The City and the Country, the Myth and the Reality in Jim
Crace’s Novel Arcadia
napisana pod kierunkiem
dr Wojciecha Jasiakiewicza
Katedra Filologii Angielskiej
Uniwersytet Miko³aja Kopernika
I. A Postmodern Novel ?
1. The Origins and Evolution of the Countryside Myth
2. The Nature of the Myths of the Countryside and of the City as Presented in the Novel
3. The Social Implications of the Myth of the Countryside and its Influence on the Actions and Ideas of Modern Man
1. The Community Spirit of the City
1.1. The Soap Market
1.2. Big Vic
1.3. Arcadia the Mall
2. The Country and the City Described
2.1 The Country
2.2 The City
3. A Birmingham Novel ?
Appendix A Synopsis of the novel
Appendix B Jim Crace Chronology
The aim of this thesis is to discuss the myth and the reality of the city and the country in Britain in the eighties as presented in Jim Crace’s novel Arcadia. By carefully studying the text of the novel and relating it to pertinent phenomena, both present and past, in the realms of literature, economy, and sociology, conclusions shall be drawn as to whether or not Arcadia reflects particular ideas and processes present in the modern British society and the western civilisation at large.
The pastoral theme has been present in literature for ages and has been dealt with by great poets and writers such as Theocritus, Virgil, Sir Phillip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Charles Dickens, William Blake, and Raymond Williams. However, since his first work Continent was published only sixteen years ago, Jim Crace is not a writer that has been discussed as much as the country/city opposition he touches upon in Arcadia. Therefore, the time honoured theme extensively considered in the past and a fresh perspective on it by a contemporary man of letters together make for a topic worthy of attention.
In chapter one, the nature of the novel shall be examined in order to ascertain whether or not Arcadia is a postmodern novel in both its perspective and the world it depicts. This should help to measure the extent of the novel’s realism, assuming that ours is a postmodern era. The first section of chapter two shall be devoted to the discussion of the origins and development of the myth of the idyllic countryside. This section should serve as background knowledge helpful in understanding the nature of the country myth and the city/country division which both feature extensively in the novel. The rural myth and the city myth as shown in Arcadia shall be looked at in depth in the second section of chapter two. It shall present Crace’s implicit debunking of both myths. In the last section of the chapter, the significance of the myth of the idyllic countryside and its influence on modern man shall be dealt with. The first section of chapter three shall be devoted to the community spirit of the city. This part will be useful in discovering the true nature of the city and thus the difference between the city and the country in terms of human relationships. The next section shall present Crace’s depiction of the city and the country. The final section shall be an attempt to establish whether or not the city in the novel was based on or reflects the city of Birmingham.
Doris Teske appears to be the only serious scholar so far to have discussed Crace’s works, which made some original analysis of the novel necessary. Therefore, Crace’s novel, as opposed to critical writing discussing it, is by far the most frequently quoted source in this paper. For this reason and for the sake of smooth reading some paraphrases from Arcadia have not been referenced. Another main source was Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City, which is an invaluable resource in discussing the problem of the country/city relationship over the ages with its vast reference to social, political, and economic processes influencing the two types of settlement and its vast amount of poetry and fiction that constitute the basis of Williams’ arguments. This item of bibliography would not have been as useful as it was if it had not been for his lecture Country and City in the Modern Novel delivered at University College of Swansea that clarified a number of his claims in The Country and the City. John Storey’s An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture provided some of the main criteria by which to assess the extent to which the world depicted in Arcaida can be considered postmodern. Then, Denis Smith’s article Not Getting on, Just Getting by: Changing Prospects in South Birmingham is also a much quoted source as it formed the sole reliable source in determining whether the city in the novel bears any resemblance to Birmingham or not. Thanks to the Internet, up-to-date information, interviews with Jim Crace, and reviews of the novel were readily available. A comprehensive, if somewhat chaotic and repetitive, article by John Lye of Brock University turned out to be the main source of information on the nature of postmodern literature, and it is referred to on numerous occasions. Andrew Hewitt’s website devoted to Jim Crace also constituted one of the main sources and in fact was the best place for finding useful links and articles. Most websites used in this paper have been developed by academics representing a variety of universities from English speaking countries as well as non-English speaking ones.
Some of the referencing in the paper needs explaining, namely where a website is referred to or part of it is quoted, the author’s surname is given, or the site's title in cases where no author was listed on the website. As to quotes by authors of the same name initials have been used in order to differentiate between them. In the opening paragraph of chapter one the references indicate the sources in which some defining characteristics of postmodern literature were found. Therefore, they do not refer to any evaluations of the novel itself, but to criteria by which it was possible to ascertain whether the novel’s qualities allow one to consider it postmodern or not.
It might be useful here to familiarise the reader with the author of Arcadia. According to an Internet article Death and the Optimist by Sally Vincent, Jim Crace (born 1946) grew up in the north London, on an estate in Enfield right on the frontier of the city. This may be one of the reasons for which nature/civilization and country/town oppositions feature so extensively in his life and books.
His father, a trade unionist, a socialist, and a member of the Labour party, was an atheist and so is his son. Member of the Young Socialists in his thirties and winner of the Socialist Challenge short story competition in 1977, Crace does not believe in religious narratives, nor in any type of narrative. For him, the fact that all narrative is false does not constitute a problem as he believes it is not supposed to reflect reality.
He went to grammar school, which did not bode well for a boy from a working-class neighbourhood and in fact his neighbours regarded him with suspicion, as if he were an upstart, a traitor to his class. He planned to be a political didact, an Orwell or a Steinbeck. However, he decided to follow in Jack Kerouac’s footsteps; nonetheless, after a time he realised that college was a better idea. When he finished reading English at London University he went to work in the Sudan for educational television as he still thought he could put the world to rights. Yet, he changed his mind later when he realised that he had little influence on the worlds’ goings-on. He became a journalist working for the rightwing press priding himself on his objectivity but found out over time that the fourth estate was not his cup of tea. Thus, he set his eyes upon fiction. When he was forty his little short story Annie, California Plates was published and immediately turned out to be a success. Shortly afterwards he was offered a £1500 contract for his first novel, which he was yet to write. First, he planned to hit on the realist vein, but upon reviewing a book by Marquez he set out to commit himself to magical realism. Thus he produced Continent, which won the Whitbread, the David Higham, and the Guardian prizes for fiction in 1986 (Vincent).
Crace claims that his books live lives of their own and do not reflect him. He declares himself a compulsive formalist; namely, he is more concerned with form than content. He is the author of seven novels: Continent (1986), The Gift of Stones (1988), Arcadia (1992), Signals of Distress (1994), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and Devil’s Larder (2001). Although he believes fiction to be a less worthy enterprise than journalism, he is now a well-paid novelist. He lives in Birmingham with his wife and two children.
A Postmodern Novel ?
In many respects the novel Arcadia is postmodern, although in some it is not. It is postmodern and it is not in both its literary techniques and in its content. On the formal plane, it is postmodern in that its characters lack psychological depth, are flat, and fragmented (Lye). Then, its narrative is far from being linear (Willard) and its style is proof of the author’s playing with literary genres (Lye). The novel’s partial rejection of plot also speaks for its postmodern character (Keep). Conversely, some aspects of what is thought to be the postmodern novel, or postmodern literature in general, are missing. Namely, it does not “[show] a self-reflexive interest in the processes of narrative itself and the means by which it constructs both text and reader” (Keep). Moreover, the reader is not addressed in a multitude of voices and the narratives are not left uncompleted (Willard). Finally, there is perspectivism, “the located, unified 'subject' and the associated grounding of the authority of experience in the sovereign subject and its processes of perception and reflection” (Lye). As far as the work’s content, the postmodern qualities it displays or lacks are far more numerous. Several aspects of the novel’s subject matter can be regarded as symptoms of the postmodern age. Crace challenges the borders and limits of decency, which is amplified by his preoccupation with the body and “the human as incarnate, as physical beings in a physical world” (Lye). Rationalism is no more the guiding principle in the search for truth. Now, it is aesthetics that constitute the truth. Furthermore, Crace deals with the popular to a great extent and tries to integrate life and art, which is concordant with the idea of culture as “the whole way of life” (Storey 157); and, he presents a reality predominantly concerned with economic matters (Lye). Another reason for which the world presented in the novel may be deemed postmodern is the fact that the book’s reality is steeped in city life with the resultant urbanism and town planning issues that inform a great deal of today’s postmodern discussions (Teske). Jim Crace also seems to subscribe to the main postmodern premise of the rejection of metanarratives (Storey 159). Furthermore, certain lives, events, and objects depicted in the novel bear few signs of authenticity (Storey 165). However, the novel curiously lacks the postmodern characteristic of cultural diversity, fast communication, and “the mass mediated reality” (Lye). It also lacks any references to other authors and their works. Lastly, it does not need “an active reader [to] participate in the process of discourse” (Martínez) and it does not treat society as “[a] rhetorical construct[ ]” (Lye). The above-mentioned characteristics of postmodern literature and postmodernity on the whole, present or absent in the work, are only a random and by no means exhaustive selection. The reason for which they have been used in this thesis is that they are clear enough to be discussed and applied in the analysis of the novel. In order to state clearly and unequivocally that Arcadia is an example of the postmodern novel one would need a simple straightforward definition of postmodernism. Since “[t]here are 'postmodernisms' even more than there were 'modernisms'” (Lye) it is difficult to come to any non-simplistic, valid conclusion as to whether Arcadia resembles the postmodern novel or not.
Crace has come up with a group of characters that seem to be blank islands. They all live secluded lives, as if cut off from other people’s. For instance Rook, Victor’s right-hand man, has nor friends neither relatives. He is single, but has an affair with his work colleague, Anna, with whom he loses touch as soon as he is dismissed from his position. The reader is left in the dark as to his thoughts and ideas. His secrecy only adds to the feeling that one knows very little about him. Anna is curious what he does on his daily errands but never finds out. “Rook was an oddball, yes. But oddballs had their appeal for Anna. She liked the stimulation and surprise of men who lived beyond the grid. She liked Rook’s secrecy” (Crace 46). What the reader learns about his psyche is only indirectly through his doings. Another example of a flat character is Victor, the millionaire octogenarian, the main character of the novel, who rarely utters a word and Crace does not afford much insight into his thoughts, either. However, the reader does discover the key to Victor’s character, namely his childhood experiences until he was 6. Yet, the 74 years of Victor’s life between 6 and 80 remain a mystery. One learns that he has been expanding his fruit and vegetable business, but apart from that little is known. These are the two main characters. Others are even more of a mystery. This fact is confirmed by Philip Lopate, a literary critic at The New York Times Book Review, who writes:
Mr. Crace writes deliciously enthusiastic descriptions of the old produce market, and shows himself very knowledgeable about architectural styles and pretenses. . . . But all this panorama and atmosphere in the foreground seems at the expense of the human drama--like an overly art-directed movie in which the characters get lost in the sets. . . . Yet such is Mr. Crace's storytelling ability that the book remains consistently (if reluctantly) engrossing and suspenseful, even developing considerable narrative momentum in the last third--no small trick when you've already stopped caring about the characters. (10)
Another aspect of the book’s postmodernity is its narrative’s non-linear development. The novel starts with Victor’s eightieth birthday party, yet soon Crace shifts his attention to Victor’s childhood to which he devotes a significant part of the book. When Victor is six, Crace decides to return to the present and continues with his story.
