Wishes Largely Granta’d

March 5, 2001

GRANTA: The First Twenty-One Years, London: Granta Books, 2001.

Reviewed by Claudio Bozzi

Granta2The twenty-first anniversary edition of Granta reminds us of the central role played by the small journal in the development and modernisation of forms of English writing in the twentieth century.
Granta was launched in 1979 with the declared intention of rescuing the reading public from the insipidness of British writing. Its manifesto raised the possibility of introducing its audience to a literature of engagement: writing which courted controversy, and finished in dialogue. Controversy is to be understood not as social scandal or as the exploitation of the indiscretions of the famous, but as an indication of political vitality: that things may still be put on the agenda for the attention of a public interested in seeking solutions to problems. The first thing Granta problematised was the mental lethargy anchoring writing and writers to the worn themes of middle class anxiety.

Bill Buford’s post mortem ‘The End of the English Novel’, is delivered from the perspective of the state of writing and publishing in 1980. Importantly, the parlous state of English letters must be viewed along the lines of this two-track model. On the one hand, it is ascribable to bad writers, and on the other to a publishing industry which views fiction as a form of entertainment, in direct competition with others, to be sold to a mass audience. Writing becomes bad, says Buford, when it lacks urgency.
Insulated from philosophical debates and social issues, writers in England languished in the twin, connected valleys of insularity and nostalgia. Failing to understand the international contexts of thought, or to learn from literatures other than their own, the English novel was a timid creation compared with its experimental ‘foreign’ counterpart. Publishing is complicit with the decline of standards and the spread of provincialism, Buford says, when it loses interest in translating literatures from other languages, and when it leaves production to market forces. These represent nothing less than a silent censorship imposed on an unwitting public, whose vision, used to the grey uniformity of the bourgeois palette, turns away from anything brighter. Like the enlightened freeing the slaves from the cave in Plato’s republic, Granta was to lead its readers into the day.

To do so it had to understand its readers. It had to recognise that, with the waves of migration and the upheavals of history in the last century, the constitution of the reading public had altered in fundamental ways. Firstly, the audience was diverse, no longer uniform. And this reconstitution of the public, and the reading public within it, necessitated a reconceptualisation of the meaning of narratives. It could no longer be assumed that the middle class novel had universal appeal, that Africa or India could be appropriated as the passive settings for adventure and heroic acculturation. Africans and Asians, Caribbeans and Europeans had established themselves in numbers in Britain, bringing with them their own sense of meaning, their own forms of expression, their own lexicon, imagery and grammar of thought. Being British came to mean something different from the stylisations of national mythmaking. Granta responded by seeking creative reactions to the conditions of the new social complexity from marginal sources within its own constituency, and from the experience of cultures who had already long undertaken the revision of tradition, and responses to modernity. The anniversary edition therefore presents the works of British, American, Commonwealth and European writers, some of whom may have remained marginal to the practice of the established field of literature had it not been for the assertiveness characterising the Granta project. What follows cannot hope to do justice to the richness of the selection, but reflects this reviewer’s estimation of the most valuable pieces from a treasury of highest quality.

In ‘Jackdaw Cake’ (1984) Norman Lewis writes of life in a devout Welsh mining village peopled by unfortunates suffering (and admirably bearing) horrific injuries brought on by equally horrific luck. The philosophical endurance of Aunt and Uncle Williams is typical. He had suffered a stroke making it impossible for him to swallow. She chewed his food, passed it into a tube for him and massaged it down his throat to his stomach. Aunt Polly – an epileptic who had fallen into a fire during a fit – is expressionless (or rather has a smile permanently fixed to her face) because her face is a mottled mask reconstructed from skin grafts from other parts of her body. Indeed, everyone’s expression seems to be set against something in this town. The devout especially moralise about and against the miners, whose appearance with a gramophone on the beach promises music and motion, which is wiped away by the same discouraging hands that lob stones in their direction, and snatch sweets from a young boy (the author) to throw to the jackdaws.

