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Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz (Bochum)

Space and the Subject in Recent Fiction: The Spatial Positioning of Narrators and Focalisers in Contemporary Novels

Space and the Subject in Recent Fiction: The Spatial Positioning of Narrators and Focalisers in Contemporary Novels
I propose to investigate the ways in which narrators or focalisers in contemporary British and Irish fictions relate to space, how they perceive and portray their situatedness especially in private places such as houses or rooms. The focus of this paper will primarily reside in a character's relationality as far as his / her corporal presence in material surroundings and with regard to objects is concerned, even though my argument may include the spatial position towards other humans where it is expedient. Movements from one place or point to another can prove significant as shifts in situation. In exploring spatial positioning and posture − as distinct from geographical location − the semantisation of space in fiction is revealed from specific angles. The most important is the significance of reflector figures' or narrators' perspective regarding their relation to place and the positioning among family or in their social environment. First-person and figural narration are discerned as shaping force in the novelistic expression of the subject's situatedness. Intra-subjective perceptions of spatial relations are mostly communicated by non-verbal signs that are seized by the narrative discourse.


The "Spatial Turn" in socio-cultural studies has been exploring the link of individuals and communities to places, their importance for identity, and the connection between the 'four dimensions' of spatial and temporal parameters. Around 1970 a new philosophical focusing on space and place emerged. Michel Foucault pointed to the importance of place during the ongoing investigation of the significance of time; literary scholarship and cultural studies incorporated the theories of space by Henri Lefèbvre, Gaston Bachelard, Edward Soja and David Harvey.1 More recently, "the [literary] postmodern chronotope" (Smethurst 2000) has been interrogated, and Edward Said accentuated the interaction of time and space in human experience:

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"Over the past decade [the 1990s], there has been a burgeoning interest in two overlapping areas of the humanities and social sciences, memory and geography, or, more specifically, the study of human space." (Said 2000: 175) The materialising of "human space" in literary texts can be typographically represented by the figure of chiasmus in "deiXis", which Russell West-Pavlov unveils as an emblematic visual sign of the "reciprocal interaction between language and space in literary texts" (West-Pavlov 2010: 3). According to him, a human being's social environment, in particular, is unimaginable without the dimensions of place and space, since subjectivity manifests itself inside the "pre-existing character of material space" in a way analogous to the pre-existing framework of language (West-Pavlov 2010: 3). This recognition of reciprocity emerges as an innovative proposition in the investigation of the dialectics of space in literature. Not only are material surroundings shaped by human activity and perception, but elements and places as non-human agencies incessantly condition our social and individual environment and contribute to constituting a subject (cf. West-Pavlov 2010: 9).

Before the beginning of textual analysis the terms 'situatedness' and 'relationality', which the following argumentation will repeatedly use, have to be defined. A protagonist is situated by the narrator or finds him-/herself situated in a specific location, for instance the home, a house, a room, or a garden and open grounds. The sensations awakened in a central character by his / her being located in a place may reach from detailed memories to emptiness or detachment. I would therefore like to speak of a narrator's or focaliser's 'personal geography'. It includes a figure's individual concept of the surrounding space with him / her in it. In what way a character does or does not 'relate' to a place, its peculiarities and the objects contained in it will emerge as a crucial question. A relatedness or unrelatedness in the subjective perception may express itself by posture, movement and involuntary or unguarded reactions, but seldom in spoken words. As the details of body language are being narrativised these silent manifestations become the more telling for the reader. Whereas 'relationality' is usually understood as the connectedness of human beings (or maybe with animals) my exploration restricts itself to a persona's relatedness to spaces and material things with special emphasis on the self-centred subjective view.

In each of the five novels selected here, two of which are British and three Irish, 'suppressed history' emerges as an important issue. The interrogation starts with a novel from the late 20th century and proceeds to narrative works from the 21st. They have mostly been studied for the working of individual memory and as postmodern historiographic fictions. Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1988) thematises a revisionist image of a controversial elitist circle in England during the 1920s and '30s, Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (2011) shows the liberalisation of same-sex relationships in the past one hundred years.

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Anne Enright in The Gathering (2007) takes up the topical debate about sexual child abuse and the Irish family as a young woman's personal experience, while The Secret Scripture (2008) by Sebastian Barry presents the account of an elderly woman robbed of her illegitimate child as well as her own history. Finally, John Banville's Ancient Light (2012) is in so far an exception as it reveals a long-concealed tragicomedy, which is depicted as purely personal (hi)story. – My argumentation aims at addressing the subjectivity in the perception of spaces, in which the recollections of the first-person narrators or reflector figures unfold. Their musing is presented in narratives that ostensibly focus on memory as beclouded and unreliable either of one or, as in Hollinghurst's novel, a number of characters. The chiastic pictorial drawing of a reciprocal relation between space and time as human experience can help to grasp the significance of the subject's spatial awareness, where memory appears as the prime concern.

In this essay I wish to argue that the analysis of the subject's spatial (self)positioning in contemporary British and Irish fiction yields new insights for the interpretation of the characters' situation including self-perception and relation to the environment. A character's individual exposure respectively secret observation may be historically influenced or shaped by the impact of an event memorised in the narrative; by comparison, the subject's (un)relatedness, I contend, is revealed in the text through the positioning of the self in material space. For the purposes of this article attention is directed to interior spaces of buildings, sometimes with the extension to gardens. Man-made structures – in contrast to those that pre-exist in nature such as land- or seascapes exempt from human influence except in discourse – challenge the subject's response and self-fashioning. The way in which a character relates to narrated spaces also betrays his / her social (self)image without explicitly focusing on interpersonal relationships; conversely, in imaginative literature, the subject's perspective constructs place. The novels which form the sample use "[a] language which is capable of inscribing the spatial relationships which produce and support the human communities who in turn become custodians of space" (West-Pavlov 2010: 197-98). Whether the concept of "deiXis" implies ambiguities regarding the relationality of the individual is to be examined in and subsequent to my reading of these texts.

