Frothy Coffee: Continental Influence in Mid-Century England
In fifties England Continental influence was, of course, nothing new, its most recent manifestations in upper-class pre-war bohemian London (particularly dandy and raconteur Julian Maclaren-Ross's Fitzrovia) and in the Continental delicatessens and restaurants of thirties Soho described in J.B. Priestley's English Journey. In the post-war period, what changed was its penetration to middle-class provincial life.
The mid-century is commonly associated with the rise of an Americanised mass culture. However, United States imports are not the only evidence of a culture beginning to look outwards: "frothy coffee" (soon to be decried in Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be) had begun to make inroads too. The newly-affluent suburban youth chased European sophistication with "expressos" and cappuccinos in coffee bars from Soho to Sunderland. With post-war immigration, the rise of affordable European package holidays, and the decline of Imperial culture, a parochial nation became tentatively cosmopolitan.
The new popularity of Mediterranean cooking (inspired by Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food, published in 1950), Vespa scooters, and Brigitte Bardot-style tight sweaters does not, of course, mean that Continental influence was deep and widespread; rather, it was a sprinkling of imported sophistication on what was fundamentally a transitional culture, with roots deeply embedded in tradition. These are, however, bold signs of a nation looking outwards, and they mark an important shift in English popular consciousness.
This was post-war England's age of affluence. The new England forecast in 1933's English Journey --deferred by World War II and its aftershocks-- was finally ushered in. Full employment, rising wages, and the consumer boom precipitated a social revolution, as the new prosperity and its spoils (cinema, wireless, television, refrigerators, and washing machines) were enjoyed throughout the class system. The affluent age found literary expression in a loosely-connected group of fifties writers, including Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, whom the press christened the Movement. Themselves products of social change, theirs was an upwardly-mobile literature, charting the progress in this new world of characters such as Dixon, the hero of Amis's Lucky Jim. The self-consciously anti-cosmopolitan Movement were deeply distrustful of modernism and the avant-garde. With faith in the novel as a social and moral form, the very backbone of English culture, the Movement sided with the Great Tradition, the Leavises' canonisation of the English novel from Chaucer to D.H. Lawrence. By the mid-fifties, the caricature of the lower-middle-class, provincial, Oxbridge-educated Movement writer had been firmly established in the press, and literary spats between the Movement's young guns and modernism's old guard enlivened the pages of the New Statesman, the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement.
Looking past the Movement's anti-Establishment bluster, it is clear that their fundamental instincts were conservative. Despite the press's best attempts to depict them as a vigorous literary movement to match the social revolution, what unified these writers was the rallying call of "Consolidation!" and a faith in the realist tradition's power to buoy up and bolster a wavering civilisation: a kind of literary protectionism that expressed a transitional culture's anxieties about its own vitality. For notwithstanding the Movement's faith in the liberal realist forms on which the traditional novel was built, the notion of a substantive reality was long gone: the old, stable relations between character, plot and author had been eroded by modernism's experimentation in solipsism (the view that the self is all that can be known). As a result, in their reliance on a kind of comic empiricism, the Movement produced nostalgic dioramas rather than realist novels.
Macmillan's declaration that Britons had "never had it so good" celebrated contemporary prosperity, yet masked continuing social disunity. The foundations of a nascent school of English Cultural Studies were laid in two deeply elegiac texts -Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy and Raymond Williams' The Long Revolution— that foregrounded the time-lag in this historical transition, depicting those left behind by the new affluence. Applying the anthropological fieldwork approach to their own country, they peeled back the fifties' prosperous veneer to depict working-class life under threat from mass culture, community replaced by consumerism, social stratification based on wealth rather than birth, and a society in which cultural forms died or flourished depending on advertising expenditure.
The social realism of the New Wave in fiction, drama and film mimicked this anthropological approach, capturing the unease of a country in rapid transition. As bed-sit polemicist Jimmy Porter put it, in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger:
"The old Edwardian brigade do make their brief little world look pretty tempting. All homemade cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniform... If you've no world of your own it's rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else's. I must be getting sentimental. But I must say it's pretty dreary living in the American age - unless you're an American of course."
