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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...

 

 
 
 
 
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LIDIA VIANU

 

The Desperado Age

THE DESPERADO NOVEL COMES OF AGE

 

 
I. HERITAGE AND CHANGE

The first few decades of the 20th century, the years between Henry James (at the turning point between the 19th and 20th centuries) and Joyce, Woolf, Eliot – culminating in 1922, when Ulysses and The Waste Land were published almost simultaneously, were an age of denial. Writers rebelled against established conventions, while apparently challenging literature, trying to replace it with life itself, with absolute veridicity. They did not aim at replacing imagination with reality (true reports or lists of strictly authentic incidents), but at changing the face of literature, which, for more than twenty centuries had been doing the same thing over and over again: telling a story about a past which led inevitably to a present, which present expected a future. They also rebelled against the old dependence of the plot on the life of a couple: the story revolved round the finding of a mate, love interest was the main source of suspense. Beginning with the stream of consciousness, especially after Virginia Woolf’s famous essay Modern Fiction (1919), which stated the denial forcefully, chronological causality (the chronological order of incidents from past through present into the future) and love interest as a means to capture the reader’s interest lose ground. They do not vanish, but yield to a dominating tendency to escape the narrative convention which supported literary works from Homer to Henry James. Joyce and Eliot are not necessarily important as representatives of the stream of consciousness; they are mainly initiators of denial.

The first step of this denial was the hybridization of literary genres. Writers refuse to view genres as independent from one another and mix them indiscriminately, amalgamating fiction, poetry, drama, literary criticism and psychology within the same text. This is how Virginia Woolf’s poetical novels were born, although her novels are not the best illustration of denial, in spite of her being the ideologist of this denial; her novels do not actually escape the tyranny of previous conventions. Once we have finished reading Woolf’s novels, their episodes, whose order is complicated with sophistication, change their place in the mind of the reader and they take a course which follows precisely the two principles that Woolf hates: chronology and love interest. The writers who really escape traditional literature – the old idea of literature – and bring new meaning both to writing and reading, are Joyce and Eliot. They consider literature in a mood which is not new but which becomes predominant from there on: they mainly focus on irony.

This irony is aimed at what literature meant till the stream of consciousness. Joyce reworks The Odyssey in his own manner, and Eliot writes a poem which, for the first time in the history of poetry, quotes innumerable lines from numberless authors, changing, defacing them, from mere words to their very meaning, which is so often contradicted with a smile of satisfaction. Both Joyce and Eliot argue with the original works which they quote or which they hint at in their own texts. Their intertextuality is not a homage, it is a demonstration. They seem to be stating, I do as I please with my words, I can make them relate to everything I have ever read and yet stay myself, be as personal as one can possibly be in this world, it does not matter that others wrote before me, it is what I am writing now that really matters. For a long time I tried hard to decode an immense love of literature in these imperfect, mocking quotations. What they show, in fact, is a denial of all other literature. It is a short trip from denial to defiance. Joyce and Eliot were happy with mere denial. After the 1950s, when the first signs of what I call the Desperado age (also known as postmodern) appeared, the denial becomes defiance.

The stream of consciousness produces emotional, affectionate texts. The incident, the act becomes so much less important that it leads to inner analysis, actually to psychoanalysis, which isolates the hero and brings a burden of solitude to the reader’s soul. Realism was the image of reality, it aimed at being its X-ray. Once the thought is haunted to its pre-verbal stage, the social dimension no longer comes first, and it becomes much less than real, it is mere imagination. Reality is somewhere in the mind of the hero, in a labyrinth of his words which surface disorderly in the text. It becomes far more important to verbalize with the hero than to share his real life. Which does not mean at all that we do not share his life. The experiences crammed in the text are more numerous than ever. There are no more interdictions, all dark spots are placed in the limelight, nothing can be hidden any more. Chronology, emotions or heroes do not disappear, as might be inferred. Nothing goes away. Everything is intensified and the entry into literature, I think, is no longer the verbal, but the pre-verbal. The heroes, on the other hand, have never been more alive and more appealing. The narrative is indeed broken by the stream of consciousness, but the hidden plan of the author is finally decoded. The text is meant to be deciphered and understood. Both Joyce and Eliot leave behind a trail of meaningful crumbs, verbal crumbs which end by leading us to the meaning that the writers had in mind from the very beginning, the meaning they hid and taught us to discover. The key was not thrown away: it was merely slipped under the rug. The elliptical text, mysterious because its words have slipped in all directions (from complicated quotations to monosyllabic thoughts), has a key, an explicit meaning, which the author shares with his reader. He offers his meaning in an indirect way, in the shape of a puzzle which the reader must solve, but, undoubtedly, the writer has a plan and he means the reader to share it in the end. The author fervently wishes to be found out. Without successful decoding, the stream of consciousness texts are not literature, they do not exist.

