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Round table on Contemporary British Fiction Writing and the Man Booker Prize

Recent British Fiction

Concluding panel of the 2013 SEAC conference
Catherine Bernard, Jean-Michel Ganteau, Vanessa Guignery, Diane Leblond et Vanessa Guignery


Cette table ronde poursuit le travail amorcé lors du symposium de 2013 consacré par la SEAC aux évolutions récentes de la littérature Britannique et qui fut publié dans le n°45 d’Études britanniques contemporaines, sous forme d’un supplément intitulé « British Literature in the Present ». La table ronde qui conclut le colloque d’automne de la SEAC en 2013 fut l’occasion de nous tourner vers d’autres développements de la fiction britannique contemporaine, des mutations récentes de la politique éditoriale dont témoigne la liste de nominés au Booker Prize 2013, à la place de la tradution créative dans la fiction expérimentale ou encore à l’émergence de formes hybrides de fiction se confrontant à la radicalité de l’expérience.

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The 2013 Booker Prize: Towards Global Fiction

1Catherine Bernard

2In the wake of the 2013 symposium it seemed useful, for the present round table, to focus on the 2013 Booker Prize runners up, with the idea of trying to explore what that choice of authors and texts may reveal of broader trends in recent British fiction. Quite ironically, the moment these last few words are out—‘recent British fiction’—things seem to get critically out of hand, so problematic the word ‘British’ seems to have become on the British literary scene itself. As we will see though, such categorical destabilization is in itself revealing of the strategic nature of literary production in the complex, multi-centered, global context of culture today. Literature seems to have become a key factor in the cultural soft/smart power Britain intends to exert over the English-speaking world, and the list of Booker Prize nominees offers a privileged vantage point to read these cultural power relations.

3The most striking feature about the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist is its global outreach. If, as just suggested, literary prizes are good symptoms of the way a country or a cultural community reflects upon itself, then one may argue that the British literary establishment thinks global indeed.

  • 1 At the time I am finalizing the text of my contribution, the remit of the Prize has changed for goo (...)

4Among the nominees, one finds, alongside Jim Crace, a New Zealander, Eleaonor Catton, who was to be awarded the Prize, a well-established Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, an American writer born in London from Bengali parents, Jhumpa Lahiri, a Zimbabwean writer, educated in the United States, Noviolet Bulawayo, and an American-Japanese writer, Ruth Ozeki, who lives between New York and British Columbia, the latter topographical detail no doubt allowing Ozeki to qualify as a ‘Commonwealth’ writer. The Man Booker Prize’s reach has always been, by definition wide-ranging. In 2013, the website still defined the Prize created in 1968 as aiming ‘to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland’1. The 2013 shortlist stretches the original agenda to the point of making it somewhat obsolete. There no longer seems to be any limit to the pool of contenders the Prize’s judges may tap into.

5My point here is not to explore the complex interaction between what Richard Todd defined, in his ground-breaking study Consuming Fictions, ‘the mechanics of commerce’ that underlies the literary Prize culture and the way it interacts with ‘the formation of a particular kind of literary canon’. I am here more intrigued by the new range of voices found in the 2013 shortlist. If the Booker Prize is Britain’s institutional rejoinder to the still highly influential Putlitzer Prize, then it is all too obvious that Britain’s soft power aims at maximizing its impact by absorbing into its sphere of influence any writer who may have had at some stage of his/her life a faint connection with the Commonwealth. It thus results in an intensification of the cultural influence of a literary market that can no longer be defined as strictly British. Unless, of course, British literature has gone global to embrace literature in English at large (and this is precisely what the even more recent evolution of the Prize’s remit entails). I will not have the time to reflect in depth on what the limits of such an enlarged corpus might be, not on the political implications of such a cultural move. Suffice it to say here that the cultural war that is being waged between the British and the American literary establishments is meant to relegate the likes of Ben Marcus, Richard Ford and Richard Powers to what is meant to appear as the idiosyncratic insularity of a Mohican village too inbred and inward-looking to be welcomed into the fold of the only literature worth rewarding and reading, i.e. British/global literature.

6My point here is deliberately provocative and my argument does not reflect objectively on the plurality of this year’s shortlist. It aims merely at encouraging us to reflect on the shifting cultural boundaries of Britishness as it is reflected and fashioned by contemporary fiction and on the institutional story-telling the Booker Prize has promoted in recent years. It aims also at bringing us to try and unravel the differences between such unstable categories as Global/world literature.

7But, you may ask, what about the texts themselves? How do they compare with the rest of Britain’s recent literary production? Where do they belong on the thematic and aesthetic map of fiction?

8All, in one way or another, reflect on experience and history from the margins, or make room for the point of view of the overlooked or the dispossessed. The margins may be those of the former Empire or the margins within, produced by the silence of history. It is the case in Jim Crace’s novel, Harvest (Picador) which turns to a page of English history whose human implications has remained overlooked, i.e. the enclosures and their disruptive effect on village life and social bonds. As he already did in his 1992 novel Arcadia, Crace’s novel produces an unheimlich version of an England that seems oddly estranged from the received historical narrative that inscribes economic and social evolution in the abstract and structural logic of economic mutations.

9Other novels on the list try to fathom the sense of current crisis and approach issues of global breakdown as well as regional crisis from the point of view of children or teenagers. In Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate), this concern is embodied in a Japanese girl who may not have survided the 2011 tsunami in Japan and whose diary is washed on the shores of a Canadian island, as if reaching out across the Pacific and from the netherworld. In a vein reminiscent of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Knopf) describes the crushing brutality of history as it forces apart two brothers born in Calcutta. Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books) turns, for its part, to the world of African ghettoes and the dreams of youth hoping to carve out now identities—new names—for themselves away from the political chaos of contemporary Zimbabwe. With Lahiri and Bulawayo, this year’s Booker Prize seems to suggest that fiction itself ‘needs new names’, and also that it must confront the unpalatable truth of history. We Need New Names is an extension of Bulawayo’s Caine-Prize winning short story published in 2011 ‘Hitting Budapest’ and has raised suspicions that it promoted what some perceive as an aesthetic of suffering trapping the representation of Africa in stereotypical evocations of collective trauma. Thus one can only be struck by how much, in spite of those critical wariness, the theme of personal and collective trauma extends in fact across the Booker Prize selection, maybe hinting at the renewed urgency of finding a new language to allow fear, loss and pain to speak up, across the continents, and not only in disaster-stricken Africa. With Sontag, contemporary fiction as defended by the Booker Prize seems to newly ‘regard the pain of others’, whether these others be from without or from within, and both Jean-Michel Ganteau and Diane Leblond will not doubt return to this powerful trend in recent British fiction.

10Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (Viking/Penguin) offers another take on that urgent capacity of fiction to look at the overlooked. In a vein reminiscent of José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, it unfolds like a counter-Passion in which Mary tells the ‘truth’ about her son’s life and Passion and owns up to having deserted her son as he was expiring on the cross, in order to save her own life.

11The bitter truth in many of these novels is that of collective trauma, be it caused by ecological disaster or political tyranny. The ethics of collective care that seems to haunt many of these texts is in tune with the global turn of this year’s Prize. The novel gone global, needs also to embrace global themes and to confront world-scale issues. The lonely individual is seen caught in the vice of history, and battles against historical odds. We could even argue that all the runners-up are in one way or another historical novels striving towards a sense of coherence, a sense of connectedness cruelly absent from a world in the throes of chaos. Eleanor Catton takes the quest for a renewed sense of connectedness to another level by organizing her Prize winning historical novel set in 19thc New Zealand according to the Zodiac. The Luminaries (Granta) develops a poetics of intersection and connectedness that also underlies such novels as Hari Kunzru’s Transmission (2004) and Gods Without Men (2011), or Marina Warner’s The Leto Bundle (2001), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2005), or Jake Arnott’s House of Rumour (2013).

12To disruption and social disintegration, these novels oppose the cohesive potential of fiction making and narrative, when it reaches out to the underdog and the downtrodden. In that sense, one could argue that the global historical reach of these texts is also paradoxical familiar. It is in fact consonant with the British novel’s traditional social and historical inspiration and its compulsion to confront the complexities of historical experience the point of view of the dispossessed: from Dickens’ little Jo in Bleak House to Hardy’s misunderstood visionaries. The 2013 Booker Prize nominee list thus proves, once again, how the British novel is always already global, in its capacity to embrace the present and historical consciousness, especially when it is sustained by the energy of cathartic narratives able to confront the madness of loss, war and disaster.

Two Novels Inbetween: There But For The (2011) and Artful (2013), by Ali Smith

13Diane Leblond

14There But for The and Artful are Ali Smith’s latest novels. While they are, in many respects, very different from each other, they connect in that they both make for an experience of reading informed by a sense of inbetweenness.

15At the beginning of There But For The Miles, a guest at a dinner party, leaves the table halfway through the meal, goes upstairs and locks himself up in his hosts’ spare room, where he stays for several months. The novel is made up of four parts, each taking up and beginning with one word of the title in sequence: ‘There’, ‘But’, ‘For’, and ‘The’. Each part focalizes on, and is seen through the eyes of, one of four characters linked with Miles in a specific way. We are first introduced to Anna, a Scottish woman who met him as a teenager on a European tour organized for the laureates of a story-writing prize. We then share the perspective of Mark, a middle-aged man who met Miles at a performance of The Winter’s Tale and asked him to the dinner party. May, the third focalizer, is the elderly mother of a schoolfriend of Miles’s, who died at age 15. The novel closes with a section dedicated to Brooke, the young daughter of a couple of neighbours who were at the dinner party, herself an uninvited guest. The narrative rests on the way in which Miles’s decision brings those lives together for a while. His absent presence precipitates changes and connections, however minute. The novel begins as he locks himself up in the room, and ends once he has moved out again—to the dismay of his hosts, who have grown to enjoy the hype and media attention so much that they decide to perpetuate the illusion of his presence.