Arcadia is in some measure a poetic novel, which conclusion is also reached by a critic from Kirkus Associates who writes:
Read this for its story, and you'll feel shortchanged; read it for its rich texture, with influences running the gamut from Robert Browning to speculative fiction, and you'll feel amply rewarded. (Editorial Reviews)
Adam Mars-Jones, a critic at The Times Literary Supplement, makes the following comments:
The strangest aspect of Arcadia is undoubtedly its reliance on verse rhythms. Not since Moby-Dick has blank verse thrummed so relentlessly beneath the surface of prose. In passage after passage, Crace's style is as iambic as a migraine. The effect is thrilling in short bursts, in quantity maddening. Prose and verse are nothing so simple as opposites, but it's as if Crace tries to reconcile them without acknowledging the fact of their estrangement. The same drive, on a larger aesthetic scale, gives Arcadia its distinction and its force, but also a strangeness perhaps beyond what is intended. More an extended prose poem than a novel, Arcadia reworks traditional pastoral imagery to subvert the dichotomy of town and country. Although countless passages of lush description beg to be read aloud, the overall effect of Crace's aggressive lyricism is somewhat numbing. A rich confection best sampled in small doses.
One only has to read a few passages to realize that Crace is more interested in fine descriptions than a storyline. His likening of babacos (a Crace invention within a list of fruits and vegetables ?) to yellow stars, of a squash to the Turkish turban, of a pile of honeydews to rugby footballs begging for a kick, of zucchini to madly coiffeured snakes that peep out of their boxes (Crace 17) feel more like passages from a poem than a novel. Another instance of Crace’s metaphoric lyricism is his description of a rainy city night with the rainwater that “turned roadside conduits into streams with discarded snack packets as the sails of its racing dhows . . .” (17). “[S]ewers emptied into sluices and sluices discharged their flood into much slower and more muscular arteries of water” (35). Crace is more preoccupied with painting a flowery picture than with weaving any intricate storyline. His is a conventional tale of ‘rags to riches’ and ‘a city king.’ There is little plot as compared to the amount of descriptive passages which often, apart from rich similes and, far-fetched at times, metaphors, consist of straightforward enumeration. Crace admits he is more of a nature than a fiction writer and he has always preferred travel literature with lush descriptions to belles-letters.
Reading Crace is like an outing with one of Wim Wenders's angels, or at least an evening class with an urban shaman, an education in the stuff of life: a beginner's guide to earth, fire, air and water. You can learn from him not only how to test fruit, but also how to boil eggs without a pan, how to slaughter a cow, and how to slake your thirst sucking stones. He clearly admires, and dispenses knowledge of nature's healing powers, and his books offer a wealth of arcane, incidental and - one suspects - entirely spoof and bluffed information about flora, fauna, insect-life and the weather. (Sansom)
The novel’s postmodern character is weakened by the absence of a self-reflexive interest in the processes of the narrative itself. The narrator does not consider the work’s mechanics or construction; nor is he a literary critic or theoretician. His sole concern is the world he pictures. As Charles Newman writes, “[t]he very act of fiction now implies an act of criticism, insofar as fiction is seen as a series of transformations in modes of thinking” (116). He further claims that modern fiction is extraordinary in that it has a tendency to combine “the cognitive density of criticism” with what has traditionally been regarded as the mechanics of verse (117). This phenomenon of novelists turning into critics also has its reverse variety. According to Newman, “[c]ontemporary criticism has chosen to adopt the novelistic assumptions of the inseparability of form and content, the strategies of the self-referential voice, in order to erect a framework and radical rhetoric to legitimise the sources of its own waning authority” (118). Crace does not try to justify his poetic propensity, or his rejection of characters as meaningful artistic convention. Therefore, his novel cannot be called self-reflexive, or an example of metafiction.
Moreover, Arcadia lacks multi-voiced narration as there is only one narrator, the Burgher, who is consistently favourably inclined towards the lower classes of the society. Furthermore, narratives are complete, which is confirmed by the fact that, for instance, Victor’s mother’s story ends when she dies in a fire. Rook’s life, although recounted only in a small part, also has a definite closure as he is fatally injured during a riot. The story of the market place is also told right through to its very end for it is destroyed in a fire. Thus, stories cannot be more complete than these.
As far as perspectivism, the novel can be said to possess this quality since the narrator, the Burgher, is omniscient and it is through his telling of the story that the reader is allowed insight into Victor’s city. Although the Burgher identifies himself only towards the end of the novel, he lets us know that his perspective is that of the marketeers who lose their livelihoods. Except for the end of the book, his outlook is quite neutral as the reader learns about the story and the characters in an objective way. However, at times one can perceive subtle criticism on the part of the narrator, who no doubt reflects Crace’s socialist ideas.
Crace’s novel also fits the definition of culture, as proposed by Raymond Williams, that it is “‘a whole way of life’” and not only “‘the best that has been thought and said’” (Storey 157). What is meant here is also the postmodern literature’s propensity to challenge borders and limits ‘including those of decency’ (Lye). It is evident when one considers the detailed descriptions of urinating, the simple rhymes Crace quotes describing grapes and comparing them to the balls of faeces that monkeys excrete, or his descriptions of sexual intercourse. In The signals of Distress, his fourth novel, he relates an instance of a man masturbating and in Being Dead painstakingly describes disintegrating bodies. These descriptions can hardly be called good taste or high art, thus one can suppose he is very “anything goes” and irreverent to bourgeois modernist definition of high art. It is not any inherent quality that makes something high art and something else low art, and it is merely called thus because it has been embraced by art galleries, concert halls, and affluent audience. Therefore, Crace sticks to his postmodern preoccupation with the culture of the streets and of the market. It will be useful to quote here his words describing the Soap Market: “No gallery of modern art could match the colours there, the tones, the shapes, the harmonies and conflicts on the stalls” (17).
The fact that Crace devotes so much of the novel to sophisticated descriptions and fine metaphors speaks for the truth of the claim that rationalism is no longer the main tool in the search for truth. In the postmodern age it is aesthetics that replaces reason; thus, Crace does not try to explain the reality in his book, he depicts it. Naturally, the tale he tells is imbued with his ideas but he does not try to look for a pattern that would explain the world’s happenings.
Postmodern literature is also ‘an attempt to integrate art and life -- the inclusion of popular forms, popular culture, everyday reality’ (Lye). In the novel there is the celebration of the popular, which is encapsulated in his preoccupation with the lives of simple folk. Crace uses lush metaphors and complex similes; yet, the objects of his descriptions are fruit, the daily lives of simple traders, and the poor people who form the majority of the British society. For instance, he describes the lives of the homeless who spend summer nights at the Soap Market drinking cheap alcohol, smoking cigarette butts, sharing their beds with rats and pieces of rotten vegetables and fruit. More importantly, Victor’s mother’s life, for example, is one with no prospects whatsoever. It is a most dull and ordinary life of a beggar spending most of her time at the market trying to arouse sympathy.
The present postmodern world with its emphasis on the economic increasingly becomes a global marketplace where everything is for sale (Lye). Dreams, myths, ideas, and fantasies are no exception and Crace wonders what Em’s stories (Victor’s mother) “would be nowadays, what? a theme park marketed as Rural Bliss? The film-set for a country musical? The sort of hayseed Kansas encountered on the road to Oz?” (122). Crace clearly perceives the influence of the economic on society. The changes that take place in the course of the novel are mostly economically driven. Rook loses his job as a result of siding with the soapies who constitute an ineffective subgroup of Victor’s empire that he is trying to get rid of. Crace presents a specific western set of ideas that are relatively recent, namely the ideas of progress, development, and change. The scientific changes sparked by the Cartesian splitting of exact sciences from philosophy accelerated the development of the idea of progress (Duszenko). Today, these ideas are the prevalent ones in western culture whose capitalist system relies heavily upon new technologies. What is traditional, out-of-date, and inefficient is discarded and replaced with ultra-modern cutting edge money makers. The Soap Market, with its 600-year-old tradition, “did not earn enough for such a central site. It was . . . a poor outlet for fruit” (Crace 51). Victor, who is such a powerful force that shapes and reshapes the city and the lives of hundreds of people, is a capitalist through and through. “[Victor] knew what soapies were, an awkward bunch, opposed to any change on principle. . . . Rook was no businessman. . . . What businessman could see the market operate and not be shocked at its trading nonchalance?” (Crace 52). Victor’s food growing empire is so economically charged and so contemporary in its nature that it is hardly possible to assume that Crace is not interested in economic matters. Frederic Jameson regards postmodernist culture as “a hopelessly commercial culture” (Storey 171). Crace’s novel is mostly about doing business and in that respect it reflects Jameson’s outlook on postmodernist culture, namely that “[it] does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it” (Storey 171).
The second most important character in the book, Rook, seems very much possessed by work. It appears to be his sole reason for living. When dismissed from his post at Big Vic, he cannot recover from the blow. Work and love do not go together well, either. His former colleague and lover, Anna, gradually loses touch with him as he, out of work, and she, still in work and well, find that their routines no longer match and they slowly drift apart. However, before he was appointed Victor’s right-hand man he was a soapie and when offered better terms of employment abandoned the marketeers and since then had lost many friends. Crace writes: “This was the man, this Rook, who’d betrayed the soapies, who’d led the produce strike and then abandoned it for pay and privilege at Victor’s feet, as if fine sentiments were not as fine as cash” (25).