Consequently, the innovations inherited by contemporary fiction are those of the stream of consciousness: hybridization, the cultured text, the focus on inner life, reversed (not abolished) chronology, denial of plot or of a relieving ending, rejection of sentimentality (lovers live happily ever after), the fractured hero, and – last but not (at all) least – a redirected, confused yet enlightened reader. We have so far touched upon hybridization, cultured texts and the focus on the inner life.

Reversing chronology implies a contradiction of chronological causality. The past no longer causes the present or the present the future. The present feeds on both past and future, scatters and gathers them. We learn the future on the first page (if the reader wants to skip the middle part in order to read the last page and feel relieved, enlightened, because everything has been settled in the end, he could not actually be more nonplussed), and the past lives by every present moment and only through it, in every thought whose birth we witness right here, right now. The hero’s past becomes the past of all literature, and is constantly mocked at by the present. The capital passage of the 20th century is that from chronological causality (which had been an order imposed upon imagination for twenty centuries, if not more) to the acceptance of hazard as a rule of reality. Logicality has new rules beginning with Einstein and Freud, the human mind struggles free from the small steps taken so far by literary trends, one at a time, it rejects the small rebellions and multiplies denial in geometrical progression. After the stream of consciousness, the second stage of denial is the defiance of the Desperado age.

The denial of plot is in fact the denial of a classical story: this happened because... The incident is still there. In its absence, in the absence of the narrative, there would be no literature. The difference lies in the fact that recent novels cannot be retold any more. Reading has become a much more solitary experience, since it can hardly be communicated, it can only be analysed, decoded. Eliot hated the idea that his poems could be paraphrased and explained in other words than his own. And yet, in the margin of his poems, as in the margin of Ulysses, heaps of books of interpretation have been written. What Eliot meant was that the reader was supposed to feel, experience the text, not comment on it coldly (‘poetry can communicate before it is understood’). Joyce, on the other hand, was far more aware of the commenting industry his texts would give birth to. It is a fact anyway that to both Eliot and Joyce incidents were the essential stuff: something happens in their every word, which can become maddening to readers used to perceiving one incident at a time, narrated at length and explicitly in several pages at least. In stream of consciousness fiction, the incident is implicit, yet all the more intense. This concentration of meanings is a dangerous game and it almost killed the joy of merely reading a text. It is the Desperado authors who brought literature back to the soul of readers who are in no haste to listen to a secondary, scholarly voice of the commentator.

The denial of a clear denouement, the unwillingness to close the plot, is a result of the other denials, the denial of chronology, of direct outer reality (not mediated by its inner perception). Considering the novels of Galsworthy, Bennett, Wells and other brilliant traditionalists, Virginia Woolf lamented: ‘Is life like this? Must novels be like this?’ Even before Ulysses, Joyce invented the epiphany (sudden revelation of the mystery of existence, caused by a common object or gesture – see the famous madeleine episode in Proust), Woolf described the many trifling daily experiences as a ‘luminous halo’ (‘life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’, Modern Fiction, 1919), and Eliot defined the objective correlative (‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion’ , Hamlet and His Problems, 1920). The need to approximate reality in a new way appears simultaneously for these three major representatives of the stream of consciousness. Part of this change is the denial of the (un)happy ending. Modernists feel they prefer a reader challenged by the absence of a closing point to a reader who knows all about the future and can safely forget the book. In short, by rejecting the ending, the novel leaves the future. Time becomes much smaller and it will soon be totally insufficient for the Desperadoes.

