That Pushed the Boundaries; READERS' LIVESNovels Michael Cawood Green Is a Novelist and Professor in English and Creative Writing at Northumbria University. He Has Written a Study of Uses of History in South African Fiction and Two Works of Historical Fiction, Sinking (Penguin) and for the Sake of Silence (Quartet Books)

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That Pushed the Boundaries; READERS' LIVESNovels Michael Cawood Green Is a Novelist and Professor in English and Creative Writing at Northumbria University. He Has Written a Study of Uses of History in South African Fiction and Two Works of Historical Fiction, Sinking (Penguin) and for the Sake of Silence (Quartet Books)


The Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott (Robert Cadell, 1829-33) The limits of 'subject packaging' resulted in my not being able to take history at school or university. This is possibly the reason it is such a passionate part of my work and writing; the historical autodidact I became at an early age has stayed with me. I raided the historical fiction section of the Second World War prefab hut that served as the library in the small South African town in which I grew up, taking in great swathes of entirely unrelated historical periods and places. Waverley itself will do as a representative example (although I'd probably have to confess to reading many less respectable historical romances), and Scott's novels taught me to appreciate fiction in which the characters' lives were generated by the history they were a part of. In them, the past is never reduced to colourful background, an exotic location for romance and adventure.

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (Random House, 1942) I did an MA at Stanford University on John Hawkes, whose novels have not stayed with me, although his manifesto has: "I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme," he wrote, replacing these with "totality of vision or structure". I continue to admire experimental writers with a self-reflexive social commitment that problematises easy judgements. No one exemplifies this better than William Faulkner: as a South African of a certain age, race, and gender, I cannot help but feel to the bone his understanding of the necessary failure that comes of being born into an utterly compromised history. Ike McCaslin's betrayal in Go Down Moses of the principles he has sacrificed so much for - as the result of holding to those very principles - remains one of the finest evocations in fiction of the difficulties of negotiating history. The novel itself (and it is a novel, despite looking like seven short stories) is a thing of beauty, from its shimmering prose to the finely balanced structure one must work out for oneself, rather than passively consume.

Dusklands by JM Coetzee (Secker and Warburg, 1974) Many of the works that should have taught me to understand the present I was living in as history were banned or suppressed by the Apartheid state. Virtually no South African authors were included in my university English courses, but while I was in my first year of study, JM Coetzee published his first novel, Dusklands. This contained one of his few excursions into historical fiction, but the arc of novels that followed mapped an intellectual and creative terrain that forever changed how one thought and felt about history. His writing appeared to set itself against the dominance of history as a mode through which to understand ourselves and society, but what it did was challenge and extend that relationship with the most finely honed ethical sense, transformed imaginatively into harrowing stories. …

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That Pushed the Boundaries; READERS' LIVESNovels Michael Cawood Green Is a Novelist and Professor in English and Creative Writing at Northumbria University. He Has Written a Study of Uses of History in South African Fiction and Two Works of Historical Fiction, Sinking (Penguin) and for the Sake of Silence (Quartet Books)
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