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(Re)constructing the Past/Reading the Present

Re-constructing the Fiction of the First World War in Adam Thorpe’s Nineteen Twenty One

Reconstruire le roman de la Première Guerre mondiale : Nineteen Twenty One d’Adam Thorpe
Alexandre Privat


L’article suivant problématise la notion de « construction », qui s’entend à la fois dans le sens de construction narrative et de formation subjective (ou construction de soi), dans le quatrième roman d’Adam Thorpe, Nineteen Twenty One. Ce récit, publié en 2001, est paradoxalement une re-construction déconstructive de la Première Guerre mondiale. Situé dans l’immédiat après-guerre, le roman étudie, à travers la perception d’un jeune écrivain qui n’a pas combattu, Joseph Monrow, la tension conflictuelle entre la « volonté de représentation » (Rothberg) de l’événement et l’impossibilité d’avoir été témoin direct, d’où le caractère fracturé de l’héritage de la guerre, de la littérature et de la subjectivité. Tout en reproduisant la structure du Künstlerroman, forme téléologique liée à la construction subjective d’un artiste, Adam Thorpe la remet entièrement en question. Il montre la tension entre la mythologisation politique et littéraire de la guerre et la volonté de « vérité », ce qui donne lieu à une réécriture parodique, quoiqu’admirative, de la littérature d’après-guerre consacrée à la mythologie de la guerre. Mais ce que problématise avec évidence Nineteen Twenty One, ce sont les difficiles intersections entre le langage, l’imagination, et le réel de la guerre, ou pour le dire avec Lacan, le Symbolique, l’Imaginaire et le Réel, dont l’inclusion et exclusion définissent la précarité du témoin second.

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  • 1 Barthes explains that the semiotic nature of the myth lies in its alternation between meaning and f (...)

1If contesting the historical reality of the First World War would be, to say the least, absurd, one should wonder if the various narratives helping construct the knowledge about the First World War, whether they belong to literary fiction, historians’ discourse, or collective mythology, are, to some extent, fictional constructions. This indirect question helps elucidate the apparently paradoxical title of this article, concerned with the interrelations and gaps between the fiction and myths of the self in relation to the First World War. Adam Thorpe’s novel, Nineteen Twenty One addresses the thorny question of ‘form’, whose place hovers between fiction, which has to be understood as a constructive process giving meaning to an event, and myth whose meaning and form are submitted to duplication, so that myth possesses a slippery nature, characterised by a deforming form and a meaningless meaning.1 While the etymology of ‘fiction’ refers to narrative construction (fingere meaning ‘to shape’ in Latin), which conjures up ideas of craftsmanship and structure, the origin of myth draws attention to lore and legends (muthos as opposed to logos, ‘discourse’ in ancient Greek), suggesting oral tradition and deformation. But it would be insufficient to restrict myth and fiction to this difference. The two may appear in fact synonymous, as they propose a coherent, yet relative worldview, offering a mediation in the subject-object relationship. However, Nineteen Twenty One breaks up the mediating function of myth, that stands in the abyss between the event of the war, considered as an object for fiction and the self, whose apparently stable nature gives way to duality with the emergence of the ego. The novel is then concerned with the conjunctive and disjunctive role of myth in the co-construction of the self in relation to the war. This unusual stratification of war mythology puts to the fore the epistemological question of how to gain ‘true’ knowledge of the First World War and the aesthetic question of how to fictionalise the horror of the war. But before introducing these topics, it is worth mentioning the social function of myth filling political and existential needs.

  • 2 ‘In one sense, the movement was towards myth, towards a revival of the cultic, the mystical, the sa (...)

2The First World War has now achieved the status of ‘myth’, in the sense meant by Samuel Hynes, that is, not a falsification of a supposedly pre-existent ‘truth’, but an ‘imaginative version of it […], a tale that confirms a set of attitudes, an idea of what the war was and what it meant’ (ix). The First World War was, according to literary historian Paul Fussell, one of the great mythmaking events of the early twentieth-century2 and all the more so, as myths helped build an imaginative bond between individuals and their country, summarised by the expression of ‘national identity’ (Korte 3). Yet, only recently have British historians started studying the enduring and mutable vision of war mythology, acknowledging the social function of myths working as a ‘frame’ through which individuals construct national memory (Wilson 129). The great success of late twentieth-century British novels about the First World War testifies to the durability and changes of war mythology. My intention is not to go over the reasons for the proliferation of First World War fiction, but to contextualise Adam Thorpe’s novel within the vast corpus of war novels.

