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Sounding out History

Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River


Françoise Král


Collection Intercalaires : agrégations d'anglais, N°10

Presses Universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2017

Broché. 171 p. ISBN 978-2840162827. 12 €


Reviewed by Kathie Birat

Université de Lorraine (Metz-Nancy)




Françoise Král’s monograph devoted to an analysis of Caryl Phillips’s novel Crossing the River, which is included in the program of the Agrégation externe d’anglais, is one of several works published recently designed to help students prepare the examination while offering fresh insights into the work of a prominent Black British writer. The author has attempted to reconcile these two objectives by reassessing the critical frames used to analyze Phillips’s work while at the same time providing in-depth textual analyzes which can help students understand how to relate the sometimes abstract notions of history, memory, diaspora and voice to a complex, polyphonic novel. The project is ambitious, given the propensity of postcolonial criticism(1) to engulf fiction in its numerous ideological agendas, sometimes forgetting that fiction needs also to be read as fiction. By situating the novel within the frame of what she calls “mnemonic vigilance,” Françoise Král navigates the theoretical seas dealing with the relation between history and memory (both individual and collective) while identifying dimensions of Phillips’s novel, such as its reliance on a variety of genres – the epistolary novel, travel writing, diaries, slave narratives – which shed light on the narrative strategies used by Phillips to explore the silences surrounding the slave trade. Underlying the discussion of Phillips is a desire to separate the novel from postmodern theories, which, according to Françoise Král, do not explain Phillips’s particular approach to history.

In Part One, entitled “Writing ‘Into the Face of History’,” Françoise Král focuses on situating the novel with respect to the different frames in which it can be read: narratives of slavery, war writing and women’s history. Much has already been written on the question of what Ashraf Rushdy has called the “neo-slave narrative” in referring to contemporary novels which imitate both the form and content of ante-bellum American slave narratives. While this designation is not necessarily helpful in talking about novels like Crossing the River which rely on the background of slavery but are not autobiographical texts, one cannot avoid dealing with a label which has become a convenient pigeon-hole for categorizing all of the fiction which relates to the period of slavery. While using the term, Král is careful to point out that Phillips’s novel “is deeply rooted not only in slave history but also in the pre-slavery context of Africa” and that “slave history is never presented as confined to the past” [34]. To situate the novel in terms of war fiction, as she does in the following section, is also interesting, as it encourages the reader to take into account the breadth of Phillips’s awareness of Britain’s painful past; the same can be said about examining the novel in terms of gender, which is also a way of highlighting the importance of the final section of the novel narrated by Joyce, a section that plays an extremely important role in shaping thereader’s relation to all the stories contained in the novel.


In chapter II, “Sounding out the voids of history,” the author adopts a particularly original approach to the discussion of the second section of the novel, in which Phillips imitates the ship’s log of the famous slave captain John Newton, whom he re-baptises as James Hamilton. Král proposes to look at this section in relation to the “co-texts” which help to explain the complex and contradictory character of the historical John Newton, a complexity which is only hinted at in Phillips’s fictional account through the imitation of Newton’s sentimental correspondence with his wife. She designates these texts – the correspondence, but also Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (written after Newton gave up slave trading and joined the abolitionists) and his autobiography – as “ghost narratives” [52], thus initiating a theme of haunting with becomes a leit-motif of her reading of the novel. This approach allows her to explore the historical positioning of the real man behind Phillips’s fictional character, a reading which is essential to an understanding of a section of the novel which appears to be simply a pastiche of a historical document.


Chapter III, “Historical amnesia and prosthetic memory,” deals with what is probably the most controversial aspect of fiction dealing with slavery – the silences of history and the fragility of both personal and collective memory. Král is concerned with bringing together all of the conceptual threads entangled in the question, including the problem of history as an accounting both of and for the past. Bringing both Paul Gilroy, the influential author of The Black Atlantic and Paul Ricœur into the discussion,(2) she argues for the need to recognize the impossibility of returning to some point of origin, echoing Édouard Glissant’s comments on the impossibility of a “reversion” or return to a single origin and the need to accept a “diversion” involving diverse strategies of resistance and subversion.(3) She then argues for the need to conceive of a different “temporal space for a schema of black modernity to emerge” [71], one that would avoid the obsession with origins or the “illusionary solace” of tradition [71]. She then applies this idea to Phillips’s novel by treating memory as “haunting” and arguing that his fiction relies on a form of “relational history” [77] which seeks to compensate for the unreliability of memory. This is a very interesting position and not simply a summary of the already complex attitudes of critics like Gilroy, whose arguments are not always easy to follow. This chapter, although students would need to read it at least twice, particularly if they are not familiar with the theoreticians convoked, is from a theoretical point of view, the most important in the book and its arguments would merit being explored in relation to all of Phillips’s fiction.


