Coming of Age Novels no Longer Stories of Economic Progression
17 December 2018 – The story of the struggling writer may be familiar to many, but Professor Barry McCrea is concerned with how a whole generation of novels and literary style may be impacted by the economic crisis or economic prospects of a society. One part of his project, 'Generation X and European Union Fiction', asks what form the novel of development and social ascent – the Bildungsroman – takes in contemporary European society where external economic forces limit the possibility of social mobility.
Barry McCrea is the Keough Family Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and has been a visiting research fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with the School of English since September. Through his research he is tackling a number of projects including a three-volume novel set in Ireland, classical traditions of the novel and minority languages, and a study of the relationship between economic life and narrative form in European fiction.
From Rags to Riches
“I think the ways in which you can tell stories of human life are subtly and invisibly constrained by the socio-economic circumstances that a writer lives in or the kind of economic expectations of a period. People say that the explosion of global trade in Shakespeare’s time, in Elizabethan England, shaped his works”, commented Professor McCrea.
This economic plot of the novel is central to its energy and drive says Professor McCrea describing the classic tale of economic ascension where the protagonist starts out from a modest family and through education rises up through the social ranks: "The novel has historically been the genre of the middle classes, the class that moves up or fears falling down, but always about class movement."
His research will focus on Italian, French, Spanish, German, and English novels from the 1950s to the present while also including comparative readings from earlier periods. It will compare in particular the favoured narrative forms of European writers of the post-war Boom such as Elsa Morante, Françoise Sagan, Edna O’Brien and Elena Ferrante toward the end of this tradition with their successors Karl Ove Knausgård, Émmanuel Carrère, Michel Houellebecq and other lesser known writers.
Fiction has changed for writers born from the late 1960s on, Professor McCrea argues, because it’s a generation which suffers high unemployment, particularly in places like Italy, France and Spain. "They still have the same high level of education that the previous generation had but it doesn’t send them into a higher social class, if anything, they’re ending up in a lower socio-economic classes than their parents are." The implications for the novel are significant, according to Professor McCrea who says that the plot must now derive energy from other sources, if not economic attainment or development.
"There’s a form of anti-capitalist style where we see an archaeological archiving of the past, with strikingly long and extended metaphors which give the prose an energy." Writers of subsequent generations provide humour and other ways of keeping the readers interested when the story isn’t plot driven.
‘The stories are not moving forward to some great goal or new step, it seems as though the novels dwell outside action in some way… which to a certain extent also reflects the fate of that generation."
The Italian author Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels - the Neapolitan novels - set in post-war Western Europe are classic examples of the style later generations of writers have shunned, Professor McCrea says. The protagonists have two children born in the 1950s who go to school and each take different paths. The books follow the characters as one them progresses through her education onto university, a PhD, and ends up in a completely different social class from the one she’s started out in. Professor McCrea describes the "great additive quality of the book" and the "feeling of following her as she goes up the steps." Contrasting this style with the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård, Professor McCrea says the writer, born in 1969, doesn’t tell his stories chronologically, displaying very "digressive styles" also evident in contemporary Italian writers born in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. "Something happens in the present that sends him back and he spends a whole volume giving us a period in his life when he was 15 years old, after giving us something about when he was forty."
Many of the authors McCrea is looking at for his research are female, prompting him to reflect on a more "fraught" experiences of women when it comes to advancing through education, having been excluded from the world of work for a long time. "From the post-war period, suddenly women started to benefit from an education and enter the workforce and their freedom to be full agents in the economic world has been relatively recently acquired."
In the generations after the 1970s, McCrea sees a much more radical and bold generation who he says have less to lose "because they know the system is excluding them anyway." However, he believes they will still look to generations born in the 60s and 70s for forms on non-capitalist literary expression.
Minority languages and the Novel
Another part of his research sees him probing the classical traditions of the novel, looking at how for minority languages, particularly the Irish language, certain aspects of the classical narrative are unattainable. Exploring prose fiction across a variety of minor languages or set in European societies where minor languages are present (France, Italy, Wales, etc.), Professor McCrea looks to specific reasons that certain operations that are key for the novel can’t take place in these languages – random encounters with strangers as a key example – and what these tell us about the novel as a form. “Instead of talking about the failure of Irish novels to use this tradition, I want to use this to understand what it tells us about the nature of the novel itself.”
Brining these two strands of research together and marking the end of his fellowship, Professor McCrea delivered a public lecture at the Trinity Long Room Hub on Tuesday, 11th of December on ‘Language Change and Social Class in the Novel.’
About Barry McCrea:
Barry McCrea is a professor in the departments of English, Romance Languages & Literatures, and Irish Language & Literature at the University of Notre Dame, where he holds the Keough Family Chair of Irish Studies. He is the author of two monographs – Languages of the Night (Yale UP, 2015) which won the American Comparative Literature Association’s René Wellek prize for the best book of 2016 and In the Company of Strangers: Narrative and Family in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust (Columbia UP, 2011) – as well as a novel, The First Verse (Carroll & Graf, 2005), winner of the Ferro-Grumley prize for fiction and a Barnes and Noble Discover award. McCrea was a Foundation Scholar at TCD, where he took a B.A. in Spanish and French from TCD, and he holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University.
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