  • 3 ‘A brief sketch of that collective narrative of significance would go something like this: a genera (...)
  • 4 ‘Another week, another war novel, and you wonder what Adam Thorpe can contribute to the ever-growin (...)
  • 5 For example, the expression ‘romance of the archive’ coined by Suzanne Keen, (Romances of the Archi (...)
  • 6 This definition of the ‘ego’ owes much to Lacan’s theory of the ‘ego’, described as a specular imag (...)
  • 7 The word ‘mediateness’ is different from ‘mediation’ which means the fact of being an intermediate (...)

3The purpose of most late twentieth-century British war novels was to re-write the unspoken histories repressed by the popular myth of the war, established in the early 1920s,3 in order to attune it to present concerns, such as traumatic pathology, gender issues and social inequalities (Ouditt 246). If the myth of the Great War is subject to historical revisionism, it also crystallises the interrelation between politics and culture and between nationalism and Englishness, themes that have been of the utmost importance in Adam Thorpe’s fiction since his debut novel Ulverton (1992). When Nineteen Twenty One was published in 2001, it received little critical attention, shadowed as it was by other more successful novels like Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong (1993) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (1991-1995), whose tremendous popularity caused a reviewer of Nineteen Twenty One to wonder what Thorpe’s new novel could contribute to an already vast canon.4 Deemed a ‘complex novel’ (Davies 30), Nineteen Twenty One can be read in fact as a ‘meta-war novel’ or a metafictional novel on war. It is an apprenticeship novel, whose action, set in the immediate post-war period, the 1920s, deals with the trials and tribulations of a single young man, a budding writer named Joseph Monrow, engaged in the writing of the most realistic novel on the First World War, though he missed the trenches ‘by a squeak’ (7). Like most late twentieth-century British novels concerned with the re-construction of the past, Nineteen Twenty-One relies on the ‘quest motif’, a distinctive feature of historical metanovels.5 Yet, what makes the novel stand out is that it is entirely dedicated to the ceaseless process of construction, deconstruction and re-construction of the multi-layered mythology of the ego, precariously built on the multiple myths of war, so that the mythologised construction of the war is apprehended at individual, collective and literary levels. This co-construction of the ego with the war follows an optical model, hence the recurrent image of the mirror in the novel that problematises self-perception and self-reflection and its possible diffractions either as self-same or as self-other. Here the term ‘self’ should not be mixed up with that of ‘ego’, in the sense that the duality of the ego and self is parallel to that of fiction and myth. The self pertains to the same constructive process as fiction, while the ego is an unstable image of the self, related to the same process of duplication as myth.6 To this dual relationship, one should add three other aspects which are the epistemological, ethical and aesthetic conditions for construction. These aspects are obviously entangled, since one needs to build a particular relation to an object, here the war, to know about it and possibly shape it into words. But perception is submitted to a continual re-structuration, so that the novel fails to provide any stable co-construction of the self and the First World War. The main interest of Nineteen Twenty One is then to interrogate the conflicting relation between, on the one hand, construction, and on the other hand, mediateness,7 raising the question of how the fictional re-construction of the war and the self can be achieved in relation to a ceaselessly mediated event.

4After examining how fictional construction is ironically described as a fantasy of unity, I will study the tension between idealisation and banalisation before dwelling on the parodic re-writing of some modernist myths to stress the divide between myth and realism.

The Fantasy of Unity

  • 8 ‘Look at yourself in mirror after mirror. You will see that, not only do mirrors differ, but you ar (...)

5The co-construction is initially based on an idealised relation of transparency or, in other words, a mirror effect, between a mythologised ego, a mythologised war, and the mythologising of literature. The image of the mirror, while emphasising the themes of perception and optics, should be handled with caution, as its supposed transparency has been often challenged by the modernists, notably Ford Madox Ford.8 Yet, what the novel under scrutiny dramatizes is the contrast between the belief in transparency and unity and the inevitably opacifying mediateness of the First World War. Before Joseph becomes aware of that contrast, he remains immersed in idealisation which results in a sort of general mythomania. Here the word ‘mythomania’ has to be understood not in the restricted sense derived from psychopathology, that is, the compulsion to tell lies, but instead in the sense of a mythic worldview, so that Joseph sees himself, the war, the world, through the lens of epic and vegetation myths. The novel offers an interesting example of how an event can be idealised through myths and literary imagination, which explains the strong affective bond between the ego and the historical event. Yet, as the novel is narrated from the deliberately restricted perspective of a young and naïve character, whose inner life is rendered by means of ‘narrated monologue’ (Cohn 99), it produces an ambivalent effect of sympathy towards the character but also an effect of ironic distance.

  • 9 Lacan analyses the two variants of ego idealisation, which he calls, after Freud’s Ich-Ideal, ‘ego- (...)

