Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)
(Research for this article was supported by a Sogang University Research
In the last decade of the 19th century, Thomas
Hardy published Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the
Obscure (1896); Henry James published The Tragic Muse (1890)
Spoils of Poynton (1897) and The Turn of the Screw (1898); H.G.
Wells published almost all the works for which he is best remembered:
Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of
the Worlds (1898) and others; Joseph Conrad began his career with Alamayer's
Folly (1895) and The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897). The same
decade saw the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company
(1891), as well as The Adventures (1892) and the
(1894) of Sherlock Holmes. Those were the years which witnessed
the publication of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book (1894), Anthony
Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894).
At the same time George Bernard Shaw was writing his first plays: Arms and the Man (1894), The Devil's Disciple (1897), Mrs. Warren's Profession (1898). Oscar Wilde published his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, and all his great plays before being imprisoned in 1895, including Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In other parts of Europe, Tolstoi, Ibsen, Zola, Anatole France, Gerhart Hauptmann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Chekhov, and Strindberg, were active, to name but a very few.
At the end of the 20th century, which gave birth to the works of Virginia Woolf, D.H Lawrence, Proust, Joyce and a very large number of other writers, in succession to those listed above, it would seem difficult to maintain that the novel has maintained its former level of achievement. It would be idle to speculate on what writers and works published since
1990 will still strike a chord in a century's time, but it seems clear that it is not only the academic study of literature that faces an uncertain future.
It is not that fiction is declining in popularity. There is a witty saying attributed to Salman Rushdie to the effect that 'the novel is not dead but buried' : suggesting that buried under the huge amount of fiction being published in Britain (and the rest of the world) at present, there may be a few novels that would please the demands of an educated and discriminating audience, but there is less and less hope of critics or readers noticing them in the flood of pot-boilers, while publishing
companies that used to be known for the quality of the works they produced have been taken over, stripped of their assets, and reduced to pale under-funded shadows as minor 'imprints' of mammoth enterprises.
At the same time, the notion of 'British literature' is no longer really meaningful when the publishers and bookstores of England make no distinction between British-born writers and people like Margaret Atwood, or John Updike and Don Delillo. The only category that might correspond to present reality while echoing the old category of 'British Fiction' would be 'Fiction read in Britain'. In the following discussion, one or two works by the Canadian Margaret Atwood and the Australian-born Peter Carey who lives in New York are included, yet the very important body of fiction by the South African Nadine Gordimer is not. This is mainly because her work is so deeply rooted in the recent evolutions of South African history that it would need a far deeper treatment on its own.
The bookstores in Britain display works of fiction under such categories as 'science fiction', 'crime and horror', 'romantic fiction', 'gay and lesbian', and 'childrens' books'. Whatever does not fit into those categories, good and bad alike, old and new, is generally sold from shelves marked 'Authors A-Z'. There is strong pressure to display and sell large quantitites of the most recent titles, but since there is so much new fiction being produced, the elimination of the challenging works produced by small publishers is almost inevitable, to say nothing of fiction translated from other languages.
One event that has a certain impact on sales of fiction is the announcement of the annual Booker Prize shortlist, and final winner. The jury is composed of critics and writers, and each year's jury is entirely different in composition from that of previous years. The only regular feature of the Booker Prize is the strong disagreement about its selection usually expressed by many critics. The 1994 list in particular dismayed many readers and critics. The winning novel is entirely written in a form
of Scots dialect, and uses a vast number of 'four-letter words.'
The following are the novels shortlisted for and winning the Booker Prize since 1990. The winning novel is the first in each year's list. Titles marked are discussed in this paper :
* Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things.
Mick Jackson. The Underground Man.
Tim Parks. Europa.
* Bernard MacLaverty. Grace Notes.
Madeleine St. John. The Essence of the Thing.
* Graham Swift. Last Orders.
* Beryl Bainbridge. Every Man for Himself.
* Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace.
* Seamus Deane. Reading in the Dark.
Rohinton Mistry. A Fine Balance.
Shena Mackay. The Orchard on Fire.
* Pat Barker. The Ghost Rider.
Justin Cartwright. In Every Face I Meet
* Salman Rushdie. The Moor's Last Sigh.
* Barry Unsworth. Morality Play.
Tim Winton. The Riders.
* James Kelman. How Late it Was, How Late.
George MacKay Brown. The Ocean of Time.
Romesh Gunesekera. Reef.
Abdulrazac Gurnah. Paradise.
Allan Hollinghurst. The Folding Star.
Jill Paton Walsh. Knowledge of Angels.
Roddy Doyle. Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha.
Michael Ignatieff. Scar Tissue.
* Tibor Fischer. Under the Frog.
David Malouf. Remembering Babylon.
* Caryl Phillips. Crossing the River.
Carol Shields. The Stone Diaries.
* Barry Unsworth. Sacred Hunger. (co-winner)
Christopher Hope. Serenity House.
Patrick McCabe. The Butcher Boy.
Ian McEwen. Black Dogs.
Michele Roberts. Daughters of the House.
* Ben Okri. The Famished Road.
* Martin Amis. Time's Arrow.
Roddy Doyle. The Van.
Robinton Mistry. Such a Long Journey.
Timothy Mo. The Redundancy of Courage.
William Trevor. Reading Turgenev.
* A. S. Byatt. Possession.
Beryl Bainbridge. An Awfully Big Adventure.
Penelope Fitzgerald. The Gate of Angels.
John McGahern. Amongst Women.
Brian Moore. Lies of Silence.
Mordechai Richler. Solomon Gursky was Here.
The Booker list is a useful indication of works which a group of more-or-less discerning writers and critics have found worth reading. It excludes books written in the United States, but includes authors living and writing in Canada or India, for example. Yet there are many very good novels which have not been included in a year's Booker shortlist and which have nonetheless proved interesting enough to be included in this discussion:
Beryl Bainbridge. Master Georgie. Duckworth. 1998
Pat Barker. Regeneration. Viking. 1991
Pat Barker. The Eye in the Door. Viking. 1993
A. S. Byatt. Angels and Insects. Vintage. 1993
Peter Carey. Jack Maggs. Faber. 1997
Jonathan Coe. What a Carve Up! Penguin. 1994
Jonathan Coe. The House of Sleep. Viking. 1997
Margaret Drabble. The Gates of Ivory. Penguin Books. 1991
Margaret Drabble. The Witch of Exmoor. Penguin. 1996
Tibor Fischer. The Collector Collector. Secker and Warburg. 1997
Kazuo Ishiguro. The Unconsoled. Faber. 1995
Doris Lessing. Love, Again. Flamingo. 1997
David Lodge. Paradise News. Penguin. 1991
David Lodge. Therapy. Penguin. 1995
Graham Swift. Ever After. Picador. 1993
Barry Unsworth. After Hannibal. Penguin. 1996
Excluded entirely from these lists are all
the most popular forms of modern fiction. They include no detective stories,
which might be represented by P.D. James or Ruth Rendell, and no spy fiction
although John Le Carre is highly esteemed. Above all, there is no
trace of the category known as 'popular' or 'pulp' fiction, with writers
such as Jeffrey Archer and Barbara Cartland, to say nothing of Stephen
King and such, whose books sell by the million but are assigned to the
category of 'not serious literature' which is now becoming the central
focus of 'cultural studies'.
It is not easy to find adequate paradigms for a relatively brief critical survey of recent fiction. There has been no time for a clear canon to establish itself and the writers' ongoing career inevitably means that the works are open to criticism influenced more by knowledge of the writer's current reputation and personal characteristics than by any more enduring general criteria. An initial approach might involve grouping novels according to certain simple shared features.
