Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Maud Ellmann reviews Figures of Catastrophe

Francis Mulhern. Figures of Catastrophe: The Condition of Culture Novel. New York: Verso, 2016. 176 pp.

Review by Maud Ellmann

Jude Fawley’s quest for culture leads him to a lonely death, abandoned even by the slattern Arabella who derailed his intellectual ambitions.  Leonard Bast, who yearns for “beautiful books,” comes to grief in Howards End, buried under the contents of the Schlegels’ bookcase.  In both these novels “the letter killeth”—to cite Thomas Hardy’s epigraph to Jude the Obscure; in others, the lettered are destroyed by the illiterate.  In Ruth Rendell’s thriller A Judgment in Stone, the cultured Coverdales are slaughtered by their illiterate cleaning lady during a televised performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  In Evelyn Waugh, the traditional sanctity and loveliness of Brideshead is defiled by petit-bourgeois soldiers chirping “okeydoke.” 

These are some of the “figures of catastrophe” that characterize the genre newly identified by Francis Mulhern as the “condition of culture” novel.  Rooted in the industrial novel of the nineteenth century, this genre acquires its catastrophic form in a twentieth-century tradition that Mulhern traces from Hardy to Ruth Rendell, Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith, and other contemporary British novelists.  Although the term “condition of culture novel” is “ungainly,” as Mulhern admits, it alludes to Thomas Carlyle’s “Condition of England Question” and to the Victorian novelists who pursued this question by contrasting the “Two Nations” of rich and poor.  The “condition of England” also dominates the twentieth-century version of the genre, which tends to pit high culture, whose totem is the book, against mass culture, whose totem is TV.   

Such oppositions are not, of course, restricted to the English novel of this period.  In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance, European sophistication collides with American mass culture, destroying both their respective avatars.  Peculiar to the English version of this genre, however, is the obsession with class conflict and specifically with “the working class in its luckless, blundering, destructive transactions” with high culture.  Where Nabokov contrasts the old world, snooty, seedy, decadent, to the new world, vulgar and ingenuous, the English condition of culture novel contrasts the educated few to the struggling, uneducated many.  In English novels, landed property rather than wealth immures the cultural elite against the masses; as Mulhern points out, “this is a tradition of novels about houses.”  Of the fourteen novels considered in this study, two take their titles from houses (Howards End and Brideshead Revisited); a third, published posthumously as Between the Acts, appears in Virginia Woolf’s diary as PH for Poyntz Hall, the country house that provides the novel’s mise-en-scène.  Even in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, where most of the action takes place in rented rooms in wartime London, the Anglo-Irish “Big House” Mount Morris holds out the promise of cultural continuity, all the more so because it is unsellable—a  “white elephant.”

Ruth Rendell’s country house murder mystery takes place in Lowfield Hall, a name that combines Jane Eyre’s Lowood and Thornfield.  Like Thornfield, Rendell’s Lowfield harbors a secret madwoman—but Lowfield is a recent acquisition whose proprietor George Coverdale has “slipped” into the role of squire, whereas Thornfield is an inherited country mansion doomed to be destroyed by an arsonist imported from the colonies.  When Thornfield burns down, however, another country house, Ferndean, provides a refuge for the Rochesters as well as for the aristocratic principle of property, which transcends its material manifestations.  Marketable, bourgeois Lowfield, by contrast, sinks into decay after the massacre.

Also reminiscent of Jane Eyre, the twentieth-century condition of culture novel generally features orphans as its main protagonists.  As Mulhern notes, “the moment of culture—of transcendence towards another self or situation—is conditioned by a crisis in family relations.”  Thus Jude’s first vision of Christminster takes place in the barn where his warring parents parted for the last time.  Charles Ryder, deprived of a mother and saddled with a loveless father, finds an alternative parentage in the cultural mystique of Brideshead.  “Where the family is structurally complete,” by contrast, “the moment of culture never comes.”  Arabella Donn, securely rooted in her class and family, feels nothing but contempt for Jude’s cultural aspirations.  In the absence of mothers and the ineffectiveness of fathers, the void is often filled by hostile or bewildered aunts, who fail to understand their nephews’ cultural ambitions. 