In the case of the Soap Market, the city councillors clearly expressed no objection to Victor’s plans to modernise it. It was the authorities that suggested the idea to Victor, which again reveals the status of the poor in the city and the status of powerful businessmen such as Victor. No beggar or poor stallholder could match the persuasive force of Mammon. Moreover, Victor does not hold Rook in respect as he is idle, disrespectful of silence, and the proprieties of the office. Victor’s creed that ‘until a man agrees to dedicate himself to work, then he will not be rich, or valuable, or admirable, or – best of all – at peace’ (Crace 9) fits the postmodern theory of the supremacy of the economic. Victor’s thoughts match what New Age capitalists hold true. The modern, Thatcherite (or Reganite) businessman glorifies ‘enterprise culture’ where the individual exercises initiative and decreases his ‘dependency’ attitudes (Heelas 158), which runs contrary to Rook’s idleness. In the novel one witnesses the ease and lack of scruple with which the plans for the removal of the market are approved by the city authorities and Victor’s failure to consult the plans with the people who have spent their lives trading at the market. Thus, it is significant that the economic has no respect for the human. This is the kind of capitalism that ruins communities and answers its ends only. When the soapies organise a protest and march down the city streets to demonstrate outside Big Vic, the press reveals Victor’s crude negligence of the soapies. The press asks: “What consultations have there been with the street traders currently at work in the Soap Market? What provisions have been made to protect the interests of the marketeers?” (Crace 254). When Victor is forced to make a speech to clear the problem up he feels bothered that he must go out of his air-conditioned, safe, and weatherproof tower block to speak to the crowd of insignificant soapies. Here Crace employs another of his ingenious metaphors: “How long since God last descended from the heavens to stand with mortals on the ground?” (256). Victor has to go down in his lift to speak to the crowd. It is Victor who asks the question and this thus reveals the feeling of omnipotence and power that he believes he wields. The money and influence Victor possesses make him feel like a superior, a God who determines the fate of the little ones. Here, one should notice the subtle reference to the power of money, which is compared to, or rather increasingly substitutes God in the life of postmodern man. The equation Victor=Money=God seems quite valid. Victor, however, is a human being after all. It is revealed on New Year’s Eve when he has no one with whom to celebrate the coming of the New Year. This revelation leads the reader to understand that Victor, for all his power, is not immune to feelings of sadness, nostalgia, or loneliness. Crace is not explicit in his view, yet here the critique of the stereotyped millionaire with no one to share the joys and sorrows of life, or a millionaire who, working hard, cuts himself off from the world is evident. Judging from the novel as a whole, what Crace is saying is that it is better to share a poor life with somebody than to rule an empire alone. It is also clear from his comments when Victor and his mother, Em, finally unite with Aunt and move into her room. Cramped and dirty as it is, there is company of beggars and prostitutes so that one does not feel the overwhelming feeling of alienation of the city.
Another postmodern quality of Arcadia is that it deals with architecture as a defining factor in city life. Arcadia the mall represents the fact that the public is no longer the dominant force and that individual private initiative increasingly decides the style of once public spaces. With the diminishing of public space, cities become huge glass and concrete blocks where functionality is the primary consideration. Postmodernist culture, with its neglect of aesthetics and its preoccupation with the monetary value of things, seems to Lyotard to be “an ‘anything goes’ culture, a culture of ‘slackening’” (Storey 160). No longer is there a uniform architectural style of buildings. Victor’s office tower, Big Vic, is all glass and concrete, rectangular, and with no individual or fancy embellishments, although he could afford it to be so. Thus its simple style is a capitalist money-saver. Signor Busi, the architect, represents an influential force in the creation of Arcadia the mall and Crace devotes a considerable number of pages to presenting different plans for the mall. There is also a mention of how ‘town planning’ can sometimes work. Crace seems to side with the poor in that he adduces one possible explanation of the fire in which Victor’s mother died. It is that the run down, overcrowded, squalid house she, her cousin, and Victor inhabited was set on fire by people who wanted to remove it and allow the rich to gain control of the area. The poor residents were never welcome in that area. The fire spread very early in the morning and the police arrived instantly but did not help to put it out. The press announced a culprit and all was fine. The city authorities wanted to improve the area by erecting five-storey blocks – one floor retail, one floor wholesale, two floors apartments, attic, cellar, stables, yard, and high rent. Thus, Crace leads us to believe that the police, press, and the city authorities conspired to drive the poor out of the place.
There were no firemen there or fire appliances. In neighbourhoods like that all epidemics, rioting and fires were left to run their course. The buildings, bodies, and laws were not worth keeping thereabouts, it was thought. In fact, a city councillor had said the week before, that the best prospect for the city was for all the tenements to be consumed by flames, for all the lawless poor to be dispersed by heat like rodents in a forest fire[.] (Crace 130)
According to Doris Teske, Crace utilises such figures as the City King (Victor), or the nineteenth-century-type journalist-flâneur (the book’s narrator who calls himself ‘the Burgher,’) and such ideas as Arcadia and thus can be said to deal with contemporary problems. Crace tries to establish the meaning of urbanism in a postmodern world. His work focuses on “the imaginative appropriation of the public space of the city” (Teske). However, the city refuses to be contained and the chaotic streak of it remains unscathed. ‘Crace takes up questions that have been looked at in detail in postmodern research on the city. The city contained, the city under surveillance, and the city defined by a new kind of segregation . . .’ (Teske). Teske also quotes Sharon Zukin from her The Cultures of Cities:
Zukin sees the material culture, especially the urban design of cities, as the ‘symbolic language of exclusion and entitlement’ of ‘what should be visible and what not.’ The presentation of culture has become all the more important in a post-industrial society, since traditional institutions have lost their political influence and identity has become less clear-cut than in industrial or pre-industrial societies. Cuts in public expenditure have made private sponsorship essential for the maintenance of institutions of culture. This private sponsorship, however, is increasingly combined with the exertion of private power in formerly public spaces. (Teske)
Furthermore, the tone of the novel is not preachy in the least and the reader can interpret the book his or her own way, which is one of its postmodern characteristics. It is clear when one realizes that Crace does not unequivocally condemn Victor’s practices or take any clear stance on the problem of big corporate business ruining small enterprise. He is ambiguous to the point that he lets the market continue functioning in a different location instead of putting an end to it, which would send a clearer message. “Postmodernism is said to signal the collapse of all universalist metanarratives with their privileged truth to tell . . . ” (Storey 159). Another facet of Crace’s work, namely his propensity to tell ‘tales’, also speaks for the claim that he can be considered a postmodern writer. “God, nature, science, the working class, all have lost their authority as centres of authenticity and truth . . . ,” (Storey 165) thus the relativism and liberalism of the present times allows for artists such as Crace to come up with fantasies. Crace himself admits that “‘if you hit the vein of storytelling right on the head, then you can come up with lies that are more powerful than any truth’” (Farren). Crace often expresses his view that every storyteller is a liar. “In The Gift of Stones, he says, of his storyteller main character: ‘Salute the liars – they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place’” (Farren). Nor is there much of the real in the lives of the characters in Arcadia. Victor’s birthday party, with its fake country spirit, adds to the virtuality of their lives. The City King wants to have a country party without ever having been to the countryside longer than a few weeks as an infant. With all this, the lack of authenticity of the experience marks the postmodern era in which the false is even better than the real. In fact, when unable to obtain authentic foliage for the party, Rook provides a plastic substitute. Speaking of plastic foliage, one should also mention the interiors of Big Vic with its atrium full of artificial plants. The description Crace gives of the virtual reality that the city is steeped in is, for example, this:
[H]e picked himself a fine bouquet of plastic branches from the gleaming, sapless, perfect foliage of the atrium. He did not have to tug or cut. Each leaf, each twig and branch, was fixed by sleeve joints. The real, reconstituted bark was stuck to moulded trunks with velcro pads. The soil was soil with nothing much to do, except to fool the people of the town. (45)
The mall that replaces the market is postmodern through and through. Most of the produce on sale is lab-grown, or comes from a gene-bank and a science farm. No longer are various strains of plant what one would expect. “And there are orange grapes, and bananas from Barbados shaped like avocado pears . . . without a stone” (Crace 336).
Arcadia, for all its contemporary character in many respects, lacks a few inseparable elements of contemporary British and western life. It oddly omits the fact that the western world of today, and especially big cities, are increasingly melting pots of such impact on societies’ character that it is difficult not to at least recognize the fact. Crace also fails to mention the prevailing influence of mass media. Without it, any postmodern novel is missing a vital element. Although the press has a role to play in Arcadia, television and the radio are excluded. The telephone is barely perceptible.
In addition, at the very start of Arcadia Crace quotes a poem by a little-known poetess. He gives her name, the title of the collection, the publisher, the place and date of publication. Yet, all this information is invented. Besides that, Crace does not make any references to other authors or works. One, however, cannot rule out subtle, indirect references on the formal or other planes. Crace himself reveals that his fiction possesses doses of magic realism (Griffin), which was first adopted by Borges. Yet, it is only a distant affinity and cannot be regarded as reference. When writing his first novel Crace was inspired by Marquez; however, Arcadia is a somewhat different novel from Continent. Thus, Arcadia does not seem to make any deliberate references to real authors or works.
Arcadia is not a novel that requires an active reader in that it is fairly simple formally, lexically, and in terms of ideas. Only once is the reader invited to make his own judgement, namely towards the end of the book, when it is made known that the Soap Market survives, although considerably weakened and dispersed. The Burgher who informs us of the market’s situation does not unequivocally condemn Victor’s removal of the market and the reader is invited to decide for him/herself. Crace’s style of writing is reminiscent of that of the journalist. It is characterized by short sentences with simple syntax and relatively common vocabulary. Therefore, it is quite easy to follow his line of thought without actively trying to grasp his ideas. Moreover, Crace’s is clearly a socialist perspective and thus it is not necessary for the reader to come up with his own interpretations of events, unless he or she reads critically.
Arcadia also lacks the quality of presenting society as a rhetorical construct only. Crace makes a clear distinction between social classes. The shopping mall Arcadia is expressly for the middle classes, whereas the Soap Market was for the lower classes and those outside usual class divisions: the homeless and drunks. There is a distinct class struggle in the story of Victor’s city. Therefore, it is possible to claim that Crace does not treat society only as a linguistic construct without any material equivalent. The poor seem to lose the struggle in that they are left with no work, their district is burnt down and bought up by rich entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the country/city division features strongly in the book with all its attendant differences between the city and country folk. Also, there is a sharp distinction between the authority and the poor, who when faced with the alliance of the former with the rich are helpless and vulnerable.
Thus, one can find many features that speak for the novel’s postmodernity and many that testify to the contrary. Since not all possible categories have been discussed here and since postmodernism is such a complex idea, no conclusion shall be drawn as to whether it belongs to the postmodern literary tradition or not. The only objective criterion is its publication date that can pigeonhole it as a contemporary work, which in turn can incline one to believe it is indeed a postmodern novel as the time in which it was conceived is thus called. On the whole, however, any valid categorization is impossible.
To begin with, it is essential to establish the starting point of the myth of the idyllic countryside. According to Raymond Williams, the very idea of modern myth as such springs from the opposite of the country, namely the city (The Country 247). The countryside myth, on the other hand, finds its literal source in the mountainous region of Arcadia (Arkadhia) in Greece.
The literary and conceptual source of this myth is found in ancient mythology and the works of ancient poets. Already in the 9th century before Christ the Greek poet Hesiod wrote Works and Days in which he refers to the Golden Age when “‘remote and free from evil and grief . . . (mortal men) had all good things, for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.’” For Hesiod the Golden Age was still further in the past, separated from his own ‘iron age’ by three other ages. His work was the first example of country literature and its evocation of the Golden Age was to haunt the imagination of Europeans for ages to come (R.Williams, The Country 14).
