David Caute

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Bernard Bergonzi

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The historical novel has often been favoured by Marxists, who claim a particularly intimate relationship to the processes of history, and was the object of a magisterial treatise by Georg Lukacs. In this context it is instructive to consider the case of David Caute, who is both a novelist and a historian, an intellectual of the left, and a former Marxist (one should add that, like Orwell a generation ago, Mr Caute devotes much energy to criticizing his comrades on the left). Early in his career Mr Caute wrote a historical novel, Comrade Jacob (1961), which was set in seventeenth-century England soon after the execution of Charles I. It describes the rise and fall of the egalitarian Digger community set up by Gerrard Winstanley and ultimately suppressed by Cromwell. Caute paints a good picture of the community and the principal characters in its story, but his novel is shackled by a rigid Marxist schema; it is a roman à thèse rather than a genuine novel of ideas, though there is no doubt about its author's intelligence and literary skills. In his next novel, The Decline of the West (1966), Caute tried to penetrate the heart of the historical process in our own day. It is a long, naturalistic work set in contemporary Africa, in an imaginary country which is the setting for revolutionary violence and brutal repression. Here, too, one finds a prominent thesis, about the collapse of imperialism and the final stages of capitalism. It is the kind of book known to blasé reviewers as a 'block-buster' and its naturalism is in literal ways raw and bleeding. There is a potent mixture of elements in The Decline of the West; high-flying intellectualism, indicated by the solemn appropriation of Spengler's title; sex, violence, atrocities; and large unassimilated chunks of the recent history of the Congo and Algeria…. It is a striking, ambitious book, quite unlike the work of most English novelists of Caute's generation, though it cannot be called a successful novel. And for all its superficial sophistication it is naive in its confident use of naturalistic conventions at precisely the time when more reflective novelists were beginning to question them.

How Caute now regards The Decline of the West is uncertain, but it is worth noting that, in his next and very different novel, The Occupation, there are references to a work called The Rise of the East, which seems to have much in common with Caute's previous novel, and is the subject of frequent disparaging comment by the principal characters. The Occupation represented a decisive break with Caute's past; it formed part of a trilogy, the other constituents being a play, The Demonstration and a book-length essay, The Illusion, subtitled, 'An Essay on Politics, Theatre and the Novel'; all three appeared in 1971. The play and the novel describe the misadventures of an English academic called Steven Bright, who is also supposed to be the author of the essay. Steven Bright has different identities in The Occupation and The Demonstration; in the former he is a novelist and historian in his mid-thirties, temporarily teaching in a university in New York; in the latter he is in his forties and is professor of drama in an English university. In both works, however, he is a serious-minded intellectual of the left, subjected to humiliation and comic outrage by revolutionary students, who destroy his manuscripts (though prudently he has already circulated copies to friends). How far, and how thoroughly, the two versions of Steven Bright represent personae for David Caute is not a question to speculate about here....

(This entire section contains 1456 words.)

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But inThe Illusion 'Steven Bright' certainly speaks with David Caute's own voice; one finds the same combination of darting, urbane intelligence, seriousness, breadth of reading and mild pervasive anxiety in Caute's book of essays, Collisions (1974). Considered as criticism and cultural speculation, The Illusion is first-rate, but its quasi-fictional presentation prevented its ideas from getting the right sort of attention. Early on in that book the author asserts, 'Realism is burnt-out, obsolete, a tired shadow of a once-living force. It has to go.' It was the kind of protest quite often heard from English novelists in the late sixties and early seventies, as they grew tired of an established tradition, but in fact realism has many aspects and is far from easy to dispose of.

In Caute's development this assertion represented a new access of reflexiveness and a seeming rejection of the conventions he had tried to employ in The Decline of the West. It was also a defiance of the literary ideals of the Old Left and the central Marxist tradition…. In The Illusion Bright-Caute argues for an alignment of revolutionary art and radical politics; for a literature and theatre that will be dialectical in the play between art and reality—contra the structuralists, who are scathingly treated in The Illusion, Caute believes in distinguishing between the two—and for an exposure of the essentially illusory nature of fictional and dramatic realism, and the necessity of alienation as Brecht understood it. Brecht is, in fact, the hero of The Illusion, where Caute regards him with all the fervour of a recent convert. Caute's rejection of the Old Left is satirically illustrated in The Occupation by Hamilton Snout, an ageing socialist hack writer and editor; Snout praises Bright's The Rise of the East as a triumph of socialist realism in contrast to the shallow experiments of modernism. There are all sorts of indirections in The Occupation, but Caute may here be both presenting a caricature of Lukacs and disowning The Decline of the West as just the sort of book Lukacs might have praised if it had ever come his way.

The Occupation enacts the ideas and attitudes that are speculatively set out in The Illusion. It is an antirealist novel which systematically undermines the illusion of a sustained dramatic fiction. Caute dwells on the problems of composition, intervenes in the narrative and directly addresses the reader. The novel owes much to Caute's own new allegiance to Brecht and Verfremdung—equally evident in theatrical terms in The Demonstration—but it also shows how easily a revolt against convention can itself become a convention. The Occupation is, in fact, an example of what David Lodge has described as the 'problematical' novel, where the act of writing is part of the novelist's subject, and which explores the paradoxical relations between art and life. (pp. 46-8)

Discussing his own work Caute has said that, 'perhaps the tension between man's private and public existences is the central "problematic" of my thinking and writing', which is a grand way of putting it. In The Occupation the tension is exhibited but not resolved. In his private existence Steven Bright is a depressed Herzogian kind of modern intellectual; he relates himself to the world by fantasies; he is impulsive and accidentprone; his sexual life is fraught with humiliation and anxiety; he is betrayed both by his mistress in America and his wife, whom he still loves, back in England. In the public dimension Bright tries to respond to the pressures of history in the America of the late sixties: Vietnam, racial conflict, the politicizing of the universities, urban guerillas. But whatever gestures he makes towards public commitment Bright's real preoccupations and obsessions remain resolutely private. Despite its fractured and alienated surface, The Occupation remains at heart a straight-forward novel on a familiar theme; one could easily imagine it being rewritten in a traditionally realistic form, which is not true of more profound instances of the problematical mode. In places it is funny, as Caute energetically exploits the possibilities of comic effect in the clashes between private and public, fantasy and fact. But it is, in a strange way, not as funny as it ought to be; Steven Bright's struggles and defeats too often provoke embarrassment rather than mirth…. The Occupation is not, any more than The Decline of the West, a wholly successful novel, even though the reasons for failure are very different. Yet Caute is not to be dismissed as a writer, however defective he is as a novelist. The problem may be, if one recalls T. S. Eliot's judgement that Henry James had a mind too fine to be violated by ideas, that Caute has too many ideas, and too much intellectual energy, to be a novelist. I have already compared him in passing with Orwell, and the comparison seems appropriate; Orwell, too, was an immensely talented writer who wrote novels even though they were not his natural medium. (p. 49)

Bernard Bergonzi, "Fictions of History," in The Contemporary English Novel, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 19, Malcolm Bradbury and David John Palmer, General Editors (© Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd 1979), Arnold, 1979 (and reprinted by Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980), pp. 43-65.∗


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