‘Choose life, choose radical…’
Trainspotting was radical, as were some of James Kelman’s works – pushing into the novel’s predominantly middle-class arena voices of council-estate addicts along with a Loachian rage of some of the apathy-stricken working-class. Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late must have been radical – and great – if Simon Jenkins used his privileged space in The Times to brand him an ‘illiterate savage’! Such a strong reaction is the best hallmark as it seems to come from fear of having ones ideas challenged.
Even years later many of the old radicals, now considered classic, still manage to retain punchy elements. Consider D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Mellors: a working-class man pining for an invigorated masculinity and sensuality. It was enough to send shivers of shock, and desire, up the spines of many, resulting in much debate and controversy.
And, a favourite, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – Hardy dissects the institution of marriage and an elitist education system. It infuriated one Bishop so much that he built a bonfire and threw Jude on top of it.
Yet, despite a few from the last decade, that once loud voice has now become a whimper.
Maybe it is because so many radical books, the majority of which are predicated on one or two key societal issues such as those tackled by Hardy, Lawrence and Welsh, operated from the left? It could be argued that being on the (moderate) right can never be radical because it is too supportive of the capitalist system that we all live within. Whereas even being of the moderate left is enough to have some up in arms, even those once claimed radical – with a few writers having famously jumped ship. David Edgar challenged those once loud-mouthed leftist writers who defected, along with their gobs, over to the right.
What these defectors, and former left radical writers, would claim is that they were simply ‘mugged by reality’ – as though their deep-pocketed retreat to the right was inevitable – they realised current reality was a universal truth that could not, therefore should not, be avoided, instead of seeing reality as a set of structures created by one particular group resulting in one particular ideology.
Perhaps the reason we have few radical novels is because, as Frank Kermode once said, the novel had become inextricably involved with, if not dependent on, those described as not ordinarily very interested in art; who are quite ready to judge fiction by standards that might seem tediously or even lethally conventional. That would be those who think of reading, and writing, only in terms of the formulaic. Kermode suggests popularity has brought with it a high price to pay - a market unwilling to entertain the radical, especially if it is synonymous with the left.
Yet how will history judge this period we are in by its novels?
Steven Connor in The English Novel in History claims that the post-war novel is not just passively marked with the imprint of history, but is one of the ways in which history is made, and re-made. A look at most novels today will give some indication of how our history will be made, and, groan – re-made.
But perhaps radical shouldn’t just be treated as synonymous with the left? A few years ago I found Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin radical, although it wasn’t the form – Shriver used the epistolary format so favoured by early eighteenth century novelists – but the content. Exploring a mother’s experience of having brought up a child who massacres sparked much debate around the old nature v nurture chestnut.
But maybe it’s just me – maybe I’m just overlooking those of today? What is your favourite radical novel? It would be good to have some recommendations in order to be re-inspired in the power and potential of the form we still, strangely, call novel.