The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s Troubles. This novel, which won the Lost Man Booker Prize more than thirty years after the author’s death, is the first in Farrell’s acclaimed Empire Trilogy. It is set in the crumbling Majestic Hotel, a symbol of the decaying British Empire, located in County Wexford in Ireland, at the end of the First World War and during a period when unrest in Ireland is increasing. Major Archer, who had been invalided out of the army for what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, seems to have accidentally got engaged to Angela, daughter of the owner of the Majestic and goes to stay with the family there, her father, staunchly opposed to any Irish independence, her irresponsible brother and her almost evil twin sisters. He barely sees Angela, who is ill, but watches as both the hotel and British rule in Ireland, crumble in synchronicity. It is a superb novel and deserves the reputation it had when it first came out.
I have now read at least one book by all twenty of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists so I feel I should now make a few comments. A couple of caveats. Firstly, with four exceptions, I have only read one work by each of them. Many of them have only written one novel but some have written more. Is it fair to judge them on such a limited output? Probably not but I am going to do so anyway. The second caveat is very obvious. Many novelists do not shine with their first or earlier books. Indeed, some novelists make a determined effort to reject their earlier work. Some novelists, of course, produce brilliant early work and then fade away. However, while some of these may turn out to be brilliant later in their careers, I can only judge them on what I have read.
Kamila Shamsie – not British
First let’s start with the problems. Granta has always tried to be inclusive and that is as it should be. If you have British nationality, even if you might have been born and bred elsewhere, have another nationality and essentially write about elsewhere, you can qualify. The first list included an Indian (Salman Rushdie), a Nigerian (Buchi Emecheta) and a Trinidadian (Shiva Naipaul). Given that the list says British novelists, I do have something of a problem with that. Yes, Rushdie and Emecheta lived a long time in the UK and Naipaul some time but they were were writing about their culture which was not British. This current list has an American (Benjamin Markovits), a Bangladeshi who studied in the US (Tahmima Anam), a Chinese woman whose forthcoming novel is called I am China (Xiaolu Guo), a Pakistani (Kamila Shamsie) and an Afropolitan (Taiye Selasi) – it’s her term; she has a Ghanaian father, Nigerian mother and was educated and lives in the US, though she was born in London which is presumably why she qualifies. I do not consider these people British and they should not be on the list. I have no problem at all with Nadifa Mohamed, born in Somalia but has lived in the UK since she was five, David Szalay, born in Montreal but moved to the UK when he was one and Evie Wyld, who grew up in New South Wales. And, of course, British literature has been very much enriched by writers with immigrant backgrounds such as Zadie Smith (also on this list) and Hanif Kureishi.
An autobiographical novel
The character Benjamin Markovits in the real Benjamin Markovits‘ Childish Loves says The kind of book I like to read, the kind of book I have been trying to write, is a straightforward but textured account of a mildly interesting experience. I think that he is saying that he likes (semi-)autobiographical works of fiction rather than fully imagined ones. The (semi-)autobiographical novel has long been a staple of fiction and there are many fine examples. We are seeing it currently in autofiction, a technique used by many contemporary French writers but there are many other examples. I have to admit that I prefer fully imagined fiction. However, the point to make here is that once you have written your (semi-)autobiographical fiction, where do you go afterwards? You could do like Karl Ove Knausgård and keep on producing more. I must admit that I was not terribly excited by his first one (though many people were) and I have yet to read his second one (though I will) and his third one will appear later this year. But Karl Ove Knausgård was in his forties when he started. These twenty writers are, by definition, all under forty. Do they have enough to sustain more autobiography? Of course, many writers of imagined fiction incorporate autobiographical elements in their work but that is not the same thing.