Nephews, not nieces:  as Mulhern points out, the search for culture in these novels is a masculine one.  Jude, Bast, and Ryder, along with Fred Clegg in John Fowles’s The Collector, Shahid Hassan in Kureishi’s The Black Album, the gifted rapper Carl in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and the nameless narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival:  these male protagonists are portrayed as the seekers after culture in their stories.  Even Woolf’s Orlando is gendered male in his phase as aspirant, becoming female only after his cultural ambitions are achieved.  Women may embody culture but they rarely search for it; more often they obstruct its acquisition by distracting men with sex.  Of the first category, Sue Bridehead, Julia Flyte, Miranda Grey, and Jacqueline Coverdale embody cultural capital in their respective novels; Arabella Donn, on the other hand, diverts Jude from his quest with her pneumatic charms:  “the soft parts of her person shook.” Even Smith’s On Beauty assigns to a female character, Vee Kipps, the specialized plot function of turning the heads of men of culture and disrupting their plans.

Mulhern’s book makes two groundbreaking (though pleasingly understated) interventions in twentieth-century literary studies.  The first is to offer a new taxonomy of genre that bypasses and effectively discredits the shibboleth of modernism, which has long since passed its sell-by date.  This taxonomy also challenges the academic condescension typically accorded to genre fiction, along with the assumption that literary greatness depends on the transcendence of genre.  On the contrary, genre is “ubiquitous, a fundamental condition of all intelligible utterance, literary or other.”  Genres often overlap—James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, plays on the conventions of the condition of culture novel, with Stephen Dedalus taking on the Bast-like role of seeker, while Bloom embodies mass culture and Molly Bloom’s eroticism threatens to subvert the masculine quest.  Yet Ulysses is also an odyssey, a circadian novel, and an installment in Stephen’s bildungsroman; indeed the novel represents a melting pot of genres, as hybrid as the parentage of Leopold Bloom.  By thinking in terms of genre, affinities emerge between novels usually segregated into the opposing camps of high- and middlebrow literature, revealing surprising affinities between Brideshead and Lowfield, Dedalus and Clegg. 

The other striking innovation of Mulhern’s book is its ingenious use of Algirdas Julien Greimas’s model of the “semiotic square.”  Greimas contends that any narrative is structured by a contrariety, a “non-necessary opposition” that defines the upper horizontal of the square.  Howards End, for instance, opposes the “CULTURED” Schlegels to the “PHILISTINE” Wilcoxes. 

These antithetical terms logically generate their own negations, termed contradictories, which are represented by diagonal oppositions:  thus “CULTURED” is opposed to “UNCULTURED,” “PHILISTINE” to “ASPIRANT.”  The vertices at top and bottom, left and right of the square, indicate available or suggested resolutions of these oppositions.  On the right side, the meeting of the “PHILISTINE” (Henry Wilcox) with the “UNCULTURED” (Jackie Bast) remains “STERILE,” whereas the meeting of the “CULTURED” (Helen Schlegel) with the “ASPIRANT” (Leonard Bast) proves “FERTILE,” producing a new heir for Howards End.  Although the “intra-class rapprochement of cultured and philistine is impossible at the extremes”—the epicene Tibby Schlegel could never be reconciled with the brutish Charles Wilcox—Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox achieve a “COMPROMISE” (top vertex) in a marriage effectively brokered by the ghost of Ruth Wilcox, the presiding spirit of Howards End.    

In Mulhern’s hands, the semiotic square reveals structural continuities between a wide range of novels without reducing them to an inexorable template.  Instead this dialectical model draws attention to the inner tensions of narrative, its resistance to settled meanings.  This Greimasian model also provides a “takeaway” for readers to try out on other texts, and for teachers to pass on to their students, showing that the novel is not just a loose baggy monster but also an organized structure with good bones.  While the methodology invites imitation, however, few critics could match the subtlety of Mulhern’s interpretations or the eloquent precision of his prose.  Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it sends the reader back to the novels to test out its hypotheses, thus providing an education in the condition of culture novel and its polymorphic figures of catastrophe.