The "state of the nation" novel is back in fashion, with recent examples from Hanif Kureishi, Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernières. But many of these books focus too closely on "authentic" period detail at the expense of convincing characters and storiesby Philip Hensher / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Discuss this article on First Drafts, Prospect’s blog.
Put it down to the lack of a national epic. Many countries have a single, agreed national text, as distinct from an oral myth—a literary classic that for centuries has celebrated its country’s founding and virtues. Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Cervantes’s Don Quixote removed a crucial pressure from their successors.
In Britain, the situation is different. There is no ancient national epic—The Faerie Queene is a gigantic and fantastical romance, Paradise Lost is only indirectly concerned with nationhood. Pope’s idea of a classicising epic of the founding of Britain, Brutus, survives as—and probably only ever consisted of—ten lines of blank verse. The Idylls of the King was probably several centuries too late to take on the role, and we are struck now by its failure to address what was evidently of burning interest to Tennyson: his age’s dynamism and technological innovation.
This lack of a national epic has set a hare running among both readers and writers. The novel of national origins has now been relegated to mass-market fiction, such as Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum (1992). But what has occupied more elevated practitioners and critics of the art is the novel of national life in a contemporary, or near-contemporary, setting. It has come to be called the “state-of-the-nation” novel, and it is currently all around us.
Several things define this genre: a range of social settings; the coverage of an extended period of time; a sense that the lives described reflect major social shifts or matters of public importance; and, often, open debate on political concerns and the nature of the nation itself. Commentators on the English novel have often claimed to find works of this type in 19th-century fiction. In fact, few of Dickens’s or Eliot’s works really analyse the whole of a society. However, some 19th-century authors certainly did set out to write state-of-the-nation fiction. The title of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is a clear indication of intent, and the book conscientiously covers a range of social settings and roles, from the agricultural to the new capital markets of the City. Disraeli’s splendid “Young England” trilogy of the 1840s, Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred, with its broad social spectrum and tendency to political solutions, is virtually the founding example of the state-of-the-nation novel. The celebrated passage from Sybil about the two nations, rich and poor, is one of the very few examples of a piece of state-of-the-nation rhetoric making its way permanently into the political debate. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, Middlemarch and, probably, Little Dorrit all have a state-of-the-nation flavour: they have an acute sense of the larger implications of the individual situation; their ambitions are both literary and, in a general sense, policy-directed in ways which go beyond the aspirations of, say, Great Expectations or Daniel Deronda.
The novelist’s concern with the state of the nation has never gone away, but it only occasionally emerges in the form of a state-of-the-nation novel. Nothing could be more telling about Britain’s unhoused exhaustion at the end of the second world war than the rush of enthusiasm for novels about country houses and fantastical, often demonic palaces—Brideshead Revisited, Love in a Cold Climate, Gormenghast and The Lord of the Rings. None of them, however, was exactly state-of-the-nation, and the taste for the national diagnosis was satisfied by the factual discussions of the Beveridge report, which sold an astonishing 600,000 copies, at two shillings each.
Since then, the state-of-the-nation tendency in fiction has surfaced from time to time. The mid to late 1970s saw a small run of such books concerned with what seemed the collapse of the Attlee consensus. AS Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden (1978), set in the early 1950s, was the first volume of a tetralogy that traced the developing state of the nation in the following decades. William Golding’s Darkness Visible (1979) seems to give in to despair in a tale of motiveless violence. In Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age (1977), commerce and property become evil, empty values in ways that foreshadow the “Thatcher’s Britain” novelists; her interests are echoed, in a comic register, by an underrated novel of the time, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar on the Moon (1974), a haunting comedy set in an affectless New Town, which foreshadows a whole terrain of contemporary novels.
The current taste for state-of-the-nation novels has been on the rise for some time. Beginning, perhaps, with Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club (2001), novelists have been returning to the period of the 1970s through to the 1990s in a consciously historicising spirit. The passionate hatred of a previous generation for Thatcher and her doings seems to have faded somewhat. Two polemics, Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s The Strange Death of Tory England (2005) and Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? (2007), have recently made a mark. Both indicated how naive and destructive was the unthinking opposition to the right in the 1980s, how foolish the benevolent view of the left and all its doings, however extreme. Wheatcroft, pondering the mysterious international popularity of the IRA compared to the domestic contempt in which Thatcher was held by what he called the “lumpenintelligentsia,” expressed it incisively in saying that if the Conservative party could not win a popularity contest against a small gang of pro-Nazi child murderers, what hope was there for it?
