Page 113 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 21

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107
L
e f tw ic h
— I
srael
Z
a ngw il l
she wrote this in 1928 she would not claim greatness for either.
Even then she was looking for a novelist to emerge whose work
would be recognisable “as that which traditionally belongs to
the novel,” and which “will contain and overpass all that the
novels of Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf have taught us of
the possibilities of the novel as a medium through which modern
life becomes articulate.”
I have been reading an essay on Conrad; the author, like him
an English-writing Pole, begins: “Can we risk trying to ap-
praise what is alive for us today in Conrad’s work? The risk is
a real one, for it implies among other things pretending to know
the essential characteristics of one’s own time, which he would
think ascertainable only by historians generations hence.”
Tha t is our problem with Zangwill, as with all the other
writers of his generation. We have to measure our distance from
them. In some respects, says Conrad’s reappraiser, “Conrad ap-
pears to us dated. We have moved away from the mood of
Conrad’s books.” Yet at the end he concludes: “But after we
have done our best to make conscious in ourselves all the dis-
crepancies between Conrad’s art and the contemporary type of
receptiveness, there can be little doubt which aspects of his art
have lost nothing of their power. Have there been many great
narrative artists to surpass Conrad in conveying the sense of
drama in life?”
Time is indeed a factor in our judgments. A man born a
hundred years ago is not writing of our present-day life and
problems. But of that whole group of writers whose centenaries
are round about now one may put the question Robert Kemp
asked during Barrie’s centenary: “I wonder if Barrie is standing
up to time much worse than his other gifted contemporaries.”
The Timelessness of Great Writers
Yet we can also overdo this sense of time, for great writers
and many near-great writers can and do convey a sense of time-
lessness in their work; their people live on, their scenes cap-
tivate us still. As Augustine Birrel says of Nathaniel Hawthorne,
who was born in 1804 and who died a hundred years ago with
all his great work accomplished: “Old Rebecca’s curse still re-
verberates in the rafters of
The House of Seven Gables
No, enduring literature is not written with its appeal only to
the present. Else the Bible would not be the great literature it
is. Quiller-Couch told us “we are a strenuous generation, with
a New Humour (a group to which the young Zangwill belonged)
and a number of interesting by-products, but a new
Tristram
Shandy
stands not yet among our achievements.” Chesterton