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Community-centred versus subject-centred representation in the narrative fiction of the 1940s

Jean-Christophe MURAT

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  • 1  As in M. Bakhtin’s Problems in Dostoievsky’s Poetics (1963), the revised and expanded version of h (...)
  • 2  As in G. Bachelard’s Poetics of Space (1957) and Poetics of Reverie (1960).

1“Poetics” is a notoriously slippery and all-purpose word, which can in turn designate a collection of artistic rules and precepts, the linguistic and representational universe of a particular writer1, and even the descriptive analysis of a state of feeling or substance conducive to creativeness2. Although in the course of the twentieth century the term “poetics” usually became synonymous with the general theory of literary forms and the exploration of the virtually endless possibilities of literary discourse, there still lurks within its foundations the memory of its (long prevalent) normative power. Poetics as the spelling out of rules of artistic conduct (including rules of formal composition) is one acceptation of the word, but one that remains an essential component of the poetics of the literature of the 1940s in Britain. With unprecedented intensity, that decade problematised the predicament of literature in the face of events that were both out of its range and central to its concerns, if only because the outcome of the war was felt to determine the possibility of literature’s survival. George Orwell’s essay “Inside the Whale” is a famous but ultimately unsatisfactory survey of the position of writers in the early months of 1940. Stoically embracing the view that “literature, in the [liberal] form in which we know it, must suffer at least a temporary death,” (48) Orwell also insists that writers’ attitudes at the outbreak of the war should not be oversimplified into a mere conflict between “progressive” versus “reactionary”, or again “left -wing” versus “fascist” world-views. The authentic artistic stance does not in fact so much depend on “political truth” (always illusory and ephemeral) as on emotional sincerity. More often than not, that emotional sincerity can only be obtained in an atmosphere “‘innocent of public-spiritedness’”. Thus, taking to task Louis MacNeice who, in the 1930s, criticised T.S. Eliot’s selfish unconcern for the trench war in Prufock (1917), he declares:

If I had been a soldier fighting in the Great War, I would sooner have got hold of Prufock than […] Horatio Bottomley’s Letters to the Boys in the Trenches. I should have felt […] that by simply standing aloof and keeping in touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! (47)

2“Quietism” (48), however, is not what Orwell believes every sane individual should adopt in the circumstances –– it is what every bona fide writer should adopt:

[F]rom now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writer is going to be that this is not a writer’s world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. (48)

3Orwell thus establishes a rather conventional distinction between the individual and “the writer” –– a distinction which widens the old gap between politics and poetics, “action” and “literature”. “Individual” seems to refer to the empirical subject in its flesh-and-blood reality; “the writer” (also an empirical subject, not an “effect” or a “function”) evolves in a sphere at one remove from the actual political world. One may assume that he was anxious to preserve himself from betrayal as well as from naiveté, by rejecting crude forms of partisan or downright propagandist literature, while simultaneously pronouncing the belief in humanist, disinterested art obsolete and irrelevant in wartime. Even if most of Orwell’s literary counterparts must have shared his niggling sense of uselessness, few, I think, complied with his advice to make themselves scarce –– either because they felt that the war was binding them, as writers, to a set of political commitments and moral imperatives, or because, at worst, their pessimism about the future exalted rather than dried up their lyricism of hopelessness.

Selfless, selfish and self-conscious “writers”

4If the “poetics of the subject” in the 1940s appears as the urgent attempt to set out the conditions for the very survival of literature, it involves sorting out the link between the community, the individual and the subject.

There has so far been no great war novel […] out of the experiences of the last six years. […] If it is to be born, I think it will not be in England, but in some country whose inhabitants have undergone a great communal death and rebirth –– that archetypal myth so fruitful for the writer throughout the ages. It will be in France, or maybe in Germany, or perhaps, one day, in Russia. (R. Lehmann 6-7)

