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  • The Cosmopolitan Novel
  • Janice Ho
Berthold Schoene. The Cosmopolitan Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009. vi + 200 pp.

The last two decades have witnessed a renewed interest in the concept of cosmopolitanism, during which critics such as Bruce Robbins, Pheng Cheah, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Martha Nussbaum have attempted to theorize a different, more rooted, and self-aware cosmopolitics that might avoid the universalist and elitist pitfalls of its earlier Kantian incarnation. Such theorizing has proven richly generative for literary studies as the seminal monographs by Amanda Anderson, Jessica Berman, and Rebecca Walkowitz reveal. The Cosmopolitan Novel is the latest study to emerge out of this trend. Berthold Schoene argues for the advent of a new kind of British novel, one with a cosmopolitan vision that is made possible by the era of globalization, but that simultaneously possesses the aesthetic resources to resist and challenge its homogenizing effects. One might be struck by the ironies of focusing on a national literary tradition in a book about cosmopolitanism, but Schoene suggests that the British novel is in fact uniquely poised to register the complexities of a global world, given the nation’s “post-imperial and increasingly devolved” status and its socio-political mediations “between neo-imperial US America and supranational ‘Old’ Europe” (6). He also takes two flanking 9/11 events as the historical coordinates of his study: the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, which he sees inaugurating a “contemporary cosmopolitanism” wherein “the world could conceive of itself momentarily as an entirety” (7), and the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, which put an abrupt check on this optimistic dream of a unified world.

A novel’s cosmopolitanism, according to Schoene, lies not in its “global circulation” or in authors taking “the world as their central topic” or in the “targeting of a world readership”; in other words, neither distribution nor reception nor content are sufficient conditions. Rather, “What matters in the end is a particular stance towards the world, which must come to be shared by author and reader” (16). Schoene defines this “stance” largely in terms of Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophy of “the inoperative community” (“la communauté désouevrée”), a spontaneous and momentary way of being in common that refuses to circumscribe community into a fixed identity or to subject it to a totalizing telos. The cosmopolitan novel, he maintains, has the ethical capacity to imagine such a global inoperative community and to partake in the process of “creative world-formation” (32); the novel is therefore an active agent aiding the formulation of a cosmopolitan future. Schoene’s subsequent readings of British novelists mainly turn on assessing the extent to which they are able to fulfill such an ethical [End Page 358] imperative. The first section, “Imagining Cosmopolitics,” engages in a comparison of the different ways in which Ian McEwan and James Kelman, respectively England and Scotland’s premier novelists, respond to a globalizing world: in Black Dogs and Saturday, argues Schoene, McEwan repeatedly uses the nuclear family as a space of withdrawal and refuge from larger problems that are treated as extrinsic to it (most notably, the war in Iraq in Saturday). Such “atomisation and nuclear-family seclusion” inhibits “political initiative and genuine cosmopolitan exchange” (42). On the other hand, James Kelman’s Translated Accounts and You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free represent a departure from the author’s usual national focus, as both texts turn to examining “Scotland’s new role in the world” postdevolution (71). The use of a “broken,” non-native English in the former text and of an idiosyncratic, working-class Glaswegian in the latter are the linguistic bases in which Kelman constructs a localized cosmopolitan vernacular that functions as an alternative to the hegemonic and universalizing grammar of standard English.

Schoene deems McEwan and Kelman “proto-cosmopolitan” authors (24), and he turns in the second section to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, novels that he sees “pioneer[ing] a new cosmopolitan modus operandi for twenty-first-century British fiction” (97). This is Schoene’s strongest chapter, as he convincingly shows how the novels’ formal innovations...


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