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1 October 2015

Shock of the new: the books that were ahead of their time

Experimental writing is not always immediately appreciated. As the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction announces its 2015 shortlist, we asked some of our favourite writers which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective award.

By New Statesman

Blake Morrison

A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess (1962)

A Clockwork Orange had the sort of critical reception that innovative novels usually get – at best muted, at worst hostile. “A nasty little shocker” was one reviewer’s verdict. In truth, the ending is more nice than nasty, with the brutal Alex cured of his violence not by drugs or aversion therapy but simply by growing up. Until Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, the novel remained little known. Its status as a cult classic is now assured. For its linguistic brilliance alone – the invention of a droog dialect called Nadsat – it deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize.


Howard Jacobson

Women in Love by D H Lawrence (1920)

Women in Love is a novel that begins in the 19th-century domestic mode, with two East Midlands sisters discussing their chances of marital happiness, goes on to traverse a perilous European landscape that is at once actual and surreal, of the senses and of the mind, bending language and imagery to tasks never previously performed in the English novel, and ends up sounding notes that recall the desolation of Greek tragedy. More or less contemporaneous with James Joyce’s Ulysses, it is less formally radical but more emotionally daring.

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Eimear McBride

In Night’s City by Dorothy Nelson (1982)

Despite an enthusiastic critical reception on publication, both the book and the author have undeservedly slipped from view. Filled with devoutly lyrical descriptions of unspeakable acts, this is a book for neither the lazy nor the faint of heart. But for readers who take pleasure in language that engages at the deepest level, its rewards are rich indeed. I hope it will have its time again.

Read: the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist


Jon McGregor

The Unfortunates by B S Johnson (1969)

Although this novel is known mostly for its format – individually bound chapters presented loose in a box, to be shuffled by the reader – its chief boldness lies in its evocation of the dislocation wreaked by grief; the way in which the narrator circles around the heart of the story, never quite sure in which order the pieces fall, is reflected as much in the prose style as in the unusual format. The Unfortunates also contains, in its portrayal of a sportswriter coming up with a match report on the hoof, one of the clearest accounts of the writing process I know.


Ali Smith

1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray (1984)

Life, End of by Christine Brooke-Rose (2006)

Alasdair Gray’s books have transformed the possibilities of the novel and 1982, Janine – about a man in a room for one night, up against the question of whether to live or not – is one of his most powerful, a perfecting of his combination of anarchy, politeness and lyricism, his philosophical understanding of the epic quotidian and his good-natured existentialism. It remakes the novel and it’s never going to not be a really unputdownable read.

The word “original” isn’t original enough for what Christine Brooke-Rose did with the form. She frees up the sentence by giving attention to (and by being playful with) its grammatical component parts, to such an extent that language becomes a nervous system and the book as physical an entity as you, me, or her – in this case, at the end of a life, when the body refuses all sorts of things and faces all sorts of discomforts. And the book does, too, with spirit, truthfulness and expansiveness of thought.


Will Eaves

The Inheritors by William Golding (1955)

Golding’s second novel was his favourite among his own works and time has vindicated his choice. Time is also the enemy of the book’s characters, a clan of Mother Earth-worshipping Neanderthals whose lives are cyclical; who share a kind of picture-language that resists explanation. They are defenceless against the pale, grey-eyed creatures, glimpsed between trees, who hunt and plan. Golding’s technical achievement – to suggest to us, in prose, the force and limit of minds that are poetic but not self-aware – is astonishing. In one scene, the young, isolated Lok catches an arrow fired towards him and knows it to be a gift. The Inheritors is some sort of relic cry for old ­humanity and is distressingly beautiful.


Paul Kingsnorth

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980)

If we accept Russell Hoban as a naturalised Englishman (he lived in London from 1969 until his death), Riddley Walker would be a shoo-in for a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize. Its dazzling reinvention of language only serves to emphasise the rottenness of the future world that its narrator inhabits: broken words for broken times. The sense of a past repeating itself ad infinitum runs through a book that remains, more than three decades later, unlike anything else.


Kirsty Gunn

An Episode of Sparrows
by Rumer Godden (1955)

An Episode of Sparrows is about class and change and London and growing plants from seeds. But more than anything, it is about its own making. So the words being written down are the same words that are being regarded and revised by the author; she experiences the story in the real time of our reading. She self-interrupts and cuts in on her characters’ speech. This may seem to be a traditional old-fashioned novel, but look within the paragraphs to see the gorgeous present-tense-ness of the writing.