Osborne's play, which initially had a lukewarm reception on its Royal Court debut in 1956, encapsulates the contemporary cultural crisis in the triangular relationships of its three main characters, who share a Midlands attic flat. Like the novels of Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse and Stan Barstow, it depicts a culture in a state of flux: hostile to, yet nostalgic for, the halcyon days of an Edwardian past, attempting to enjoy the benefits of social mobility but deeply suspicious of the new mass culture. Such tensions could produce surreal juxtapositions, as seen in the experimental documentaries of Lindsay Anderson's Free Cinema movement. Programme One, shown at the National Film Theatre in 1956, opened with Anderson's own O Dreamland, which captured the out-of-time Edwardianisms of working-class day-trippers in Margate. It was followed by Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz's Momma Don't Allow, focussed on Teddy Boys in a North London skiffle club, and featuring a young Lonnie Donegan.
While social realism expressed the contemporary disquiet, the Movement's writers evaded experimentation in a move that Malcolm Bradbury calls "a particularly nasty subterfuge," leaning instead on the conventions of the nineteenth-century realist novel to create a liberal, humane, and deeply anachronistic world. The Movement writers were not alone in their faith in the realist mode's restorative powers; concord came from some unlikely quarters, and from across the political spectrum. Cyril Connolly, in the December 1947 edition of Horizon, declared that "such a thing as avant garde has ceased to exist": the post-war world of the Welfare State and mass culture was no longer a place for an avant garde discredited by the charges of intellectual decadence and (on occasion) barbarism levelled at modernism during the period.
New obligations were placed on the novel to climb out of subjectivity and not only represent the postwar social changes, but also take part in a project of cultural repair. Raymond Williams, in his essay "Realism and the Contemporary Novel," called for a reinvention of the great realist tradition in its "progressive and revolutionary" Marxist sense: a reinvigorated mode that moves away from the subjective perspective of modernism to a unity of the personal and social. The realist project becomes the reintegration of individual and social realities, and thereby an act of cultural restoration. Williams' radical updating of realism discards the old notions of substantive reality on which the novels of the Movement depend. He extends the realist tradition to make the novel a form of social action, healing the rift between man and world.
Across the channel Jean-Paul Sartre's literature of commitment was also putting the novel to work. In post-war France Existentialism, the complex of philosophical doctrine that posits a fundamental disunity between man and his universe, emerged under the tutelage of figureheads Sartre and Albert Camus. Its founding texts, Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943) and Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), developed a theory of reality as a realm of over-abundant appearance without the fixity of essence. In his 1938 novel Nausea, Sartre has his anti-hero Roquentin lament: "Nothing looked real; I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could suddenly be removed." In such a world, to borrow Roquentin's anguished refrain, "Anything can occur, anything can happen." Indeed, the only certainty is death, and faced with nothingness the existential man's challenge is the act of self-creation, making leaps of good faith in pursuit of an authentic life in spite of death. Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus recognises and magnifies in fiction the divorce between man and his world; it offers the writer a way out of the existential void by becoming conqueror of the absurd universe. As a new incarnation of the artist-hero of French literary tradition, the writer must resist the comfort of reality's illusions and the consolation of storytelling to maintain and recreate the strangeness of the external world.
The founding texts of Existentialism were wartime studies written in response to the experience of German occupation. Their roots were in phenomenology, a "science of the spirit" developed by German philosopher Edmund Husserl. In England, empirical doubt also expressed itself, most visibly in rebellion by the newly affluent suburban middle-class youth, who, imitating their French peers, began to brandish copies of novels by Sartre and Camus (though in translation, of course). As youth movement in England as, initially, in France, Existentialism was more a matter of style than politics. In England's provincial cities its venue was the jazz club, where its enthusiasts, the so-called 'Moderns,' waged turf war with the 'Trads,' who derided their set as the "beret and dark glasses boys." Colin MacInnes, whom Peter York calls the "first pop anthropologist," took a snapshot of these species in his essay "Young England, Half English," the Trads in "dogmatically bohemia attire," and the "sharp cat" elfin-haired Modern girl wearing a skirt of "buttock-revealing tightness." The Modern-Trad hostility was played out via music. The Moderns' preference was for the experimental and improvisational --what Larkin in All That Jazz called "exaggerated musical non-sequiturs"-- whilst Trads attempted to preserve the more conventional jazz of the late thirties.
Without a pre-existing tradition of the philosophical novel, English literature's response to Existentialism was manifested instead in brittle fifties satires that turn the novel form itself inside-out. These novels depict a country in denial, busying itself in the creation of new ways of understanding the world in moral, occultist, psychological, or mystical forms. Writers such as Angus Wilson used the novel's self-metaphorising ability in their critical examinations of these comforting, personal fictions. Their characters rehash old moral and belief systems, or create new technological and scientific cults with which to make sense of this new reality.
