Finding myself pushed, I realise that I must ‘out’ myself… I am… a critical theorist. In fact, more than that, I am a poststructuralist.
The current fashion in critique of postmodernism is, in my view, not only lazy and at times quite obviously self-serving – the need to say-something-new, anything at all, being utmost – but also oddly elides poststucturalism, its frightening, yet charismatic, non-identical twin.
In the words of Margaret Drabble, completely reapplied: ‘I’d rather be at the end of a dying tradition, which I admire, than be at the beginning of a tradition which I deplore’.
Perhaps the phenomenon of ‘Robert Galbraith’ should be examined as part of any surveying of what happens now in twenty-first century fiction. There is something misleading about the tag – ‘By the author of the international Number One bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling‘ – when ‘everybody knows’ that the status of The Cuckoo’s Calling as number one (notice the dramatic capitals) international bestseller had little to do with the author named as author beneath… Has there ever been such a famous, infamous, in fact, nom de plume consumed as such at the time of writing? The exposed ‘Robert Galbraith’ offers a strangely hollow double, empty of identity, yet forcefully wielded as pen name.
The above is a partial recording of a paper I presented last week at the What Happens Now: 21st Century Writing in English conference at the University of Lincoln. It was entitled ‘”It goes on in the reader’s mind” (Mantel 2012): The epiphany of ellipsis in the writing of Hilary Mantel’; it concerned a comparison between the importance of the epiphany for reading James Joyce with the emerging significance of the ellipsis in the work of Mantel – in my view, a critical interruption of such importance that it warranted my actually interrupting my own paper, with an INTERRUPTION. Thus, I was in cahoots with the chair of the session… who, under instruction from me, duplicitously introduced me as ‘absent’ – then swiftly explained that I had sent a recording of my paper in my stead. He dutifully played the recording, which was of me, describing the premise of the paper and then carefully outlining aspects of the Joycean epiphany that particularly lent themselves to comparison with Mantel’s ellipsis. At a given moment, I then stood up from my place in the audience and interrupted ‘myself’…
… this subversion of the established and rather placid form of academic delivery caused several ricocheting and unexpected effects for both me and the audience. For a start, it was perhaps the most terrifying challenge I have ever set myself; my heart raced with the transgressiveness of this ‘act’ and also all the possibilities for it going wrong. Furthermore, it involved a level of deception that I had not fully thought through and, at the time of its enacting, made me feel slightly sullied, as well as sweaty-palmed with the anxiety of being ‘found out’. For example, I was unable to introduce myself to anyone at the conference – fortunately my panel was on the first day, so I only had to bolt from people’s introductions for a single morning – I had to skip lunch, which I could not have eaten anyway, I was so sickeningly nervous about what was ‘to come’. I could not introduce myself to my fellow panelists either, when they arrived, as I had already taken my place as a front-row member of the audience – keen to hear about ‘New Theory’. I was both myself and not myself, playing an oddly displacing part in a script I myself had written; a spectator to my own spectacle.
The playing of the recording of my own voice was eery; it played with the whole notion of ‘absence’, aside from the ‘fact’ that the owner of said voice was actually listening to it and, in a sense, present too. Thus, the voice told the audience to vote – i.e. to put your hand in the air if when you consider epiphany the first writer that you think of is Joyce – I too voted at my own command. I had already written down my own name in my own notebook, as if readying myself to take notes at a paper I myself had written, and then had taken a hand-out, handed out to me by a member of University of Lincoln staff who was himself ‘in’ on the con. I confessed all this subterfuge later to a delegate who asked – ‘Did you vote? Did you take a hand-out?’ – I felt sheepish, yet pleased at the revelation of the requirement for detailed machinations that the ‘trick’ required. Although, when another delegate called my paper a ‘trick’, or rather that I had ‘tricked’ them, it hurt, as if I had proved myself a fake.
