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English Writing in Total War

At a time when paper is scarce and the younger writers are mostly in battledress, it is not easy to be sure what is happening, but I think one can safely say that no literary revival is likely in England in the near future. The so-called Communist writers dominated the nineteen-thirties, and they had begun to lose their unity and self-confidence long before the Russo-German pact was signed. The Spanish civil war, with its orgies of lying and its frightening revival of the war propaganda of 1914-18, drove away the more talented of them, and no organized group has arisen to take their place. So far as I know, the only literary “school” which has appeared in England in the last few years is the Apocalyptic Group, a handful of very young writers who seem merely to be practising a variant of Surrealism and not to possess any very striking talents. There was also the small group that centered about Henry Miller, but these were mostly expatriate Americans and Europeans; they did not produce anything of much value except Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” and the war has scattered them with exceptional thoroughness.

Editors and publishers report that the output of verse has risen since the war, but one has only to glance at the magazines to see that its average quality has not. The literary standard of “New Writing,” the bi-yearly publication which used to be the rallying point of the left-wing intelligentsia, has deteriorated markedly. Novels are still being published, but they are terribly bad ones. The few of any value which have appeared within the past year have all been either American or translations of foreign books written before the war. The best English work, other than political journalism, has been of a fragmentary autobiographical kind, war diaries and letters from soldiers. No one, I believe, is sitting down to produce large-scale imaginative work, and I doubt whether any but a very insensitive person could do so at a time like this. If one discusses English literature at this moment, therefore, one has to prophesy rather than record. One has to discuss not so much what is happening as what is likely to happen when the political interregnum that we are now in is finished. But before doing so it is worth mentioning certain by-products of the situation, the physical effects, as it were, of war on literature, which had not been foreseen and which have their importance.

One is that though fewer books are being produced, people are reading more. This is a result of the loneliness of soldiers in muddy camps, and the necessary dwindling of other amusements, especially since the air raids have prevented the movie theatres from opening at night. There have been immense sales of sixpenny reprints (the Penguin Books, Pelican Books and other similar series), and the general level of these is fairly high, far higher than would have been commercially possible ten years ago.  Simultaneously there has been a startling improvement in the tone of the popular press. For years past the English daily press has been controlled effectively by its advertisers, chiefly advertisers for consumption goods, who have had an interest in keeping the public as stupid, credulous and ill informed as possible. That state of affairs has changed, partly because internal trade has shrunk to a minimum, partly because all but a few newspapers are now reduced to four pages and the official communiqués crowd out the rubbish that used to fill them.

All of the press that matters will probably be under direct state control within a year, but for the time being the journalists have escaped from the dictatorship of the chocolate manufacturers and it is no longer impossible for an intelligent political article to appear in a daily paper. Since the Dunkirk campaign there has been a big output of political books costing about half a dollar, more definitely “left” and far more honest than the Left Book Club publications of a couple of years ago. The big public is markedly less silly than it used to be. On its lower reaches one must say that literature has not suffered from the war.

But on the Bloomsbury front the situation is different. Reading American periodicals I note, even now, an air of detachment rather similar to what used to prevail in England when Hitler was merely beating up the Jews in Vienna. If one is looking through the wrong end of the telescope it is easy to see this war as simply a repetition or continuation of the last. The prevailing habit of mind is quite different from what it was in the last war, however, because no thinking person any longer takes the continuity of civilization for granted. Churchill and Hitler may stand for the same thing, as the Marxists were assuring us until a few days ago, but in practice even the Marxists haven’t believed this to be so. The British intelligentsia now have at the back of their minds the knowledge that if Hitler wins it means death or exile for themselves. We are accustomed to talking about “eternal values” in connection with literature, but in fact literature as we know it is the product of liberal capitalism and may be inseparable from it; in any case a literature founded on what we now call intellectual honesty is not likely to survive the worldwide triumph of fascism. Within a few years freedom of the press may be merely a half-forgotten phrase. Moreover, it is now widely grasped that even if Hitler is defeated, the economic status of writers and artists will alter in the process. Manifestly we are moving toward some form of state socialism or state capitalism which will not be able to afford huge armies of non-producing intellectuals.

