Intertextuality Everywhere


This week I have found myself growing steadily more infatuated with intertextuality; the theoretical description coined by poststructuralist literary critic Julia Kristeva in 1966, referring to the technique where one work references the themes and/or text of an earlier work. This process has been identified as key a element of modernist literature and I have been encountering more and more of it as my studies progress, but it is the contemporary references I find myself obsessing over. The more you become aware of intertextuality the more you seek it out and the more it appears. I have started to believe that it is in fact unavoidable. Whether the writer is doing so deliberately or not contemporary literature is filled with intertextual references. In this blog I will seek to highlight some of the most glaring examples I have encountered.

Will Self’s latest novel is a most deliberate work of intertextuality, borrowing it’s very title from a rather obscure reference from the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses.

‘A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.’ (1998:203)

Self’s novel Umbrella also seeks to appropriate the style of high modernism’s most famous novel, not only placing the relevant quote at the start of his own work but also resurrecting the stream of consciousness style used by several modernist novelists, Joyce with Ulysses, included. The inclusion of the novel on the short listed for the 2012 Booker Prize was celebrated for such an ‘experimental’ and ‘difficult’ book. It is interesting to note how little experimentation in the novel form has progressed in nearly a century. The fact that Umbrella didn’t win is less important. That honour fell to the much more market friendly Tudor historic fiction of Hilary Mantel.

The fact that Self was influenced so directly by Joyce is not in itself very surprising but there are even more interesting examples of intertextuality crossing genres. It was while reading through the often opaque verse of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land that two lines in particular peeked my attention.

‘O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.’ (320-1)

Looking to my shelf, both Consider Phlebas and Look To Windward, stared back at me, the 1998 and 2007 science fiction novels respectively of Iain M. Banks. I have mentioned Banks on this blog before but was surprised by the connection between Elliot’s conical poem of high modernism and Bank’s space opera. In a recent interview Banks states;

“I love the poem. I’m not a great fan of what he stood for in terms of his politics and so on, but I think he was a genius, and The Waste Land is simply my favourite poem of the twentieth-century. I remember, maybe the first time I read it, the words ‘consider Phlebas’ just jumped out at me, and just said, ‘title’. I don’t know why, but I made a note of it then and there, and that would be back in high school. Then re-reading it while trying to think up titles for the next book, I thought it would be nice to try to use another title inside The Waste Land. I didn’t think it would be the preceding three words! [Laughter] ‘Ah, that’s even better!’”

However in The Bridge, written as Iain Banks, the central protagonist’s girlfriend states that her favourite poem is The Waste Land. I think there is more connections here than simply a good sounding title, despite Banks’ comments.

In conclusion I turn back to one of my own favourite contemporary novelists, a writer I would argue is clearly at the height of his powers, Cormac McCarthy. When asked to discuss intertextuality McCarthy commented;

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”

Intertextuality has become such an intrinsic part of modern literature I believe it can be argued that it is always present whether intentional or not. It has become a key concern for any of us who wish to peruse literary criticism. Once the veil had been pulled from my eyes it appears everywhere in my reading. It has been a greatly enriching process.

Work Citied

Banks, Iain. The Bridge. London: Print. Abacus. 1990. Print.

Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. London: Orbit, 1988. Print.

—. Look To Windward. London: Orbit, 2010. Print.

Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” Modernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Rainey. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. 124-43. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Self, Will. Umbrella. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. Print.

Jurgensen, John. Hollywood‘s Favourite Cowboy. Nov. 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.

Banks, Iain M. Interview. Structo Nov 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.

Will Self introduces his Booker nominated novel, UMBRELLA. 25 Sep. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.



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