16Artful begins a year and a day after the death of the narrator’s lover. While carefully keeping the gender of both lovers unspecified, the narrative gives us an insight into the narrator’s bereavement. As it begins, the narrator starts to read both Oliver Twist and the lectures that the departed, an academic, never completed. The process of reading is paralleled by a very literal form of remembering: it conjures up the dead lover. The book begins both with the opening of Dickens’s novel and the return of the dead, and closes as the narrator finishes Oliver Twist and the lover has stopped his or her impromptu visits.

Between Genres and Media

17Neither novel settles for one particular form in the artistic repertoire: both playfully bring media and genres together. Artful is a hybrid: it originated in four actual lectures on comparative literature given by Ali Smith herself at Saint Anne’s College, Oxford, in 2012. The notes alternate with and partly blend into the discourse of the narrator as he/she reads—fiction and non-fiction are mixed, as are the media which the voice of the fictional, deceased academic brings to our attention. We are led to focus not only on literature, but also on the visual arts and music, while the narrator’s reflections on her own profession as a gardener gesture towards yet another artistic area. In that sense the book is ‘art-ful’ in that it constantly refers us to various art forms, linking more and less canonical works, songs and films—from Michelangelo sketches of the Virgin and Child to The Sound of Music, poems by Wallace Stevens, the frescos of Pompeii, and Beyonce’s ‘Halo’. The fictional universes built up by Ali Smith are filled with music and images: one of the lectures in Artful pays particular homage to Oliver!, Carol Reed’s 1968 musical adaptation of the Dickens novel, which the narrator recommended to the scholar’s attention as a personal favourite. The whole of the novel is haunted by the visual and musical presence of actress Aliki Vougiouklaki, a legend of Greek theatre and cinema in the second half of the 20th century. Terence, Brooke’s father in There But for The, shares the fascination of Artful’s narrator with the form of the musical, and in his presence Mark starts remembering lines and fragments of melodies that he had not thought of in decades.

18The hybridity of the writing material in Artful is matched, in There But For The, by the mixing of literary genres, from the more canonically acknowledged novel and short story to doggerel poetry and jokes. The novel includes the stories that Anna and Miles wrote to win a seat on the European tour twenty years ago, and in the end Miles writes another story as a gift to Brooke, which we realize we first read as a prologue to the novel. But literary creativity is by no means restricted to forms of story-telling, and the dialogues, as well as Anna’s and Brooke’s interior monologues, abound in wordplay.

Between Here and There

19On a more phenomenological level, inbetweenness comes into play in that both novels work to raise and question the issue of presence. For all the characters brought into contact with Miles, as well as for the lover who was left behind, ‘thereness’ is not a given: it becomes a problem, a question that is put to them, and to the reader. This transpires in the unexpected turn which the traditional opening words take on in Miles’s story: ‘There was once, and there was only once. Once was all there was . . .’ (Smith 2011, 73). The recurrence and gradual transformation of the phrase deconstructs it; it suggests that the initial assertion of existence begs a question: what exactly does it mean to ‘be there’?

20Both books point to paradoxical forms of presence and evoke the persistence of ghost-like figures. One such figure is the departed lover in Artful, whose return does not exactly match the romantic standards we would expect: the body of the visitor is falling apart—the nose, notably, disappears quite early on—, the smell of decomposing flesh is disturbing, and death has not made its snoring problem any better. On the whole, the ghost does not seem very intent on making contact. It is mostly interested in watching TV—which causes a certain bewilderment in the narrator: ‘You came back from the dead to watch TV?’ (Smith 2013, 12)—, painfully working on unfinished lectures while pulling its hair out, and stealing all kinds of things from the house, from mugs to lamps and car keys. In There But For The, all four protagonists are similarly haunted by the dead. Mark’s deceased mother has taken to speaking in his head and tormenting him in rhyme, May’s thoughts drift back to her daughter Jennifer and to Miles, who has been paying a visit every year on the anniversary of her death, and Brooke’s sleep is peopled by the victims of history, both seen and unseen.

21Words themselves become a focus in this meditation on absence and presence. In both novels particular attention is paid to all words, especially those that do not count: dummy words and adverbs, grammatical words whose semantics hardly factor in in our understanding of a sentence. The title of There But For The is made of a string of such words, and each part of the novel involves a reflection on the word itself. The first one concentrates on matters of ‘there-ness’, Miles writes a note on the meanings and functions of ‘but’ in the second, the third part rings with Jennifer’s question as to what people are ‘for’. The final section stages Brooke’s fascination for the crossing out of definite articles in newspaper titles: it seems to her that the press is replete with ‘implied the’s’ (Smith 2011, 309). This section also multiplies ‘the’s’ each time that it refers to Brooke’s chronicling practice, which involves keeping records of all she sees and learns in the form of notes beginning ‘The fact is…’, otherwise called ‘the The fact is notes’ (Smith 2011, 306, 334). In reminding us of the opening words of the prologue, ‘The fact is, imagine a man […]’ (Smith 2011, np.), the definite article eventually bridges the distance between the end of the novel and its very beginning, and brings the narrative full circle to the fictional retelling of Miles’s encounter with the child.

