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Flattening the literary landscape

21 February 2004

12:00 AM

21 February 2004

12:00 AM

The Last of England? Randall Stevenson

OUP, pp.624, 30

Despite the title, this is not one of those gloom-mongering surveys of the state of culture that so regularly (usually at the end of a decade) predict the Death of the Novel, the End of History, the Death of the Individual, and the like. Indeed, on closer inspection, ‘The Last of England’ turns out to mean only ‘the last volume, for the present, in this particular series of the Oxford English Literary History’, bringing us up from 1960 to the millennium. Still, it nevertheless managed to monger a certain mild gloom in me.

My chief complaint is that it does not make the period exciting enough. On internal evidence, I must be much the same age as Stevenson, first becoming thrilled by modern poetry and the theatre in the Seventies. And goodness, it was thrilling. I saw Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream three times, queuing all day for returns (and remember, as a star-struck 14-year-old, being dazzled by Ian McKellen as Richard II and Edward II, and reading in a teen-mag the qualities McKellen announced he was on the look-out for in his ‘dream woman’. Now that really does date me.)

If Stevenson does not recapture or even evoke those thrills, this is not because he is too critical of the period, but because he is not critical enough. Brook’s Dream was pure theatrical magic, yet spawned endless, pretentious imitations; the fascinating, possibly unanswerable question is why it was so good while the others were just embarrassing. And the problem with Stevenson’s account is that it flattens all movements into one approved (or dis- approved) collective. Feminist rewritings of patriarchal myths were indeed once exciting and radical; in Stevenson’s account of the novel, all are such a self- evidently Good Thing that they are accorded equal status, regardless of which were freshest, subtlest or most truly imaginative. It makes one lump them all together in one’s mind and misremember them all as equally dreary.

The most flattening assumptions are visible as fossilised prejudices. Radicalism, in Stevenson’s book, is an absolute aesthetic good. It always and necessarily involves overturning conventions, undermining cultural assumptions, and subverting complacent conformity. The only time when this was not good, of course, was in the Thatcher era. Thatcher’s undermining of the liberal ‘post-war consensus’ is too evil to be acknowledged, even ambiguously, as ‘radical’, and can only be routinely deplored.

Now, I do not want this to sound like a dreary right-wing moan. It is, indeed, precisely because there was so much that was genuinely and properly exciting in the radicalism of the period that I object so strongly to a retrospective account in which its virtues are merely assumed, unquestioned –— and so never allowed to be chancy, ambiguous, perhaps historically doomed, or, in short, interesting.

It is perhaps unfair to voice this complaint about Stevenson’s overview of the critical thought of the era. As a research student in Cambridge in the McCabe era, I did find it exciting, if terrifying, when new theories arrived, Zulu-like, wave after wave — structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist, feminist, new historicist, hermeneutic, semiotic, and myriad upon myriad more, endlessly splintering into new tribes. (The terror, of course, was due to the constant dread of being caught out, left behind: but how could one keep up?) Once the intellectual heat of the moment had passed, though, such theories seem as appealing as porridge in yesterday’s saucepan — which is not Stevenson’s fault.

What is odd, however, looking back, is the persistence of the belief that these distinctively ultra-deterministic theories were somehow liberating, when their logic denied humanity the freedom even to revolt. If you were trapped in a ‘world of signs’, ‘without truth, and without origin’, there would be damn all you could do about it. Indeed, you would be unable even to recognise the fact (in the parlance of the time, the fact would be more likely to recognise you). In practice, of course, critics routinely made the assumption that they were mysteriously exempt from the rules that so bound or ‘structured’ everybody else (‘spoken’ as they were by their language, ‘gendered’ by patriarchal conditioning, ‘cultured’ by ‘mentalité’, and so forth).

There are equally odd hiccups of assumption in Stevenson’s own critical criteria. He is predisposed to admire the poetry that sprang from these ‘radical’ notions — that self-reflexive school of opacity which brings into question perception and meaning; but he also wants poetry to be politically radical. The two make incongruous bedfellows (how can political radicalism arise from a state in which even the statement ‘Hitler killed six million Jews’ has to be thought of as ‘without truth, and without origin’?)

