Friday, April 02, 2010

Brophy on experiment

Brigid Brophy (1929–1995) is nearly forgotten today, except by those who wish to claim her for a special-interest subliterature that it would have sickened her to be confined to. The author of seven novels written in what Peter Stothard calls a “sparkling and perfumed prose,” she was better known during her lifetime for her dashing and learned nonfiction books, especially Black Ship to Hell (1962), a wide-ranging study of human self-destructiveness. She also wrote revolutionary reassessments of Mozart the Dramatist (1964) and Aubrey Beardsley (1969), but it is her almost 600-page critical biography of Ronald Firbank, published in 1973, that I cherish most.

Brophy entitled the book Prancing Novelist to play upon the “outrageous title” of Firbank’s 1925 novel Prancing Nigger, a title suggested by Carl Van Vechten, an American admirer. “And, yes,” Brophy acknowledges, “nigger is marked in dictionaries as a term usually contemptuous. But the catchphrase Van Vechten picked from the novel is an efflorescence of the patois, the almost a language of its own, which Firbank so marvellously invents for his Negro world; and the catchphrase is spoken by wife to husband, Negro to Negro.” It is a good question whether she is using the word novelist as she claims that Firbank is using the “term usually contemptuous.”

I first read Brophy’s book, with its delightful subtitle A Defence of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography in Praise of Ronald Firbank, before I had opened any of Firbank’s own books. Once I did, though, I could not bring myself to like them very much, no matter how hard I tried. Cyril Connolly lumped Firbank among the “happy entertainers,” a camp that also included Noël Coward. But though Brophy assigned this judgment to “the slide of literary fashion,” and insisted that Firbank was “not ephemeral,” I found that I could agree with neither.

Brophy’s account of Firbank, by contrast, is both entertaining and important. It deserves to be more widely read by “great novel-readers,” in her phrase. According to Brophy, the special problem that Firbank set himself was to find some other means than narrative to organize a novel. She herself is dismissive toward the narrative habit:

[A]s a rule the more a novel depends on its narrative thread to attract the reader through the book, the more openly it represents a wish, the more it invites the reader to invest his own wishes in the limited expectancy of limited surprises—the more, in short, it resembles a daydream, the less is the reader prepared to treat it as he treats his own daydreams and the smaller tolerance he shews of going through it again.As opposed to the reader’s, “the novelist’s strongest wish,” she says authoritatively, “is to complete the design according to his ideal conception of it”—what I have described as keeping faith with the particular and self-determined rules of his own particular novel. Firbank, that is, sought to organize a novel via “the logic of the design rather than the logic of narrative and characterisation.”

So far a more coherent and valuable definition of “experimental” fiction than any I have seen. And, indeed, Firbank himself used word—or at least adapted it to what he was trying to do, Brophy says. But she strongly dislikes the label, even though her own novels were indolently characterized as “experimental” by half-asleep critics. The catchphrase, she warns, is “often a false attempt to give an art the kudos of a science.” She goes on:The catchphrase implied that the result of a successful experiment would be not just the artistic success of the individual work of art concerned but, as it is in science, the formulation of a general rule, by knowing which other artists in the -ism group, and indeed art in general, would progress in the sense that science progresses.The term is little more, in other words, than a banner under which certain writers are grouped approvingly. But even worse, its use is a betrayal, not merely of the “individual work of art,” which can never be reduced to a “general rule,” but of art as such.

In short, art does not “progress in the sense that science progresses.” To assume that it does—to treat the history of an art as a Whiggish history of its forward movement, which requires always an avant garde—is to blunder into the fallacy that Brophy, herself an art collector and married for four decades to the art historian Sir Michael Levey, onetime director of the National Gallery in London, attributed to Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century author of Lives of the Painters:Vasari, with his vision (itself a false perspective) of the history of painting as a progress towards the Renaissance mastery of naturalistic representation, and with his almost ritual anecdotes of how this or that painter’s goodness was proved when some animal, child or peasant unsophisticatedly mistook the painter’s depiction for the actual object depicted, made it seem as if goodness in painting was the same thing as success in representationalism.The champions of experimentalism commit the same error. The success of being described by them as “experimental” or “advanced” is treated as identical with greatness in writing.

It isn’t: it is merely a succès d’estime, which is not to be confused with a literary or artistic success. Nor was “progress” Firbank’s own measure of success. Experimentalism is the wrong word for his efforts to find a different method for organizing a novel, because he sought to pioneer the novel backwards. His “earliest stylistic pioneering was into the past,” Brophy explains. “To submit yourself to an idiom unfamiliar through disuse is as pioneering an act as to submit yourself to one unfamiliar because it has never been used before.”

The term experimental writer must be given its unconditional release. A good novelist, whose writing is alive, seeks to pioneer an idiom—a style, a method of organization—by which he is able to complete his novel’s design according to his ideal conception of it. But this is no more than to say that he must devise a style and a method that is perfectly suited to his unique and particular conception. And if he is any good, he must do this whether the critics congratulate him for being “advanced” or sneer at him for being “traditional.” To call him a stylistic pioneer is simply to say that he is a good and artistically successful novelist, and like no one else.


Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

I just took a good ten minutes from my work to read through this because you sucked me in from the beginning.

This is an incredibly good essay. I'll be mulling over what is means to call a novel "experimental" all day, when I should be drafting a Motion for Directed Verdict.

Carrie Callaghan said...

That was a very interesting read, thank you for the thoughtful post. I also find it more appropriate to think of art, and particularly literary, styles as reflecting the creator's individual style of creation. Of course, though, we can't completely dismiss some linear movement (which is not to conflate it with progression) - because we have constrained lifetimes so can only learn from those who lived before us and contemporaneously, and because artists do take bits and pieces from their predecessors. It would be interesting to imagine a world where artists could learn from all artists past and present!

Hannah Stoneham said...

Brophy sound fascinating indeed - thank you for introducing me to her!


Anonymous said...

I liked Brophy for her 1967 "Fifty Works of Literature we Could Do Without." Even English professors might find their students agreeing with Brophy in some cases.

Richard LeComte said...

Actually, I read a book by Brigid Brophy, so she's not totally forgotten. The book was an account of how she and her father pushed for the Public Lending Right in Great Britain -- a scheme in which the British government pays authors when their books are checked out of the library (no, really). I used her book as a source for the library history paper I wrote about the failed drive for PLR in the United States. PLR was known as the "Brophy penny" in the UK before the scheme was adopted in the late 1970s.

John said...

In your April 4th post you quote Trilling, disapprovingly, for saying: [Right-wing ideas] are not ideas but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” (Your truncation of the quote makes it sound worse than the original).

In this post on Brigid Brophy you say: [Advanced/experimental writing] is merely a succès d’estime, which is not to be confused with a literary or artistic success.

To my ear, these two formulations sound very similiar. Trilling's depends on an arbitrary and personal definition of the word ideas, yours on an equally arbitrary and personal definition of the word success.

I say this, by the way, as someone who generally detests so-called experimental writing. Someone can say they don't like something but trying to say why it's no good or not as good as other art usually ends up in making statements that don't stand up to much scrutiny.