Constructions of Self and Nation in Julian Barnes’ England, England

Disclaimer: This post was written as part of my ENGL 366: English and Anglophone Literature requirements in March 2017.

Summary of “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England

In the article, “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England,” Vera Nünning considers the ways in which Julian Barns’ novel England, England comments upon and deconstructs notions of English identity and Englishness. By isolating several constructions of Englishness Nünning comments not only on/to the tradition of postmodern English literature to which England, England finds cohort, but also comments upon the effect such a narrative has within cultural studies at-large. Specific to Nünning’s arguments are examples of moments where England, England juxtaposes and contrasts discourses on what construes Englishness, considers the intent and effect of the “invention of traditions” (59), and deconstructs questionable notions of historical authenticity. An example of the juxtaposition of discourses Nünning describes includes a close reading and deconstruction of “the ‘primal English Myth’ of Robin Hood” (63), and the ways in which the Merrie Men are attempted to be made more palatable to England, England tourists (and the Merrie Men’s subsequent disavowal and revolt of such a reconstruction). An example of how Englishness is constructed is found in discussion of Sir Jack’s rejection of several poll responses. An example of deconstructing questionable notions of historical authenticity is in considering the analogy between the memory of the individual and a country in the “Countries of England” jigsaw puzzle (61). The provided examples are not exhaustive, and are referenced here merely to showcase several defenses of Nünning’s thesis.


Constructions of Self and Nation in Julian Barnes’ England, England

Ideologies regarding the ways in which identities may be constructed and expressed are persistently present and colour the ways in which peoples (and by extension: characters) not only interact with one another, but also interact with and within the spaces and places to which they inhabit. In Julian Barnes’ novel England, England characters are routinely either unaware of—or unwilling to admit to—the ways in which their ideologies are similar to one another. With this in mind: in considering Vera Nünning’s article “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England,” I found myself caught by a phrase: “[England, England] is self-consciously concerned with exploring both the nature of national identity and the question of how established versions of Englishness have come to be invented and upheld” (62). For the purposes of this essay I will be exploring some of the ways in which Sir Jack (and by extension: those around him who are willing to submit to his vision) adhere to biased performances in the processes of personal identity creation. Subsequently I will explore how those same methods of personal identity construction are used in the construction of Englishness within both England, England and Anglia.

Early on in Part 2 The French Intellectual states that “[…] the world of the third millennium is inevitably, is ineradicably modern, and that it is our intellectual duty to submit to that modernity, and to dismiss as sentimental and inherently fraudulent all yearnings for what is dubiously termed the ‘original.’ We must demand the replica, since the reality, the truth, the authenticity of the replica is the one we can possess, colonize, reorder, find jouissance in, and, finally, if and when we decide, it is the reality which, since it is our destiny, we may meet, confront, and destroy” (Barnes, 57). While not addressing the existence of the French Intellectual explicitly, Nünning offers the following in response to considerations of ‘the authentic’: “By calling into question the existence of anything that might be called ‘authentic’, England, England also undermines the notion of historical truth” (Nünning, 72). To consider the above two quotations with reference to the construction of history void of authenticity: Sir Jack’s constructions of self and Englishness therein are here turned to for insight. Sir Jack removes the poll responses which he finds to be either of less or no use to the concept of Englishness he believes he should provide as Quality Leisure for tourists. While this may seem to be counterintuitive to the purpose of the poll, it is in fact congruent with the purpose of the England, England project in that it renders the poll responses more palatable for the general audience. By cutting away that which may cause people to be uncomfortable in their experience there is thus a higher chance that tourists will enjoy their stay on the island, and subsequently fulfill the capitalist ideal of spending more money.

This editing continues on an individual level with Paul—Sir Jack’s official “ideas catcher”—as he records and edits a series of Sir Jack’s best ideas for posterity (Barnes, 31). This record is meant to express the personal history and identity of Sir Jack, and is thus appropriately constructed to present an incredibly specific and highly stylized version of Sir Jack, which at times necessarily bends or omits information: “One for the road, eh, Paul? That you may record” (Barnes, 35). Outside of Paul Sir Jack also constructs his expression of self through the manipulation of text provided by a Times profiler: “[Sir Jack] had deleted references to his age, appearance and estimated wealth, had the whole thing pulled together by a rewrite man, and ordered the final text to be carves on a swathe of Cornish slate” (Barnes, 31). With reference to information which is omitted: Sir Jack’s personal history (obviously) does not contain information or recordings of the trappings of his age regression fetish. This creates the situation wherein Martha and Paul are able to push Sir Jack out of his position of power with three words: “Titty. Nappy. Poo” (Barnes, 180). The danger of these words is constructed by Sir Jack himself, as he does not wish such information to be included in his “authorized version” (Nünning, 67). Upon returning to his position in firing Martha, Sir Jack’s intended legacy for the above-described personal record is to construct a place of memento mori upon the isle (Barnes, 258). This, however, backfires as visitors find the area to be uncomfortable in its reminder of death, and not conducive to Quality Leisure. Though Nünning specifically references Doctor Johnson in the following quote, it is nonetheless relevant here: “Tourists are evidently less than delighted when they are actually confronted with the real thing” (Nünning, 65). In deciding to turn Sir Jack into a character of England, England Nünning’s argument that “[…] the ‘real’ thing is not as well-preserved, readily accessible and pleasing as the copy” is supported—just as tourists come to be biased toward the perceived superior accessibility of the England, England theme park so to do they become biased toward the seemingly superior accessibility of a Sir Jack who is once again alive (Nünning, 69).

The process of national identity creation closely mirrors the creation of personal identity experienced by Sir Jack as outline above. As a once-theme park, but now-nation England, England is constructed as a process of celebrating the approximation of an Old Tradition—a tradition of colonialist, capitalist gain—and repackaging said celebration as new. In creating a sense of crisis over and within the concept of English parliament the England, England project manager, Mark, is able to situate England, England as both referential—and yet simultaneously superior—to English society: “[W]e shall probably request the revoking of certain minor items of antique planning legislation, most of which have their source in the contemptible Palace of Westminster” (Barnes, 131). Nünning comments that “[a]ny attempt at finding the essence of Englishness in the past is bound to fail […] for it proceeds from the mistaken premise that an individual’s or a nation’s identity is located at some specific point in the remote past. Rather than being encapsulated in an earlier stage, a nation’s identity is shown to be constantly changing, with the nation constructing its history as it does along” (Nünning, 72-3). Though there is no actual crisis between England, England and the palace of Westminster in creating this distinction Mark is able to situate England, England as a superior capitalist force.

By contrast to England, England Anglia is shown as rather than celebrating an approximation of the Old Tradition, to be rather celebrating an approximation of the New Tradition. In “[e]xposing the processes through which marketable versions of England’s past and present are fabricated, England, England shows, albeit in a highly exaggerated fashion, that the invention of cultural traditions serves the purpose of coming to terms with the present” (Nünning, 68). In this way Anglia is able to create an identity and expression of agrarian Englishness by which people may adhere. That being said, it must be notes that this agrarian construction is yet a construction: “Showing that neither Martha nor the committee nor the inhabitants of Anglia are able to reconstruct the ‘true’ past, Barnes’ novel alerts the reader to the idea that our models of national or individual history are nothing but an intellectual construction” (Nünning, 72). The people of Anglia construct what it means to live in Anglia, and participate in Anglian culture just as much as the people living on the island.

In considering both the constructions of England, England and Anglia in comparison some questions arise: How does England, England “thematiz[e] and explor[e] the invention of cultural traditions”? “[B]y constructing and deconstructing both ‘Englishness’ and the notion of authenticity” (Nünning, 59). As per Dr. Max: considering that there is no such thing as real or authentic, there can thus be no such thing as “bogus” (Barnes, 134-5). In considering that the “[…] actual events of English history play a minor role both in England, England, and in ‘England, England’ [t]his cavalier treatment of ‘real’ historical events is in keeping with many constructions of Englishness” (Nünning, 65). While England, England and Anglia have vastly different outcomes, their constructions of Englishness follow much the same ideology in a rejection of any notion of authenticity.

The characters of England, England work not only to create specific personal performances of identity and Englishness, but also to create nationalist concepts of personhood: “[the remarkable achievement of England, England] can be located in the ways that England, England explores, parodies, and deconstructs those ‘invented traditions known as ‘Englishness'” (Nünning, 59). In constructing such detailed performances characters not only invent personally consistent traditions of expression, but when considered together also work to build notions of Englishness in the methods of their construction. In this way “[t]he […] well-known exploration of the limits of historical knowledge […] is not central to the novel, but ancillary to Barnes’ wider concerns: It highlights the impossibility of knowing what Englishness may ever have consisted of in the past, and it deconstructs the notion that there is either a continuity between past and present Englishness, or something like essential ‘Englishness'” (Nünning, 74). Both England, England and Anglia show the ways in which disparate ideals (those of capitalism versus social agrarianism) may be manifested in a very similar way: in rejecting notions of authenticity each nation is able to construct itself only as its inhabitants see fit, and nothing more.

Works Cited

Barnes, Julian . England, England. Toronto, ON, Vintage Canada, 1998.

Nünning, Vera . “The Invention of Cultural Traditions: The Construction and Deconstruction of Englishness and Authenticity in Julian Barnes’ England, England.” Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philogie, vol. 119, no. 1, 2001, pp. 58–76.


Author: B

I'm a 20-something university student with a blog.

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