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Sebastian Groes, The Making of London. London in Contemporary Literature

Vanessa Guignery
Référence(s) :

Groes, Sebastian, The Making of London. London in Contemporary Literature, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 309 p.

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1From its very title, Sebastian Groes’s study of London in contemporary literature points to the notion of ‘making’, i.e. ‘the constructed and artificial nature of the city’ (2), and comes to the conclusion that ‘the making of London is also its unmaking’ (3). Instead of reducing London (that T. S. Eliot famously called an ‘Unreal City’ in The Waste Land), to a virtual hyper-reality or to the postmodern representation of the city-as-text, Groes chooses to emphasize its materiality, ‘half of stone, half of flesh’ as Peter Ackroyd wrote in his monumental biography of the metropolis, and to take into account the weight of its history while still being well aware of its modernity, marked in recent times by a proliferation of modes of surveillance. After a comprehensive introduction that discusses the major issues that will be dealt with, Groes analyses the work of eleven novelists in nine chapters that focus on a selection of London novels set during the Thatcher era and its aftermath. The writers belong to several generations (the eldest, J. G. Ballard, was born in 1930; the youngest, Zadie Smith, in 1975), and various geographical backgrounds: Londoners born-and-bred of British parents predominate but in the last two chapters, Groes includes one Indian immigrant (Salman Rushdie) and three children of immigrants from Pakistan (Hanif Kureishi), the West Indies (Zadie Smith) and Bangladesh (Monica Ali). Groes examines the ‘apocalyptic visions of a city in decline’ (Ballard, Sinclair, Amis) marked by a ‘sense of crisis’ (191) but also draws attention to the mythical potential of the city and to its polyphonic voices that include the lost voices of the past (Ackroyd, Sinclair) as well as those of migrants (Rushdie, Kureishi, Smith, Ali). Groes is also alert to the interest shown by most of the writers in economic and socio-cultural contexts and to the metaphor of the city as a human body (Ackroyd).

2The chapters themselves can be assimilated into three groups. The first three chapters focus on writers born in the 1930s (Maureen Duffy, Michael Moorcock and J. G. Ballard) who play London’s history against its diverse mythology and alternative narratives. The chapter on Duffy points to the generic eclecticism and polemical dimension of her work, and analyses more particularly Capital (1975), a novel which depicts the dismal social and economic climate in London in the 1970s but also delves into the city’s history. Groes also examines Duffy’s Londoners: An Elegy (1983), in which the decline of the Empire and of mythical London is even more blatant, replaced by a ‘newly emerging internationalist, cosmopolitan world driven by commerce and business’ (33), but also a city that subverts the stereotypes of class and gender. The chapter on Michael Moorcock does not analyse the writer’s science-fiction and fantasy novels but focuses on his London novels, Mother London (1988) and King of the City (2000), indictments of what Groes calls ‘Long Thatcherism’ (9, 42) as, for the critic, the devotion to the free market, private enterprise and financial services started in the mid-1970s. Drawn to the mythical and popular tradition of London, Moorcock denounces the emergence of an inauthentic and artificial cityscape ‘made by heritage fetishists to entertain tourists with polished images of the past’ (51). J. G. Ballard’s fantasies of London—Crash (1973), Millennium People (2003), Kingdom Come (2006)—present the ‘postmetropolis’, a term coined by Edward Soja (76), and its sprawling suburbs as a ‘repressive machine’ (68) heading towards regression and destruction due to the effects of late capitalism and cultural globalisation.

3A second group of chapters examines the work of writers born in the 1940s (Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis). Iain Sinclair’s apocalyptic narratives, in particular Downriver (1991) and London Orbital (2002), focus on the dismantling of London by capitalist governments and city developers, and its transformation into a mental and physical prison. Groes divides Ackroyd’s London novels into two groups: on the one hand his dark Gothic novels and historical pastiches of the 1980s and 1990s, such as The Great Fire of London (1983) or Hawksmoor (1986), and on the other hand more overtly political novels such as The Plato Papers (1999) that are not so much concerned with the materiality of London as with its voices, living speech and heteroglossia. The chapter on Ian McEwan charts the evolution of his work from a depiction of dark London as a dystopian and masculine city of poverty, oppression and crime in his early stories, via a direct attack on the Thatcher government in The Child in Time (1987), to a connection with the city’s mythical origins in Saturday (2005), but Groes also draws attention to ‘the remarkable consistency in [McEwan’s] depiction of London as a site of moral contestation’ (144). Like McEwan’s The Child in Time, Sinclair’s Downriver and the works of Ballard, Martin Amis’s depiction of London in Money (1984), London Fields (1989) and Yellow Dogs (2003) is dark and apocalyptic, the capital functioning as ‘a machine for moral policing and mapping of millennial anxieties’ (169). Groes draws attention to Amis’s contradictory attitude to London as the novelist points to the city’s socio-economic and moral decline (as epitomized by the excesses of the late capitalist consumer culture and Amis’s scatological and pornographic thematics), and yet revitalizes the city through linguistic energy. Groes calls it ‘Amis’s “entropoetics”—a poetics of decline redeemed by linguistic ingenuity’ (172).

4The third group of two chapters focuses on writers of the diaspora or children of immigrants, whose writing is maybe more vibrant and regenerative in their consideration of the multicultural city and their dismantling of the language of the former Empire. Groes examines in particular Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), ‘a seminal high postmodernist London novel’ (198), and its inscription of immigrant politics in the metropolis, which entails a linguistic reinvention of London. In Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), written in a realistic mode, London and its suburbs are more of a backdrop to the characters’ lives, ‘the exclusive site of a genuine understanding of desire and sexuality’ (217). Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), which was hailed as the symbol of multicultural London, and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) were written after Tony Blair and New Labour came into power, and both are firmly grounded in realism. While White Teeth is viewed an example of Bakhtinian heteroglossia in its celebration of the ‘orthographies of London’s immigrants’ (226), Brick Lane places the emphasis on the importance of education and the acquisition of the host language for a better inscription of the migrant self within the British landscape.

5Throughout the book, Groes draws from various conceptual and theoretical models, and brings into play differing interpretations of the eleven writers’ work. He offers insightful comparisons between the various trends represented by the authors selected and charts notable evolutions within the work of some of the writers. He notes in his conclusion that in the last few decades, London fiction has shifted away from apocalypticism and the millenarian drive, away from dystopia, Gothicism and mysticism, away from an obsession with London’s mythology, and towards a more factual interest in London’s history and in ‘the real’ which entails a ‘renewed interest in the voices of London’ in all their diversity (259–260). Groes’s study is thorough and significant for its examination of writers of varied trends and traditions. It proves a most valuable contribution to studies of contemporary writing about London.

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Vanessa Guignery, « Sebastian Groes, The Making of London. London in Contemporary Literature »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2013, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Vanessa Guignery

ENS de Lyon — IUF

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