The rejection of sentimentality is part and parcel of the modernists’ irony. They are constantly in a mocking mood. A mere loving couple – several decades of happiness – are nothing as seen against their feeling of absolute solitude. The hero withdraws within, and love no longer is (or rather tries no longer to be – actually neither Woolf, nor Eliot, not even Joyce can live outside it) a narrative tool. Experiences are boiling hot, they flood the reader, pierce his soul with a red-hot iron, but they do not direct the story, because the narrative has other basic principles – the peculiarities of the intellect, association and verbalization – so the incident becomes sort of an Achilles’ heel. As a consequence of the fact that the essential narrative appeal of previous literature is abolished, the hero is smashed into memories, becomes a puzzle-hero, which must be recomposed by mnemotechnical laws. We understand the hero only insofar as we can remember his accidental associations and experiences, amalgamated in an attempt to outline an intelligence at work rather than a being with a logical life, explainable by a past or fulfilled by a future. The modernist hero is in love with confession, and he is also sworn to unhappiness. He is equally sworn to transparence, since his inner life opens unconditionally. His soul is a wide open sea-shell which is eventually killed by a text that refuses it the right to a future, to the illusion of good fortune. If literature lost anything when the modernists came along, and were later on followed by the Desperadoes, it lost this very illusion that there may be an ending to it all, a sense of closure. In short, the modernist novel will not end: it turns into an endless expectation.

Under these conditions, the experience of reading is of course turned upside down. The reactions aroused by Ulysses and The Waste Land were overwhelming. Conservative readers declared Eliot’s poem the ‘sacred cow of English poetry’, ‘piece that passes understanding’ (the poem ends with the word ‘shantih’, which Eliot translates in his Notes as ‘peace that passeth understanding’). Joyce’s novel was proclaimed obscene and exiled. The industry of comments, which is still going on, began only decades after publication. A novel by Fielding or Dickens needed no decoding. They rejecting decoding, as a matter of fact. The modernists’ impressive innovation is that they make the reader/ critic sweat. Consequently, the modernist text is the source of all scholarly critical trends we are confronted with today. Innovation has its drawbacks.


II. DESPERADO – THE WAY AWAY FROM MODERNISM

The revolution in writing and reading the literary text is modernist above all. Its exacerbation, misunderstanding, deviousness and complication are preeminently postmodernist or rather Desperado. Contemporary British fiction is probably the best illustration of all. It relies on a dry text, which implies utter detachment from one’s own narrative. Newly armed wit false indifference and resignation, the old modernist defiance (whose blood boiled in its veins) turns sceptical. The innovating impulse becomes a propensity to produce novelty on a conveyor belt, of patching up tradition with compulsory and unexpected bits of the utterly unknown and utterly unseen. Desperado authors do not renew the tools. They just handle them differently, in a medley (the text) which refuses absolutely nothing, no literary age ever. All tricks are allowed as long as the aim is served. The aim is to be different at all costs, different from everybody else. To that purpose, the Desperado uses whatever he can lay hands on, indiscriminately. All the spices are old, but the final taste is unmistakably personal, inimitable. Eliot and Joyce could and were imitated (an undertaking that could have cost the life of literature altogether). No more revolutions for the Desperadoes: just difference (this could easily be the cause of the strong and often damaging appeal of deconstruction). The Desperado age is not a simple denial, it is a denial of denial.

