Now that the three-volume novel and the circulating library are dead,' I imagine someone as saying around the year 1900, 'novels will have to be shorter, sharper, more up to date. The future lies with an Associated Press dispatch, not with the slow unfolding of generations. Nobody wants to read elaborate descriptions of things that might have happened, but didn't, decades ago.' The fact is that no prediction of the shape of the modern novel could have been more misleading than this one. Nor is it just a question of writers like Proust and Mann, who may be said to belong to the last flowering of the 19th century. In the 1980s the tradition of setting a certain kind of novel 'one generation back' in time remains as vital as ever. We are accustomed to the paradox that most people's notions of the texture of life in, say, the 1830s are derived from George Eliot's novels, written more than thirty years afterwards. Yet it is strange to consider that - after all the instant histories and TV documentaries - the versions of the 1940s and 1950s with which future generations will be most familiar may still be in process of construction.
LRB 6 February 1986 | PDF Download