The Hampstead Novel ... and Its Discontents
TOM SYKES takes a look at the Hampstead novel
WHILE LIVING IN MANILA, I befriended a young academic at the University of the Philippines who loved the Hampstead novel. In an ironic inversion of orientalism, he found it exotic to read about a privileged class of people living in a cold Northern country very different to his own. I told him I didn’t like the genre myself and that I’d rather read books by writers from his continent.
The Western literary establishment would seem to agree with me: over the past 30 years, a large number of prizes, publishing contracts and teaching posts have been awarded to Asians or Asian diasporas (Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Amy Tan, Bharati Mukherjee, etc.). My academic friend scowled at me. “Slums, palm trees, earthquakes, famines? I don’t want to read about that stuff!” We both laughed.
So what precisely is the Hampstead novel? Although many examples of the genre are set in this plush north London suburb, many aren’t. It might be more useful then to look at the Hampstead novel as less a geo-literary definition in the sense of “Irish drama” or “Malaysian poetry” than as a more generalised movement that emerged in the 1950s to explore English bourgeois preoccupations in a realist, seriocomic style.
These were stories of a Cambridge ingénue who falls pregnant by clip-voiced BBC newsreaders, a working-class lecturer who tries to climb the academic ladder by wooing an heiress, and a musically-talented young woman who becomes the mistress of a tycoon. They spoke to a homogenous, white, middle-class, conservative readership in an era before multiculturalism, feminism and the permissive society. Early classics include Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (1965) and Margaret Forster’s Georgy Girl (1965). More recently, authors ranging from Ian McEwan to Fay Weldon and Melvyn Bragg to Zoë Heller have been tarred with the Hampstead brush.
Some critics claim that the Hampstead novel died in the 1980s when British society had changed radically and the non-white authors mentioned above were bursting onto the scene. Others—particularly speculative and postmodernist writers—have argued that the Hampstead novel has not only survived but manoeuvred itself into a hegemonic position that snobbishly tries to rise above all genres. Iain Banks, whose career can be divided down the middle between dark imaginative thrillers set in contemporary Britain and political space operas, castigates the Hampstead novel for believing that “We’re top dog, we’re not a genre, we’re the main thing”. Others may call this genre ‘the mainstream’ or ‘English literary fiction’.
There is a strong regional flavour to much of Banks’s work—he even published Raw Spirit, a non-fiction account of his tour of the whiskey distilleries of Scotland—which is at odds with the metropolitan parochialism of the Hampstead novel. Instead of Oxbridge graduates, hot-air balloonists and forgetful aristocrats, Banks brings us a Gonzo journalist pursuing a moralistic serial killer around Edinburgh, a Luddite cult in the wilds of Stirlingshire and a sadistic teenager trapped on a remote Scottish island. Far from the restrained domestic drama of, say, Joanna Trollope, Banks’s novels tend to open like this: “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (The Crow Road, 1992).
A similar audacity animates the fiction of Will Self, much of which takes place in north London, although this is a surreal ‘Twilight Zone’ north London where the familiar and the dreary co-exist with the surreal and the macabre. The Book of Dave (2006) concerns a London taxi driver who records his bigoted views on modern life in a book which later becomes the holy bible of a future civilisation. In How the Dead Live (2000), the afterlife is revealed to be a lacklustre neighbourhood in Dalston. Great Apes (1997) re-imagines polite, artsy-fartsy London invaded by chimpanzees who have reversed social roles with human beings.
These works indirectly satirise the Hampstead novel, deconstructing its assumptions and conventions with a savagely black humour. Self’s demotic interest in the drugs, violence and language of the street counterpoints the class-centrism of much “Bookerfare”—his narrative spaces tend to look more like sordid back alleys than leafy avenues.
Self also draws on a number of left-field ideas—from French critical theory to the radical psychiatry of Thomas Szasz—to upset the social and psychological stability of the Hampstead novel which tends to treat its reader in a reassuring, welcoming way, summed up by Alan Bennett in The History Boys (2004) thus: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” In stark contrast, there is a strong aspect of estrangement to Self’s oeuvre: “I don’t write fiction for people to identify with and I don’t write a picture of the world they can recognise. I write to astonish people.”
Advocates of the Hampstead novel argue that its quotidian settings and narrative linearity necessarily offer a more “realistic” representation of the world than the writings of Self, Banks and others. But is that really true? Verisimilitude doesn’t depend on the literary mode you choose to work in. For example, we can all think of science fiction novels set in invented worlds (1984, Brave New World) that are nonetheless incisive allegories of real-world politics and morality. Conversely, there are plenty of naturalist novels located in present-day Britain or Malaysia that are highly escapist or naive. As China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station, asserts, “Hampstead novels [are] about the internal bickerings of middle-class families who seem hermetically sealed off from wider social conflicts. Just because those books pretend to be about ‘the real world’ doesn’t mean they reverberate in it with more integrity.”
So, however you want to define the Hampstead novel, whether you’re a fan of it or not, there’s no denying its influence on modern British letters. This genre of “middle-class orgasms, delicatessen food and high thought”, as the critic John Sutherland describes it, has and may always have its disciples and its discontents.
Reproduced from the April-June 2011 issue of Quill magazine