- Reinventing a Past: Historical Author Figures in Recent Postmodern Fiction1
Laura E. Savu’s ambitious book foregrounds the literary “afterlife” of a number of eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth-century “predecessors” (Novalis, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Chatterton, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf) as reenacted in the pseudomemoirs and novels of “second generation” British and American postmodernists. Central to Savu’s argument is the concept of “author fiction,” defined broadly as “authors and what they are, as well as were like; authors and the works they create; authors and the fiction written about them” (9). Building on Paul Franssen and Ton Hoenselaars’ The Author as Character: Representing Historical Writers in Western Literature (1999) and Naomi Jacobs’ The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction (1990), Savu’s book proposes to work out the “literary, cultural, and theoretical implications of ‘author fictions’ with respect to three broad issues—authorship, the posthumous, and rewriting” (10). In other words, Postmortem Postmodernists is concerned with the “fictional uses of historical authors” and their theoretical and cultural implications for “theories of authorship, the practice of rewriting,” the posterity of key author figures, and the relationship between postmodernism and earlier aesthetic and cultural paradigms (9). As Savu argues persuasively, late twentieth-century fiction “postmodernizes” romantic, realist, and modern authors in order not only to understand them better, but also to understand themselves in relation to a past that they still find relevant. Producing and reinterpreting author fictions is part of the contemporary author’s effort to define a history into which s/he can fit. According to Savu, this process of reinventing predecessors (she could have mentioned Borges’s concept here) can be seen as a direct response to the challenges that authorship has encountered in our increasingly multimediatic and “postliterary world” (12). [End Page 309]
The six chapters of Savu’s book offer intertextual readings of narrative and biographic works by Geoff Dyer, Penelope Fitzgerald, Peter Ackroyd, Peter Carey, Colm Tóibín, and Michael Cunningham—all belonging to “the second generation of postmodernists, who combine accurately drawn background details with fictional speculations, and who rework traditional forms and structures to suit artistic purposes that are ‘not merely ironic’ but also ‘deeply humanistic’” (37). Each chapter is constructed carefully, moving from a theoretical argument to an analysis of the postmodern rewrite in relation to a historical intertext and an author figure that it evokes/reconstructs. Both the prologue (entitled “The Poetics and Politics of Author Fictions”) and the chapters of individual analysis are solidly anchored in theories of authorship, rewriting, and “memorious discourse” (Christian Moraru), offering useful overviews of recent conceptual debates. Some of the discussion treads on familiar ground, but Savu does a good job of mapping it succinctly.
The prologue locates the intertextual exchange between a precursor and a postmodern author within a broad sociocultural context, but it also examines it in its intra-literary specificity, seeking to define a “poetics of author fictions” (37). Savu subsequently connects this project to a theory of reading that emphasizes the “afterlife” of the author figure as reflected in texts—both those written by the precursor, and those re-written by a postmodern writer (51). The six chapters that follow represent the intertextual relationship between a “precursor” and his/her reimagining in the work of a postmodern author as a coming together of paradigms. For example, Novalis’ mix of visionary idealism and emphasis on nonclosure anticipates, according to Savu, the postmodern critiques of truth and objectivity, especially Lyotard’s and Derrida’s emphasis on the deferral of meaning.
The “author fictions” examined in this book—D.H. Lawrence in Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1997), Novalis in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (1995), Oscar Wilde and Thomas Chatterton in Peter Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and Chatterton (1987), Charles Dickens in Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997), Henry James in Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004), and Virginia Woolf in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998)—represent varied attempts to rescue the author figure, reembodying it in the text of a successor. In...