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Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day has become famous for taking memory and history centre-stage. The first-person narrative of the past and the ways of an English aristocrat and his ancestral home from the butler's point-of-view proved exciting for large audiences. Here I wish to consider the narrativisation of Butler Stevens's self-positioning in the noble mansion.

Position in the literal and the figurative sense of the word is at the core of Stevens's self-reflexive and often narcissistic musing (e.g. Ishiguro 1993: 149; 201). Aiming at the ideal of embodying a "gentleman's gentleman" (Ishiguro 1993: 32), "who aspires […] to a 'dignity in keeping with his position'" (Ishiguro 1993: 169), he strives with various kinds of mannerisms for constant perfection in rendering service and to produce "that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence" (Ishiguro 1993: 72) that he defines as the essence of good waiting – not only at dinner table, but in his whole life.

On that occasion, much of the room was in darkness […]. I decided to minimize my presence by standing in the shadows much further away from the table than I might usually have done. Of course, this strategy had a distinct disadvantage in that each time I moved towards the light to serve the gentlemen, my advancing footsteps would echo long and loud […] drawing attention to my impending arrival in the most ostentatious manner, but it did have the great merit of making my person only partially visible while I remained stationary. (Ishiguro 1993: 72-73)

Stevens's self-importance staged by way of self-marginalisation is perfectly addressed by himself. The minutely described illusion of one's absence in the supposed view of the ruling class, the appearance that one is not there and not noticed, curiously emerges as an individual's pride of place; it is expressed in Stevens's servile attitudes with regard to the upper classes and his overbearing manner towards his subordinates. With similar contradiction, the I-narrator, to whom a certain distance is established, puts constant emphasis on the spaciousness of the country house where he serves. It includes banqueting hall, dining room, breakfast room, drawing room, billiard room, smoking room, study and library on the ground floor alone, with the butler's working place in the pantry and the housekeeper's sitting room tellingly situated underground (e.g. Ishiguro 1993: 85). This roomy largeness sharply contrasts with Stevens's infinite endeavours to take up as little space as possible. The narratee, an unknown nameless listener to the butler's story, however, cannot be mistaken about Stevens's imagined mastery over this aristocratic house.

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He governs the smooth run of the stately home while making himself invisible to its inhabitants and visitors, and is paradoxically eager to render even his invisibility impalpable when he is summoned to his father's deathbed in the middle of a lively political discussion of the foreign gentlemen: "I made my exit as discreetly as possible" (Ishiguro 1993: 103). Rendering his presence unfelt he is nevertheless especially sensitive to places and their – often gendering – connotative semantisation; thus he considers the drawing-room hardly appropriate to host the informal international conference organised by Lord Darlington in March 1923: "It was odd enough to see that rather feminine room crammed full with so many stern, dark-jacketed gentlemen, sometimes sitting three or four abreast upon a sofa" (Ishiguro 1993: 92) – a circumstance by which the majority of the attendants including the host wish to maintain the appearance that their gathering is a mere social event. Butler Stevens, however, who invisibly listens to conversations, learns about the political objective, namely that his master is "going to outline the strong moral case for a relaxing of various aspects of the Versailles treaty, emphasizing the great suffering he had himself witnessed in Germany." (Ishiguro 1993: 92)

The narrator's situatedness on the margins of what he is convinced is the nave of the great wheel of civilisation, namely the noble estate where the best of the nation is represented, enables him to become aware of secret developments and moods, even if he often cannot follow the details of the discussions. Stevens also overhears parts of confidential conversations on the first floor although "[t]he bedroom doors of Darlington Hall are of a certain thickness" (Ishiguro 1993: 95), and habitually listens cautiously for an instant trying to decide whether it is an appropriate moment to knock on the door. He consequently neither enters the French delegate's room, where the latter confers with the sceptical American, nor does he knock on Miss Kenton's door when he hears her crying (Ishiguro 1993: 212): whenever emotions are stirred he intends to remain outside – spatially as well as empathetically. Yet only on extremely rare occasions is he deliberately avoided or physically excluded (Ishiguro 1993: 227). It happens at obviously the most precarious moment during these meetings when the British Prime Minister is brought together with German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and Lord Darlington contributes to arranging a visit of King Edward VIII in Berlin to meet Hitler (cf. Ishiguro 1993: 225). Although his master had sent Stevens out of the room it also becomes the hour of greatest triumph for the butler, which he proudly remembers even in July 1956, since "as I stood there pondering" it was "at this moment that I had indeed come as close to the great hub of things as any butler could wish" (Ishiguro 1993: 227).

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At crucial points the correlation between the narrator's situation or bearing and the plot becomes evident: Stevens always remains standing, even when he – considered by the company a representative of the common people – is interrogated by the gentlemen who discuss the drawbacks of democracy. A quite unusual positioning on the morning following this interview when Darlington apologises to his self-belittling butler for having exposed him to the uncomfortable questioning about politics enhances the importance of this scene. Stevens portrays it in retrospect as exceptional: "Lord Darlington came into the billiard room while I was up on a step-ladder dusting portraits" (Ishiguro 1993: 196) to start a conversation with the butler, who stands as if frozen in his posture. The employee is, to express it in spatial terms, looking down on a defeated Darlington who has wearily seated himself in an armchair, appearing troubled and haggard, but still convinced of the righteousness of his controversial attitudes ("Democracy is something for a bygone era", Ishiguro 1993: 198). Always devoted to his master, the butler's humble uncomprehending acceptance is his creed; even though obviously new worldwide disaster overshadows Darlington (Hall), yet "I remained stationary" (Ishiguro 1993: 201). The static position will be his until the end.

