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Ce numéro d’Études britanniques contemporaines est un numéro pluriel, qui réunit des articles issus de l’atelier organisé par la SEAC (Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines) dans le cadre du congrès de la SAES (Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur) de 2017. Ce congrès s’était donné pour sujet « (Re)constructions » et les articles réunis ici témoignent de la complexité et de la pertinence de cette notion. Quoiqu’elle ne se soit pas constituée en repère théorique identifié dans le champ de la théorie littéraire, elle ouvre nombre de perspectives critiques fructueuses. Recoupant sans redondance des catégories amplement explorées — de l’intertextualité, à l’intermédialité —, la notion permet de mieux comprendre comment réécriture et inter-iconicité peuvent aller de pair et défaire les hiérarchies linguistiques et esthétiques tout en nous invitant à relire la dynamique mémorielle de la littérature. À côté de ces articles, on trouvera un entretien avec Jonathan Coe mené par Vanessa Guignery, que nous remercions tous deux très vivement d’avoir accepté de confier cet entretien si riche à Études britanniques contemporaines. La rubrique compte-rendus est complétée par une bibliographie d’ouvrages théoriques et critiques qui fournit une sorte d’état des lieux — nécessairement incomplet — de la réflexion théorique contemporaine. Dans sa variété, ce numéro d’Ebc témoigne donc, une fois encore, de la vitalité de la recherche menée aujourd’hui dans le domaine de la littérature britannique des 20e et 21e siècles.

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1The articles brought together in this section of n° 54 of Études britanniques contemporaines emanate from the workshop organised by SEAC (Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines) at the 2017 SAES conference (Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur). The topic chosen for the conference was ‘(Re)constructions’, and it might seem surprising that the notion has not aroused greater critical interest, so pertinent it seems to our exploration of literary memory, intertextuality and cultural re-appropriation. Little remains to be said, or so it appears, about literature’s palimpsestuous workings, its dialectical relation to the past as well as its transcension of influence. In her essay ‘Remembering as Re-Inscription—With a Difference’, Catherine Belsey returns at length to the way our relation to all literary texts and cultural artefacts interweaves past, present and future in a vitally critical process of ‘re-inscription’. Taking the example of our intimate and distant link to Shakespeare’s language, she explains that ‘What enables us to “get into it” in the first place is very often the cultural memory of a pattern we already know—but played out with a difference’ (15). Her concluding remarks on the dialectical dynamics of cultural memory are worth quoting at length for the definition they offer of the visionary entanglement of invention and re-invention, writing and re-writing :

  • 1 The volume in which Catherine Belsey’s piece was published is here of paramount interest as it focu (...)

Re-inscription represents a process of discovery. The new is constructed out of old materials to produce a text that modifies the possibilities for the future. In this respect, it surely constitutes one instance of cultural memory which puts on display the processes of remembering. Texts, like cultures, have a past. Intertextual memory does not simply recover this, as if it had been stored away in a trunk and could now be brought to light just as it was. Instead, as memory revitalizes previous texts, it brings the past into the present, and thus alters or expands the options for the future. Instead of displaying what was, cultural memory uncovers what will have been the case. By that means, it modifies both past and future. (15-16)1

2Literature is no passive material. Reading and interpretation do not merely delve into it as into a treasure trove. Reading the past implies a reappropriation that is also a utopian gesture addressing the future. The semantic caveat that brackets the prefix ‘re’ or places it between scare quotes is no mere word-play. Reconstructing a literary past, rewriting it intertextually is a complex process through which homage and subversion, interpretation and creative appropriation are always held in tension. That paradoxical a-teleological movement is, in a previous note of Belsey’s analysis, associated to Lacan’s definition of remembering, and one might thus also usefully reflect on the unconscious mechanisms of cultural memory : ‘What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming’ (Lacan 86, quoted in Belsey 4). The creativeness of culture, as well as its visionary work are inherent to this entanglement of past, present and future. Such dialectics may seem at odds with the overarching teleological narrative of aesthetic modernity and its vindication of the disruptive intensity of Modernism and the avant-gardes ; yet critics have also long shown how late modernists attempted to move beyond the disruptive visions of the modernists (Miller).

3Literature’s relation to history is of key value to understand the process by which literature both recovers the past and invents it: in other words (re)constructs it. As early as the 1970s both Paul Veyne and Michel de Certeau redefined the task of the historian in similar terms. The historian cannot hope to recover a distant past, yet history-writing is, according to de Certeau, less a matter of acknowledging the discontinuities opened between past and present, than of writing in the margings of knowledge (89-92). Paul Veyne had gone one step further already when he had insisted that ‘the first task of historians is not to treat a subject, but to invent it’ (196, my translation). Such reassessments of history-writing and of referentiality were to have a considerable impact on post-structuralist literary theory. Linda Hutcheon’s crafting of the category of ‘historiographic metafiction’ in A Poetics of Postmodernism, and its lasting influence, testify to the necessity to reinvent our understanding of historical representation and to acknowledge the discursiveness of our reconstruction of the past. Reconstructing the past necessarily implies (re)constructing it discursively, as she underlines in one of the most seminal moments of her essay : ‘Historiographic metafiction […] signal[s] the discursive nature of all reference—both literary and historiographical. […] Once again, this does not deny that the past “real” existed ; it only conditions our mode of knowledge of that past. We can know it only through its traces’ (119).