5Written in the immediate aftermath of the war, Rosamond Lehmann’s view on the output of her fellow-novelists is not to be read as one more lament on the “hopeless decline” of the English novel since 1939 –– a decline so well publicised that it has eventually become the master narrative of a literary mystique of the 1940s and early 1950s. Lehmann’s negative judgement rests on the tension she perceives between subject-centred and community-centred representation in the novel. In insisting that the great World War Two novel must proceed from a community-centred representation of the conflict, she puts her finger on one of the most painful issues of British society during and right after the war. Although the heavy bombing of the cities cost thousands of civilian lives and gave birth to a heroic “Britain-can-take-it” mythology, many non-combatant British writers –– male and female civilians, as well as the many servicemen employed in the various Ministries –– were split between the awareness of a tremendous narrative in which they took little part and their unconvincing “redemption” through alternative narratives of pain and disfigurement in the personal, self-conscious mode:

One had been changed by the war –– like the man who found he was an insect one morning in Kafka’s horrible and prophetic story –– into something completely alien to one’s self. […] [I]n this new way of life the writers had become aware of gulfs around them they had not imagined existed, or could ignore, in their earlier life. (J. Lehmann 98)

6Interestingly, for many writers drafted into the Civil Service, personal crisis was raging on two notional terrains: as individuals seemingly involved in but actually cut off from a great collective drama that took place, literally and figuratively, over their heads (this was due to the divide between “the strategic perspective of those commanding their respective war machines, and the dislocated points of view of those on the ground on the home front or trapped in combat” (Deer 5), those on the ground including nearly all of the writers themselves); as “writers” feeling that they were being turned into mere Ministry hacks recording, and often falsifying, events they did not even witness at first hand. John Lehmann’s commentary is a case in point. It starts with an impersonal “one” (every individual), then refocuses its point of view on “the writers”. In the same way, the only simile that seems to adequately reflect the predicament he describes is not borrowed from tales of actual wartime atrocities but from tales of fiction, through the reference to Kafka.

  • 3  Elizabeth Maslen, “Storm Jameson and the Raising of Consciousness”, paper given at the University (...)

7The poetics of the subject in the British literary world of the 1940s uses a whole spectrum of attitudes, ranging from calls for “the raising of consciousness”3 to self-indulgent lyrical cries. Both attitudes mobilise the literary energy of the writer; the first requires the effacement of his own figure from the text and the avoidance of a too strongly subject-centred representation; the second calls for the construction of a conspicuously lyrical subject, as for example in Cyril Connolly’s all-too famous pronouncement: “From now on an artist will be judged by the resonance of his solitude and the quality of his despair.” (Connolly 219)

  • 4  Storm Jameson’s “novels of the crisis” (1940-1946) are all set on the Continent, especially in Cze (...)

8In many wartime and post-war novels, “narrative” is linked to what is taking place on the Continent or in North Africa (loci of commitment, resistance and fighting), whereas Britain is often regarded as a place for futile rage or self-questioning. As Elizabeth Bowen wrote in Collected Impressions: “In no way dare we who were in Britain compare ourselves with the French.” (Bowen 50) Margaret Storm Jameson’s Cloudless May, which belongs to her “Novels of the Crisis”4, is set in an imaginary town of the Loire valley. It depicts the dismay of the French civilian population in the month of May 1940, when the impending defeat of the French army was both paralysing military action and radicalising ideological stances. Subject-centred representation is consistently erased by the absence of a central protagonist, or kept at a critical distance by the use of flawed focalisers; in addition to that, no writer or artist figure is to be found within the novel. Written at a time when the outcome of the war was still very uncertain, Storm Jameson’s text is emphatically a “condition-of-France novel”, whose plot and characterisation develop along the lines of nineteenth-century realism. The representation of community is informed by the dominant trope of metonymy –– the town of Seuilly is used as a compendium of French society and of the complex tensions between communal feeling, communal duty, selfishness and selflessness. While the community is constantly described as a tangible reality with strong geographical, social and historical landmarks (this is mostly conveyed by characterisation, based on a relatively simple correspondence between dwelling, outward appearance and personality), Storm Jameson also suggests that the possibility for this living organism to be mythologised and allegorised is at once a strength and a weakness:

He [Colonel Rienne] delivered his message from the general, and left. As he recrossed the Loire he heard a faint vibrant noise a long way off –– artillery practice, no doubt. Or it was the great bow of the Loire itself, drawn taut against the barbarian invasion. […] But the word France must go on, since the whole world had been waiting for it, for this frail new point piercing a young branch, smelling of the leaf, of autumn, promising Chartres and Tours, and foreknowing or remembering Ronsard, Hugo, Péguy, the battle of the Marne, Verdun. (173-4)

  • 5  “Negative” selflessness (cold detachment and indifference to martyrdom) is represented by other ch (...)

