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In this section I want to invite discussion of the context for Crace’s work. By context I mean a number of things, for example, other writers with whom Crace can be usefully compared; the social/political background out of which he writes; what else is happening in English and world fiction at the moment and how does Crace fit in with his contemporaries. The best place to start (as far as this web site goes) is with the interviews collected here. These include interviews with the press as well as an "exclusive" for this web site.
My own comments, below, are confined to literary matters, but I hope to hear from people who know more about the social/political context.
Versions of pastoral
With respect to genre, it is interesting to consider the way Crace’s first four books extend/pay homage to/subvert ideas of ‘pastoral’. Pastoral was, originally, a form of escape literature, in which the (urban) poet expressed his nostalgic longing for an idealised version of country life. The form has been altered/renewed a number of times, for example by Virgil, who used his pastoral Eclogues for social comment; by Tasso and Fletcher, who wrote pastoral drama; by Cervantes and Sidney, who brought pastoral and romantic traditions together in prose. ‘How far the term then lost its traditional application is indicated by Wordsworth’s title for his realistic rendering of a rural tragedy in 1800: "Michael, A Pastoral Tragedy" ’ (Abrams, Glossary of Literary Terms, entry for Pastoral).
Virgil set his pastorals in a part of Greece called Arcadia, and poets have used ‘Arcadia’ ever since as the name for an ideal landscape (Sidney titled his 1581-5 prose romance The Arcadia). The real Arcadia, however, is a fairly desolate mountainous region, as Virgil and the first audience for his poems presumably knew. Did Virgil intend this as a comment on the gulf between his pastoral visions and the realities of life as it was lived in the real Arcadia? From the title onward, Arcadia, Crace’s third novel, alludes over and over again to the traditions of pastoral – for example in Em’s idealised stories of life in her home village, or in Victor’s attempt to recreate in his office the perfect country setting for his birthday lunch. The word ‘arcadia’ is applied specifically to the Soap Market, and then to its successor, the steel-and-glass ‘modern utopia’ that Victor has erected on the site. Many of the characters (Rook, Em, John) are drawn to the market because it reminds them of their own rural background or entices them to imagine that they are getting closer to the earth when they enter its precincts. But the proverb ‘city air makes you free’ is quoted several times, and the relationship between city and country, artificial and ‘natural’, is presented as extremely complex. Is Arcadia a type of anti-pastoral?
To read Crace’s own response to questions of tradition and literary influence, click here.
Crace’s literary forebears?
When I think about possible precedents for/influences on Crace’s work, three names come to mind.
V.S. Naipaul:For a model of the novel of the dissolution of traditional ways of life under intellectual, political and economic pressure from outside, we could look to the Naipaul of The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr Biswas. Continent recalls aspects of Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Naipaul and Crace both have a predilection for exotic settings and for exploring the perils of being a stranger. Neither flinches from depicting acts of cruel and unmeaning violence.
Thomas Hardy:The greatest English chronicler of the breakdown of traditional societies as a result of the introduction of new technology and new ways of thought, Hardy is also a master ‘world-builder’, to borrow a phrase from science fiction. Hardy refashioned south-west England into ‘Wessex’, Crace gave us an entire imagined continent, as well as settings like Baritone Bay (in Being Dead) that are neither quite real nor quite imagined. Crace’s powerful evocations of nature and his intense materialism are another link to Hardy.
However, for a writer of comparable descriptive powers and comparable intensity of focus on natural objects, creatures and processes, we could look to the American naturalist Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is clear-eyed ‘nature writing’ at its finest.
The critic Frank Kermode compares Crace with William Golding, who sometimes exhibits ‘the same sort of almost fanatical concentration on a particular time and a particular object’ as Crace (see here for a link to the review in question).
In the interview for this web site Crace states that he has read neither Dillard nor (to my surprise) Hardy. Among nature writers he mentions Barry Lopez, E.O. Wilson, and David Quammen. Among novelists he enjoys ‘risk-takers’ such as Rupert Thomson, Julie Myerson, Michael Bracewell and Will Self, as well as more established talents such as J.M. Coetzee and Toni Morrison. Click here to find out more about these writers.