Steven Connor has suggested making contemporary British social history the main category for such discussions, but theoretically that is virtually impossible, since the main lines of such recent history cannot be read with any assurance. Allan Massie and others have suggested the categories of class-setting and type of narratorial voice as ways of linking and distinguishing between various forms of fiction. In what follows we will explore in a very free manner the way various contemporary writers employ these three perspectives: history, setting, and voice.
One category of fiction that has received considerable critical acclaim and popular success is what might be termed the 'true-story historical' novel. Outstanding in this group are Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy,(this brings together three novels: Regeneration (1991); The Eye in the Door (1993); The Ghost Rider (1995)); Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996); Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself (1996); Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992). Each of these works is at the same time a crafted novel and a closely-documented re-telling of more or less real events.
Pat Barker's three novels, published in a single volume in 1996, focus on the true-life work of W. H. R. Rivers, a psychologist at the army's Craiglockhart hospital, with victims of shell-shock who included the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. They evoke vividly the impact of the
horrors of the First World War on sensitive minds and portrays the way the search for love and truth continues to give hope and meaning. The last of the novels ends with the battle in which Wilfred Owen died just a few days before the Armistice that ended the war.
The author ends each novel with a note on the non-fictional features she has incorporated and some of the main documentary sources she has employed. The first note begins, 'Fact and fiction are so interwoven in this work that it may help the reader to know what is historical and what is not.' The effect is to stress the factuality of her fictional account, and yet the work is clearly a novel in its exploration of human psychology, not just a fictionalized version of a true story.
Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is set further back, in mid-19th-century Canada and it explores the mystery of a notorious crime that shocked the world of the 1840s, in which a man-servant and a maid killed their master and his housekeeper. Grace Marks, the maid, was only sixteen at the time of the crime and although both were sentenced to death she was spared the gallows and in 1872 was granted a pardon. She spent almost thirty years in prison and in asylums for the insane.
Margaret Atwood similarly ends with an Author's Afterword which begins, 'Alias Grace is a work of fiction, although it is based on reality.' Her work proposes a solution to the enigma of Grace Marks's guilt or innocence which was much debated in a number of books written at the time and afterwards. It is in some ways a 'who-dunnit' but more than that it aims to portray the ways in which women were perceived in the male-dominated culture of the period. It shares with Pat Barker's work an interest in early proponents of therapeutic psychology, in the figure of Dr. Jordan who plays a similar unifying role to that of Rivers though even more dominant.
As befits her status as one of the best writers now alive, Margaret Atwood imposes a strong form on her material by giving each chapter the name of a traditional quilt pattern. The fragments of narrative move between a variety of points of view, and this is undoubtedly one of the finest novels in the list.
Another writer living in Canada, although he was born in Sri Lanka, who has written a much-noted novel is Michael Ondaatje whose The English Patient won the 1992 Booker Prize while the film collected an impressive number of Oscars. Here the period is the Second World War and the setting is Italy. This strangely intense work moves between events of several years ago in Egypt and a ruined villa surrounded by booby-traps left by the retreating Germans where a mysterious person, perhaps a double agent, lies dying of terrible burns. Unlike the film, the novel's centre of interest lies in the relationships that develop inside the villa, the recollections of events in Egypt and the desert being kept in a secondary position.
Perhaps simpler in its negociation of the line between fact and fiction is Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself, an evocation of the Titanic's fateful journey. Little known in Korea, the author is considered (not only by her publishers) to be 'one of the greatest living English novelists' and this work won the 1996 Whitbread Novel Award. Its failure to win the Booker provoked a tremendous row, with one of the judges donating his fee to charity and resigning in protest. It depicts the fateful journey of the Titanic through the eyes of one passenger, who in the end survives the wreck. The emotional tone is undramatic, determined as it is by the point of view of the personal narrator who is a rather detached observer of a limited number of ill- defined relationships among the passengers.
Beryl Bainbridge is very fond of writing this kind of barely fictional history and in many ways her earlier book, The Birthday Boys (1991) might be considered a better work of its kind; it was shortlisted for the Whitbread. It retells the story, almost as familiar in Britain as that of the Titanic, of the fatal expedition to the South Pole led by Captain Scott in 1912. Each of the members of the team that perished during the return from the Pole tells one part of the tale retracing their journey. The book ends as Captain Oates relates his own last moments, as he walks out of the tent in a self-sacrificing gesture known through the journal that Scott kept until his own death. Far more poetic than Every Man for Himself, the evocations of the team's responses to the dreadful beauty of the Antarctic, perceived in the midst of unimaginable hardship, and their private thoughts about one another, compose a most powerful narrative.
Yet neither of these can compare with her most recent work, Master Georgie (1998), which is surely one of the most beautiful novels of the decade. Here three entirely fictional characters take turns in telling moments in which their lives coincide with a fourth, the Master Georgie of the title. The most mysterious figure is Pompey Jones, who is a photographer's assistant. The other two are a geologist and a girl of unknown origin. Where The Birthday Boys told the story of recognized heroes, Master Georgie suggests the heroism of people far too insignificant ever to be noticed by society.
The novel is divided into six separate photographic 'plates' dating from 1846 to 1854, related by the different narrators. The four are drawn into the Crimean War, where they undergo extreme privation and hardship. All this is told without the least dramatic emphasis and the novel's main theme seems to be the question of the extent to which we can ever know another person, or perhaps ourselves. The precise documentation of life in the period is not obtrusive, the focus is entirely on the responses of the individual relating each section of the tale.
The use of multiple voices to relate the various sections of a story deeply rooted in history is also exploited by Caryl Phillips in his two most recent works, Crossing the River and The Nature of Blood (1997), centered respectively in the Slave Trade and the Holocaust. Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, in the West Indies, and growing up in England he developed a very strong sense of his African origins, of being part of a Diaspora. This is a fundamental theme of his writing.
Crossing the River, Phillips' fifth novel is composed of four completely separate sections, written in quite different modes. All that unites them is a brief preface and conclusion recalling the fact that African Americans are all necessarily descended from people who were born in Africa but were taken to America and sold into slavery. The first section is centered on a freed slave who is enabled by his former master to go back to Africa, when America established the settlements of Liberia. Years later the master follows him, hoping to understand, only to discover that he has understood nothing.
In the next section, an old black woman sets out West, dreaming of finding her daughter, but dies along the way; much of her tale is told in an inner first-person monologue. The third section takes the form of a journal kept by the Master of a slave-ship as he takes on board his cargo and sets off for America. The final tale is told by an English woman in short, dated narratives. She meets a black American soldier during the war, marries him and has a child who is given up for adoption when the father is killed in action. Nothing unites these narrative sections except the awareness that all is related to the history of the slave trade.
Equally, if not even more, fragmented, The Nature of Blood (1997) is an immensely challenging work. The first half mainly traces the destiny of a Jewish girl who survives Auschwitz but proves unable to return to life. It is told in the form of inner monologue. Abruptly, with no structural markers apart for a couple of blank lines, the story shifts to 15th century Venice and an example of anti-Semitic injustice where false charges arising from wide-spread false ideas about the Jews lead to the execution of three men.
More audaciously, this leads equally abruptly into another first-person narrative, telling a familiar tale as a black prince from Africa (never named) describes his arrival in that same Renaissance Venice, where he briefly encounters the Jews in their Ghetto. The daughter of one of the Venetian rulers invites him to tell her about his life, and they decide to marry without seeking her father's permission just as he is about to be sent to Cyprus to lead the Venetian campaign against the Turk. He realizes that he too is an outsider in white society.
