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Mick Jagger’s inaccurate passport. Note, ‘Dartford’, not ‘crossfire hurricane’.

I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘How to Read Literature’. Terry Eagleton was once one of academia’s most interesting and, if you can believe it, entertaining writers on literary theory: a bullish Marxist who put the catholic into Roman Catholic. His most famous book, ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983) remains a scalpel sharp critical history of the field, and to its everlasting credit, it makes you laugh too. ‘How to Read Literature’ (2013) is a much more accessible if timid read, intended as a kind of instruction manual for students of close reading, a sensitive account of different ways of reading a text. I mention it because in it Eagleton writes an interesting chapter on the openings of novels. He begins by circling around this opening line from EM Forster’s A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves— and they are twenty miles off— the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.

His analysis of this line—which you’ll have to read the book for—stirs a broader commentary about novelistic beginnings:

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader’s eye, and occasionally pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must be beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilized middle-class Englishman like EM Forster who values reticence and indirectness…

The poise of the syntax… is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or of what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.  

Reading this made me reflect on the opening of Barry’s novel. Eagleton, of course, is right about the beginnings of novels. It’s something every GCSE English teacher cynically preaches to his students when asking them to write creatively: make sure that first line is a doozy. Get the reader involved; get them asking questions. And indeed, we see Barry keen to impress in the opening of ‘A Long, Long Way’. Compare the first line of the novel—

He was born in the dying days.

—with the first line of the second chapter.

Willie Dunne was not the only one.

If you want to be kind, you might say that there’s a fair amount to be said about that first line, but heavens to Murgatroyd! There’s very little interesting to be said about the second. The former is crafted, colloquial yet lyrical, ambiguous; the latter is throwaway, formless and vague. So perhaps that opening sentence—

He was born in the dying days.

—is worth dwelling on.

If I were asked for a single word to describe this opening line, the one that I would use is portentious. In any story worth telling, the narrator knows something important that we don’t, of course. The thing that the narrator knows at the start of ‘A Long, Long Time’ seems to be beyond the everyday, however, and gestures towards something of great moment. He was born in the dying days. The line has an obvious tension, between the birth announced at its beginning and the dying days invoked at the end, as if to announce to the reader, this is a story of life and death, no less, of beginnings and endings. While there is no contradiction here—a birth can occur during the last days of a historical period, say, or regime—there is an ominousness about the line. This birth seems out of place, or more correctly, it seems to have occurred at precisely the wrong time—in the dying days. On finishing the line, it is the nature of those fearful days that the reader is poised to wonder about.

The line is composed in such a way as to lead us to this question. It has two parts, pivoting around that word ‘in’. The first half of the sentence reads ‘He was born in’. The text begins, then, with the simple promise found in every realist novel, the creation of character from believable detail. We probably expect something documentary to follow: ‘Dublin’, perhaps, or ‘1896’, if we were particularly wonderful guessers. We don’t get it. The second half of the sentence holds off this satisfaction, for the mysterious man who is the subject of the sentence was born “in the dying days”.

The surprise we might feel when we read this follows on one level the nature of our everyday encounter with language. If we went to Wandsworth town hall, say, and asked a registrar when or where a particular person was born, we would be surprised to receive an answer like “He was born in the ripe fullness of time”. Similarly, if we read a newspaper obituary that read “He was born in a crossfire hurricane” we would suspect either the dead man was Mick Jagger, or the writer was cheerfully describing a very traumatic birth indeed. Our first expectation in many, but by no means all circumstances, is to have a literal and the factual statement follow the words, ‘He was born in’. What in fact follows is metaphorical and idiomatic.

Now, because this is a literary text, this isn’t quite as bizarre as the situation outlined above. We are schooled to expect surprising metaphors and florid language in literary texts, and our use of language, after all, is contingent on circumstance and expectation. And indeed the phrase ‘in the dying days’ is not so strange as to be outlandish. It is an idiom, a figure of speech familiar enough to many English speakers, that means ‘in the last days’ or ‘at the end of’. As a phrase we commonly find it appended with ‘of’ and then, again, a phrase or word more concrete: ‘the Nineteenth Century’, ‘the fin-de-siecle’, ‘British rule in Ireland’, ‘1896’, and so on. In paring back the longer, more precise idiom to the ambiguous metaphor that is its stem, the text cleverly holds off the reader’s satisfaction of meaning for a second time.