The hatred of the Tory revolution could not be sustained. Some novelists had already seen this—James Buchan’s dazzling High Latitudes (1996) was not the work of a man with political illusions. Its predecessor, Heart’s Journey in Winter (1995), had found the space in a grand cold war drama for an icily satirical cameo from Thatcher herself. But in High Latitude, Buchan’s indignation is reserved for a portrait of Gerry Healy and the Workers Revolutionary party, his sympathy directed towards a rich banker at the crest of the Thatcherite revolution.
The “Thatcher’s Britain” novel has probably gone for good. AN Wilson’s excellent but somewhat overlooked My Name is Legion (2004) had the true Trollopian spirit, ranging in an almost sociological manner over the tribes and enclaves of London. Last year, Blake Morrison took on the Blairite decade in South of the River. Despite its clear statement of political disillusionment, what was most evident was a novelist enjoying the possibilities of social range once again, the possibilities of a novel not Blairite but positively Gladstonian in technique.
This spring sees a fresh rush of such novels, going back to the 1970s and telling a story of change and consequences over, typically, 20 years. To Sebastian Faulks’s Engleby, published last year, we can add Louis de Bernières’s A Partisan’s Daughter (Harvill Secker), Richard T Kelly’s Crusaders (Faber), Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You (Faber) and Helen Walsh’s Once Upon A Time In England (Canongate). I, too, have added to the pile with my new novel The Northern Clemency (4th Estate), set in Sheffield between 1974 and 1996. Many of these books share the same subject matter of left-wing extremism, drug-taking and murder. Many of them, too, share the same means of rendering what has been called the most remote of all periods: the recent past. Though in most cases, the period is one of the youth and childhood of the writer, in one case—that of Walsh, who was born in 1977—a writer is reaching back beyond her memory, with interestingly different results. There is, clearly, a fascination in popular culture for the period, as endless remakes of 1970s Hollywood movies and the BBC pastiche detective shows Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes demonstrate. Many novelists are going back to the period, however, in an attempt both to find out how we got to where we are now, and to abandon the wretched “Thatcher’s Britain” clichés of a previous generation.
What was the past like? Sebastian Faulks, in Engleby—one of the most subtle and evocative of these novels—has his character give a surprising answer: “Most things haven’t changed at all… A few wars? Some genocide? Some terrorism? Drugs? Abuse of children? High crime rate? Materialistic obsessions? More cars? Blah-blah pop music?” The wider implication is that writers about the recent past are addressing, too, the facts of the immediate present, and there are other signs that Faulks is going to distinguish himself from the general, conventional view of this period. “I couldn’t stand another article about 1970s fashions, Abba or tank tops. This sort of decade-drivel used to be the territory of Chick’s Own.”
But the past needs to be done, and the state-of-the-nation novel has evolved its own conventions and clichés. Some of these novels rely less on the intricate evocation of popular culture than others, but for all of them it is an important resource. There are television programmes, long gone: “‘Makes you look a bit like Joanna Lumley,’ Benjamin suggested. ‘In The New Avengers'” (Coe); “She wanted to watch Jim’ll Fix It” (Faulks). There are passing cultural fads, often clunkingly commented on: “Car boot sales are quite the thing now” (Kelly). This tendency can spread into an account of present-day life—as when Hanif Kureishi’s narrator observes “Kids stepped around us disapprovingly, talking about eBay.”
Popular culture crashes into these novels most noisily, however, in the form of popular music. Almost all of them have an obsessive interest in pop music—perhaps only my own, in fact, has none—and it becomes a lazy, easily researched way to evoke a particular moment, summoning up idle readers who want, mostly, nostalgia from a book of this sort. Mick Jagger actually has a walk-on part in the Kureishi, but much of the rest of the book is taken up with nudging references of the “I gave Mustaq my own worn copy of Lou Reed’s Transformer” variety. The tendency is everywhere: “Stone Roses are on at the Boardwalk” (Walsh); “Dylan’s gone and cut a religious record” and “I had no idea who this Knopfler was” (de Bernières). Coe’s novel is largely about music—the collapse of the frightful prog rock movement in favour of punk—and is littered with observations such as, “We went and saw the Clash playing in Fulham.” Characters are defined principally by their musical taste, in ways that would seem perfectly absurd in a novel set in 2008. But the past is, above all, tribal as seen from this vantage point, even if the tribes seem somewhat conflated in the ebb and flow of 1970s culture: “Mostly hippies… a goth and a couple of punks wearing safety pins and bondage trousers” (Kureishi in, supposedly, the mid-1970s).