6The protagonist, Joseph Monrow, an Oxford-educated young man, imbued with pre-war romantic ideals, has just come out of adolescence when the war breaks out. After being gas poisoned during a military drill in Étaples, France (8–10), he is demobilised for four months until the Armistice, so that he feels the physical symptoms of a gassed soldier, even if he was never involved in combat. The protagonist’s paradoxical situation of being neither in History nor out of it encapsulates the various tensions informing the novel. As he is prevented from being involved in the war, he keeps projecting his own myths of omnipotence onto it. Yet, the heroic myth of war serves as an ironical contrast to his actual failure as a soldier, which explains his shame and frustration for not proving his worth, a shame ridiculed through the comparison to a childish tantrum when the Armistice is celebrated: ‘Peace! The war’s done with, finished, it’s bloody over! […] Joseph sat on the platform among the match-ends and cried like a child, but then a lot of the men were crying. […] The war had been taken away from him, whipped away—from right under his feet’ (12). This strange behaviour about which it is difficult to say whether it is caused by a sincere or parodic patriotism illustrates the theme of the ‘missed war’ and the subsequent resentment derived from it. This resentment was intimately experienced by some non-combatant male writers, particularly Eliot and Lawrence, who suffered, like a whole generation of men, from a feeling of powerlessness as a result of the failure of the heroic masculine ideal (Krockel 91). This shame can be rephrased as a narcissistic wound to the ideal ego, expressed in the novel by the ‘mark of Cain’: ‘Joseph had the mark of Cain upon him, psychologically-speaking, and a burning desire to prove himself’ (10). The ‘mark of Cain’ is an intertextual reference to D. H. Lawrence’s autobiographical novel Kangaroo, in which he uses the biblical figure to describe his humiliation at being judged unfit for combat after a medical examination (Bricout 129). Therefrom, Joseph’s ambition is to make up for his initial failure as a soldier. That is what explains the substitution of the epic ideal ego for the artistic ideal ego, whose object is the writing of the truest and most realistic novel on the Great War (35). Though Joseph is revolted at the countless anonymous and innocent victims and prompted to write a ‘Memorial Book’ after reading an article justifying the necessity of such a useless bloodshed (17), his literary project is also very narcissistic. He hopes for fame and social recognition, almost wishing with unflinching cynicism that the good poets had died in the trenches: ‘Maybe there were too many poets around, they had not all got killed—at least not the bad ones’ (14). Yet the page of his manuscript remains ‘blank’ as a token of his writer’s block (14). The blank page, assimilated to a mirror (‘The blank page was a mirror’) works as a specular image reflecting the protagonist’s inexperience, but also as a symbol of his narcissistic ideal ego, which originates from the mirror stage for Lacan.9

  • 10 ‘I’ve turned into the type of novelist who is continually engaged with questions of the real: how i (...)
  • 11 ‘the type of romance that I consider here is one whose formal and ethical properties promote anti-t (...)

7Indeed, his literary project is marked by the same ideal of transparency provided by the specular image, as for him the truest artistic principle is the power of imagination, as he says to Hubert Rail, his reversed double: “‘It has to be drawn from the imagination’, he remarked. ‘Whatever one paints or writes, it has to be drawn from there’” (37). Such a romantic idealisation of imagination is dismissed by Rail as ‘bourgeois’ and proves anachronistic compared to his rival’s belief in automatic self-expressionism: ‘Paint without meaning. Don’t think about what you’re doing’ (37). The introduction of the doppelgänger motif aims at making Joseph’s ideal ego vulnerable and compels him to revise his self-perception, as when some people, noticing his likeness to Hubert Rail, hint at his narcissistic personality: “‘I hope Mr Monrow won’t fall in love with himself’” (33, original emphasis). Similarly, the theme of the double also affects the perception of war and the writing of his war novel, altering the transparent model that Joseph initially and naively believes in. That is why the novel problematises fictional construction, a concern not alien to the author himself according to his own testimony,10 and which can be apprehended through the Lacanian threefold system of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real, whose intersections are represented by the image of the Borromean knot (Lacan 1973, 168). As Joseph is a non-witness, his only resource is his imagination (Imaginary order) to put into words (the Symbolic order) the reality of the war (the Real). The novel, then, can be analysed as an aborted ‘romance of the past’, a genre of historical fiction obsessed with finding the Real of the past (Boccardi 63). However, the quest for the Real proves a failure even before it gets started, which is all the truer because, if one is to follow what Lacan says about the Real, it defies any attempt at symbolization, since it stands beyond the Symbolic order, i.e., the use of language (1964, 64). That is why the beginning of the novel is deeply ironic, as it looks like a romance initially favouring the fantasy of a transparent model of co-construction, which reminds one of Northrop Frye’s definition of romance as a mode implying idealisation (186). For example, the first chapter is entitled ‘Dragon’s breath’, which can be interpreted in a twofold way, first as a parodic intertextual reference to the knight’s fight with the dragon in medieval romances and second as modern warfare in which there are no longer dragons to combat but mortal gases. What is at stake here is the perceptual drama between the idealisation and the banalisation of the war, so that Nineteen Twenty One, though starting like a mock romance progressively turns into a burlesque novel in which all the protagonist’s ideals about himself and the war are abased. As a result, the fantasy of unity is deconstructed, giving way to the fragmentation of knowledge and a growing sense of failure, or vulnerability on the part of the protagonist, hence the predominance of the vulnerable type of romance.11

Banalisation and Idealisation: the Experience of Fragmentation

  • 12 ‘By focusing attention on the intersection of the everyday and the extreme in the experience and wr (...)
  • 13 ‘Both these works [those of Lanzmann and Spiegelman], therefore, foreground the role of a mediating (...)