The final section of the book consists of short sections continuing and mingling together all these different strands, together with one new one, the fate of black African Jews from Ethiopia who were brought to Israel but refused recognition. The meditation on the fruits of prejudice is clear but Phillips is master of his craft and this novel is above all a study in human love and pain.
Both the Slave Trade and the Holocaust are areas of popular focus, as Steve Spielberg has perceived in choosing to make such films as Amistad and Schindler's List. In recent fiction we find the Slave Trade winning the 1992 Booker Prize in Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, a novel far less experimental in form than Crossing the River and at 630 pages exceptionally massive. This kind of historical novel is a particular challenge for a writer, since it has to be sufficiently well-documented to recreate a reasonably accurate picture of its setting while telling a story with a plot and characters that hold the reader's interest.
Unsworth's narratorial voice is detached, unlike the first- person narrators of Caryl Phillips' tale. The scope too is vaster, with part of the novel set in a utopian camp in the Floridan jungle where escaped slaves and white sailors live in peaceful harmony serving as a symbol of an alternative possibility to the unspeakable tragedy of slavery. Critics have established connections between Unsworth and the works of William Golding and Joseph Conrad, seeing in his work a continuation of the great English tradition of the sea-story that goes back to Tobias Smollett's Roderick Random if not to Robinson Crusoe. There is also something very classic in the novel's device of a fundamental conflict between the two cousins Paris and Erasmus, which gives unity to the entire tale.
Barry Unsworth is a prolific writer. His Morality Play (1995) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, although it is a far lighter work than Sacred Hunger. Again a historical novel, but this time set in a much more vaguely documented Middle Ages, the fundamental structure is that of the mystery novel, a 'who-dunnit' with the role of the detective supplied by a troupe of wandering players.
As always in such tales, there is a latent polarity of good and evil, an exploration of the strangeness of the destructive violence that claims the lives of the innocent. As in Sacred Hunger, there is a metaphysical dimension of divine absence. The point of view here is given by a first-person narrator, a fugitive young priest who is in revolt against the sterility of the clerical activities he has been asked to undertake. His voice gives immediacy to the narrative, and an added dimension of potential metaphysical interrogation.
Unsworth's latest work, After Hannibal, seems a little disappointing in comparison. Set in contemporary Italy, it shows the dreams and disappointments of a series of 'expatriates' who have come to live in the Italian countryside. Its tone is lightly satirical and although there are echoes of past tragedy, including the Holocaust and wartime atrocities, the novel lacks the power to move of the other works.
The Holocaust is an even more delicate (or impossible) topic for fiction than the slave trade, if only because it is so recent and so very real. Where Caryl Phillips included it in a complex knot of voices, extending as far as Othello's, Martin Amis in Time's Arrow (1991) approaches it directly in the only way we can, from afterwards. The fundamental conceit of this remarkable novel is to make the narrator die in the opening sentences. From that moment on, in a kind of Judgement, he moves through his own life in reverse, devoid of personal memory. He sees events from within his own body, feels what it feels, dreams its dreams, but entirely in reverse, like a film running backwards. He is virtually unaware that this is his own story.
The result is strange, hallucinatory, and the reader is at times forced to concentrate very hard. The backward replay of film or video is a familiar and essentially comic event, as smoke flows into a lengthening cigarette, and people back into cars that then reverse into the distance. Only in this novel the narrator experiences his own entire life history in this manner, and soon forgets that it is reversed.
This reaches its climax in the horrors of his work in the Holocaust, when he is confronted with dead and mutilated bodies which with the passage (backwards) of time return to life. His own actions of destruction and death he then mistakes for works of healing and restoring. Every effect becomes a cause, in a world in which nourishment enters the anus, streams from the mouth onto plates, and is conveyed to shops where the attendants give the customers money. In the camps, mounds of dead bodies are restored to life, mutilated corpses emerge from torture sessions unscarred, phenol and air are sucked out of the veins of the weak. The narrator speaks of his love for the Jews, expressed in this work of life-giving, and the only problem he sees in the Holocaust is one of inefficient organization
The inner observer is brought back to his earliest childhood and the novel ends on a new ambiguity. The last thing he sees is an arrow moving toward him in the proper direction, the suggestion that instead of so much horror his life might have had an alternative history, or rather no history at all, with his death in an accident while still an infant.
Another topic of comparable difficulty must be all that happened in Cambodgia under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. This is the setting that dominates Margaret Drabble's The Gates of Ivory. The third in a trilogy, it was preceded by The Radiant Way (1987) and A Natural Curiosity (1989). Its
basic structure might best be termed a 'quest novel'. A novelist, Stephen Cox, has disappeared in South East Asia and the novel relates both the quest of his friends for news of him, and a privileged narrator's exposition of Stephen's own quest that led to his death by fever among the Khmer Rouge, a death not directly narrated in the text and only confirmed for his friends in a filmed interview with a witness of his death.
The elusive nature of the narrative is represented by the arrival, at the beginning of the novel, of a packet containing ragments of text, notes, and a mysterious finger-bone. The author uses this device to represent certain post-modern attitudes to the reliability (or even possibility) of coherent narrative. The whole novel is marked by a latent awareness of theoretical uncertainty about identity and discourse.
The main quality of this very 'British' exploration of the Cambodgian tragedy lies in its sense of compassion and in the value many of its characters place in trying to discover the truth of events. It explores, as many other of these novels do, the immense divisions that exist within humanity, the seemingly unbridgable differences. It is clearly informed by the author's contact with a number of deeply committed witnesses and owes much to the techniques and tone of international journalistic
investigation. Indeed, some of the book 's major characters are journalists. All in all, this is one of the most ambitious of the decade's novels.
Another writer whose novels might be termed 'ambitious' is A. S. Byatt, who is Margaret Drabble's sister. Her Possession: A Romance won the Booker Prize in 1990 and is certainly one of the decade's major works. It too is marked by an awareness of the uncertain nature of narrative. The central story traced in the work is the very secret love afair between a noted (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and a much less well-known (euqlly fictional) Victorian writer of mythical tales and children's stories Christabel LaMotte.
The framework within which this passionate affair is traced is that of modern academic research, literary biography, with English and American scholars competing for access to documents and applying feminist and other theories to their work while trying to live their own professional and emotional lives as best they can. This framework is, obviously, a mostly comic and satirical one, while the Victorian affair the researchers reconstruct is passionate and intensely painful, even tragic since it drove the woman with whom Christabel LaMotte shared her life, in an early affirmation of unmarried women's rights, to commit suicide.
The reconstruction is done through the quotation of letters, poems, and tales written by the two lovers, as well as a diary kept by Ash's wife and another kept by a cousin of Christabel LaMotte, as well as by journeys following in their footsteps, leading to the village in France where Christabel went to have a child that was assumed to have died at birth. The plot comes to a climax with a scene taken from popular fiction. A box containing the last letter from Christabel to Ash (which he never saw) is dug from Ash's grave in the midst of a terrible storm, all the academic rivals gather and the mystery of Christabel's baby is solved.
Brought up by Christabel's sister as her own child, she turns out to have been the great, great, great grandmother of one of the modern researchers, so that the events of the past are found to be directly linked to those of the present. A gentle coda, indicating that Ash guessed the secret and once met the little girl in question, ends this complex work. Possession is one of the only novels mentioned in this survey to have been translated into Korean.
It is surely a sign of A.S. Byatt's immense talent that two novella - style narratives written while she was preparing Possession, and based on the same research, provided material for another very beautiful volume, Angels and Insects. The first tale, Morpho Eugenia, is a story of 19th century scientific discovery which frames a number of insect fables written by one of the characters. The second, The Conjugal Angel, is centred on seances, and among other references to 19th-century poetry imagines Tennyson's search for the meaning of his love for Arthur Hallam.
expressed in 'In Memoriam'.
In 1996, A. S. Byatt published another huge work, Babel Tower, over 600 pages long. It shows the same intense intelligence as Possession, and a similar delight in pastiche. It is written as the third of a planned quartet of novels, all centered on the life of Frederica, the central character, in later 20th century Britain. The main plot is centered on the breakdown of Frederica's marriage to a socially superior bully, and the struggle for custody of their son.
Interspersed are a series of chapters in a quite different, baroque style from a work called Babbletower. It relates the search of a group of late-medieval utopians for a refuge from the world. They establish a kind of commune in a ruined castle, and radically rewrite the moral code in an epicurean direction, making pleasure the only definition of what is good, with a gradual decline into orgies of cruelty and anarchy. For a long time the reader is not informed about the origin of these pages. Finally they prove to be the work of a strange, marginal drifter figuring in the main plot. Babbletower is published and the author is put on trial for obscenity.
At the same time, Frederica's contested divorce proceedings are evoked. The two trials focus on similar problems: the nature of truth, the possibility of telling it, the basis of values, the essential function of law in society. The modern setting makes this very much a novel of social satire, a reflection on some of the deeper moral and human tensions in the British society of the 1980s. The passionate nature of many of the conflictual emotions portrayed in the novel make it very much a baroque work, not always quite easy to read but ultimately powerful in its portrayal of the multiple voices by which society and individual identity are constructed.
Many recent novels are similarly deeply rooted in the social tensions of modern Britain, in which humanistic values, individual feelings, and the ultimate questions of life, are all subject to revision in the light of so-called Thatcherite values of greed and materialism. Margaret Drabble's recent (1996) The Witch of Exmoor includes an element of light fantasy in its portrayal of a family driven by greed. When the elderly and wealthy writer Frieda Haxby withdraws from family and society into a huge ruined house beside the sea, her son and daughters declare that she is insane. Only her angelic grandson, still a child, can enter her world, which may be seen as that of human values, freedom, and love. In the end, she vanishes and the novel comes to an ambiguous and disturbing ending.
In some ways a similar story is told in Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! (1994) This novel, like many others, incorporates a variety of first-person narratorial voices. The title is that of a popular comedy film, memories of which haunt the novel. The setting varies in time but the action mainly takes place in 1990, as the Gulf War is about to break out. There is a far greater element of black comedy here than in The Witch of Exmoor, and although the main characters are members of a family, they areoften obviously stereotyped in the manner of a popular tale.
The larger part of the novel consists of a variety of narratives, divided into chapters that bear titles alternating between events at particular moments ('August 1990') and various central characters ('Hilary'). The last 80 or so pages bring all the developed strands together into a brilliant narrative as 'Part Two 'An Organization of Deaths'. The story comes to a climax in a series of comically gruesome revenge killings. Finally, readers are confronted with a title page and an editor's Preface to a book that the main character has been writing but which the editor intends to summarize. The first line of her summary is the first sentence of the novel, of which it is the last line.
Jonathan Coe is clearly a master of dark and complex comedy and he followed a similar structure in The House of Sleep (1997) with chapters alternating between 1983-4 and 1996. This novel tells an equally strange if slightly less grotesque story; while it explores themes of reality and
fantasy through its setting in sleep-research center, it is also a love story. Even here, however, it breaks new ground as it follows the seemingly impossible love of Robert for the lesbian Sarah, a problem overcome when Robert finds his true identity as a woman.
While popular romantic fiction rarely figures in academic surveys such as this, the comic novel has been a recognized part of the main British literary tradition since Fielding. One of the most important comic novellists of the last thirty years is David Lodge, and it is perhaps no coincidence that for most of that time he taught English Literature at Birmingham Univeristy and has recently published a volume of studies about writing: The Practice of Writing (1996).
Lodge's work is resolutely turned to the present, full of references to theater, cinema, and television scripts. Some of his novels have been filmed, or turned into plays, and he is experienced in working for TV. Paradise News (1991) and Therapy (1995) are both finely constructed novels which cast a lightly mocking eye on some of the more familiar forms of strangeness of late 20th-century society. Summaries of their plots hardly convey their humane sensitivity. In Paradise News, a priest who has lost his faith and given up his ministry is obliged to fly from England to Hawaii with his ageing father whose sister is dying there. His father has a minor accident and Bernard is left alone to discover the modern version of Paradise, packaged for tourists.
Until this point, Bernard has failed to establish good relationships with women, his only attempt at sexual relationship has recently failed. In Hawaii he meets the estranged wife of an academic, who is a lawyer. She gently initiates him into sexual activity, while he is taking care of his father and his dying aunt. The novel ends with his return to England and the prospect of a continuing relationship with her.
The central part of the story is told in first-person narrative, a form of diary which brings added interiority although the omniscient narrator of the first and last parts is not unsympathetic. The questions of human mortality and the existence of God haunt the margins of the work, which is also given added depth by the discovery that the dying Ursula was abused in childhood by her older brother, something that Bernard's father knew about but refused to acknowledge until finally he and Ursula are able to talk.
Another reconciliation involves Bernard's sister, who flies out to join him. Their relationship has not been good but here they come to a new understanding. David Lodge is a Catholic and a novel such as this is marked by a remarkable degree of faith- derived optimism concerning the possibilities of understanding and love, even in an age of broken marriages and packaged Paradise.
Therapy tells its story in a far more complex way. The main character, Laurence, is the main narrator by way of a compulsively written diary. In the middle, a series of sections are told in first-person from the point of view of the other main characters, including Laurence's platonic girlfriend and his slowly separating wife. We only realize later that these are in fact texts written by Laurence in an attempt to understand what is happening to him. Larence is a television scriptwriter, but the main story is the breakdown of his marriage and his attempt to find reasons for his
He begins to recall a girl he had worshipped when he was a schoolboy. At the end of the novel he succeeds in tracing her, married to the childhood rival for her affections. She is a Catholic and after the death of their son she has left home, apparently for good, and set out on a pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain. Desperate, Laurence finds her there and discovers that she has had a breast removed for cancer, something which her husband cannot accept. The comic conclusion indicates a modern, unconventional but happy solution for all concerned.
The Catholic dimension in these two novels is not revealed in any overt moralizing, but may perhaps be found in the compassion of the observation and in the affirmation of the possibility of finding love despite the wounds left by imperfect childhoods.
Jim Crace is a self-declared atheist and many readers were amazed to find him writing a novel in which Jesus plays a central role. Quarantine was awarded the 1997 Whitbread Prize. This story is set in the Judean desert at the moment when Jesus withdraws for the time of fasting recorded in the Gospels. In no sense a religious work, the story explores dimensions of human suffering and the possibility of choosing meaningful action in the face of it. The skill of the writing, the evocations of a setting remote in time and space, make this a major work.
It seems inevitable that in this survey, in addition to the romantic novel, there will be no place for the detective novel, the whodunnit, despite the continuing publication of new work by such stablished writers as P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. The comic tradition is central. Yet even comedy is not afraid to deal with death, especially the comic fiction of Graham Swift. His finest novel to date, Waterland, dates from the 1980s, but Ever After (1992) and Last Orders (1996) have both been widely acclaimed, and Last Orders won the 1996 Booker Prize.
Ever After is told in the voice of a narrator who has become a fellow of a Cambridge College thanks to the influence of his American step-father. The novel plays a complex game. The narrator, already fifty, is exploring the story of an ancestor who lost his faith in the mid-19th century. At the same time he is trying to understand his own story, and the reasons which drove his father to kill himself. The outcome is an attempted suicide. The whole novel echoes with allusions to Hamlet, as the narrator ponders on the nature of love and the role of failure in human life.