Novelists differ in the small details they pay attention to; Walsh has a nice line in changing haircuts, for instance. Surprisingly, almost all these novels are centrally concerned with drug-taking, and almost all their authors have a keen eye for the drug of the period. Faulks’s Engleby is wiped out by late-hippy uppers and dope. Walsh’s characters take to heroin and to the pills of the early 1990s Manchester dance revolution. Kureishi, never one to shirk the obvious, has a line on the early 1980s metropolitan scene that few will fail to foresee: “We went to the new clubs, the Groucho in particular… we talked simultaneously, because she liked coke. With Karen there was no vulgar chopping with credit cards.” This is echoed by a character in Kelly, who describes “a kir royale and a rasping line of charlie.” It is odd when a substance devoted to oblivion becomes so associated with acts of memorial reconstruction—and not just odd, but unconvincing, too.
Why are we seeing such a range of state-of-the-nation novels at this moment? Perhaps the last occasion when such novels seemed urgent and vital was not the “Thatcher’s Britain” years but the years which produced Drabble, Byatt and Golding, the fag-end of the Callaghan Labour government. The public consensus then was clearly breaking down under a prime minister who had no mandate from an election. The trust between people and elected representatives was evaporating, and acts of individual violence were common. Many of those things have resurfaced in our time. For Callaghan read Gordon Brown; for the Red Brigades and the Rote Armee Fraktion read al Qaeda; for the violence acted out in punk read the audacious violence acted out in dancehall and hip hop.
Time has rendered some of these earlier phenomena as quaint as Joseph Conrad’s anarchists, but the urgency of these events in our day leads novelists to seek out historical parallels, to understand the sources of violence and economic upheaval as well as to dramatise contemporary events in a period setting. American art generally seeks to dramatise the microcosm in order to understand the macrocosm—representing the Bush war on terror in terms of, say, the battle against the Baltimore drugs culture in the great HBO series The Wire. British art characteristically proceeds in terms of historical parallels—Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III (1991) amused its first audiences by drawing parallels with 1990s high politics. The sense of historical pressure in 2008 has led many English novelists to return to pressures of a similar nature, 30 years ago.
Agonisingly, however, when a novel hopes to examine the movement of history, public events have to enter into the action. Few novelists manage this confidently, or render the fluid way in which public and private events tend to mingle in real lives. Public events are used as chronology markers in de Bernières in a way so atrociously clunking it may reasonably be taken as a savage parody: “I remember that the Vietnamese had just invaded Cambodia… the only good news was that Idi Amin had absconded… the next time I called in it was the day that Sebastian Coe broke the record for the mile… I remember feeling a bit sorry because Chris Evert had just been beaten by Martina Navratilova.”
One seriously doubts that anyone recalls, years after the fact, the day of a Navratilova/Evert match. Such specificity, in defiance of all laws of consciousness and memory, betrays conscientious research carried out in newspapers of the time, a speculation which can be revealed in other ways. Coe’s novel begins with his characters reading the Daily Mail and Sounds magazine from November 1973, no doubt accurately quoted. Most of Kelly’s acknowledged sources for Crusaders are newspaper articles; his epigraph, a line from the investigative journalist IF Stone, is taken not directly from Stone but—I don’t know why this is so depressing—from a celebratory article in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens. You feel, as with many of these novels, that the author would have been much better off reading novels written and set at the time, and not borrowing the instant importances of journalism.
Large public events enter into the action awkwardly and obtrusively. “More grief for the Windsors, you see?” a character in Kelly points out, “Charlie’s been at it again.” The Birmingham pub bombings, strike action (quite plausibly) and the Holocaust (with much more strain), mark the significance of the events and the lives in The Rotters’ Club. Strikes loom large in most of these novels, including my own, which touches on the miners’ strike of 1984. For some writers a succession of specific events conflate into a single, faintly ludicrous impression of collapse: “People were always on strike… the lights crashed almost every week… there were food or petrol shortages, along with some sort of national crisis with ministers resigning… Then there’d be an IRA bomb” (Kureishi, conflating many different periods); “In fact it was during the winter of discontent. The streets were heaped high with rubbish, you couldn’t buy bread or the Sunday Times, and in Liverpool no one would bury the dead” (de Bernières).