It also revives what was previously a dead metaphor— that is, a piece of language so overused as to have lost its original interest and suggestiveness. Once clipped of its withered leaves and knotted wood, the stem phrase left, ‘In the dying days’, now regains a little suggestive life. ‘The dying days’ now begins to darkly hint at apocalypse, at the end of days, rather than being merely some simple verbal colour used for describing historical dates or periods. Even if this were not a novel set during the First World War, we might begin to see the shadow of those coming events in this first line.

Finally, the abbreviation of the phrase also suggests another characteristic of Barry’s writing style. I am not simply referring here to the author’s surprising lyricism, his foregrounding of metaphorical techniques more commonly expected in poetry than prose. Rather, it is the writer’s use of idiom that is interesting. For in writing of ‘the dying days’ there is a sense that Barry is employing colloquial as much as poetic language—that he is using a familiar language about a familiar subject. That familiar language, it seems logical to propose, is the everyday language of the English-speaking Irishman (the name is for the dialect proper is Hiberno-English). And the familiar subject for these Irishmen? Endings, clearly: of the unmourned Nineteenth Century, of British rule, and of those Irishmen subject to the violence of that rule, with its history of immiseration and famine. This opening line tempts us to listen in on, and get closer to this conversation of the Irish, where mention of ‘the dying days’ at any time carries its own irony of history.

He was born in the dying days: this sentence may have only seven words, but it contains several surprises. All the better, then, for us to read on.

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‘Disbanded’, an engraved illustration for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, after a painting by John Pettie. (Wikimedia)

Before we begin reading ‘A Long, Long Way’ we would do well to ask ourselves some basic questions about literature and how we tell stories about history. What kind of story are we going to read? Indeed, what do we already know about ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry?

Barry’s novel, written in 2005, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Willie Dunne, born at the turn of the nineteenth century: turning in pretty quick time from recounting his unremarkable childhood to his ultimately grueling experience as an Irish soldier in the British army during the First World War.

This is about as brief a summary as it is possible to give, what screenwriters call a logline, but it’ll do for now. We’ll avoid spoilers, because we are going to read this story together.

From this summary we already know enough to start locating Barry’s novel within the traditions of literary form. In the following post, I want to focus first on a useful definition of what form in literature actually is; then, I want to examine more closely the type of novel that Barry adopts to tell his story, known as the historical novel.

Form

You’ll recognise the term ‘form’, of course. You’ll have been taught about form, structure and language in English lessons since way back when. This doesn’t mean, however, that the term ‘form’ is necessarily easy to understand, as I can testify from a decade of teaching. In fact, of the three terms mentioned, I would say that form as a concept is often the most difficult to fully grasp. This is because it’s often intuitively simple to recognise form- to see that that some texts are similarly shaped, while others are recognisably different. Yet it is far more difficult to understand or explain why certain forms are as they are, and what categorical details make them similar or different to others. If you’re doing the AQA English Literature exam, recognising and understanding form is important: Assessment Objective 2 demands that students “analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.”

So what is form? Briefly described, form is the organisation, shape or framework for any literary composition, and these forms of literature develop historically. Writers tend to work within the framework of form that they have inherited from previous writers. Form helps shape a writer’s work, supplying an already-evolved framework for him or her to work within and adapt. The expectations we have of form also of course shape an audience’s expectations.

Whilst there are many forms in literature, the three major forms tend to be identified as poetry, plays and novels. These forms have historical roots in the particular societies out of which they grew. Poetry is the oldest literary form, the product of oral prehistoric cultures: a spoken, rhetorical form that developed out of religious and social rituals such as commemorating the heroes and the dead of a community in battle, or celebrating patron gods and goddesses. Drama develops later, first in Europe in classical Greece: there, drama grew out of an extension of public religious rituals and festivals, becoming in democratic Athens a focus for the acting out of ethical and social dilemmas before the public. The modern novel is, by comparison, a very recent invention, emerging in the eighteenth century as a form explicitly concerned with the individual and his or her interior life. While there is a broad debate about what impelled the invention of this remarkable new form, critical opinion generally holds that it developed out of a new emphasis on the individual that ran in parallel with the development of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. The novel, in this sense, can be understood to be an active part of the invention of the individual and individualism in the modern age.

Form, then, is historically derived and grows out of a particular social content: the lives of specific peoples, in specific societies, at different stages of development. These forms remain available for subsequent generations to adopt and adapt.

The Historical Novel

Even the three major forms contain many other forms and subgenres, and these again are historically derived. Let us consider two novel genres: the Gothic novel and the historical novel. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’, the novel that is generally accepted to be the first true historical novel. By contrast, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, similarly generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel, is a fiction set in medieval times and was written before Scott’s novel, in 1764. Despite the fact that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is set some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, it is not read as a historical novel. Why?