Christianity brought to this town, as it did to many, only the imagination of sin. The possibility that suffering is only the product of a choice made immemorially and inaccessible to the individual consciousness reflects back on the condition of the narrator’s relatives. More broadly, poverty was not a social condition, an economic problem or a class issue, but a visitation of divine but inscrutable justice. Toiling bent double in cramped tunnels seemed a luxury in the face of the gravity of the sin that must have been proportionate to this level of material misery. The poetic imagination vivid beyond the claims of evil, lay waiting to be rediscovered, it is implied, in the banned native magic (Merlin, recall, was Welsh) or raucous entertainment (dismissed as crude vulgarity).

In Richard Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’ (1983), true to Buford’s analysis of the state of the English novel, the reader is exposed to literatures produced in the ethnically diverse and fluid constituencies of the US. Earl Middleton can’t get his life in order. He knows right from wrong and his crimes seem petty, or their gravity arbitrary – jail terms depend on the states in which they are committed rather than on any universal standard of morality.

When we encounter Earl he is again on the road with his daughter and new girlfriend trying to put distance between himself and the law. Ford’s characters are fringe dwellers and his narratives describe the intensification of choice when it is a matter of life and oblivion, identity and shame. Earl’s girlfriend observes that these key moments are questions of character, and Earl has a character that leaves something out. Earl’s narrative is driven by a force he can’t directly control, and ultimately he is manipulated by paradox such that we see the relevance of his being subject to a truth that is a force for the good for another class of person, in another situation, but not for him.

Earl is haunted by the feeling of being excluded but at the same time being given opportunities to observe propriety, steadfastness, and love. He is, in other words, allowed to feel close to, and almost possessive about, visions of a better life. The gold mine that looms at the centre of the story is a symbol of this better life. Similarly, the car he contemplates stealing at the end of the story has everything in it he would have if he had a car. Both are gigantic ‘ifs’: propositions of identity never fulfilled by difficult experience, and never realised through the necessary labours. ‘Rock Springs’ ends with a series of questions triggered by Earl’s sense of being observed by an unidentified and unidentifiable someone. Recognition and self-knowledge constitute each other, and the story has used this insight to construct itself all along. So the negro woman who allowed Earl to use the telephone is said to have a face like a mirror. Earl’s girlfriend Edna sounds out his character’s hollows, surfaces and solidities with questions and comments as deft as a cooper’s mallet. And even the cat in the car he is contemplating stealing at the close stares at him as if he were merely the pale, risen moon.

Nadine Gordimer’s ‘A City of the Dead, A City of the Living’ (1982) is one of the overtly political pieces of writing in the collection and evidence of the journal’s taking the moral gauge of the era. Set in the South Africa of Apartheid, an activist suspected of being involved in the bombing of a police station finds a place to hide in the female protagonist’s home. She protests that the fugitive is not family and that the risks they are taking in harbouring him are not dictated by any recognisable responsibility towards him. Her husband counters that history has entered a time which transcends tribal and familial solidarity (“It’s not a business of cousins”).

Granta3The renegade is completely unplaceable. We are introduced to him as “Mtembu’s friend” without knowing who Mtembu is. He is called “mfo” or ‘brother’ by all the men, and is addressed by the assumed name Shisonka. His earrings don’t locate him either – they merely relate him to something he isn’t – the unsophisticated country people he doesn’t resemble. The atmosphere of the hideout with only the central female character and Mtembu’s friend in it becomes increasingly pressured by eroticism. When the young woman inexplicably informs the police (who no longer represent justice) of his whereabouts we are forced to wonder whether there are in fact no reasons for her actions as she says and repeats consolingly to herself and anyone who will listen, including her newborn son. On the other hand her actions may be explained by the facts at our disposal, which are nevertheless not perfectly explicit or self-evident. Did the fugitive represent an untold danger? Was he a threat to the home’s integrity? To the mother’s or wife’s role? To her authority? Is solidarity to be preserved at all costs?

Raymond Carver, the American Chekhov, writes in ‘Vitamins’ (1981) of life’s unforeseeable disappointments, and the way in which everything individuals are subjected to is the product of their freedom, the cumulative result of their choices. For Carver, relations are tangential. People will as readily disappear into their own lives and selves and out of and away from others, as they will seek and protect the connections they have established and which have produced them. What distances and dichotomises is essential to this story, not what binds.

