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.

Red

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.–

Boy/Girl

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.

Incompetents

Stephen Bann, 16 June 1983

The less there is to see, the more there is to say. Such might be the motto of the Beckett enthusiast. An ingenious recent article by James Hansford devotes almost twenty pages to a story whose original manuscript consists of a bare page of typescript, But the apparent-neglect of due critical economy is easily explained by the character of Beckett’s corpus of writings. To borrow the term which Micher Butor coined for Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, these writings form a ‘mobile romanesque’. Each new work offers a new vantage-point on what we sense to be the same fictional material. A repeated phrase will not only play its intrinsic structural role in the unfolding of the narrative, but will mobilise a whole series of supplementary murmurs from the vast echo chamber of Beckett’s preceding work. And as the new pieces of writing become slighter and slighter – judged by the crude criterion of length – so the challenge to the attentive reader is maximised. Jean-Michel Rey claims to see the germ of Ill seen ill said, Beckett’s last brief novel, in a fragmentary passage from How it is. The earlier work establishes a particular cadence, which at first passes almost undetected in the rhythmic, elliptical patterning of Beckett’s narrative. The title of the new work singles out that lapidary cadence, and it becomes the ground bass for a further, even more elliptical elaboration of Beckett’s recurring themes.

Paradise Lost

Stephen Bann, 17 March 1983

In a recent interview, Kurt Vonnegut rated his latest novel, Deadeye Dick, at B-. The gesture is disarming, and no doubt his critics will conclude that he has got it just about right. But if we start from the tacit assumption that Deadeye Dick is not a masterpiece, whether or not it becomes a best-seller, we can concentrate our minds on what it is that makes Vonnegut’s style of storytelling so distinctively beguiling. Vonnegut himself is there to tell us, in his author’s preface, what we can expect as a dividend from our reading: some of his favourite recipes (not to be taken literally), a passing glance at one or two of his favourite pictures, and a vicarious stay at one of his most cherished hotels – the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince, Haiti. Since he has been so generous and direct with us, he might at least have let us in on a further secret – one of the tricks of the trade, so to speak. He might have explained to us, confidentially, that fiction is a machine for taking away guilt.

Mythic Elements

Stephen Bann, 30 December 1982

In order to envisage the curious achievement of Emma Tennant’s Queen of Stones, you must first imagine that Virginia Woolf has rewritten Lord of the Flies. Interior monologues and painfully acute perceptions of a seaside landscape combine to colour in what is essentially a tale of a group of girls wrecked on a desert island. The fact that the desert island is just off the coast of Dorset, and has been isolated by an exceptionally heavy fog, is quite immaterial. It is the isolation from the adult world that counts – and of course the fateful pattern of relationships that emerges from that isolation. But having imagined Mrs Woolf at this recuperative task, you must then take into account the likelihood that she has been nosing through the Hogarth Press edition of the works of Freud. Intercalated with the story of rivalries and affiliations among the hapless castaways is a series of reports by ‘Dr Ross, Freudian Psychoanalyst, aged 76’. Despite his great age, Dr Ross has a shrewd diagnosis to make about Bess Plantain, the adolescent girl who initiates the collective violence.

Plots

Stephen Bann, 4 November 1982

You have only to glance at the icing-sugar pink dust-jacket of The Prince buys the Manor to realise that there is a factual basis for Elspeth Huxley’s ‘extravaganza’. There, nestling in the wooded Cotswolds, is the familiar facade of the rather ordinary country house which has recently been dignified by the arrival of A Royal Personage. The gossip columns of the evening papers have confirmed, as the reader suspects, that the aliases scattered throughout the novel are transparent to someone with no more than a modest knowledge of the society and geography of Tetbury. The fictional ‘Ah Wong Chinese Takeaway’, not to mention ‘Pellett, the Health Food Shop’, turn out to have their counterparts in the authentic Cotswold world. Scratch the surface a little, frequent the disguised ‘Goat and Compasses’, and you will perhaps succeed in unveiling ‘Lady Evers’, the socially energetic wife of an ex-Governor of the ‘Laxative Islands’, or ‘Judy Mustard’, whose ecological fervour does not shrink from the extreme of offering her fellow believers home-made wine derived from ‘Purging Buckthorn’.

Female Relationships

Stephen Bann, 1 July 1982

Simone de Beauvoir had to change her original title for When things of the spirit come first, because it had been unexpectedly pre-empted by the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. The new title which she picked (Quand prime le spirituel) was a simple variant of the other (Primauté du Spirituel), and the difference has in any case become insignificant in the English translation. But the episode remains both revealing and amusing. Written nearly forty years ago, and rejected for publication at the time, this group of linked stories conveys an implicit faith in the power of fiction to act as a prophylaxis against false philosophy and perverted dogma. The irony of the title is expected to act as a solvent upon such artificial and old-fashioned constraints.

Return of Oedipus

Stephen Bann, 4 March 1982

Jacques Derrida once defined his intellectual project with the aid of an image from the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. It was a question, he suggested, of ‘vomiting up’ philosophy and restoring her to the ‘sea of texts’ from which she had proudly withdrawn. Those who would like to take the allegory further might reflect that Jonah was not in fact precipitated into the sea but onto dry land, and lost no time in prophesying doom to the great city of Nineveh. Derrida’s message has indeed caused increasing disarray in the citadels of Academe over the past decade, and particularly in those of America. If American philosophers, such as John Searle, have reacted dismissively, the same has not been true of those restless denizens of the sea of texts, the literary critics. Geoffrey Hartman’s Saving the Text, whose subtitle hopefully sandwiches Derrida between the two bastions of ‘Literature’ and ‘Philosophy’, is a recent and highly impressive example of the recuperative effort which has been expended in responding to the challenge.

Genette

Stephen Bann, 2 October 1980

To judge by our literary periodicals, something is in the air this summer. The forbidding term ‘Deconstruction’, formerly whispered behind closed doors, has been flung to and fro in the public arena. British readers who had mildly hoped that the ‘challenge of Structuralism’ would simply vanish of its own accord have awoken to find a more formidably astringent dogma hotly disputed in Paris and in Yale. As Roger Poole pointed out in a recent number of this journal, they are as yet barely equipped to take part in the ‘debate being carried on … with such verve and panache’.

Letter

Reprosuction

4 March 1982

SIR: I do not disagree with Geoffrey Hartman (Letters, 15 April) when he points out the debt of both Derrida and the Tel Quel group to Georges Bataille. But I am concerned at what seems to me the excessive burden of demonstration which he places on Derrida’s shoulders. To be a modern master of explication de texte is one thing. To be the living incarnation of Nietzsche’s antithetical no-saying...

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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