22In Artful, notes in the lectures of the departed similarly tend to capitalize words that do not conventionally deserve such attention. This elicits recognition in the fictional reader, who states: ‘The fact that you had capitalized the words the and in, in Putting The Form In Transformation, made me feel both vulnerable for you and proud of you’ (Smith 2013, 77–78), and it reminds the actual reader of There But For The. It suggests that the attention we bestow on a ghostly, overlooked word or meaning always constitutes a means of making contact, of partly closing the gap between ourselves and an ‘other’.

Between Meanings: Between You and I

23The sense of inbetweenness that both novels hinge on is best exemplified in their evocation of puns, jokes, and the pleasure that we share in them. Wordplay pervades all forms of writing and speaking in both books, and always serves to establish connections. In There But For The, putting words to work by making them ‘play’ different roles is also a means of structuring the novel as a whole. Anna, Miles and Brooke find a common ground in puns and jokes: they open up a space for encounters, as evidenced by the importance of ‘liminal’ jokes—‘knock-knock jokes’—in a context where, for months, a door separates a man from the rest of the world.

24Wordplay reminds us that the main concern in linguistic creativity is to reach out to a listener or a reader. In Artful, this is signalled by the gradual deciphering of Greek words within the text. The mysterious transcriptions of nonsensical sound sequences uttered by the ghost, ‘Greek to us’ at first, prove to be actual Greek words according to a therapist whose husband speaks the language. This detour via a foreign language is explained, when the lecture notes turn into a letter from the departed, who confesses to browsing the internet for Greek musicals the narrator might like while supposedly doing research. Reading and looking, it seems, are activities that are best performed in-between or, with an ‘other’ in mind. This includes the alternate meanings that might appear beside the literal understanding of a word, or a fixed phrase. It also comprehends the other person who might hear or interpret these formulations differently. In that respect, Smith’s constant references to music, film and literature open her writing onto the world that she shares with the reader as his or her contemporary. Just as in the letter left to the narrator of Artful, they map out potential web searches, and send us out hunting for videos and music, as well as further reading.

Experimentation and Tradition: Adam Thirlwell and Jonathan Coe

25Vanessa Guignery

Lost and Found in Translation: Adam Thirlwell’s Multiples

26Adam Thirlwell is the author of three novels: Politics (2003), The Escape (2009) and Kapow! (2012), a novel with such formal innovations as unfolding pages and blocks of text printed vertically or aslant. In 2007, he published Miss Herbert, a syncopated treatise about the art of translation. Thirlwell is thus clearly interested in experimentation and translation, as confirmed by his edition of Multiples, 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors (2013), originally published in 2012 in the literary journal McSweeney. An experiment in translation, Multiples is a literary version of Chinese whispers. The rules are as follows: ‘the first writer translates an unknown story into English, which a second writer then translates into a different language, and a third translates back into English, and so on’ (jacket). The specificity of the experiment was that ‘each translator was allowed to see only the directly preceding version in the series’ (5); the instructions were simply ‘to provide an accurate copy that was also a live story’ (5), and the complicating factor is that ‘not all of the writers are 100% fluent in the language they’re translating from’ (jacket). The twelve original stories are in eleven different languages (Danish, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, German, Arabic, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Hungarian, English, Italian), and the translations range from a length of one (A.L. Snijders) to ten pages (Kenji Miyazawa). Among the Anglophone writers are Colm Tóibín, Tom McCarthy, Zadie Smith, J.M. Coetzee, David Mitchell, Nadeem Aslam, John Banville and A.S. Byatt.

27It is interesting to note that the original stories are not provided to the reader, as the aim is to destabilise ‘the whole category of the original’ (5) and to point out that ‘literature is one of those strange arts where the original is often experienced as a multiple’ (1). For each story, the reader is usually presented with three versions in English, often the first and the last, so that he may compare them and see how much has been altered from the first to the last, as well as compare other versions if the reader is well-versed in other languages. The book is thus not meant to be read sequentially as the experiment entails going back and forth between different versions. At the end of each section, the writers who were willing to do so commented on their choices and difficulties.

28The aesthetic aim of the project was ‘to subject each story to as much stylistic multiplicity as possible’ and to observe ‘how far the stylistic essence of a story–its singularity–really could survive such a stylistic epidemic’ (4), ‘the aim being to preserve’ the story’s style as much as possible (3). Interestingly, some writers admitted they started with Google translation and did a straight translation from that. Hungarian writer Peter Hesterazy notes that it ‘produces nightmare-texts’ but he still used Google ‘to try and create a credibly bad text’ (77). But most often, the experiment in translation revealed the specific style of the writer. Nadeem Aslam argues: ‘every language is specific to the writer who is using it’, and adds: ‘John Banville once said that Vladimir Nabokov writes not in English but in a private language that is mysteriously comprehensible to English-speaking readers’ (135).

29Most writers insist that ‘translating is rewriting’ (Laurent Binet 78) and that their pieces are ‘more of an adaptation than a translation’ (Ivan Vladislavic 222). The results thus vary from ‘a gracious sense of fidelity to the dead’—as in J.M. Coetzee’s and A.S. Byatt’s versions—to ‘an ungracious glee in infidelity’ (7). Byatt believes ‘a translation should be as closely as possible a rendering of the original text, adding nothing and subtracting nothing’ (351); David Mitchell ponders whether ‘authorial fidelity or the zing of your prose’ is more valuable (134) while Wyatt Mason marries ‘dull black literality to hot red liberality’ (320). An example of liberality is the experiment of Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra who decided to translate a story by Kafka in poetic stanzas called décimas. He then digressed and went on with rhymed eight-syllable lines until he got what he calls ‘a short piece of Chilean hip hop’ (158). Lawrence Norfolk turned a Hungarian story in prose into verse, which the next translator turned back into prose (299 and 303).