From modernist introspection, Desperadoes take one step further and deny intimacy and shyness. Writers like Julian Barnes, Alasdair Gray, David Lodge, Doris Lessing, Graham Swift, Malcolm Bradbury, Martin Amis (to a lesser degree John Fowles and Peter Ackroyd) tend to become extroverts, even exhibitionists. They use the stream of consciousness, of course, but they resort equally much to an omniscient narrator, mingle inner life with despairing suspense, and the story, the plot is back. Doris Lessing for instance (The Golden Notebook, Under My Skin, Walking in the Shade, The Memoirs of a Survivor) makes a clean breast of everything. She hides nothing, her heroes are ripped open, we finish her books with a feeling that we have learnt far more than we actually wanted to know. With Joyce the hero’s inner life was a captivating initiation into mystery; we waited breathlessly to find the hero’s next thought, we identified with this hero. Eliot quoted Baudelaire with ‘ ‘You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frre!’ ‘ meaning to say that reader and writer were one. The Modernist text was Holy Communion. For Desperadoes, the text is competition, it often is intimidation. Doris Lessing feels the joy of creation only when she puts down exasperating sentences. We do not go gentle into the good night of her heroes’ (usually heroines, though) adventures. Lessing faces us with the opposite of the mood induced by Virginia Woolf. She goes all the way from emotion to the defiance of all tenderness, from sensibility to lucidity. Modernists are intellects/ words/ texts in love, while Desperadoes dissect intelligence in a murderous text.

If Joyce discovered the puzzle-narrative, the multiplied story that one could rearrange into numberless pictures, according to more or less accessible rules (which explains the industry of commenting on modernists texts), Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, shows plainly his need for traditional narratives which feed on suspense. When We Were Orphans is an exacerbated suspense from beginning to end. So is The Unconsoled. The Desperado story is a unicorn: the body, stuffed with incidents lined up with great narrative zest, has a magic horn, which is the mystery of the plot, its suspense. How will the story end? Surprise: the story hides something and, yes, we are told what the mystery is, but things do not really stop there. Suspense is dead, long live suspense.

Consequently, we notice that David Lodge, for instance, does not really narrate: he kindles our appetite for incidents. Desperado novels are apparently far more accessible than modernist ones; we often feel that, had a second Joyce been born, we could have witnessed the novel dying as a literary genre. Graham Swift narrates in clear sentences, without games with the roots of the word, without pre-verbal efforts of understanding the mind. Graham Swift means to be accessible. There is one thing, however, that he does not confess, namely that his incidents are not logically connected. The narrative is a dance of memories. The future is definitely lost (process thoroughly initiated by modernists). The past is not in the least logical. The present renders everything complicated and ambiguous, because the present has no other power than to think. There are innumerable things Desperadoes share with modernists, yet nothing is the same any longer. The foundation of the Desperado story, its present, is a false clarity: if Woolf, Joyce, Eliot had a plan which could at last be decoded, the Desperadoes exasperate the reader precisely because they have no plan at all. The narrative spreads at the mercy of the whims of this pensive present which is always between the reader and the past of the heroes. We sail the sea of memories belonging to the painter in An Artist of the Floating World (Ishiguro) without understanding clearly what the author is after. Only when we reread do we understand that the present mixes up past moments according to a purpose, that chronology is smashed for different reasons from the modernist refusal of it. Woolf rejects chronological causality in order to free the sensibility, Joyce in order to reach the deep roots of words; Ishiguro abolishes the logic of time for the sake of a demonstration (we learn from a complicated web of episodes that Masuji Ono is one of those who indirectly brought about the atomic bomb, the devastating war against Japan). The thesis Desperadoes want to demonstrate is that, in the absence of a unifying plan like that of Ulysses or The Waste Land, only a perverted, devious, smashed past can engross the attention of the present, of the reader, because complication alone can mirror reality.

The Desperado complication cannot be seen from at first. The text looks incredibly simple, the reader relaxes, he is no longer on the lookout for codes and clues. As he goes along, however, he realizes he is getting nowhere. The accessible text is in fact an indirect diary, the story of a life from day to day, with no further view. The Desperado novel is usually a one-hero book, thus going back to the picaresque tradition, which was the true origin of the present-day novel. This day-to-day plan turns the Desperado novel into an ambitionless narrative. To Anna Wulf, in The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing), tomorrow is the greatest mystery, and she carries it on her back gasping for breath, stifled by the burden of a pointless today and of a future which is unbearably hard to take/ expect. The heroes, just like most of the Desperado poets, go about their own lives and will not allow other beings in their vicinity, so whoever else comes along is part of the background, no more. The pianist in The Unconsoled (Kazuo Ishiguro) is surrounded by a crowd of people but we get to know no one closely. They are more or less lifeless masks. The technique of the diary is indeed (and apparently) a return to the realistic, picaresque novel of adventures; it is a return to the narration for the sake of narrating. It is only half a come-back, though, because it inevitably resorts to the stream of consciousness (after Joyce even the most rudimentary best-sellers, focussed on adventure alone, cannot do without the words ‘he thought’ or ‘it occurred to him’ – which words would have caused Dickens to bite his tongue). The Desperado novel is, thus, a diary of incidents that seem to have no previous plan. But those who think that such a text, suffocated by the absence of a future (of any ending at all), is easy to read, have not read enough Desperado literature. Verbal clarity can also be exasperating.

