Palimpsest History

Jonathan Coe

  • Ulverton by Adam Thorpe
    Secker, 382 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 436 52074 5
  • Kicking by Leslie Dick
    Secker, 244 pp, £13.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 436 20011 2
  • Frankie Styne and the Silver Man by Kathy Page
    Methuen, 233 pp, £13.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 413 66590 9

In her recent collection Stories, Theories and Things, Christine Brooke-Rose was casting around for a generic term under which to classify such diverse novels as Midnight’s Children, Terra Nostra and Dictionary of the Khazars, and came up with ‘palimpsest history’. What all of these books have in common is their interest in the recreation of a national history: a history which, in each case, has been erased or fragmented, subsumed beneath layers of interpretation, forgetting, writing and rewriting. If the genre has up until now seemed somehow alien to our own traditions, very much the product of something called ‘World Literature’, a kind of superleague of writers; whose work is, above all, thoroughly (and enviably) internationalised, this may be because we have so far lacked a really distinguished English entry in the field. We have been dogged, perhaps, by an assumption that English history and the English landscape do not in themselves offer a broad enough canvas (rather in the way that whole generations of film critics have allowed themselves to be persuaded, on the basis of Truffaut’s throwaway remark about the uncinematic qualities of this same landscape, that Britain can never produce films of world stature).

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