The Alien Modernity of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr brocen in the daegs beginnan brocen by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of the age was writen in the songs of men […] so it is when the world ends […] who is thus i can not cnaw but i will tell thu this thing […] be waery of the storm […] be waery when there is no storm in sight (2)

I encountered Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake while I was wasting some time at the book store of the university where I work, looking for something interesting to read.  The simple cover, the sticker proclaiming it was long-listed for the Booker, and the description was intriguing.  After leaving the book store to look up the book online (which I often do, since I rarely buy dead tree novels anymore) I became more convinced that I should purchase The Wake.

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Much ado has been made about the book’s form.  Written in what the author calls a “shadow tongue” – a simulated language meant to approximate Old English for modern readers – it is possessed by the kind of syntactic play that characterizes Joyce’s Ulysses, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and (as the description on the back points out) Banks’ Feersum Endjinn.  I love all of these books (particularly the last since I am a science fiction nerd, so I appreciated the reference), for very different reasons, and appreciate those authors who attempt to communicate “the inner life” of the narrator in the prose form.

My worry, however, was whether or not the form stood above content.  Was the supposed “literary triumph” and “riveting” nature of this book, as its critics proclaim, limited to the fact that the author had invented a readable approximation of Old English, or was there also some substance beyond its narrative convention.  I’m all for literary experiments but I’m less impressed if they are simply experiment for experiment’s sake, novels that would be unremarkable if the narratives were constructed without these literary conceits.  Maybe this concern speaks more to where I’m at in my life now – less patience with experimentation-for-only-the-sake-of-experimentation – where I have less time and energy to read a difficult novel.  After all, I spend most of my time reading difficult academic texts; I prefer novels, whatever their level of difficulty, that are a break from theory.

Thankfully The Wake is not a novel that exists only as a literary exercise; this exercise is tied to its narrative concerns, and the narrative itself (once one submerges oneself in the language) is gripping.  Billed as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago,” The Wake concerns the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and the guerrilla resistance of the Green Men [or “grene men”] in a world whose subjects believe they are witnessing armageddon.  As such, the author crafts a narrative in this “shadow tongue” so as to approximate the linguistical ways in which the people of 1066 engaged with their world, grasped concepts through this now dead language, and reveal something of the interior life of the people who dwelled within this very particular social context.

Kingsnorth argues in one of the two essays at the back of the book, “I simply dont get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.” (355)  Such a judgment seems, at first glance, historically materialist, since it demands that historical fiction reckon with the material fact of the linguistical constellation in which the subjects of particular historical times would use to navigate reality.  Here is an attempt to peal back the curtain of existence (or, to use the fictional narrator’s language, the “sceat of light that is betweon this world and others and that sum times and in sum places this sceat is thynne and can be seen through” [241]) in order to present an unmediated historical reality.

Outside of this attempt at annihilating the mediation of historical fiction, though, does The Wake possess a compelling story?  The book’s strength is that its story, once grasped through the linguistical convention, speaks very much to a 21st century understanding of reality, which might also be its problem.  That is, although there is indeed something entirely alien and hypnotic that is produced by the convention of Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue” we do not ever reach a point of pure historical unmediation because – and this is perhaps the actual historical materialist analysis – such a point cannot be reached.

But before dealing with the intriguing problematic of Kingsnorth’s use of form, we should first investigate the content of The Wake that, formal conventions aside, is still quite gripping.  While it might be the case that this story would not be as interesting if it was not translated into Kingnorth’s “shadow tongue” we can at least recognize that form does mediate content and that all stories are only as good in the way they are told.  The author tells his tale well; the formal convention allows it to take on a poetic and mythic grandeur.

THE NARRATIVE

Imagine that Nicholas Winding Refn wrote and directed Braveheart and set it in the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century: this is the story of The Wake.  Unlike a film, however, it is possessed by the conventions of a novel where the protagonist tells his story according to a linguistical framework that is meant to approximate the time.  But after immersing themselves in the language, the readers are able to follow the story of Buccmaster, a “ceosan” [chosen] and “anglisc” [english] guerrilla resisting the invasion of “frenc ingengas” [French foreigners].

The difficulty presented by Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue” is surmounted by the fact that the story and its main character are gripping.  Buccmaster, the craven protagonist who is convinced that he is a hero in a Viking saga – a pitiful man who imagines himself great, who lies to himself and is incapable of recognizing that he precisely like the father he hates, and who is jealous of anyone who might actually fill the role of the hero he is convinced is his sole property.  A megalomaniac dedicated to the “eald gods” – the Northern European gods that were worshipped in England before the coming of “the wiht crist” – who takes nearly half the book to kill one of his hated invaders, roaming the apocalyptic ruins of a conquered and massacred nation.  A husband and father who beats his wife and children but spends most of the novel desiring vengeance for their deaths at the hands of the French invaders, despite the fact that he was opposed to his dead children fighting the French in the first place – simply because he wanted them to work on his land and was concerned more with his personal property than the health of his nation.

The very fact that Buccmaster spends the entire book talking about the importance of this nation, and later violently abusing others for acting in ways that he had before his home was destroyed, but is incapable of recognizing his own hypocrisy creates a troubling tension at the heart of this violent story of conquest and resistance.  Even his delusional belief that he is a prophet, spoken to by Weland the Smith and Wodan, possesses its own internal delusions: when these godlike voices tell him that he is not acting as a chosen person should, he finds excuses to justify his actions and resist the conviction of these possibly imaginary voices.

I write possibly delusional because The Wake is unclear as to whether these moments of prophetic insight, of mythical revelation, are a product of its character’s self-aggrandizement or are meant to be taken, within the universe of the novel, as literal.  The references to the Norse/Germanic/Old English gods often feels like a magic realist convention: intended to be real and unreal at the same time.  Whether they exist externally to Buccmaster’s madness or dishonesty is something that cannot be known, particularly since they are only conveyed by a narrator who is woefully untrustworthy.

The story of Buccmaster is gripping even without Kingsnorth’s use of the “shadow tongue” although, to be clear, it would probably be less gripping if it was told in proper, modern english.  The form does indeed render the tale, and the tension produced by its narrator, both hypnotic and poetic… But, then, a good novel is always one that finds unity in its form and content.  There is something both entirely alien and entirely familiar about The Wake; it would not feel this way if either its story or the formal elements used to tell this story were different.

Indeed, the tension of Buccmaster’s bleak and despicable persona resonates with a modern audience that distrusts the authorial voice, that prefers flawed and mad protagonists to the epic heroes of old.  Achilles is not possible “in the era of powder and lead,” so when we look back to those epochs where an Achilles might have existed we want to be shown his impossibility: Buccmaster is an Achilles in his own mind, the way those two-dimensional saga heroes would have been if they were based on actual historical figures: flawed, psychopathic hypocrites inventing the saga in their own heads while demonstrating, to the readers and their fellow characters, that they are liars.

Which brings us to the problematic of The Wake‘s formal conceit…

THE FORM

The author argues, as aforementioned, that his linguistical conceit is necessary to produce an authentic historical novel.  An entire way of seeing the world is contained within a linguistical framework, he claims, because “[t]he early English did not see the world as we do, and their language reflects this. They spoke their truth, as we speak ours.” (356)  While such an attempt to discover a point where history is unmediated, where we can uncover an authentic historical fiction through language, is laudable, it is ultimately pseudo-materialist, a language idealism.

While it is indeed correct to recognize that an individual living in 1066 would not see the world in the way that we see it now, to assume that we can replicate this way of seeing with complete accuracy through the artifice of language misses the point.  Even if the political subject of 1066 spoke the same language as today their experience would still be completely alien due to the mode of production in which they were enmeshed.  Of course they would not speak the same language, because language changes over time, but the transformation of language is a secondary feature that reflects a deeper distancing between the modern and the ancient.  The values, understanding of reality itself, are entirely alien regardless of what language they adopted.  To simply claim that one can understand past concepts through the nomos of linguistics is a form of language idealism.