Since the ending is insufficient, since actually nothing ever comes to an end, the reader is confused and feels the need to reread, to focus on the same text a second time round. For these novels that come after modernism, the second focussing of the reader’s attention is essential. Only rereading can the reader unveil the hidden complication, the reason of his discontent when faced with a text that appears to be so conventionally clear. The ultimate truth the text inspires is the intensity of the Desperado reader’s loneliness. The heroes do not share anything with anybody. What matters for them is not whom they exist with, but at what intensity. This is the Desperado lesson: meaning is deeply personal. Each reader has his own ability to put the novel together, it is each reader with his own novel in the end. That happens mainly because the Desperado novel is a constant exasperation of memory. Alasdair Gray (Lanark) places a small detail in every sentence. If we could remember absolutely everything, we could understand the novel at a first reading. Chased by suspense as we feel, though, we ignore words which look commonplace, hardly meaningful, and we discover too late that we lost many keys and the true space of the novel can no longer be unlocked. We feel confused when we realize reading is in fact a mnemotechnical exercise. Lanark has a large number of experiences which we race through breathlessly, haunted by the dark fear we might land in what he is undergoing (dystopia is the slogan of the Desperado age, its favourite mood). We do not stop for breath, for memory. When we read on the last page a mere ‘GOODBYE’, we start wondering what we may have missed. We reread, make up the story all over again, word for word, but there is still no end in view. That is when the Desperado lesson makes itself visible: tomorrow must always be different from our expectations of it.

Parting with modernism brings about a relaxation but also a complication, a need for rereading meant as a study of the text. We could read Joyce, Eliot, Woolf for the sake of emotion, we could believe Eliot’s words, ‘poetry can communicate before it is understood’. It is not in the least the case of Desperadoes. The clarity of style brings relaxation, but behind it, deep in the text, the ideas are all confused, the writer has misplaced the plan. Modernists flirted ironically with the idea of scholarly reading, what they wanted was the opposite of intellectual joy; they all bet on the tensest strings of our sensibility. Desperadoes live for the scholarly reading, which makes it even more amazing to notice that no really adequate criticism of their works has come up yet. It is not for the first time criticism is taken aback by the change of mood in writers and drags its feet behind, allowing impostors to voice opinions. The Desperado critic is still expected on the stage by all those writers who might, just like Julian Barnes, claim that they have ‘quit criticism’, when actually it is criticism that has disappointed them with its narrow mindedness and slowness to perceive the change.


III. DESPERADO PROFILE

1. Author
The Desperado author’s rule is to break all rules, even his own. Julian Barnes writes Flaubert’s Parrot mocking at literary criticism, which he turns into a small detective novel, a semblance of retrospective love-story – a farce, a failure of the feeling; mocking at academics – meaning to demonstrate exams examine nothing; also mocking at literary history – the past is dead, we no longer need it, and if we persist in poking our noses, we end up with a confusing crowd of Flaubert’s parrots, among which absolutely no one can point at the true bird.

The author writes gasping for breath, overwhelmed with amazement. He is taken aback by his own words, the page acquires a life of its own, independent of the hand that wrote it down. In Mensonge (short polemical, anti-deconstructionist novel), Bradbury starts from his discontent with academic criticism and ends creating a character he did not seem to expect at first. Mensonge, whose only photograph is a bald head seen from behind, the man who has never been seen by anyone, who has never written one line but whose work has been sold out, whose teachings (despite the fact that there is no proof they were ever uttered at least) are essential, well, this Mensonge is the very prototype of irony, an unspeakably humorous character. The incredibly short novel is read with huge intellectual joy, which is caused, if not by its thesis, by the intense and liberating laughter it teaches. Both author and reader are astonished by this feat of writing, no matter what their allegiances in point of literary criticism might be.