I enjoyed eighteen of these writers. I did not really enjoy Mr. Fox and The Raw Shark Texts. Both were too contrived and tried to be too clever for my taste. However, by the same token, with the possible exception of Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did not think that I was really going to look forward too much to the future writing of these novelists. Of course, some of them will prove me wrong and produce future works of high quality that I and others will really enjoy. Of the twenty writers, I have only high regard for four of them. As well as Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith, I did like Naomi Alderman‘s The Lessons and thought it showed considerable potential. I felt the same about Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go, though given its very autobiographical nature, I wonder where she will go with her next work. Zadie Smith needs no introduction. She is one of the finest contemporary British novelists. Yes, I am aware that all four are women and,no, this was not a conscious decision to select women writers, though given that twelve of the twenty were women, maybe this is showing that women are going to take over, particularly when we think of the Man Booker and German Book Prize and Nobel Prize winners. I shall keep a close eye on Alderman and Selasi and will continue to read Hall and Smith.
Last week saw the issue of the very wonderful Review of Contemporary Fiction’s The Future of British Fiction, edited by Jennifer Hodgson and Patricia Waugh. It is dated Fall 2012 but actually appeared on 23 April. This is, of course, St George’s Day, St George being the patron saint of the English (but definitely not of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish). It was also World Book and Copyright Day. (No, nor did I.) It is also the day that traditionally saw the death of two famous writers, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, though, in fact, neither actually died on that day. Shakespeare did die on 23 April but 23 April according to the Julian calendar not according to the Gregorian calendar, which we now use, according to which he died 3 May. Cervantes died on 22 April and was buried 23 April. (As I am indulging in trivia, I can only think of one other example when two famous people died on a day which had some significance other than their death – 4 July 1826 saw the death of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the second and third US presidents, both dying on the 50th anniversary of the (non-)signing of the US Declaration of Independence (which was actually signed by most (but not all) signatories on 2 August of that year. All of this trivia has nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, Cervantes or the future of British fiction.)
Jane Austen – have we not advanced since her?
Though the issue is called The Future of British Fiction, it seems to be more about a) the past; b) current non-mainstream fiction and c) English, Scottish (and, to a much lesser degree) post-colonial fiction, with the Welsh and Northern Irish barely getting a look in. Not a great deal about the future. The number starts off with an introduction by the two editors, where they tell us straightaway that this issue is not about the future of British fiction but about British contemporary fiction (sic – I would have said contemporary British fiction but maybe that’s just me). They go on to point out that innovative writing has not been seen either side of the Atlantic over the past forty years, with only a few exceptions (they name Kazuo Ishiguro and Alasdair Gray as examples). They may well be right, though I think it is not quite as simple as that. J G Ballard famously said, in 1971, Something like 5000 novels are published every year and the great majority show no advance in vocabulary, technique, style on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The great majority do not but some do. However, this raises a question I shall discuss below in relation to Stewart Home, namely so what if there has been no innovation in vocabulary, technique and style since Jane Austen?
Michael Gove, Secretary of Education – not a modernist
Waugh and Hodgson go on to cite a British writer currently feted in academic Europhile circles (Tim Pears? Adam Thorpe? completely fictitious in order to make a point, as a former Times journalist and current Mayor of London did with a quote?) who declined their invitation to write about the new fiction in Britain (new? contemporary? future? WTF is it?). He said I didn’t know there was any. That has to be very stupid remark. Authors notoriously often do not read other current fiction but to say there is none (see Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, announced last week) is about as realistic as George Osborne’s economic policies. Note Waugh and Hodgson said new, not innovative where our academically feted author may have a point. They go on to say that postmodernism is no longer fashionable (quite true, though, for most readers, they don’t care whether a novel is pomo or not, they just want to enjoy it) and has been replaced by other -isms, often ending in realism, such as hysterical realism, dirty realism, etc. (again, this is academic talk, not the general reader.) Where they do have a very strong point is showing that, with the current government, we are heading back into the past, including in literature, when there are interesting modern authors in the UK. They go on to point out that many innovative authors in the UK are eschewing Englishness or Britishness but looking to Europe or the US for influence and writing not about Jane Austen’s provinces or the centre of London but the urban fringes.
