Unorthodox chronologies, secret histories: the novel and the critique of historicism
Novel, 42, (3), . (doi:10.1215/00295132-2009-036).
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In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the roman fleuve underwent an unexpected revival in Britain, reaching a new peak of popularity in the work of Anthony Powell, C. P. Snow, Lawrence Durrell, and Doris Lessing (among others). Its success raises the question of the relationship between the novel and history in a peculiarly sharp form, a point emphasized by Perry Anderson during a 1983 conference commemorating the centenary of Marx's death when he described Powell's avowedly anti-Marxist series A Dance to the Music of Time as "the most important piece of postwar fiction in the English language for the metropolitan world." Anderson's judgment, based on the claim that a masterpiece can be identified in terms of its historical coordinates, ignores the extent to which the postwar roman fleuve incorporated secret histories, occult ironies, irrational or pathological episodes, and coincidental indeterminacies as part of a fascination with unorthodox causal structures and the breakup of secular time. Today these contingent textual incidents seem to foreshadow a wider set of uncertainties regarding the true scope of historical narrative: the place of the event in cultural analysis, the interruption of "homogeneous, empty time," the attempt to introduce a poetics of history, and the interrogation of secular models of explanation. Since these questions also intrude upon the world of fiction, we might ask: to what extent does the novel now depend upon the critique of historicism?
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