30Apart from stylistic differences, some writers supplemented the text with illustrations (Julie Orringer 65-68) qualified as ‘Sebaldesque images’ (78), or footnotes that explain references in the text (Orringer 63-65; Lydia Davis 82-84), point to corrections provided by a friend (Sarah Manguso 311-317), or provide alternative translations (Andrew Sean Greer 329 and 333). Tom McCarthy (71-76) and Adam Foulds (343-349) divided their respective stories into short numbered sections, thus modifying the rhythm of the original. One also notes mistranslations, deliberate or not. In a story by A.L. Snijders, a magazine shop (82) becomes a bar (86), and two characters who live on opposite sides of a park (84), end up living together (83). In Alejandro Zambra’s version of the Kafka story, the synagogue (138) becomes a church (154), and the word ‘God’ is systematically erased from the text. In another story, Lebanon becomes London (205). Mistranslations can lead to comic results. Canadian writer Sheila Heti who barely knows French said she sometimes ‘went with rhyme’ (52), and thus chose ‘Nancy’ (44) to translate ‘Ainsi’ (31). She also turned ‘je peux reprendre mon souffle’ (31) into ‘I must slip away for a moment to reprimand my soufflé’ (44). In a Hungarian story, the phrase ‘Enterré vivant’ (302) is translated by Wyatt Mason into ‘Buried alive, like a miner, in a mine, a deep, dark, dank, and—in all likelihood—Chilean mine’ (305).

31The adaptation or betrayal sometimes reached extremes. Icelandic writer Sjón said he did not read the text he had to translate but gave it to his thirteen-year-old son who had half an hour to memorise it. He listened to his son’s oral retelling of it and three weeks later, wrote it down from memory (96). As for ‘Symphony n°2’ by Daniil Kharms, it becomes a very different story after Frédéric Beigbeder transforms it. The latter remarks: ‘You know what the Italians say: Traduttore, traditore. So I just did my job: to betray all of you guys. Please forgive me’ (222).

32This ‘babelian merry-go-round’ (321) raises fascinating questions about translation, and is maybe as much an experiment in creation as an experiment in translation, since the translators are novelists-translators, whose ethics are very different from that of the translator-translator (369). The most interesting part of the text may reside in the writers’ comments at the end of each section, as they synthesise what is most at stake in translation and reveal a lot about the various writers’ conception of language, style, authorship and voice.

British Comedy: Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58

33If Multiples is a fascinating feat of experimentation, Jonathan Coe’s tenth novel, Expo 58 (2013), is firmly set within the realist tradition. The novel is part of Coe’s major literary project, Unrest, in which he aims to trace the history of a fictional middle-class Midlands family throughout the twentieth century, a project that recalls other sequences of novels such as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time or Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. The book is set at the Brussels World Fair in 1958 where a British civil servant, Thomas Foley, has been sent for six months. 1958 represents a new era of modernity—or postmodernity—in Europe (as symbolised by the Atomium and the futurist postmodern architecture at the World Fair). Despite the modernity of the British Pavilion, the novel presents Britain as still entangled in the past, diminished by the loss of its Empire and reluctant to engage with the modern, as epitomised by the fake traditional pub, the Britannia, as the centrepiece to the British pavilion. The novel addresses such issues as the definition of Britishness and the construction of a European identity, while the World Fair presents a fake world, with ‘a fake pub, projecting a fake vision of England’, and Foley realises that ‘he is living in a world constructed entirely out of simulacra’ (179), thus anticipating Jean Baudrillard’s concept of simulacrum but also Julian Barnes’s theme park in England, England (1998).

34Coe describes the book as a ‘John le Carré meets Evelyn Waugh’ comic novel (2012), and it indeed mixes espionage, politics, comedy and romance, in a way that recalls Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958). The book is set during the Cold War, and has some of the ingredients of a thriller and spy novel. As such, it bears similarities with Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (2012), though Coe replaces the intellectual background with slapstick comedy. Coe insists that unlike What a Carve Up! (1994), the book is ‘not really a satire but a comedy’ (in Higgins). It may thus be read in conjunction with two recent essays Coe wrote on laughter and comedy: ‘Sinking Giggling into the Sea’ and ‘What’s so Funny about Comic Novels?’. In the former essay, Coe explains that laughter is neither a ‘force for change’ nor an effectual ‘form of protest’ but that it ‘actually replaces protest’: it is a ‘substitute for thought rather than its conduit’. He thus argues that comedy has lost its subversive dimension and can allow ‘the public to “disclaim with laughter” any responsibility for injustice’ (Coe 2003a). Coe’s points of reference for Expo 58 were the classic light comedy films of the 1930s and 40s, and the novel evokes the tone and atmosphere of the films starring Dirk Bogarde but also the Ealing Comedies and the Carry on series. The two British secret service agents recall the Thomson and Thompson of the Tintin books by Hergé, while the humour reminds one of P.G. Wodehouse and Kingsley Amis’s early novels.