In France, as Sartre's Existentialism began to shade into Marxism, the issue of meaning gained new importance through his insistence on the writerly imperative of political engagement. His What is Literature? (1947) grants fiction the revolutionary power to recover human freedom via a collaboration between writer and reader; thus in post-war France, as across the Channel, restorative power was attributed to realism. Sartre found willing adversaries in the writers grouped together under the banner of the New Novel. Like Sartre and Camus, they derided the traditional assumption that the external world exists in the service of man, and refused "communion with objects"; hence their movement was called (for a mercifully short time) Thingism. Where they diverged from Sartre, however, was in their response. They claimed the novel as a separate space, a "scientific laboratory" (in the words of New Novelist Michel Butor) for formal experimentation without pre-determined meanings. As Alain Robbe-Grillet suggested in Towards a New Novel, the problem with Sartre was that he was not "existentialist enough."
For the New Novelist, the issue was form, or, to be exact, the nineteenth century realist tradition's denial of it. Language was problematic too, an instrument used to graft human meanings onto the hard, infinite mystery of objects: man, via language, is hell-bent on taming the object, on homing it within its own system of reference. The New Novelists, by contrast, aim at a kind of objectivity, developing a new, opaque lexicon that directs attention back to the physicality of the objects themselves and does not easily give up its meanings. Meanwhile, for Sartre, whose idea of engagement stressed the obligation of writers to be existentially committed to representation, the New Novelist's opposition to conventional realism was tantamount to declining this responsibility.
French novel theory first came into England through academic channels. Discomfort with the rise of neo-realism produced a vast array of critical works, full of questions about the novel's suitability to represent a changing world and the possibilities left in the form after the structural acrobatics and artistic extremity of modernism. The most important of these studies were by Christine Brooke-Rose, Francophile critic, theoretician, and translator of Robbe-Grillet. They were supplemented by (to coin a phrase) the British Council novel, fiction by envoys of the nation's institutionalised cultural exchange programme. Attaché B.S. Johnson remarks in his essay "Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs": "Only when one has some contact with a continental tradition of the avant-garde does one realise how stultifyingly philistine is the general book culture of this country."
The New Novel in France helped to catalyse native experimental impulses, but formal experimentation in England had a very different flavour. The novels of Christine Brooke-Rose bring fiction and criticism together to provocatively participate in the literary debate across the Channel. Her novel Out is an impish homage to Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy that emphasises the ambiguity of language in order to parody the New Novelists' striving for objective certainty. Ann Quin nativises experimental technique by invoking the traditions of English low culture; her novels are carnivalesque riots of vaudevillian grotesquerie. Her most famous work, Berg, a murder story set at the seaside, reads like a slapstick, tragicomic Carry on Oedipus.
B.S. Johnson's novels also recognise that realism is a matter of form, though he anglicises cool theory with references to Coronation Street. His novels re-orient experimentation towards a new autobiographical mode with the aim of precisely rendering his own authentic truth. Most famously, he evoked the contingencies of human experience by cutting holes in the pages of his novel Albert Angelo, a technique which drew fire as a modish experimental garnish on what was, essentially, a social realist novel. Johnson's novels are wrenchingly sad, the form constantly straining to contain individual truth, reshuffling human experience in the attempt to authentically capture it. Like those of the French New Novelists, they fail to fully realise the quest for an authentic mode of representation, but their achievement is the way in which they challenge the constraints of the novel form in pursuit of it.
In France, the experimental novelists took their place within an avant garde high culture tradition as instigators of new forms. In England the cultural positioning of experimental literature was very different. Johnson was flummoxed by his lack of readership, Brooke-Rose went for nine years without a publisher, and Quin's work remained out-of-print and largely forgotten until recently reissued by Dalkey Archive Press. The importation of French novel theory into England not only mapped the limits of formal innovation, but also the limits of the experimental novel's impact on culture. An England after modernism found no place for a native avant garde, and the English experimental novel, in contrast to its French counterpart, remained obscure.--Jennifer Hodgson
Jennifer Hodgson is a writer, editor and photograper with a particular interest in the post-war experimental novel. Originally from Hull, she has lived in London, Norwich and Budapest. She hopes to begin a PhD in Autumn 2009. Jennifer's review of Raymond Williams' Culture and Society can be read in this edition's Classics of Englishness feature.--Ed.