The Novel in the Twentieth Century - A Field of Intense Debate

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Received notions …

… on Fiction in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Morag Shiach, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Some Key Novelists:
  • James Joyce (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916; Ulysses, 1922, Finnegans Wake, 1939)
  • Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, 1925; To the Lighthouse, 1927)
  • D. H. Lawrence (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover, 1928)
  • William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, 1929)
'Aesthetic Modernism':
'Modernism of Contents':
  • not aesthetically progressive, but highly transgressive in contents, especially in relation to sexuality (e.g. D. H. Lawrence)
  • Both of these 'modernisms' are in opposition to the more and more dominant culture industry which is mass producing entertainment (cheap fiction, cinema), news (tabloid newspapers) and advertisements.

… on Fiction in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Methuen, 1987).
Linda Hutcheon, The Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988).
Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).
Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989).
  • In contrast to the continent, the contemporary British market for fiction unites the potential for wide popular appeal and the potential for high artistic achievement
  • Postmodernism: a playful and self-conscious use of aesthetic techniques, and attempt to “bridge the gap between high and popular culture by mixing elements of both” (Cf. Leslie A. Fiedler, "Cross the Border – Close that Gap: Post-Modernism", 1975).
  • A radical postmodernism in the US (Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Donald Barthelme)
  • A moderate postmodernism in Britain (John Fowles, David Lodge)
  • The emergence of Postcolonial fiction (Commonwealth literature, third-world literature), new questions, new perspective, new options.
  • "Decolonizing the Mind", questioning Eurocentric notions of literature and culture.
  • Achieving international success (Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958, Nigeria). J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980, South Africa), Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (1979 India), Satanic Verses (1988, England and India).

Postcolonial key terms:
  • identity, hybridity
  • race and cultural difference
  • hegemony - power
  • challenging the centre
  • challenging Western notions of progress vs. tradition

Postmodern features:
  • "The Linguistic Turn": our access to the world is never independent of our language; Language games (Ludwig Wittgenstein), Discourses (Michel Foucault)
  • "The Death of the Author" (Roland Barthes, 1967); de-centered subjects.
  • deconstruction; challenging notions of unity and consistency
  • Intertextuality
  • Breaking down barriers between ontological levels, between reality and fiction
Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p. 9: "...the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as those ...: 'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? ... What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of the knowable? And so on." The above mentioned questions are handled "through the use of characteristically modernist (or epistemological) devices: the multiplication and juxtaposition of perspectives, the focalization of all the evidence through a single 'center of consciousness' […], virtuoso variants on interior monologue […] ,and so on."
Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p. 10: "... the dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like ...: 'Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?' Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance. What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; what happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on."

Example: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses as a work that is at once postmodern and postcolonial

  • Satanic Verses - The Structure of the Book
The Main Plot links the fates of two main characters (Books 1, 3, 5, 7, 9):
  • Saladin Chamcha (formerly Salahuddin Chamchawala), an anglophile actor who has rejected his Indian past and identity long ago
  • Gibreel Farishta (formerly Ismail Najmuddin) a Bollywood movie star who may also be the Archangel Gabriel
Two Subplots which are dreamed by Gibreel :
  • The Story of Muhammad, the Satanic Verses and the conquest of Mecca - (Books 2 and 6)
  • The story of the Indian village Titlipur which follows a charismatic young women on a pilgrimage that ends in death - (Books 4 and 8)
    • A quick survey of the nine books:
I The Angel Gibreel [flight from Bombay to London – the present]
Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha fall from an exploding airplane
II Mahound [Gibreel Dreaming: Jahilia – early 7th century]
The Prophet Mahound revises a revelation he received earlier
III Ellowen Deeowen [Channel Coast and London – the present]
How Gibreel and Saladin get from the Channel coast to London
IV Ayesha [Gibreel Dreaming: Titlipur, India – the present]
Ayesha moves her whole village to set out on a foot pilgrimage to Mecca
V A City Visible but Unseen [London, the present]
Saladin, transformed into a goat, hides in the Shaandaar Café and B&B while Gibreel has a passionate love affair with mountaineer Allie Cone
  • VI Return to Jahilia [Gibreel Dreaming: Jahilia, 7th century, 25 years later]
Mahound conquers Jahilia and institutes the new faith
VII The Angel Azraeel [London, the present]
Gibreel rescues Chamcha although he has ruined his relationship with Allie
VIII The Parting of the Arabian Sea [Gibreel Dreaming: Bombay, the present]
The Titlipur pilgrims try to walk through the Arabian Sea and are drowned
IX The Wonderful Lamp [Bombay, the present]
Saladin Chamcha is reconciled to his dying father, Gibreel commits suicide

