Sebastian Groes. The Making of London, London in Contemporary Literature.
Sebastian Groes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Roehampton University, London, is a scholar of modern and contemporary fiction. Groes is a Series Editor of Contemporary Critical Perspectives (Continuum), Palgrave has just published a co-edited volume on Kazuo Ishiguro's work: Kazuo Ishiguro: Critical Visions of the Novels (July, 2011) and his British Fiction in the Sixties (Continuum), will be published in 2013.
The role of cities is important, Featherstone and Lasch maintain, "for they offer the potential of an open public life built around the values of diversity, urbanity and experience" (2). Hence, Sebastian Groes' groundbreaking The Making of London is about the contemporary London novel, a city which has been fictionally and literally frequented for centuries. Groes's book explores the fact that London is a city undergoing complex transformations with its "more than fifty thousand streets, motorways, squares, cul-de-sacs, mews and parks [...] marinas, sprawling business parks and golf courses", a city, incomprehensible "by its sheer material bulk" (Groes 3), yet also with its multilingual, multicultural society. Groes states that the key postmodern tropes present the city "as text, as narrative, as palimpsest, as a narrated labyrinthine space" (14). However, he undertakes a complicated task- "understanding" a prominent city, by studying "the lives the city is given by writers who make and remake it in their imagination" since it is "the subject matter and producer of fictions", its literature "generates its own peculiar knowledge" (1). As to why not any other city such as Paris or Venice, Groes argues in his book that London's "long and dense history make it, more than any other city, a fiction", in a world in which" reality is ruled by fictions of every kind", thus foremost, for Groes, London is "a language", "creating our understanding of reality" (13). However, the title also holds the Making which he clarifies by referring to the constructed and artificial nature of the city, since the metropolis is a place that "embodies and literalises process" rather than "a place that is" (2) (emphasis original).
The ultimate master of London is T.S. Eliot, states Groes, referring to The Waste Land (1922), the most famous poem of and about modernity. Yet from a philosophical point of view Bauman states that "not all city life is modern; but all modern life is city life" (126). In his "attempt to sew together the textual body parts into the monstrous, multilayered London palimpsests", Groes suggests that "acts of phenomenological, intertextual and theoretical mudlarking" renders "a sense of the vocabulary, textures and techniques, obsessions, colours, speeds and atmospheres of contemporary London writing, resulting in a typology and textual topography of London at the end of the twentieth, and beginning of the twenty-first, centuries" (10).
Before exposing the chapters of Groes' book, I would like to pinpoint the fact that The Making of London is enriched with photographs by Sarah Baxter, embedded as a "visual essay", in dialogue with the "textual cities" (15). Throughout the book, located even at the introduction section, Baxter's "illuminations" contribute to the meaning, by "shaping our understanding of London" (15) at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Groes comments. I wish the pictures were printed in colour, though, since black and white blurs some details. However, for practical reasons, one cannot but help agreeing with Groes that so many pictures in color would have highly increased the cost of the book.
The Making of London covers eight chapters discussing the works of Maureen Duffy, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Ian Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. The first chapter explores Duffy's Londons since Groes suggests that her work can be seen as a series of experimental mappings of changes in British identity. Michael Moorcock's London novels Mother London (1988) and King of the City (2000) are investigated in the second chapter in terms of the city's histories and mythologies. J. G. Ballard's negative views of London as a "messy, congested, squalid" city "completely unsuitable for living twentieth and twenty-first-century lives" (67) reflected in his non-fiction Airports (1997), holds the third chapter, along with the discussion on his various fiction. What Sinclair's London Orbital (2002) adds to this sequence is the significance of the discourse of space, a typology and textual topography of London at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The body metaphor of the city is revealed in Ackroyd's London: The Biography (2000) along with his other works. Groes concludes that the "heterogeneous nature of London's space lies not so much in its material diversity, but in heteroglossic nature of the British and London languages that mould our perception of the city" (142). In the sixth chapter McEwan's work is analysed from the perspective that his version of London is a city that "defiantly beats against the currents of pessimism and apocalypticism that run so strongly in the contemporary London novel" (166).
Martin Amis' image of London as an "ever-changing city" (167) is exposed in the seventh chapter focusing on his novels, Groes comments, as attempts "to transform consumption into a refined literary form; in other words, to alchemically turn excrement into gold by means of the creative imagination" (190). Against Ballard, Sinclair and Amis' pessimistic projections of London, Groes concludes his book allocating the last two chapters to the "immigrant" writers: Rushdie, Kureishi, Smith and Ali as the representatives of vibrant writing, foregrounding the city's new voices, reinventing Britain through its different colours from men's and women's perceptions.
After a highly detailed meticulous study of all these writers and their works, with major shifts and developments in London novels since the early 1980s, the remaining strongest image of London in the mind, Groes remarks, is of fire, the paradoxical symbol of life; of destruction and of love. In these London fictions, then, fire operates as a structuring element that connects Londoners throughout the ages, from the Great fire of 1666 to the continued effects of the Blitz, revealed as the traumatised post-war consciousness. Yet, Groes concludes his work with the significance of the renewed interest in the voices of London; claiming that "the privileging of living speech in text keeps the city floating free, out of reach from organisation by political powers; contemporary London narratives operate by an elusive mixture of the written and the spoken" (260). Thus the question Groes asks by means of his final title: "[Is] London undone", is answered by himself maintaining that the addition of voices with different backgrounds continue to encourage the literary writer to "imaginatively make and remake these infinite Londons", underpinning an optimistic stance than of some of the writers he discusses in his book. I highly recommend Sebastian Groes' The Making of London since it covers a wide range of research perspectives in terms of authors, narrative techniques and critical praxis, and is hence an asset for English literature students and academics alike, and of course, for everybody interested in fiction and London. As for Sarah Baxter's photographs, they are conspicuous, and maintain a "visual essay" on London, both in the way they accompany Groes book and on their own.
Featherstone, Mike and Scott Lasch. eds. Spaces of Culture City, Nation World. London: SAGE, 1999.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Life in Fragments Essays in Postmodern Morality. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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