To be fair, Kingsnorth does try to replicate the way of seeing that would be common to individuals living in 1066; his protagonist is obsessed with “eald” ways of seeing the world – some Viking religion of “woden” as opposed to “the crist” – and the world in which the progatonist operates locates a Christianity that is wholly alien.  Kingsnorth’s use of language allows for this alien nature of 1066 to feel alien, in some respects, but at the same time it cannot help but function as entirely modern.

Why? Because the author, regardless of his appeals to language, is writing from a contemporary context.  Hence, it does not matter how far the author goes back or what conventions they impose, it will still be 21st century conceits forced upon a world that did not think according to 21st century patterns.  The use of language does not matter because the author lives and replicates their life within the 21st century.  Point being: it is impossible to overcome historical mediation and all historical fiction tells us more about the author’s contemporary concerns than their fictional characters.

As the quote from which this blog takes it name indicates, sagas such as Beowulf necessarily “come to an end with the printer’s bar.”  If The Wake was written by someone from 1066 it would not possess the convention of a first person narrative constructed in prose as an interior monologue; even the form, regardless of Kingsnorth’s use of language, is mediated by multiple developments in literary history.  Indeed, Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue”, while feeling ancient and alien, is also wholly modern in that it feels more influenced by modernists such as James Joyce rather than Old English sagas such as Beowulf.

Moreover, the way that characters think and interact with their world is not dependent on their language; language, though it does play a mediating role, is in the last instance a product of humans living in particular social-historical contexts.  The mode of production, as well as the prior modes of production, provides the framework in which an individual understands hir world. Kingsnorth writes in a 21st century capitalist mode of production; it is impossible for him to not import 21st century concerns into his novel’s characters.  Buccmaster is a character that could not exist in the ancient Old English saga, dominated by larger-than-life heroes and villains – where the complexities of psychology were unknown.  Buccmaster is a man who thinks he is a hero in an epic but who is determined by his upbringing, who replicates the behaviour of his father in a way that only the reader, and not the fictional character, is aware.  Such a character could not exist before the modern era, but it is definitely a trope that the 21st century author is aware of.

All historical novels tell us more about the time in which the author is writing than the time s/he is writing about.  The historical novel is not about the past but about the present imposed on the past – how we can understand a past period according to our modern concerns – and this is not a bad thing.  If anything, Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue” allows us to pretend that we are witnessing the alien terrain of a historical moment forever separated by time, and thus produces a verisimilitude, but it remains an entirely contemporary novel… which is the main reason, despite the author’s claims to the contrary, that it possesses literary significance.

Indeed, Kingsnorth himself recognizes this fact when he writes in one of the novel’s afterwords that the resistance to the Norman invasion of 1066 “finds contemporary parallels in the struggles of the Viet Cong against the US army or the French against the Nazis.” (357)  To this we can add every anti-colonial struggle, going back to the European Conquest of the Americas up to the present. Such parallels cannot be drawn, nor the characters interact according to an understanding of these parallels, without the author’s modern understanding.

The contemporary event that The Wake most reminded me of, however, is the decade and a half long occupation of Afghanistan.  Buccmaster’s world is one in which the occupier has lain waste to the land and, in its place, begun to construct fortresses to hold this land, just as the US and its allies have done and are doing in Afghanistan.  In The Wake we encounter collaborators and puppets of Norman hegemony, similar to the puppets and collaborators of the Karzai government.  Just as the Norman priests claim, when confronted with Buccmaster’s devotion to the old gods, that they have come to liberate England from “yfl” and “deofals” – despite the fact that this is clearly a land and resource driven conquest – so too does the religious right in the US defend its occupation against so-called “Islamofascism”.  Most important, though, is the parallel themes of resistance and culturalism: the people in both contexts are resisting occupation but there are always those elements of the resistance movement that seek to pull the people into obscurantist and culturalist directions – the Islamism of the Taliban, the old gods of Buccmaster – and, when possible, these reactionary representatives of resistance will sell out the masses.

