MA Semester Two, Week Five

Our Contemporary Fiction class in week five was about history, homosexuality and literature; the core text was Sarah Water's The Night Watch.  I'd never read any Waters before, partly, I think, because when she started to become hugely popular (around the time of the TV serialisation of Tipping the Velvet) I'd already overdosed on Jeanette Winterson and Emma Donoghue, and my GLBT reading had moved onto Alan Hollinghurst; also, I suspect, she was so fashionable that I ignored her on purpose.  In the context of our course, Waters has come straight after the heavyweight Sebald, and I have to say, I did find the book something of a lightweight.  It didn't have a whole lot more to say about the lesbian experience than WInterson et al, and the WWII scenario is a familiar one, so nothing new there; the structure of the novel is peculiar and, I think, attempts to make the book seem a weightier, more 'interesting' tome than the actual contents would merit.  Despite that, though, I did enjoy it; I wouldn't, myself, argue in favour of cementing its place in the university's reading list, but it was a quick and absorbing read nonetheless.

I sound very curmudgeonly, don't I?

On to the academics of it.  Mainly, we talked about how Waters uses history as a tool or vehicle for her own interests, the emergence of queer fiction as a mainstream area in literature, and identity politics. We looked at how queerness is represented in the novel; how Waters effects a relationship between present attitudes to homosexuality and past historical specificities (her use of the word 'queer' for instance, which is very loaded with theoretical and cultural signification these days, though it wouldn't have been, so much, in the time of her characters); the idea of queer fiction, and Waters' historical queer fiction in particular, as consolatory or compensatory; whether Waters' portrayal reinforces the notion of lesbianism as 'everywhere and nowhere' / culturally invisible / fragmentary, or whether it contradicts that view, pushing lesbianism defiantly into the public consciousness.  Thinking about the structure of the novel (for those who haven't read it, it comprises three sections moving backwards in time - we encounter the same set of characters first in 1947, then 1944, then 1941) we asked how it effected issues of plot, causality, linearity and progress; how it dealt with memory and nostalgia; and how the notion of an 'ending' is constructed, if the ending is, in effect, simultaneously the beginning.

More generally, we talked about historical fiction, how it's often considered middlebrow (I'd place The Night Watch in the middlebrow camp), and whether Waters is attempting to give us an authentic (or as authentic as it's possible to get) depiction of the period.  Our tutor asked if any of us had read it as a historical pastiche, or a postmodern historical novel.  I can't say that thought crossed my mind at all while reading it, and though, sure, Waters does throw in the odd anachronistic detail (the word 'queer'), Hillary Mantel did that last year with the language in Wolf Hall, and I didn't read that as a pastiche either.  Maybe I like a more unsubtle pastiche, or maybe, as I thought at the time, it's just straight-up historical lesbian fiction, and there's nothing wrong with that.

In the afternoon, the workshop:  we had a satirical short story, the first full-blown piece of satire anyone's submitted to date, and a novel chapter that brought us round to the same issue of memory and history that we talked about in the previous week's seminar on Austerlitz.  Good stuff.

The next day, the Tuesday, we had a visit from another literary agent - Anthony Harwood - and he tried to assure us that it wasn't all doom and gloom in publishing, and if you can get an agent to love your work, then you're onto a winner.  We loved him.      


Kirsty Logan said...

If you're interested in gender and sexuality, then give Sarah Waters another go. Fingersmith is her most interesting book (in my opinion); lots about early feminism, the female body, and gender politics.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Thanks, Kirsty, I'll look into it. I did enjoy the book - The Night Watch - I'm just not sure it's quite the key text that our tutors suggested. I'll certainly give Fingersmith a go!