8The novel is structured by an irresistible tension, a conflict between an idealised construction of the war and a banalised deconstruction of it. This conflict is correlated with another opposing myth and historical truth, so that the war is the object of incessant representations, as the protagonist’s ideals and delusions change his own perception of the events. The plot of Nineteen Twenty One reflects this tension and relies on a dynamic perceptual conflict depending on the protagonist’s evolving inward and outward perception. This constant shift in perception is duplicated at the level of characters by a series of reversed doppelgängers standing for opposed perceptions of the war. This common device of historical fiction, used by Walter Scott as well as Dickens in their historical novels, destabilises the construction of representation and installs the unresolved dialectics between idealisation and banalisation. As a pseudo-artist, Joseph epitomises a certain romantic idealism while his friend Basil, a lawyer, embodies rational pragmatism. As for the female characters, Joseph is confronted with two different women whom he alternatively loves: Tillie, a beautiful and Catholic English nurse and Marda, a sensual and ungraceful German widow. While the former’s religious feelings belie a down-to-earth and conventional attitude towards the memory of war, the latter’s perception of it is mythical and mystical. The affective relationship that he develops to both women destabilises and reshapes the perceptual co-construction of the ego and that of the war, but does not result in any stable construction, as Joseph fails to complete his novel at the end. The unresolved dialectics between idealisation and banalisation proves a difficulty central to the representation of a large-scale destructive event such as the First World War. Michael Rothberg identifies as ‘traumatic realism’12 the point of intersection between the ‘everyday’ and the ‘extreme’ in the experience of Holocaust, a situation of split between History and culture that also resonates with the First World War (7). Joseph is then a paradoxical inheritor of the event because, even if he is a non-witness, his wish to represent the event symbolically and imaginatively makes him a ‘vicarious witness’, an expression coined by critic Froma Zeitlin and which designates a literary trope typical of second-generation Holocaust artists. In Zeitlin’s terms, the ‘vicarious witness’ is a ‘mediating figure’, driven by the desire to represent and re-construct the past erased by the Nazi genocide and thus enabling a fusion between the past and the present.13 As one shall see, Nineteen Twenty One problematises re-construction, showing that the intersections between the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real are dis/connected. It is precisely this dis/connection or syncope that is the subject-matter of the novel and makes Joseph, not a ‘vicarious witness’, but instead a precarious witness.

  • 14 ‘Où, ce réel, le rencontrons-nous ? C’est en effet d’une rencontre, d’une rencontre essentielle, qu (...)
  • 15 The ‘realms of memory’ are defined by Pierre Nora as another way of making History, that is no long (...)

9Although he believes in the reality of the historical event, he is not psychologically ready to be confronted with the Real of the war, in the Lacanian sense, which can only be approached through a missed encounter or tuché.14 Yet this missed encounter with the Real does not result in absolute impossibility, insofar as echoes of the encounter can still be heard in the aftermath of the event. Nineteen Twenty One, in accordance with the realist tradition, is punctuated by the protagonist’s multiple encounters with reality-testing characters or experiences, exacerbating the gradual fracture between the imaginary and the real, mythology and historical truth, illusion and disillusion, inflicting narcissistic wounds on Joseph and giving way to fragmentation and humiliation. The protagonist’s idealised image of himself and the war is challenged by the various echoes of the First World War that he hears about through witnesses in the village of Cholesford, set in the pastoral-like Chilterns, and after visiting some famous ‘realms of memory’ (or in their original French version ‘lieux de mémoire’15) such as the Ypres Salient in Belgium. As he starts collecting documentation by enquiring from some witnesses who experienced the war in the flesh, one story incidentally catches his attention. It is the story of Ted Hamilton’s death, the local publican of the village who died in front of his son-in-law’s eyes. This fragmented story that provides the basis for Joseph’s novel in progress is subject to many additions and revisions as the protagonist hears about more and more dissenting echoes of the circumstances of the death. For example, Mrs Hamilton, the widow, was told by her son-in-law a euphemized version using a conventional poetic metaphor. The shot her late husband got in his head is compared to a ‘crimson rose petal’, a Tennyson-like epic metaphor: ‘Then he fell back into Walter’s arms with a rose petal on his brow. Just here’ (26). Joseph does not resist inserting it into his novel, since the metaphor is compatible with his epic ideal ego:

Then he wrote a version that lay the red petal on the fellow’s brow like something out of Tennyson; it had a haughty tone, rather distant. He liked it. That surprised him. It was genuinely gallant and moving. But it made the war into something noble, in a long tradition of gallantry. This was the opposite of what he intended, yet he did not tear the pages up (45).

