Retroland: A Reader’s Guide to the Dazzling Diversity of Modern Fiction by Peter Kemp - review by Valentine Cunningham

Valentine Cunningham

Yes to Vikram, No to Hilary?

Retroland: A Reader’s Guide to the Dazzling Diversity of Modern Fiction


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With unflagging zeal and zest, Peter Kemp delves into the awe-inspiring immensity of novel production over the last fifty years or so, mainly in Britain but with glances at English-language fiction from elsewhere. In his introduction he gamely embraces the ‘shimmer of miscellaneousness’ which characterises the genre, listing aesthetic productions of all kinds, sizes and shapes. It’s a narrative mode which can be, do, say and feature anything at all and be written by absolutely anybody. There are novels that are a set of cooking recipes, or are done in verse, or proceed back to front, or use only Ophelia’s words, or consist of a single 13,955-word sentence. There are novels that ‘focalise’ (to use one of several technical terms popular in contemporary criticism, this one from film studies, that Kemp has no truck with), featuring now a piece of Sumerian pottery, now a supermarket trolley, now a saxophone-playing bear, or an ape, or a chimpanzee, or a woodworm. Among the novelists Kemp names are politicians, chefs, models, vicars, comedians and sportsmen. Is there nobody, he makes you wonder, who hasn’t, as they say, got a novel in him or her?

It’s too much for a single set of covers, of course, so Kemp submits to literary history’s duty to demarcate, draw lines, and map where the real treasure is buried by narrowing things down (if only a bit) to recent fiction’s pronounced interest in pastness. He separates his chosen texts into four types: postcolonialist fiction about the end of empire and its aftermath; novels about traumatic personal experiences, especially in the wake of the First World War and child abuse; ‘resurrection writing’, by which he means historiographical fiction, ‘the hoisting of bygone worlds back into light’; and ‘post-scripting’ novels, a category that includes supplements, sequels and prequels that revisit earlier fictions (these often involve what academics likes to call intertextualityanother term Kemp eschews). The big four are supplemented by a smaller ‘Back to the Future’ group of novels about the present turning into the future, featuring utopias, dystopias and the like.

There’s nothing new per se about such preoccupations. Historical novels are old hat (as are utopias). In its long centuries of existence the English novel has thrived on trauma; beastliness towards children motors much 19th-century fiction. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities supplies the model for Kemp’s resurrectionists

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