9Colonel Rienne is the one character whom one might be tempted to single out as the novel’s “truth-teller”, because he is the most ostensibly “selfless” one, his actions and motivations obeying a kind of heroic disinterestedness. Ironically though, his “emotional sincerity” fails to convince, because his high-flown vision is far too stilted and complacent to “raise consciousness” in any relevant way. This unsuccessful attempt to impart a sense of totality reveals the character’s limitations and his inability to grasp what is truly at stake. Even when it does not preclude pity and empathy, selflessness5 is not set up as a model. A community-centred search for the causes of the crisis does not mean the effacement of the self. The last chapter depicts the mixed feelings of Lucien, a young and so far secondary character, who decides to continue the fight across the Channel. Reluctantly casting off the weight of his cherished but cumbersome community (his centuries-old native village of La Croisée), staring with suspicion at the unfamiliar landscape of England, Lucien eventually faces the future –– his own and that of the two nations –– with a characteristic mixture of distrust and confidence: “Lucien smiled. Dorking, Surrey –– what names! Ah, he thought, we shall have a son with eyes like a hawk.” (513) These final words emphasise how the quest for communal spiritual regeneration demands the cooperation of a subject who is neither blinded by myth-making, like Rienne, nor paralysed by self-consciousness, but is definitely self-aware.


  • 6  According to Hamon (103), ideology may be defined along two complementary axes: paradigmatic (as a (...)

10Exploring the poetics of the subject in the 1940s means paying close attention to “the poetics of norms” that pervades the narrative fiction and the critical discourse of the decade. The phrase “poetics of norms” (“poétique de la norme”) has been coined by Philippe Hamon, with a view to analysing the “ideology-effect”6 of literary texts (with particular reference to the naturalist novel) through the elaboration of a “built-in” normative apparatus operating at all narrative and descriptive levels (characterisation, plot, setting), and using four sets of evaluative criteria: technological (assessing the professional skill and technical ability of a character, the craftsmanship of a particular object, work…), linguistic (assessing the oral or written performance of characters, messages), aesthetic (assessing good or bad taste, expressing norms of beauty or ugliness) social and ethical (judging manners, the characters’ ability and desire to conform to or rebel against codes, laws, morals). The normative apparatus of most narrative and critical texts of the ’40s is so much foregrounded, and so insistently linked to the definition, or redefinition, of the subject, that evaluation and judgement appear in retrospect as the outstanding concerns of their poetics. This ethical criticism, which brings into play a whole set of competence- and performance-related criteria (adequate-inadequate, adjusted-maladjusted, articulate-inarticulate, responsible-irresponsible), is both a legacy of “romantic”, subject-centred ideologies, and a sometimes militant rejection of the latter in the name of superior communal interests.

11Not surprisingly, the most self-consciously subject-centred narratives are the transparently or explicitly autobiographical ones. Written in 1945, published in 1946, Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood is a novel whose dominant theme is the relationship between the middle-class writer (Isherwood himself, if one takes for granted the author’s insistent use of his real name) and the society around him. Yet that relationship does not limit itself to a conventional binary opposition; it is played out dynamically by the creation of competing figures of individual and collective identity. Set in London in late 1933 and early 1934, the novel deals with the shooting by Friedrich Bergmann, a Jewish Austrian film-director in exile, of a movie whose story takes place in Vienna before the First World War. The figure of the artist subject is split between Isherwood the novelist (turned into a script-writer) and Bergmann the film-director; the community is the London world of 1933, the Viennese world of 1933, and the restricted world of the Prater before 1914. Various tensions are to be settled in this book. First, the author’s painful coming to terms with the failure of the political activism of the 1930s and of the so-called “Auden generation”:

Perhaps I had travelled too much, left my heart in too many places. I knew what I was supposed to feel, what it was fashionable for my generation to feel. We cared about everything: fascism in Germany and Italy, the seizure of Manchuria, Indian nationalism […]. We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin. (105)

12Even though the time is 1933, Isherwood’s comment on his autobiographical double is clearly written from the standpoint of the 1940s, which enables him to pass judgement with the benefit of hindsight. This gap between the ostensible standpoint (the mid-thirties) and the real one (the mid-forties) may explain why, for someone who is deploring that his individuality as a politically conscious subject is in danger of diluting itself into too many communal causes, Isherwood is curiously guarded and self-centred throughout the book –– describing at great length, for instance, his inability to connect with a given community in a satisfactory way:

I had always had a pretty good opinion of myself as a writer. But during those first days with Bergmann it was lowered considerably. I had flattered myself that I had imagination, that I could invent dialogue, that I could develop a character. […] I didn’t know. I couldn’t write it. […] Shakespeare would have known how he [an old man selling sausages at a fun fair] spoke. Tolstoy would have known. I didn’t know because, for all my parlour socialism, I was a snob. I didn’t know how anybody spoke, except public schoolboys and neurotic bohemians. (35 & 37)

  • 7  “‘I expect this whole damned island to care [about Austria]!’” (103-4)

13The figure of the committed writer is suddenly exposed as a mask, thereby revealing an anxiety which for once is probably more anchored in the 1930s than in the 1940s, and which a critic once defined as the “fiction of going over” (140). The artist subject is attacking himself in a way that involves all of Hamon’s evaluative criteria: linguistic (the inability to lend a plausible language to characters outside his own cultural sphere), technological (the inability to produce the commissioned “work of art” –– the script), social and ethical (the hypocrisy of his “parlour socialism” and the resulting feebleness of his social grasp). Implicitly though, Isherwood’s irony towards himself creates a safe distance which suggests that his self-dismissal may not be the ultimate stage in the process. It is finally the symbolic fusion of Isherwood and of Bergmann, the Austrian filmmaker, that gives the artist subject his fullness and his significance. Bergmann’s face is perceived as “the face of a political situation, an epoch. The face of Central Europe.” (20) It is the face Isherwood dreams of slipping behind his unconvincing mask. Bergmann is therefore the necessary connection between the limited, insular British writer, the limited, insular British community7 and the world of the Continent. This tour de force is achieved through the conveniently circumscribed and metonymical space of the film set:

Bergmann inspired us all. His absolute certainty swept us along like a torrent. […] [H]e manoeuvred the great crowd this way and that, moulded it, reduced it to a single organism, in which every individual had a part. We were exhausted, but we were all laughing. (119-20)

14The success of Prater Violet –– the film –– enabled Bergmann to get a job in Hollywood and to leave Europe with his family in 1935. Remember that the novel is autobiographical, and that this story, even if slightly romanced, is a true one. The seemingly superficial and escapist film eventually fulfilled a humanitarian function; Prater Violet, the text, implements a sort of “poetics of politics” whereby, after the initial dismissal, Isherwood is reinstated as politically conscious artist subject –– after all, the script he wrote contributed to the film’s success, and as a result to Bergmann’s future safety.

15Published in 1949, but first written in the years 1945-1946, Stevie Smith’s novel The Holiday is the self-proclaimed book of “activistes manqués” (14). The problematics of the subject takes centre stage here. Making extensive use of autobiographical material, Stevie Smith probes into the dissatisfied consciousness (and conscience) of Celia, her own alter ego, who is occupying two equally untenable positions in the early summer of 1946 –– as an amateurish Ministry employee decoding and translating documents, and as a lackadaisical writer turning out the odd poem in a world where writers are “neither influencers nor leaders”, and are “wholly unattended to” (157). The protagonist is female here, like the author, and we expect this to modify our perception of the poetics of norms in the text in a way Cloudless May, so “masculine”, so action-oriented and community-centred, does not, even though its author is also a woman. It seems for example that Celia ought not to be as guilt-ridden as a man about taking no part in the war as a combatant –– World War Two British women were after all never expected to parachute into occupied France, or to recklessly break through the German lines in North Africa. And yet, curiously, it is with soldiers, and with the most valiant ones, that Celia compares herself so unfavourably:

[W]hat is this work [at the Ministry] that is so bustling and so cosy? What is this? compared with Libya and Russia, and compared with the men who were sailing backwards and forwards to Russia, sailing upon the deadly Murmansk route? […] Eh, what are we up to, compared with the victory they got us? (32-3)

16Celia uses “we” and “us” in a way that refers to male and female non-combatants (Ministry employees in this instance) indiscriminately. This unusual perspective, challenging the widely accepted “no-women-on-the-front” view, largely accounts for one of the major tensions in the novel: the tension between the lyrical and the epic mode. Throughout this narrative where, symptomatically, very little happens in the way of plot and action, one feels that the dominant lyricism of suffering is partly imposed on Celia as a substitute for the epic tale, or its more middlebrow counterpart, the tale of adventure, that she wishes she could write, and whose leading role she would like to cast herself in:

When I am walking with Lopez along the King’s Road I keep close to her for company. Here is this admirable girl, I think, who has this admirable courage and this admirable high heart, for she is not a sad girl, she is not walking round in fury and despair. She writes and entertains the Government and the Section people, and the editors, and all the time it is nothing but a wonderful adventure for her to have, it is in the spirit of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Sideways Through Patagonia, it is like that. Oh vigorous buccaneering delicate girl-oh, what a wonderful girl Lopez is, she is the divine Helen to the Castor and Pollux of her rather undivine brothers, I think, walking home with her along the King’s Road. (55-6)

17The fact that the books she is alluding to are, like many tales of adventure, conventional enough in terms of sex roles, does not seem to disturb Celia, who simply rewrites the scripts according to what best suits her idea of a mixed (and not specifically feminine) heroism. The overall conflict between epic, or adventure-tale heroism, and a kind of “second-choice” self-indulgent lyricism (what she calls “the rich death-feeling […] that is so richly anarchic and upon which one can rest” (61), is dramatised and historicised by Celia’s many references to Tennyson’s poem Maud. Published in 1855, Tennyson’s long monodrama depicts the morbid despair of a young man who has fallen in love with Maud, the Lord of the Hall’s daughter, but whose hopes, although he has won her heart, are shattered when he kills his rival in a duel. His only solace and redemption takes the form of selfless patriotism and abandonment to the comforting certainties of war –– he will join the British army in Crimea. For Celia, Tennyson’s way of solving the tension between neurotic subject-centredness and self-sacrifice to the community (the nation) is preposterous in the light of the 1940s:

[I]n our heart of hearts we think that the Maud situation is very absurd indeed, for the life that we know does not, oh does not give dignity in suffering, indeed the life that we know seems like the Nazis to give always the maximum of pain with the maximum of indignity. So we cannot believe a word of the Maud situation. (181)

18What Celia seems to say is that a truly convincing community-centred narrative is now difficult to produce, especially when the communities take the form of large political and governmental entities. “Communal rebirth” is hardly possible when such communities are either openly totalitarian and destructive, as in wartime Germany, or more and more bureaucratic and slyly manipulative, as in wartime and post-war Britain. What she also means, I think, is that the 1940s have shown that the great works of art and literature are powerless to prevent the emergence of barbarism. Maud versus The Holiday –– the poetics of “culture” versus the poetics of “post-culture”, as George Steiner would put it.

19George Orwell may have been right after all –– individuals may still be willing to cooperate in the reconstruction of society, but bona fide writers are certainly finding it hard to make themselves heard, or simply to remain articulate, in a world that is increasingly suspicious of dissenting, non serviam messages. Eight years after “Inside the Whale”, Orwell’s essay “Writers and Leviathan” analyses the plight of writers (novelists and critics alike) torn between the necessity to take politics into account –– owing to their “guilt-stricken feeling that one ought to be doing something about [the world], which makes a purely aesthetic attitude towards life impossible” (464) –– and their tendency to confuse political awareness with subservience to party lines. Make your poetics more political, but keep it away from party politics. Nineteen Eighty Four, written at the end of the decade, is perhaps proof that this is feasible. Overall, the “generation” of the 1940s could be said to be torn between a poetics of self-consciousness and a poetics of self-awareness –– between one which still prefers the insecurity of a private, subjective world-view to the collective fictions of propaganda and the horror of collective solipsism, and one which, in spite of a similar awareness, keeps looking forward and refuses to close the gardens of the West:

“Oh, I wish that part of my pleasure in every pleasant thing –– in just sitting here and being peaceful –– weren’t the negative joy of its not being hell. You and I shall have that all our lives,” she said to Julian. […]

“Still,” he answered, “we farm our land, my dear.”