Although, I ‘knew’ that I was interrupting my paper – i.e. at the moment I stood up and declared ‘I’m sorry but I’m going to have to interrupt…’ (which was true, of course, I did HAVE to interrupt, because I knew what the audience did not, that the recording was leading them on a long walk off a short plank, it was going to suddenly and unexpectedly stop) – I had, in fact, already interrupted it, formally, before it even began – not just by being absent, but by ‘sending’ a recording at all, a most unusual step. The audience was interrupted in their expectations and they had adapted well to the different medium – they were listening and voting and – some delegates said – interacting more with my absent self than they would have if-I-had-been-there. I made the recording deliberately interactive – listening to it, if you like – to play with the whole notion and sense that by being ‘only’ a voice there was somehow less of me… I wanted it to have an intimacy that felt like more, and, in a way it did, because the recording released all of these ghostly Eileen Pollards into the imaginations of my audience – everyone, whether they wished to or not, began to picture what I looked like, who I was, cultivate their own private me… Then I interrupted myself and, to an extent, scattered the phantoms, the ‘real’ Eileen J. Pollard had stood up – or had she? Did me saying I was ‘me’ have the required authority? Did my voice, and the recognition of its repetition in ‘reality’ act as a kind of iterative signature? But where did the ghosts go? That, of course, would be the question Mantel herself would ask… For example, one delegate admitted to me that, in fact, I had longer hair and it was less dark.
Also, aside from my double on the substitutive recording, and my audience-produced phantoms, and my own feelings of doubt and sense of being somehow an imposter (an imposter created as an effect of my own trickery, through my pose I had at once draw attention to my own fakery, the certainty, the fixity of the recording – its completeness – was not something I, in my non-machinic, bodily, ruptured form, could compete with) – I ALSO had a further identity, that of the madwoman. The moment at which I ‘interrupted’ the audience had absolutely no way of recognising ‘me’ as the author of the paper, so who was I? An interrupter – like a streaker at a football match, an exhibitionist flaunting the rules… Yes, for a second, I was – despite my own sense of clarity – purely and categorically, in the minds of forty-plus intelligent members of the academic community – completely insane. I do not think I have ever been so stared at… it was dizzyingly intense. I had rocked the audience not only out of its complacency, but out of its tree, and the sheer daring of this interruption was so shocking that in the next panel – through which I throbbed with satisfaction and elation, as you might, with life, after a near-death experience – the woman next to me asked me politely whether or not I was going to interrupt this panel too. ‘No,’ I said ‘of course not! That would be rude’ – however, I noticed people notice me, throughout the conference, whenever I shifted in my chair during a paper, as if bracing themselves for another visceral moment of frisson, or embarrassment.
‘I will be good, I must behave, I will be good, I must behave’, my t-shirt innocently, and knowingly, reiterated.
Humphrey Chetham bequeathed money for the founding of Chetham’s Library in 1653 (the year of his death). He stipulated in his will that the library be for the use of scholars and so-called ‘well affected persons’. Furthermore, it was his dying wish that the books themselves should be chained down, as indicated in this photograph.
Although, I acknowledge that the intention of this chaining was to preserve the books for generations to come, i.e. by preventing theft, if this image is taken at ‘face value’ for a moment, its meaning is absurd.
It is impossible to chain down knowledge, or in fact, tether any understanding gained from reading.
Derwent village in Derbyshire was ‘drowned’ by the Ladybower reservoir in 1944; the church spire, as seen in this old postcard photograph, was left intact as a memorial, then later dynamited in 1947, due to safety concerns.
Why are these villages referred to as ‘drowned’? Personified, yet no people are left in the water, even the bodies buried in church cemeteries are exhumed prior to flooding. Also, why is this metaphor of the village underwater, so unnerving, yet fascinating and compelling. Sarah Hall’s novel Haweswater (2002) explores this contradiction in terms of the ‘drowning’ of the Measand and Mardale Green villages in the Mardale valley. The decision to ‘raze’ the buildings prior to the flooding is taken for the following reasons:
‘A village underwater and perfect? There was something sinister about it, was there not? It would look like slaughter, or like murder, like martyrdom, certainly incriminating’ (p. 215).
Hall’s writing is not alone in courting the ghosts of the submerged; there is also Hilary Mantel’s short story ‘The Clean Slate’ (2003) and Reginald Hill’s detective novel On Beulah Height (1998). These texts skirt an act of preservation, a nostalgia, the impossible village and notions of the ‘perfect’ village as impossible too.
Also, why is there such frisson when these villages re-emerge from the water during drought?