England, Your England
Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)
ENGLAND, ENGLAND Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 266pp, [pounds]15.99
Another autumn, another rush of new novels. But are any of them any good? New Statesman writers grapple with established reputations and spotlight emerging talent
There is something about the present, Virginia Woolf once wrote, which we would not exchange, though we were offered a choice of all past ages to live in. Nowadays, it seems, most of our novelists would disagree, preferring to be anywhere but here and now. The twin engines driving so much of our contemporary fiction have long been an enfeebled social realism, with its comedies of manners and class, and an introverted turning away from the present of Woolf's fond recall.
The dominant mood of many literary novels is either ironic, as in the work of Julian Barnes, or retrospective, not experimental; nostalgic rather than speculative. An inability to picture ourselves in the present and near future, and a dwelling on what Roger Scruton calls that lingering backward glance that can never be recovered, is echoed in the preponderance of historical novels which, each season, diligently recycle many of the same themes: the instability of the past, the centrality of memory, the unreliability of historical narrative, the reclamation of lost lives.
This autumn is no exception, for over the hill here they all come again: novels about the first and second world wars, about the historic wound of slavery; novels of ventriloquism and pastiche set in foggy 18th- and 19th-century cities; novels through which our writers indulge their passion for sticking on sideburns and false beards, and dressing up in the garments of distant centuries.
The present is not a vacuum; it will always carry the imprint of the past. Yet what lies behind this turning away from the defining particulars of our time? What is it about contemporary reality that so many writers are unwilling - or unable - to document in fiction? As Sebastian Faulks, a leading historical novelist, told me in a recent interview: "The only way, it seems, that an English novelist can write satisfactorily about the present is in a surreal way . . . If a British novelist writes realistically about the present the result is usually banal, uninteresting or reads like a style piece . . . Something in our culture is self-mocking. If you say the word 'Stoke' everyone starts laughing; but if you say 'Chicago' they are impressed."
Faulks is surely right; and there is no more culturally self-mocking writer than Julian Barnes, the arch ironist of English letters. England, England is Barnes's eighth and certainly his worst novel. But it is an interesting failure. For a start, it is the latest in a series of recent fictions explicitly referring to England or Englishness in their titles. English Settlement, DJ Taylor's attempt to see contemporary London through the eyes of a young American visitor; English Music, Peter Ackroyd's swooning study of a green and fair English countryside, with its network of ley lines and random connections; State of England, Martin Amis's long short story about a school sports day, with its carnival of mobile phone-clutching grotesques; and now Julian Barnes's England, England - it is as if, for these writers, the act of naming was itself an act of reification, of bringing the country to urgent life. But it's not enough simply to flag your intention to write about England; you must have something to say, you must burrow beneath the thin topsoil of national stereotype and cliche.
The novel, Balzac once wrote, can act as a secret history of a nation; Barnes, boldly, has attempted to write not so much a secret as an explicit history of his own nation, a land whose present government is so terrified of the taint of the past that the prefix "new" acquires a radical lustre, and its ministers have the spontaneity of canned laughter.
England, England is set in an indeterminate future, when the British union has collapsed and Old England, as it is now known, is reduced to a condition of willed antiquarianism: destitute, broken, hag-ridden by the past and surviving as no more than a giant theme park, a leaking vessel of mass depopulation. …