Adam Thirlwell

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)

There’s something about stagnation and a feeling that life is elsewhere that seems to lend itself to metafiction and O’Brien’s great novel of laziness is a masterpiece of inside-out structure. Delighted and destructive, it swaps styles the way a magician changes tricks. All other novels seem needlessly overweight afterwards.


Deborah Levy

Berg by Ann Quin (1964)

Quin was an avant-garde British writer. Berg was the novel in which she put to work, in a very British way, her homage to the nouveau roman novelists she admired – with the bonus of humour and a ventriloquist’s dummy that comes to a sticky end. Berg exported its Oedipal themes and new literary grammar to the seedy Brighton of the 1960s in a vision that Hitchcock would have relished.


Tim Parnell

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-67)

The Goldsmiths Prize launched in the tercentenary year of Sterne’s birth and the exuberantly inventive author of Tristram Shandy is one of its tutelary spirits. Written before the novel came to be narrowly associated with verisimilitude and linear anecdote, Tristram Shandy has a restlessness with conventions that points to the genre’s near-limitless possibilities. Tristram’s life and opinions stand in ironic contrast to the life-and-adventures formula of much mid-18th-century fiction, but like the best anti-novels Sterne’s book is about much more than the debunking of literary clichés. For all their comedy, the “pitiful misadventures” of the novel’s “small HERO” have an integrity and pathos of their own and Tristram’s inability to tell the story of his life without making “fifty deviations from a straight line” is informed as much by a worldview as an unorthodox poetic of fiction. Just as the complexity of things is shown to be ill-explained by the systematic thinking beloved of Tristram’s father, Walter, so, the very structure of Tristram Shandy implies, linear, chronological narrative can’t do justice to what Sterne calls the “riddles and mysteries” of existence. Hence Tristram Shandy’s open, digressive form offers both an alternative to the inevitable reductions of plot and a foil to the tyranny of the will to system.


Jonathan Derbyshire

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey (1821)

De Quincey’s Confessions is not a novel, of course, though its veracity as first-person reportage was questioned from the beginning. In any case, De Quincey’s primary aim was not so much to demonstrate the “specific power” of opium as to reflect on the “mechanism of the imagination” itself. To that end, he follows his “own humours” rather than any “regular narrative”, and in doing so opens vistas previously unglimpsed in English prose. As Virginia Woolf observed in her essay on De Quincey, sometimes we encounter writing from which “we all draw our pleasure from the words themselves,” without having to make a “voyage of discovery into the psychology of the writer.” The Confessions, whatever its author’s shortcomings as an autobiographer, offers such pleasures in abundance.


Lars Iyer

Concluding by Henry Green (1948)

My favourite books are curates’ eggs, one-offs that are utterly unthinkable without their very particular author. Such a book is Henry Green’s peculiar and beautiful and ironically titled Concluding, set in alternative present during a single day at a girls’ boarding school, after two pupils have disappeared. What happened to them is never revealed, even when one of them is found, but it seems that they sought to escape the strictures of their education at the hands of the sinister State. Nor do we learn of the outcome of the struggle between the State-aligned governesses, Miss Edge and Miss Baker, and the retired scientist, Mr Rock, whose presence in the school grounds they find so irksome. These, and other unresolved plotlines, are really only the occasion for the beguiling meanderings of Green’s novel, which pitches against bureaucratic conformism not only Rock’s old-world common sense, but also the pagan energies of the girls. I love Concluding for the glorious, syntax-straining sentences that flare out of nowhere, and are full of those same wild energies.


Tom Gatti

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824)

“What can this work be?” asks the “editor” at the end of The Private Memoirs. “Sure, you will say, it must be an allegory; or (as the writer calls it) a religious parable, showing the dreadful danger of self-righteousness? I cannot tell”. Hogg’s masterpiece is the story of a young man, Robert, whose strict Calvinist upbringing convinces him that he is predestined to salvation, and – through the mouthpiece of a shady companion, Gil-Martin – urges him to commit atrocities. Robert’s story is told twice: once, at some remove, by an editor, and by Robert himself, in an increasingly urgent and deranged manuscript. An unholy metafictional mash-up with multiple perspectives and registers, a deeply unsettling evocation of paranoia and psychosis, a book whose dual structure breeds assymetries and ambiguities, it pushed the novel forward and laid the ground for the most famous expression of the psychological double, Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Rejected by critics (who found it “uncouth and unpleasant”) and ignored by readers, Private Memoirs could have done with a Goldsmiths Prize to show Hogg that actually he might have been onto something after all.