Not the British future
Though they do not use the word, they do point out that the strength of the British novel in the post-war 20th century is its eccentricity and that its recent failures are because of late consumer culture and New Philistinism, as though philistinism was something that was invented by Margaret Thatcher (she may have promoted it but she certainly did not invent it). The concept of British, which most people do not seem to identify with, also seems to be a problem (but not, I think, for most readers, at least as regards what and how they read). Post-colonialism (whatever it may be – Kazuo Ishiguro is not sure) and novels as a way out of loneliness (hasn’t that always been the case? – ask, yes, Jane Austen) are more grist to their mill, while Colm Tóibin (not British) damns the English style and Zadie Smith hails two writers as the hope for avant-garde British writing – Joseph O’Neill (not British) and Tom McCarthy. And that’s it? Oh dear. And, finally, after twenty pages, on the penultimate page of the essay, they wave hauntology/psychogeography as the way to go. But isn’t that so very much last year? The writers they cite – Will Self, A L Kennedy, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Scarlett Thomas, Nicola Barker and David Peace – have all been writing for at least ten years and, in some cases, more than twenty. All are over forty and two are over fifty.
Pau Crosthwaite likes it
Which, of course, brings me to Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. The writers mentioned above as the way to go were not on Granta’s list, of course, as they are all over forty. This list, which they could not have known, would appear a week before this issue. Zadie Smith apart, the twenty do not get a mention in this issue. While we can and, indeed, have taken issue with the Granta selection, surely, if we are looking at the future of British fiction, we should be looking at some of these writers and, in particular, the under forties? No? OK, let’s move on. The second essay is by Maureen Freely (an American, who has written experimental novels, though is best known as the translator into English of Orhan Pamuk). Freely damns creative writing courses, damns the lack of translations into English of good novels and damns what she calls the Invisible Hand of the publishing industry which sets taste and eschews experimentalism. Sadly, after the opening section, looking back, she does not mention a single novel or novelist. Paul Crosthwaite takes on novels about the financial markets, rightly damning Sebastian Faulks‘ A Week in December while praising a few others such as Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon. After an interview with Jim Crace (a very fine writer, who has a new novel out which I intend to read shortly) by Jennifer Hodgson (As a nation of readers, Brigid Brophy characterised the British as ill-at-ease and bashful about the fictiveness of their fictions, equating stories with daydreaming and daydreaming with masturbation, and believing both to be bad for the eyesight.), we move onto Katy Shaw on David Peace.
Stewart Home’s direct writing for the proletariat
And then there is Stewart Home. He starts off by saying Humanity will not be happy until the last Man Booker Prize winner is hung by the guts of the final recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (He puts it all in upper case, just in case you didn’t get the point.) He then excoriates the likes of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan (bourgeois hacks). These and other similar writers don’t know the first thing about how ordinary people live and they don’t know how to write while proletarians prefer to use direct language – presumably as in their favourite reading, The Sun. He does not mention any writers whom he admires, except for passing references to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and even they get damned. There is no future for the type of bourgeois literary fiction that dominates publishing today he says, though it is not clear what there is a future for, apart from what he calls proletarian writing which, in the past, has sadly not done well. His own fiction writing is replete with graphic and gratuitous sex, which the proletariat will certainly like, and he does like to stick it to the bourgeoisie, which is certainly a very worthwhile thing to do. Indeed, his works do have a certain interest. However, Stewart, my love, I have news for you. There is room for your writing and there is also plenty of room for what you call bourgeois writing. I am very much in favour of experimental writing but let us not forget that Ulysses was published eighty-one years ago and many readers find that too innovative and few writers have produced anything more innovative and, at the same time, that people want to read, since that time. So let us leave space for the experimental, the innovative and, yes, the proletarian, while also leaving room for the bourgeois novel, which is what most people want to read.
A 1914 novel – the future of British fiction?