Last Orders tells a simpler story. In a series of chapters told from the point of view of the different characters, it shows a group of old friends taking the ashes of a friend who has died from London down to the sea. These are simple men, whose lives have been uneventful except for their service overseas during the war. They have rarely reflected on how happy they have been. In the course of their journey, which deliberately echoes Chaucer's pilgrims' journey, they find themselves confronted with questions of love, and value, mortality, and the meaning of life.
Last Orders is a neatly-told tale, but it is hard to understand why it received the 1996 Booker, and not Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark, which was shortlisted. Reading in the Dark is an amazingly beautiful first-person narrative set in northern Ireland. It traces the narrator's slow discovery of the tragedies that wounded his parents, and the way in which the shadows of the Irish past lay across his relationship with his parents as he grew up. It is essentially a Northern-Irish tale, and amazingly it is the author's first novel. His previous work is mainly poetry.
A work which many feel should have received the 1995 Booker, Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh certainly confirms the author's position as one of the very greatest story-tellers of the century. This work, like many of his, is heavily marked by fantasy and is the more pleasant for that. It offers a first- person narrative in which the central figure takes us from Cochin to Granada.
The dominant figure in his life is his beautiful but monstrous mother, a famous Indian artist. The novel's title is the title of one of her pictures and derives from the family's early origins in medieval Spain. He himself is a physical monster, victim of a strange condition which makes him grow up and grow old twice as fast as normal. His hand is also malformed, and as a result he spends his life unsure of whether his mother ever felt love towards him. It is a family saga in which Rushdie makes fun of many aspects of modern Indian history, as he often does. The final pages, in which the particular character of the narrative is finally explained, bring together what had until then seemed to be loose ends into a particularly gruesome yet comic ending.
Quite unacceptable for many was the award of the 1997 Booker to Arundhati Roy's first (and perhaps only) novel, The God of Small Things, which feels like a pastiche of Salman Rushdie with none of his fierceness. Most critics would have preferred Bernard Mac Laverty's wonderful novel Grace Notes. Mac Laverty too was born in Northern Ireland, though he now lives in Scotland. The heroine of his novel is an Irish girl. She, like the narrator of Reading in the Dark, suffers from poor communication with her parents. She becomes a pianist and composer, enters into a relationship with a brutal alcoholic from whom she finally escapes.
The central psychological tension of the work is provided by the unrecognized postnatal depression she suffers from after the birth of her daughter. Yet she finds the inner resources to compose a piece of music in which the divisions and hatreds of Northern Ireland are somehow brought into a kind of harmony. Mac Laverty writes with immense skill, capturing the essence of people and places in a kind of latent poetry.
Poetic in a quite different way is Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. Over 500 pages in length, this work seems designed to disconcert those who thought that they knew his main characteristics as a writer from The Remains of the Day, which won the 1989 Booker Prize and became a very successful film. The Unconsoled is told in first-person narrative by a famous pianist who has been invited to participate in a concert in a city somewhere in Europe. In many ways the best word for this Kafkaesque novel is 'dreamlike'. The protagonist encounters a child which turns out to be his own son, and his mother, a woman who is his wife but from whom he is apparently estranged.
This is a novel in which nothing very much ever quite happens. Preparations for the concert are made yet the pianist never quite arrives anywhere. Much time is spent travelling, or waiting, and places quite remote from one another suddenly coincide. The reader is reminded of a dream in which a train has to be caught yet the dreamer never quite gets to the station. The figures have a previous history but the narrator seems unaware of the past and tells us nothing about it. The effect is deeply alienating, yet there are indications of affection, of longing for relationship and kindness. Ishiguro was born in Japan but lived in England from early childhood, his first novels explored this double origin explicitly but now he is clearly launched into what he would term 'international writing'.
Another major writer living in England although not born there is Ben Okri. He was born in Nigeria and affirms his origins much more strongly than Ishiguro. Since winning the 1991 Booker Prize with The Famished Road, he has published several works including Astonishing the Gods (1995) and Dangerous Love (1996). His style is very unlike that of any other writer so far seen. He refers to the African tale-telling traditions but equally important is the western tradition of symbolic and visionary fiction, he is almost as much a poet as a novellist.
The last novels in this survey bring us back to the comic mode. Tibor Fischer was born in England, but of Hungarian parents, whence the un-British name. His first novel, Under the Frog, shortlisted for the 1993 Booker, recreates life in a Hungary he never knew, from the end of the war in 1944 to the tragic events of 1956. The humour is sharp and highly enjoyable. and the gradual rise of emotional intensity is skillfully handled, as the main character, Gyuri, slowly falls in love with a Polish girl, only to see her die when the Russian tanks enter Budapest.
Very different but also very amusing, The Collector Collector (1997) has the most unexpected narratorial voice possible. The entire novel is told from the point of view of an ancient poet, in fact the archetypal ancient pot, capable of transforming itself into a variety of forms and of mending itself if broken. It witnesses life in modern England with the benefit of centuries of accumulated experience. The main story line is therefore interrupted by a series of little tales from the pot's memories of its past. This novel is particularly important because it gives expression to an anarchic and surrealist aspect of British comedy that virtually none of the novels so far seen reflects adequately.
Kate Atkinson sprang to public attention when her first full-length novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, became the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year. In 1997 she published Human Croquet, which is in some ways a similar work. Both are self-consciously literary, scattered with lines and echoes from works of older English literature, mostly poetry. At the same time, she too offers glimpses of a surreal and unstable world where fantasy mingles with realism, threatening it at every turn.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a complicated reconstruction of the life of a family over about a century, told in a series of thirteen first-person narrated chapters, all but the last of which is followed by an additional third-person narrated 'Footnote'.
The main narrator, Ruby, takes the reader through her life from the moment of her conception. The novel plays in jovial ways with the theme of lost memories and it is only far into the work that a serious note intervenes, as Ruby slowly discovers that she had a twin sister, Pearl, who died when they were still very small. It emerges that Ruby had been accused by her elder sister, wrongly, of having caused Pearl to drown. In actual fact it was the sister who had been to blame. Much of the story's comedy comes from the extrememly tough-minded attitudes of the family members to one another, but the moments in which Ruby comes to terms with what happened to her are deeply touching.
It may be felt that Human Croquet plays with too many too similar devices, but it is certainly a very effective work. Again the novel moves between past and present, being divided into sections marked Past and Present in place of regular chapters. At the very beginning the narratorial voice defines itself wittily: 'I am the alpha and omega of narrators (I am Omniscient) and I know the beginning and end. The beginning is the world and the end is silence. And in between are all the stories. This is one of mine.' All fictional narrators might say the same.
Having thus declared its independence from realistic constraints, the narrator tells dark comedy in a confusing variety tales, the main one of growing up after her mother was murdered in the course of a forest picnic. Later there are a series of stories which all come to an end as she is knocked down by a car driven by the local boy she desires. Another strand has her relocated into the time of Elizabeth I and involved in an affair with the lord of the Manor House that stood near their home in that time. It is not quite clear if the humour can excuse the structural confusion.
Far finer, because less intent on surprising, from a well-established novellist, is Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (1997). Carey won the 1989 Booker Prize for his Oscar and Lucinda. Jack Maggs is on the surface a historical novel, set in 1837 London, telling of the secret return from Australia of
the banished criminal Jack Maggs. It emerges that Maggs has made good in his new life, and has been sending funds to a son he left behind. Father and son have been corresponding for years and now the father is eager to see his grown son. Only the son has gone into hiding on hearing of his
father's intended visit. Maggs has to maintain his disguise, so takes a job as servant in a house next to his son's, where his identity is slowly discovered by use of hypnosis.