The only occasion when Stevens is asked to sit down tellingly happens at the beginning of a conversation with Mr Cardinal, Darlington's godson, later killed in the Second World War, who arrives at the Hall upset by a "tip-off" about Darlington's siding with the Nazis and wants to confide his concerns to the butler (Ishiguro 1993: 220). An investigative journalist, he is not allowed by his godfather to attend the secret meeting late in 1936, the occasion on which Stevens could not enter the drawing room to serve the gentlemen. Since his service was not required he was unable to move:

I took up my position out in the hall – the position near the entrance arch that I customarily took up during important meetings – and was not obliged to move from it again until some two hours later, when the back door bell was rung. On descending, I discovered a police constable standing there with Miss Kenton, requesting that I verify the latter's identity. (Ishiguro 1993: 217-18)

These circumstances show the doubtfulness of the occasion and a need for security in a 'fortress', which the butler – obviously insufficiently on this occasion – tries to fulfil by 'guarding' and supervising the entrance to the manor. Its space becomes more reassuring in the same measure as the times instigate confrontations – and later memorising attains an unreliable vagueness. The image of the 'X' deictically epitomises this reciprocal function: certainty as supposedly linked to the spaces of Darlington Hall and uncertainty to the times of the late 30s – and again the mid-50s.

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The butler's ghost-like existence (an old-fashioned German expression for a faithful and efficient servant is actually "Hausgeist"), continuously expressed by deportment and relation to spaces, appears as 'place-bound' (Harvey). The events of the framing narrative, that is Stevens's journey to the West Country twenty years later in his American master's car, expose a defensive person, whereas his former 'ideal butler' self, still emphatically portrayed by him, has become a 'mere' narrative for his narratee, who remains undisclosed. During his trip, when his subservience is no longer expected, he is much less sure of himself. Conjuring up the past he cannot evade contrastive environments while driving on country roads or discussing with residents in rural pubs and guest houses, or when he finally meets Mrs Benn, formerly Miss Kenton, who does not want to return to Darlington Hall. Only the higher-grade servant's role with his positioning in the space of the estate could assess his desired identity.


The high-Victorian country house in the century between 1913 and 2008 in Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child (2011) gives rise to the characters' socio-historical reflections, expressed through multiperspectivity and time shifts in the third-person narrative with varying reflector figures and dialogues; yet the work is suffused with architectural description and spatial clues to its comprehension. One of the novel's objectives, a critic claims, is "to tell the lives of a diverse range of characters whose condition may be interpreted through the lens of their transforming architectural surroundings" (Eeckhout 2012: 2).2 In fact, the spaces the different focalisers occupy and the way they relate to buildings and designs prove decisive for view and aspect: the capitalist owners of Corley Court – second-generation knighted entrepreneurs – display pride of place, and the heir Cecil Valance leads his guests around the estate in a guided tour with a mixture of conceit and sarcasm. Visitors, however, who are members of the upper middle classes like the Sawles feel impressed and – in the case of the mother Freda Sawles – intimidated. She lives with her children Hubert, Daphne and George at 'Two Acres' on the outskirts of London in more modest circumstances and feels irritated by the visiting young aristocrat's demeanour in her home:

Freda had a momentary sense of Cecil leading George, rather than George presenting his friend; and Cecil himself, crossing the threshold in his pale linen clothes, with only his hat in his hand, seemed strangely unencumbered. He might have been coming in from his own garden. (Hollinghurst 2011: 11)

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The narrative shows that it is by no means the homoerotic relationship of the two young Cambridge students alone that causes the mother's vexation. Cecil's casual attitude of a quasi-proprietor also expressed in the careless treatment he gives his room as a guest at Two Acres (only two!) contrasts with Freda's own sensitivities when she later visits Corley Court where her daughter Daphne, who married Cecil's brother Dudley after the poet had been killed in action, has become mistress of the manor (Hollinghurst 2011: 173-74). Out of the hearing of their hosts even relatives by marriage criticise the Victorian building, its furnishings and atmosphere as "a forbidding place" (Hollinghurst 2011: 185) and are finally glad to leave it behind with its historic 'burden' of a hegemonic aristocratic tradition.

She [Daphne] gazed up at the carved end of the nearest bookcase, and the stained-glass window beyond it, in a mood of sudden abstraction. The April brilliance that threatened the fire in the morning-room here threw sloping drops and shards of colour across the wall and across the white marble fireplace. They painted the blind marble busts of Homer and Milton, pink, turquoise and buttercup. (Hollinghurst 2011: 184)

Daphne, a disinterested observer here, escapes a little later together with an artist from husband and stately home. Dudley Valance, who has inherited place and title, is dissatisfied with the old-fashioned Victorian mansion and relentlessly modernises the property, yet deserts it after significant social changes make themselves felt in post-World-War-I England.3 In the 1950's and '60s often abused as "a Victorian monstrosity" (Hollinghurst 2011: 268) it is sold to the public authorities and becomes a boarding prep school, a development that had prior to the outbreak of the Great War been deplored by the classes who inhabited and even those who only temporarily stayed in these mansions:

"Later I believe it was a very excellent hotel, said Mrs Kalbeck" [referring to a country house where Queen Adelaide had lived].
"And now a school," said Hubert, with a bleak little snuffle.
"A sad fate!" said Daphne.
Jesus Christ! thought George, though all he came out with as he crossed the room [at Two Acres] was a sort of distracted chuckle. He poured himself the last of the bottle of Pommery, and glanced into the window, where the lamplit room was reflected, idealized and doubled in size, spread invitingly across the dark garden. (Hollinghurst 2011: 18)

In The Stranger's Child the spatial consciousness and positioning of the characters is not only subjective and varies according to temporal or socio-historical developments, but spaces are by the subjects experienced as fleeting.

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An awareness that everything is in a state of flux prevails and extends to the continual materialisation of architectural shifts and changes as well as to the characters moving to and from houses.