It is as if Carver were observing contemporary American society through the Hobbesian premise of life in a state of nature. Carver is interested in the potential for contrasts to turn into conflicts along apparently stark lines: homosexual and heterosexual, black and white. However, rather than indulging in a spectacle of aggression Carver follows the tensions as they threaten to – but never to the point where they actually do – develop. So, the main character’s wife is being pursued by a lesbian, but his response is to try hard to see it good humouredly, in keeping with his nature, and the degree to which he has undergone some form of re-education in marriage.

Carver does not judge his characters, no matter how pathological a sense of compressed violence they contain. His style might be called one of suspended observation in that it refuses to arrive at simple conclusions or make unduly dramatic points: a play of crescendos and decrescendos rather than a structure of opening and closing remarks. The free, almost improvisational musicality of the writing finds an appropriate setting in the jazz club of the story’s final scenes, where the main character has brought the woman he intends to seduce. There they encounter Nelson, the soldier recently returned from the Vietnam War, who offers her two hundred dollars for sex. Lurking in the background, the hugely proportioned club owner who normally offers his patrons security from harassment, refuses to intervene. Meanwhile, Nelson’s friend excuses his behaviour with the refrain that he has just stepped off the plane from Vietnam.

The sense of menace is both unceasing and hard to locate precisely, since none of the characters can be said to be innocent, and the degrees and types of violence being sketched proliferate. A sense of coldness pervades the events, and textures the lives of the characters. Intolerable cruelty is bearable only because daily assaults have made them insensitive to further corruption. Disgraceful behaviour does not disgrace them, not because they are saints, but because grace has fled this world. Yet Carver is a subtle moralist: in a disturbing complication to the conventional framing he refuses to identify the woman as the obvious victim. Carver ensures that we understand that her reasons are the product of a struggle to live beyond good and evil that ultimately fails: she refuses Nelson firmly, and leaves with the main character, but admits later to being in such financial need that she was tempted to accept the cash. Salvation lies not in the triumph of virtue, but on the road to failure.

Granta1‘The State of Europe’ (various authors 1990) addresses the issue of the extent to which the concept of Europe is a new reality. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was meant to have ushered in an era of freedom. Communist lies would be exposed for what they were: the myths of desperate dictatorships which for decades propped up militaristic ambitions of world dominance by keeping entire populations desperately poor and ignorant. The collapse of the wall tore down not only ideological and geographical barriers, it tore down the veneer of elaborate falsehood hiding the truth of Eastern Europe.

None of the writers asked to respond to the promise of a free Europe subscribes to a thesis as facile as this one. The Czech novelist Josef Svorecky, for instance, would hate us to think that writers (and therefore the writers assembled here) were the most reliable source of views on Eastern and Central Europe. In fact, the whole of tenor of reliability, of authoritative opinion, he argues, is what characterised the regimes that have now crumbled in the wake of democratic liberation. Communism was marked by reliability and authority without legitimacy, a grey conformity of meaning and the reduction of expression to realism which for Svorecky affected European letters like a sickness.

Democracy, on the other hand, is different. It represents the free and open play of opinion, the poetic rediscovery of the voice in the fact that the People have spoken. But Svorecky is wary of celebrating too hard as the conditions of democracy have yet to raise the people along with it. His wariness is not called – in the flaccid journalistic distinction between optimism and pessimism that amounts to an epistemic ambush – ‘realism’. He reminds us that realism is tantamount to Totalitarianism (those who would lay exclusive claim to the real and disparage genuine artistic expression as decadence). Svorecky admits to being, in the best sense of the term, a cynic. Cynicism is a refusal to forget the past, or the presence of the past. It is the clear-headed jubilation that celebrates only real freedom. The tone of Svorecky’s assessment of recent history is a sad elation, because whilst the joke that socialism played on humanity seems not to have had the last laugh, comedians of some description are probably still in control of the state.

George Steiner is possibly less sanguine about the achievements of the European dawn. His remarks are tinged with an ambiguous regard for the man impatient for change in the frozen imperium that was the Soviet Union, but having to face the fact that the future cannot be invented simply out of that unrest.  Steiner’s remarks have become interestingly and ambivalently dated. For him the US is hampered by a gigantism that fails to translate into global influence; or on the other hand, risks spreading itself too far and too thin when local problems are most in need of attention. If the current offensive in Afghanistan suggests otherwise on the first point, it is wise to recall that European opinion has stressed that the justice of the campaign is to be measured by its respect for wider issues including the rights of the local people, the specific identification of the enemy, and the definition of respectable limits. Europeans, with their relatively fresh experience of legitimate regimes showing their true and ghastly colours only once they had made themselves irremoveable, rightly suspect ‘crusades’ and all righteous, even angelic, intentions.

