Family century - Martin, by Evelyn, out of Saul

Imagine a visit by Waugh to the Bellow stud. Whom do they beget? Amis <em>fils</em>, of course. Robe

People like to think of the literary world as a mafia (keep your friends close, and your enemies closer). It isn't really true, especially now, when literature in English from all over the world - from India, Africa, the Caribbean, Australia and North America - has supplanted mere English lit as a worthwhile subject of study. But now that we are all, as it were, on century duty, it is at least possible to see the English novel as some sort of family saga. This is the way we are encouraged to think of it by the Internet bookstores, at any rate, which now routinely function as dating agencies, recommending that if we like this by Jeanette Winterson then we might well enjoy that by Italo Calvino. It is leading to a discernible bunching of writers, bound together not just by shared subject matter (if you liked Birdsong, then why not try Vera Brittain?) but also by disposition and temperament.

This is not to say that the century in books has been a biological or even a chronological affair (though literature does run in families - witness the Waughs, Mitfords, Sitwells, Amises, Durrells, Naipauls and so on). On the contrary, the 20th century is the story of the jostling between powerful aesthetic dynasties, which have passed on and mingled their sensibilities in sometimes surprising ways. At the start of the century there were four major godfathers in the frame - James, Conrad, Lawrence and Joyce - and the story that follows largely concerns the various liaisons of their descendants. It sounds like a joke - there was an American, a Pole, an Englishman and an Irishman- but it reminds us that English has always been a magpie literature. There is nothing at all novel in the influence of foreign or colonial voices in our literature. Two of our most cherished classics - the Bible and the Morte d'Arthur - are translations, after all.

Tracing the descendants of these warring families leaves us with something that resembles, more than anything, a horse breeder's chart. We can say, for instance, that Martin Amis is by Evelyn Waugh out of Saul Bellow (plenty of stamina on the dam side), with a squirt or two of Nabokov in there somewhere, too; or that his father Kingsley was the fruit of a little-reported union between Waugh and Anita Loos (as in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Careful study reveals that Harold Pinter sprang from the inspired mating of Noel Coward and Samuel Beckett (a perfect marriage between witty drawing-room comedy and existential fury), and that the happy intercourse between D H Lawrence and The Diary of a Nobody led to the punctiliously annotated passions of Bridget Jones. Slipshod book-keeping, however, means that some cases are unclear. Of Salman Rushdie it is recorded only that he was conceived during a magical orgy at which Bulgakov, Gunther Grass and GarcIa Marquez were at least briefly present.

As the century dawned there were, naturally, some ageing relatives on the scene - redoubtable old troupers like Hardy and Meredith - but it was Henry, Joe, David and Jim, the elite gang of four, who ruled the roost. The Ambassadors (1903), The Golden Bowl and Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Sons and Lovers (1913), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-15), The Rainbow and Dubliners (1915) - it looks like an embarrassment of riches, though these days we talk as if we expect half a dozen such works to appear each autumn in time for the Booker.

James, the American, moved in the polished circles of high society and documented its moral follies and heartaches with uncanny if sometimes convoluted resolve; Conrad, the wanderer, looked to dramatise the wider world, and inspected the consciences of Europeans drowning in tropical horizons; Lawrence, the most obvious descendant of the classic Victorian novel, eulogised the growing pains and passions of young Englishmen and women; while Joyce rooted his work in the interior life, taking consciousness, not the outward accidents of life, as his preoccupying theme.

The James family amassed its fortunes by staying close to the mainstream, realistic tradition of the classic novel. Long conversations between people with upmarket names feature strongly. James's flirtation with Wilde brought a dandyish, sardonic flavour to his genteel model, and produced Waugh. Extremely energetic at stud, Waugh covered John Buchan to produce Graham Greene, whose spiritual adventures with Simone de Beauvoir led to the birth of Brian Moore, and possibly even to Shusaku Endo (the Japanese Graham Greene). James's chance liaison with Kipling, meanwhile, created E M Forster, who promptly made India part of the European grand tour and put the final polish on the country house furnishings that have been such a central part of English literary decor. Forster's own rash alliance with Sartre gave rise to three philosophically minded sisters, Muriel Spark, A S Byatt and Iris Murdoch - whose much satirised upmarket conversation pieces (Henrietta couldn't resist telling Montagu what Mauberly had told Virginia) gave many readers the uncanny feeling that those James boys were back in town.

Conrad's family is further flung and harder to locate: he fathered strays all over the world - Lawrence Durrell, Doris Lessing, V S Naipaul, Jan Morris - all of them of uncertain parentage, and all linked by a questing attitude to the knotty vexations of identity (often in adventurous tropical settings). His steadyish relationship with Jules Verne produced H G Wells, whose fancifulness and boyish charm strained the tangles out of the bloodstock to generate a confident and imaginative plain dealer. Later, Wells's short stint at the Hemingway stud in America also proved highly successful, siring Orwell, Huxley and Golding in one blue-riband week.

Conrad fathered the century's most interesting poetry into the bargain. No one expected great things of his association with G K Chesterton, but the combination of epigrammatic wit and religious confidence on the one side, and brow-smiting torments on the other, had spectacular results. Eliot and Auden both sprang from this union, and the Chesterton-Conrad stable also produced figures as diverse as John Betjeman and Philip Larkin, both of whom skipped the travel genre and stayed glumly at home, doing their questing among the spires and libraries of England.

The keynote of the Lawrence family is passion. Writers like Jean Rhys and Sylvia Plath were almost certainly the children of trysts with one of the Bronte sisters; and it was as guests in Lawrence's villa that Grass, GarcIa Marquez and the rest enjoyed the bacchanalia that produced, along with Rushdie, writers like Anthony Burgess and Ben Okri. But Joyce's family is more diverse. His most important offspring, the fruit of a chance encounter with Ford Madox Ford (or perhaps Arnold Bennett) - someone at a dinner in Bloomsbury, almost certainly - was Virginia Woolf, who inherited his faith in rhetoric and his preoccupation with interior life. It was inevitable that she and Yeats would produce Beckett, in whom the tension between outward fun and inner dismay found an uneasy balance; but her spirited involvement with the Italian trickster Italo Calvino was also productive, and has given us an array of modern writers: Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson and Julian Barnes, who all gaze into reflective rivers and crack soulful jokes.

On the whole, the families have kept themselves to themselves, only rarely risking a commingling. Conrad's Lord Jim jumped ship and brooded on his cowardice as an outcast; Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim merely panicked about the cigarette burn on his hostess's sheets. One interesting experiment between Graham Greene and Harold Pinter did, however, come up with Ian McEwan, whose neat thrillers laced with nastiness elegantly represented the characteristics of his bloodline. And when Martin Amis met J G Ballard, what else could come of it but Will Self?

The accidental but repeated couplings of D H Lawrence and Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast, meanwhile, produced what might one day come to be seen as the century's dominant genre: the bodice-ripper. If one of those teams up with a celebrity chef, the next century will have fresh food for thought: chopping and plucking novels. Come to think of it . . .

Robert Winder writes monthly in the "NS"

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery