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  • Exile and Cunning:The Tactical Difficulties of George Lamming
  • J. Dillon Brown (bio)

Let us never cease from thinking—what is this "civilization" in which we find ourselves?

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

George Lamming is one of an important group of pioneering Caribbean novelists, commonly called the Windrush generation, who are given credit for the efflorescence of West Indian fiction in the 1950s.1 Like those of his contemporaries, Lamming's novels—contemporaneous with political independence movements across the region—were strongly invested in establishing a specifically anticolonial regional-national cultural identity. The criticism that has subsequently grown up around his work has accordingly focused on issues relating to its Caribbean contexts and resonances. While such examinations have clear importance (and certainly comply with Lamming's intentions of exerting social and political influence at home), they tend to overlook an important aspect of the novels' production: these foundational West Indian novels were written and published in London, the metropolitan capital of the British Empire. Although it may seem counterintuitive to discuss such polemically anticolonial literature in its metropolitan context, the importance of this context should not be overlooked. Indeed, [End Page 669] Lamming himself ruefully acknowledges in The Pleasures of Exile that in the postwar years he had no real West Indian audience but instead wrote "always for the foreign reader" (43), as the circuits of capital, criticism, and publishing seemed to necessitate an engagement with the imperial culture against which he was committed to writing.2 Thus, although the normative critical approach to Lamming's work is to see it as exilic, postcolonial literature and hence to return it to its "rightful" (West Indian) place, I propose to read Lamming's novels as immigrant literature, as works that are not simply out of place but also firmly situated in a new context—addressed to a foreign (English) reader. This type of reading, itself "immigrating" into alien territory within the discipline, provides an important vantage point on one of the least understood and critically disputatious elements of Lamming's writing: the turbid difficulty of his prose style. In a West Indian context in which literacy, let alone literariness, could hardly be taken for granted, Lamming's difficulty can be (too) easily dismissed as an elitist, politically incoherent gesture; however, placed in the context of postwar London, "difficulty" takes on the guise of a potent political strategy that helps articulate a sense of Caribbean nationalism and anticolonial protest.

From virtually the beginning of his publishing career, Lamming's writing has been described as difficult. As early as January 4, 1948, in the first Caribbean Voices program dedicated exclusively to Lamming's work, editor Henry Swanzy's introduction of Lamming captured the ambiguous effects of his writing, with Swanzy asserting that in the poems about to be read, "one finds a strange, oblique, violent, passionate emotion, which I feel, somehow, may prove of importance to the Caribbean" (Caribbean Voices). His qualifying "somehow" betrays doubt in his own ability to gauge the precise meaning and import of Lamming's work, an uncertainty explicitly articulated in his commentary after the first poem is read: "We start with that rather mysterious poem because it seems typical of this writer, who never [End Page 670] says, straight out, exactly what he means." Swanzy thus introduces difficulty as an identifying characteristic of Lamming's work, while maintaining with cautious imprecision that the work is, "somehow," meaningful and important. Such critical evaluations of Lamming as difficult—many, indeed, negatively critical—have continued until today. More recent books on Lamming by Simon Gikandi, A. J. Simoes da Silva, and Supriya Nair note his difficult style, while Rudolf Bader sees fit to begin his entry discussing Lamming's work in the encyclopedic International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers with the caveat that "many readers find George Lamming's novels difficult" (143). For his part, Lamming seems to welcome the critical consensus that he is a "difficult" writer, saying, "This means that I have to be read more slowly than would be the case with some writers, which I think is a good thing" (Interview 11).3

Lamming's view of the salutary effects of reading more slowly...


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