35Expo 58 is interesting for what it reveals about the evolution of Coe’s career. Coe first published novels that were fairly experimental and partly indebted to B.S. Johnson, before moving on to what has been called a postmodernist exemplar with What a Carve Up! (but also The House of Sleep). Since then he has shifted further in the direction of the conventional realist novel. While he mostly set his previous novels in the contemporary world (the 1970s to the present), in Expo 58 he focuses on the 1950s and places his work in the tradition of the early Kingsley Amis, of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, thus reasserting his attachment to popular literature, comedy and the joys of story-telling.

Nicholas Royle’s Quilt: The Ethics of Melancholic Mourning

36Jean-Michel Ganteau

37In Nicholas Royle’s first novel, survival and melancholy are instrumental in voicing a relevance to the present, as seen in the afterword to the novel, strangely entitled ‘Reality Literature’. Through that piece, which literally survives the novel, we can see that the present is entrammeled in belatedness and can only be apprehended through its own survival, as suggested in the following words:

Reality literature seeks to question and complicate, to dislocate and interfere […] It is not a genre but something more ghostly and fleeting. Its vivacity is spectral: it knows that the dead speak and that without the completely unexpected openings generated out of mourning there could be no future. (158)

38As is often the case with Royle, the characteristics of reality literature are telepathy (reading the thoughts of others and receiving weird knowledge of the future), a taste for poetic disarray, an attention to weirdness, a rejection of the consumerist ethos. For Royle, there is ‘real trouble with and in language’, Anglo-American being a treacherous lingua franca, and this is why the novel ‘must meddle’, to resist and interfere so as to produce strangeness. Clearly, reality literature is an ethical response to the present.

39The novel starts on the eve of the main protagonist’s and narrator’s father’s death. It goes on to evoke the aftermath of the old man’s demise: the funeral and funeral party, and it broods on such activities as emptying the house, and of course both reminiscing and being overtaken by un-summoned memories. Loss and grief dominate and the wound of severed relation looms large. Tears are shed and the anonymous, grief-stricken son calls on his partner, who lives abroad, to come and help him go through this taxing period. Nothing out of the ordinary might be said to happen in this extraordinary period, but for the fact that the bereaved son transforms his late father’s eighteenth-century cottage into a sanctuary for rays, building two huge aquariums, one on each floor. Quilt injects incongruity into the narrative texture, multiplying pauses in which the observation of the ghostly, uncanny rays, ‘[u]ndewater birds in a phantom aviary’ (147), becomes one of the symptoms of melancholy mourning that clinches the narrative’s status as elegy.

40Perhaps the most obvious way in which the text signals its own and the protagonist’s ontological frailty and vulnerability lies in its resorting to a complex pronominal economy. The text begins as plain first-person narrative, with what looks like the main narrator and protagonist chronicling the circumstances of his father’s death. The narrative starts and goes on in fictional autobiographic mode, the better to veer towards impersonality at the beginning of Part II, when the bereaved son, no longer an ‘I’ or a ‘he’, starts being referred to and addressed as ‘you’: ‘In the doldrums of grief these blazing dog-days alone unflaggingly you patrol the extensive garden on a small tractor . . .’ (78). This uncanny sense of impersonalisation, underlines the fragility of the first narrator’s agency, and introduces de-ontologisation, as if cracks were beginning to appear in the protagonist’s psyche. As characteristic of pathological mourning, the loss of the loved one brings about the grieving subject’s identification with the lost object (Freud 56). The pronominal shifts and receding enunciative postures both thematise and perform such vulnerability and they radicalise it in the last part of the narrative, when the bereaved son’s gradual disappearance from the story goes along with a demotion from ‘you’ to plain ‘he’. Only the first person pronoun remains in the concluding paragraphs, describing the motions of a gigantic manta ray as observed by the only elocutionary survivor, i.e. the narrator’s partner as narrator.

41Now, it is striking that almost the last words pronounced by the bereaved son are presented under the guise of a list or dictionary (‘dictionaray’, to be more precise, ‘a verbal laboratory, a dictionary testamentary to the way the ray leaves its mark in everyday language’ [121]) running over twenty two pages, in single-column enumeration, just before the concluding descriptions of the monstrous manta. This dictionary is the transcription of the list that the bereaved son enumerates over the phone, in strict alphabetical order, in an uncanny veering between rehearsal and invention that sounds like prosopopeia, as when the dead speak: ‘Errancy’, ‘Frail’, ‘Kraken’, ‘Obituary’, ‘Res’, ‘Spectrality’, ‘Trace’, ‘Vampyre’, ‘Wraith’, among many others. This is a further symptom of the character’s depersonalisation, as the list points to the reduction of syntax to its basics, as if the spooky, ray-related vocabulary floated up of its own accord to the surface of the narrative, in imitation of the surfacing rays in their aquarium. The spectral contents of the list depersonalise language, ridding it of any marker of person, time, modality, and spectralise it so that it becomes an image of the character’s ontological frailty.

