Monday, February 13, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


There’s nothing new under the sun, says the old proverb, and often things that are hailed as new turn out to be fairly well-established.

Take postmodernism. The term has been around for only the last half-century or so.

One of the literary characteristics of postmodernism is supposed to be a self-referential awareness of form. Writers address readers in the full awareness that all literary genres are artificial constructs, and readers are sophisticated enough to pick up the writers’ awareness. Therefore, in writing history or biographies, postmodernists allow the seams to show. Writers push themselves to the forefront of their own books, explaining to readers what they are doing, how they did their research and so on.

Often cited as the grand-daddy of this sort of book is The Quest for Corvo, A.J.A.Symons’ account of researching the life of the minor novelist and charlatan Frederick Rolfe. It was first published in 1934.

The two examples I’ve given are Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart and Peter Walker’s The Fox Boy, both of which, written in the last decade, could reasonably be called postmodern.

But is this literary style really so modern – let alone postmodern?

After all, how different is it from Victorian novelists interrupting their narratives to directly address their readers with the “Dear Reader” passages of Thackeray or the long self-contained essays of George Eliot? Weren’t Victorian readers of such prose fully aware that they were reading something artificial and constructed? Indeed don’t we, in a postmodern age, spend far too much time patting ourselves on the back for perceptions that were fully accessible to our ancestors?

Let me take a more extreme case.

Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was first published, bit by bit, in the 1760s. At various times in the last two-and-a-half centuries, it’s been called a freakish novel, a “sport”, an expression of eccentricity, and a precursor of surrealism. Its narrator purports to tell the story of his life, but keeps getting so sidetracked by digressions that as the novel ends he is just being born. This is the ultimate shaggy-dog story, and a vigorous nose-thumbing at the whole convention of novel-writing.

In 2005 appeared Michael Winterbottom’s desperate attempt to film the unfilmable entitled Tristram Shandy – A Cock and Bull Story. Starring the cut-ups Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the film (like the original novel) constantly cuts back and forth between story and ironic comment on story and then even more ironic comment on the whole artificiality of the concept of story. The film is about a film crew trying to film Tristram Shandy but constantly getting side-tracked and never quite finishing the job.

The 2005 film has Steve Coogan calling Laurence Sterne’s novel “a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about.” The phrase was used in the film’s advertising.

Which kind of gives the game away. This slogan really tells us how some attitudes and techniques attributed to postmodernism – such as consciously fooling with the nature of text – have been around for centuries. I suppose there are some current insights that really do belong to postmodernism. But this isn’t one of them.

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