    • Invitations for Postcolonial Readings of Satanic Verses:
  • multicultural Britain, diaspora identities, racism.
  • Saladin Chamcha's / Salahuddin Chamchawala's identity quest
The mutation of Salahuddin Chamchawala into Saladin Chamcha began … in old Bombay, long before he got close enough to hear the lions of Trafalgar roar. When the England cricket team played India at the Brabourne Stadium, he prayed for an England victory, for the game’s creators to defeat the local upstarts, for the proper order of things to be maintained.
[SV 37]
[At his boarding school he decided that]… he would be English, even if his classmates giggled at his voice and excluded him from their secrets, because these exclusions only increased his determination, and that was when he began to act, to find masks that these fellows would recognize, paleface masks, clown-masks, until he fooled them into thinking he was okay, he was people-like-us. He fooled them the way a sensitive human being can persuade gorillas to accept him into their family, to fondle and caress and stuff bananas in his mouth.
[SV 43]
Because he did have that gift …, he was the Man of a Thousand Voices and a Voice. If you wanted to know how your ketchup bottle should talk in its television commercial, if you were unsure as to the ideal voice for your packet of garlic-flavoured crisps, he was your very man. [SV 60]
... but, during his recent visit to his home town … there had been strange and worrying developments. It was unfortunately the case that his voice (the first to go) and, subsequently, his face itself, had begun to let him down. [SV 33]
...Saladin felt hourly closer to many old, rejected selves, many alternative Saladins – or rather Salahuddins – which had split off from himself as he made his various life choices … [SV 523]
...Saladin … had begun to find the sound of his full, un-Englished name pleasing for the first time in twenty years … [SV 524]

    • Invitations for Postmodernist Readings of Satanic Verses:
  • Closing the gap between the high and the popular – the use of contemporary popular culture (advertising; TV series; British, American and Indian Cinema)
  • Strong Intertextuality: (numerous references to the European literary tradition: Ovid, Shakespeare [King Lear / Othello], Milton [Paradise Lost], Swift, Blake, Kafka, Joyce)
  • the violation of ontological levels: Gibreel Farishta as actor and as Archangel Gibreel, his "dreaming" of the even-numbered books (cf. McHale, p. 85: "And what exactly is scandal? Ultimately, its source is ontological: boundaries between worlds have been violated.")
  • the postmodern play with the (death of the) 'god-like' author
"I’m saying nothing. Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other; the time of revelations is long gone. The rules of Creation are pretty clear: you set things up, you make them thus and so, and then you let them roll. Where’s the pleasure if you’re always intervening to give hints, change the rules, fix the fights? Well, I've been pretty self-controlled up to this point and I don’t plan to spoil things now. Don’t think I haven’t wanted to butt in; I have, plenty of times. And once, it’s true, I did. I sat on Alleluia Cone’s bed and spoke to the superstar, Gibreel. Ooparvala or Necchayvala, he wanted to know; I didn’t enlighten him; I certainly don’t intend to blab to this confused Chamcha instead.
I’m leaving now. The man’s going to sleep. [SV 409]

