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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsBooks And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - "The New Machiavelli"
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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - 'The New Machiavelli' Post by :redbrad0 Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2149

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - "The New Machiavelli"

(_2 Feb. '11_)

A pretty general realization of the extremely high quality of "The New Machiavelli" has reduced almost to silence the ignoble tittle-tattle that accompanied its serial publication in the _English Review_. It is years since a novel gave rise to so much offensive and ridiculous chatter before being issued as a book. When the chatter began, dozens of people who would no more dream of paying four-and-sixpence for a new novel that happened to be literature than they would dream of paying four-and-sixpence for a cigar, sent down to the offices of the _English Review for complete sets of back numbers at half a crown a number, so that they could rummage without a moment's delay among the earlier chapters in search of tit-bits according to their singular appetite. Such was the London which calls itself literary and political! A spectacle to encourage cynicism! Rumour had a wonderful time. It was stated that not only the libraries but the booksellers also would decline to handle "The New Machiavelli." The reasons for this prophesied ostracism were perhaps vague, but they were understood to be broad-based upon the unprecedented audacity of the novel. And really in this exciting year, with Sir Percy Bunting in charge of the national sense of decency, and Mr. W.T. Stead still gloating after twenty-five years over his success in keeping Sir Charles Dilke out of office--you never can tell what may happen!

* * * * *

However, it is all over now. "The New Machiavelli" has been received with the respect and with the enthusiasm which its tremendous qualities deserve. It is a great success. And the reviews have on the whole been generous. It was perhaps not to be expected that certain Radical dailies should swallow the entire violent dose of the book without kicking up a fuss; but, indeed, Mr. Scott-James, in the _Daily News_, ought to know better than to go running about after autobiography in fiction. The human nose was not designed by an all-merciful providence for this purpose. Mr. Scott-James has undoubted gifts as a critic, and his temperament is sympathetic; and the men most capable of appreciating him, and whose appreciation he would probably like to retain, would esteem him even more highly if he could get into his head the simple fact that a novel is a novel. I have suffered myself from this very provincial mania for chemically testing novels for traces of autobiography. There are some critics of fiction who talk about autobiography in fiction in the tone of a doctor who has found arsenic in the stomach at a post-mortem inquiry. The truth is that whenever a scene in a novel is _really convincing, a certain type of critical and uncreative mind will infallibly mutter in accents of pain, "Autobiography!" When I was discussing this topic the other day a novelist not inferior to Mr. Wells suddenly exclaimed: "I say! Supposing we _did write autobiography!"... Yes, if we did, what a celestial rumpus there would be!

* * * * *

The carping at "The New Machiavelli" is naught. For myself I anticipated for it a vast deal more carping than it has in fact occasioned. And I am very content to observe a marked increase of generosity in the reception of Mr. Wells's work. To me the welcome accorded to his best books has always seemed to lack spontaneity, to be characterized by a mean reluctance. And yet if there is a novelist writing to-day who by generosity has deserved generosity, that novelist is H.G. Wells. Astounding width of observation; a marvellously true perspective; an extraordinary grasp of the real significance of innumerable phenomena utterly diverse; profound emotional power; dazzling verbal skill: these are qualities which Mr. Wells indubitably has. But the qualities which consecrate these other qualities are his priceless and total sincerity, and the splendid human generosity which colours that sincerity. What above all else we want in this island of intellectual dishonesty is some one who will tell us the truth "and chance it." H.G. Wells is pre-eminently that man. He might have told us the truth with cynicism; he might have told it meanly; he might have told it tediously--and he would still have been invaluable. But it does just happen that he has combined a disconcerting and entrancing candour with a warmth of generosity towards mankind and an inspiring faith in mankind such as no other living writer, not even the most sentimental, has surpassed. And yet in the immediate past we have heard journalists pronouncing coldly: "This thing is not so bad." And we have heard journalists asserting in tones of shocked reprehension: "This thing is not free from faults!" Who the deuce said it was free from faults? But where in fiction, ancient or modern, will you find another philosophical picture of a whole epoch and society as brilliant and as honest as "The New Machiavelli"? Well, I will tell you where you will find it. You will find it in "Tono-Bungay." H.G. Wells is a bit of sheer luck for England. Some countries don't know their luck. And as I do not believe that England is worse than another, I will say that no country knows its luck. However, as regards this particular bit, there are now some clear signs of a growing perception.

* * * * *

The social and political questions raised in "The New Machiavelli" might be discussed at length with great advantage. But this province is not mine. Nor could the rightness or the wrongness of the hero's views and acts affect the artistic value of the novel. On purely artistic grounds the novel might be criticized in several ways unfavourably. But in my opinion it has only one fault that to any appreciable extent impairs its artistic worth. The politically-creative part, as distinguished from the politically-shattering part, is not convincing. The hero's change of party, and his popular success with the policy of the endowment of motherhood are indeed strangely unconvincing--inconceivable to common sense. Here the author's hand has trembled, and his persuasive power forsaken him. Happily he recaptured it for the final catastrophe, which is absolutely magnificent, a masterpiece of unforced poignant tragedy and unsentimental tenderness.

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