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The Postmodernist Art in Muriel Spark’s Fiction

Author DaiHongBin
Tutor LiWeiPing
School Shanghai International Studies University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords Muriel Spark Postmodernist Intertextuality Nouveau roman Metafiction
Type PhD thesis
Year 2009
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Muriel Spark is a distinguished and prolific writer who has been a poet, dramatist, editor, critic, and fiction writer. The most significant contribution she makes to the world literature is her writing of 22 novels, among which the most famous were The Comforters (1957), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Driver’s Seat (1970), and Loitering with Intent (1981). Due to her talents, Spark has won numerous prizes and academic awards, and is often compared with her contemporary women writers, such as Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing. Though nominated twice for the Booker McConnell Prize, respectively in 1969 for The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent, Spark lost by a narrow margin. Nevertheless, Spark is regarded as the most gifted and innovative writer of her generation, by prominent critics like David Lodge and Frank Kermode. Owing to her remarkable achievements, Spark attracts enormous critical attention and research in the western countries on her has been on the rise ever since her debut into the world of writing. For lack of enough Chinese versions of her works, and inadequate understanding of the significance of her fiction writing, the Spark scholarship in China is far from adequate, compared with those abroad or those of Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing at home. Until the year 2008, no systematic or comprehensive study on her has been undertaken, and only a few articles on her have been published.The author of the dissertation ventures to devote his research to Spark’s fiction from the perspective of her postmodernist techniques. By probing into the art of fiction in Muriel Spark’s novels, the author intends to bear out that Spark’s creations show the postmodernist tendency as far as her art of fiction is concerned, though there are controversies over which category Spark is supposed to fall into—realism, modernism, or postmodernism. So far, critics abroad have undertaken various studies on her from different perspectives. Moreover, People at home and abroad have seldom explored Spark’s postmodernist art in a systematic way. Thereupon, it is consequential for researchers in China to devote due attention to this famous woman writer, especially from the vantage point of her postmodernist art. In the present dissertation, the author adopts the theories with regard to the art of fiction under the postmodernist context, namely the theories concerning the techniques of intertextuality, the nouveau roman and metafiction.Spark’s postmodernist art is unique and distinctive in her own way. Owing to the abundance of her works, Spark’s postmodernist art is shown in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, her postmodernist art usually shares some common characteristics that make her novels remarkable. The most distinguishing feature of her postmodernist art is that it doesn’t seem to make the novel abstruse and perplexing. Compared with the other postmodernist writers, Spark is more considerate for the reader. She seldom plays language tricks or games with the reader, and she often combines her postmodernist art with a familiar and popular theme of the times, as a result of which her works are not so difficult to understand and often become favorite books for the common readers. Other major aspects that display Spark’s characteristics of postmodernist art are as follows: her works tend to show the authorial consciousness of self-reflexiveness; they would often juxtapose the reality and fiction, they like to foreground the fact that the novel is an artifact.This dissertation consists of three chapters in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction contains a comment on Spark’s achievements and her position in the contemporary British literature and world literature, an exposition of the significance as well as the characteristics of Spark’s postmodernist art, a claim of the research methods and the theories adopted in the present dissertation, a survey of the Spark scholarship at home and abroad, and an overview of the layout of the dissertation. Spark has long been known to have made invaluable contributions to the world literature. Her postmodernist art well deserves probing into, for no systematic research regarding it has been done yet. Though she adopts various kinds of postmodernist art in her fiction, they share some common features, such as the self-consciousness of the author in the novel, and the emphasis on the artificial aspect of the novel. The author of this dissertation mainly takes advantage of the theories concerning the postmodernist art of fiction in his research.Chapter one deals with the intertextual techniques adopted in The Comforters, Spark’s first novel. At the outset, the theory of intertextuality and its significance in literary creation are dwelled on. Then the novel is analyzed in detail with regard to the intertextual techniques it employs. The basic presumption of this chapter, derived from the theory of intertextuality, is that the writer is a reader of texts before s/he can produce any text, and a text is the combination and transformation of various other textual materials. Muriel Spark, deeply influenced by the Bible as well as The End of the Affair (1955) written by Graham Greene, obviously has read these two works and extracted