Academic journal article ARIEL

The Poetics of (In)visibility: A Stylistic Analysis of Caryl Phillips' Foreigners: Three English Lives

Academic journal article ARIEL

The Poetics of (In)visibility: A Stylistic Analysis of Caryl Phillips' Foreigners: Three English Lives

Article excerpt

Abstract: Caryl Phillips' multi-voiced texts have often been studied through the lens of Bakhtinian polyphony. In this essay, 1 focus on the volume of fictionalized biographies Foreigners: Three English Lives (2007) to demonstrate that polyphony in Phillips' work resides not only in the structural confrontation of characters' and narrators' voices but also in the subtle inscription of the implied author's subjectivity within his texts. Borrowing methods from the discipline of stylistics, I first establish through a focus on the use of adjectives and modality (that is, grammatical means indicating how speakers position themselves in relation to propositions) in the opening section of Foreigners, "Dr Johnson's Watch," how the first-person narrator gradually transitions from tentativeness to self-confidence. This change enables the implied author, on the one hand, to expose the thwarted logic of the colonially tinted discourse of his eighteenth-century narrator and, on the other, to reflect on the process of ideological encoding inherent in the writing of historiography. Such an investigation based on modality further allows me to challenge the critical consensus that the second section of the book, "Made in Wales," is a straightforward factual account. I suggest that the story of the rise and fall of mixed-race boxer Randolph Turpin is in fact a highly polyphonic narrative that features increasingly marked clashes in modality and point of view. These clashes, I argue, draw attention to the construction of historiographical discourse deceptively made to appear so commonsense by the narrator of "Dr Johnson's Watch."

Keywords: Caryl Phillips, Foreigners, Bakhtin, polyphony, stylistics, modality


The problem with every story is not the story, it's how to tell the story.

Caryl Phillips qtd. in John McLeod, "'Who are you calling a foreigner?'" (288)

"But what is it?" Thus Evelyn O'Callaghan reports the words of the historian she consulted while doing research on Caryl Phillips' novel Cambridge (1991), a narrative O'Callaghan describes as "a hybrid, syncretic fabrication" (40) that largely relies on a "pastiche" of historical travel journals (36). Similarly puzzled reactions have greeted the publication of Phillips' Foreigners: Three English Lives (2007), a book said to be "generically unpindownable, midway between an essay and a novel" (Ledent, "Determinism" 84), which imaginatively retraces the lives of three black men who lived in England between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries: Samuel Johnson's Jamaican servant Francis Barber, the mixed-race boxer Randolph Turpin, and the Nigerian immigrant David Oluwale.

For the seasoned reader of Phillips' work, however, any sense of bewilderment over the generic ambiguity of Foreigners is likely associated with a paradoxical feeling of recognition because a blurring of boundaries between the realms of fiction and non-fiction as well as a combination of different genres under the same cover are some of the writer's most conspicuous trademarks. Cambridge is an early example; a later text worthy of note is Dancing in the Dark (2005), a novel that reconstructs the life of vaudeville artiste Bert Williams, alternating between imagined recreations of the protagonist's introspective moments and real archival material, including song lyrics and newspaper reports. Interestingly, even Phillips' novels that are regarded as purely fictional often bear traces of non-fictional texts--for example, the author alludes to Anne Frank's diary in Higher Ground (1989) and The Nature of Blood (1997) and adapts excerpts from Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative across A Distant Shore (2003). (1)

The variety of sources Phillips uses in his novels is but one element that testifies to his reliance on polyphony, a concept Mikhail Bakhtin defines as "[a] plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses' co-existing within a single text (Poetics 6; emphasis in original). …

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