In the next essay, Carole Jones talks about the Scottish novel, so it is a pity that there is virtually nothing on the Welsh and Northern Irish novel. She talks a lot about James Kelman, a writer whom, I confess, I do not enjoy but also about A L Kennedy, Alan Warner and Ali Smith. Victor Sage talks about Nicola Barker, a writer I do intend to read soon, before we get on to China Miéville. I have to admit that I did not take to his kind of fantasy but this is a failing on my part, not his, as I know a lot of people do admire him.. His essay is entitled 5 to Read and it consists of five recommendations of books in the fantasy genre. Interestingly, for an essay focussed on the future, it starts with a book first published in 1914. This is Marion Fox‘s Ape’s-Face, republished in 2006 by a small Canadian publisher. I had never heard of her or of three of the others. One – called I Hips – I can find no reference to by Googling or in WorldCat so s/he (Miéville says he does not know the sex of this author) may be fictitious. The one I have heard of is William Hope Hodgson, whom I hope to read and who has been championed by Iain Sinclair, amongst others. We conclude with an essay on Cosmo-kitsch, which you can read for yourself and an article on teaching creative writing.
The New Review reviews the State of Fiction
It is a decidedly mixed bag, which has some interesting articles but not much on the future of British fiction and barely a single reference to any younger writers (who, presumably, are the future). While they did not have the Granta list to hand, they could and should have tried to explore some of the younger writers and what they are doing, instead of writing about books published in 1914 and authors over forty. I dug out some older Future of Fiction essays to compare. In 1978, the long since defunct New Review had a State of Fiction Symposium in which they asked various authors as well as as few critics about the development of fiction in English over the past ten years and anticipated or hoped for developments in the next decade. There were some interesting comments. J G Ballard said the role of imaginative fiction becomes more and more important for survival, while Martin Amis commented I can imagine a novel that is tricksy, alienated and as writerly as those of, say Robbe-Grillet while also providing the staid satisfactions of pace, plot and humour with which we associate, say, Jane Austen. Stewart Home would not like that. Lots of other interesting comments, some of them still valid thirty-five years later. In 1992 ANQ published a forum on the future of American fiction, edited by Lance Olsen, who wrote an essay on the Michael Jacksonization of American Fiction, by which he means that everyone is playing it safe, going for the predictable and what sells. However, he does look at possible trends – cyberpunk, the graphic novel (not mentioned at all in The Review of Contemporary Fiction) and a host of other possibilities as well as a host of interesting writers. There are lots of interesting contributions from writers like Kelly Cherry, Tracy Daugherty, Janice Eidus, Robin Hemley and Jerome Klinkowitz. This was later published as a small, separate book called Surfing Tomorrow: Essays on the Future of American Fiction. I will also mention in passing a previous Review of Contemporary Fiction, the David Foster Wallace-edited forum on the Future of Fiction in 1996. This is a complex set of essays but with lots of interesting ideas (Q. Will John Updike be remembered a hundred years from now? A. John who?) and still available. I look forward to rereading it and seeing where the current British one could have done better.
A recent study has concluded that US writers are more emotional than British ones, at least since around 1960 (they were about the same before). This is not a major surprise, except, perhaps, to Bridget Jones. However, what the study does not mention is what books they used, apart from the fact that they were fiction. Were they thrillers? Literary fiction? Children’s? Romance? Stephen King? J K Rowling? Stephenie Meyer? Hilary Mantel? Inevitably a US publication used the term stiff upper lip in its article on the topic. What is also not surprising is that US authors used a lot more words like independent, individual, unique, self, solitary and personal and far fewer using words like communal, team, collective, village, group and union. While this may be a terrible trait in a nation, as it means that the nation is essentially selfish (cf issues around gun control, health insurance, etc.), it does tend to produce better art, as the weird individual is generally going to be a better artist than the community-minded one. In passing, I would just mention that there is no doubt in my mind that, as a whole, the US has produced the best novels of the twentieth century.
Hilary Mantel – more cerebral?
British writing or, at least, English writing (did the study pay much attention to Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish writing?) has been certainly more devoid of passion and individualism. We did not need a study to tell us that. Writers like Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift are noted more for producing cerebral writing and less for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Even if they do describe emotions, as Mantel clearly does, they themselves do not show it, the way many US writers do. However, without knowing what books were used and the criteria for selecting those books, I think that we can say that the general conclusions of the study may well be valid and interesting, but we cannot deduce too much from it.