4The present collection of articles takes a specific interest in such questioning. The opening section—‘(Re)constructing the Past/Reading the Present’—specifically turns to the way modernist and contemporary British fiction has re-constructed certain key moments of the 20th century. Joseph Conrad’s The Rover (1923) and Adam Thorpe’s Nineteen Twenty-One (2001) both confront the memory—whether near or distant—of World War One, while Samuel Beckett’s The Capital of the Ruins (1946) turns to the recently concluded World War Two. The haunting presence of the two World Wars is no mere spectre, or rather its very spectrality becomes a creative force that tests the very nature of literary imagination and its capacity to invent—both recover and produce—a past that is both reality and figment. More recent fiction on cultural displacement, such as Caryl Phillips’ A Distant Shore (2003), also foregrounds the necessity to explore the frontiers or margins of history, its gaps and silences.

5The paradoxical logic of literary invention is compounded by stylistic or intertextual experimentation, when it fictionalises the past in often playful and meta-aesthetic rewritings of the canon. Such experimentations are the subjects of the second section : ‘Textual/Cultural (Re)constructions’. Julian Barnes’ iconoclastic appropriation of the Old Testament in A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters, A.S. Byatt’s humourous take on Victorian literature and life-writing, or contemporary poetry’s neomedievalist inspiration all testify to the self-aware exploration of literary fabrication and linguistic fabulation ; all considerations that have featured prominently as well in studies on neo-Victorian Literature (Gutleben, Kohlke and Gutleben) and literary reprising (Letissier).

6As is shown in the third section of the issue—‘Remediating the Literary’—, the pluralisation of literature’s relation to history and reality complexifies the issue further. The intermedial dialogue of literature and photography in Jean Rhys’ Smile Please (1979), the mixture of oral testimony and performance in ‘verbatim theatre’, the trans-media adaptations of Dickensian motifs exemplify the hermeneutic potential of such generic eclecticism. The (Re)construction at work here highlights the workings of culture itself and the way modernity’s experimentation with different media has made the entanglement of media even more obvious. (Re)constructing a photograph, an experience, a cultural motif, through language, performance or yet more images lays bare such entanglement and lays bare the creative potentialities of such transfer. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s essay Remediation. Understanding New Media has explored such interconnectedness at length : ‘No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces’ (15). Such ubiquity, such transfers across media and texts are what culture is made of. (Re)constructing experience, memories, reality, the past in its very elusiveness, necessitates we read across texts and cultural forms, in those gaps, margins, folds of creation where the new is always already to be (re)invented.

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Belsey, Catherine, ‘Remembering as Re-Inscription— With a Difference’, ed. Herbert Grabes, Literature, Literary History, and Cultural Memory, Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 21 (2005): 3-17.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media, Cambridge [Mass.]: MIT Press, 1999.

de Certeau, Michel, L’écriture de l’histoire, Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

Grabes, Herbert, ed., Literary History/Cultural History: Force-Fields and Tensions, Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 17 (2001).

Gutleben, Christian, Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction, London: Routledge, 1988.

Kohlke, Marie-Louise and Christian Gutleben, eds., Neo-Victorian Cities: Reassessing Urban Politics and Poetics, Amsterdam: Brill, 2015.

Lacan, Jacques, Écrits, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Tavistock, 1977.

Letissier, Georges (ed.), Rewriting/Reprising: Plural Intertextualities, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

Miller, Tyrus, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Veyne, Paul, Comment on écrit l’histoire, Paris: Le Seuil, coll. Points, 1971.

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1 The volume in which Catherine Belsey’s piece was published is here of paramount interest as it focuses on the dialectical logic of cultural memory and the way it (re)constructs and reinvents literature’s past into its future. A first volume of the same journal had previously addressed similar issues (Grabes, 2001).

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 06 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Paris Diderot University. She has published extensively on contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Rachel Whiteread, but also Gillian Wearing and Mark Wallinger) and on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker or Graham Swift). Her research has also turned to English modernism and more specifically Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. She has co-edited several volumes of articles on Woolf, has published a critical study of Mrs Dalloway (Gallimard, Foliothèque, 2006), as well as a critical edition of Flush, for the Pléiade Edition of Woolf’s works (2012), and a critical edition and translation of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Essais choisis, Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is currently working on a study of the body politics of contemporary British fiction and visual culture to be published with the Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne in 2018. She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC).

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