February 21, 2011

What is Contemporary?

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Distinguished English professor Nancy Armstrong of Duke University gave a lecture last Friday in the H.E.C. Auditorium, entitled “What Is Contemporary About Contemporary Fiction?” The event consisted in large part of an analysis of two recent novels and their status in what Armstrong called “a new canon of literature unfolding today.”

Several authors were mentioned in the lecture, most notably Kazuo Ishiguro and the German language novelist W.G. Sebald, whose respective novels Never Let Me Go (2005) and Austerlitz (2001) were the object of Armstrong’s analysis. Armstrong also mentioned Ian McEwan, Nicola Barker, and several others, and situated all of them within a related literary context.

The lecture tended to take a theoretical approach in its reading of the texts. Armstrong emphasized the dichotomy between inside and outside that each novel explored and how the authors frustrated that distinction. These categories culminate in the image of the home, which creates a basis for models of the social body.

Professor Armstrong is best known for her first and most influential book, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, which relates the so-called “domestic fiction” of Britain in the eighteenth  and nineteenth centuries to the rise of modern values. Her work has remained in the same geographic and temporal area for most of her career.

An investigation of contemporary fiction marks a new interest for Armstrong, who admitted her inexperience in this area of research. She described herself as turning against her older work, namely Desire and Domestic Fiction. But from appearances she remains attached to her older interests, referring to domesticity throughout the lecture. As she explained in the lecture, the British novel became inseparable from the household in the 18th and 19th centuries and has remained so to the present.

Armstrong’s choice of fiction draws from a large body of international writers. This body shares several distinctive qualities, such as an awareness of the legacy of post-colonialism, a quality of prose, “neither high brow or low brow” and a philosophical intent lent by such figures of twentieth century thought as Michel Foucault. This intellectually informed background provides added justification for Armstrong’s theoretically orientated approach.

Never Let Me Go, the work of Sebald, follows the story of Cathy, a clone who has been raised for organ donation. Armstrong noted her place in between typical categories, such as individual and collective, something seen in what she called the novels “curious prose.” She gave the example of the common shift from the first person singular “I” to the plural “we” over the length of a sentence. This change, Armstrong said, prevented the reader from interacting at a personal level.

The second novel that Armstrong examined, Austerlitz, is less fantastical, but does not denounce the major themes that Armstrong described in these works. In this book the eponymous young man, Jacques Austerlitz, tries to discover his past after fleeing his homeland on the kindertansport as a young child, to escape the Nazis.

Armstrong pointed out that Austerlitz’s search for the past represented a movement from the inner to the outer, to discover what exists outside the “house.” She gave the example of the walls of the domicile as a möbius strip, having only one side regardless of whether it is seen from “outside” or “inside.” Cathy is raised outside of society, and her attempts to interact with humans, or non-clones, are marred by her inability to interact personally. Cathy and Austerlitz are counterparts, the former an outsider trying to get in, the latter an insider trying to get out.

Never Let Me Go was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. Kazuo Ishiguro has been nominated for the award four times, including in 1989 when he won for his third novel, The Remains of the Day. W.G. Sebald was killed in a car crash in 2001, making Austerlitz his final novel. He has been lauded by critics internationally, and remains one of the most significant German authors of recent memory.

Armstrong demonstrates tangible similarities between the two novels in her lecture, which hint at a larger movement in contemporary literature with a continued global importance.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber