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XU Lei£¨Nanjing University£©


Xu Lei is Professor of English at English Department of Nanjing University, Deputy Chair of the English Department, Deputy Director of Center for the Study of Contemporary Foreign Literature and Culture. Her research interests are literary history of realism, contemporary English literature and Neo-Victorianism. Having completed one research project funded by the National Social Science Foundation and one project funded by the Ministry of Education Social Science Foundation, she is currently working on one research project funded by the National Social Science Foundation and a sub-project leader of a key research project funded by the National Social Science Foundation. Her recent publications include ¡°Retrieving Madame Aubain¡¯s Barometer: ¡®The Reality Effect¡¯ and Critical Discourse on Realist Details¡± (2022), ¡°The Janus Moment of the Concept of Realism: A Debate between Rene Well¨¦k and E. B. Greenwood¡± (2020), co-edited Representation and Reproduction: Literary Realisms Across the Boundaries (2019).


¡°A Joyful Masterclass in Modernism¡±? Meeting Victorian Realism Halfway in Damon Galgut¡¯s The Promise


As a shaping force of the literary identity of South African English literature in the twentieth century, literary realism enjoyed at best a troubled relationship with English South African writers in the post-WWII era due to its origin from European culture in general and entanglement with British imperialism in particular. The unease did not see much improvement even when anti-apartheid imperative fostered a main strand of politically engaged realism among writers like Nadine Gordimer who felt it their obligation to fight racism and social injustice through an analytico-referential writing mode, while J. M. Coetzee found it stultifying for every act of the imagination to hold onto the overwhelming truth in South Africa by the bucketful. When the termination of white minority rule in 1994 was expected to play down ¡°protest-style writing, literary realism, moral earnestness, the dominance of race, predictability¡±¡ªthe hallmarks of apartheid literature, realism somehow has retained its purchase on contemporary English writing in the country that stays committed to the expose of unresolved and emerging social problems. And yet moving beyond ¡°rhetoric of urgency¡±(Louise Bethlehem) furnishing ¡°literature in bondage¡±(Coetzee), the realist imperative in the current context of English South African writings may be redefined as ¡°a textually inscribed intentionality in the phenomenological sense, a tendency in style and narration that can be more or less pronounced in any given work¡± (Stephan Helgesson). Damon Galgut¡¯s Booker-winning novel Promise (2021), though viewed by some critics as evocations of Woolfian or Faulknerian modernism, ¡°a joyful masterclass in modernism¡±, intentionally employs an omniscient narrator, ¡°the determining principle of the Victorian novel¡±(J. Hillis Miller), in concert with free indirect discourse (brought to sophistication in high modernism) to create a shifting perspective poised between a mouthpiece for a collective mind and polyphony of multiple voices. Lauded by many for its innovatively fluid point of view, the novel¡¯s narrative style, I argue, is primarily anchored in an omniscient third-person framework, comparable to those in classic Victorian realist texts. Invested with narrative authority, the narrator¡¯s perspective negotiates with the inhabitable characters¡¯ interiority to tease out a fusion of horizons which doubly refracts the values of South Africa¡¯s white middle classes to a tragicomic effect. Meanwhile by treating black characters as ¡°a loud absence¡±, the novel quietly undermines the ethical foundation of the omniscient mode which has enabled the Victorian realists as well as the present white narrator to map the reality as it is.