The experimental novel that emerged in Britain in the decades following the Second World War appears to us today a dogged cultural spectre. Performatively refused by dominant cultural strata of its time as ‘eccentric,’ ‘anachronistic,’ ‘aberrant’ to ‘Literature,’ it is on these terms it continues to be met in received critical narrations of ‘modern’ literary history. For over seventy years it has been a ‘non-literature.’ First as an ‘avant-garde’ where it was deemed there could be none, it was subsequently drawn into footnote to the all-encompassing, vying constructs of an earlier ‘modernism’ and later ‘postmodernism’ in Anglo-American critique. Its texts and figures appropriated or omitted to fit the shifting critical designations of an ‘after life’ of the former, or an ‘archaeology’ of the latter. If present at all in discourse of ‘modern’ literary history, it is as an entity clichéd by extreme, inaccessible forms, created by isolated, eccentric figures. We find the texts critically divorced from their historicity; textual form divorced from textual content. And as such, as a grouping of texts they have come to be thought of little signification, signifying little.
By side-effect or by design, the vast and variegated body of work that makes up the post-war experimental novel in Britain appears a literature reduced. Following its era of appearance that roughly spans the years 1945 to the late-1970s, its texts were by and large pushed out of print, and out of discourse. Hence this sense of a ‘spectral’ state in which we now find it; it is an entity quite successfully ‘erased’ from literary history.
However, following decades of ‘latency’ we now find its texts slowly, if erratically, returning to print, a burgeoning field of critique re-developing around its more marketable figures, and new writers that are now emerging being drawn into connection to these earlier ‘disappeared’ figures and texts.
Whether revealed by the final fall apart of the ‘M-PM’ paradigm, drawn back by a shift in environmental conditions that again demands an art of experimentation, the cyclical wax and wane of ‘taste,’ or whatever catalyst – we are re-confronted with a literature and a sequence of connected descriptors: ‘post-war,’ ‘British,’ ‘experimental,’ ‘novel’ that has long been held non-existent. And as such, we perhaps currently lack the tools to coherently meet its re-emergence.
When attempting to approach this body of texts, we are prompted with a series of basic, and fundamental questions. Of what they potentially were, what they were potentially trying to do, and how. What its re-emergence might mean for us now. And, in the potential meanings of the very words we use to describe it, what is the ‘experimental novel’ in this ‘post-war’ era. What does this word ‘experimental’ signify in the period, that was deemed so incompatible with earlier and later iterations of ‘experimental writing.’ How has the perception of a ‘void’ in literary history following the Second World War affected the ways we view literature as a global cultural mechanism, and, of particular interest here, our perceptions of post-war, and contemporary, British culture.
In observing the experimental novel in Britain at post-war, we are presented with a ‘non-literature’ appropriated and omitted, warped and refused. Now, as it begins to emerge from this ‘spectral’ state, is perhaps the moment to begin to renegotiate the terms on which this body of work is critically received. To re-read these texts, and reassess the vague critical structures around them. And, in doing so, perhaps come to a re-understanding of what this ‘non-literature’ potentially is, or could be. With this study day we intend to ask these questions, and participate in the wider critical project of reinstating the post-war British experimental novel as a signifying entity in literary history.
In an effort to open up a space of open discourse of texts we here find little-, mis- or entirely un-codified in established critique, potential participants interested in these themes, but perhaps unfamiliar with the texts of focus are encouraged to get in touch with any queries or questions regarding the study day, or its subject matter.
Suggested (selected) potential thematics:
. A literature of societal self-confrontation
– Gender and sexuality
– Class and deprivation
– Colonial/post-colonial writing in a moment of transition
– The sickly body, the sickly mind, the sickly social; addiction, mental health and societal refusal
– Britain post-war/pre-apocalypse: the realities of ‘peaceful’ human life in a space suspended between total war
. Ergodic interactions of content and form
– Formal ‘DIY’: cut up, cut out, disassembly, disfigurement, rearrangement
– Slang, neologism, ‘minor’ language
– The materiality of language/disintegration of language: syntactic break, reformation and regeneration
– Intertextuality, transmediality and transnational/cultural interactions
. Broader questions
– What is ‘the experimental’ that these texts describe?
– Why has such a vast and varied body of literature remained ‘latent’ for so long, and why return now?
– How in these texts, does content and form combine and interact, and with what results?
– How do these texts redeploy that status and roles of writer and reader in fictive space?
– Might the ‘problematised’ ‘text-world’ interact, or reveal something ‘problematic’ in ‘real-world’?
Suggested (selected) texts of interest:
- G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962)
John Berger, G (1972)
Dan Billany, The Cage (1949), The Trap (1950)
Christine Brooke-Rose, Out (1964), Such (1966)
Brigid Brophy, Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), In Transit (1969)
Alan Burns, Europe After the Rain (1965), Babel (1969)
Eva Figes, Konek Landing (1969), Nelly’s Version (1977)
Zulfikar Ghose, The Contradictions (1966)
Wilson Harris, The Guyana Quartet (1960 – 1963)
Rayner Heppenstall, [The Blaze of Noon (1939)], The Connecting Door (1962)
- S. Johnson, Albert Angelo (1964), The Unfortunates (1969)
Anna Kavan, Sleep Has His House (1948), Ice (1967)
Ann Quin, Berg (1964), Tripticks (1972)
Hugh Sykes Davies¸ The Papers of Andrew Melmoth (1960)
Stefan Themerson, Bayamus (1949), Professor Mmaa’s Lecture (1958)
Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam (1954), Cain’s Book (1960)