42In Quilt, identification with the lost object reaches the stage where the survivor becomes a mere crypt for the father’s ghost, as if he were reduced to the extreme vulnerable status of becoming father and becoming dead. The novel presents the reader with an elegy of a new type, in which vigil over the dead has been replaced by vigil over the rays as spooky substitutes or extensions. The elocutionary vulnerability performed by the narrative is clearly meant as an image of the characters’ ontological vulnerability, in a text that is obsessed with the idea of becoming ghost. De-ontologisation is inextricably mixed with veering or cross-ontologisation in a novel that foregrounds spectral economy and is dedicated to the evocation of helplessness. In Quilt, then, mourning as acceptance of death and as separation from the dead is simply impossible. The ray or ‘res’ becomes the Thing that invades the mourner, the melancholic incorporation that makes him fall down as cadaver (Kristeva reminds us of the Latin cadere for ‘to fall’ [25]). Quilt leaves elegy poised and veering between mourning and melancholia.

43Another way in which the text flaunts its vulnerability is, quite paradoxically, through what might pass as its stylistic pyrotechnics. The novel refuses the idiom of ‘international English’, which is conceived of in the afterword as a means of cultural imperialism (154). The author’s avowed purpose is, on the contrary, to give English back its foreignness and strangeness, urging ‘a new experience of that language, inviting readers to feel for themselves the strangeness of this “English” which, after all, belongs to no one’ (155). Quilt strives to make the English language a minority language, to make it stutter, which is fairly literally the case in many passages when syntax breaks down and the idiom of depression, repetitive, monotonous and tentative (Kristeva 45), pokes holes into the already fraying fabric of the narrative:

The cause, the cause. Is it in a good cause, he wants to press, in a counter to all this pathology, to speak of cause of death? To my ear, your very voice is a lost cause, sir. Pause. In which the cause of the pause and the pause of the cause and the pause of the cause of the pause are all in abeyance, without pause or cause, for several days. (40)

44The traumatic temporality that has seized hold of both the protagonist and the narrative, is summoned in these lines through a hauntingly repetitive prose in disarray. Pause and cause are all in abeyance, both illustrating and performing an uncanny, veering logic that is iconic of melancholic mourning.

45Such poetic prose is of course an ethical tool that rejects the transparency of the realistic idiom to become ‘reality literature’ in the afterword. The estranging power of the poetic prose is a means to show the way towards radical alterity, i.e., that of the spectral. I would argue that, despite its copious poetic organisation and its dense forest of signifiers, Quilt manages to offer a practice of literature as excarnation (‘excarnation is literature’ [62]). Paradoxically, its overflowing linguistic matter is conceived of as a way to signpost the narrative’s status as vulnerable form. The elegiac text becomes an urn of language, advertising the ascendance of melancholia as existential deprivation (Clifton Spargo 27). Seen in these terms, elegy becomes the paroxysmal mode of radical being for the other, being for the dead or, in more orthodox Levinasian terms, ‘dying for the other’ (Clifton Spargo 28). Quilt advertises an ethics of melancholia in which, unlike mourning, attachment to the lost other remains foremost, refusing the double death of mourning in an ethics of incorporation.

46The temporality of Quilt echoes the disrupted time of trauma, the elongated, eternal present in which time has stopped as well as the frozen time of traumatic re-enactment. Whether frozen or inverted, time refuses to flow on smoothly, in a figuration of traumatic time as distinct from narrative time. Said differently, the time of the elegy refers to some sort of archaic temporality not unlike that of limbo, in which the lost souls are supposed to wander endlessly, in a-temporal wake and vulnerability, possibly like the rays in their twilit aquariums. Quilt’s time, as absence of time, would thus evoke the hovering, spectral flow evoked in Coleridge’s contribution to the theme. In Quilt, as in ‘Limbo’, the reader is presented with elegiac temporality as vulnerable time. An agent of alterity (94) and a dweller in deep time, the ray as central metaphor is a figure of the trace: ‘thinking of the ray as force, a trace, whether buried or dancing, in a quite different understanding of the spectre’ (119). The inescapability of the ray as agent of alterity and vulnerability is dramatised in the elegy that captures the powerful frailty of trauma as event and of traumatic realism as form. By focusing on a critical period in the life of an individual, it circuitously calls to mind the ordinariness of trauma, and reminds the reader of the commonality of vulnerability and interdependence. In so doing, Quilt uses elegy as a reminder that among various negative capabilities, helplessness is given pride of place as condition of exchange and relation (Philips 84). Quilt’s contribution to contemporary literature essentially lies in its insistence on an aesthetics and an ethics of vulnerability. This of course may be understood as vulnerability to otherness: as explained in Veering, ‘reading a powerful work of literature does not imply visiting it but feeling visited by it’ (127). Being visited or dreamt is an experience that is mediated by Quilt: ‘You dream of a new vocabulary, a new reality. Or it dreams you’ (33).

47Ultimately, I would say that both Veering and Quilt aim at calling attention to capacities that are present in the contemporary novel (McEwan, Nina Allan, Virginia Harding, Winterson) and that it exacerbates: the capacity to fail and the capacity to be vulnerable.

