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David Trotter: Literature In The First Media Age (Harvard University Press)

The first thing I did was hunt the index for "Bakelite".

I am mildly obsessed with the stuff, the way some people are with ivory or jade. I love the smell, feel and look of it. It conjures up an age that was already passing when I learned to read under a large Bakelite lamp and within the hum of a huge radio, still extant, also made of the world's first completely synthetic material.

Happily, the index showed a citation on the very first page. But David Trotter's study is not just a survey of "collectables" and cultural miscellanea. It is a highly learned account of how new "connective" media (generally the ones with "tele-" in front) changed the nature of narrative in inter-war British literature. There have been studies before of the relationship between fiction and the new "representational" media (generally the ones that end in "-graphy") but Trotter's approach, or at least his emphases, are relatively new.

This book has its roots in the great work of Raymond Williams and followers such as William Uricchio, though it is slightly surprising not to encounter Richard Hoggart and Asa Briggs in these pages. Williams suggested that what others came to know as the "postmodern" (strictly the "post-Modernist") condition was defined by what he called "mobile privatisation", by which he meant neither mobile phones (not yet marketed) nor the selling-off of national assets but rather a new mode of urban/industrial living that was replacing an old organic sense of community with something "cooler" and more diffuse.

Crudely, Trotter's thesis is that the trajectory of British culture between the general strike and the invasion of Poland is from Modernist "energy" to postmodern "connectivity". He also traces an ironic movement from text toward non-text and then on to a revival of text (or txt in online messaging). Convincing termini for that might be Finnegans Wake at one end and the advent of iTechnology at the other.

Trotter argues that "the combin­ation of new media with new materials gave writers the chance to reimagine both how lives might be lived and how texts might be written". Dialogue is sharply fore­grounded, for instance, as in Henry Green or Ivy Compton-Burnett, though the latter was a fierce telephobe. Trotter sets out to "explore the power and the limits of written textuality in an age busy producing alternatives to it". The decline of letter-writing might be thought a hindrance to the world of letters, but not so.

It is an era dominated by a new idea of Empire as connection, characterised by air travel (a constant trope in 1930s fiction from Agatha Christie to Rex Warner), and by international cable and long- and short-wave radio. Trotter's entire thesis is based on the recognition that new communications protocols are almost invariably an attitude before they are represented by a machine.

The impact of telephony on narrative is difficult to exaggerate. In a random hour of television drama last night there were 19 separate phone calls, most of them on mobile phones, most of them relevant to plot. You don't have to be Henry James (whose In The Cage is one of the first great texts of telephony) to see that this has profound implications for how we tell stories.

Trotter builds his account round the concepts of "telephony", "techno-primitivism", "talkativeness" and "transit writing" (the latter is different from travel writing) in the work of Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Edward Upward. Too early, sadly, for mention of novelist Elizabeth Taylor in whose post-war work a telephone call always has a fateful resonance. And how one wishes one could direct Trotter to the 'Mars Ultor' section of James Lees-Milne's brilliant wartime memoirs, in which a wartime romance is conducted entirely "virtually" and virtuously, beginning with a (misdirected) telephone call and ending when a permanently lost connection reveals the woman's death in the Blitz.

But Trotter is right in thinking that the Second World War was a new singularity in culture. The long decade he covers was an astonishing epoch in British life and writing and he illuminates its contexts, its competing utopianism and glumly retro anxiety (the end of polite culture! the disappearance of craft! a world too big and too impersonal!).

He covers it with an unerring eye for detail and ear for tonal shifts in how we represented ourselves. Perhaps better on the wider cultural background than on the specific evolution of literary texts, but how often does literary criticism get a chance to sing the praises of Bakelite?

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