J. Jordan: “Chance and Late Modernism”


Julia Jordan, “Chance and Late Modernism” in Réseau ALEA / ALEA Network [online], 2020 <https://hasard.hypotheses.org/1715>

My work has always revolved around questions of chance and its related concepts – accident, contingency, indeterminacy – and their representation in narrative. My first monograph, Chance and the Modern British Novel: from Henry Green to Iris Murdoch (Continuum, 2010) grew from my PhD, and examines the representation of chance in the British and Irish novel in the mid-twentieth century. I argue that a specific confluence of cultural and intellectual developments in the immediately post-war period – for instance, early twentieth-century avant-garde movements such as Dada and Surrealism, the growth of statistical and probabilistic branches of mathematics, the influence of existentialism, and the uncertainty and fragmentation induced by the war itself – inculcated a fascination with chance, or an aleatory anxiety that had profound effect on the novel form. Examining period explorations of epistemological uncertainty, philosophical analyses of possibility, and post-existential preoccupations with issues of contingency, I explore the ways in which chance has functioned in teleological narrative, whereby it yields to the insistent demands of narrative causality. Acknowledging isolated moments where this neutering assimilation has been resisted, subverted, or postponed, I identify a reconceptualization of chance’s status in the text as a difficult, marginal, unrepresentable ‘other’ which becomes textually manifest in an act of incorporation that has wide ethical, philosophical and narratological implications.

My work on B. S. Johnson has spanned my career to date, and as a major proponent of the aleatory novel in Britain he is a fascinating example of a writer grappling with the complexities of representing chance. I have edited his work, and published a collection of essays about him. In 2014 I published an influential piece of work in Textual Practice: For recuperation”: Form and the Aleatory in B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates’, Textual Practice, 28: 5 (July, 2014), pp. 745–761. This argued that Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) is British fiction’s predominant attempt to embrace aleatorism and to subvert linear causality: the chapters are unbound, and the text invites the reader to shuffle them before reading. Narrative can be understood as a means of containing the ever-present risk of death, of disease, of loss, and has as its impetus a curative trajectory: recuperation is implicit to narrative. The Unfortunates, however, defiantly refuses such comfort. Johnson, this essay asserts, uses his form to cancel the consolations of narrative construction, taking the infectious chains of narrative and repudiating any doctorial/authorial urge to trace the spread of disease/narrative. The anti-linear narrative is inextricable from the type of mourning it enacts, and from the aetiology of the disease that it displays, but declines to track: a type of mourning that refuses movement through time, and the story of a disease that refuses to certify its own development. These refusals, I suggest, are embedded in the grammar and syntax of Johnson’s prose. In The Unfortunates the full-stops are nodal points of anxiety and loss, an expression of the novel’s mortal anxiety. Johnson’s final, missing full-stop, the novel’s aterminal terminus, offers a defiant refusal of recuperation of any kind.

My second monograph, which has been 8 years in the writing, is titled Late Modernism and the Avant-Garde British Novel: Oblique Strategies (Oxford University Press, 2020). In this book I further explore the relationship between experimental literature and the accidental. The subject of Oblique Strategies is the generation of experimentalist writers who, influenced by Beckett and continental writers of the nouveau roman, were grappling with the legacy of a modernist tradition that they wished to inhabit, and yet from which they also wished to evolve. My book reassesses the experimentalism versus realism debates of the period, and finds a body of work engaged with, rather than merely antagonistic towards, the literary culture it sought to renovate. Charting these engagements, it shows how they have significance not just for our understanding of these decades but for the broader movement of the novel through the century. Oblique Strategies takes some of the things we tend to say about experimental fiction—how it is unreadable, nonlinear, elliptical, errant, plotless—and reimagines these descriptors as historically inscribed tendencies that express the period’s investment in the idea of the accidental. These novels are interested in the fleeting and the fugitive, in discontinuity and shock. The experimental novel cultivates an interest in methods of representation that are oblique; it attempts to conjure the world at an angle, or in the rear-view mirror; by ellipsis or evasion. These concepts—error, indeterminacy, uncertainty, accident—all bear a relation to that which evades or resists interpretation and meaning.