10Yet, these echoes, however idealised they may be, are gradually demythologised and debunked as the protagonist encounters more and more witnesses who provide him with jarring versions of the event. As the storyline unravels, the epic myth is deflated to the benefit of banal materialism. Joseph is baffled by the son-in-law’s laconic and matter-of-fact testimony of modern warfare: ‘It was all quite matter-of-fact, that was the queerest part of it’ (53). After a few chapters, Joseph is told about Ted Hamilton’s inglorious death by Cox, the local hairdresser. Ted was heavily inebriated and died from falling off a train, which obviously ruins Joseph’s literary myth of war: ‘The red petal had burst into a mess […] Though the real death should have been laughable, in its absurd, careless reality. Well, it was; real life turned everything it touched to something laughable. […] It did not help knowing the truth’ (207). As a result, the death scene in his novel undergoes multiple modifications and is re-written: ‘He read the drawn-out moment of the death, and found it utterly wanting, almost ugly. There was certainly no poetry in it, no nobility, he had got rid of the Tennysonian touch right enough. It seemed to grimace at him from the page, this new animal. It had no more truth than the previous lot, only a kind of sadistic delight’ (21). Interestingly enough, when Joseph is told this story, he is looking at himself in the mirror and cannot bear his own reflection, hence the relevance of the optical model that proves distorting and never transparent: ‘Joseph found it uncomfortable, seeing his own reactions in the mirror’ (206). To sum up, the initial transparent co-construction is deconstructed and fragmented as the echoes of the Real of the war reach Joseph’s ears. Another major reality-testing experience in the novel is Joseph’s visit to the Ypres Salient.

11A significant part of the novel is devoted to the visit of war-stricken Ypres and especially the Ypres Salient, the symbol of patriotic heroism in British war mythology. It is the defence of this site that took the heaviest toll on the British troops, hence the mythification of that place as a symbol of sacrifice. Joseph’s epic imagination is drawn to the site but the visit to Ypres proves a reality-testing experience falling short of his expectations. Before going over to Belgium, Joseph imagines Ypres as a shrine, the destination of a pilgrimage: ‘It was a necessary pilgrimage, a rite almost’ (70). Ruins are traditionally associated with a transcendent verticality enabling the mourner to carry out his mourning ritual after which the recognition of the past glory coincides with the recognition of oneself as part of mankind. In this regard, ruins help build a feeling of self-knowledge and self-recognition, so that the mourner becomes, so to speak, a historical subject. By contrast, what Joseph witnesses is that the shrine he expected has turned into battlefield tourism, also known as ‘thanatourism’ whose first recorded example dates back to the 1815 visit of the Waterloo battlefield (Seaton). Here Adam Thorpe shows his faithfulness to historical veracity, as it is reported that just after the war excursions to the Flanders battlefields were quite common and organised by specific travel agencies (Lloyd). Because of modern tourism, the ruins are deprived of their sacral aura, preventing Joseph from performing his mourning ritual. Instead of the ‘stiff statuariness’ and sobs that he expected from the mourners paying their respects to the dead, he only hears ‘bright chatter’ (94): ‘There was something sacrilegious in the din, the racket that met them the minute they stepped off the train’ (82). This impossibility of acknowledging the loss is strengthened by the fact that most corpses cannot be identified, as the clearing of the Flanders fields is still underway, hence the metaphor of drifting as if the port of mourning were unreachable: ‘They were adrift on the ocean, marooned with their hidden dead’ (94). Though Joseph is not bereaved, his mourning ritual cannot be performed due to the affluence of tourists. Joseph’s feeling of frustration is all the greater, as the narrator gives a realistically carnivalesque description of post-war Ypres, likening it to a ‘gold-rush town in America’, full of ‘whores and bars’ (83). As for the Ypres Salient, it is plainly ‘flat’, an adjective connoting an effect of banalization: ‘Though it was mostly flat to the horizon, it had nothing of the epic sweep Joseph had anticipated’ (80). What Joseph experiences on the Salient is the feeling commonly ascribed to the ‘vicarious witness’ (Zeitlin), which designates the individual’s dis/connection to the past, because the extent of the disaster is such that there cannot be a recognized relation between oneself and the dead other. The failure of recognition impedes any recognition based on identity, making the dead other radically other. That is why Joseph feels dependent on those unknown others and suffers from an overwhelming sense of guilt, as he feels he cannot make amends for the collective disaster: ‘And the guilt was eating him’ (97); ‘This guilt, it was really something sick and ghastly, but it was not clean’ (91). He realises the exceptionalism of the First World War as the first modern war, thus predating and ironically postdating Benjamin’s essay Experience and Poverty: ‘There were wars before this last one, too: misery, massacres, all that. But something broke in the trenches, something deep, a very deep fracture. We would have to go about very carefully now, he reflected, if the fracture was to heal’ (198). The visit to Ypres ruins Joseph’s illusory epic ideal ego (‘he was properly abased and angry at feeling that’ [133]) and the value of imagination (‘whatever he could imagine was false’ [117]). The necessity of healing the collective wound, or to put it differently, trauma felt by the protagonist explains the reason why Adam Thorpe revisits, through rewriting, the post-war literary mythology, born as a counter-traumatic defence against the crisis of Western civilisation.