As a point of interest it might be worth noting that according to the ancient myth of Olympos, Arcadia, one of the five Primordials who were “powerful precursors of creation,” epitomized the “imagination, dreaming and hope [that] came from the chaos” (Hicks). Arcadia tried to “uncover something form nothing” (Hicks). He (Arcadia) taught humans to dream and use their imagination (Hicks). Thus Arcadia can be said to stand for the qualities necessary to mythologize and create worlds based on abstract ideas rather than the physical world.
Arkadhia the region provides the setting for Virgil’s (70-19 BC) collection of pastoral poems the Eclogues, which presents an image of the innocence and bliss of “a golden age when humanity lived in harmony with nature” (Boulet). However, as a genre, pastoral poetry was established earlier, in the 3rd century BC, by Theocritus in his Idylls, on which Virgil drew heavily. Spenser’s Shepeardes Calendar is the main poetic instance in English and Sidney’s Arcadia is the major example of English pastoral romance (Ousby 710-11). And it is in Arcadia in Greece that the source of the myth lies.
Yet, contrary to Virgil’s conception, the region itself was not conducive to idyllic life as depicted in the Eclogues as its terrain was harsh and mountainous (Comprehensive Guide); however, this failed to prevent artists from seizing upon the idea ever since. Virgil believed that a happy and healthy life “can only be had away from Rome, or the City” (Boulet). Thus, it will be noticed that even the first examples of the myth were based on imaginary rather than real conditions of a place and that the belief that the countryside was the binary opposite of the city was already current back then in ancient times. Arcadia was a setting for a simple, carefree life that did not have much in common with the complexities of “contemporary life” (Comprehensive Guide).
According to Roger Boulet the concept of idyllic countryside is also deeply influenced by and partially originates from the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Garden of Eden. Parks and gardens that have been created from time immemorial stand for the apparently innate longing for the lost Eden. The territorial discoveries of the 15th century are even believed to have been prompted to a certain degree by “the belief that the mythical Garden of Eden had survived the Deluge and might still be found somewhere” (Boulet).
Along with painting, literature readily adopted the Arcadian theme from the Renaissance onwards. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, with the onset of the industrial revolution, the appeal of Arcadia became even more intense. William Blake, “who envisioned a new Jerusalem ‘in England’s green and pleasant land,’” was the most notable literary exponent of the “lost Arcadia” (Boulet). “Towards the end of the 19th Century, Symbolist artists once again turned to the regenerative idea of Arcadia as an urgent wake-up call to a society in the grips of industrialization, materialism, commercialism and its attendant emotions of disillusionment, decadence and alienation” (Boulet). William Empson’s Some Versions Of Pastoral, a work published in 1935, “seizes on the moral implication of pastoral—that rural life provides a model of a simpler, more wholesome way of life than court or city” (Ousby 711).
In Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne one can find a record of a simple rural life. It is a collection of letters written over a period of twenty-five years (1768-1793) when agricultural changes were transforming the countryside to the degree that White’s account was already becoming outdated. Published in 1789, it did not gain popularity until 1830s, when the Industrial Revolution was at its peak. The book was popular with middle-class people who wished to escape the bleak realities of the industrial towns they inhabited. “Steam engines belching black coal smoke, squalid slum housing, epidemics of cholera and typhoid” seemed to stand in direct opposition to the life White depicted with its harmony, peace, and natural connection with nature (Lecture Synopsis). Although one cannot deny White the power of description, his preoccupation with a “physical world of creatures and conditions” (R.Williams, The Country 119) does not leave much room for the discussion of social and human relations. It is significant that at the time of rapid industrial development an account of nature as apart from man should have appeared to be so valid. For now man and nature were on increasingly diverging, if not colliding tracks.
Thus, one can observe the sort of escapism and nostalgia so characteristic of man when faced with a reality not to his liking. A life that is detached from real human and social concerns carries a great deal of appeal. However, it cannot provide a permanent relief from the harsh and squalid realities of the city, and thus cannot be regarded as serious. It is merely a myth that constitutes provisional deliverance. Yet, White’s work gave birth to a writing tradition that responded to the popular need of “a return to a natural existence now lost” (Lecture Synopsis). This idea is naturally older than the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution as much of the late 18th century art depicted idyllic pastoral life. It evoked the myth of the Golden Age that had held man’s attention since classical times. It was further strengthened by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who rejected the theories of the Enlightenment for he considered the pastoral and pre-agricultural stage of human development “to have been the happiest for man” (Lecture Synopsis). His idea of pastoral primitivism excluded any “[g]eneral and abstract ideas [since they] are the source of man’s biggest errors” (Lecture Synopsis). These are part and parcel of what is called Arcadianism-a modern environmental movement that is based on the myth of the idyllic, harmonious, and natural country life (Lecture Synopsis).
As a final remark, it is worth mentioning that while looking for the source of the myth one may hope to find the period in which there indeed was a land of Arcadian qualities. Yet, try as one might one cannot possibly find it. As Raymond Williams noted, while looking for “an earlier and happier England, [one] could find no place, no period, in which [one] could seriously rest” (The Country 35).
British literature and psyche have been especially prone to fall under the spell of the country and the ideas of it (R.Williams, The Country 2). With the industrial and imperialist phases of British history came changes that transformed the countryside and the city to an extent, at a rate, and at so early a time that no other country has ever experienced. Both the Industrial Revolution and the imperialist phase of the British history had impressed an indelible mark on the English psyche and social structure. The former caused large numbers of country people to migrate to cities and the latter decreased the dependence on a domestic agriculture. Even though British society was already predominantly urban, its literature continued to focus around the rural life for a generation and the English attitudes towards and ideas of the countryside remained very current and topical. The myth charged with older ideas and experiences is even present in the twentieth century in spite of the prevalent industrial and urban character of the present times (R.Williams, The Country 2). Crace gives examples of and discusses both the countryside and the city myth. He tries to expound how a particular instance of a myth is created, thus making it a credible mental phenomenon. Also, he contrasts both myths and common perceptions of the country and the city. The conclusion he draws about the nature of these myths is that both are simplifications because they omit some of the aspects of the two forms of settlement.
In terms of psychological credibility, the forming of the myth in Victor’s head is convincing and his dislike of the city, especially since his mother died in the flames of the burning Woodgate district, is reasonable as well. That he is a country boy only in the spiritual sense is also fair to say. The image he has of the village is that of a townie. The city is in fact where the myth comes form. It is a dream dreamt by the city folk who long for peace and quiet and fresh air. Therefore, one can perceive how Crace’s writing reflects cultural realities. On the level of physical, tangible truth it is naturally naïve to believe in the existence of such an idyllic world. Still, on the socio-mental plane the novel reflects popular beliefs and popular folklore, be they of the country or of the city.
In a number of passages in Arcadia, Crace makes use of the most common and prevalent perceptions of the two opposing types of human settlement. He describes village life as being devoid of charm and mystery, where there are no strangers, just cousins or neighbours’ sons, whereas he speaks of the city as an excitingly sinful place that makes one free and wild. Profusely, Crace uses metaphors of a definitely country origin, yet they reveal a certain preference for the city life. Describing the men in the countryside he writes: “They were as solid and as passionate as trees, as heroic and original as farmyard hens” (144). As far as the corrupting quality of the city Crace does not leave anything to doubt. For it is a place where a poor boy from a village can become all of these and more: a thief, a murderer, a prostitute, a homeless person, and a beggar. Not only Joseph (a country-to-city migrant), but also Em (Victor’s mother), Aunt, and Dip, without money or trade or luck, have to resort to bad practice. However, Victor who was born in a village manages to live a city life and thrive in a limited sense. It is because he embraced the logic of the city, the logic of money and work. But for Joseph, Crace does not see much prospect of succeeding in life. “At best, there would be poverty ahead, and drink, and crime, and selling sex and favours in the street. At least while he was young. And then just poverty and drink” (10). Thanks to three years of hard work at Victor’s farm Joseph boasts a muscular body, worthy of a second glance, yet his face is still a plain rural one. “Joseph’s nose and forehead were not so ornamental, not ugly but uncouth through work and poverty and innocence. The corners of his mouth were cracked from sun and sweat” (Crace 33). His face is described as looking innocent and contrasted with the faces of city people on trains, especially with the perfect noses of the women that he sees each time there is produce to load. Thus, again, country innocence is contrasted with city corruptness. It is Joseph’s belief that once in the city he will be able to steal, lie, and flourish without the intrusive noses of village folk. When just about to arrive in the city, Joseph looks out of a window of the freight train car in which he is travelling. He expected to see a city with tall and optimistic buildings, tall and optimistic girls, fancy cars, and flashing neon lights. However, at that moment he was still in the suburbs where he could not see much as it was too early. What he also expected were “signs of poverty and waste, of power and indifference, of wealth and sex and violent energy, [and . . .] of destiny” (Crace 35). It is interesting to note the subtle reference to the corruptness of the city. Joseph is reputed as a petty thief in his village. He is bored with rural life, so he leaves for the city to make a living out of theft. Thus, Crace makes his character go where he belongs: the corrupt city, which has no other virtues except trade. For Crace, commerce is synonymous with theft. When Joseph is on his way to the Soap Market he wonders what made the city so rich and large. Without any natural resources, without a coast, with a climate not suited for grapes nor for hops, it seems to thrive on the lack of any virtues. Yet, there is an answer and it dawns on him as soon as he arrives at the marketplace. A city like this one is reduced to trade.
The image of the country that the main character of the novel, Victor, has was forged by his mother’s tales. The tales invariably spoke of the harmony of trees and fruit growing side by side as if on the same tree. Because they were uncanny stories of great charm and delight and because Victor was told them over and over again for the first six years of his life, he never forgot them and always dreamt of a life like the one the village folk in the tales lead. Crace clearly states that these stories are all just myths, enamelled reality that seems so perfect owing to the time elapsed and the physical distance between the village and the city in which Em and Victor find themselves. Victor’s life has all been a dream, at its most intense when he was at his mother’s breast for the first six years of his life. Indeed, during that period he knew of no other world than the nipple and the country tales. Thus, all that went on around him at the market was as though not there because he was constantly facing his mother’s bosom. Here, Crace aptly debunks the myth of the country. It is possible to infer that he subverts the myth by showing the circumstances under which the myth is created. Victor was a deprived child that had no other experience in life than his mother’s beggar’s life and only her stories could have any influence on his developing psyche. Thus, Crace demystifies the mechanics of the myth. What is most important to note here is the fact that he shows Em’s stories to be merely part of a myth. “The city was a dream. He opened half an eye to fall asleep. . . . He dozed, caressed by Em’s refurbished better times, and by higher skies and fresher winds and more magical conjunctions than any city could provide” (122).
Joseph’s idea of the city is also a myth. He has been seduced by an image promoted by an advertisement in a fashion catalogue On the Town. As a city myth, this picture’s task is to promise, lure, and deceive. Thus, along with the suit a certain image and lifestyle are advertised. Crace gives us to understand that Joseph’s likely plan is this: he will move to the city and become as handsome and macho as the model in the picture. The lifestyle is very urban: many women to be had easily and anonymously, and a lot of good spirits and wealth. All these appeal to a countryman whose body is beautiful enough to be noticed in the city and seduce women.
The fashion model in the catalogue had been sitting on a bar stool with his sunglasses hooked inside the breast pocket of the jacket. One hand – the one with the single gleaming ring – was resting on his knee, palm up. The other held the barmaid by the wrist. The gold watch on his arm showed the time as five to midnight, or five to midday. There was a bottle of muscatino on the bar and strangely, promisingly, three glasses, as if another woman had just left, or was expected soon. Or perhaps, the glass was waiting there for Joseph. (Crace 31)
Joseph imagined that this was what one could do in the city whenever one desired. No matter what time of day it was, one could enjoy a relaxed conversation and a good drink. This, however, was not to be his fate. The image is only a part of the real picture, yet it manages to capture Joseph’s imagination. It is not a lie, nor is it the whole truth. It is a modern myth serving an economic purpose. Joseph purchases the suit from the catalogue along with the dream. There will be, however, no drinks, no women, just misery. Thus, the nature of the myth is revealed and the true picture afforded. Crace is aware that the myths are simply partial truths deliberately concocted to serve and, not infrequently, exploit the needs humans have.
3. The Social Implications of the Myth of the Countryside and its Influence on the Actions and Ideas of Modern Man
The main character, Victor, lives under a strong influence of his past and his mother’s tales of the happy days in her home village. The impact of the countryside myth on him is manifest in his desire to celebrate his 80th birthday party in a country fashion and, more importantly for the novel’s character, in his building of Arcadia the mall. By throwing a country party Victor wants to partake of what the idea of it presents to him, namely familiarity, warmth, friendliness, and the carefree atmosphere of a meal shared with friends and relatives. Nonetheless, all these qualities are beyond his reach. Friends, relatives, and familiarity are all missing from the party. However, Victor tries to create a rural ambience in his new mall Arcadia by choosing Signor Busi’s design that reminds him so much of his mother’s tales of the happy country times. The myth of the countryside is itself a creation of those who are dissatisfied with their city lives, as his mother is, and as such is just an opposition of the city and not a referent of what the country in fact is.
Although Victor has never lived in a village, he wishes his 80th birthday party to be as country-like as possible and Rook does his best to satisfy the old man’s desire. He organises the party and makes sure that it is all in a country spirit. He wants Victor to be touched by the memories of his mother. It is significant that Victor has little idea of what a genuine country party is like, and so does Rook, who grew up in the city. Yet, there are books depicting country customs and Rook makes use of them. Victor’s seclusion in Big Vic compared with the familiarity of his ideal country meal speaks volumes about his deepest wishes for warmth and familiarity:
He said he wanted a simple country meal. The fiction in his mind was this: that he would sit surrounded by his friends beneath a canvas awning. There’d be white cloths on a shaky trestle. A breeze. The guests would push off their slippers and rub their bare toes in the dust. They’d twist round on their stools and spit olive stones in the air. Some cats and chickens would take care of crumbs and perch skins. With just a little teasing and some cash, the cook’s fat son would play plump tunes on his accordion. That was Victor’s ideal birthday meal. Simple, cheap, and attainable for country people living earthbound, say, thirty years ago[.] (Crace 3-4)
A question arises: Why does he carry on his hermit-like life when, in fact, he wishes for simplicity, warmth, and familiarity? It might be argued that Crace’s point is that it is the system that drives people apart. Ever since the Industrial Revolution human communities have been experiencing a rapid disintegration. Extended families have been split as a result of country-to-town migration, although now the trend is reversed. Families increasingly became nuclear as opposed to country families with three or four generations living together (Fielding). The sense of belonging quickly decreased in the city as the division of labour separated people and little was done together.
Victor’s dream, however strong, is only a dream. Crace apparently does not try to show a man who truly wishes for a simpler life as this dream is merely a whim and Victor himself knows that a real country event is not attainable for him. It is
. . . a dream beyond the reaches of cheques and fax machines for a man whose home is twenty-seven storeys and a hundred meters up, with views all round, through tinted toughened glass, and tinted, toughened air, of office blocks and penthouses and malls. (4)
Thus, although Victor desires the warmth of the country life, he cannot possibly have it due to the fact that he already belongs to a completely different time and place. Therefore, one can observe again the influence exerted on the psyche of people by the transition from one type of human civilisation, the country, to another, the city. Crace’s works are in the main concerned with civilisation or cultural transition and here the market, which is one of the last bastions of the country within the heart of the city, comes to an end, or at least has to regroup and is thus weakened.
However, the building of Arcadia can, contrary to expectations, be said to reflect more the reality of country life since it does away with the chaotic, anarchistic Soap Market. By building an ordered shopping mall in place of the noisy and disorganised market, Victor tries to put an end to its chaos and unruliness. According to Raymond Williams the country has always been split by class division of some sort (The Country 104) and it would be unnatural for the market, with its classlessness, and common accessibility to continue operating. Thus, Arcadia comes in and reserves the spot for the haves. According to postmodernist theory of architecture, the city in the present times tries to control the chaos and arbitrariness of cityscapes by promoting rectangular, utilitarian designs and excluding certain groups while including others. Not only is the building of the mall an expression of the myth, but by its very emergence and character a rejection of the myth. (Teske). It is possible to perceive here the dichotomy of Victor’s ideas and what they truly stand for. Victor is not trying to recreate the spirit of the idyllic Arcadia with its carefree life and love, but wishes to relive his childhood when he felt the warmth of his mother’s body for six years every single day. Crace is evidently influenced by Freud’s psychological theories of the key significance of childhood on the psyche of the individual (Erikson 10) and takes them to the extreme by creating a figure preoccupied with its past.
The myth of the countryside is just a myth, and one created by the townies for the townies. It is not about hard labour or husbandry; it is about peace and quiet, free, wide expanses, and the cleanliness of air and nature. These are only the binary opposites of what the city stands for: hustle and bustle, noise, pollution, crowds, and congestion. As Raymond Williams writes:
What is idealised is not the rural economy, past or present, but a purchased freehold house in the country, or ‘a charming coastal retreat’, or even ‘a barren offshore island’. And it is in direct reaction to the internal corruption of the city: the rise of lawyer, merchant, general, pimp and procurer; the stink of place and of profit; the noise and danger of being crowded together. (The Country 47)
An autobiographical work, Away to the Woods, by the 20th century London woman writer Lena Kennedy affords a relevant example of this perception of the country. It is a book that glorifies the country as a part of the author’s life with which she could not dispense. Although she does not represent any of the above-mentioned professional groups and was of modest means, she was a town woman from London who craved some time off the city’s hectic routine. She invested all her and her husband’s savings into buying a plot of land and erecting a summerhouse. However, what is significant is that her relation with the place and its environment is very representative of this magical, unrealistic, escapist idea that is so detached from the actual essence of the country. In a passage that illustrates her close feeling for the spot, she hugs the trees and talks to them:
On our last visit of the year I stood under [a] great oak tree . . . and said, ‘Goodbye, my dear. I’ll see you in the spring.’ I put my hand on the old, silvery-grey, wrinkled bark. . . . All that long winter amid the hustle and bustle of family life, the washing and the cooking, the taking and the collecting of the kids to and from school, my mind would dwell on that silent woodland. (Kennedy 20)
This somewhat romantic view of the countryside can only be shared by those who have never lived there permanently and who can spare some money to spend the weekends away from the city.
The fact that the countryside and the image of it one has influence one is beyond question. In Crace’s novel it plays a central part not only in Victor’s life but also in the designs and ideas of modern architects. The reference here is to the building of Arcadia the mall that is to be mainly a fruit and vegetable outlet, which naturally requires or presupposes a natural landscape
of pits and peaks and foliage travertines and moduled trading canyons, as if the market buildings which they had conceived were ancient caves, or forests, mountains, landscape parks, as if they were importing countryside to colonise the city’s heart. (Crace 206)
It is significant that they should plan for it to be so because originally the city was just an extension of the country. Naturally, nowadays the situation is increasingly becoming the reverse with the mechanisation, large-scale farming, and the city poised to flood the country by its never-ending expansion. The danger of the country disappearing will probably make the myth even stronger and the influence it has more widespread since the less of the country there is the easier it will be to falsify its true character.
Since Crace’s perspective is socialist it is desirable that his presentation of the community life in the novel should be discussed. From a broader perspective it can be noticed that Crace is decidedly bemoaning the disruptions in community life as presented in the novel. He clearly tries to show that individualism as represented by Victor and the drive to excel in business is detrimental to the total condition of life, namely it causes the destruction of communities and the introduction of profit as the sole consideration in life. The economic changes brought about by the conservative governments of the 1980s led to high unemployment figures (Brittan 21). In large industrial cities people were concentrated around their workplaces and when laid off they lost contact with their workmates and became family bound (Smith 261). In this section, the three main localities in Arcadia shall be examined, namely the Soap Market, Big Vic, and Arcadia the shopping mall. An attempt shall be made to establish how society manifests itself and whether one can speak of a community spirit in each of these. As stated by Ian Chambers, communities are no longer place-bound but happen elsewhere (53). According to his viewpoint, people increasingly inhabit the virtual worlds of the phone, television, fax, and the Internet. When, at Victor’s birthday party, the music ends and all the staff present are signalled by Rook to leave, they go back to “their screens, their telephones, their desks, their manifests of trade in crops” (Crace 56). It is possible to claim that with increased mobility communities cease to exist in a particular place. This is the case with Arcadia the mall, which is designed with the haves in mind who visit it as “tourists” travelling from suburbs to the city centre where it is situated.
1.1. The Soap Market
The Soap Market is a place where fruit and vegetables are sold, and it has been so for six hundred years. Before becoming a market, it was a medieval washing place and this is why it is called the Soap Market. A spot anybody can visit, it is a meeting place of the rich and the poor, beggars and traders, country and town people, and has no car park or regulations; thus, there is a chaotic and unruly feeling to it. It is a community where everybody knows one another, and which represents the country with its village life within the heart of a big city. According to Raymond Williams, medieval towns “seem to have developed as an aspect of the agricultural order . . . : at a simple level as markets; at a higher level, reflecting the true social order, as centres of finance, administration, and secondary production” (The Country 48). Doris Teske claims that
the anarchic fruit market ‘Soap Market’ represents another kind of Arcadia: It is seen as a home, a place of belonging in an unfriendly and anonymous city. The market connects migrants from the countryside with their agricultural background, but also shows a community of individuals resembling village life. Instead of mirroring the anonymity and transitoriness of a common urban experience, this place is defined by personal contact and tradition.
When Joseph arrives in the city he goes straight to the market as it reminds him of his village and he feels at home there. Although he meant to experience the city life proper his unconsciousness led him where there is fruit, vegetables, country people, and traders. Thus, the feeling of belonging is there to decide one’s fate, whether one wishes it or not.
The traders at the market are a definite group with its own identity and loyalty. When they are threatened by imminent removal from the market, they act in unison to prevent it, which is natural where one’s interest is at stake. The understanding of the real state of affairs as far as the community is concerned is enhanced by Raymond Williams’s observation that:
In many parts of rural Britain [of the 19th century], a new kind of community developed as an aspect of struggle, against the dominant landowners or . . . against the whole class-system of rural capitalism. In many villages, community only became a reality when economic and political rights were fought for. . . . In many thousands of cases, there is more community in the modern village, as a result of [the] process of new legal and democratic rights, than at any time in the . . . past. (The Country 104)
The unity of a community when faced with danger is mentioned twice in Crace’s novel. First, when the market is being introduced to the reader Crace speaks of the solidarity of the traders, which reveals itself during protests. He writes: “They’d all been comrades in the market strike a dozen years before” (24). Another, and clearer example of what Williams refers to is a passage where angry protesters from the market march in demonstration to Big Vic upon learning of Victor’s plans to move the Soap Market. In the company of fellow marketeers and shouting slogans in unison “[f]or once they felt like crusaders instead of selfish middle-men in trade. This day enriched them. Indignation and a drum would save their market from Arcadia” (Crace 250). Thus here Crace reveals that, in fact, soapies are businessmen as well, although not as successful as Victor. All in all, however, the soapies lose their fight for their workplace against Victor and against his power to influence newspapers, authorities, and bribe soapies to work for him (Rook). Here, one might recall the main policy objectives of the Thatcher government, among which was the trade unions reform that would gradually weaken trade unions’ power of influence (Kavanagh 3). Therefore, the soapies’ defeat is reminiscent of the eventual successful bringing down of unions.
It is significant that when he is dismissed as a result of receiving kickbacks from the soapies, Rook stands up to Victor and sides with the traders in an effort to preserve the market. These two men both grew up dealing in produce. There is a parallel between Rook’s loyalties and his childhood and Victor’s current character and his early experiences. Rook was raised in a family while Victor spent his first six years sucking at his mother’s nipple while she begged at the market. When she died in a fire he was cared for by his aunt, who was not a good substitute for a mother, Victor had to fend for himself. In removing the market and building a shopping mall in its place Victor does not realize that he is destroying a community since this term has little meaning for him. While both Crace and Teske bemoan the removal of the market and praise its classlessness, they fail to notice a significant point. The market, being reasonably cheap, caters mainly for the poor and it is doubtful whether many well-to-do people venture into its grounds. Naturally, one cannot deny the verity of the fact that in terms of accessibility it is far more open. However, the reason for this is simple and boils down to money, since with the profit they make, marketeers are not able to hire security guards or build their own mall. They do not even own the stalls that they are using. The overall perspective of the book suggests that the main characters are like islands and there is not much community morality in that their actions are hardly influenced by other people’s opinions. They act propelled by the desire for profit and serious relationships with other people are not a consideration.
This is what happens to Victor as well. His creed being the power of money, Victor does not care about relationships. In fact, he wished to make a wall, “a fortress shield of wealth, beyond which the dramas of the world can run their courses unobserved” (Crace 168). Victor believed that money had no moral act. With money the wealthy can do as they please: destroy, bring to life, and interfere. Yet, for all his wealth Victor is sad and alone and it is the condition of the city that men gain power and lose the warmth of community life.
The novel starts with Victor’s eightieth birthday party, given at Big Vic, to which only a few business partners are invited. As Victor has no friends or family, just business associates, and as he allows little friendly spirit at his party, there are no laughs or toasts. Although he made Rook arrange for a folk band and decorate the party room in a rustic fashion, the atmosphere of the party is lifeless and formal. Commenting on Victor’s character, Crace begins the book with a quotation by a fictitious author, Emile dell’ Ova:
“The tallest buildings throw the longest Shadows
(thus Great Men make their Mark by
blocking out the Sun,
and, seeking Warmth themselves, cast
Cold upon the rest).”
Victor lives and works at Big Vic, as if cut off from the outside world, giving orders via an intercom. Not many people come in contact with him often, except for Rook and his secretary, Anna. Victor feeds on the myth of the countryside, idyllic and happy, that his mother had imbued him with. He builds a postmodern glass-enclosed extravaganza, a shopping mall called Arcadia, in order to honour the country and its myth. It is ironic that while keeping in mind the myth he aggravates the lives of people who have anything to do with the country and community spirit, that is the soapies. Employees at Big Vic hardly form any community in that the only force binding them together is money. Yet, Rook’s attachment to the market takes precedence over his loyalty to Victor when he provides the soapies with information on Victor’s dealings. Even Rook and Anna’s affair does not withstand the test to which Rook’s dismissal subjects it. Their relationship is not a serious one and crumbles as soon as they stop seeing each other at work. Victor’s, Rook’s, and Anna’s lives are depicted using scant detail. According to Andrew Hewitt
some [readers] were uncomfortable with what they saw as schematic construction and felt that the characters lacked depth. My own view is that the characters, especially Victor, are intentionally enigmatic. In a city we can know a great deal about people (right down to the details of their birthday meal) without knowing them at all. (Hewitt)
Raymond Williams’ opinion, which he expressed in his lecture delivered at the University College of Swansea in 1987 is that
In a village where we have lived for any time we do, in general, know who the other people are and in this sense recognise them. . . . In a city, over the same period, we probably get to know at least as many people . . . but not a whole community of our neighbours. (Country 1)
The reader of Arcadia barely has the feeling that he is reading about real people. Victor is cold, detached, and reserved and hardly ever ventures out of his office suite. Rook is also to be bereft of any social placement. He does not have any close friends, nor does he have much contact with his family.
The Soap Market is replaced by a glass-and-concrete shopping mall that prevents many of the soapies from continuing their business in the same place. As they cannot afford to pay the high rents at the new mall, they are forced to move to a new location. The accessibility of the Soap Market is lost and the exclusivity of the mall takes its place, spelling doom for the diversity and community feeling of the market life. With security guards it becomes impossible for any beggars, homeless people, or drug addicts, who used the Soap Market as their sleeping place, to pay a visit to the mall. It is significant that Crace chose to call the mall Arcadia since as Doris Teske argues: ”In the satirical tale about Victor and his creation of a postmodern shopping mall ‘Arcadia,’ Crace puts to new use the myth of Arcadia as a landscape in which an unspoilt rural community exists untouched by any urban influence” (2). Arcadia the mall has many properties that evoke the myth of the countryside: it is safe, clean, and seemingly Arcadian yet lacks the main component: the community. The market was a community bound to a location, whereas Arcadia is placeless with its new stallholders and middle-class customers visiting it on their way back home to the suburbs. Thus, they are neither emotionally nor physically close to it. As Doris Teske points out, “[i]n its defence against any unwanted intrusion by the traditional city, it remains a place outside the city, an area which because of its loss of local identity could be called ‘placeless’ or ‘virtual.’”
The mall’s sterility, cleanness, air conditioning, and consumerist atmosphere mark a new era for a place that for six hundred years has been a fruit and vegetable market. However, as the closing chapter of Arcadia reveals, the market manages to survive by moving to a new location, that is, individual traders set up their new pitches wherever they can, but quite close to the new mall. Yet, this is only Crace’s wishful thinking as in the modern capitalist societies there is less and less room left for small entrepreneurs. But Doris Teske expresses a different opinion:
. . . while accepting his own powerlessness, ‘the Burgher’ [an objective and rather detached journalist-narrator of the book] puts himself into a Darwinian context that redeems the traditional city: In a city full of decay and death, of dirt and destruction, only the fittest survive, not because of their strength or their ‘power to throw the longest shadows,’ but because of their adaptability. Thus, while ‘the Burgher’ accepts his eventual death, he is convinced that an urban community defined by diversity and interaction will ultimately win against all urban management and strictly defined urban system, as it is the more adaptable.
What Jim Crace is probably trying to present in his novel is, among other ideas, the state of the communities of city centres following the advent of the Thatcherite era. The city Crace depicts is one that fits the economic realities of that period. The majority of business mentioned in the novel being service, one can suppose he speaks of the Britain of the 80s (Abercrombie 83). The above conclusion can be inferred from a passage that presents the part of the city that has not yet been ‘colonised’ (to use Crace’s expression) by barbers, accountants, and warehousemen, who all belong to the service sector. Also, when he talks about demolitions in the city centre – the so-called improvements and more specifically moving the city’s poor – and the bourgeois who commute to the city centre to work from the suburbs, he strikes a note that is reminiscent of what the average British city is like. With the closing of factories, mines, and shipyards, city centres ceased to be vibrant communities and turned into wastelands with no prospects for the future (Abercrombie 320-321). Nowadays, there is a tendency among local authorities in Britain to revive the city centres and turn them into cultural centres. However, according to Farquhar McLay it has little to do with developing the city centres in that it only serves the middle classes who can afford to attend concerts and plays. The city centres to be revived are to serve a capitalist purpose, namely attract tourism and investment so that the haves can do business and thrive. McLay maintains that money spent on the redevelopment of city centres should be used to diminish housing waiting lists and reduce unemployment (12-14).
Crace creates a feeling that the Soap Market, in contrast with Big Vic and Arcadia the mall, constitutes a close-knit community. This is, however, only due to the fact that he fails to delve more into the community structure of the other two. He deliberately uses flat characters to intensify the feeling of lack of community spirit by using Victor, who is an extreme case of a recluse. The fact that Crace seems to favour the Soap Market on account of its possessing the “community spirit” is only his purposeful ploy to discredit the middle-class culture.
The reader learns about what the countryside is like only thanks to Em’s indulgent storytelling, market girls’ folktales of horror and mystery, the country birthday party posing as the real thing, and most importantly, Victor’s nostalgic conceptualisations of the paradise lost of which his mother so often spoke embellishing, omitting, improving, and mythologizing fields and pastures.
In the novel, both the myth and the reality of country living are presented. Victor, having been fed stories of the fields and woods by his mother every day till she died when he was six, has a very rosy idea of what it is like thanks to his mother making a
tinselled paradise of it. It was the market place transformed, the ranks of vegetables, the fruit, strewn loosely in arcadia. It was a world where everything was ripe and colourful and sweet and free. It was a buffed and shiny version of the village she had known before her husband had – both country phrases – earth as eyelids, and his eternal freehold on a narrow strip of land. (Crace 116)
Naturally, his mother, finding it difficult to cope in the city, longed to go back to, idealized, and praised her home village. The reality, however, was that if she had returned she would have probably continued living in poverty. Crace is open in denouncing the system that existed in the country at the time she left her home for the city. He gives an account of Em and her sister having to work hard unpaid digging potatoes. Now that Em was in the city and begged for money at the market she thought of the money she got from begging as the long overdue pay for working with blackened hands and aching backs. Crace seems to dislike the townies for their pride and contrasts them with “the country folk [who] were not too proud or idle to stick their arses in the air [working in the fields]” (106).