The hypnotist, the author Tobias Oates, intends to use Maggs' tale in a work of his own. A domestic tragedy engulfs Oates' family while Maggs is left unaware that the son he hopes to meet is in fact hopelessly debauched. The loving letters he received in Australia were deliberately written in
such a way as to fulfill his dreams and get as much money as possible. The outcome of the climax, in which father and son finally come face to face, remains ambiguous and Maggs returns to Australia with a new wife, Mercy, an orphan serving in the same household.
The enjoyment of the hidden dimension of the novel depends on the reader recognizing its links with Dickens' Great Expectations. Maggs is a variant of Magwitch, and his son Phipps can be compared with Pip. On the last page, we learn that Tobias Oates finally published his version of Maggs' story in 1860, the year in which Dickens published Great Expectations.
Finally, one of Britain's most widely admired writers, Doris Lessing, published in Love, Again what may well be the most beautifully written and finely observed novel of the decade. A woman already in her sixties, after twenty years of busy professional life during which she has had no husband or sexual partners, Sarah suddenly finds herself wildly in love, in various ways more or less physical, with a number of younger men who are equally in love with her.
The story is made more complex by being set in a theatrical context. A play is being produced based on the story of a 19th-century French woman's romantic story; she was loved and abandoned for reasons of social respectability, and came to a tragic end after composing music of great beauty.
The novel explores with immense sensitivity the way in which romantic and sexual love survives undiminished into a woman's later years. At the same time, it reflects on the psychic torment certain people undergo within themselves at times of deep depression, a torment shared by the novel's main character and another male character who in the end chooses suicide as the only escape.
Of British Poetry published since 1990, there
would be very much to be said, and there is little room to say it in. It
is ironic that Oxford University Press published its (much-criticized)
encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English
already in 1994, as though nothing significant could be expected to emerge
in the last years of the century, although In 1993 Bloodaxe published an
anthology with the title The New Poetry, containing poems by over
sixty promising poets 'of the 80s and 90s.' This had a considerable impact
on public awareness of poetry but suffered from an inevitable lack of focus.
It is simply not possible to trace anything common uniting so many poets.
In Spring 1994, the Poetry Review published a special issue entitled 'New Generation Poets' which pinpointed twenty of Britain's younger poets for special attention. They are the poets whose work is marked with an asterisk in the lists below, plus David Dabydeen, Elizabeth Garrett, Michael Donaghy, John Burnside, and Mick Imlah. Yet Peter Forbes, trying to justify this selection at the start of the issue, found it impossible to define any unifying characteristic, and indeed could not even justify the selection on any certain grounds of poetic superiority. It was simply that these were young poets he found interesting. This suggests that promotion of the commercial kind is playing a role, at a time when many people hesitate to affirm their personal preferences in terms of 'better poetry'.
The Poetry Review, published by the Poetry Society, continues to be the most widely-read poetry journal. It is at times criticized for systematically promoting a certain number of poets and publishers, a certain kind of rather too 'clever' poetry. There are many other reviews and magazines publishing poetry either exclusively or in combination with fiction. One important development in modern poetry is the growth of Performance Poetry, where many of the best-known poets are of
Afro-Carribean descent. Poetry reading in pubs, parks, and on the street-side has become much more popular than it ever was before. The poetry-posters on the London Underground have enerated a new awareness of poetry among a wide public. There are also inceasing numbers of poetry competitions open to all.
The Nobel Prize awarded to Seamus Heaney was widely acclaimed. He is officially an Irish poet but very well-known in Britain; he was born and until recently lived in Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom. It was almost inevitable that the new volume of poems he published
soon after receiving the Nobel Prize, The Spirit Level, should be felt to be rather disappointing, although many of its poems must have been written before the Prize was announced. Another extremely popular poet is Ted Hughes, the British Poet Laureate, whose Tales from Ovid were awarded the 1997 Whitbread Prize.
Hughes's 1998 collection of poems about his relationship with Sylvia Plath, Birthday Letters, has been a best-seller, although for reasons that may have less to do with the quality of the poems than with the continuing public fascination with the drama of Plath's life and suicide. The poems
themselves form a remarkable collection, although individual poems vary greatly in impact. Some are certainly very powerful records of complex emotional moments in an intensely personal relationship.
Certain senior poets have produced new collections at an age when they might be expected to have completed their life's work: R. S. Thomas, Charles Causely, John Heath-Stubbs, Iain Crichton Smith. R. S. Thomas, now eighty-five, in particular intrigues by his austere grumpiness. In many ways his more recent poetry is often unconvincing, full of quirky phrases and repetitions, but he is still a remarkable poet. He writes poetry in English but composed his Autobiographies in the Welsh language that he only learned as an adult. It was finally published in an English translation in
1997. His central concern in it is to establish the reasons why he could never write poetry in Welsh, when he has increasingly identified himself with Welsh nationalist sentiment. Certain sections are strikingly well-written and thoughtful.
Regional identity, this time Scottish, only indirectly characterizes the work of Iain Crichton Smith, whose Collected Poems were published in 1992. Born in 1925 in Glasgow, he grew up in the island of Lewis, and he continues to write poetry in Gaelic as well as English. One of the rare
poets who is equally at ease writing fiction, he has given expression to the tensions originating in a childhood marked by rigid puritanism ('Law' as opposed to 'Grace'). His latest remarkably large collection Ends and Beginnings contains a number of poems inspired by journeys in the Middle
East, but the dominant mood is elegaic, in elegant poems full of memories from childhood and youth.
John Heath-Stubbs has continued to write and publish as he approaches his eightieth year (he was born in 1918). He may well be considered England's senior poet. His work combines a dry humour and sharp intelligence with an occasional use of certain traditional forms. Many poems in Galileo's Salad, including the title poem, turn around the question of chance and meaning, for John Heath-Stubbs will not let the hope of faith disappear. In this he comes close at times to R. S. Thomas, in his dissatisfaction with the simple atheisms of an overly mechanical cosmic
view. Christopher Logue, too, is a poet advancing in years (he was born in 1926) who has maintained his distinctive voice and still publishes resounding work. In his youth he helped Europe discover Neruda, and like him wrote on contemporary events in a popular style. Recently he has
published three volumes, The Husbands being the most recent, in which he retells with great verve incidents from the Odyssey.
One other poet of an older generation who continues to publish is U. A. Fanthorpe. Born in 1929, her work is light yet serious, witty and profound. Mostly she evokes experiences of ordinary life in a simple language, creating poems that convey obliquely themes of mutability and death. In Safe as Houses a variety of houses and their inhabitants, real and fictional, become metaphors for the world and the way people experience it.
One of the most highly esteemed of all British poets now alive, Geoffrey Hill, recently produced a slim new collection, Canaan, which provoked strongly divergent critical responses. Hill has written only a small number of poems, and he is a fiercely uncompromising writer. His conviction that the poet has a duty to address social issues in prophetic tones inherited from Milton and Blake dominates Canaan, sometimes to unfortunate effect, but it also contains poems of immense lyrical beauty. Hill is probably the most difficult and the most rewarding British poet of
the present time.
Yet for many readers Hill is dauntingly remote, resolute in his unwillingness to communicate lightly. A far more accessible poet, and one with far greater influence on younger writers, was Jon Silkin. Born in 1930, his sudden death in 1997 was a great loss. He came from the world of manual labour and poverty; he founded the literary magazine Stand and served as its editor for several decades. His poetry is mannered, indicative of an acute sensitivity, and has a sharp sense of the great divisions in the world. He was always concerned with the suffering of the small and fragile, his poems often dramatize the political issues by which people are brought to pain. His own Jewishness was only one aspect of his awareness of what it was to be a victim of exclusion.