Samantha Harvey’s first novel. Will she make the list?
Back in January, I commented on the forthcoming Granta list of the best 20 young novelists and, in particular, Philip Hensher’s comments thereon. Hensher had made his own suggestions as to who should be on the list – ten certs: Jon McGregor, Zadie Smith, Ned Beauman, Ross Raisin, Joe Dunthorne, Sarah Hall, Adam Foulds, Samantha Harvey, Nick Laird, and Paul Murray and ten possibles: Stuart Neville, Naomi Alderman, Evie Wyld, Neel Mukherjee, Courttia Newland, Tahmima Anam, Owen Sheers, Helen Walsh, Alex Preston, and Gwendoline Riley. Former Granta editor and Guardian columnist Alex Clark has now published her suggestions as well as an article on how the list is chosen (she was on the selection committee ten years ago). Clark just has one list. Those in bold above are on Clark’s list. She also has
Sam Byers, Edward Hogan, Stuart Evers, Stephen Kelman (of whom Hensher says I think the judges will pass over A.D. Miller and Stephen Kelman, relics of the worst Booker shortlist ever in 2011), Rebecca Hunt, Francesca Segal, Helen Oyeyemi and Kerry Hudson.
Zadie Smith – not on Clark’s list as she was on the last list
There are a couple of surprises. Clark has no Zadie Smith (though she does say that she may well appear again – she was on the list ten years ago). There is a precedent for writers appearing on two lists, with Adam Mars-Jones appearing on the first two lists despite the fact that his first novel was not published till after the second list was published. And Smith is younger than Sarah Hall who (quite rightly) appears on both the Hensher and Clark list. The same applies to Adam Thirlwell who is under forty but appeared on the last list. Neither list seems to be very strong on Welsh or Scottish authors. From Wales, what about Cynan Jones, Caryl Lewis or Gee Williams? And, from Scotland, there are Alan Bissett, Sophie Cooke and Eleanor Thom. Helen Oyeyemi did not make Hensher’s list though she has definitely moved up the rankings in the last couple of months. However, apart from Oyeyemi, Smith, McGregor, Hall and Paul Murray (who is not British but Irish), few have much of reputation, I would have thought.
The results are published by Granta on 15 April and you can bet that there will be a few surprises, including at least two or three who are not on either Hensher’s or Clark’s list and possibly including, as has happened before, two or three writers who have yet to have a novel published. Wouldn’t it be nice if they had on their list a writer who writes in Welsh, Gaelic or some other non-English language? Naah, it’s not going to happen.
Here is the first (1983) list: William Boyd, Adam Mars-Jones, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Clive Sinclair, Buchi Emecheta, A N Wilson, Ursula Bentley, Christopher Priest, Maggie Gee, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Shiva Naipaul (died 1985), Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Norman, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain, Lisa St Aubin de Teran, Alan Judd, Salman Rushdie. Of those, Barnes, Barker, Emecheta, Priest, McEwan, Amis, Naipaul, Ishiguro, Swift, Tremain and Rushdie have all gone onto fame and, perhaps, fortune. Adam Mars-Jones appeared not only on this list but on the next one. By the time of the second one, he still had not written a novel. He has gone on to write three more novels. I have read one and I thought it was dire. But he is a good critic. Clive Sinclair looked interesting – I thought Bedbugs wasn’t bad – but it never seemed to happen for him and he faded away. A N Wilson is very well known as a critic and historian and less so as a novelist. I have to admit that I have never read Ursula Bentley, who wrote black comedies. All of her books are out of print and she sadly died in 2004. I did read a couple of Maggie Gee’s early books. Though she has continued to write and publish, she seems to have slipped out of the public eye somewhat. I am not sure why. I was surprised to find Philip Norman on this list. For me, he will be remembered as the biographer of various pop stars but he apparently wrote seven novels, all long since out of print. I do have a copy of Lisa St Aubin de Terán’s Keepers of the House but I have not read it and probably will not. She is known but not to the degree of others on the list. Alan Judd is also still writing. Short of Glory is great fun but not great literature. He now seems to write more popular fiction.
