Embodied Narrative Absence: Living for the Present in the ‘Fisher King’ Narrative’

Abstract for paper presented at ‘Modernism Now‘, (Institute of Advanced Studies, University of London, June 2014 ).

Celtic mythology tells the story of the Fisher King, a ruler who suffered an incapacitating wound to the groin that never healed and which led to the ruin and desolation of his kingdom. Repeated and recast, the story of the Fisher King and his wound subsequently entered Arthurian legend and the Grail quest mythos, and, in this context, bears out the traumatic impossibility of trying to reclaim something that is no longer there. This paper will explore the ways in which the legend of the Fisher King’s wound was widely enacted in modernist writing. Moving beyond its most obvious portrayals in The Waste Land, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and The Sun Also Rises, this paper reads the famous legend alongside three works clustered at the conclusion of World War II. The first-person narrators of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (1945) each turn to writing their stories because of an extraordinarily painful loss, yet each boldly refuse to explicitly acknowledge this pain in their story. Because of this, these texts invite the reader to see something that is blatantly not there: that is, the pain of loss that continues to define the narrator at the unseen moment when they write their stories. Confounded by Fisher King wounds that have never healed, these narrators retroactively read the influences pressing upon them in their youth, identifying these forces in the redemptive and protective exercise that comprises their narratives. These novels thus become as much about this lost past as they are about the present moment in which the narrator has sat down to write their story. As this paper argues, the prevalence of Fisher King narratives is indicative of a particularly modernist literary style that vitalises the narrator, giving them life beyond the page while registering the anxieties of the modern world in a decidedly new manner.

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