The Desperado text means to be synonymous with life itself, so the author cannot make up his mind to close it, pushing it into a continuous present. Robyn Penrose (Nice Work, by David Lodge) could easily go on with more incidents, as present as those described before, but Lodge stops short. Only his last page communicates nothing final. The Desperado ending is mostly a matter of words, witticisms or shocking sentences, meant to engross the reader’s whole attention for the coming void of the time he will not be reading the book any more.

Peter Ackroyd is, like most others, in search for the ideal recipe of mixing devices. The intention of novelists and poets, as most of them state in interviews, is to ‘amuse’, which word should actually be replaced by ‘amaze’; they all want to see the reader capitulate, accept all kinds of texts with delight. Desperado authors aim at the reader’s unconditional surrender. The hobby of this alchemist is irony, and his literary family, as the author himself claims, does not exist. Orphan and forsaken, the Desperado author discourages all attempts at being adopted, included in a friendly group. Groups are hateful, individuals should live alone. They are however allowed to use all the ingredients they can find in the kitchen of literary history, all devices will come in handy. We are not witnessing denial, therefore, but agglutination.

2. Hero
If the author is in search of a recipe, the hero born out of his search is a loser. He advances gropingly across the story, and the so-called ending leaves him agape and full of unfulfilled expectations. The Desperado texts only have one, egocentric hero, who manipulates all the other literary beings around him in order to bring himself out. He is confused, uncertain, burdened with incidents. Lessing’s heroines are all menaced by real life, helpless but raging. Their rage cannot be tamed. Ishiguro’s characters boil with the same rage. These heroes become aggressive because the novel is their desperate attempt at proving a point, their own point, and their demonstration is too subtle to convince the reader. As never before, the reader grows to like a novel whose hero he hates from the bottom of his heart, and whose plot is a huge question mark. Even the heroes of the stream of consciousness, pre-verbal and cryptic as they might have been, were appealing, they captured the reader’s emotions. The Desperado age focusses on a disappointed hero, who fails, rages at life, the author, the reader, and even at literature itself for being no more than literature.

3. Reader
The Desperado author has no idea where he is going, his hero bears the burden of tomorrow (a tomorrow that refuses to happen), and the reader feels he has been blindfolded. The tone, the words of the novel are so natural that the reader cannot help feeling he is reaching the starting point, something very unusual is on the verge of happening, something worthy of literature anyway. But literature is no longer an event. The experience of reading is a race which keeps beginning but in which there is no winner, a race abandoned by all conventions we have grown used to. Virginia Woolf urged that authors should focus on a ‘common day’, an everyday hero, rejecting the out of the ordinary incident or hero. Yet Mrs Dalloway, for instance, does not do what its author preaches. Those who put into practice modernist theory to its furthest consequences are the Desperadoes. That is why the Desperado reader leaves the text unwillingly (a text without an ending is hard to put behind), with one question in his mind: So what? The Desperado author will not answer questions, so the reader is all ears all the time, discontented, hungry, invited to dinner by a host that has no time for him.

4. Critic
So far, the Desperado critic has not declared himself. He is for the time being an intelligence conditioned by a set of norms, terms handed in from one critic to another, terms that are used as reverently as one would use figures, generating scholarly approaches which dream of becoming substitutes for the joy of reading, for the text itself. Literary criticism is itself a form of literature (not linguistical mathematics), but the friendly critics (who are creators themselves), whom Eliot was so fond of, are strongly disapproved of on grounds of lack of professionalism. The critical jargon has reached a limit which not even Joyce dared imagine. Criticism is in serious danger as we speak, since contemporary works actually refute all explanations and mean business when they set out to reach the reader without go-betweens. I should only venture to say at this point that that the Desperado critic must take for granted and start from the supremacy of the author’s text. To put it more clearly, tell me more about your judgment (your terms, your approach, your ambitions) and I can tell you what kind of a critic you are, or if, in Desperado despair of being found out, you are a critic at all.