For twenty years literature in England has been parasitic on itself. The practitioners of the arts are so numerous that they themselves form a public, and the high-brow weeklies and monthlies are essentially trade papers. The mere poverty of the post-war world will alter this. The old, easy life of the writer, living where he likes, working or not as he chooses, producing perhaps one book a year and getting several hundred pounds for it, is obviously at an end. Add to this the sense of impermanence that everyone now has, because of the consciousness that if one is fit enough to walk and not already in a safe government job one will probably before long be either in the armed forces or working in a factory. Add finally the air raids, and you can see how hard it is at present to settle to any serious work, except on a very small scale. Anyone who sits down to write a book which will take him, say, a year has to do so with at any rate a considerable doubt in his mind as to whether it will ever be printed.

But more important than any of this is the absence of any feeling of purpose. Art is not the same thing as propaganda, but it is a fact that every work of art has a “message” concealed somewhere in it and every literary movement centers about a political program. Last year, after Dunkirk, there was what appeared to be the beginning of a new political movement in England, but Churchill’s masterful personality and the absence of any leadership on the Left have bottled it down. The whole trend of government policy and of what one may call respectable opinion is against giving the war any meaning whatever. This does not matter if one realizes that a country’s war aims are not what its governing classes imagine, but what is likely actually to happen if it is victorious. However easy it may be to demonstrate that “this is a capitalist war,” in practice it will make a lot of difference who wins. The English intelligentsia recognize this, but rather tepidly. They cannot feel the same enthusiasm as they felt for the curtain-raiser, the Spanish civil war. The defection of their one-time idol, Stalin, has left a gap which cannot be filled either by Hitler—because he intends to kill them if he can get hold of them—or by any English figure, because they have sniggered at patriotism so long that they have almost killed it within themselves. In left-wing literary circles the fashionable thing to say is that “this war is entirely meaningless.” At the same time hardly anyone is in favor of stopping fighting and the volume of actively pro-Nazi feeling is negligible. After all, Hitler is the world’s leading book-burner, and therefore for all writers of books the war has a meaning of sorts. But out of anything so negative it is difficult for a literary movement to arise.

So far as one can discover, the youngest members of the intelligentsia, the youths and girls who would now be beginning to produce printable work if the times were normal, are vaguely “anti-war.” This does not mean that they will refuse to serve in the army, or fight less bravely than anyone else, but merely that they do not see before them any prospect about which they can feel enthusiastic. One could hardly blame the very young, those who are now twenty or thereabouts, if they took refuge in complete irresponsibility and hedonism. They have grown up into an epoch of wars which may last for decades, and they have not got behind them the peaceful integrated life which was the background of those who were young in 1914. There are signs of a return to something that one may roughly call individualism—that is, to a renewed respect for intellectual integrity. Those who are now beginning to write probably do not feel, as their forerunners did ten years ago, that there is something noble in telling lies and degrading your esthetic standards for a political cause. The few promising bits of work by very young writers that I have seen recently were all of them purely personal, subjective, “innocent of public spirit.” If a book of any value is now being written anywhere in England I should expect it to be along those lines. Even an outbreak of “escapism” would not be surprising, though there is no sign of one as yet.

The general level of intelligence in England is now higher than it has ever been, and the basis for a majority culture exists as it has not existed for centuries. But all that that ensures is better popular journalism and better music-hall sketches. There seems no chance of any major literary work appearing until the future is more predictable and thinking people have less feeling of helplessness. It may be that those conditions can’t be fulfilled till the war is over. But it seems certain that our present anomalous situation—a war against fascism, waged by reactionaries—cannot continue much longer, and when the necessary political changes have taken place the sense of purpose and continuity may return, even though the bombs are still dropping. Whether that will lead to the birth of another “movement” I do not know. I do believe, however, that against the time when it will again be possible to write we are storing up valuable material. It is noticeable that though no one seems to disapprove very much of the English writers who have removed themselves to the U. S. A., nobody wants to change places with them. Looking back over the strange boring nightmare of this last year in London, I have the feeling of having learned a lot from it, as I did from that other nightmare of the Spanish war. I know that this feeling is widely shared. Perhaps in the end all this will turn out to have been a blessing in disguise, though certainly it is a very deep disguise at present. But don’t look for any book of consequence to be published in England in the near future, for the people who are still young enough to learn are most of them too busy or too depressed to write.