Em would not tell Victor about the hardships of country living, only about the fun that could be had running after rabbits, lizards, or snakes, the last of which were put by her and her sister in apple barrels destined for the town. Thus, Victor naturally developed a mistaken, rosy image of the place of his birth. One could venture a theory here that is a well-known philosophical stance that the world is chaos and the cause and effect laws are so complex that they are too difficult to comprehend, thus people, in trying to categorise the reality, inescapably simplify it. Here, it could be claimed that the stories of the country Victor heard made much more sense to him than the world of the market where he spent his early years. As Crace writes “[the market] was chaotic and without pattern when compared to that village world he structured from his mother’s words” (122).
The novel, through some of its characters, tells many folktales and wisdoms that to the modern city man may seem ludicrous, yet were believed and acted upon by the country folk. It is a common perception among city people to think of the country people as backward, superstitious, and ignorant. It was, and in many places still is, definitely the case. Thus, in the novel one learns of country ways of determining the sex of a baby in the womb, for example. Strongly believing in methods that to modern man seem absolute folly, made Em, her father-in-law, and her husband (all villagers) enter into heated debates over the possible sex of the child that was to be named Victor (Crace 119-120). Crace seems to know a lot about country beliefs and customs. He describes with much detail, as if he was a countryman, the country realities such as mothers telling fortunes from broken eggshells or the country diet consisting of boiled eggs with sweat instead of salt. He has Em take a lit candle from her village cottage to the city she is moving to. This is to keep the goodwill of the past from the old place to the new one. As soon as she leaves the cottage the candle goes out (Crace 76-7). What does that reveal about the ritual? Probably that it is as dead as a doornail, or that the rural folk are extremely naïve. Yet, it is a ritual that Victor repeats himself when he is 80, just to keep the goodwill of the Soap Market for Arcadia the mall that is to replace it (Crace 321). The contrast between the city and the country is also stressed by the vocabulary that is used in the two. In the country they would say, according to Crace, marchpane, and in the city, marzipan. When the word ‘marchpane’ is used by a country girl, not everybody understands, so it has to be translated. As far as folklore, the novel provides a number of tales that could not have happened in the city. For instance, there is the story of a countryman who wanted to take over an apple orchard. It belonged to an old lady and he believed it was of no use to her. Waiting for her to die seemed too long so he decided to use spoonwood soup that in large quantities was poisonous.
By the year 2025 half of the world’s population will be living in towns and cities (How the Cities Grow). Steadily, the city has been gaining supremacy over the country ever since the industrial revolution in western societies, when the haves moved to the city to do business as its rapid development provided increasingly great opportunities for profit.
Victor, a reclusive millionaire of most humble country birth, is based in the centre of the city. He owns huge tracts of land in the countryside generating millions. Crace compares the profit he makes each month to” Morocco’s health and education budget in a year” (51). “His farms and markets, his offices and shares, his merchant capital crusading in a dozen countries, a hundred towns, earned fortunes by the minute. Thirty million a month” (51). Victor is the central figure in Arcadia and only a few pages of the book depict characters in the country. It is the city that people strive to get to and it is the city that inspires hope. Although Crace devotes most of the narrative to describing the city poor (some of them being country immigrants), he does so with no apparent pity for them. On the contrary, he regards homeless people, scroungers, thieves, and prostitutes as quite lucky to posses the hope that the city presents. According to Crace it is better to scrape a living in the city than in the country where the only prospects are changing seasons. Crace’s perspective and the air of mystery surrounding the country in the book add to the predominance of the city.
The country, as the myth has it, is the antithesis of the city and Crace does a good job of preserving the distinction, no matter how artificial it may be. He speaks of greenery that is a threat to the city’s identity, how it poses problems for the solely man-made and man-controlled areas. In a passage describing the birthday party preparations Rook wonders if he could introduce some greenery and whether the security guards would mind. It serves to show how, in Crace’s view, the city is civilized and the country, one can assume, is not. Yet, one has to bear in mind that such and similar distinctions run contrary to what Raymond Williams claims, namely, that
[t]he country and the city are changing historical realities, both in themselves and in their interrelations. Moreover, in our own world, they represent only two kinds of settlement. Our real social experience is not only of the country and the city, in their most singular forms, but of many kinds of intermediate and new kinds of social and physical organization. (The Country 289)
He warns of the trap of reducing this variety of forms to “symbols and archetypes.” What he finds objectionable is the fact that one tends to give social realities a psychological or metaphysical status (The Country 289).
Men, mostly alone, were making for a brothel bar where drinks and women could be bought until dawn. They passed between the distraught child and the woman thief [aunt] without a moment of glance. Crime and distress were the common starlings of the streets. They could not give a damn. (152)
Thus, again, Crace employs freely the conventional wisdom of the city life and does not bother with arriving at any statistical or scientific truths. However, his generalisations are not completely false as they are true on the level of society’s consciousness. As his books are full of inaccuracies, imaginary creatures and plants, one might think he is not concerned with reality. Yet, he, being a human, cannot operate outside the framework of human experience. Thus, whether he wishes or not, his works will always reflect the reality to some extent, at least the reality of the human mind. It can be argued that even fantasy writers are socially bound and it would be folly to deny them currency on the grounds that their worlds are full of creatures and objects that are not. On the level of technology they may be looking far into the future, yet on the social level a writer is rarely totally detached from what happens around him. A straightforward way of showing that this claim holds water would be to say that only a writer who has spent some time outside our solar system in a civilisation totally unlike ours could conceive of things that were disconnected from the reality of humankind. If Crace spoke of the social perception of reality that did not accord with, for instance, the idea of the country/city life the average person has, one might claim that he speaks of non-existent phenomena. Even then, however, non-existent in the physical sense, yet germinating in the writer’s head and with the potential to spread and transform reality, be it mental or physical. One just has to consider the many writers who spoke of ideas and things that were totally dismissed by their contemporaries yet survived and gained validity in course of time. Crace definitely cannot be dismissed as a writer of untruths with no contact with the outside world, with no societal accuracy whatsoever. In an interview with Crace, Mark Winegardner aptly captured the nature of his writings. Introducing the reader to Crace’s works, he writes: “All six novels by Jim Crace . . . are, he says, about present-day Birmingham, England, the ultimate urban victim of the Thatcher-era British decay, ‘my depressed city with its ugly center’” and then goes on to question that claim. He writes:
His first book, Continent, is about an invented eighth continent, a land of wonder containing talking skulls, vast totemic ceiling fans, and sexually charged calves’ milk. As far as I know, none of these things exist in Birmingham-at least outside of Crace’s head. (Winegardner)
One of the features of the city is, of course, its civilized character, its unnatural nature with all the technology, industry, careful planning, and cement. Crace stresses the fact in a number of passages. However, he seems to favour nature and its own inventions, imperfect though they are. This is evident when, upon leaving Arcadia the mall, the Burgher, Crace’s alter ego, heads for the stalls right outside the mall to contemplate and praise street traders’ produce, the bruised and awkward-shaped fruit and vegetables. He prefers them to the perfect, lab-grown produce at the mall. Then, walking through another mall that Victor owns, the Burgher observes and comments on the fountains and their “rhythmic certainty no mountain stream could match” (8).
Another character in the novel, Joseph, moves to the city to enjoy privacy. He imagines he will be anonymous, could lie, steal, and flourish undisturbed by any village voice (Crace 31-32). It is merely his preconception of the city life; yet, it all ties in with what Raymond Williams writes of the city life and what one’s daily experience of it is. Crace magnifies the city’s character by felicitous adjectives and metaphors such as “the monkish cells of tenements . . . the privacy of crowds” (33). Thus, the country bumpkin, Joseph, whom Crace stereotypically describes as “not bright,” migrates “from the world of plants and seasons to the urban universe of make-and-take-and-sell” (34). Crace clearly contrasts the city with the country, and what the city stands for, in his view, is commerce, a quality of which he does not approve. Nowadays, the city is constantly expanding and likely to remove the city/country divide completely. Suburbs are expanding, shopping centres are being built out of town, villages engulfed and incorporated into the city. “A threatened cul-de-sac of countryside, earmarked as building land” (Crace 50).
The aim of this section is to try to ascertain to what extent the book can be called a Birmingham novel. The author himself admits that all his novels are about the city. Nevertheless, knowing his playful nature one cannot be sure. First of all, because he believes that lies are more powerful than the truth (Farren). Secondly, because he is known not to be particular about facts and details (Farren). Finally, because like any other man he is prone to distort the reality unintentionally. However, there are several parallels between the real Birmingham and the city in the novel.
Since Crace lives in the south of the city, in a district called Moseley, one can presume that the facts that the south of the city is predominantly white and the fact that Crace’s book makes no mention whatsoever of coloured people support the authenticity of the Birmingham character of the city in Arcadia. “Asian and Afro-Caribbean families are far less common there than in the ‘inner city’” (Smith 235). In his essay Lektura dzie³a a wiedza historyczna (A Reading of a Work and Historical Knowledge) , Micha³ G³owiñski points out that:
A historical reading of a work does not always have to be positive; that is, it does not always have to aim at reconstructing, based on the content of the work, the state of affairs outside of the work. Sometimes the aim is to note that something is, indeed, missing, although one might expect a certain piece of information or a certain phenomenon to exist. (105) (my translation)
Therefore, Crace’s book can be regarded as confirmation of the fact that the south of the city is hardly populated by coloured people. Although he writes about the centre of a city, one can suppose that his experience of a place of residence without many coloured people inclined him naturally to omit them in his story. As G³owiñski claims, the reading for facts of a work of fiction cannot solely rely on the work itself but has to turn to reliable sources. In the case of this thesis, Denis Smith’s article from The Changing Face of Urban Britain: Localities constitutes such a source.
Another parallel is the fact that “[p]rofessional men and women generally prefer to settle in the suburbs of north Birmingham towards Solihull” (Smith 235), which corresponds with the fact that in the book the customers at Arcadia the mall come from the suburbs. However, this fact does not actually speak for the novel’s Birmingham character as it is the case with any expensive, extravagant shopping centre that only people who are affluent enough can afford to visit and usually suburbs are mainly populated with this type of people.
