P. H. Newby Essay - Newby, P(ercy) H(oward) (Vol. 13)

Newby, P(ercy) H(oward) (Vol. 13)


Newby, P(ercy) H(oward) 1918–

Newby is an English novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor, critic, and author of children's books. He often explores the clash of two cultures in his fiction, notably the English and Middle Eastern worlds. These cultures are seen through the eyes of a character who finds himself bewildered by the way of life in an alien world. Handled with Newby's characteristic wit and flair for satire, his characters never achieve any kind of mutual understanding. Even in his novels with English settings, Newby's main theme remains the difficulty of both self-discovery and communication with one's fellows in the fragmented and detached world of contemporary society. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

V. S. Naipaul

Mr Newby writes with an ease which conceals the utmost care and economy. He is wonderfully and intelligently inventive, and organises his material so well that this complex story [A Guest and His Going], with its many layers of interest, never strains the reader. He manages continually to surprise, though on examination it is seen that he has left clues everywhere so quiet is his manner. Occasionally, however, a development seems imposed from without; and perhaps the element of fantasy is a little too strong. But this humane comedy is one of the best things Mr Newby has done. (p. 871)

V. S. Naipaul, in New Statesman (© 1959 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 20, 1959.

Stephen Wall

P. H. Newby's [One of the Founders] embraces limitation a little too willingly. One of the Founders has his flair for topicality: here, the world of the Robbins report, the material being the founding of a new university in a provincial town…. Assorted scenes from provincial life are briskly exhibited, and the two physical climaxes of the book are an absurd sort of seduction and a bungled sword-fight, both amusingly grotesque in the way that Mr Newby has long since mastered. The first half of the novel in particular is often very funny and is well-observed—though well-heard would be a better description, since the dialogue tells without revealing…. This is the sort of novel of which it is said that it works on more than one level, the truth being that it is far from clear which floor one is meant to be on at a given time; mezzanine fiction, perhaps.

Part of the trouble (if trouble it is and not obtuseness on the reviewer's part) is that Hedges [the novel's protagonist] resembles too closely for the novel's later good the over familiar device of handicapping the hero…. Hedges' generally unillumined state about his own motivation, his feeling that the vital clue lies just out of sight, is a dangerous one for the novelist to play, and one is inclined to suspect Mr Newby of souping up the action in order to stop the book coming to rest in a vacuum. But even if the more serious aspects of the book ought either to have added up to something more, or have been deducted in the interests of clarity, there is an extremely adroit and practised hand behind the comedy, and the characterization, though external, has its individual manner…. The final qualification, however, remains: whether [Mr Newby] ought not, with such gifts, to try to do more. The whole property has the air of being insured for more than it's worth. (pp. 99-100)

Stephen Wall, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1965), December, 1965.

F. X. Mathews

For Newby's artistic development the placing of the trilogy [consisting of The Picnic at Sakkara (1955), Revolution and Roses (1957), and A Guest and His Going (1959)] is important. It follows immediately his attempt to come to terms with his memories of World War II in A Step to Silence (1952) and The Retreat (1953), novels in which the imagination becomes circumscribed, myth fragments, connections falter, and sanctuary is reached (if at all) only after violence, death, and mental peril. The comic trilogy provides a form of catharsis from the terrible new knowledge. Though its vision of the contemporary condition is essentially that of the war novels, the tone shifts radically. The comic, of course, is not a completely new departure for Newby; even his most serious novels contain an undercurrent of humor that threatens to subvert the tragic potential with what is now fashionably called dark comedy. But as a dominant tone the comic allows him to continue, without the stark conclusions of the war novels, his exploration of substantially the same political question: how does the individual, locked in his own private fantasies, relate to events in an outer world that has gone mad? In a tragic reference he is driven to despair, insanity, or death. But the virtue of the comic answer is that it holds out the hope of survival. Freed from the desperate urgency to give his characters answers where answers may no longer be possible, Newby contents himself with exposing the complexity of illusion. None of the present novels is "pure" comedy: the laughter is both satiric and cathartic. (pp. 3-4)

[Satiric] comedy eliminates the demands on the hero. Set the hero on a desperate quest for identity in a hostile or in-different universe and the outcome is the personal encounter with darkness and death of Agents and Witnesses and The Retreat. The hero is constrained to find salvation in terms of the novel, and either the novel contains that norm (as The Retreat very perilously does) or does not contain it (as in Agents and Witnesses), but in either case we search for the answer somewhere in the mysterious universe that the novelist has summoned up. But in Newby's trilogy, where there are no heroes, the norm lies outside the novel. It devolves upon the audience to supply it in an imaginative response broad enough to recognize the illusion and to extend charity to the comic characters.

Such disengagement does not imply an abnegation of authorial responsibility. In the present novels Newby sets up a twofold object of satiric attack. The first is the romantic illusion manifest in improbable heroism, misplaced idealism, the fantasy of innocence, or nostalgia for a past that never existed. The second is the illusion of theory: life, the novels maintain, is always larger than the ideas, theories, and sets of belief that are supposed to explain it. Beyond these general victims Newby's satire thrives in particular on a distinction between the English and the Egyptian character. I see the trilogy, then, as satiric comedy concerned with the exposure of illusion, both individual and cultural. Faced with issues urgently topical, the novelist retreats to a region of laughter where, with relative immunity, he may contemplate the clash of illusion against illusion. (p. 4)

Ultimately Newby sees no reconciliation between these separate worlds of illusion. Egypt remains Egypt and England adamantly England. To the last the Egyptian hopes to live out his contradictions and the Englishman fails to break out of his insular illusions…. Yet Newby maintains a balance between sympathy and detachment...

(The entire section is 1505 words.)

Wilfrid Sheed

["Something to Answer For"] is in fact a rarity—a first-rate novel about a major political subject. And a close look at the problems it has to crawl around and under may help to show why such books are rare….

Newby has managed to combine the cartoon method with conventional storytelling in a sort of third force. Actually, he has been working on this method for some time, but in a series of miniatures, using small events to parallel large ones. In "Something to Answer For" he wheels out the large events themselves—a breakthrough that, like the juggler's sixth plate, might spell disaster.

Newby's text is the Suez snafu of a few years back. He is content to use a single consciousness, although he splits it with an introductory blow on the head. So we cannot, after the first chapter, be sure when his hero, Jack Townrow, is hallucinating and when he is seeing things straight. A sane head and a mad one—simple props. The mad head can be used as a recording device and an agent of illogic; it can get its owner into scenes that are barred to a sane man. The sane head must meanwhile plug through a sane plot that complements the crazy one, which complements Sir Anthony Eden and Suez. (p. 125)

[The] distinction of "Something to Answer For" does not lie in its being a psychologically plausible story that happens to contain symbols—a virtue that is commoner than one might suppose. Newby doesn't just want a story running alongside his politics, with gunfire in the distance; he wants it thrust right inside his politics. This means double duty for poor Townrow, who...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

F. X. Mathews

[Out] of the tension between a disruptive reality seemingly antagonistic to art and a scrupulous devotion to the craft of fiction [P. H. Newby] creates his characteristic work. Willing on the one hand to agree with V. S. Pritchett that "the real subject of the best writing now being done is that impersonal shadow, 'the contemporary situation,'" he is confident that fidelity to the contemporary situation need not mean a dreary succession of "political" novels…. [When] "events" are no longer separable from the starkly unpoetic reality of a world at war, the unsettling doubts surface. In what terms can the transforming and shaping powers of the imagination be brought to bear on such insanity without falsifying? (pp....

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