A favourable judgement concerning change is pronounced by those who as members of the lower classes formerly had no access to the Great Houses till well after 1945. "No one, it was felt, could want to live in such a place, but as an institution of learning it was pretty much ideal" (Hollinghurst 2011: 269) is the opinion of a new arrival such as Peter Rowe, who immediately starts to research its history. In the late 1960s Rowe and Corinna Valance, lower middle-class respectively aristocratic offspring, teach together at Corley Court and play 'Valse Sentimental' at the piano sitting literally side by side (Hollinghurst 2011: 299-300). However, Rowe, with an alien perspective and from the temporal distance of the late sixties, places himself outside the stately home and regards it with the look of a connoisseur: "He passed the Headmaster's sitting-room, which must once have been a principal bedroom of the house: its high Gothic oriel looked down the axis of the formal gardens, which now survived only in photographs but had once been a dazzling floral maze." (Hollinghurst 2011: 268) By Peter Rowe the house's past glory is even in its decay, which he deplores, still admired from an expert's point-of-view as one of the Imperial "treasure houses" (Trimm 2009: 206, on Darlington Hall): a work of art to look at, to tax and appreciate, but not to consider a home. Corley Court's historical value is enjoyed without regret for the political and social changes that dispelled and alienated the former proprietors. The country house in this view already becomes part of the 'museum culture' while it is put to pragmatic use. The organising consciousness behind the narrative arranges for a romanticised scene which does not come without ironic symbolism as a result of the disparity between authorial and figural mindscape:

He [Rowe] went on and stood by the gate, looking back, the moonlight and its shadows making the house insubstantial, for all its pinnacled bulk, as if half in ruin. [...] The moon gleamed sharply on the pointed vane of the chapel roof, and on the dial of the stopped clock in the central gable, under the pale stone banner of the Valance motto, "Seize the Day". (Trimm 2009: 362)

This lower-middle-class gay character who remains unaffected by – in a reviewer's words – 'crumbling England' gives off a "palpable aura of regret" (Mendelsohn 2012: 289), albeit only from the viewpoint of an art historian and without the nostalgia following a personal relinquishment.

Inside the former family seat, Corinna, offspring of knighted ancestors and probably the daughter of a war hero and poet, hesitates to address the change in conversation with her colleagues.

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As regards Corinna, now a music teacher at Corley, Peter Rowe senses that the successive ruptures in the use of the estate, which was converted into Military Headquarters during the Second World War, then into a prep school, reflect a severe disruption of her life. Underneath her usual way, "he assumed, must lie wounded pride at coming back to teach music in the house she had lived in as a girl. Once he had asked her what the music-room had been in her day: the housekeeper's bedroom, apparently, and the sick-bay next door the cook's." (Hollinghurst 2011: 300) A focaliser such as Rowe, whose origins cause him to keep his distance from the building's original significance, regarding it with interest in architectural historicism, reflects the socio-political and cultural faultlines Britain had experienced since the beginning of the Great War. Class, here as in The Remains of the Day, continues to determine the focalisers' spatial positioning and outlook in the time of the vanishing Empire. In a space that had long been subjected to the shifting persuasions and needs of a class the member of the lower ranks, who moreover belongs to an up to 1967 underprivileged minority, appreciates the noble estate as the manifestation of an era that has become historic.


In the following I investigate the relation of space and narrator / focal perceiver in fictions by Irish writers. Anne Enright's novel The Gathering (2007), which has received much critical attention, tells the subject-centred personal story of a woman's family in the present tense – a confessional narrative resulting from the first-person narrator's mourning upon her brother's suicide and funeral. Alternating between the more remote past – the 1960s –, the recent past, and the present – the nineties and beyond – her memories of about thirty years ago and renewed emotions dwell frequently on places and bodies in an amazingly expressionistic way. The protagonist's view of formerly familiar spaces and the situation of characters in them appear as reliable in contrast to her visual memory of persons or the crucial event, for which she declares herself an unreliable narrator (Enright 2007: 1).4 Yet the attribution of stability only applies to the protagonist's memory of spaces, while her birth place itself, which she wishes to tear apart and demolish, has constantly been altered: "The architecture of the family home, 'all extension and no house', mirrors the messy relationships at stake in the novel" a critic summarises (Cahill 2011: 177).

The narrator's statements about childhood places and the spatial positioning of individuals convey above all the straits and narrowness of her Irish family of origin, which is very different from her own new home, as is the materiality of the two houses.5

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In the home of her youth there were father, mother, twelve children, grandmother and uncles, their relationship shaped by resistance and defensiveness, which results in a contradictory response in the 'now and here', caused by the unresolved conflicts of the 'then'.6 When Veronica Hegarty arrives to tell their mother that Liam's body has been found she 'welcomes' her daughter without letting her enter the house. The mother's body language contradicts her verbal greeting: "'Hello, Darling.' She might have said that to the cat. 'Come in. Come in,' as she stands in the doorway and does not move to let me pass." (Enright 2007: 4) Closeness, always problematic, is denied Veronica. "I do not want to go into the sitting room. I am not a visitor. This is my house too. I was inside it as it grew […]. Not that I would ever live here again." (Enright 2007: 4) While she delivers her message tension arises, which explodes when she tells her mother in the kitchen that Liam has been found dead on the shore near Brighton. "[…] my mother reaches over and hits me". (Enright 2007: 10) Now as then, repressed memories and emotions express themselves in contradictory corporeal bearing and physical violence, of which her mother, constantly marginalised to the point of invisibility, had equally been a target for her now dead son.

Space, distance, and its opposite, stifling tightness and crowdedness, play an important part also in Veronica's interfering romantic imaginations about the youth and amorous adventures of her grandmother (Enright 2007: ch. 5), as well as about her own adult life with husband and two daughters (e.g. Enright 2007: 133). During the retrospective memories which overwhelm her during the visit in her childhood home her feelings alternate between oppressiveness and a desired but unconquerable distance. "I walk through the dimness of our childhood rooms and I touch nothing. All the beds are dressed and ready. The girls slept upstairs and the boys on the ground floors […]" (Enright 2007: 24). Places and objects are preserved unchanged and suggest an unbroken idea of 'home', hated though it may be. The subject's memory, in contrast, has been disrupted by a crucial event which, despite its cruel effects, fitted the framework of her home's socially agreed disregard for children and suffering. In the narrator's detailed description of the different rooms as well as in the body language of mother and daughter, which are highly meaningful, the absence of any friendly impulse or sign of warmth is striking. The past corporeal childhood experience – not only Liam's, but also Veronica's, whose suffering was somatic – is linked with these rooms in a way which betrays contradictoriness of emotions or appearance and reality, of violence and a rigid order by suppression of the undesirable. Textually, the connectedness of bodies and places reveals itself in the words 'trans-gression' and 'tres-passing', which point to the fact that a border has been violated, a body invaded – 'here' and 'then'.

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Inside her own and her husband's house Veronica is after the news of Liam's death haunted, while she shuns and abhors the closeness of the living (Enright 2007: ch. 20) and keeps roaming the neighbourhood like a ghost. The most spectral site remains, however, her grandmother Ada's hateful house in Broadstone, where she was sent by her overburdened mother and spent much of her childhood together with her elder brother Liam and her younger sister Kitty, surrounded also by her granny's husband and Ada's friend of her youth and possible lover. Clear and certain though as her memory of the place is, inversely "this place offer[ed] little security" (Cahill 2011: 178), so that she now detests and longs to destroy it. The remembered emotion, however, – if it can be called an emotion, because the imagery unveils human indifference towards children and the place's engulfing agency – resurges as soon as she thinks of Ada's home: "There was a terrible boredom about the house, and I could never rid myself of it. Boredom lurked in the corners, and in the path to the garage, and in the little back yard" (Enright 2007: 143). The focaliser's consciousness and her disclosure to the narratee, whom she addresses as the reader of her uncertain memories (e.g. Enright 2007: 1), draws literally step by step near the site of one single instance, which changed her own and especially Liam's life, yet – as she knows – is symptomatic of her family. Every little detail of Ada's "good room" in Broadstone is visualised, preceding this one moment: its situation in the house, the decoration, the furniture and its occupation by the different inhabitants and their habits, the colours and light. "On this particular day I was variously bored on the stairs, or at the dining-room table, or in the hall, before I got bored again and decided to go into the good room. What struck me was the strangeness of what I saw, when I opened the door." (Enright 2007: 143) Veronica's nine-year-old brother, in a mixture of astonishment and fright, is being sexually abused by Mr Nugent, Ada's frustrated admirer. Strikingly, boredom is in the narrative not linked to time, but to rooms and to outdoor places. Isolation surrounds the child even when she lives together with five other people. Concealment of grave mysteries in the family such as an uncle in the lunatic asylum and the financial dependence on Ada's landlord / lover in addition to the generally repressive social culture create this climate of depressed emptiness. After Liam's abuse observed by young Veronica both mother and grandmother avoid the presence of the two children, in spite of the fact that the narrator's home always proves too small for so many people; a keyword with the Hegartys is "clean". In the narrator's perception especially dead bones are "clean" (e.g. Enright 2007: 1). Getting now 'lost' like her brother, formerly abandoned and then abandoning, Veronica feels unable to go back to her husband and daughters after having come to Brighton.

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The last room where the protagonist locates herself in her memories is 'terminal' in the literal sense: adjacent to the South Terminal of Gatwick airport she checks into a hotel "where you could live for the rest of your life. You could stay there until they found you, and they would never find you – why should they?" (Enright 2007: 254) – in a space representing the perfect 'non-place' that mirrors indifference to the neglected and silenced individual. There definite spatial and temporal borderlines in regard to a subject are being deconstructed and lead to a process of dissolution. Veronica's wish that struggles with her decision to tell her siblings upon her return what happened to Liam in the house in Broadstone (Enright 2007: 259) is to annihilate herself in total anonymity, as her brother, who could only be identified by his dental records, did in the sea where he went with stones in his pockets.7 Her retrospective pondering about herself and the loss of Liam ends in her death wish: "I do not want a different destiny from the one that has brought me here" (Enright 2007: 260). Torn between the obligation or wish to return, a yearning for geographical distance – 'flying' – and the urge to communicate what she still sees – or imagines seeing – she has decided to narrate events and effects from an uncertain memory: "I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place" (Enright 2007: 1). Compelled by this urge she eventually makes a compromise with regard to her presence: when she is 'gone' she will be there in written signs, if not in person. The 'absence / presence' topic of corporal reality, which emerges as central during the process of narration, is thus realised in the dead and in the surviving mourner.


Barry's The Secret Scripture has to be briefly pointed out here as another imposing example of a spatially distorted narrated universe reflected in a private testimony.8 The first-person narrator is at a crucial time in her life banned from the community and placed in a hut – secluded from society and singled out by what she experiences. As with Barry's literary works in general, Irish history and Irish tragedies are the material of this novel. Roseanne Clear, the protagonist, a Presbyterian and ancient writer of her autobiography, finds herself as a young adult continuously excluded from human company following Irish independence (Barry 2009: 230-32). When her marriage to a Catholic and Irish nationalist is annulled by the catholic community's "death sentence" (Barry 2009: 234; 250) the verdict, in an act of exorcism, condemns her to live alone in a tin hut on the outskirts of Sligo for many months. "The hut was like the centre of a huge clock" (Barry 2009: 228), she writes about 70 years later, describing her abode as a dehumanised metal casing in the midst of a mechanised social environment deprived of human empathy.

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She remains an outcast, and her new-born baby fathered by a passing Irish soldier in the British Army is stolen from her. The tin hut, from which she tries to escape, represents a spatial image of the social death Roseanne's supposed earlier sexual transgression was punished with. Innocent and vulnerable, but without thoughts of revenge, Roseanne at the time of writing resembles a hermit, or Homo Sacer (Agamben). The tin hut also serves as an interpretative hint at her solitary confinement later to be continued in the heterotopian space, where she clandestinely writes her "testimony": the mental hospital in Roscommon.

The hut to which the hero of Ancient Light withdraws is the place of contrastive experiences: like other secretive rooms he can call it "a bower of bliss" (Banville 2012: 56). In Banville's novel as in The Secret Scripture the validity of Edward Said's statement that geography and memory are overlapping areas of a human being's experience becomes manifest. Banville's protagonist and narrator Alexander Cleave happily retreats to a decaying shack in the forest as love-nest for an affair with his friend Billy's mother, a married woman more than twice his age – he is fifteen at the time –, because it "would make such a secure trysting place for Mrs Gray and me" (Banville 2012: 8). Metaphorically speaking, Ancient Light is "a novel criss-crossed with ghost roads and dead-ends" (Clark 2012: n.pag.) – like Eclipse or The Sea, which can be defined as quests in space to understand the past; in these novels reminiscences of dead persons and lost moments are joined to the recapturing visualisation of different places. Thus, "a particular intersection of space and time – the secret tryst, the trusted friend betrayed" (Benfey 2012: n.pag.), becomes the hallmark of Ancient Light. From the beginning, however, it is noticeable that many important elements appear fuzzy and delusive in the first-person narrator's memory, except for the details of places and the way he experienced them. Even the identity of the person who becomes central for his life is at first uncertain in his perception – was it Bill's mother whom he saw passing on her bike, or not? (Banville 2012: 4). Cleave's visual memory of the time of the year when he first saw Cotter's place (Banville 2012: 10) or the Grays' house is quite obviously faulty – it must have been spring and not autumn (Banville 2012: 16). Of the places, by contrast, the narrator seems to be sure. "I recall the day I first saw the [Cotter] house" (Banville 2012: 9) in his friend's company – a romantic, perhaps Gothic spot that in spite of the adventurous boys' discoverer instinct announced a "premonition" of being haunted, if only "by the Lady Venus and her sportive boy" (Banville 2012: 10). Even for the community of two lovers it is not a true locus amoenus.

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Leafing through the papers titled The Invention of the Past, allegedly "the unauthorised biography of Axel Vander" (Banville 2012: 54), Cleave decides that the imaginary is overruling empirical experience: biography is fiction and memory, at best, a "muddied well of facts" and, at its worst, "mendacious" (Banville 2012: 54).9 Spatial reality, by contrast, appears distinct in his mind. The temporal remoteness from the events surrounding Mrs Gray and his first love affair cannot shake or blur the palpable memories of the places where he and Celia Gray met and how they moved in them when he was fifteen years old. In vain does he try to recall what he was thinking of, if anything, when Mrs Gray took him into her car (Banville 2012: 34), but the surroundings of their first (chaste) kiss in her station wagon under the trees is fixed in his topographic memory, as is their later love-making in that place. Cramped spaces in lush and yet strange outdoor nature exhibit "odd, how in a place so narrowly circumscribed as ours there were parts where one tended not to go" (Banville 2012: 35). On the surface he refers here merely to the geography of his home town. The accomplishment of his sexual initiation in this spot leaves him just amazed, noticing "[h]ow piercingly the birds' voices rang through the hollow wood" (Banville 2012: 36). A second place apart from the interior of the car to be considered an odd precursor of their refuge in the wooden shack is a very unromantic part of the Grays' home:

In a cramped room off the kitchen there was a top-loading washing machine with a big metal paddle sticking up through its middle, a stone sink, an ironing board standing tense and spindly as a mantis, and a metal-framed camp bed that could have been doubled as an operating table had it not been so low to the ground. (Banville 2012: 40)

The visualisation of the car and the laundry room, part of an ostentatiously banal, unappealing and mechanical universe, seem bizarre as locations for stunning experiences till then unfamiliar to the protagonist. Therefore, according to him, his memory of the sensations overwhelming him in this locality might even be an amalgamation: the Cotter place, found to be more adequate, may instead have been where he was situated, "lying among sunken things at the bottom of a deep cistern" (Banville 2012: 40) after his first acquaintance with sexual passion. Seduced by Celia Gray, the boy – in the man's retrospective – expresses reminiscences of emotive situations during 'their' summer, and he achieves to recapture them in spatial terms. Visual memories of the setting in the laundry room prosaically also mark the end of their affair, when Billy's prying little sister detects them (Banville 2012: 220).

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Repeatedly, writing the lovers' bodies in relation to place serves to emphasise the importance of sensual perception and accelerates the narrative development:

At the start, the back seat of the Grays' old station wagon – it was the colour of elephant hide, I can see it clear – or even the front seat on those occasions when my desire would brook no delay, was a commodious enough bower of bliss for a daemon lover and her lad. I do not say it was comfortable […].
The station wagon was parked up the same woodland track where we had stopped that other evening, and she lay asprawl on the back seat, head and shoulders propped awkwardly against a folded picnic-blanket, with her dress pulled up to her armpits and me lying over her […]. (Banville 2012: 56)

Cotter's place appears 'natural' for the protagonist's desires, when car and stowage were definitely 'awkward'. The significance of light in the haven of Cotter's hut reveals the narrator's spatial and perceptual position as well as allusively the meaning of his erotic experience, whose tragic hue is analeptically disclosed to him only many years later. To "ancient light", which arrives from the depth of space and originated millions of years ago, any inhabitant of a human dwelling has a natural right, be the place ever so humble or its residents quite unusual, as his beloved knows:

One afternoon at Cotter's place with the sun angling down on us through a high-up cracked pane she explained to me the principle of a householder's right to ancient light – the sky must be visible at the top of the window viewed from the base of the opposite wall (Banville 2012: 59).

This is 'their' site of love-making during one spring and summer, on a "mattress on the floor at the Cotter house" (Banville 2012: 40) where they lie facing each other. The pastoral is the protagonist's habitat and one of Banville's favourite frames of mind. Therefore passages dedicated to the poetic description of surroundings in nature carry much of the emotional impact of love and lust, yet also of peacefulness and the extraordinary which the narrative transmits: "There was a river in our wood, a secret, brown, meandering stream …" (Banville 2012: 147) opens one of the passages that leads to an erotic scene even a reader's memory of Constance Chatterley's encounter with Oliver Mellors cannot eclipse.10 The couple's "days of innocence" (Banville 2012: 149) pass in this bower where nobody will seek or find them. Symbolically, and in congruence with the sexual subtext, the hut, where untamed nature has reclaimed its rights since it has almost become part of the overgrowing vegetation again, is exposed to the unlimited force of the elements in thunderstorms. It has divested 'civilisation' to a degree that the shabbiness of its interior and the state of dilapidation resist pure idealisation.

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Yet it means "our idyll" (Banville 2012: 173) in a secrecy where passion cannot be disturbed by social constraints: "How safe we felt then, how far removed from everything that would threaten us" (Banville 2012: 173).

The novel's lyricism and descriptive spatial precision decrease towards the end: when, on a 'formal' occasion, Alexander Cleave in his Sunday best meets Mrs Gray, dressed like a lady, engaging in a solemn conversation with him, it seems – unlikely enough – to be at her house in town – but how could that be? (Banville 2012: 208-11) It becomes evident how the celebration of his mistress's body, of his own corporeal ease and pleasure – resembling John Donne's lyrical I's "new-found-land" – correlates with a precise memory of places. The inverse correlation also proves true. In regard to the 'formal' terminal scene of the affair the elderly Cleave can no longer be sure of his geographical memory, while he exactly remembers the physical discomfort caused by the clothes they are wearing and the topic of mortality Celia Gray wishes to converse on. This contains a meaning of which the protagonist is unaware at a time when she is for him still the romantic "daemon lover". His bliss emerges as an ephemeral state that ended tragically; her withdrawal leaves the protagonist angry and puzzled until he learns as a middle-aged man from Billy's sister – now a nun – that he had deceived himself, because the woman he loved and desired was fatally ill and her departure final. His recognition of a grotesque misapprehension shows that it is not only memory one cannot trust, but that his own self and the ideas this self had harboured 'betrayed' him. This knowledge can only be acquired when the disappointment about his being abandoned by his mistress is dispersed as a delusion rooted in his own mindscape.


To conclude: firstly, the spatial situatedness of the perceiving or narrating persona is linked to the body and corporeal sensations. The most important ones are pleasure, pain, violence, sexual and nonsexual abuse, illness, birth and death. But there is also a connection of spaces to experienced conditions of constraint, duty or relaxation, to awareness of clothes, objects and carriage. The observation of the protagonist's physical situation is essential for the making of a subjectivity in which 'perception is reality'. In the texts I have been dealing with the concern with the body and physical presence in relation to space, reaching a peak in Ancient Light, varies considerably: Stevens's self-presentation evades all closer reference to corporeal details of his own, except position in relation to spaces and posture.

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By contrast, his notice of failing health in his father, his noble master's dejected poise or the circumstance that one of the conference delegates has sore feet, which have to be attended to by servants, addresses the physical vulnerability of other men. Hollinghurst's focalisers pay attention to physical changes in the characters they remark on and their living (or dying) spaces; passages told by the omniscient narrator never refrain from defining the situatedness in space of the reflector or observed figure. For the female first-person narrators of The Secret Scripture and The Gathering the focus on the body and its spatial situation remains literally vital.

Secondly, West-Pavlov's chiastic pattern of the literary 'deiXis', applied to these novels, proves elucidating, because it serves to clarify the time / space, respectively memory / spatial-positioning relation. Regarding Ishiguro's, Hollinghurst's, Barry's and Enright's narratives the statement is pertaining that where memory of persons and occurrences threatens to fail, either fades into the imaginary or becomes unreliable, the perception of places, spatial circumstances and 'things' – dead matter – proves firm and sharp.11 In the visual picture of the 'X' emblem the memory of the past and the portrayal of spatial situatedness are juxtaposed in the same but reversed way as assurance and unreliability are. Paradoxically, the shape of a place itself may become insecure and in the long run prove unstable, because it may be superseded by obsoleteness, decay, demolition or repurposing, while the spatial materiality's effect nevertheless remains reassuring for the subject. From Michel Foucault to Henri Lefèbvre and Edward Soja the fluidity and malleability of space and place has been uncovered; perceived spaces emerge as a product of culture and the beholder. The subject's portrayed experience of man-made structures, however, is often firmly 'grounded' on his / her personal geography. In the case of some protagonists memory is clinging to the materiality of places and the objects therein, as we have shown. One of these objects is the body.

In Ancient Light the visualisation of places only begins to fade parallel to the experienced decline of the emotional intensity which formerly accompanied corporeal sensations. Contrasting with Veronica Hegarty's traumatised revulsion in The Gathering regarding sex and the body, a feeling which is linked to her hatred of houses, positive address is in Ancient Light extended to places and situatedness. Correspondingly, the bodies of the narrator Axel Cleave as well as the beloved woman receive the same regard and attentiveness as the pleasure of sensuality and their position in places common and uncommon. This narrative consideration illuminates the verified spatial position of the self as sign of a positive intra- and inter-subjective experience.

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Nonetheless, situatedness, so important for the constitution and self-assurance of the subject, often follows the heteronomous determination dependent on a wider social or national condition. While to the novels' central character the memory of the past presents itself as explicitly separate and singular, with the subject often remaining unsure about recollections when lacking social affirmation, spaces are above all experienced as communal and societal, usually due to defined regulations. This observation is confirmed ex negativo when a protagonist's voluntary dissociation from society accompanied by a withdrawal to a secluded space, or an imposed isolation in a remote place emerges as central in the subject's awareness. The cogent relationality of an individual – that humans are social beings – is attached a special meaning through his / her spatial positioning, which is socially determined either as assigned space, as exile, or as sanctuary. The semantics of individually experienced space and of portrayed spatial position thus convey fundamental meanings, which contrast with but are frequently complementary to the subjectivity of temporal memory. To uncover the correspondences and dissimilarities in these relations has been the aim of this article.


Banville, John. 2012: Ancient Light. London: Viking.

Barry, Sebastian. 2009: The Secret Scripture. [2008]. London: faber & faber.

Cahill, Susan. 2011: Irish Literature in the Celtic Tiger Years 1990 to 2008: Gender, Bodies, Memory. London and New York: Continuum.

Clark, Alex. 2012: "Review of John Banville's Ancient Light." The Guardian. 11 September 2016.

Eeckhout, Bart. 2012: "English Architectural Landscapes and Metonymy in Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14.3: 2-11. 11 September 2016.

English, Bridget. 2013: "Laying out the Bones: Death, Trauma and the Irish Family in Colm Toíbín's The Blackwater Lightship and Anne Enright's The Gathering". New Voices, Inherited Lines: Literary and Cultural Representations of the Irish Family. Eds Yvonne O'Keeffe and Claudia Reese. Oxford, Bern et al.: Peter Lang, 204-23.

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Enright, Anne. 2007: The Gathering. London: Jonathan Cape.

Haekel, Ralf. 2014: "'… no sign at all': Loss in John Banville's Eclipse, Shroud and Ancient Light". Narrating Loss: Representations of Mourning, Nostalgia and Melancholia in Contemporary Anglophone Fictions. Eds Brigitte Johanna Glaser and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz. Trier: WVT. 239-54.

Harte, Liam. 2010: "Mourning Remains Unresolved: Trauma and Survival in Anne Enright's The Gathering. LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 21.3: 187-204.

Hollinghurst, Alan. 2011: The Stranger's Child. London: Picador.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. 1993: The Remains of the Day. [1988]. New York: Random House (Vintage).

Mendelsohn, Daniel. 2012: "In Gay and Crumbling England". Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture. New York, NY: New York Review Books, 275-90 (orig. publ. in The New York Review of Books, 10 November 2011).

Said, Edward W. 2000: "Invention, Memory, and Place". Critical Inquiry 26.2: 175-92.

Smethurst, Paul (2000): The Postmodern Chronotope: Reading Space and Time in Contemporary Fiction. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Tancke, Ulrike. 2015: Deceptive Fictions: Narrating Trauma and Violence in Contemporary Writing. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Trimm, Ryan. 2009: "Telling Positions: Country, Countryside, and Narration in The Remains of the Day." Papers on Language and Literature 45: 180-211.

West-Pavlov, Russell. 2010: Spaces of Fiction / Fictions of Space: Postcolonial Place and Literary DeiXis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


1 In my articles on representations of space in contemporary British fiction, most of which appeared in the yearbook Symbolism: An International Annual of Critical Aesthetics between 2009 and 2014, I have discussed theoretical approaches by these authors.

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2 A second critic maintains: "They [the architectural features] clearly mean a lot to Hollinghurst, too: in all of his novels, tender descriptions of buildings and interior-design schemes and artworks have a pointed symbolic function. In particular, the great piles built by prosperous and appetitive Victorians […] seem like reproachful reminders of a more confident era" (Mendelsohn 2012: 286). Considering the latter part of this statement I would contend that there is a fascination and eagerness on the writer's part to study 'the Victorians' and their architecture rather than an implicit reproach on account of their "greater aesthetic confidence", as Mendelsohn believes.

3 Eeckhout (Eeckhout 2012: 4), whose article discusses the details of architecture and their significance, points at the discontinuity of ownership and habitation as an indication of the "queer" disconnection between family and habitation (both Valances, like most of the male characters, are homosexuals).

4 For an extensive analysis of the connection between trauma and memory in Enright's novel see especially Harte (Harte 2010).

5 Cf. Harte (Harte 2010: 189-90) for the structure of the family Veronica has founded, and Bridget English (English 2013: 219; 221) for the material peculiarities of her new home. I consider the protagonist's experienced coldness a characteristic of either place to which she (hardly) relates.

6 Harte also explores the wider familial and social context of sexual child abuse including the environment's responsibility and the strategies of cover-up which also traumatise and victimise the helpless witness (Harte 2010: 198-99).

7 In the article by Bridget English attention is drawn to the signifying contrast between congested rooms and open spaces in relation with the topic of death and guilt (English 2013: 207 and n. 10).

8 My dealing with The Secret Scripture in the article "The Humble, Gender, and the Local in Contemporary British and Irish Fiction" (forthcoming) also takes into consideration the silenced incarceration of the traumatised "fallen woman". Like Barry's book Enright's narrates gaps of Ireland's suppressed national history.

9 For an analysis especially regarding topics of memory and identity see Haekel 2014: esp. 250-53.

10 In a 2012 interview with Alice Gribbin in the New Statesman Banville mentioned that he believed D.H. Lawrence tried to write sex, "with appalling results" (Gribbin 2012: n.pag.).

11 I consider a statement by Ulrike Tancke on The Gathering valuable also for the topic of spatial significance in the other texts discussed here. Her comment corroborates the ambiguity of spatial awareness when she writes that the materiality of places – visual, olfactory, or tactual – intrudes and interrupts the narrative "with its physicality" and is often negatively connotated in Enright's text, but that despite this disturbance of the narrator's flow of memories "there is a sense in which the material can be read as a means of grounding her narrative […]. The function of the material is a reassuring, solidifying device […]" (Tancke 2015: 113).