A Parodic Legacy of Dis/Connection: the Gap Between Myth and Realism

  • 16 ‘But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the (...)

12In its final stage, Nineteen Twenty One does not only address the question of how to construct a narrative of war, but also revisits, in an ironic vein, the war mythology represented in the literary texts of the 1920s and 30s, some of which being now part of the modernist canon. The parodic re-writing of these texts produces an ambivalent effect by which they are sanctified and banalised. By choosing a deliberately eccentric perspective, Adam Thorpe makes the blindness of the contemporary non-witness incompatible with the reader’s historical hindsight, so that the protagonist is marked by a temporal and affiliative dis/connection to and from the event. This dis/connection or syncope explains the pervasive use of irony, that stresses the gap between myth and realism. Even if Paul Fussell wrote that the First World War is, of all wars, the most ironic,16 the real reason for irony in the novel has to be found in the ambivalent use of myth, as practiced by modernist writers and by Thorpe himself. For this purpose, one needs to recall that in Thorpe’s early novels myth plays the same function as a fetish-object: it is credited with a mediating power between the subject and the event, that is both exalted and criticised, especially with regard to the myths of Englishness. By contrast, Nineteen Twenty One signals the relinquishment of myth as a mediating power between the subject and the event.

  • 17 ‘For the modernists themselves, however, the point of using myth was to compensate for the dissatis (...)

