An Anti-Pastoral Novel
Jim Crace’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel ostensibly professes nostalgia. It masquerades as an elegy to an idyllic pastoral existence swept away by the advent of enclosure. But Harvest’s landscape is far too rich, and too disparate, to be no more than a lamentation to the loss that it documents. A self-confessed “fabulist”, Crace’s elegant flourishes of lyrical prose are woven into a surprisingly modern and notably urban discourse, undermining any serious attempt to ground the novel in a fixed historical moment. In an interview given earlier this year, Crace dismissed the British countryside as “too spoken for, too talkative, too small” for his organic “landscape” style. And yet a trip to London via Watford Gap supposedly reminded him that it is a place “drenched in narrative”, one that Harvest, with its proliferation of personal, cultural, and historical narratives, has attempted to capture: the result is a novel that it is far more than a hymnal tribute to the countryside.
The repressed, fragmentary character of the novel’s narrator, Walter Thirsk, is echoed by the landscape of an isolated agrarian community, one divided well before the arrival of a new landlord who proceeds to announce his intention to turf out its inhabitants and replace them with sheep. Thirsk’s lyrical relationship with the countryside is, he admits, a product of his own background as a “townsman”, and it is embodied in a variety of tones and forms. For instance, when he is dispatched in search of a woman that the villagers find on their land—the novel’s “femme fatale” (as he paints her)—along with her husband and father, the forest resounds with Wertherian sorrow and disenchantment:
The forest is a din of rain. But behind the cascades and the waterfalls, I hear the fidgeting of feet that might belong to anyone or anything, a cough that could be human or a fox, the crack of snapping wood. I call out ‘Mistress’ twenty times, to no avail. She must have taken refuge in some other den. Or she hears but will not answer me.
Thirsk’s emotive lamentation contrasts with a more tranquil sense of acceptance that pervades later sections of the novel, when the locals abandon the village and he is tasked with its upkeep. “The oak”, he ponders in one of many symbolically-charged passages, “is known for being still. It will not duck its head or lean, no matter what the winds might try.” It presides over the “true and straight” rhythm of a life connected to the “limitless” field “beyond our mastery.” Harvest’s narrator is as whimsical and free-floating as his prose: a widower, he conducts a perfunctory sexual relationship with a fellow villager, harbours timid fantasies of cross-dressing, and enjoys what can at times feel like a sadomasochistic relationship with his superior, Master Kent. He is also fond of puns, many of which serve to transport his thoughts beyond spatial, temporal, or emotional boundaries. A pragmatic reader might on occasion feel deceived by this mode of thought, but it is at this level of narrative, it seems, that the novel’s political argument takes root.
This un-named village, set in a non-specific historical period, feels, after all, much less communal than it ought to. Thirsk begins the novel brimming with repressed anger and lust: on a handful of occasions throughout the first few chapters, a paragraph of gentle lyricism will be juxtaposed with a bitter stream of violent fantasies, effecting evocatively sharp contrasts. But there is also something uncanny about the architecture of the village itself: at its centre stands a pillory, which symbolically takes the place of the Christian cross as its ritualistic centrepiece. “We do not dare to say we count ourselves beyond the Kingdom of God”, Thirsk tells us, “but certainly we do not press closely to His bosom.” Consolation and redemption are to be found in working the field, symbolised in the plough, but they are also to be had, in no small measure, in a voyeurism built into the very symbolic structure of the village. When a small band of “outsiders” is found on their common land, the villagers find a disturbing use for their “neglected” pillory, a contraption which, in addition to its gruesome physical consequences, allows its prisoners’ suffering to be seen from all sides while limiting their own field of vision. It also allows Thirsk to indulge his perverse bovarism:
My attraction for the woman, based on that glimpse of her in the lamp-lit dancing barn and on the recent sight of her blood-soaked shawl…has only quickened at the knowledge of her kinship to that man. The marriage of an older woman to a thin-bearded youth is something that appeals to me. I can imagine being younger, being him…
Thirsk, hidden in the shadows behind the pillory, expects to see the return of his “femme fatale”; having found her, her husband, and an older man they presume to be the woman’s father, the other villagers lock the men in the pillory while allowing the woman to escape and roam about the countryside. Thirsk is not alone, however, in awaiting her return: as his sensual fantasy unfolds (“she’s drawing bows and firing arrows at the night; she’s making love to him”), he observes that “Mr Quill is silent too. His hands are gripping tightly on his knees.” This sudden digression would probably suffice to inform us that Mr Quill shares the narrator’s voyeuristic anticipation, but Thirsk has a frequent habit of undercutting his subtler moments with flighty connections between the simple physical gestures of others and his own subjective, and particularly emotive, experience. He can tell that his companion “has dressed himself in finer and more gentlemanly clothes than he wore for me this afternoon. He’s like a decorated stripling at a fair, come to spy himself a girl.”
