalent relationship: of how the separated individual, with a divided consciousness of belonging and not belonging, makes his own moral history.’ The son of a railwayman in the Welsh market town of Abergavenny, Williams studied at Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930s before serving in World War II; after the war he taught adult education at Oxford, making his literary breakthrough with Culture and Society (1958) and going on to become one of the key intellectuals of the New Left of the 1960s and 70s. His journey from comparatively humble working class origins to academic and literary success via England’s two foremost elite institutions left him particularly well placed to reflect upon the relationship between class and culture; the branch of literary theory known as ‘cultural materialism’ was Williams’ major contribution to the development of cultural studies.
The Country and the City takes us on a panoramic jaunt through two centuries of English literature, from George Crabbe’s pastoral poetry to the more familiar social landscapes of Austen and Dickens, merging literary and social history to show how the vicissitudes of the property system found expression in the lives of our most well-known literary characters. At times, fact and fiction are too close to tell apart: to what extent was the hapless protagonist of Jude the Obscure (1895), who desperately yearned to study at the prestigious university at Christminster, merely bearing out the experience of his creator, Thomas Hardy? As Williams reminds us, Hardy’s status as an outsider ultimately defined him in the eyes of a generation of critics who insisted on labeling him an ‘autodidact’ — not because he had not received an education, but merely because he had not studied at Oxford or Cambridge. This phenomenon of ‘the separated individual, with a divided consciousness of belonging and not belonging’ is, it would seem, the making of novels and novelists alike.
Williams did not get as far as Nabokov in his study — The Country and the City is concerned mainly with the foundation texts of English literature. But the import of his observations extends far beyond the canon. Estranged from his native land and an outsider in his adoptive country, the émigré writer is the “separated individual” par excellence: in his 1965 foreword to The Eye, Nabokov poured scorn on the “destroyers of freedom,” the Bolsheviks, who had for decades “misled foreign opinion into ignoring or denigrating the importance of Russian emigration.” Perhaps the lonely ennui of his protagonists — in The Eye and in other novels such as Pnin (1957) — was Nabokov’s symbolic revenge, his pointed tribute to the indelible trauma of displacement. The great Russian-American stylist would no doubt have dismissed Williams’ book as so much dogmatic economic determinism, but The Country and the City, a work of subtle brilliance, is quite immune to such charges: for all its grounding in social and economic history, the book places the subjectivity of the individual — as author, narrator or protagonist — at the very heart of the story of literature, sharing equal billing with those vast impersonal forces that so grated on Nabokov.