Josh Cohen

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle (1836)

I’d award the prize to Thomas Carlyle’s only novel – one that should have a much larger place in English literary memory than it does. Anticipating Nabokov, Calvino and Perec’s playful experiments with narrative frames, it purports to be the introduction by an anxious editor to the German Idealist philosopher Diogenes Teufelsdröck’s (literally “Devil’s Shit”) epic treatise on the metaphysics of clothes. Layering fiction upon fiction, the novel performs Teufelsdröck’s central thesis, that the self is made out of its own disguises. Like Quixote and Shandy, it shows us the novel’s bottomless capacity to question and reinvent itself, a capacity that Victorian realism would soon eclipse. Carlyle himself would go on to achieve fame as a writer of history rather than fiction, but his novel reminds us just how surprising the form can be, and for that he deserves the prize.


Gabriel Josipovici

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (1922)

Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, that monument to Victorian values, providing readers with short lives of all the great and the good who had ever served Britain: soldiers, sailors, statesmen and bishops. To his daughter, in the aftermath of the First World War, such a publication seemed like an insult to all the nameless dead who lay, unsung, in the battlefields of France and Belgium. Like a challenge too. How to tell such a life, which is as worthwhile as any other but has nothing, as it were, to show for it – no honours, no medals, none of the outward signs of worldly success? Virginia Woolf rises beautifully to the challenge in this, the first of five remarkable novels which should have changed the face of British literature, but which, alas, form, rather, a unique archipelago in the largely conventional sea of 20th-century English fiction. Jacob’s Room is full of cemeteries, tombstones and thoughts of the dead, but at its centre is an absence: Jacob, of whom people speak, of whom they think, but who is never shown. And yet that denial of presence on the part of the author makes of him one of the most living presences in world literature. It’s a remarkable achievement.


Francis Spufford

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)

In which the wittiest modernist novelist invents metafiction several decades before Calvino and company come on the scene. “One beginning and one ending for a book is a thing I do not agree with,” says the nameless narrator, so he supplies three complete strands of narrative, ranging from a lovingly destructive parody of Irish mythology to a Joycean version of Dublin drinking culture. At first separate, the book’s three levels of reality leak, miscegenate, fuse and eventually conspire to overthrow their author. Elevator pitches for the book are easy to do – Ulysses as written by Groucho Marx! – but the truth is there’s nothing  like it, and its mixture of send-up and high seriousness was greeted at the time with bafflement. In retrospect it’s a brilliant forerunner of whole swathes of formal innovation.


Leo Robson

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard (1970)

This book of definitions, “notes”, dreams, and vignettes now seems an obvious candidate for a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize. But I doubt it would have won at the time, not because of the possible competition – B S Johnson’s House Mother Normal, Ann Quin’s Passages, and Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat were all published within a year on either side – but because it took Ballard a long while to gain the recognition as an innovator alongside those writers. Ballard didn’t write metafiction. He didn’t quote Joyce. His language was flat. If The Atrocity Exhibition was cited, it was for its penultimate item, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, and even that was cited for its irreverence. But “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” wasn’t just a ringing title and one-sentence punchline. It was a pair of sentences punctuated at irregular intervals by spry if poisonous reflections on Reagan’s face, hair, “conceptual role”, the high incidence of orgasms in sexual fantasies involving Reagan, and experiments in which a replica of Reagan’s head were placed on the “unretouched photographs of crash fatalities.” The novel’s previous item, “The Generations of America”, is a four-page list of assassinations and murders, phrased as a series of inverted begats. “Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy… And James Early Ray shot Martin Luther King”, and so on into lesser-known territory. Read today, The Atrocity Exhibition is easily recognised as a descendant of Sterne and Swift and a source of inspiration to any novelist who knows in his or her bones that the novel’s freedoms, its capacity for freshness, were starkly limited by the growth, development, and imperial victories of the genre that called itself realism.


Philip Terry

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

Ulysses changed the stakes of the novel for ever, letting us see how extraordinary the everyday can be by plugging us straight into the minds of its characters, and using language in an electrifying way that only poets had dared to up till then.  And it changed the manner in which we think about structure and myth in novels in ways that still have repercussions today, not only in the novel itself, but in poetry, film and beyond.  As Faulkner (a man who generally didn’t think very highly of writers apart from himself and Shakespeare) said, Joyce was “electrocuted by the divine fire”.  Without Ulysses we wouldn’t have Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!,The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying; we wouldn’t have Perec’s Life A User’s Manual; Walcott’s Omeros or the Coen brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou?  With the possible exception of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, it is the greatest single event in the history of the modern novel, and its influence is still far from exhausted.

The Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, announces its 2015 winner on 11 November. The winner will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 29 November.

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide