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England Unfree

Ed Simon
The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, Unbound, 384 pp, £18, ISBN: 978-1783520985 What does it mean that the apocalypse has happened many times before, and that it will most likely happen many times in the future? This is perhaps less the question than the overall mood presented by English poet Paul Kingsnorth’s stylistically dazzling, brilliant, and difficult new book The Wake. In this surprise bestseller in Britain, Kingsnorth provides the internal, first person narrative of “bucmaster” (in keeping with faux-archaism there is no capitalisation in the author’s orthography) who is an English landowner in the eleventh century, living after the invasion of the Norman French. Written in an invented Anglo-Saxon patois, for which a glossary must be supplied as an appendix, Kingsnorth’s prose is an incantatory rush of words repeated in Old English alliteration and parallelism. Save for the occasional period, his writing is without punctuation, seemingly mimicking in the consciousness of his readers the scripto continua of the era when literature referred to stains strategically placed on stretched animal hide. For the reader the literal meaning of bucmaster’s words exists often beyond the cusp of comprehensibility, and yet giving oneself to the deluge of defamiliarised words, evoking the language spoken by Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes and forcing Kingsnorth’s audience to dwell among the textures and sounds of English itself. “when I woc in the megen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. A great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.” This language is not a simple conceit, and it is no postmodern trick but rather central to the meaning of the novel. The strangeness yet simultaneous familiarity of the words can often defer literal meaning for the reader; one finds oneself understanding bucmaster’s narration through context, and often passages only make sense latter on as you acclimate yourself to his linguistic world. But what this distance from surface literalism achieves is a poetic othering of our own language. The early twentieth century Russian formalist literary critic Roman Jakobson believed that what made poetry poetic was that it drew attention to its own artifice, sometimes by making our own language foreign to us. If this is a credible definition of poetry – and I think that it is – than Kingsnorth’s book is a novel in verse. bucmaster’s world is one decimated by William the…



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