Most readers will know of novels that respond to the subject of the Second World War. Less familiar may be the way in which post-War literary criticism was affected by the war experiences of those who wrote it.
In an article for the Representations journal [subscription required], Marina MacKay shows how Ian Watt’s seminal book The Rise of the Novel (1956) was influenced by his experiences as a prisoner of war and forced labourer on the Burma railway, the war atrocity best known from the film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding is a key piece of post-war criticism, still taught to many English Literature undergraduates today. In it, Watt explores the reasons behind the growth of the new genre of fiction, the novel, in the eighteenth century. He suggests that the novel arose at a time when the growing middle classes wanted a type of literature that would celebrate the common man and his ability to triumph in society through hard work and innovation.
In the novels that Watt studied many of the characters experience a struggle for survival: Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked, Moll Flanders is outcast, Roxana has to take desperate measures to escape her past. MacKay argues that the reasons for Watt’s interest in these figures can in part be traced back to his experiences as a prisoner of war. In the camps he had witnessed at first-hand the ruthless instinct for survival instilled in prisoners:
The commonest lesson…is one that everybody really knows but does not like to admit: that survival, always a selfish business, gets more so when it is difficult.
Thus Watt was drawn to observe the entrepreneurial skills of fictional figures. Moll Flanders, he noted, possesses a wisdom of “a low atavistic kind wholly directed to the problems of survival.”
Watt’s interpretations of the novels show an unusually detailed sympathy for the reality of the individual’s condition, an awareness that can in part be accounted for by his wartime experiences. Watt found Robinson Crusoe to be somewhat fantastic, as he knew that with the moral regulations of civilisation taken away as they were in camps in the Far East, the individual may well crumble under pressure rather than being as resourceful as Crusoe is.
In other observations drawn from first-hand knowledge of the deadly diseases that killed one in three prisoners of the Japanese, he diagnoses Robinson Crusoe as suffering from malaria, and suspects that the dying Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness must be suffering from dysentery, “a disease peculiarly repulsive in its physical manifestations.”
Watt rarely spoke about the war directly in his writing. One of the rare occasions when he did was to criticise David Lean’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Watt felt that the cinematic portrayal of history was dangerously seductive: cinema seems to present events in a realistic way whilst actually being superficially heroic rather than telling the whole, messy truth. The actuality of prisoner of war camps, as Watt knew, was far bleaker and more competitive than is depicted in the film. Watt’s objections to the film thus give a new insight into his interpretations of novelistic realism. For example, in his reading of Richardson’s Pamela he saw the dangers of an apparently realistic novel which nevertheless entails a happy ending, thus giving “a new power to age-old deceptions of romance.” Novels, for Watt, pander to the reader’s dreams.
Although regarded as a critic who celebrates the rise of the realist novel, there is a more subversive aspect to Watt than is commonly perceived. MacKay’s article explains how Watt, and other twentieth-century critics who also suffered in the war, deserves to be reconsidered once his experiences in the Far East are taken into account. Although we may assume criticism is objective and rational, we should also be prepared to accept its basis in the unique biography of the writer, and the way that, as Watt wrote of the novel, criticism too is “subject to processes of history.”