Sweet literary jargon

The Novel
March 19, 1999

As Salman Rushdie recounts in Imaginary Homelands , Bessie Head once rejoiced that she had come all the way from Botswana to Adelaide to encounter Andre Brink, "because, for the first time in my life, I have met a good white South African''. He can add ten novels to his good name and two feisty polemical collections of essays that speak to the condition of South Africa with impeccable political credentials.

It may be, though, that his goodness rather cuts against him in this latest book, which is something of a new departure. Discrimination is bad when the talk is of race, less so when of novels, and Brink seems anxious to exclude nothing from his thesis, which deploys a heavy theoretical barrage in conveying the sense that narrative language characteristically foregrounds the signifying process itself, signals to us that the medium is the message, and that even in the degenerate days of Classic Realist novels, they too had ways of making us talk about language rather than being seen as simple reflections of the social scene. They secreted a sense of what Wallace Stevens calls "men made out of words'' and saw to it that representation was quite healthily problematised.

Despite his polemical tone and his eagerness to involve himself with what Coleridge might have called the "sweet jargoning'' of theorists, Brink is neither a doctrinaire critic like Leavis nor a supplier of strict theoretical paradigms after the manner of Bakhtin or Genette. Although he obviously has an appreciation of what Barthes, Foucault and Derrida have accomplished, he deploys them in a marginal or supplementary fashion, as if confident that the French, having won the world cup in theory, can be relied upon to shout helpful things from the sidelines.

In general, Brink is taking exception to Milan Kundera's contention that after the linguistic carnival of Rabelais and Cervantes the novel enters a dark age before being rescued from its Mirror stage by modernist and postmodernist procedures. Like William Ray in Story and History he is interested in the stories that novels themselves tell about narration, beginning with Cervantes, tilting at Erich Auerbach's contention that the Don is refuted by the real, convinced that speech acts, and that language itself will have the last word as arbiter even if it enters as the bearer of an uncertainty principle rather than as the Great Scroll of apodictic resolution imagined by "Jacques the Fatalist'' in the Diderot novel he later examines.

Brink likes to rescue texts that do not seem overtly experimental like La Princesse de Clèves , Moll Flanders , Middlemarch and Emma (itself once dubbed a classic realist in a Catherine Belsey discussion), but which in their own fashion observe what he calls the "generic imperative'' of reflection on the nuances of linguistic presentation, and indeed he achieves something close to Brinkmanship in formally excluding Sterne and Joyce from sustained consideration. But he still has something of a penchant for those novels that may be said to stage a death of the author and a birth of the reader after the Barthesian model.

It may be said that his novels hang in empty conceptual space, wrenched from the history among whose hum and buzz of implication they came to have their being, and that the literary categories are not themselves value-free in a way he does not pause to consider. For Jurgen Habermas, modernism was "dominant but dead'', but to read Kafka's wonderful Trial might still make you feel, if only momentarily, the unbearable lightness of Milan Kundera's interminable recyclings, or that Margaret Atwood's Surfacing should be allowed to sink gently to the bottom, or even to be less than wholly possessed by A. S. Byatt's Possession. And although Calvino's If on a Winter's Night is a worthy culmination here, Seamus Heaney's remark that Calvino is a high-wire performer sows some doubts over his vertigo-inducing pirouetting. But in general, anyone reading this book will surely sharpen their reading, perhaps even their writing.

Edward Neill teaches literature at Middlesex University.

The Novel: Language and Narrative from Cervantes to Calvino

Author - Andre Brink
ISBN - 0 333 68409 5 and 68408 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £12.99 and £40.00
Pages - 373

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