4 November 2008

Why does Lionel Britton Seem to Appeal More to Continental Europeans (or Americans) than to English People?

This is a serious question, because it appears to be true: more non-English people are attracted to Lionel Britton's huge novel Hunger and Love than people this side of the Channel or Atlantic. In an email, Englishman Robert Hughes tries to take me to task on my representation of the non-Englishness of Britton:

'Just to be awkward, there is an Englishness about Hunger and Love which I associate with Orwell, who seems as English as John Cleese, (and we agree that Orwell followed Britton rather than vice versa), but can we drill a hole in that? Was Orwell more from the "other" than it ostensibly appears? What was all that Paris and Barcelona stuff?'

Orwell was also born in India and spent some time working for the police in Burma, but yes, there is certainly much Englishness in Orwell and Britton.

'[A]s English as John Cleese'. Is Cleese really English, or more of a (sometimes grotesquely hyperbolic) caricature of Englishness? I'm thinking through Monty Python (the Minister of Silly Walks being the most obvious example), through Fawlty Towers (and yes, we'll sidestep the all-too-topical Manuel issue), A Fish Called Wanda, and so on. Surely Monty Python owed a great deal to foreign – particularly French – influence? Some of those sketches were self-consciously surreal, and who before that could have got away with making a joke out of Proust?

Anyway, fascinating though it is, we ain't talking about British humour (and a great deal of that is a variation on American silent movies – no, I'm gonna shut my mouth and leave it there or this post'll disappear up its own arsehole), but 'un-English' English literature, in other words literature that is several stages removed from realism.

What the hell does this mean? It means that I'm not so much interested in the content of a book, but in its structure and/or its style. If we look at the vast majority of modernist writers, they're not English and they tend not to have their feet in the country of their birth: Joyce, Pound, and Eliot are perhaps the most noteworthy of them. The Englishness of the content of Orwell's writing (or Britton's, for that matter) isn't really an issue here, it's more the Englishness of everything else about Orwell's writing which is the crux of the matter, and essentially Orwell was a realist (1). Most of the modernists of the interwar years were (continental) European or American. Leaving Virginia Woolf aside for the moment, there aren't many English modernist novels at all, barring of course Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759–67), an experimental novel of almost overwhelming importance. In Michael Winterbottom's interesting film A Cock and Bull Story (2005), which is based on Tristram Shandy, the Steve Coogan character at one point brilliantly remarks that Tristram Shandy was 'postmodern before there was any modern to be post- about'. But where did this novel come from? Sterne attributes the innovatory stream of consciousness techniques to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), although he was perhaps more influenced by Rabelais's chaotic writing. So Sterne's main influences are a French novelist, and that very rare animal, an English philosopher (2). And the more we look at Tristram Shandy, the less it seems to be typical of anything that went before, let alone typical of Englishness (if, of course, we again foreground structure and style as opposed to content).

But back to Lionel Britton and Hunger and Love, which is certainly an experimental modernist work. Britton spent a few of his formative years in France, and his parents and maternal grandparents (of whom his grandmother Marie Antoinette spoke French from birth) all spoke the language fluently. Added to that, Britton taught himself a large number of European languages and in his youth made a serious attempt to obtain Russian citizenship. He was hardly typically English, but does that explain why he should have written a book which structurally and stylistically is so atypical of English writing?

To answer that, I need another post to this blog, including a chapter from my thesis (which doesn't format easily into this word processor) which deals with a phenomenon which I call 'outsider modernism'. In brief, my contention is that 'outsider modernism' is a literary style born out of the frustration, exasperation, anger, desperation, etc, of political minorities, defined as those who may be numerically superior but are very much in a minority in terms of the possession of power. Yes, this is where, for example, Lionel Britton and Virginia Woolf come in, although this chapter of my thesis specifically concerns working-class writers. The style can manifest itself, for example, by digressions, stream of consciousness, internal monologues, unconventional typography, or a number of other devices. But more of that later, perhaps very soon, or perhaps after the American elections.

(1) This excludes A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), Orwell's first novel and the only one in which he had a brief (but unsuccessful) dalliance with Joycean stream of consciousness.

(2) I haven't used the word 'English' lightly: there are far more examples of modernist techniques in Scottish and Welsh literature than in English literature, as there appear to be notably more Scottish philosophers than English ones.


Dr Tony Shaw said...
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Dr Tony Shaw said...
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