The writers that are the subject of this book have begun to assume an increasing importance, gaining in readership, scholarly attention, and critical significance. Yet it has not so far been possible to understand their tonal and formal particularity in its full relation to late modernism, which has recently been defined less as a periodizing hypothesis and instead as a distinctive set of aesthetic and philosophical concerns of its own. In this introductory chapter, Oblique Strategies proposes a new reading of these writers, as not merely defined by certain formal effects, including the self-consciously opaque or abstruse, the non-linear, jump-cut, or typographically virtuosic, but arguing that this particular strain of late modernism is best understood as constituted by their thematic and philosophical concern with accident and indeterminacy. As such the accident itself emerges as a thematic motif or philosophical principle: as chronological paralysis, traumatic violence, revelatory or epiphanic understanding, or eroticised encounter with technology. In late modernism, the uneasy mingling of the precariousness induced by an awareness of life as threatened by the atomic as well as constituted by it seems contradictory to an understanding of the accident as inevitable. This is prevalent in Beckett’s invocation of the void as much as in the frantic figurations of a writer like Brophy. The accident then emerges as what reveals the late-modernist disposition to passivity, non-mastery, dissolution, and silence, pushing at the limits of what can and cannot be known.

Two essays that developed from the book are germane to this wider research project: the first was published as ‘Error and the Aleatory in the 1960s Experimental Novel’, in Flower/Power: British Literature in Transition 1960-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). This uses the figure of the pentimento, or visible repentance, taken from art history, to consider the turn to errancy in the experimental novel of the 1960s and early 70s in Britain. Experimental novels of this period are often compositionally concerned with the aleatory, and thus seek to preserve something of the condition of openness and provisionality with which they were conceived. They thus remain somewhat interpretively open; always in transition; denying finitude and singularity; and they make the reader or viewer aware of the counterfactual possibilities that are usually suppressed, registering what might have been. Taking as its main examples B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates and Tom Phillips art novel/project A Humument, the essay argues for these texts that allow themselves to be defined by imperfection, maintaining errancy and proclaiming sketchiness and provisionality. As such, they register a broader emerging aesthetic of failure, whereby the productive potential of error allows the experimental novel to negotiate and expand the contested categories of realism and late modernism.

Secondly, Christine Brooke-Rose’s writing discloses a fascination with randomness, chance, and the accidental, explicitly drawing parallels between the science of uncertainty and the experimental literature of the sixties and seventies. In my essay ‘Indeterminate Brooke-Rose’, published in Textual Practice, 32: 2 (May, 2018), I explore her relationship to these concepts in detail. No longer is there a possibility, she argues, of absolute truth or absolute falsity, merely a shifting register of probabilities. Her fiction, I contend, takes place in this indeterminate zone, where ‘Chance … is at the heart of biology, of life’ (Remake, 171). In this essay I examine Brooke-Rose’s writing in this light, and draw a wider conclusion about the experimental fiction of the period, indeterminacy and uncertainty. Christine Brooke-Rose is more often thought of in terms of constraint than indeterminacy, due to her decision to write most of her novels under certain rules of exclusion or grammatical limitation, a decision which means that her work is often determined, in particular ways, before she starts writing. But it is largely against this notion of constraint that this chapter reads her 1966 novel Such, and her writing more generally, as ‘indeterminate’. I use this term both to indicate that Brooke-Rose is engaged with a particular kind of scientific discourse about uncertainty and indeterminacy, but it is also a way to read her figurative imagination. Indeterminacy evokes both epistemic ambiguity and a muddy opacity, and Such, without itself being formally indeterminate ‘as such’, offers us a vision of what a sense of unconstraint might do elsewhere: to human relations, to epistemology, and to the human subject.


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