P. H. Newby Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Newby, P(ercy) H(oward) (Vol. 2)

Newby, P(ercy) H(oward) 1918–

Newby, a British writer, often sets his novels and short stories in Egypt or Greece, as well as in England. His tone is predominantly farcical. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The qualities that P. H. Newby demonstrates in his first novel, A Journey to the Interior (1945), are characteristic of all his serious fiction: the discovery of a man's self through a journey or quest that he forces himself, or is forced, to take. During the quest, some mysterious or alchemical process occurs that rejuvenates the character and makes him fit for himself and for society….

While the outlines of Newby's novels seem promising, their substance is less rewarding. Despite his high critical reputation in England, Newby's is a small talent, with his best work indicated in realistic dialogue and effective movement. Unfortunately his characters are not sharply drawn; frequently, the details of their movement predominate and block any larger significance. What should be intense is often flaccid or unfocused….

Part of the difficulty with Newby's comic novels is the fact that they derive from Waugh and Powell and inevitably seem second hand. For colonial satire, Waugh, Cary, and before them, Forster, hog the field; for city comedy, Powell is there with his Music of Time series. As for his serious fiction, Newby is intelligent, unpretentious, and in command of an acute shaping talent; but he has set his sights so low and has so minimized his characters that his novels lack vitality and intensity. He writes about love and sex, but one rarely senses them as significant forces; he is interested in eccentric and mysterious situations, but one rarely feels that he is willing to explore them; he is drawn to characters who have important problems, but one rarely finds that the characters come alive beyond the settling of their problem. Their lives are circumscribed by the problem itself: how they react to it, how they will attempt to solve it; as though they have achieved reality only through identification with a conflict. Often, there are forces in their background which haunt them like furies and which must be exorcised, but these forces, like the characters themselves, lack definition…. All this is doubly curious, for Newby has several of the gifts necessary for the effective novelist; but despite his inventiveness, he has stayed too close to his sources and failed to find his own depth.

Frederick R. Karl, "A Search for P. H. Newby," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1961, 1962, 1971, 1972 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 269-73.

Newby is probably best approached through his two related novels A Step to Silence (1952) and The Retreat (1953). The first of these, set in Worcestershire, indicates one of his literary ancestors: Lawrence. It is difficult to think of any novelist since Lawrence who can so magically illuminate and transfigure the common scene as Newby does…. Like Lawrence, too, Newby catches his characters at the very moment of living, before the intellect has had time to intervene and generalize the moment experienced….

Most novelists—it is what we normally ask of them—give us a rationalization of life. Newby does not: he gives us, instead, the bewilderment of minds in crisis at the moment of crisis itself, renders his characters in what might be called a state of hallucinated vision. For all the obvious differences between them, the novelist he is closest to seems to me Henry Green. In both, the effect aimed at and got is strange and complex, in texture of writing and in ambiguity of meaning alike kin more to poetry than to prose fiction as we normally know it.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel: In Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. in a paperback edition and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 266-67.

P. H. Newby once stated that, as novelist, he had been concerned to write narratives that move "from misunderstanding to reconciliation." These two terms well describe the movement of his first novel, A Journey to the Interior (1945), as well as such of his later novels as The Retreat (1953) and The Barbary Light (1962). One critic has observed that Newby's "ultimate concern is with that universal hero, man, and his timeless quest for wholeness and wisdom." Such a quest, one discovers, is indeed the principal matter of Newby's novels, shaping them both thematically and structurally. The hero-quester's search is not for tangibles, but for intangibles. It deals with the spiritual, religious, moral, or psychological, and it centers on the individual, not society: the problems, that is, are personal, not public. As he seeks, the quester moves away from disorder (misunderstanding) toward order (reconciliation)….

Newby's novels, dealing with … questions of personal problems and personal vision, are most often worked out on a level of abstraction that could not well be represented in realistic terms of normal behavior: a characteristic often encountered in the novels of Iris Murdoch and William Golding as well as in those of Newby. His plots thus transcend the realistic; the reader accepts the action for its significance, not for its verisimilitude, in much the way that he accepts, for instance, the literal action of the last plays of Shakespeare.

E. C. Bufkin, "Quest in the Novels of P. H. Newby," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1965, pp. 51-62.

[Possibly some] readers think [Newby's] industry rather quaintly Victorian, since everyone knows you can't write a good book a year (Newby wrote nine of his novels in the decade 1945 to 1955). And yet the canon reveals to my mind surprisingly few longeurs or signs of hasty work; in these books one finds not the extended apotheosis of the conventional one might expect from such an outpouring but rather an original and resourceful imagination pursuing its vision in deceptively traditional forms, chiefly that of the comedy of manners. The closely observed surfaces of these (usually) comic novels conceal a terrain that remains virtually unmapped by critics, perhaps because they are disinclined to believe that a writer who, like Newby, avoids the "space-time" kind of novel (Joyce, Mann, Proust, Broch), really has uncovered a territory which might be rewarding to explore. But even novels like the relatively unsuccessful Agents and Witnesses and Mariner Dances offer teasing glimpses of subjects and attitudes which, if not wholly underivative in 20th century fiction, are at least unusual, and his best books, A Journey to the Interior, The Snow Pasture and The Young May Moon, A Season in England, A Step to Silence and The Retreat, The Picnic at Sakkara, and The Barbary Light, form a volume of work which I am inclined to rank as one of the most substantial achievements in English fiction during the last two decades….

Newby has had neither a popular nor a critical success (though some of his books sold well, and reviewers treat him politely enough) because he puzzles the expectations of both camps. Enigmatic to the layman, "traditional" (in his reliance on tangled plots) to the experts, he is truly, as a 1962 TLS article had it, a "Novelist On His Own." The critics mostly content themselves with generalizations about his "remarkable comic talent," his presumed indebtedness to Forster, and the like….

[There is a] remarkable degree of interaction among Newby's novels, and I should add that in addition to the general similarities of theme and event and character there is an additional fact which compels one to speak of the essential unity of the novels. Depending on how one defines sequence, one finds either two or three in the canon. Thus The Retreat is a sequel to A Step to Silence and can hardly be understood without its predecessor (several critics have wrecked on this fact), while A Guest and His Going is a sequel both to The Picnic at Sakkara and Revolution and Roses. Given this degree of interaction, then, Newby's romances (and indeed the political comedies, thematically speaking) are in effect variations on a theme.

Stanley Poss, "Manners and Myths in the Novels of P. M. Newby," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 5-19.