Verbing a noun

Patrick Parrinder

  • Out of this World by Graham Swift
    Viking, 208 pp, £10.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 670 82084 9
  • Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers
    Weidenfeld, 352 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 297 79273 3
  • The March Fence by Matthew Yorke
    Viking, 233 pp, £10.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 670 81848 8
  • What is the matter with Mary Jane? by Daisy Waugh
    Heinemann, 182 pp, £10.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 434 84390 3

In 1910 the German photographer August Sander began work on a never-to-be-completed ethnographic project which he called ‘Man of the 20th Century’. This grandiose scheme provides one of the sources of Richard Powers’s first novel. The title, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance, refers to a photograph of young men in felt hats and starched collars walking along a country road, which Sander took in May 1914. Graham Swift is another novelist who, like Powers, is burdened by history, and for whom the central theme of modern life is our own historical self-consciousness. The 20th century, for these writers, is the historical century par excellence. The 19th, by contrast, was less exhaustively documented and now seems to have been nourished on chauvinistic legends rather than the brutality of facts.

For ‘facts’, however, we must doubtless read ‘representations’. These representations, in modern times, have been overwhelmingly photographic in nature. Even the literary and narrative arts have (as is well-known) been transformed by cinematic techniques. Storytelling is shot through with notions of the frame, the picture, and the narrator-as-camera. Whether or not it is true that, as Powers writes, ‘the century has become about itself, history about history’, it is the modes of representation as much as the sequence of events which have created our image of the times in which we live.

The triumphantly strait-laced 19th century held onto its secrets almost to the end, which was why the Fin de Siècle was such a profoundly liberating period. Now, as we enter a different sort of fin de siècle, few secrets remain to be revealed and all illusions of 20th-century grandeur were lost long ago. The image of an unnaturally and catastrophically violent century was fixed by 1945 at the latest, and has been endlessly recycled and reproduced since. How much of our sense that we inhabit exceptionally violent times derives from our experience of constant bombardment with photographic representations of actually and potentially violent events? Can we say that the two world wars are lodged so firmly in the memory not just because they involved killing on a mass scale but because they have been so comprehensively and pervasively illustrated – the mass killings and mass illustrations reinforcing one another? Since 1945 there have been many further wars, not global in their extent but continuously adding to the stock of global war footage. Our inherited photographic images tend to be confirmed by the reporting and representation of each new war; the same patterns of association remain. At the end of Out of this World the main character recalls his first trip abroad, on a visit to France to mark the tenth anniversary of the Armistice in 1918. Flying home, he felt that he was being lifted ‘out of the age of mud ... into the age of air’. This childhood memory is being recalled in 1982, at the time of the Falklands War, and it seems quite natural that in the Eighties ‘mud’ should still suggest Flanders mud, trench warfare and the poor bloody infantry, while ‘air’ evokes pictures of the Second World War.

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