Friday, 24 June 2016

Review: 'Figures of Catastrophe: The Condition of Culture Novel' by Francis Mulhern

What I discovered during my Undergraduate was that I absolutely loved reading books about books. To have someone dig deeply into a genre or a tradition of books etc. is just fascinating so when I saw Figures of Catastrophe focusing on the 'condition of culture' novel which I hardly know anything about, I knew I wanted to give it a try. Thanks to Verso Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 26/01/2016
Publisher: Verso Books
A bold new vision of the modern English novel
The leading critic Francis Mulhern uncovers a hidden history in the English novel and demonstrates its intimate, formative association with the course of the British labor movement, from its rise in the early twentieth century to the years of decline from the 1980s onwards. In this striking reconstruction, culture emerges as a stake in social conflict, above all that of classes; the narrative evaluations of culture's ends—the aspirations and destinies of those whose lives are the matter of its fictions—grow steadily darker as time passes. Readings of classic and contemporary novelists from Hardy and Forster to Amis, Kureishi and Smith, among others, illuminate the forms and narrative logics of the genre that Mulhern terms the “condition of culture novel,” and places it in international context.
Academic books can be difficult to review because often they are rather specialized and analytical in nature. Therefore, perhaps a short introduction to both Mulhern and the matter of his book. By nature and trade, Francis Mulhern is a leftist, or to be more precise, Marxist literary critic, combining literary criticism with keen attention to class struggle. His The Moment of Scrutiny was required reading for those who wanted to follow in F.R. Leavis' footsteps. In this book, Figures of Catastrophe, Mulhern takes to class a range of novels he considers to form a neglected genre, the 'condition of culture' novels. According to Mulhern these novels discuss the worth of 'high culture' and its relevance and importance to all the different classes of British society.

Mulhern discusses 14 novels in his book, ranging from the last decade of the 19th century into the 21st century. Having such a wide period of time to choose from, the eventual selection of novels may feel a bit at random but all, in the end, serve Mulhern's purpose. Starting with Jude the Obscure, Mulhern highlights books in which culture  and teaching become a battleground, where classes clash with each other. In the end, Figures of Catastrophe does lead to catastrophe, to the conclusion that seemingly education and culture are not meant for the lower classes. There isn't a lot of optimism on offer in this book, but Mulhern makes some fascinating observations about the novels he discusses and how (political) reality and literature go hand in hand, one perhaps informing the other.

During my bacherlor's degree in English Literature I found myself occasionally troubled by critics with a distinct political slant, such as F.R. Leavis with whom I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with. My problem is that political ideology at times equated to already having your answer before you've properly asked the question. In the case of Figures of Catastrophe it at times feels like Mulhern simply dismisses all those things that don't fit into his argument or forcefully makes them fit. But partially this ability to twist and turn is also part of what makes a good literary critic. Mulhern's writing is generally very compelling, leading the reader along easily, although he does write very academically. This doesn't make it the most accessible of academic texts, especially for those who simply wanted to read something interesting about their favourite novel.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

I decided to give Figures of Catastrophe 3 Universes because it is such a highly specialized subject. Not everyone is going to find this book interesting, or even think the subject is worthy of a novel. For those who are interested in taking a deep dive into some Marxist literary criticism however, I wholeheartedly recommend this novel.

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