  • 8  At this point of Morgan’s novel The River Line (set in 1947), a conversation takes place between a (...)

“Very well, then,” he added with deliberate harshness, “that for the time being is our job.” (Morgan 85)8

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Bowen, Elizabeth. “Preface to the American Edition of The Demon Lover”. Collected Impressions.  London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1950.

Connolly, Cyril. “Hail and Farewell –– II.” (Horizon. Nov.-Dec. 1949.) Repr.Ideas and Places London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1953.

Deer, Patrick. Wartime Visions, Cultural Blackouts and the Crisis of British Literature, 1939-1949. Ph.D. Columbia University, 2000.

Hamon, Philippe. Texte et idéologie. Paris: P.U.F., 1984.

Isherwood, Christopher. Prater Violet. 1946. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Lehmann, John. Penguin New Writing 19 (1944). Quoted by Robert Hewison. Under Siege. Literary Life in London 1939-45. 1977, London: Methuen, 1988.

Lehmann, Rosamond. “The Future of the Novel?” Britain To-Day 122 (June 1946).

Morgan, Charles. The River Line. London: Macmillan, 1949.

Orwell, George. “Inside the Whale”. 1940. Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

Orwell, George. “Writers and Leviathan”. 1948. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 4. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Smith, Stevie. The Holiday. 1949. London: Virago, 1979.

Storm Jameson. Cloudless May. London: Macmillan, 1943.

Wipf-Miller, Carol. “Fictions of ‘Going Over’: Henry Green and the New Realism”. Twentieth Century Literature (Hofstra University, New York) 44. 2 (Summer 1998).

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1  As in M. Bakhtin’s Problems in Dostoievsky’s Poetics (1963), the revised and expanded version of his 1929 study Problems in Dostoievsky’s Art.

2  As in G. Bachelard’s Poetics of Space (1957) and Poetics of Reverie (1960).

3  Elizabeth Maslen, “Storm Jameson and the Raising of Consciousness”, paper given at the University of Leeds (UK) at a conference on Retrieving the 1940s, 6th & 7th April, 2002; to be published in the acts of the conference.

4  Storm Jameson’s “novels of the crisis” (1940-1946) are all set on the Continent, especially in Czechoslovakia and in occupied, or soon-to-be-occupied, France.

5  “Negative” selflessness (cold detachment and indifference to martyrdom) is represented by other characters: Louis Mathieu, the journalist, and Piriac, the old royalist general (22-3 & 186).

6  According to Hamon (103), ideology may be defined along two complementary axes: paradigmatic (as a more or less institutionalised system spelling out norms, alternatives, scales of values and hierarchies) and syntagmatic (as a set of directions for individual or collective models, lines of conduct and courses of action).

7  “‘I expect this whole damned island to care [about Austria]!’” (103-4)

8  At this point of Morgan’s novel The River Line (set in 1947), a conversation takes place between a Frenchwoman, who was arrested and deported by the Germans for helping the resistance movement (but luckily survived), and her husband, an Englishman whom she hid in her house during the war.

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Electronic reference

Jean-Christophe MURAT, “Community-centred versus subject-centred representation in the narrative fiction of the 1940s”E-rea [Online], 2.2 | 2004, Online since 15 October 2004, connection on 30 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jean-Christophe MURAT

University of Provence
Ancien élève de l'E.N.S. de St-Cloud, agrégé d'anglais, J.C.M. est Maître de Conférences à l'Université de Provence. Auteur d'une thèse de doctorat sur Londres dans le roman britannique après 1945, il consacre depuis six ans ses recherches à la littérature des années quarante en Grande-Bretagne.

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