some materials or ideas from them before she produces The Comforters. She transforms and processes them to conform to her own criteria and her construction. The experiences of protagonists, the techniques, the contents, the concerns with the religion and the plots in the two works—all leave some distinct traces in The Comforters, thus proving the intertextual relations between them. In addition to the intertextual relations with the novels, The Comforters also demonstrates another form of intertextuality: the parody of the convention of the detective story. By the parody, Spark displays the intertextual relation between her novel and the genre of the detective story, showing her hope of improving the tradition, instead of just involving herself in the imitation. All forms of intertextuality involved in The Comforters demonstrate Spark’s postmodernist tendency in her creation.Chapter two is concentrated on the techniques of the nouveau roman in Spark’s most favourite novel—The Driver’s Seat. At the beginning, the theory about the techniques of the nouveau roman is expounded. The leading characters of the nouveau roman are introduced and their proposals about the techniques are put forward. The two characteristics of the techniques of the nouveau roman—the author’s impersonal attitude toward his narrations and descriptions, and the disruption of the sequential plot in the novel—are evidently displayed in The Driver’s Seat. The author’s impersonal attitudes are demonstrated through a variety of ways: the presentation of the approximate anonymity and the dehumanization of Lise, the protagonist; the descriptions of public and private places which don’t in the least show the author’s feelings or emotions; the detailed and fastidiously precise descriptions of the monotonous behaviours of the characters or the trivial matters; and the purposeful design of the lack of syntactical variety in some descriptions to indicate the rejection of pathetic fallacy, etc. The impersonal attitudes toward the writings help the reader to rule out the impact of the author’s feelings, and concentrate on the reading and interpretation of the novel, which renders the text“writerly”rather than“readerly”and thus displays the postmodernist features of the novel.The deliberate rejection of the sequential plot is mainly shown through the predominant use of the present tense and the employment of the unusual technique of time shift called“flashforwards”. Spark’s adoption of the present tense in the novel makes the use of the future tense feasible and convenient, brings forward the“flashforwards”and hence prevents the novel from unfolding in the ordinary time order, disrupting the sequential plot of the novel. The use of the“flashforwards”combined with the third person narration reflects the change in our vision of time and makes evident the author’s purposeful intervention in the narrative order. Furthermore, it also prevents the reader from enjoying the smooth running of the novel as they could do previously, forces them to stop from time to time and speculate while reading on the author’s purpose and meanings. As a result, the reader will have to pay attention to the artificial construction of the novel. In that sense, the technique is characteristic of postmodernist writings. Chapter three discusses the metafictional techniques employed in Loitering with Intent, which was nominated for the Booker McConnell Prize. The theory about the metafictional techniques is raised at first. The definitions, the origin of the name and the varieties of metafiction are examined. The metafictional features in the novel are demonstrated in two major fields, namely that of the structure and that of the content.The fiction-within-fiction structure and the exceptional mise-en-abyme between two levels of stories in the novel are strong evidence that this novel is a typical metafiction. What’s more, the inclusion of some elements typical of other writings in the novel, or the transgression of the generic boundary, leads to the structural incoherence paradigmatic of metafiction. With regard to the content, many metafictional characteristics are as obvious. The novel describes the complicated relations between the reality and fiction, which exposes the artificiality in the novel and causes the reader to consider the novel to be an artefact. Throughout the novel, Spark, through her protagonist Fleur, voices her viewpoints regarding three major aspects in the creation of fiction—the writer, the reader and the text. The discussion of criticism in a novel is characteristic of metafiction, which demonstrates the postmodernist feature of the novel.The conclusion briefly summarizes the main arguments of the dissertation and follows them with some supporting statements. Then it comes to a natural conclusion that due to the intertextual, metafictional techniques and those of the nouveau roman which are adopted by Muriel Spark in her novels, it can be properly argued that Spark demonstrates the postmodernist trend in terms of the art of fiction in her creations. Reasons are supplied for the fact that merely three techniques corresponding to three novels are under discussion—Though in nearly all her novels, Spark employs various postmodernist techniques, it would be too ambitious for the author of this dissertation to discuss all the postmodernist techniques in her novels and it would be too general as well to deal with many techniques at one time in a novel. Therefore, the author deals with only three novels in a dissertation to keep it to manageable proportions, and examines one technique in each novel in order to show the specificity of the technique.

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