A L Kennedy’s Paradise – one of the best of the Granta writers
Here is the second (1993) list: Helen Simpson, Alan Hollinghurst, Tibor Fischer, Lawrence Norfolk, Adam Lively, Philip Kerr, Will Self, Adam Mars-Jones, Candia McWilliam, Ben Okri, Louis de Bernieres, Esther Freud, Iain Banks, A L Kennedy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Caryl Phillips, Anne Billson, Nicholas Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson. I have actually read books by all of these writers and there are some very good one: Hollinghurst, Norfolk, Okri, de Bernieres, Banks, Kennedy, Phillips, Shakespeare and Winterson. Helen Simpson has not written much and mainly stories, which is probably why she is not particularly well-known. Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog was an excellent work but, like other authors before him never really followed up with a comparable work. Adam Lively was the same. His Sing the Body Electric was a fascinating piece of work but he never wrote another novel. Candia McWilliam had serious health problems, which meant that her novel writing career ended some time ago, though she started off well enough. As the daughter of Lucian and great-granddaughter of Sigmund, Esther Freud had the right genes. She also started off well but seems to have faded away. Anne Billson is more of a horror writer so perhaps should not have been on this list.
One of the best novels of the 2003 Granta best young writers
I think the jury is still out on much of the third list: Sarah Waters, Monica Ali, Andrew O’Hagan, Dan Rhodes, Rachel Seiffert, Toby Litt, Rachel Cusk, Alan Warner, Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, Susan Elderkin, Stephen Gill, Peter Ho Davies, A. L. Kennedy, Ben Rice, David Peace, Hari Kunzru, Philip Hensher, Robert McLiam Wilson, Zadie Smith, Adam Thirlwell. I must confess that I have not read or even heard of any of the novels of Andrew O’Hagan, Dan Rhodes, Rachel Seiffert, Susan Elderkin, Stephen Gill (who is primarily a photographer), Peter Ho Davies or Ben Rice. This undoubtedly reflects my ignorance but, I suspect, I am not alone in this. Waters, Ali, Litt, Cusk, Warner, Barker, Mitchell, Kennedy (again), Peace, Kunzru, Hensher, Wilson, Smith and Thirwell have all gone on to some success.
So onto this year’s list. Hensher has some interesting ideas. I must say that I have heard of all of his top ten, though only read Zadie Smith, Sarah Hall and Paul Murray. However, I have only heard of a couple of the second ten, though it is interesting to see that Gwendoline Riley is there, though I don’t think she really lived up to the promise of Cold Water. His list seems excellent to me, though I think he might have considered Yvette Edwards, Adam Roberts and Caryl Lewis. I shall look forward to seeing this year’s list, which will doubtless have a few surprises and a few writers who will go onto fame and fortune.
I have just added a list of novels featuring Englishness to my site. I have been considering this for a long time but have hesitated for a number of reasons. Firstly, it smacks of jingoism and excess nationalism, which I am not too keen on. Secondly, it all looks a bit nostalgic and hearkening back to an England that probably never existed, except in the minds of novelists, while avoiding the grim reality that many people have to face, which may represent the real England more than churches, cricket matches and tea with the vicar. Thirdly, it is difficult to say that this novel represents Englishness while this other one does not. Despite all that, I have gone ahead and done it, partially (though only partially) prompted by the Olympics enthusiasm, though I am sure many people will disagree with my choices.
Like, I suppose, many people, my idea of Englishness is coloured by the standard picture postcard of England – churches, meadows, teas on the lawn, pre-Raphaelite paintings and Downton Abbey. In short, the usual stereotypes. This is not the England that most people live in and while most people do not live in slums (as in the drawing on the right), they do not live in Downton Abbey or snow-covered country cottages either. But if Englishness is middle-class dreariness, semi-detacheds, Tescos, boring office jobs, watching the football on telly while eating crisps and takeaway curries, then my list would not be very interesting. Albion magazine has a view of Englishness which both covers the traditional view but also takes a certain detached approach. Isabel Taylor, for example, in the first of the series Exploring Englishness looks at the idea of the rural myth, which informs our traditional view of Englishness (churches, cricket matches and cream teas).