Another intensely 'political' poet of considerable power is Tony Harrison, most well-known for his television version of "V", a poem about social divisions and violence, set in a Liverpool cemetery and written during the miners' strike of 1984-5. HIs work for the theatre has gone hand in hand with his career as a poet and for many critics he is one of the most important poets of the century.
Many readers of contemporary British poetry feel unsure of the nature of the 'poetic' and rarely venture to express doubts as to the deeper value of what is being published. Yet it might seem that much too much personal and private material is being put onto the page, without enough work on the lyrical, musical, and formal aspects. Modern British poetry is often not very 'poetic', although it is often much more accessible than the difficult works of earlier decades.
A number of poets who began to write in the 1970s and 1980s have established themselves as leading figures in modern British poetry: Adrian Mitchell, Douglas Dunn, Tom Paulin, Andrew Motion, and James Fenton. It is striking that there is a strong note of social concern in much of these poets' work. Women's voices too have become very strong, as can be seen from the number of women poets in the lists below. Many write, with an awareness of their gender, about specifically female life-experiences. Jo Shapcott and Carol Ann Duffy are the two names that immediately spring to mind here among established poets. Wendy Cope is unusual in combining an
awareness of her female gender with a powerful and iconoclastic sense of humour. In a number of poems she speaks in a male persona, Jake Strugnell, who at times comes close to being a pale shadow of Philip Larkin in some truly dreadful poems.
Several of the New Generation poets, interviewed by Peter Forbes, expressed a feeling that contemporary American poetry is far more interesting and worth reading than their own. This may reflect a widespread crisis of national confidence, for the same is often said of fiction, something that Valentine Cunningham deplores in his article surveying fiction in the most recent number of the British Council's Literature Matters. It is true that Britain has no Pynchon, Updike, Bellow, or DeLillo, but their way of writing is not necessarily the best. Elizabeth Bishop was a very fine poet, too, but she died in 1979 and it is very odd that so many of the New Generation poets attribute major influence to her.
One poet who has in some ways solved the problem of transatlantic influence is Thom Gunn, who moved to California in 1954, after publishing one volume of poems while still a Cambridge undergraduate. His recent (1992) The Man with Night Sweats received widespread attention as being the first fully developed treatment of Aids in poetry. Another poet living in the United States is Paul Muldoon, whose The Annals of Chile received the Whitbread Prize in 1995. The second part consists of a sequence, 'Yarrow' evoking childhood in a series of brief lyrics undivided by titles. Geoffrey Hill also lives in the US since 1988 and has been criticized accordingly, since he writes poems centered on British social and political issues.
While most poets are writing in a entirely free form, it should be noted that the traditional sonnet continues to be seen as a reference and is found echoing in many volumes, most powerfully perhaps in Geoffrey Hill's Canaan, although there are few poets today prepared to follow Roy
Fuller's Available for Dreams (Harvill, 1989) in which all the poems are varieties of sonnet. Rhyme is still practiced in some places, not always for an amusing effect, and formal experiments still have their appeal.
Generally speaking, the contemporary British poetry which is published commercially (for there are very many people writing poetry who cannot find a publisher) is marked by certain very general characteristics. The poem very often echoes a moment of private experience familiar to many. The
anecdotal ordinary is preferred to the developed sublime. The tone is witty and the style brittle. The British seem generally to have developed a dislike for the over-serious and the over-devloped. A self-mocking tone is preferred. While Ted Hughes has continued the D.H. Lawrence tradition of 'insect poetry' most poets shun nature in favour of urban settings and experience.
Beyond any such generalities, of strictly limited interest, stretch thousands of individual poems waiting to be enjoyed. Poetry today is mainly written now to give pleasure, even though it is often expressed in that 'wry smile' by which we recognize the loss of the truly wonderful, the quiet exit of the gods from most peoples' lives. The British tradition of Wit lives on and there are many genuinely comic poets. The exhuberence of Glyn Maxwell and the intense intelligence of Ian Duhig, the asperity of Kate Clanchy, and the deeper tranquillity of Lavinia Greenlaw show that today too British poetry is vividly alive in its younger poets.
One sign that there is no longer any point in separating out a putative 'British poetic tradition' was the publication in 1996 of Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney (Faber). In the pages of this delightful anthology, poems written in English in every corner of the world are brought together in a kaleidescope of voices. For the main task poets are expected to perform, today as ever, is to open the reader's eyes to life in all its strangeness. That is perhaps the only way in which many people today can experience a sense of wonder.
Given the widespread unawareness in Korea of contemporary British poetry, this survey will simply conclude with a list of a few of the volumes of poetry published in Britain since 1990. Almost all of them have been selected by the Poetry Book Society for their recommendation, which is usually based on criteria close to those embodied in the Poetry Review. However, since the selection is only made on the basis of works submitted to the PBS in advance of publication, a number of important volumes are not included. This list will at least suggest which writers have been most productive and it is hoped that it, and this whole survey, may serve to encourage more people to focus on contemporary British writing in their research and dissertation-writing activities.
Poets with well-established critical reputations from the 1980s
or before are indicated with a +
(* indicates the Poetry Review's 'New Generation Poets')
+ Fleur Adock. Time-Zones. Oxford. 1991
Ida Affleck Graves. A Kind Husband. Oxford. 1994
Fergus Allen. Who Goes There? Bloodaxe. 1996
* Moniza Alvi. The Country At My Shoulder. Oxford. 1993
* Simon Armitage. Kid. Faber. 1992
* Simon Armitage. The Dead Sea Poems. Faber. 1995
Elizabeth Bartlett. Two Women Dancing. Bloodaxe. 1995.