IV. FROM COMING OF AGE TO AGEING

In the Desperado context, the British novel is represented by authors such as Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963; William Golding, 1911-1993; George Orwell, 1903-1950; Lawrence Durrell, 1912-1990; Doris Lessing, 1919; Anthony Burgess, 1917-1993; John Fowles, 1926; Julian Barnes, 1946; Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954; Alasdair Gray, 1934; Malcolm Bradbury, 1932-1999; David Lodge, 1939; Peter Ackroyd, 1949; Martin Amis, 1949; Graham Swift, 1949. More than the French novel, more than the American novel (eclectic though tremendously forceful), British fiction illustrates rebellion and experiment. British fiction is in fact the most resourceful segment of contemporary literature. The features which identify it are the following:

● The search for novelty at all costs: every device comes in handy and they can all be mixed together, to the one and only purpose of finding the recipe of the absolute novel.

Free, clear, shameless style: the language of the novel opens up to all ranges of speech, from decent oral approximations to uncensored outbursts of sensuality.

The stumbling text, the loose, often interrupted narrative: the present cannot even hope for a future. It advances gropingly, leaning heavily against a past which is brought squeezed into the present under the shape of a multitude of devious, contorted paths.

● The random ending: the work does not end because the plan has come full circle. Quite the reverse, the text closes the moment the initial plan is wide open, requiring stubborn, intrigued rereading.

The reader is helpless: his expectations become so flexible that his only expectation is actually the denial of the expecting mood.

This forceful novel generates a number of advantages for the reader:

● The intriguing novel stimulates attention and heightens the reader’s resourcefulness. The reader is the master of his own interpretation and can do without criticism. He reaches the work on his own. The Desperado writer receives what Eliot ardently wished for but could not have (poetry that could communicate before it was understood). He rejects criticism violently. He ‘quits’ criticism (Julian Barnes). He writes the novel as clearly as he can precisely because he does not tolerate the reader to look elsewhere but at the author himself.

● The novel or volume of poetry is like a diary opened and closed at random, which exhales a comfortable feeling of genuine life, something that Virginia Woolf desperately desired, but which she never created because she stumbled over the stream of consciousness convention. The Desperado writers use all devices and conventions ever, but do not take any for granted or an only love. Desperado freedom is the freedom from convention, but this freedom becomes a convention itself once it generates literature.

● The text identifies with the reader’s own meditation in the margin of this text. The author’s voice steals into the reader’s mind. This fusion does away with the heroes, the plot, the ending, as a matter of fact; they become mere pretexts. The text places the direct connection author-reader above every other goal it might have. More than ever before the Desperado age, these authors talk to their audience and are not in the least ashamed of voicing their most intimate and private thoughts. The omniscient author, the points of view, the interior monologues have vanished. The reader internalizes the author’s voice, thus acceding to creation himself.

● In spite of the fact that the style is more than accessible, the text is elitist: it relies on a refined joy of the game for the sake of the game itself. We do not get in the end either the illusion of life, or at least the truth about the game of the text. Even though they claim they merely try to entertain the reader with one face of reality, Desperado authors feel reality does not exist, fiction alone matters.

● The confusion reality-imagination is obviously deliberate. Desperado fiction is a drug which develops addiction. After reading a Desperado text it becomes very hard to read a one-convention text (Dickens, Galsworthy, even Joyce). The mixture of perspectives, the Desperado text as a Babel tower shapes a resigned reader, willing to experience the frustration of helplessness. Desperado reading is an accepted weakness.

The one step ahead British fiction has made lately is precisely this new reading it creates. A sceptical, cautious, versatile experience of reading, which tolerates to the point where all expectation is numbed, which opens itself to all possibilities to such an extent that all wishes previous to the Desperado text are annihilated, and the author prevails. The Desperado author is trying to cure from the disease of a unique convention a reader who actually hides from this author how healthy he is. This reader feels (if he does not know it for sure yet) that this chaos of conventions will lead to a post-Desperado age, when the very opposite of what we like now will win. In literature, in art, there is always negation, and it is this negation that has this very minute come of age.


Lidia Vianu, The Desperado Age, Editura Universitatii Bucuresti, 2004

 

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