'Appointments to keep in the past' : history, memory and representation in British fiction of the 1990s : writing about the Holocaust
The thesis examines British fiction of the 1990s, focusing on the `novel of history'. It contributes to the analysis of recent and contemporary British fiction, joining work by John Brannigan, Steven Connor, Peter Childs, Dominic Head, Rod Mengham, Nick Rennison and Alan Sinfield. Whilst these critics have written about the centrality of the historical novel, the significance of the Holocaust and its use in fictional narrative remains relatively under-theorised. Issues surrounding memory and representation and their relation to history are central to an understanding of how British 1990s Holocaust novels dramatise the events of the `real'. In this regard, the thesis contributes to the theory that the 1990s British novel often `looked backwards' over the waning century. Fiction attempting to represent the Holocaust has made a significant contribution to this `taking stock'. A number of issues arise surrounding the complex relationship between historical `event' and `imaginary' text. Given the extremity of the Holocaust and the persistence of it as a 'secular-sacred' discourse, such issues are further problematised. The central theme is how British writers in the 1990s, given their temporal, spatial and familial distance from the event, have negotiated the `limits of representation' inherent in the aesthetic apprehension of the Holocaust. The fiction under discussion is by Martin Amis, Justin Cartwright, Robert Harris, John King, Caryl Phillips, Michele Roberts, W. G. Sebald, Rachel Seiffert, Zadie Smith and D. M. Thomas. The `apocalyptic turn' that many have characterised as emblematic of the 1990s is interpreted as a turning back to an `apocalypse' that has already taken place. Tropes of fragmented temporality, absence and presence, the sublime, articulation and silence, trauma, atrocity and the inherent problems of retelling the past are interpreted in relation to each individual text. Recent writing on the representation of the Holocaust also informs the central arguments of the thesis. Work by Saul Friedlander, Geoffrey H. Hartman, Berel Lang, Dominick LeCapra, Daniel R. Schwarz and Sue Vice discuss both the enduring legacy of the Holocaust and the areas of contention surrounding the `speaking' of the event. Holocaust representation will thus provide a `bridge' between analysis of the historical novel since 1989 and theoretical work on imagining the `Final Solution'. The thesis title is taken from Sebald's Austerlitz and alludes to the theme of contemporary writers making imaginary and ethical `journeys' back to the `dark heart' of the century. It also suggests something of the impulse to remember and `serve witness' to a generation of survivors. In conclusion, the thesis argues that despite the hegemony of postmodern concepts of the `textuality' of history and the instability of narrative, the Holocaust embodies a fundamental challenge to cultural and political relativism. The novels embrace and argue back against postmodern literary strategies, and in doing so reveal how ethical and aesthetic issues of representation are profoundly `tested' in context of the Holocaust.