13As Richard Bradford sharply remarked in his generic study The Novel Now (2006), the choice of the immediate post-war period is a means for Adam Thorpe to explore ‘the effect of the war upon the history of 20th-century literature’ (97). Indeed, the author, by choosing the unconventional perspective of a naïf-type character, reconstructs a parodic approach to the mythology of war, as exemplified by D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and also Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones, a veteran, from whom the imagery of vegetation myth and the Grail legend are mostly borrowed in Nineteen Twenty One (Alden 48). The revisiting of literary mythology is ironic, as the protagonist interprets fertility rituals and myths in a literal sense, and not in a figurative sense. Here irony installs a tension between a certain type of post-war myth-ridden literature and the demythologising of this very literature. The first instrument of this ironic deconstruction is that of banal literalization. Joseph is an almost ridiculous and mythomaniac avatar of T. S. Eliot, steeping himself in the readings of the famous anthropologists and folklorists of the 1920s such as Frazer, Bruhl and Weston who were so influential on the writing of The Waste Land: ‘Covering sheets of thin-lined foolscap, his novel talked to itself for page after page. He was glorying in it, here. […] It was weighty and raw, knitted through by symbolic references culled from the likes of Frazer, Levy-Bruhl, Jessie Weston’ (22). Joseph’s mythomania ironically resonates with T. S. Eliot’s ‘mythical method’, as theorised in the 1922 review of Ulysses. The multiple borrowings from the Odyssey had on Eliot the effect of ascientific discovery’ (130), invigorating the novel whose nineteenth-century classic linear form ‘ended with Flaubert and with James’ (130). Eliot’s judgement was taken up by most critics who interpreted the mythical method as a compensatory form offering meaning to a rapidly changing modern world.17 For another critic like Michael Bell, the reason for the dominant use of myth, or more precisely mythmaking, also known as ‘mythopoeia’, is the result of the aestheticized self-awareness of modern perceptual relativity: ‘The double consciousness of living a worldview as a worldview is importantly encapsulated in modern literary mythopoeia as it unfolds over the course of the century’ (Bell 1). Myth was to play an even greater role in Eliot’s poetry, in that it does not only renew the form of the novel, but also partakes of a belief in regeneration and redemption. According to A. D. Moody, Eliot’s interest in myth was more than just a piece of erudite learning, but what he calls a ‘rite de passage’, that is, an attempt to overcome the crisis of civilisation and possibly reach the desire for catharsis as a counter-traumatic defence: ‘he [Eliot] wanted a rite de passage that would work. The ancient forms, as dug up and pieced together by scholarship, could not be revived. For the modern world a new form had to be found; and Eliot, in his poetry, did what he could’ (245). It is against this background that the reader should set Joseph’s ironical comparison of the Flanders fields to a barren ground, which is reminiscent of the metaphor of the wasteland: ‘Yes, the general impression was of barren ground, cracked by the heat and full of rusty rubbish in holes—a thoroughly modern [original emphasis] wilderness!’ (91) Joseph literalizes the necessity of regenerating the barren ground which needs fertilizing with rainwater. He expresses his wish to perform, like a mythic ritual, a rain dance, as he tells Baz: ‘I tell you what, a rain god would be quite welcome. I think we should all dance for rain. I think we should forget all our clever ideas and scientific knowledge and our filthy materialisms and self-serving laws and dance in all good faith for rain’ (105). He puts all his hopes in the regenerative return of Pan, the god of idealised primitivism, which is an ironic reference to Lawrence’s article ‘Pan in America’, published in 1926: ‘Pan, he thought. It is a sign. The spirit of Pan is what we need. And he felt a surge of electrical current pass through him from head to foot, out of the very earth itself’ (198). The image is here parodic and hardly Lawrencian, since the sacredness of nature is conflated with the effect of modern electric technology. The banal literalisation culminates in a scene in which the fertility ritual is performed through the protagonist’s sexual initiation with Marda, the pagan mystical widow who persuades him of cleansing the collective stain by bringing back rainwater through sexual union (164). In retrospect, Joseph feels partly ashamed of his former belief and does not want it to be divulged, as the paradox set between parentheses reveals: ‘they had made love in order, he reminded himself (saying out loud, sotte voce), to banish the drought and usher in the new league of peace, of love, a storm of life-giving rain, a gleaming fresh slate’ (260). Such a mythic belief in the ‘influence of vegetation on the sexes’ is a literalization of fertility rituals, as examined by Frazer in the The Golden Bough (30). As a result, Nineteen Twenty One is teeming with echoes of modernist war mythology, as it is set just before what is considered the apex of modernism, the date of 1922. The fact that the narrative is set in 1921 allows the writer to interrogate this uncertain in-between time of the immediate post-war period, torn between the attachment to ancient epic ideals and the inability to acknowledge the modernity of the event. Joseph is too close to his time to make sense of the event and not talented enough to be a forerunner of post-war modernism. This dislocated position reflects Adam Thorpe’s own syncopated affiliation to the modernist legacy of war that is both parodied and admired. It also reveals that the re-construction of the event cannot go beyond its mediateness, equating the writing of fiction to a frustrating need that cannot possibly live up to the writer’s demands.

14Nineteen Twenty One is Adam Thorpe’s fourth novel and represents an important shift from his three previous novels in which the subject’s mediated relationship to the event was counterbalanced by the belief in the syncretic function of myth. His first works, especially Still and Pieces of Light, described inheritors who were afflicted with the same symptoms as those of the ‘vicarious witness’. They were haunted by their enigmatic prehistory, in terms of familial genealogy and national legacy. In flaunting the ironic gap between myth and realism, Nineteen Twenty One denies myth its mediating role between the subject and the event, thereby offering a self-mocking commentary on the author’s past obsessions, presented through Joseph as too ambitious, if not narcissistic. If the early novels foregrounded the constructive role of imagination and its links with writing and knowing, they concluded on an aporetic ending, as the protagonists failed to build a sense of unity out of the chaotic blanks standing between themselves and the event. Nineteen Twenty One takes stock of this aporia and operates a substitution in the order of construction. If there was previously a need for synthesis, in Nineteen Twenty One the order is reversed, as the novel starts with a fantasy of unity and develops into a deconstructed fragmentation. Therefore, the co-construction of the ego in relation to the First World War is marked by un unbridgeable gap. The protagonist appears in this light as a fallible witness to the First World War, or rather a precarious witness who cannot relate to the event either through fictional construction or imagination, but who experiences the fragmentation of the self.

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1 Barthes explains that the semiotic nature of the myth lies in its alternation between meaning and form: ‘What must be always remembered is that myth is a double system; there occurs in it a sort of ubiquity: its point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning. To keep the spatial metaphor, the approximative character of which I have already stressed, I shall say that the signification of the myth is constituted by a sort of constantly moving turnstile which presents alternately the meaning of the signifier and its form, a language-object and a metalanguage, a purely signifying and a purely imagining consciousness. This alternation is, so to speak, gathered up in the concept, which uses it as an ambiguous signifier, at once intellective and imaginary, arbitrary and natural’ (Barthes 121–22).