On the second point Steiner is precisely right: the wartime president tends to trip on domestic issues. It is happening to George W., as it happened to Bush senior over the Gulf. However, Steiner does fail to see the huge shifts in global power and cooperation that have centralised American influence. To his credit he builds a sense of redundancy into his own analysis, pointing out the instant obsolescence of ‘news’ in relation to the pace of events. The pace of change brings with it the strange quirks of Central and Eastern European history, as institutions, organisations and even countries come to be run by men who were their prisoners only weeks prior. Does this represent hope or paradox? For Steiner this sort of paradox drags hope in along with it, but it remains paradoxical. For instance, he expresses reservations about the nature of the revolution in which he sees the emergence of cultural rather than political freedoms.

And by ‘cultural’ Steiner means ‘uncritical’: the freedom to desire differently is driven by advertising, by the fantasms of the market, by TV, with its soap opera lifestyles, and sitcom liberties. This is not to deny that the consumption of Western goods, the availability of new media products, and the public life of shopping are all in their own ways important indicators of positive change. It is simply that Steiner, whose style is marked by and marks a cautious approbation, fears that the new democrats will accept liberal capitalism thinking it is liberal democracy. That art will be recruited to celebrate the cultural revolution when the state fails to reinvent itself politically, and that intellectuals will satisfy themselves with doing cultural studies of a pop culture revolution without advancing the cause of emancipation from illusions.

The appraisal of what is truly new is the subject of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s article. In Enzensberger’s view, the heroic acquires a new relevance in the post-communist world. The difference between this and the epic hero, however, is that the new man for the new day is a pioneer of retreat. Ulrich Beck recharacterised modernity in terms of increasing ‘risk’ (rather than a complacent belief in progress) and the responses necessitated by it some two decades ago. Since then, some German sociologists have turned their attention to the new virtues of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the fact that people will have to re-educate and bind themselves to morally appropriate desires, to less rather than more. The task cannot be accomplished without individual effort, but it will fail unless it is collectivised. The environmental, economic and political problems left behind by socialism testify to the need to restructure on the largest scale.

For Enzensberger, the new radical is the demolition man, not the engineer of social programs of fanatical vastness. The new exemplars work in a state of uncertainty and commit themselves to a leap of faith without so much as trust in others to guide them. They are men, and ultimately nations, engaged in so complicated a task that their proposals fail to find available categories, or their steps be measured by current standards, putting the labour of making and remaking history dangerously beyond good and evil. The three exemplars he identifies solve this problem of the directionless plunge in the dark in their own way. Firstly, Adolfo Suarez, who replaced Franco’s fascist regime with a constitutional state, exemplifies the fusion of awareness and execution. Secondly, Wojciech Jaruzelski, the hero of Polish liberation from the Soviet empire, symbolises the patriot as martyr, the internal contradictions of history being such that one risks all for a rescue that will ultimately fail. Third, is the timeless figure of Gorbachev, who proves that superiority in intelligence, boldness and perspective may guide historical events despite the enslaved mentality of the national herd. Each of them suffers the loneliness of men ahead of history, blessed and cursed by a clear vision of necessity. The tragedy of the heroic defuser of bombs is not that they could have done otherwise, but that there comes a time when patience evaporates: the clock ticks and tocks, one cannot wait and see.

The measure of success of any given project is the potential for self-renewal, not of fulfilment. Indeed, projects such as Granta’s, can never be fulfilled. Aimed at the protean public, and dedicated to measuring the urgency of social issues in the broadest sense, Granta can only continue to offer its readers a diet of dispatches from the front line. This anniversary collection is the most appropriate way to celebrate a publishing venture whose future direction is set by the awareness of its past. Granta at twenty one frequently bristles with ideas, and is as alive with the imagination of the future as it ever was.

Images: Granta Website

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