Stephen Bann

Stephen Bann is a reader in modern cultural studies at the University of Kent.

Hayden White and History

Stephen Bann, 17 September 1987

In publishing his compendious work Metahistory in 1973, Hayden White gave currency both to a term and to a programme. His subtitle, ‘The Historical Imagination in 19th-Century Europe’, indicated the broad area of his investigations, but gave little sense of the radical originality of this programme, which was quite simply the re-examination of historiography in its written form. White had discovered a blind spot in the array of approaches to the recording of the past. While philosophers of history confined their attention to technical matters like causation, and historians of historiography elevated the individual historian at the expense of his text, the new metahistorian immersed himself willingly in the turbulent narratives of Ranke and Michelet, not to mention the discredited philosophies of history surviving from the 19th century. Using Vico’s traditional battery of tropes, and Northrop Frye’s more recent notion of ‘emplotment’ according to the patterns of tragedy and comedy, White justified his intuition that ‘style’ was not merely an incidental embellishment of 19th-century historical writing; it was possible to demonstrate textual patterns of a high degree of coherence and regularity which forged a connection between verbal or ‘poetic’ creativity and the overall world-view of particular philosophers and historians.


Stephen Bann, 5 July 1984

When poets decide to write in prose, and a fortiori to undertake so substantial a piece of prose writing as a novel, they are apt to leave unmistakable traces of their poetic craft. Indeed a certain class of novelists, not far below the very best, makes it an axiom to inform us from time to time, in case it has slipped our mind, that they rest their case in the end on a much more precise theory and practice of language than the on-going bustle of narrative will allow for. George Meredith, to take a good example, plays havoc with the expected sequence of events, expanding and contracting particular elements of the plot so that we can feel the sinews of narrative creaking and cracking under the strain. Then he turns round and reminds us that metaphor is the writer’s real business. Metaphor is the sign of our fallen state, of the irretrievable fact that we are estranged from the blissful, natural communication which took place in the Garden of Eden. But metaphor is also our only way of momentarily overcoming and forgetting that estrangement. The poet, whether in the person of the novelist or through those numerous surrogate figures who belong ambiguously to the world of the novel, is continually breaking through to remind us of his creative priority. Images, he suggests, are superior to actions.

Carry on writing

Stephen Bann, 15 March 1984

‘Putting on again joyously the hateful harness’. That is how Robert Pinget’s diffident and slightly dotty narrator, Monsieur Songe, describes the process of taking up his pen yet again, and adding one more to an already considerable cavalcade of novels. Then he crosses out the word ‘hateful’. And then he crosses out the word ‘harness’. Over on this side of the Channel, the native-born author John Braine chooses for his epigraph a snatch of neo-Romantic whimsy from the lyrics of the group Supertramp:

Mystery and Imagination

Stephen Bann, 17 November 1983

Tales of the supernatural have come a long way over the past two decades. When Fontana published their collections of ‘Great Ghost Stories’ in the early 1960s, it might have seemed as if the genre had become canonical and almost complete. A long and distinguished line led back, through such expert modern practitioners as L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare, to the definitive achievements of M.R. James, Stevenson and Le Fanu, and their Gothic predecessors. The ghost story, or original tale of the supernatural, was essentially a short story, delicately crafted to obtain the maximum effect from its metaphysical equivocations. If it did not aspire to the mathematical rigour of Poe, it set great store by the gradual development of an exquisite suspense, preparing the reader for the decisive point at which the balance of belief and disbelief could be tipped – ever so slightly – in favour of the impossible fictional world. What has happened since the 1960s is that the true ghost story has been overhauled by its bastard brother, the horror story. Discreet, poetic effects have been replaced by grand guignol, polite complicity with the reader by a sadistic desire to shock at all costs; in place of the short story, there is the gross and overblown novel which strains its every sinew to the state of commercial apotheosis which is awaiting it upon the cinema screen.–


Stephen Bann, 4 August 1983

It is an entertaining and rewarding experience to look at the reissue of Nina Bawden’s George beneath a Paper Moon immediately before her most recent novel, The Ice-House. A decade separates the two books. The text of The Ice-House bristles with those tiny signs of contemporaneity that remind us, all the time, that this is a chronicle of the Eighties, while its predecessor has begun to acquire the period patina of the early Seventies. In place of the still evergreen romance of package tours, we have the weary cavalcade of glue-sniffing, premature redundancies and confrontation between the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League. But once these indications of response to period and milieu have been discounted, there is a great deal in common between the two novels. It is not just that an occasional idiomatic touch creates an echo effect, as when a minor character brands himself linguistically by planning to ‘get the old pecker up’. For beyond these minor repetitions, and beyond the obvious recurrences of an attractive and idiosyncratic style, something very like a common deep structure emerges.

Agh, Agh, Yah, Boo: Ian Hamilton Finlay

David Wheatley, 4 December 2014

Writing​ to his friend Stephen Bann, then a graduate student, in 1964, Ian Hamilton Finlay outlined his plans to treat readers of his brash new journal, Poor. Old. Tired. Horse, to a free...

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Time of the Assassin

Michael Wood, 26 January 1995

‘And so,’ Bréhal said, ‘love would be time become available to the senses.’ Julia Kristeva, Les Samouraïs The genuine charm and considerable strength of Julia...

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