The result is an often highly solipsistic rendering of the experience of a communal life supposedly bound to the ebb and flow of nature, but in which the private is very often juxtaposed with, and ruptures, the public. Thirsk frequently recounts the same event in terms at once hostile and compassionate, lustful and detached, rational and irrational; for all its lyricism, his schizophrenic narrative bears the marks of the urban, high-capitalist novel, and his fitful over-identification with the communal “We” borders on the pathological. It is the narrative of a disturbed insomniac: when he’s not scampering after women in the forest or hopping from one vacated bed to another in the wake of the village’s exodus, Thirsk spends his unsettled nights in the grip of the same imaginative wanderings of his idle days—all rooted in the plot device of his burned hand, a disability that excludes him from taking part in any serious labour, as well as most of the novel’s major events.
The subject of Harvest, then, is that of the modern urban novel. This is Harvest’s strength: the difference between town and country which seems to tug at the protagonist and usher in the disintegration of the village is subsumed by the fact that this tension is itself already painted into an image by Crace’s narrative. Before the arrival of the new landlord, Master Kent introduces a shadowy “chart-maker” to the village. He has been asked to produce an aerial rendering of the local area. This rendering oozes with symbolism: “he’s coloured and he’s flattened us; no shadow and no shade”, Thirsk thinks, to the extent that “no man has ever seen this view. But it is beautiful nevertheless.” That Crace turns the sensuality of this seduction by the beautiful and the aesthetic into a process not quite parallel to—indeed, always one step ahead of—the onset of enclosure seems significant. The chart-maker’s impossible rendering shows Thirsk the village as he has never seen it before: from “above”, it looks like “a brawny-headed man”; the forests where he sought the prisoner’s wife “are its hair.” The punitive shaving of the woman’s head and the parallel development of Thirsk’s attraction to her seem to represent the coming subjection of the land. The forest, that traditional literary trope of mystery and wonder, will be shaved away, the land redrawn in order to provide space for the sheep whose wool will feed the production of commodity manufactures in the new industrial towns. The displaced villagers will lose their historical inheritance; their descendants will find work in the factories that will continue to blemish and mark the tamed countryside. “This land”, Master Kent laments, “has always been much older than ourselves…not anymore.” But what’s disturbing is not the uprooting of a community, whose vicious xenophobia and violently patriarchal legal system will, somewhat thankfully, disappear along with it. It’s the fact that its disappearance is transfigured into momentary pictures exploited for their aesthetic capital: a series of free-indirect fantasies connected by symbols, puns, and lyrical flourishes. These historical snapshots fragment any chronological linearity and transform the novel’s temporal depiction into an endless series of “nows”.
The novel’s achievement, then, beyond the simple pleasure of its rhythmic prose, is to gesture toward an allegorical reading while simultaneously, as Thirsk himself claims, denying the reader access to any deeper or broader symbolic meaning. By recounting the birth pangs of modernity through what are very often modern, and arguably postmodern, means, Harvest uproots words like “nostalgia”, “community”, and “loss” and draws attention to them as representations and fantasies. But the novel also remains a profoundly moving work whose power is derived, at least in part, from the fact that its solipsism jars with its pseudo-historical invocations. Despite being the bookies’ favourite going into the announcement of this year’s Booker prize winner, the novel—that Jim Crace claims will be his last—failed to win; the award, however, would not have been unjust.
Oliver Neto is reading for a PhD in English at the University of Bristol.