Such inconsistencies should be animating — J. H. Prynne jostling Tony Harrison, all elbows. Seams of apparent incongruity — packed with multiple, apparently incompatible possibilities — are precisely what should inspire critics to tease out new arguments (and makes poets, perhaps, ravel new verse).

Stevenson’s impulse, though, is to patch over the join, simply smoothing out incongruity with the now rather tired-sounding assertion that poets who ‘drew attention to their own form and language’ were actually performing a brave, ‘committed’ political act.

In practice, Stevenson’s assumptions too frequently iron out appreciation of the odd, the unexpected and the quirky in the poets he discusses. Radicalism, for Stevenson, necessarily involves blatant experimentation — the wrenching of poetic form, the overthrowing of poetic conventions. The Movement poets, spearheaded by Larkin, are therefore routinely and rather drearily derided for their apparent conventionality. Their poetry, ‘retrospective in theme and form’, dwells in ‘ “the temperate zone” of banal everyday experience’ and is, above all, condemned for its ‘gentility’. Yet Larkin consistently uses conventional forms for new ends — think of how, in ‘Aubade’, its rigidities are felt as the self-created trap of an insomniac mind, within which his self shrivels in terror. It is a truly shocking poem … And Betjeman, at his best, evokes death behind net curtains — a startling combination of terror glimpsed amid cosiness, mortality and banality, which is distinctive and genuinely original.

In the section on drama, Stevenson is at his rigid worst. Theatre, he assumes at the outset, is obviously political, made for radicalism, no worries there. It can shake us out of our assumptions, restructure our vision of the world. And so it can; but not quite in the way Stevenson suggests.

This is not just because the chief — indeed, it sometimes seems, almost the only — means he approves for this task is shocking the audience, preferably by simulated mutilations. This, of course, bears rapidly diminishing returns as a theatrical ploy. Where once it was startling to find an ironing board on stage, we now hardly raise an eyebrow at dismembered babies. Yesterday’s frisson becomes today’s cliché.

The relationship between audience and actors is cosier and more complicitous, as well as trickier, than Stevenson allows. He mocks, naturally, Harold Hobson for remarking that an evening out at the theatre renders men ‘harmlessly happy’ (though in this litigious age it is perhaps as well that this is, generally, true). But one disturbing thing about drama is precisely its capacity to make the unbearable harmless, so that we enjoy it. Tragedy makes a good night out. When we go to see Bond, or Kane, we go wanting to be shocked, expecting to b
e surprised, as it were. You anticipate a few dead babies for your money.

Jane Lapotaire’s superb performance as Piaf, crackling with theatrical energy, launched a magnificent assault upon bourgeois sensibilities in Pam Gems’ play. And how the middle classes loved it! The night I went, I did see one working-class couple there: they left half-way through, tight-lipped.

This is not to say that radical theatre is a self-defeating notion, only that Stevenson’s disregard of its intrinsic ambiguities (of the sort implicitly explored by David Hare) sometimes makes this account almost comically blinkered. ‘Shopping and Fucking featured telephone sex, simulated homosexual intercourse, and much violence throughout … It showed 1990s drama once again using shock tactics to ensure that genuine feelings continued to be experienced, at least by its audience.’ Bad luck, then, if you didn’t make it to the Royal Court that year. Any emotions you thought you felt in 1996 were not authentic.

Much the best section in the book is that devoted to the novel. Here, at last, Stevenson lays aside his sterile attempts to set tradition in opposition to innovation, and recognises what Malcolm Bradbury celebrated in his 1996 survey of the modern British novel — the endless riches to be found within traditional forms and genres, which proved in the novel to be so gloriously and excitingly susceptible to re-invention. In the hands of our best writers, conventions, and language itself, are transformed into tools to be used, not masters to be overthrown — not rigid traps, but fluid potential for the imagination.

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