Patricia Beer. Friend of Herclitus. Carcanet. 1992
Sujata Bhatt. Monkey Shadows. Carcanet. 1991
Eaven Boland. In a Time of Violence. Carcanet. 1994
Jacqueline Brown. In A Woman's Likeness. Arc. 1996
Duncan Bush. Masks. Seren. 1994
Anne Carson. Glass and God. Cape. 1998
+ Ciaran Carson. First Language. Gallery. 1993
+ Ciaran Carson. Opera Et Cetera. Bloodaxe. 1996
+ Charles Causley. Collected Poems 1951-1997 Macmillan. 1997
George Charlton. City of Dog. Bloodaxe. 1994
Kate Clanchy. Slattern. Chatto. 1996
Gillian Clarke. The King of Britain's Daughter. Carcanet. 1993
Harry Clifton. The Desert Route. Gallery. 1992
+ David Constantine. Selected Poems. Carcanet. 1991
Wendy Cope. Serious Concerns. Faber. 1992
Julia Copus. The Shuttered Eye. Bloodaxe. 1995
* Robert Crawford. Talkies. Chatto. 1992
* Robert Crawford. Masculinity. Cape. 1996
Fred D'Aguiar. Bill of Rights. Chatto & Windus. 1998
Peter Didsbury. That Old-Time Religion. Bloodaxe. 1994
Maura Dooley. Explaining Magnetism. Bloodaxe. 1991
Maura Dooley. Kissing A Bone. Bloodaxe. 1996
* Carol Ann Duffy. Mean Time. Anvil. 1993
* Ian Duhig. The Bradford Count. Bloodaxe. 1991
* Ian Duhig. The Mersey Goldfish. Bloodaxe. 1995
Helen Dunmore. Short Days, Long Nights. Bloodaxe. 1991
Helen Dunmore. Bestiary. Bloodaxe. 1997
+ Douglas Dunn. Dante's Drumkit. Faber. 1993
+ Paul Durcan. A Snail In My Prime. Harvill. 1993
+ Paul Durcan. Christmas Day. Harvill. 1996
+ G. F. Dutton. The Concrete Garden. Bloodaxe. 1991
+ U. A. Fanthorpe. Neck-Verse. Peterloo. 1992
+ U. A. Fanthorpe. Safe As Houses. Peterloo. 1995
Paul Farley. The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You. Picador. 1998
+ James Fenton. Out of Danger. Penguin. 1993
Linda France. Gentleness of The Very Tall. Bloodaxe. 1994
Gary Geddes. Active Trading. Peterloo. 1996
John Glenday. Undark. Blloodaxe. 1995
John Gohorry. Talk inot the Late Evening. Peterloo. 1992
* Lavinia Greenlaw. Night Photograph. Faber. 1993
+ Thom Gunn. Man With Night Sweats. Faber. 1992
+ Tony Harrison. The Gaze of the Gorgon. Bloodaxe. 1992
+ Tony Harrison. Selected Poems. Penguin Books. 1995
David Harsent. A Bird's Idea of Flight. Faber. 1998
+ Seamus Heaney. The Spirit Level. Faber. 1996
+ John Heath-Stubbs. Galileo's Salad. Carcarnet. 1996
* W. N. Herbert. Forked Tongue. Bloodaxe. 1994
Rita Ann Higgins. Sunny Side Plucked. Bloodaxe. 1996
+ Geoffrey Hill. Canaan. Penguin. 1996
Selima Hill. Trembling Hearts. Bloodaxe. 1994
Selima Hill. Violet. Bloodaxe. 1997
Tobias Hill. Midnight in the City of Clocks. OUP. 1996
* Michael Hoffmann. Corona, Corona. Faber. 1993
+ Ted Hughes. New Selected Poems 1957-1994. Faber. 1995
+ Ted Hughes. Tales From Ovid. Faber. 1997
+ Ted Hughes. Birthday Letters. Faber. 1998
* Kathleen Jamie. The Queen of Sheba. Bloodaxe. 1994
+ P. J. Kavanagh. Collected Poems. Carcanet. 1992
John Kinsella. The Hunt & Other Poems. Bloodaxe. 1998
Stephen Knight. Flowering Limbs. Bloodaxe. 1993
Michael Laskey. Thinking of Happiness. Peterloo. 1991
Geoffrey Lehmann. Spring Forest. Faber. 1994
Gwyneth Lewis. Zero Gravity. Bloodaxe. 1998
+ Christopher Logue. The Husbands. Faber. 1994
Michael Longley. The Ghost Orchard. Cape. 1995
+ Norman MacCaig. Selected Poems. Chatto & Windus. 1997
Barry MacSweeney. The Book of Demons. Bloodaxe. 1997
* Sarah Maguire. Spilt Milk. Secker. 1991
* Glyn Maxwell. Out of the Rain. Bloodaxe. 1992
* Glyn Maxwell. Rest for the Wicked. Bloodaxe. 1995
Medbh McGuckian. Selected Poems 1978-1994. Gallery Books. 1997
* Jamie McKendrick. The Sirocco Room. OUP. 1991
+ Adrian Mitchell. Blue Coffee. Bloodaxe. 1996
Graham Mort. Circular Breathing. Dangaroo. 1997
+ Andrew Motion. Salt Water. Faber. 1997
+ Paul Muldoon. The Annals of Chile. Faber. 1994
+ Les Murray. Translations/Natural World. Carcanet. 1993
+ Les Murray. Subhuman Redneck Poems. Carcanet. 1996
Dorothy Nimmo. The Children's Game. Smith/Doorstop Books. 1998
Sean O'Brien. HMS Glasshouse. OUP. 1991
Julie O'Callaghan. What's What. Bloodaxe. 1991
Bernard O'Donoghue. Gunpowder. Chatto. 1995
Sharon Olds. The Wellspring. Cape. 1996
Alice Oswald. The Gap-Stone Stile. OUP. 1996
Ruth Padel. Angel. Bloodaxe. 1993
Ruth Padel. Rembrandt Would Have Loved You. Chatto & Windus. 1998
* Don Paterson. Nil Nil. Faber. 1993
* Don Paterson. God's Gift to Women. Faber. 1997
+ Tom Paulin. Selected Poems. Faber. 1993
+ Tom Paulin. Walking a Line. Faber. 1994
Mario Petrucci. Shrapnel and Sheets. Headland. 1996
Katherine Pierpoint. Truffle Beds. Faber. 1995
+ Peter Porter. Millennial Fables. OUP. 1994
+ Peter Porter. Dragons In Their Pleasant Palaces. OUP. 1997
Vicki Raymond. Selected Poems. Carcanet. 1993
+ Peter Reading. Work in Regress. Bloodaxe. 1997
Peter Redgrove. Assembling a Ghost. Cape. 1996
Christopher Reid. In the Echoey Tunnle. Faber. 1991
Oliver Reynolds. The Oslo Tram. Faber. 1991
Maurice Riordan. A Word From The Loki. Faber. 1995
Neil Rollinson. A Spillage of Mercury. Cape. 1996
Stephen Romer. Plato's Ladder. OUP. 1992
Anne Rouse. Sunset Grill. Bloodaxe. 1993
Anne Rouse. Timing. Bloodaxe. 1997
Carol Rumens. Best China Sky. Bloodaxe. 1995
Eva Salzman. The English Earthquake. Bloodaxe. 1992
Carole Satyamurti. Striking Distance. OUP. 1994
+ E. J. Scovell. Selected Poems. Carcarnet. 1991
+ Jo Shapcott. Phrase Book. OUP. 1992
+ Jo Shapcott/M. Sweeney. Emergency Kit. Faber. 1996
+ Harvey Shapiro. Selected Poems. Carcanet. 1997
Penelope Shuttle. Selected Poems 1980-1996. Oxford. 1998
+ Jon Silkin. The Lens Breakers. Sinclair-Stevenson. 1992
Charles Simic. Frightening Toys. Faber. 1995
Charles Simic. Looking for Trouble. Faber. 1997
Iain Crichton Smith. Ends and Beginnings. Carcanet. 1994
Ken Smith. Tender to the Queen of Spain. Bloodaxe. 1993
* Pauline Stainer. Sighting the Slave Ship. Bloodaxe. 1992
* Pauline Stainer. The Ice-Pilot Speaks. Bloodaxe. 1994
Anne Stevenson. Four & A Half Dancing Men. OUP. 1993
Matthew Sweeney. Cacti. Secker. 1992
Matthew Sweeney. The Bridal Suite. Cape Poetry. 1997
+ George Szirtes. Bridge Passages. Oxford. 1991
+ George Szirtes. Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape. Oxford.
+ R. S. Thomas. Collected Poems. J.M.Dent. 1993
+ R. S. Thomas. No Truce With The Furies. Bloodaxe. 1995
Chase Twichell. Perdido. Faber. 1992
Chase Twichell. The Ghost of Eden. Faber. 1995
+ Derek Walcott. Omeros. Faber. 1990
Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Rungs of Time. OUP. 1993
* Susan Wicks. Singing Underwater. Faber. 1992
* Susan Wicks. The Clever Daughter. Faber. 1996
John Hartley Williams. Canada. Bloodaxe. 1997
Jackie Wills. Powder Tower. Arc. 1995
Gerard Woodward. After the Deafening. Chatto. 1994
Glyn Wright. Could Have Been Funny. Spike. 1995
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