Pat Waugh on Jim Crace, Being Dead, and the Yale Windham Campbell Lifetime Literary Award

The British novelist Jim Crace wins prestigious Yale Windham Campbell lifetime literary award.

Patricia Waugh, Professor in the Department of English Studies and affiliate of the Centre for Medical Humanities, writes:

Jim Crace

I was delighted by Yale University’s announcement last week that Jim Crace has been awarded the prestigious Windham Campbell Award for lifetime achievement in fiction. The award, in its second year, and worth $150,000, is one of the literary world’s glittering prizes. His brilliance has long been appreciated by other writers of his generation: John Updike has praised his ‘hallucinatory stylistic skill’; Hilary Mantel his ‘intensely imagined and deeply felt’ worlds; John Hawkes described him as ‘gifted almost beyond belief’. Last year, Crace featured significantly in a special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction on The Future of British Fiction which I co-edited with Durham’s Jenny Hodgson, and it was a pleasure for me to write the formal case for Crace’s award.

Crace began writing in the 1970s and has published 11 novels to date. He is hard to position:  an original and yet a writer who has kept alive a tradition of uncanny fabulism, a kind of ‘dislocated realism’. His novels draw on a rich tradition of English pastoral, Renaissance grotesquerie and chiaroscuro, and they rejuvenate genres as diverse as the Arcadian, the urban utopia, the quest novel, the medieval bestiary and the fabliaux. Stylistically, he draws on traditions of oral storytelling to create his distinctive rhythmical speech-poetic prose that is the crafted vehicle for the rich imaginary worlds of what he refers to (humorously) as ‘Craceland’. He writes about social justice, class, gender relations, violence, abuse and territorialism, the threat of the stranger and the alien, community and its tensions, post-secularism, the naturalist turn and the vulnerability of the body, terrorism, apocalypse, eco-catastrophe, but he addresses and embodies these concerns in strange or fabular or mythopoeic landscapes peopled with iconic beings in prose that is at turns declamatory, resonant, hallucinatory and sensuously hypnotic. His landscapes include a seventh continent created wholly through the voices of its inhabitants as they go about their daily lives; a narrative of the last days of Jesus, complex and flawed, dying of starvation, harangued by voices after forty days confronting his demons in the Judean desert of two millennia ago; a post-Apocalyptic America, stripped of its technology and power and reimagined through the lens of medieval social mores; a wounded storyteller addressing his soon-to- be-extinct tribe, the Stoneys, on the cusp of the transition from Stone to Bronze Age; a late medieval community, its commons threatened by the forces of  a burgeoning mercantilism, as it abandons its ethos of hospitality and turns to violence and terrorisation of the ‘outsider’.

Being DeadI chose Being Dead as my favourite of his works. First published in 1999, it brilliantly signalled the coming agendas and preoccupations of the new millennium: the naturalist turn away from the pronounced ironies and recursivity of the postmodern to a renewed sense of and return to the vulnerability of the body and the enhanced need for ceremony and affective community in a scientifically naturalised and secularised world. Moreover, the novel still preserves a kind of muted self-referentiality that insists that the distinctiveness of the human relation to nature lies ultimately in the power of human language, our shared powers as wounded storytellers, like Philoctetes, who can make of the indifferent, the terrifying, the strange, the repugnant, something of wonder and beauty that renders the ordinary resonant with meaning. The novel describes a brutal murder of two zoologists on a deserted coastline – a story worked up from a local newspaper report – as they travel back to the spot where, thirty years previously, they had first consummated their youthful passion amidst the multiply varied life of the coastal vegetation. But almost like Darwin’s last work on the earthworm, Crace renders a world through the multiple perspectives, the various Umwelts, of crabs, bluebottles, maggots, a teeming, humanly invisible world that slowly takes the bodies back into collective self.

Most strangely and wondrously however, it is in the process of its telling that the homicidal violence of this particular exclusion from life and the processes of ingestion and decay that subsume the middle aged corpses, are transumed into things of beauty: the novel enacts its own ceremonious burial and confers a miraculous afterlife in prose as it describes, in minute detail, the gifting of the bodies back to the earth. For it is language that is, here, the carrier of ceremony, the witness to an awesome metamorphosis that would otherwise be lost to the indifference of sky and sand and water. It is a narrative testimony, conferring a proper sense of an ending, on lives whose natural and brutal ending would otherwise remain senseless. This is also a testimony to the power of fiction – and of the wounded storyteller – in an age of scientific materialism, commerce and global unrest – to confer grace on the world of nature as perceived by the humans that inhabit and are honed out of it. It is Crace’s affirmation of the importance of fiction as consolation and shock, but most of all as vehicle for the discovery of truths as vital to our human and creaturely continuation as any unearthed by the instruments of scientific materialism.

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