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“And above all to make you see”: Ian McEwan and the Visual CFP

May 28th, 2021 by Diletta De Cristofaro, in

CFP Polysèmes 27, Spring 2022

Joseph Conrad’s famous preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) - “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see ” -  has time and again been quoted by Ian McEwan when questioned about the nature of his writing. McEwan thus explicitly claims to write “visual” novels, and evokes the Polish-born pre-modernist writer as founding reference. In this Call for Papers we would like to contextualise and question this reference in both its intertextual and intermedial dimensions. Although Leavis’s Great Tradition has often been evoked in relation to McEwan’s complex network of literary influences, what we would like to explore in this issue of Polysèmes is how the novelist’s “visual writing” rather relies on the problematic yet deeply productive transition from the 19th to the 20th century, which saw the rise of photo-cinematographic aesthetics as well as pictorial avant-gardes, as it seems that, for McEwan, the period’s plasticity offers relevant ways of voicing and elucidating contemporary crises and concerns. Every McEwan reader remembers the spectacular balloon accident at the beginning of Enduring Love, Atonement’s “perfect leg, pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s” (2001, 192) encountered on a French battlefield or the gray shingle of Chesil Beach as Florence walks towards Edward in the morning after their wedding night. More recently, Adam “emerging from his packaging like Botticelli’s Venus rising from her shell” (Machines Like Me 24) strikingly exemplified the productive contradiction at work in McEwan’s use of artistic tradition in order to capture the Zeitgeist. Our call for papers then aims at framing McEwan’s use of images: is there any specificity to McEwan’s images, or such a thing as « mcewanesque » images? Are there privileged linguistic means used in creating them? What role do they play in the novels’ plots? How do his texts reshape/rework the images inherited from Victorian and Modernist aesthetics? And how do they in turn interact with contemporary visual culture and McEwan’s first-hand relationship with cinema?

BACLS members are invited to send contributions on the following subjects (although other relevant angles are encouraged):

  • McEwan’s relationship to the visual and its evolution. The potential influence of his scenario-writing.
  • His connections to Gothic, Realist, Sensationalist, Impressionist and Modernist aesthetics in their specific relation to the visual.
  • The presence of actual images in the diegesis (photos, paintings, illustrated newspapers and magazines, television, anatomical plates, etc.) and their interpretation
  • Analysis of the visual work at sentence level (metaphors, comparisons, specific tropes, etc.)?
  • Visual details, working with almost surgical precision: to what effect?
  • Narrative montage (sequencing, recurrence of motifs, use of sensational images, etc.).
  • Plot construction relying on powerful, often traumatic memory-images.
  • The place of images in McEwan’s engagement with the “Third Culture”. Could images be a meeting point between science and the arts?
  • Emphasis on the gaze (point of view, framing) and scopophilia.
  • Haunting and ghostliness’s link to the visual in McEwan’s texts and intertexts.

Potential contributors are requested to send a 300-word abstract and a short biographical note to adele.cassigneul@hotmail.fr and elsa.cavalie@univ-avignon.fr by June 30th, 2021. Notification of acceptance will be given by July 15th and the final papers (35 000 - 45 000 signs) expected by October 1st, 2021