THE PRODUCTION

I want to conclude this review by discussing the manner in which The Wake was produced that is just as important as its form and content.  As a Marxist, and as was indicated in a previous post, I think the message/story of a book is often less important than the productive relations that determine its existence as a book.

The Wake was published by Unbound, a company that uses the crowd-funding model popularized by Kickstarter and Patreon to determine its book list and budget.  That is, authors can create a profile on Unbound, a description and pitch of their project, and Unbound will print, package, and distribute anything that receives enough funders.  Thus the potential readership, rather than the expert editors and publishers, decide what will be published.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that this method of literary production is essentially socialist; an essentially socialist method of artistic production can only exist in a socialist formation.  Unbound is still determined by the rules of the commodity form, its crowd-funding structure is limited by the desire of the publishers to survey the readers for something that will sell and use these readers to fund the commodity itself.  This is a far cry from the state-funded printing presses that existed, for example, in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution where millions of people were given access to publishing, where workers and peasants could publish tracts about philosophy, and where there was an attempt to turn everyone into a cultural producer.

At the same time, however, there is something extremely interesting in this bottom-up (though still limited by commodification and surplus-value) approach to publishing.  We are meant to think, after all, that literary merit is determined by those corporations that decide who and what can and should be published; the term “vanity press” is used (and sometimes, let’s be honest, for good reason) to disparage self-publishing, and that quality is determined by publishers despite the fact that these publishers are also the same publishers who decide what can or cannot be consumed, what should be the trend for best-selling and literary acclaim, etc.  In this context, then, a crowd-funded novel should not possess either literary merit because there is no merit to be found in something that is considered valuable simply because a bunch of would-be readers, rather than trained editors, decided so ahead of time.  (A strange contradiction, here: the same corporations set the standard for mass appeal, and publish all kinds of derivative shit that “market research” has determined profitable… so why would a crowd-funded novel, that exists because of direct financial contributions from the position of a particular mass appeal, be a problem?  Simply because it is better that popular fiction be the fiction that we are taught to accept as popular by experts who can decide what is both popular and with merit.)

And yet, despite its origin as a crowd-funded novel, The Wake was longlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize, the Folio Prize, and the Desmond Elliott Prize; it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize; it won both the Gordon Burn Prize and the Bookseller of the Year Award.  Literary critics are singing its praises, Mark Rylance optioned it for a film… If we were to believe the establishment claims about literary publishing, it should have been a dismal failure on all accounts. Moreover, the fact that people chose to crowd-fund a clearly difficult piece of literature – something that is definitely not another Da Vinci Code – means that there are a lot of people who want to read difficult literature, that are not just looking to fund pulp fiction.  This last point is important: we are told that people as a whole only want to consume garbage – whether it be literary garbage or fast food – but maybe this is not entirely the case.

Again, I am not arguing that crowd-funding is essentially revolutionary, nor am I arguing that crowd-funded books will necessarily possess literary merit.  I am not making some asinine claim about the limitations of establishment editors and critics – that kind of bargain basement anti-intellectualism that every shite novelist who will never be published claims in order to defend the genius that exists only in their minds (“it’s a conspiracy of critics!”) – because that would be absurd.  Rather, I am simply pointing out that the official constraints of literary production, even when they are marginally challenged, can lead to the publication of significant works of literature that might not have otherwise seen the light of day.  If a paltry echo of the massification of literature can permit the publication of something like The Wake, then imagine what can be published once we truly massify culture.

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One response to “The Alien Modernity of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

  1. I’m happy to see some more of your thoughts on literature and art.

    I’ve always tried to maintain a similar attitude towards crowd-funding and the whole professional editorial ethos of the publishing industry. There’s so much hand-wringing in literary circles about the decline of traditional publishers. And I would agree that the fact that people are losing their jobs is an unfortunate effect of this decline. But it’s asinine to pretend that mainstream publishing was “all right.”

    I should try to find a copy of this book, as I haven’t had much time to read fiction for while, but now that I’m in between bouts of schooling I might be able to read some other than in graphic novel form.

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