Nonetheless, I have done my Englishness list and will stick with it for now. What about other -nesses? French has the concept of francité, the equivalent of Frenchness. So what goes there? The stereotypes of the Eiffel Tower (at left), Napoleon, French bread, an onion seller? And which authors? The Parisians like Proust, Colette, Cocteau and Gide or the rural ones like Bosco, Giono and Mauriac, who I have yet to put on my site? Is it the nouveau roman or the more conventional novel? And, as for Deutschtum, we foreigners are probably inclined to think of German military action and the Nazis as our stereotype which, I am sure, modern Germans would not welcome. WWAD (What Would Angela (Merkel) Do)? I have no idea. She has mentioned Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) as one of her favourite books from childhood, and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as two of her favourite authors, neither very German. Apparently, when she went on holiday two years ago, she was going to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (a gift from Ulrich Wilhelm, the then Government spokesman). Apart from a certain fascination with Russia, this tells us nothing about Germanness. I would be hard put to suggest any book as representing Germanness. So I have done my Englishness list, albeit with some trepidation at wandering into the murky waters of stereotyping but I shall leave it at that and there will be no Frenchness or Germanness or anything else-ness.
The English have something of a reputation for being eccentric. Dame Edith Sitwell famously wrote a book on the topic and there seems to be a more modern one as well. There is also an interesting anthology of eccentrics, which links them with villains, which, of course, they sometimes are. Eccentricity is by no means limited to the English, particularly where writers are concerned. The French, for example, have Proust with his long lie-in writing his novel or Céline with his Nazism or, indeed, more recently, Houellebecq and his strange and often impetuous behaviour. But, in this post, I want to discuss one English eccentric.
I first read Hadrian VII many years ago but have just reread it for my website. It was written by a man who was christened Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, though he used many pseudonyms during his life, most famously Baron Corvo, allegedly given to him when he was supported by the Duchess Sforza-Cesarini. His father’s family had manufactured pianos at one time but, by the time young Rolfe was born, business had gone down and they were now merely agents for the manufacturer. Rolfe attended school till he was fourteen but then left, not least because he did not fit in. He became a teacher but when, at the age of twenty-six, he converted to Roman Catholicism, he felt that he had a vocation as a priest and enrolled in a seminary. He did not fit in there so he went to a seminary in Rome. He was expelled from there because he also did not fit in. It has been suggested by Pamela Hansford-Johnson, in her introduction to the excellent collection of biographical essays on Rolfe, edited by Cecil Woolf called New Quests for Corvo, that he wanted less to be priest than to be Pope. Hadrian VII, of course, confirms this.
Poster for dramatisation of Hadrian VII
Like his fictional pope, Rolfe finally had to earn his living first by painting and then by writing. Much of his work is about the attacks he thought others had made on him and his literary attempts to redress these. One of many is his attack on Father Beauclerk over the painting of banners. This and other slights will appear in Hadrian VII. These were not his only themes. He was gay and homoeroticism certainly appears in his work. Premature burial also appeared in several of his works. Rolfe spent the last years of his life in Venice, where he died, aged fifty-five. He never made much of a living from either his painting or his writing, and lived, to a great extent, by scrounging off friends. After his death, his reputation diminished but, in more recent years, his reputation has risen, not least because he is an excellent writer and, though his work is certainly eccentric, his eccentricity adds to the the fascination of works such as Hadrian VII.