Political radicalism plays an important part in all these novels. If some allow their characters to rail against the radical—one of Kelly’s actually expresses longing for the day when the telephone service will be privatised—there is elsewhere a dense and silly nostalgia for what was a destructive and fatuous movement. “As a child, she’d always been surrounded by artistic and political people, picketing the Sunday Times building at Wapping in 1986 and staying at Greenham common at the weekends” (Kureishi). The general air of excessive neatness, of characters too nicely filling historical, or historicising, stereotypes, is not enhanced by inaccuracies: Kureishi’s characters are allowed to refer to “the chattering classes” in the 1970s, and Walsh, perhaps more plausibly, turns a real slogan from the famous 1964 election in Smethwick (“If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”) into graffiti, 15 years later. Summaries of large historical movements are implausibly allowed to be voiced by characters: “The idea was to move the party to the left by integrating radical elements that had emerged during the mid-1970s: gays, blacks, feminists. Michael Foot was elected leader, followed by Neil Kinnock. The party was beginning to modernise but still wasn’t electable” (Kureishi).
The urgency and declared weight of the subjects in these books has, in some cases, allowed the authors to overlook what ought to be paramount—the obligation to write well. Walsh is filled with cliché: “A stunned silence had descended”; “Though he was weary to the marrow of his bones…” Dialogue in Kureishi can be unbelievably poor: one character is supposed to speak the line: “She walks about his flat in mules and a red satin dressing gown which falls open to expose more shimmering flimsies and worse.” Kelly, who has written a deeply engaged but grinding novel from a recognisably non-conformist, provincial tradition, is capable of page upon page of inarticulately antique diction—I thought I would scream if I read the word “beheld” one more time, or another sentence beginning “And yet.”
Most incredibly, however, Kureishi has been allowed to write a book which, in one respect, is ungrammatical from beginning to end. Here it is: “Then Sam and the Mule Woman… catch Miriam and I at it on the floor”; “George Cage introduced Henry and I to Alan”; “I do remember getting up to pee… and seeing, as I walked past Karen’s door, she and Karim Amir fucking.” Kureishi is not alone in this blind spot—another of these novelists perpetrates the, to me, unbelievable sentence: “Things have got very fraught between Jessica Bradbeer and I.” But Kureishi’s devotion to it, the lack of any kind of awareness of what, in my view, is a post-1990 habit of hypercorrection, can only come from a novelist who believes that he’s doing something pre-linguistic—writing something where the facts of copulation, intoxication and political engagement are so urgent that it hardly matters how they are expressed.
The state-of-the-nation novel is not the only way to examine the state of the nation. American novels, such as Joshua Ferris’s spellbinding And Then We Came To The End (2007), tend to do so much more through allegory and symbolism. Nicola Barker’s superb Darkmans (2007) took on the state of the nation through fantasy erupting via densely realistic surfaces. But the novel that traces characters through decades, and finds larger significance in those lives, has a respectable history, and ought to be sustainable today. The curious thing about all the novels I read is that none of them seems to understand that people change over the decades, that though there is a single unchanging quality to any human being, he will not look or sound the same at 30 as he did at 10. Every character in every book here is just the same at the end as at the beginning. The moving and important quality of a War and Peace or a Buddenbrooks, in which we feel that people have grown and changed in the course of the years without turning into different people entirely, is nowhere to be found. The expression of that important truth was the only reason I wrote my own novel, The Northern Clemency, and I don’t see the point of writing a book about the changes in a nation without expression the changes in a human being.
Where these books fail, I think, is in their point of departure. Too often I felt that the author had started not from memory and the painstaking reconstruction of long-forgotten sensations and the real, vanished world. They started, instead, from journalistic accounts of a period, from their own nostalgia-laden record collection and from a vague recollection of the drugs people used to talk about. Though not old, I have lived long enough to see the difference between a BBC reconstruction of 1980s pop music, mad haircuts and Memphis furniture and the dense sensations most of us, with effort, can call up. I was a teenager when the Clash are reported by Coe as playing in Fulham. I wouldn’t have cared. At the time, my records were mostly of Mahler, Schoenberg and Boulez. That is also part of the 1970s—my 1970s—and, as it happens, I don’t remember ever having a single conversation about the winter of discontent either.