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Bulawayo, NoViolet. We Need New Names, London: Chatto & Windus, 2013.

Catton, Eleanor, The Luminaries, London: Granta Books, 2013.

Clifton Spargo, R, The Ethics of Mourning: Grief and Responsibility in Elegiac Literature, Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Coe, Jonathan, ‘End of 2012’, Jonathan Coe’s Blog, 21 December 2012, retrieved at on 18 November 2013.

———, ‘Sinking Giggling into the Sea’, London Review of Books, 18 July 2013a.

———, ‘What’s so Funny about Comic Novels?’, Guardian, 7 September 2013b.

———, Expo 58, London: Penguin, 2013c.

Crace, Jim, Harvest, London: Picador, 2013.

Freud, Sigmund, Deuil et mélancolie (1915), trans. Aline Weill, Paris: Payot, 2011.

Higgins, Charlotte, ‘Edinburgh Book Festival Diary’, Guardian, 16 August 2013.

Kristeva, Julia, Soleil noir. Dépression et mélancolie, Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

Lahiri, Jhumpa, The Lowland. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Ozeki, Ruth, A Tale for the Time Being, London: Canongate, 2013.

Philips, Adam, Trois capacités négatives, Paris: L’Olivier, 2009.

Royle, Nicholas, Quilt. Brighton: Myriad, 2010.

———, Veering. A Theory of Literature, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2011.

Smith, Ali, There But For The, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011.

———, Artful, New York: Penguin Press, 2013.

Thirlwell, Adam, Multiples, London: Portobello, 2013.

Todd, Richard, Consuming Fictions. The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today, London: Bloomsbury, 1996.

Toibin, Colm, The Testament of Mary, London: Penguin, 2013.

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1 At the time I am finalizing the text of my contribution, the remit of the Prize has changed for good, thus officializing the impending evolution. The release of the list of judges for the 2014 Booker comes with the explanation : ‘2014 is the first year of the new rules, which will see the prize opened up to writers of any nationality, writing originally in English, for novels published in the UK by an established imprint between 1 October 2013 and 30 September 2014. The expanded prize will recognise, celebrate and embrace authors of literary fiction writing in English, whether from Chicago, Sheffield or Shanghai’. The British literary establishment has achieved a strategic move in its process of cultural and economic globalization, with London at its centre.

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Catherine Bernard, Jean-Michel Ganteau, Vanessa Guignery, Diane Leblond et Vanessa Guignery, « Recent British Fiction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 47 | 2014, mis en ligne le 21 octobre 2014, consulté le 18 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor at the University Paris Diderot and President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC). She has recently contributed to the edition of Virginia Woolf’s fiction in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Gallimard) and is to publish a critical edition and translation of Virginia Woolf’s selected essays (Gallimard, 2015). She has also worked extensively on contemporary British fiction (Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Pat Barker…) as well as contemporary English visual culture (Rachel Whiteread, Jeremy Deller, Gillian Wearing…).

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Jean-Michel Ganteau

Jean-Michel Ganteau is Professor of English literature at the University Paul-Valéry, Montpellier. Among his recent publications are Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature (Routledge, 2103) and Contemporary Trauma Narratives: Liminality and the Ethics of Form (Routledge, 2014) co-edited with Susana Onega. He is currently completing a monograph focusing on the ethics of vulnerability in contemporary English fiction.

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Vanessa Guignery

Vanessa Guignery is Professor of Contemporary English Literature and Postcolonial Literature at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon and a member of the Institut Universitaire de France. Her most recent publications include a monograph, Seeing and Being: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (PUF, 2012), a collection of interviews with eight contemporary writers, Novelists in the New Millennium (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), as well as a collection of essays, The Famished Road: Ben Okri’s Imaginary Homelands (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). She is the author of several books on the work of Julian Barnes, including The Fiction of Julian Barnes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). She has published a monograph on B.S. Johnson, Ceci n’est pas une fiction (Sorbonne UP, 2009).

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Vanessa Guignery

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Diane Leblond

Diane Leblond is a former student of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon. She is a PhD student at the University Paris Diderot working on a Doctoral dissertation entitled: ‘Optique de la fiction: pour lire quatre romans anglais contemporains – Time’s Arrow de Martin Amis, Gut Symmetries de Jeanette Winterson, Cloud Atlas de David Mitchell, Clear de Nicola Barker.’ She has published articles in Études britanniques contemporaines (issues 44 and 45) on Barker’s Clear and on Amis’ Time’s Arrow.

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Vanessa Guignery

Vanessa Guignery is Professor of Contemporary English Literature and Postcolonial Literature at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon and a member of the Institut Universitaire de France. Her most recent publications include a monograph, Seeing and Being: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (PUF, 2012), a collection of interviews with eight contemporary writers, Novelists in the New Millennium (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), as well as a collection of essays, The Famished Road: Ben Okri’s Imaginary Homelands (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). She is the author of several books on the work of Julian Barnes, including The Fiction of Julian Barnes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). She has published a monograph on B.S. Johnson, Ceci n’est pas une fiction (Sorbonne UP, 2009).

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Vanessa Guignery

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