The answer is that Walpole’s novel does not seek to realistically evoke the medieval period; the medieval setting is in fact secondary to Walpole’s interest in creating an appropriately fantastical and beguiling time and location for a supernatural tale of haunted castles and talking skeletons. ‘Waverley’, on the other hand, romantically recreates the lost world of the Scottish highlands at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, describing in detail the social tumult that accompanied the death of the clan system and the birth of Enlightenment Scotland. It is not that the adventures of Edward Waverley are particularly plausible in ‘Waverley’ that makes this latter a historical novel; it is, rather, the fact these adventures (however unlikely though they be) are rooted in a particular material narrative of Scottish history, without which the story of Edward Waverley could not in any meaningful sense be written.

How might the invention of this genre be said to be historically derived, then? Marxist literary critics such as Georg Lukacs argue that the historical novel is invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century precisely because the French revolution and the triumph of bourgeois society across Europe led to a new consciousness of history as a dynamic narrative, as a story in which there is social rupture and radical political change— a narrative that could be written. The same critics would argue that the Gothic novel stems rather from an earlier secularisation of the West, caused by advancing industrial Capitalism. This secularisation led to English writers expressing a growing fascination with the Catholic ‘Old World’ of Europe as exotic, mysterious, enchanted and grotesque. Indeed, in the more fully industrialised and secularised eras of the Victorian age and beyond, the Gothic has grown increasingly popular as a genre; just as the popularity of the historical novel has continued to grow in the ever-more forward-facing and rootless societies of the industrial West.

Engaging with History

Clearly, ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a historical novel. The book tells a story set over a hundred years before. Moreover, the story is set at the time of two great historical fractures; one in the history of Europe and the world, the other in the history (or rather, histories) of Great Britain and Ireland. The first, of course, is what contemporaries called the Great War; the second, the period of political upheaval during the 1910s and 20s known as the Irish Revolutionary Period. Many critics would argue that the degree to which the novel engages with this history of state violence and revolution will, to some degree or other, determine whether in literary terms it is a successful historical novel.

Yet it may be that Barry has no interest in wars or revolutions at all. It may be that he has chosen, as in fact many historical novelists do, to a present a particular age as a picturesque or interesting backdrop, to create a fascinating setting that adds romance and spice to a tale. One contemporary definition of the historical novel is indeed simply a novel set in the past, after all. Such texts can be fun— the film industry alone makes a lot of money out of them. And indeed, even historical novels that play with historical setting or adapt historical detail to contemporary expectation are not always naïve: it is possible to explore history as one adaptable form of storytelling among others, as a kind of narrative itself (the term for this kind of narrative about other narratives is metanarrative). This can certainly be one kind of engagement with history; though such gaming with narrative will often willfully cleave the reader from a sense of particular time and place within the text. Another name for this state of being cleaved from history, of rootless character and an immersion in a seductive but empty world of objects is Postmodernity, the age in which all of us live, but contemplating that is for another post entirely.

The author’s engagement with history in ‘A Long, Long Way’ could be manifested in any number of ways in the book. The inflection that the narrator gives to this encounter with history will be determined by any number of choices. What is the author interested in exploring? Romantic love? Comradeship? Perhaps a sense of nation or familial belonging? Hatred and betrayal? Trade Union agitation in early Twentieth century Dublin? The violence inherent in European imperialism? The author is not limited to pursuing one of these ideas. Will the story follow the soldier Willie Dunne throughout? Will his character be stationed in Ireland? On the Western Front? In Turkey or Iraq? The story the author wants to tell will engineer and encourage certain encounters with history and exclude others. Will his story reproduce the content of other tales of the First World War? What political or moral lessons will it wittingly or unwittingly propagate?

As readers we need to be sensitive to the presentation of history that we find in ‘A Long Long Way’, and react to it critically. In writing a historical novel, an author makes decisions about a period and the people who live in it, some of which may be conscious, others unexamined. We need to recognise that what we read is the product of certain choices the author has made: it is a construct. Characters, setting, the plotting of events, all are authorial constructions, and to attend to them as such is to refuse an innocent response to the book and to seriously engage with literature as literature. By the same reasoning, as readers, we also need to be self-reflexive in approaching the text, willing to be challenged on our own assumptions about history and what literature should be.

My next post will summarise Chapter One and ask for some first responses to the novel.