Another possible correspondence is the fact that for a couple of decades Britain has been divided into two parts. The south, rich and prosperous, has never been as dramatically hit by large redundancies following the coming to power of the Conservative Party in 1979 as the north, which has borne the brunt of the changes that the new authorities introduced (Hudson 2-3). Thus, the issue of social justice and the fear of large unemployment have been very current in the north, where Birmingham belongs, maybe not so in geographical but more in social, economic, and political terms (Smith 262). As with heavy industry such as dock work, coal mining, steelmaking, and shipbuilding, which suffered the most, the traders at the soap market are threatened with losing their livelihoods because of the fierce capitalist system that leads individual people to accumulate material wealth all for themselves. Indeed, this was Margaret Thatcher’s deliberate objective called a ‘Two Nations’ strategy. It produced even greater differences in wealth among the British than had been the case during the previous 40 years of ‘One Nation’ politics (Hudson 3). “[T]he bottom 10 per cent of earners received net gains of only 5 percent in 1979-87 compared with 8 per cent in the previous eight years” (Kavanagh 34-35). According to Dennis Smith:
About 200,000 manufacturing jobs were lost to the West Midlands between 1966 and 1979; over the same period about 150,000 jobs appeared in the service sector. However, since 1979 the expansion of service sector employment in the West Midlands has occurred at a much slower rate than the loss of manufacturing jobs. (245-246)
Nationwide, the unemployment in manufacturing fell by over 2 million, mostly in the early years of Thatcher’s tenure. The fear connected with the destruction of communities present in the novel was very topical at the time of these great economic changes and the redundancies linked with them. As an example of inner city urban decay one could quote P. Harrison who researched Hackney in the 1980s and relates an instance of domestic disturbance:
So much of the inner city’s essence was enacted here: two people, both, as it happened, with no work, imprisoned in squalid architecture, loudly destroying each other and their children. Apathy or passive withdrawal among neighbours. . . . For the saddest aspect of such places is the way that they accentuate adversity, setting their inhabitants at each other’s throats like rats in an overcrowded cage. (Harrison 37)
In the southwest Birmingham two large factories employed large numbers of people who lived close to the factories themselves. These were the Cadbury and Austin-Rover factories. Both pressed the local authorities to provide housing for the workers as close to their place of work as possible thus creating a caring environment for their workforce. The companies provided the areas with necessary facilities such as playgrounds and clubs and cared for the workers in other ways. Dennis Smith implies that, although capitalist enterprises, the firms were able to show respect to and value their workers. With the economic and political transitions of the 80s all this changed and people, especially old people at the Cadbury factory, started to queue up for retirement because of the hard work they were forced to do (Smith 261). According to Smith:
Those made redundant, especially from Austin Rover, face the danger of considerable social isolation outside the family circle. As a former shop steward at Longbridge commented: “When people lose their jobs from the factory they seem to lose contact with all their old mates as well.” (261)
This is what happens to Rook, who loses touch with Anna and suffers from a serious social withdrawal.
Although it does not specifically concern Birmingham, but most of the cities that underwent economic changes and had to switch to capitalist or market type of economy, the fact that it is increasingly the private sector that decides public spaces’ appearance is present both in the novel and in life (Teske). Victor is allowed to remove the time-honoured fruit and vegetable market, which is home to many, and create a monument to his own private wealth that mainly serves his ambitions to control the chaos of the city and increase his fortune.
According to John Williams’ review of the novel in Birmingham 13 magazine, the redevelopment of the market sounds familiar although whether it followed its destruction, as is the case in the novel where all the stalls are destroyed in a fire, is not known. However, the reviewer recalls the destruction of the fruit and vegetable market around Moat Row and Jamaica Row in the early seventies, yet no redevelopment followed. He also presumes that there was a new development in Hurst Street called Arcadia at the time.
Judging from the anonymity of the characters and how little the reader finds out about them and how limited their circle of friends and relatives is one can safely assume that Crace’s city is indeed a large one. In some cases there is no circle at all. Thus, this characteristic is very peculiar to the common, if somewhat stereotyped, idea of city living. Currently, Birmingham has a population of about a million (Encyclopedia.com) and when Victor’s mother came to the city (around 1900) she was staggered by the masses of people living in it.
The above-mentioned features of Crace’s city do not characterise Birmingham only and could be found in many other cities in Britain. Here at least one may safely claim that his novel is true to life not in any specifically local sense but true to the whole of the British social experience of the 1980s.
Jim Crace’s writings are often classified as magic realism. Arcadia does not, however, fit this description. It is a realist novel with an almost untraceable tendency towards presenting non-existent species of fruit and vegetables. Also, in the novel the capitalist nature of contemporary western societies has been shown and criticised thus reflecting the present state of affairs and taking a socialist stance that reveals itself whenever the poor suffer at the hands of the rich. With the continuing expansion of democracy one can safely argue that the materialist model of life presented in Arcadia is, and will continue to be a strong and factual characteristic of the western world, including Great Britain. Owing to the presentation of the correspondence of the city and the social reality in the book with the city of Birmingham and the social realities of the Thatcherite era, societal accuracy has been shown to be one of the qualities of the book.
Arcadia displays many postmodern characteristics. The literary techniques used as well as the world depicted in it may incline one to classify it as a postmodern novel. However, a number of features of postmodern fiction and reality are missing from the text. Thus, a possible conclusion would be that it is an example of the postmodern novel only in a limited sense. One can, however, safely venture a claim that it is very poetic prose at the same time subverting and perpetuating the pastoral tradition and its myths. It affords an insightful look into the nature of both the country and city myths. It reveals the mechanics of the myths and thus debunks them showing them to be merely partial truths devised to provide comfort or to deceive. Comforted are those who seek refuge from the city in reassuring narratives of the country and deceived are those lured by city lights. Furthermore, the mythical division of the British society into the city and the country has been challenged and successfully verified merely as a cultural, mental, and simplified explanation and categorisation of reality. Thus, besides dealing with mental realities of the myths, Arcadia portrays the reality of the British city and the country. Crace came up with a universal narrative that reflects the realities of many western cities as they all share a certain character. Many readers around the world have identified the city in the novel as theirs. However, the novel is also an excellent study of the state of British society of the eighties as it painstakingly presents several central locations and community life of an imaginary city, which is nonetheless very reminiscent of the modern British city experience. It seems to be an invaluable source of folklore and offers numerous descriptions of both country customs and city routines. Thanks to its universal, yet also Birmingham, character and the above-mentioned qualities it is possible to arrive at a conclusion that Arcadia is a true-to-life novel.
Synopsis of the novel
By Andrew Hewitt
Orphaned at a young age, Victor grows up in the environs of the city’s open-air produce market, becoming a successful trader himself and gradually building up a huge fortune. Now eighty, he decides to tear down the market and erect a gigantic glass-and-concrete mall in its place, to stand as his tribute to the city. The mall will be named Arcadia. Victor is opposed by Rook, formerly his right-hand man, who like Victor has come a long way in the world from humble beginnings in the market place.
The middle section of the book describes Victor’s childhood and the old Soap Market where he grew up. Victor’s mother, a young widow, migrates to the city from her native village, hoping to make a new life for herself and her baby. Victor grows up listening to his mother’s idealised recollections of the countryside. When his mother dies in a fire, Victor learns to fend for himself, but he is never able to free himself from the ‘memories’ with which he has been imbued.
Despite Rook’s opposition and the protests of the market workers, who face eviction, Arcadia is built: Victor has left his mark on the city. The Soap Market is not, however, completely eradicated. The traders themselves decide to set up a new open-air market, and the city continues to evolve.
Jim Crace Chronology
March 1, 1946: Jim Crace born at Brocket Hall, near Welwyn in Hertfordshire, UK. Raised in Enfield, North London.
1965-8: studies at the Birmingham College of Commerce as an external student of London University. College contemporaries include the novelists Gordon Burn and Patrick McGrath, and the Iranian photographer, Abbas, currently President of Magnum. Graduates with a BA Hons in English Literature.
1968-9: joins the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and goes to the Sudan. Works in Educational Television in Khartoum and Omdurman. Lives briefly in Molepolole, Botswana. Member of the Young Socialists. Campaigns for nuclear disarmament and colonial freedom.
1970: returns to the UK. Works for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), writing educational programmes.
1974: publishes his first work of prose fiction, "Annie, California Plates" in The New Review. The story is included in The New Review Anthology, edited by Ian Hamilton (published by Heinemann, reprinted 1987 by Paladin). Over the next ten years, writes short stories and radio plays including:
1976-87: works as a freelance features journalist for the Telegraph and other newspapers.
1976: ‘Cross-Country’ appears in the New Review. After significant revision, this story becomes the starting-point for Continent (1986).
1986: publishes Continent, his first book, a themed sequence of stories. Continent wins the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award, the David Higham Prize for Fiction, and the Guardian Fiction prize.
1987: Continent is widely translated (to date, Crace’s work has been translated into nineteen languages: Brazilian Portuguese, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish). Financial success of Continent enables Crace to leave journalism and concentrate on writing fiction.
1988: publishes The Gift of Stones, a novel. The Gift of Stones wins the GAP International Prize for Literature. In Italy, Continent wins the Premio Antico Fattore.
1992: publishes Arcadia, a novel. Receives the Society of Authors’ Travelling Scholarship.
1993: publishes "Hearts of Oak", a memoir of his father, in 21 (Picador, 1993).
1994: publishes Signals of Distress, a novel. Signals of Distress wins the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.
1995: publishes The Slow Digestions of the Night, a collection of five stories with a food theme, as a ‘Penguin 60’ (small format paperback). The stories are subsequently anthologised in The Penguin Collection (1995) and become the starting-point for The Devil’s Larder (published 2001).
1996: receives the American Academy of Arts and Letters E.M. Forster Award (given to a writer from England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales for a stay in the United States). Uses the award to travel down the Outer Banks and the barrier islands of the US eastern seaboard, ‘stealing the landscapes for Being Dead’.
1997: publishes Quarantine, a novel. Quarantine is shortlisted for the Booker Prize and The Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Book, and wins the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award.
1998: Elected member of the Management Committee of the Society of Authors. Along with other writers and artists, writes an open letter condemning ‘crude police censorship’ in the case of the seizure of a book by Robert Mapplethorpe from the library of the University of Central England. Criticises the practice, damaging to journalists, of newspapers who ask cultural figures to provide arts copy, in exchange for mention of their own work instead of a fee.
1999: publishes Being Dead, a novel. Being Dead is shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and the Booker Prize. Elected as Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature. Quarantine shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
March 3, 2000: receives Honorary Doctorate (D.Univ.) from the University of Central England for Distinguished Literary Achievements.
April 27, 2000: Quarantine, adapted for the stage by Ben Payne, opens at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
2001: Being Dead wins the National Book Critics’ Circle award (USA). Crace publishes The Devil’s Larder, a ‘cumulative novel’ on the theme of food.
200-?: new works to include The Pest House, Genesis.
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 flâneur is a French-derived literary term for “connoisseur of street life” (Oliver Twist)
 Lektura historyczna dzie³a nie zawsze musi mieæ charakter pozytywny, tzn. nie zawsze musi zmierzaæ do rekonstrukcji na jego podstawie znajduj¹cego siê poza nim stanu rzeczy. Niekiedy chodziæ mo¿e o stwierdzenie, ¿e w³aœnie czegoœ nie ma, choæ wystêpowania takiego w¹tku czy takiej informacji mo¿na by³oby siê spodziewaæ.