In Part II of her book entitled “The Generic and Aesthetic Make-Up of Crossing the River,” Françoise Král proposes a close textual analysis of the novel seen through the frame of its haunting by other genres, an approach that should be particularly useful for students who may have trouble opening up the text and reading beyond the historical frame. Like her treatment of the ghosts haunting Hamilton’s log, her discussion of the epistolary form of “The Pagan Coast” makes it possible to historicize the practice of letter writing and understand how Phillips uses it for his artistic purposes. Looking at the same section from the perspective of travel writing offers other insights. The discussion of “West” focuses on the revisiting of the frontier myth from the point of view suggested in Part I in terms of the need to narrativize black subjectivity in ways that do not simply submit black lives to the grand narrative of the American West but that become “depositories of alter / other / peripheral modernities” [102]. The arguments presented here, while consistent with Král’s position concerning the limits of postmodern readings of Phillips, are not entirely convincing, for it is difficult to see why this integration of Martha into the grand narrative of the American West through deliberate parody of, for instance, cinematographic representations,(4) is not simultaneously a celebration of the little-known presence of American blacks in the westward movement. Perhaps one of the only criticisms one can make of this study of Crossing the River is the desire to set it off from postmodernism, a position which may confuse students and fails to take into account the diversity of the fictional approaches which can be called postmodern.(5) The final section of this chapter looks at “Somewhere in England,” the last section of the novel, from the point of view of the form, which the author describes as “a grouping of vignettes which resemble journal entries” [106] and which she analyses in terms of “an aesthetics of ellipses” to show how the ordering of the vignettes reveals the silences which haunt Joyce’s narrative and which relate it to the other narratives in the novel. Like the other sections of this chapter, this section provides highly useful insights into what might at first sight appear to be an unproblematic narrative.


Chapter II is devoted to the question of voice, another subject which has become almost inevitable in discussions of fictional representations of slavery. The major difficulty in discussions of voice is the maintaining of a distinction between the physical reality of the voice as sound and its relation to meaning; the voice of a character is often buried beneath the meaning attributed to what he or she says, making the specificity of the character inaudible. Král addresses this problem by evoking Phillips’s ethical concerns about giving voices to characters who represent historically inaudible people, something he sees as a “hoax.” Her discussion of voice in terms of “chorality and co-orality” works well as a window on the functioning of the often-quoted passage in “West” in which Martha’s response to the narrator’s discourse produces a call-and-response pattern reminiscent of Toni Morrison. However, it perhaps needs to be pointed out that Caryl Phillips is less interested in the voice as a physical manifestation of presence and agency than other writers, particularly those who explore identity through orality. His fascination rather is with texts, as Françoise Král has so convincingly demonstrated in her discussion of genre.


Part III, entitled “Post Genealogies,” is made up of two chapters, one dealing with the notion of home as a way of evoking questions of identity and rootedness and the other with what the author calls “reconfigured” or “post” genealogies. This section discusses the ways in which Phillips’s novel suggests “a move towards post-genealogies derived from an organic stem but able to cross-pollinate in a rhizomatic way” [152] as a response to the “erasures of natural genealogies linked to slavery” [144].


At the beginning of this review I mentioned the ambitious nature of this book, in which the author does not hesitate to tackle head-on some of the trickiest questions surrounding fictional representations of slavery and the fate of the African diaspora. In the introduction she states that her aim is to “trace the complex pattern of filiation and affiliation with other works", to “provide ‘Agrégation’ students with sufficient recontextualizations of key issues” and to “prolong the discussion about contemporary re-engagement with the history of the slave trade” [15]. All three of these objectives are attained in a remarkably well-balanced presentation. Král draws on a broad span of works, both those in the direct vicinity of Phillips’s concerns and others which belong to other geographical or historical areas, not only to mention them in passing but to show their relevance to Phillips’s approach. As far as recontextualization is concerned, there is much that is implied without being addressed directly, but students preparing the subject cannot avoid the necessity of reading specifically about the history of the slave trade and slavery in America. However, provided that they do this necessary reading, the textual analyses provided by Král will be an invaluable tool in approaching a novel which, in its recourse to historical archives, cannot be read as an ordinary fictional text. As to prolonging the discussion about contemporary fictional treatments of slavery, the author’s critically well-informed reading of the novel gives a new “spin” to a number of crucial questions concerning the representation of history and memory. The application of these ideas to close readings is particularly welcome and gives them a specific cogency.


The only suggestion one might make, but it does not concern only her book, is the need to be careful in defining the way one uses critical terms which might not be familiar to students. While a term like “point de capiton” [80] as it is used by Deleuze is carefully defined, the term “co-text” [52], a word used in New Historicist approaches, is evoked without being situated and defined. The author uses the terms “co-presencing” [103] and “co-orality” [121] without explaining whether they are her invention or related to other critics. While these terms seem to work well, one might wonder how to place them in relation to other possible alternatives. This question aside, Françoise Král’s book is an extremely useful addition to the critical work surrounding Caryl Phillips and generally speaking the writing about fiction concerned with the silences of history.


(1) Françoise Král is rightfully suspicious of labels like “Black British” and “postcolonial”: “the scope and imaginary terrain within which Phillips evolves is a lot broader than the often deterministic labels ‘Black British literature’ or ‘postcolonial literature’ would have it” [15].

(2) Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993); Paul Ricœur, La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris : Seuil, 2000).


(3) Édouard Glissant deals with this question in Caribbean Discourse by opposing the obsession with “reversion” (“Reversion is the obsession with a single origin”) to the need for “diversion.” Caribbean Discourse, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989 : 16-19).


(4) This aspect of “West” has been treated by several of the authors in the volume edited by Vanessa Guignery and Christian Gutleben, Traversée d‘une œuvre : Crossing the River de Caryl Phillips (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2016). See in particular the articles by Catherine Pesso-Miquel, Catherine Lanone and Nicole Terrien.


(5) Linda Hutcheon’s presentation of historiographic metaficion in A Poetics of Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1988) would appear to take into account the need to “factor in” black and other subjectivities through an interrogation of public and private history. She says for instance, “To elevate ‘private experience to public consciousness’ in postmodern historiographic metafiction is not really to expand the subjective; it is to render inextricable the public and historical and the private and biographical” [94].



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