2 ‘In one sense, the movement was towards myth, towards a revival of the cultic, the mystical, the sacrificial, the prophetic, the sacramental, and the universally significant. In short, towards fiction’ (Fussell 142).

3 ‘A brief sketch of that collective narrative of significance would go something like this: a generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them’ (Hynes x).

4 ‘Another week, another war novel, and you wonder what Adam Thorpe can contribute to the ever-growing canon of contemporary fiction about the Great War’ (Hopkin).

5 For example, the expression ‘romance of the archive’ coined by Suzanne Keen, (Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). Adam Thorpe’s historical fiction was assessed by Maria-Grazia Nicolosi who proposed the expression ‘unsentimental romances’ in direct response to Keen’s earlier work (‘‘And to defeat that shadow . . . he had to take it in homeopathically, in minute quantities of conscious reparation’: Adam Thorpe’s Unsentimental Romances’, Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature, eds. J.-M. Ganteau and S. Onega, London: Routledge, 2013. 162–80).

6 This definition of the ‘ego’ owes much to Lacan’s theory of the ‘ego’, described as a specular image, an imaginary and illusory construction of the individual’s ‘body-image’ through identification in ‘Some Reflections on the Ego’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 34 (1953): 11-17. 12.

7 The word ‘mediateness’ is different from ‘mediation’ which means the fact of being an intermediate between two parties with the aim of bringing reconciliation between them. ‘Mediateness’ is recorded in the OED and refers to ‘the quality of being mediate or mediated; indirectness, lack of immediacy’.

8 ‘Look at yourself in mirror after mirror. You will see that, not only do mirrors differ, but you are capable of being so oddly viewed that you may well have misgivings about your real self’. (A Mirror to France. London: Duckworth, 1926. 8. Quoted by Isabelle Brasme, Parade’s End de Ford Madox Ford: vers une esthétique de la crise, Montpellier  PULM, 2016. 230).

9 Lacan analyses the two variants of ego idealisation, which he calls, after Freud’s Ich-Ideal, ‘ego-ideal’ (‘moi idéal’) and ‘ideal ego’ (‘idéal du moi’). The two types of ego arise from the optical model that was successively complexified over the course of the seminars. The ego-ideal belongs to the Symbolic order and is formed through the introjection of the signifier while the ideal ego belongs to the Imaginary order and is formed through projection (Lacan 1960, 418).

10 ‘I’ve turned into the type of novelist who is continually engaged with questions of the real: how it is mediated, whether it exists in any meaningful sense beyond that mediation’ (Thorpe 2012, 276).

11 ‘the type of romance that I consider here is one whose formal and ethical properties promote anti-totalisation and openness and tend to tone down closure and stabilisation’ (Ganteau 36).

12 ‘By focusing attention on the intersection of the everyday and the extreme in the experience and writing of Holocaust survivors, traumatic realism provides an aesthetic and cognitive solution to the conflicting demands inherent in representing and understanding genocide. Traumatic realism mediates between the realist and anti-realist positions in Holocaust studies and marks the necessity of considering how the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of genocide intersect and coexist’ (Rothberg 9).

13 ‘Both these works [those of Lanzmann and Spiegelman], therefore, foreground the role of a mediating figure who dramatizes the work of recollection and, by doing so, both emphasize the process itself of reconstructing the past as filtered through the consciousness (and complicity) of a belated witness in the fusion of then and now’ (Zeitlin 7).

14 ‘Où, ce réel, le rencontrons-nous ? C’est en effet d’une rencontre, d’une rencontre essentielle, qu’il s’agit dans ce que la psychanalyse a découvert — d’un rendez-vous auquel nous sommes toujours appelés avec un réel qui se dérobe’ (Lacan 1964, 64).

15 The ‘realms of memory’ are defined by Pierre Nora as another way of making History, that is no longer dependent on realia, material documents, but on signs, so that the ‘realms’ can be material, symbolic and functional and are created by the reciprocal interaction of memory and history (‘Between Memory and History’ Representations 26 [1989]: 7–24, 18).

16 ‘But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress’ (8).

17 ‘For the modernists themselves, however, the point of using myth was to compensate for the dissatisfying fragmentation of the modern world: to create a controlling narrative that could be mapped onto and make sense of the rapid social changes of modernity’ (Childs 209).

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Alexandre Privat, « Re-constructing the Fiction of the First World War in Adam Thorpe’s Nineteen Twenty One »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 15 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Alexandre Privat

Alexandre Privat is ‘professeur agrégé’ and a PhD student in contemporary British literature at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier III. He has been a member of EMMA since 2015. His field of research is devoted to the whole of Adam Thorpe’s fictional work and explores the notion of ‘precarious witness’ in relation to history, psychoanalysis and ethics and its literary application to contemporary fiction.

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