Second thoughts

Inherent Problems
  • What is the Relation between Postmodern and Postcolonial (cf. "Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?" by Kwame Anthony Appiah in Critical Inquiry, 17, 1991, 336-357.)
  • Can modernism and postmodernism really be distinguished? You can understand the arguments in favour of both sides: recall the simple and the complex notions about periods.
Additional Problems
  • What does this perspective achieve? And what does it leave out?
It creates a set of convenient problems with a predictable set of topics for discussion and a predictable spectrum of possible positions, e.g.
  • The intellectualised, formalist and culturally elitist position
  • The ethically motivated, socially and politically committed position
On the other hand, it leaves a great many factors out of consideration:
  • It does not take into account the numerous roles and institutions which concern themselves partly or exclusively with fiction.
Example: The Scandal caused by Satanic Verses
Cf. Brian McHale, p. 85: "And what exactly is scandal? Ultimately, its source is ontological: boundaries between worlds have been violated. There is an ontological scandal when a real-world figure is inserted in a fictional situation, where he interacts with purely fictional characters […].
BBC report on Fatwa, Feb 14, 1989
  • Sep 26, 1988 – SV published in London;
  • Various British Muslim Groups begin campaigning against the book
  • Oct 5, 1988 – SV banned in India (other countries follow suit)
  • Nov 8, 1988 – SV wins Whitbread Prize for fiction
  • Nov 11, 1988 – : Thatcher rejects calls for prosecuting Rushdie or banning his book
  • Dec 11, 1988 and Jan 14, 1989 – SV burned by demonstrators in Bradford
  • Feb 12, 1989 – SV-related attack on American Cultural Center in Islamabad, Pakistan; 6 people are killed
  • The Fatwa, February 14, 1989.
In the name of Him, the Highest. There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses – which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.
I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.
In addition, anyone who has access to the author of this book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should report him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions.
May peace and the mercy of God and His blessings be with you.
Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini, 25 Bahman 1367.
[quoted after Daniel Pipes, The Rushdie Affair, New Brunswick / London: 1990, p. 27.]
  • A debate about censorship and free speech under global conditions
  • SV is a bestseller (sales figures are difficult to establish)
  • Japanese and Italian translators of SV murdered
  • [all new editions of SV seem to bear the date 1988]
  • Prolonged Diplomatic Complications
  • Rushdie spends 10 years in hiding.
  • 1998: Normalization of diplomatic relations. Iranian government declares it will do nothing to harm Rushdie – but can the Fatwa be 'lifted'?
  • 1999 Rushdie’s next novel appears (The Ground Beneath her Feet)

Resuming the limitations of the received notions:
  • It does not give account the diverse and widespread character of communication about literature.
  • It does not take into account the central role which the interpretation of fiction is given in twentieth-century school systems.
  • It does not reflect its own role (the role of the critical and scholarly discussion of literature) in relation to the production of fiction.
"I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." (James Joyce)
... on May 3, 1999, Melinda Penkava interviewed Salman Rushdie about his new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet on the National Public Radio phone-in talk show, "Talk of the Nation." Asked about the possibility of "Cliff’s Notes" to his writings, Rushdie answered that although he didn’t expect readers to get all the allusions in his works, he didn’t think such notes would detract from the reading of them: "James Joyce once said after he had published Ulysses that he had given the professors work for many years to come; and I’m always looking for ways of employing professors, so I hope to have given them some work too." (Paul Brians, Notes for Satanic Verses, p. 5)

Cf. our communicative model.

A more comprehensive view of fiction in the 20c

  • ...would emphasise the homogeneity of the field, its continuity with 19c patterns.
  • e.g. new subgenres -- more and more in the low and non-national market.
  • The continuing division between popular vs. high culture.
  • The established order of fictions.
  • ...would include the social and institutional settings for literary communication.
  • In the 20c, the school syllabus makes English fiction into a central element of the secondary education system.
  • Universities begin to train the teachers required for this education system.
  • The role of literary prizes given to authors of fiction and influencing their prestige
  • ...would pay attention to the links between the scholarly, the educational, the general critical, approaches and exchanges about fiction.
  • ...might also recognise that this setting has created entirely new conditions for the 'literary scandal': a scandal that is not caused by the dangerous overlappings between fact and fiction (as in the early 18c), but that is the symptom of great struggles between different agents, both within a society and internationally.
  • ...would insist that the characteristic feature of fiction in the twentieth century is that it is one of the most flourishing fields of debate in our societies.
  • ...would observe that this goes along with a growing openness of fictional texts towards all sorts of other texts, with intertextuality, with interdiscursivity.
  • ...would observe that there has been a corresponding generalization of interpretive practice ('poetics of culture').
  • ...would be aware that this is a distinctive feature of 'Western industrial' societies (and would be aware of the historical development of this status of fiction).

What do we do with a 20c novel?

  • How does it exhibit its poetics? (narrative techniques etc.)
  • How is it integrated into wider cultural exchanges?
  • By what topics or techniques does it aim at a “parallel discussion”, a wider contemporary debate, which it invites a chosen set of participants to engage in under special conditions. (Contrast Middlemarch und SV).
  • How is the discussion of this work positioned (what sustains it, who participates in it), how does the work refer to or display an awareness of its position?
  • How does it take a position towards a literary tradition, towards other traditions? (intextuality)

Conclusions reaching beyond the scope of this lecture

  • The retrospective homogeneity (anti-retrospective textualisation).
  • Are we (still) postmodern?
  • We accept the constructedness.
  • We reject the arbitrariness, “anything goes” (In this, we go along with the cultural turn...)

BBC TV report on Fatwa, February 14, 1989