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British Literature in the Present (Supplement)

‘Nothing survives its telling’ (NW): Redefining the Literary Event in the Latest Novels of Zadie Smith, Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, Tim Pears and Pat Barker

« Nothing survives its telling » (NW) : redéfinir l’événement littéraire dans les derniers romans de Zadie Smith, Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, Tim Pears et Pat Barker
Laurent Mellet


Cet article a pour objets d’étude six romans britanniques publiés très récemment, qui ont en commun d’interroger la nature et l’éthique de l’événement littéraire. On y découvre une intrigue qui repose sur bien peu de vrais événements, ou alors dont la fonction est au contraire de créer l’événement afin de remplir le vide de la vie des personnages. Que ce vide soit créé ou utilisé par la narration, il peut être compensé et presque annulé par de nouvelles stratégies métafictionnelles, comme la narration de soi, qui devient un événement à part entière dans le texte. Coe, Smith et McEwan inventent encore d’autres formes littéraires de l’explication narrative en tant que déploiement d’événements réels ou imaginaires dans l’espace et dans le temps. « Nothing survives its telling », écrit Smith dans NW. Inversement, ou peut-être selon la même logique, les romans étudiés ici suggèrent qu’en disant l’événement, en racontant l’intrigue, on les crée et on les actualise. Mais ils soulignent également la dimension trompeuse et la part de fiction à l’œuvre dans tout événement.

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1‘Nothing survives its telling’, Zadie Smith writes in NW, reversing the chronology and the purpose of novel-writing (Smith 13). Six recently published novels singularly link these issues to a questioning of the void and various representations of absence: NW by Zadie Smith (2012), The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe (2010), Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (2012), the two latest novels of Tim Pears (Landed, 2010, and Disputed Land, 2011), and Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room (2012). In these novels one of the first stages of both the plot and characterisation is the initial void felt by the protagonists. While there may be nothing really specific to contemporary fiction here, this recurrence takes on new meaning once we understand that events and their narrative are presented as the most appropriate way to fill emptiness (McEwan 7, Barker 30, Pears 2012, 84). Landed tells the traumatic story of Owen, who has had one hand amputated after a road accident. In its first chapters Landed takes us back to the hero’s happy childhood in Wales. The text teems with motifs of emptiness, gaps in the soil (Pears 2011, 11, 33), or empty feelings. All through the novel the narrative plays with paralipsis (Pears 2011, 16), marking out relevant information that will never be disclosed. Owen’s missing limb turns into some obsessive textual figure, as the repetition of terms as ‘blank’, ‘taken out’, ‘put in’, ‘vacant’, ‘deprive’, desperately tries to make up for the many gaps of the story and the void growing in Owen’s body and mind.

2Perhaps a more specific facet of the void in contemporary fiction has to do with how plots slowly build up or dig out new empty motifs, towards which events inevitably converge. Such is the case for instance of Jonathan Coe’s Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, in which metafiction and the reflection on the nature of literary events are also to be found on a topographic level. When Maxwell goes past the Longbridge factory, which was one of the main backgrounds for The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, it is all Coe’s novels which seem to be progressing towards a void (Coe 2010, 155). The plot here no longer fills up empty spaces and times, but moves towards emptiness and erasure. In Toby’s Room by Pat Barker, the void disfiguring Kit Neville’s face also pierces narrative holes in the text, which makes great use of aposiopesis (Barker 13) or mentions a silent hole in a conversation (Barker 74).

3In Tim Pears’s Landed, once the void has been created in Owen’s body and in the text, another process of compensation and filling up pervades the narrative. Owen suffers from phantom limb symptoms. Recreating the illusion of the image of the missing hand can cure the symptoms: thanks to mirror effects, Owen moves his left hand and sees himself move his right hand as well (Pears 2011, 48). Such fictional filling up of the void is a scientific experiment that, based on imagination and fiction as it is, we may also read as a literary event.

4The one and only page of the first chapter of Zadie Smith’s NW is an attempt at asserting not so much one’s identity, but one’s voice and words as the only possible channels to define or create oneself. Leah hears: ‘On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me’ (Smith 3). On magazine pages, and as an opening to NW, Leah tries indeed to write and chant out not so much herself, but the catchphrase itself as some existentialist mantra (Smith 3). Words stutter, stumble against themselves or perhaps against the impossibility to be defined through a mere dictionary, as the slogan goes. The repeated phrase becomes equally inadequate, a programme much more than an event yet. The last line of the book implies some other form of interplay between the self, voice and narration (Smith 294). Between those two endeavours, many characters will try, as Keisha, ‘[t]o explain [themselves] to [themselves]’ (Smith 197).

5The first-person narrative of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim becomes its main literary event when identity turns out to be utterly fictional and invented by an author of whom Maxwell had no inkling he was the puppet­ of—an event for Maxwell himself, as by the mere fact of doing and believing in it, he could reach meaning and self-identity, and an event for Coe’s readers, who eventually understand that the book was much more about literature than toothbrushes. Similarly, in his latest novel McEwan makes us think Serena is the author of her first-person narrative. We learn at the end that she has been literarily fooled and trapped by the man she thought she was deceiving, who made her and her voice the matter and manner of his new novel.

6A further combination between events and narration reveals the necessary explanation of events for them to be construed as proper events: if ‘nothing survives its telling’, perhaps the event should be explained to survive and for the plot to move on. Here would be found some contemporary form of commitment common to the novelists under study. NW first opposes telling and explaining, for instance in one long, dense paragraph where voices mingle and communication here again stumbles (Smith 76). In the last pages of the book the opposition is even clearer, when explaining becomes a narrative failure and mere juxtaposition of undecipherable events (Smith 288–289). In Coe’s latest novel another collusion between narrating and explaining emerges from the last chapter and metafictional twist. If the author’s explanations clearly prevent heroes, events and the plot from surviving, conversely they also provide events with some essential literary reality, turning narrative space into the only one where things may happen and where individuals can try narrating them. The first links between emptiness and explanation in Toby’s Room by Barker suggest something similar (Barker 10). Furthermore, beyond explaining events so as to turn them into proper events, the very process of explanation is based on another coherent pattern, if we remember the etymon of the word: explanation as spreading out, unfurling, rolling out. How can explanation then become some sort of space-and-time unrolling of the event, taking its stead and happening for it in the narrative?

7The novels under study may redefine the event first in the way they build up confusions between space and time. In NW time is almost equated with space precisely when it’s about narrating and sharing a story (Smith 16). Tim Pears strikingly suggests the same equivalence between time and space, perhaps as new coordinates on which narration, as some sort of explanation, must now roll out as the event in the plot. In Landed: ‘Time passes, distance is covered’ (Pears 2011, 165). In its mere passing, time makes the protagonists walk on and reach their destination, as it makes space literally covered, as in another metanarrative allusion to the plot writing itself out, or explaining itself out, surviving despite its telling, and thanks to its double unrolling in the space and time of its explanation. The same process is to be found in Disputed Land, Pears’s subsequent novel, in which the narrator writes for his son the story of his teenage years. My assumption is that, along with other metanarrative images, what those passages write is a real questioning of how events spring up in both the narrated and narrating spaces and times, since they suggest that it is precisely by extending those that the event may be explained, making its explanation in the text the event that it tries to create.

8Zadie Smith in NW has her heroine forget herself when she becomes the space she walks through (Smith 264). The space here allows for the character to become what she does, and maybe to become an advent—her own event. ‘Who says that poetry makes nothing happen?’ (McEwan 318) asks the true narrator of Sweet Tooth. Here again it is about turning the previous three hundred pages into an event, about deciding to make the novel happen, a novel which will then make its characters happen in its own space and time. Disputed Land touches upon the same issues when it opposes ‘spectator[s] of events’ (Pears 2012, 163) to the imperative of doing something (Pears 2012, 150), always along some metanarrative line. The book almost opens on the remark: ‘The futility of art, when action was needed’ (Pears 2012, XI), to close on bitter words about becoming ‘men of action’ (Pears 2012, 209). Nothing really happened because of a lack of action, and once more the essentials of fiction are located in this necessary explanation of why nothing happened, much more than in a narrative of what happened.

9With Smith the narration of words and events becomes an act. Doing and saying what you do is the first way to make sure things happen, since they are narrated. ‘Leah is naming all her actions’, writes the narrator, before doing it as well (Smith 8). Sentences themselves are piled up (Smith 9), so that now words become actions, and not just what names actions. The same process is at work in the third section of the novel, ‘host’, composed of 184 short vignettes, small blocs of narrative and snapshots on Natalie’s life. Earlier in the novel, saying something is creating the event (Smith 45). In the section ‘host’, the absence of narrative fluidity might be construed as a literary way to suggest that words do not create anything, but are used to get rid of and do away with the events, to explain them away systematically. So that it may no longer be up to narration to relate anything, as we read in Toby’s Room (Barker 59). That Smith also practises in NW, when a list of deeds and assertions, of raw events here neither narrated nor explained, not even explained indeed, is enough to characterize Leah and Michel (Smith 20–21). To tell the event is to suppress it, or at least explain it away as an event from the past one should forget and not so much relate.

10The question of survival is equally recurrent, for example in the conclusion of Landed, when the possibility of any future for Owen and his family is questioned, or in Sweet Tooth (McEwan 316), with the difficult survival of both Serena and Tom after the press scandals. The basic narrative construction of NW also implies that nothing, and even no one, survives its or their telling: Smith almost abandons her first heroes after the first section, and then devotes sixty pages to Felix, who will not survive his telling as he gets killed at the end of his narrative. McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, in its last metafictional twist, offers perhaps a less bleak pattern, when Tom writes to Serena that ‘[e]vents would decide the plot’ (McEwan 307). And yet events are here almost independent of their narrative, not even surviving narration and explanation, but asserting themselves as the first material of fiction. Writing is presented as some passive use of real events, ‘what happens’ does not belong to literature, and the very notion of literary event is again questioned.

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Barker, Pat, Toby’s Room, London: Penguin, 2012.

Coe, Jonathan, The Rotters’ Club (2001), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, The Closed Circle (2004), London: Penguin, 2008.

Coe, Jonathan, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, London: Penguin, 2010.

McEwan, Ian, Sweet Tooth, London: Jonathan Cape, 2012.

Pears, Tim, Landed (2010), London: Windmill, 2011.

Pears, Tim, Disputed Land (2011), London: Windmill, 2012.

Smith, Zadie, NW, London: Penguin, 2012.

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Référence électronique

Laurent Mellet, « ‘Nothing survives its telling’ (NW): Redefining the Literary Event in the Latest Novels of Zadie Smith, Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan, Tim Pears and Pat Barker »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Mellet

Université Toulouse II – Le Mirail
Laurent Mellet is Professor of British literature and cinema at the Université Toulouse 2—Le Mirail (France). He is the co-author with Shannon Wells-Lassagne of Étudier l’adaptation filmique—Cinéma anglais, cinéma américain (PUR, 2010), and the author of L’Œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique (PULM, 2012). He has written several papers on modernist and contemporary literature, and on film theory and aesthetics. He is the editor of the 2012 issue of academic e-journal Textes et contextes, entitled Early Literary Centuries. He has written a monograph on Jonathan Coe, to be published in 2014 by the PUPS.

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