Dr Sharma’s book holds as its major thesis that three ‘distinguished theorists and practitioners of the art of fic¬tion,’ E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham and Joyce Cary, between the years 1927-1958, have given a direction to what he calls ‘the modern-novel theory.’ To put it in his own words, as these writers ‘are neither blindly traditional nor just too pro- or anti-modernity, they offer a rational, balanced poetics of the novel.’ The method adopted is to offer a preliminary chapter summariz¬ing the views of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf to indicate ‘radical’ theories of fiction, followed by a chapter on each of the writers under purview summarizing their views on plot, character, function of the novel etc., with a concluding chapter summing up the ‘basic merits, weaknesses and tradi¬tional nature of their fictional theories.’
The summaries are competent, if unexciting, and the author establishes his point that simultaneously with the ‘revolutionizing’ theories, during the period 1914-1930, other novelists gave weightage to the elements of fiction found in the tradition of the 18th and 19th century English novel.
But it would have been more illuminating if the author had gone beyond the uncriti¬cal usage of terms such as ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and clearly defined what he means by the poetics of the ‘modern-novel theory’ that emerged between the twenties and the fifties. No attempt is made to give precision to these terms by investigating the historical genesis and growth of the tradition of the English novel, the social and political factors that led to the rise of a different conception of the art and function of the novel in the twenties and thirties, and to the emergence of the kind of novel found in the fifties and sixties. The usage of these terms is akin to their usage in reports on developing countries, except that Dr. Sharma confusingly uses ‘tra¬ditional’ at times to connote a cultural backwardness to be overcome, and at others, a strength-giving rootedness in the past; alternatively, ‘moder¬nity’ can imply either a desir¬able progressiveness or a destruction of what is valu¬able.
What such vagueness of terminology leads to is a ten¬dency to substitute for analysis a kind of reckoning sheet of merits and demerits. One can envisage the author holding a pair of scales, at one point noting with disfavour that E.M. Forster and Somerset Maugham unfortunately do not have the discretion to borrow in the correct propor¬tions from the sacks labelled ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and at another point applaud¬ing Joyce Cary for achieving the same. Thus Forster is faulted for laying ‘too much emphasis on the human life of the novel,’ and Maugham for having too ‘little newness or originality,’ though the former has on the credit side the merit of having discussed ‘all the basic aspects of the novel’, and the latter is commended for having listed eight require¬ments of a good novel (which Dr Sharma duly lists as ‘first’ [sic], ‘secondly’, ‘thirdly’, ‘fourthly’, and so on).
We have alluded above to the fact that Dr. Sharma fails to locate the rival theories of fiction within their historical context. The failure is all the more glaring in that there is an adequate body of historical and literary scholarship which highlights the relation between politics, economics, society and culture. To mention only a few: George Lichtheim’s Europe in the Twentieth Cen¬tury (1972), Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art (1962), Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society 1780-1950 (1958), not to mention Ian Watts’s seminal study, The Rise of the Novel (1957).
To merely state that the modern novel of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence marks a shift from a ‘mime¬tic’ theory of fictional art whose primary concern is with ‘morality’ to one which is centred upon the ‘aesthetic basis of narrative’ is to evade the whole question as to why this shift took place, why there existed simultaneously a stream of fictional theory and practice that asserted its con¬tinuities with the past, and why a ‘synthesis’ of the ‘old and the new’ took place in the fifties.
A more profitable line of enquiry could have been to examine the conflicts and changes present in the genre of the novel in England in consonance with the challen-ges and conflicts experienced by the economic system and the class which gave birth and sustenance to the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. We do not wish to imply that there is an exact correlation between the significant events of the first half of the 20th century—imperialism, the second industrial revolution, the two World Wars, the rise of socialism, the loss of empire and the cold war—and the changes in the practice and theory of fiction. But to pro¬pose to chart the evolution of a poetics of the ‘modern-novel’ in obliviousness of these events and the historical forces they reflect, operating alike in art and in society, is to empty such an exercise of all serious meaning.
Not that there is seriousness even within the limited scope of Dr. Sharma’s enquiry. Why, for instance, has James Joyce been left out in terms of crea¬tors of a ‘radical’ theory of fiction? On what basis has Somerset Maugham been ele¬vated to the rank of a major novelist? Would not Graham Greene qualify for examina¬tion on the basis of the admix¬ture of ‘old’ and ‘new’? And why does Dr. Sharma fail to give the first date of publica¬tion in the footnotes and bibliography? Going by the dates of the editions cited it would appear that E.M. Foster’s and Virginia Wolf’s works were published only in 1950’s and 1960’s. Surely a rea¬der would legitimately expect help in being able to locate some of the seminal works of the period within the history of theories of fiction. But enough, it is futile to labour what by now is obvious concern-ing the lapses of this book. One only hopes Dr. Sharma’s next book in the pipeline, Three Great Indian-English Novelists will be an improvement on this exercise.
Sudesh Vaid is Lecturer in the Department of English, I.P. College, University of Delhi, Delhi.