I have yet to read John Lanchester’s Capital or, indeed, any of his other books, but will probably do so in the next few weeks. However, I was intrigued by the heading to the review of his novel in the Guardian. The online edition merely said Capital by John Lanchester – review. However, the print edition said The Hunt for the Great British Novel. This raises a few points. Firstly, nowhere in Theo Tait’s review does it mention the Great British Novel, either suggesting Capital is the Great British Novel or discussing the concept. Secondly, what it does do is say if you want to read John Lanchester’s great London novel, then read Mr Phillips. I will ignore the sub’s giant leap from Tait’s suggestion of John Lanchester‘s great London novel to the Great British Novel in general but find it interesting that the assumption is that the Great British Novel may well be the Great London Novel (or vice versa). As I will shortly show, this is very much not the case. Thirdly, there is the interesting idea of the Great British Novel. The concept comes, of course, from the Great American Novel, on which I have a relatively long page on my website. The US literary world is moderately obsessed with this idea and it comes up frequently in US literary discourse, most recently after the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as well as the debate on sexism in the litcrit world. Indeed, as my page shows, there are several novels published in the US called The Great American Novel, most famously Philip Roth’s. Further down on my page, I have links to discussions of other Great…Novels but there is none relating to the Great British Novel. If you google the term, you will find a few hits, such as the Guardian’s very brief intro to the idea and a very feeble attempt to have a joint effort to write the Great British Novel, which leads to a now defunct site. But on the whole, we Brits don’t seem too keen on the concept though we have contributed to various best of lists .
A Scots Quair
So is there a Great British Novel? Firstly, we need to start with the word British. As I mentioned above, saying that the Great British Novel and the Great London Novel are synonymous is wrong not just because many great English novels were written away from and about other regions of England, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish might be even more upset by the idea. So let’s divide the Great British Novel into the Great English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Novels. So let’s start with the Scots. For me, the Scots Quair is the easy winner, though a case could be made for Lanark as well as for Kidnapped, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Waverley (or other Scott novels). My Scotland home page has various lists with suggestions.
Under Milk Wood
Wales is trickier. The two obvious choices are not novels. The Mabinogion is definitely the Welsh classic but it is a collection of legendary tales, not a novel. Under Milk Wood is a radio drama, later made into a film but not a novel. It is, however, the 20th century Welsh classic. While there are a lot of fine Welsh novels, I cannot say that any one is the Great Welsh Novel, not least because the Welsh, like many other nationalities, have been more interested in poetry than prose, as Harri Webb’s poem shows.
Táin Bó Cúalnge
Northern Ireland is going to have to go the same route as Wales, as its great novel is not a novel but a legend, namely The Táin Bó Cúalnge (Cattle Raid at Cooley). Some (particularly the Protestants) may argue that this should be associated with the Republic of Ireland but it was very much part of the Ulster Cycle when Ulster played a major role in pre-Protestant, pre-Cromwell history. Apart from that, At Swim Two Birds might be a possibility, as O’Brien was born in what is now Northern Ireland but I am not sure that he would have wanted to be associated with what we now call Northern Ireland. There are other fine novels from Northern Ireland but probably none could be considered the Great Northern Irish Novel.
Which brings us to England. The 20th/21st centuries are singularly lacking in Great Novels. Brideshead Revisited could possibly be a candidate, as could Mrs. Dalloway or Heart of Darkness. I would stake a claim for Crash though I am not sure many would agree. However, it is probably to the 19th century that we should turn for the Great English Novel. While Mrs. Dalloway is set in London, it is hardly a London novel. The same could be said for Crash. The other two certainly are not, set primarily in Oxford/Yorkshire (given that Brideshead is based on Castle Howard) and the Congo, respectively. The best 19th century novels are even less London novels.
You can see what I consider to be the best 19th century English novels as they are in my Best 19th century novels list. Beauchamp’s Career and Vanity Fair are set partially in London and partially elsewhere. Bleak House and the Palliser novels are set in London. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, Lavengro, Middlemarch and Erewhon are not. All have claim to be the Great English Novel but I would be hard pressed to pick one as the Great English Novel.
Part of the issue with Capital is that, because of the current situation, the Great British/English Novel should be about finance and, for that reason, Capital has been put forward. Till I have read it, I will be unable to say for sure but, I suspect, it is no more worthy of the title than A Week in December, Other People’s Money and other recent financial novels. I will probably come back to this topic of the great British/English novel but let me just conclude by saying that a) it is not clear what is, if any, the Great British/English Novel and b) it is certain that, as yet, no 20th or 21st century novel can lay claim to the title.
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