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Title: The work of art in postwar fiction, 1945-2001
Author: Brazil, Kevin
ISNI:       0000 0004 6060 3831
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2014
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'The Work of Art in Postwar Fiction 1945-2001' explores the responses of postwar novelists to visual art by focusing on the work of Samuel Beckett, William Gaddis, John Berger and W.G. Sebald. In doing so, it opens up a new approach to understanding the relationship between fiction and art in the postwar period as a whole, for what distinguishes these writers is that they use an engagement with visual art in order to historicize their own work as distinctly 'postwar' fiction. This thesis shows that in the writings of these novelists, long running aesthetic issues in the study of the relationship between text and image are reformulated and transformed: medium specificity; ekphrasis; and visual representation as a model for literary realism. Drawing throughout on original archival research, The Work of Art in Postwar Fiction 1945-2001 traces what T.J. Clark terms the 'processes of conversion and relation' between art, its contexts and its commentators, and it is by studying these mediations that the literary consequences of the work of art for these writers are shown. With a historicizing approach throughout, and an interest in the ways in which postwar novelists mediate their engagement with art through history, this thesis contributes to a new understanding of the literature and art of the postwar era, or what Amy Hungerford has called 'the period formerly known as contemporary'. This thesis offers a revisionary account of a relationship previously subsumed under the dominant logic of postmodernism, which according to Fredric Jameson was defined by a 'waning of historicity'. In returning historicity as method and theme to the study of the relationship between literature and art since 1945, The Work of Art in Postwar Fiction 1945-2001 shows the diverse ways in which postwar writers historicized their writing, and reflected on their techniques, in dialogue with visual art. Concerning itself with the distinct challenges posed by focusing on what Hannah Ardent called the 'most recent' past, this thesis also develops new ways of thinking more broadly about the relationships between literature, art and history. Chapter 1, 'Reviewing Postwar Fiction', situates this thesis within recent debates in literary studies surrounding what Mark McGurl has termed a discipline-wide 'hegemony of history'. Chapter 2, on Samuel Beckett, argues that Beckett's postwar art criticism responds to a specific strand of Marxist humanist aesthetics developed after the war, and it studies Beckett's manuscripts to show the relationship between this criticism and the composition of The Unnamable. Chapter 3 discusses William Gaddis's 1955 novel The Recognitions, arguing that the novel pivots around some of the central cruxes of postwar American aesthetic debate: Clement Greenberg's theory of abstraction, and Michael Fried's identification of the problem of 'art and objecthood'. Chapter 4 discusses the work of the British art critic and novelist, John Berger. It shows that Berger's critical account of Cubism shaped the narrative forms of his novels A Painter of Our Time and G., and that these narrative innovations were central to his theory of the artistic and revolutionary 'moment'. Chapter 5 focuses on the relationship between photography, painting and aesthetics in the work of W. G. Sebald. It argues that aesthetic concepts such as 'the readymade' and 'objective chance' offer a better account of Sebald's engagement with art than accounts which draw on trauma theory. The thesis concludes with a short discussion of how the writers studied in this thesis have influenced the contemporary fiction of Jonathan Franzen, Teju Cole, and Tom McCarthy.
Supervisor: Marcus, Laura Sponsor: Arts and Humanities Research Council ; New College ; Oxford ; University of Oxford Prendergast Bequest
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: English fiction--20th century--History and criticism ; Art in literature ; Aesthetics