MOVE2 / Obscene Experimentation: Cultural Refusal and the Experimental Novel in Post-War Britain / Andrew Hodgson

Cover image detail, Andrew Hodgson, The Postwar Experimental Novel

MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics. 

The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.

MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.

– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)

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Appearing in the years following the Second World War, roughly between 1945 and the late-1970s, the British experimental novel of that post-war era is something of an uncoded entity in written histories of twentieth century literature. As novels they are known by their more extreme formal dynamics – B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), which is a book in a box, with each chapter a separate pamphlet to be shuffled at the reader’s will, or, Alan Burns’ novel Babel (1969), which he claims to be the first cut-up – contesting the claims of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs – made up of spliced together newspaper copy and overheard conversation in the street or in the pub. These are the sort of banner examples of the experimental novel, appearing in a sort of banner year, as it were, in 1969. And yet these texts, and these representative figures, among the wider writers and books that make up the corpus of this literature are found largely unaccounted for in the grand historiographies of progressional modernisms, or the catalogued lists of the dehistoricised avant-garde found in expansive Introduction to… collections that have tried to exhaustively chart innovation in the literature of the modern and contemporary. Though in recent years there has been a gradual shift towards reappraisal and republication, the authors and the texts of the post-war experimental novel still hold little critical paragraph; little googleable presence. The novels and critical writing these figures generated is largely long since out of print and is difficult or impossible to find in library holdings.

This absence is often taken to imply aesthetic and/or socio-historical redundancy, or a moribundity rooted in the texts themselves. That, as novels, as artworks, they hold no content, no message; no function. The word ‘experimental’ as ascribed descriptor of these post-war novels has indeed since their era of appearance been regarded a pejorative, a toxic descriptor to be avoided. The novels grouped under its ensign defined stylistically eccentric, or aesthetically masturbatory. The accepted reasoning for the dismissal of the experimental novel from the novelistic surtext, from literature, from cultural history-at-large has therefore long been argued in the language of aesthetic failure: formal innovation in the post-war novel is a pale extension of more dominant avant-gardes appearing elsewhere in the twentieth century. However if it is a silence that pervades around the experimental novel that appeared in the post-war, it is a silence that speaks, of aesthetic reduction, misdirection, that in turn reflexively suggests degrees of affectivity long since stripped from the literary avant-garde – though indeed that now appears in the early stages of critical reversal. This absence, I argue, is suggestive of ulterior dynamics around these texts not accounted for in the states of dismissal in which we find them, but indicated by the socio-cultural climates in which they emerged. As Mark Fisher writes in The Weird and the Eerie in 2016:

Experimental work often strikes us as weird when we first encounter it. The sense of wrongness associated with the weird – the conviction that this does not belong – is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete.1

This draws us to the fundamental aesthetic processes of the experimental novel – which, according to Nathalie Sarraute writing in 1950, harbours the cultural responsibility of ‘uncovering the new’ states of social reality – this, for Sarraute is ‘the novelist’s entire experimental effort.’2 The experimental novel, in content and form (though that content has held little critical ground, and that form has often been reduced to gimmickry), was posed as a critical presence in post-war culture, with the potential for unveiling the societal dysfunctions of communities rapt by the traumas of total war, conscription, collaboration, the holocaust, evacuation, the blitz; the Cold War and attendant impending nuclear apocalypse. Where socially-stabilised reality norms long clung to themselves falter, and fail, it is within the contexts of faltering realities, that we find these ‘faltering’ aesthetic forms emerging. And so what would it mean that this uncovering of the new post-war state of things is perceived so very wrong, that the art-objects that carry it out must be discounted from cultural representation, and artistic mediation of the real?

To open up that question, I here discuss the material history of refusal of the experimental novel, that has created the atmosphere in which we receive them today – and indeed has acted to mould literature into the fixed genres that have dominated since the experimental novel’s removal from the field. Though this is a history that begins and ends in silence, a key shift in discourse around the experimental novel is that of claims of obscenity – its appearance and disappearance were not passive processes. I raise three points here that tell a narrative of creation and dispersal and begin to tie the formal radicalism of the experimental novel into the societal experience of mid-20th century Britain. The first is its contexts of appearance, the second is the conflict internal to post-war cultural production, of the dominant, major, ‘social realist’ novel and the minored experimental novel, and the third is what that process of dismissal suggests about the cultural climate in which it occurred and the fallout that this dismissal has caused in our present.


To dig past the apparent formal failure of these texts, that form indeed follows function, it is necessitated by the communicating object, or objects that it must attempt to contain, it is unlocking of a content-message. And it is the experiential violence of the Second World War, and its silencing effects in post-war human life that make up not only recurring themes in these novels, but recurring crises within the lives of the writers themselves. To look for example to Johnson, who dubs himself an ‘evacuee forever’:

compared with that of those in Europe who suffered, say, machine gunning and dive-bombing by stukas on the roads of France, or the concentration camps [. . .] nothing, certainly, can have been worse than the concentration camps; but it is possible to compare a sudden and relatively short outburst of violence [. . .] and conclude that the psychological effects of evacuation would in fact be more severe.3

Or, to look to Eva Figes’ childhood confrontation with that she had escaped as a Jewish German refugee to Britain:

‘One afternoon just before the war ended my mother gave me nine pence and sent me off to the local cinema . . . I sat alone in the dark and watched the newsreel of Belsen. . .’ It was a deeply shocking experience which haunted her in nightmares for years.4

As such, the experientiality of war would appear central to not only a reading of the experimental novel of the time but lived life within a faltering post-war world itself. And yet, though fictive reflex of this experience is one facet of its oeuvre, these writers draw the experience of that war and its fallout through the aesthetic prism of their own post moment of production. By which the experimental novel presents itself as a product of wider, shared experiential conditions of a post-war world immersed in the ‘nightmarish’ ‘psychological effects’ of uncognisable magnitudes of experiential ‘violence,’ now distanced, reduced or latent; threatening to return.


And yet, this is a socio-aesthetic relation that has been refused. From the very early years of the post-war period in Britain, the hostile application of the critical antinomy of experimental and realism that claimed to have definitively removed innovative modes of writing from British literature – to have ‘balanced the literary budget’ by 1938 – continued to ‘victoriously’ dominate cultural discourse.5 Dominant strains of literature carried on as if the wars, the economic crises, the fundamental societal ruptures, and the earlier innovations of figures like Woolf and Joyce, had occurred as a sort of sideshow, and as such project false-continuity from a Victorian, or Edwardian cultural status quo.6As Brigid Brophy writes in 1973: ‘fiction seems to me the victim of a prejudice or, more probably, an inhibition [that] has produced false rationalisations and distorted perspectives, including the habit of mistaking the trappings (naturalism) of one particular type of novels (Victorian ones) for the essence of the whole genre.’7 It is this climate we find the post-war experimental novel emerging into in Britain; a climate in which it is allotted no cultural part to play. To look to Stefan Themerson writing in 1950 to Swedish writer Lars Gustav Hellström, who was keen to translate Themerson’s novel Bayamus (1949):

you asked me to send you some of the reviews, because you want to quote the English critics’ point of view as a typically ‘reactionary one.’ Well, it will be rather difficult to quote silences, will it not? The fact is that the book has been passed over in perfect silence.8

The ‘reactionary’ point-of-view the Swedish translator thought typifying of England couldn’t be edified, as the reactionary response to an experimental novel was not particularly grounded in reading and measured critique of a text’s perceived shortcomings, but general distaste; the simple idea of irresponsibly experimenting with an established genre during a period of societal instability and paper shortages was obscene enough. Bayamus itself a macabre invocation of the refugee experience of wartime London from the pen of a Jewish Polish refugee, it is the kind of text that might be deemed culturally integral, for, in some sense, aesthetically accessing reflexions back upon that experientiality within the initial post-war moment of realisation of the full-extent of that war’s violence. As Bertrand Russell describes it in 1953: ‘Bayamus is nearly as mad as the world.’9 And yet, refused in Britain, it apparently went unread and dismissed from cultural discourse.

And yet, later in the period, the refusal in Britain of experimentation in the novel as not-literature had become more pronounced. At the 1962 Edinburgh International Festival, Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid publicly denounced Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi as ‘cosmopolitan scum, a writer of no literary consequence whatsoever’ (seemingly missing the ‘International’ bit in the festival’s title). MacDiarmid described both Trocchi and William S. Burroughs as ‘vermin who should never have been invited to the conference.’10 The episode is indeed typifying of reactions by a grouping of dominant-at-the-time British writers and critics against what they perceived as otherly, or foreign, that what can only appear to us now as newer, or different, forms of writing; of writer.

To follow the echoes of rejection, in his journal Rayner Heppenstall (who was also in attendance at Edinburgh) reports that critics of his books think him either redundantly eccentric, or a mad man. Of newspaper reviews of his novel Two Moons (1977) he writes: ‘Harwood says nothing whatever about the content, but simply makes clever remarks about the form. To him, I am, though a distinguished man of letters, in this novel merely eccentric. To Sage, I am mad.’11 In a 1963 letter to the printers who had refused to put to press his novel Albert Angelo (1964), Johnson writes,

I understand that you have refused to print my novel Albert Angelo because of the use, perhaps a dozen times, of certain four-letter words. I write to make known to you my opinion that your refusal is an act of moral cowardice: the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case [R. (crown) v. Penguin Books ltd., 1960 – which Penguin won] gave serious writers a freedom to express the truth as they found it in life which you, sirs, seem determined to limit by imposing a form of censorship of your own.12

To reanimate Trocchi a moment, his Cain’s Book (1960) was ‘banned, burned, prosecuted, refused by book-distributors everywhere, condemned for its loving descriptions of heroin use and coarse sexual content.’13 And this hostility in Britain was not reserved just for British writers and a resident Burroughs. In a 1997 obituary of French writer Roland Topor, his publisher in Britain John Calder remembers:

his play Vinci avait raison (Leonardo was Right) was a farcical comedy where a policeman and his wife invite a colleague and family to spend a weekend in their new house, where the lavatories are blocked. Piles of excrement emerge all over the house and only the constipated visiting policeman escapes suspicion: the end of this unusual detective play confounds everyone, but at its Brussels premiere and at a public reading at the Arts Theatre Club in London in English, not many of the audience waited for the end.14

Challenged with a metaphor depicting a very normal process of the human body, the British and Belgian audiences walked away, surely to commit such horror to taste in the sanctity of a locked bathroom. As reviewers in Belgium wrote at the time: ‘We must put the idiot in prison. . . for creating such filth [. . .] it’s a matter of the public moral good.’ – ‘in some other countries the idiot would be shot.’15 The idea of such a total rejection seems almost comical, unbelievable (they had, after all, seen the poster, bought the book, bought the ticket), the kind of thing we would associate with reactions to early twentieth century Dada and a Sunday-best-to-theatre public, perhaps more conservatively naive to artistic attempts at ‘transgression.’ Such performative outrage and refusal then seem to indicate something further than anachronistic defence of ‘good taste.’ As Hélène Cixous writes bluntly in Le Monde in 1967:

The English novel suffers from a realism close to reportage, where non-critical factual account replaces ethical perspective. Such idealistic diagnosis is partial: it signals not only a lack of morals, but a vertigo when faced with the dimensions of the contemporary real.16


If the post-war experimental novel here appears confrontational, as questioning of dominant cultural mediation of the lived-in world – Johnson’s ‘truth as is found in life’ – this refusal constitutes a denial of what that minor cultural interrogation might signify. A de-selecting cultural refusal that would appear an intrinsic facet of a period of socio-cultural normalisation; the result of a socio-cultural process of nostalgic reaching for a mythic before. And, as Christine Brooke-Rose writes in 1981, this is a conflict that ‘traditionalist critics and realistic novelists […] no doubt feel they have won.’17 Given the analytical potentials of the experimental novel raised by Sarraute, social realism and its seemingly successful impulse to silence the experimental novel therefore appears to centralise as its novel project the unquestionable propagation of a ‘hypostatic illusion,’ a drive to ‘make fiction a reality.’18 Which Philippe Sollers states, is an ‘irresponsible impulse to be without contradiction which each society must check and try to keep under control.’19 With the reduction of the experimental novel to ‘ivory tower’ eccentric anachronism; socially irresponsible and culturally inconsequential, we then appear to witness the dismantling of these socio-cultural checks and balances. This opposition within and around the novel then takes place as a conflict within the cultural formation of post-war social reality itself. To return to Fisher, we are confronted with the image of a dominant, claimed post-war sovereign, ‘literary realism as a kind of Disneyfication.’20 It is a literature that adopts the mask of socially engaged realism to perform an illusory reconstruction of socio-cultural world-norms, where the reader participates in a collective ‘“cognitive estrangement” [that] here takes the form of an unworlding’;21 the decorticated results of which we perhaps continue to live in today.


  1. Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater, 2016), p. 13.
  2. Nathalie Sarraute, L’Ère du soupçon (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1956), p. 73, 79. It is in the 1963 English translation that Maria Jolas chose to give to the word ‘recherche’ the inferred synonym of ‘experimental’; ‘investigative’ or ‘analytical’ would perhaps work closer the original, but as here demonstrated, these words appear somewhat linked. This collection of essays is heavily cited by the British writers raised here, notably Johnson, Heppenstall and Brooke-Rose. It can therefore be regarded as a consequential point of crossover.
  3. B.S. Johnson, The Evacuees (London: Victor Gollancz, 1968), p. 18.
  4. Eva Tucker, ‘Eva Figes Obituary’, The Guardian, books/2012/sep/07/eva-figes (accessed 14 July 2015).
  5. Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 82.
  6. Rayner Heppenstall, Imaginary Conversations (London: Secker & Warburg, 1948), p. 8.
  7. Brigid Brophy, Prancing Novelist (1973) (Champagne: Dalkey Archive, 2016), p. xiv.
  8. Stefan Themerson, A Few Letters from the 1950s (Wisconsin: Obscure Publications, 2009), p. 16.
  9. Bertrand Russell quoted in Keith Waldrop, ‘Introduction’ in Stefan Themerson, Bayamus (1949) and Cardinal Pölätüo (1961) (Boston: Exact Change, 2004), pp. vii–x. p. viii.
  10. Andrew Murray Scott, Alexander Trocchi: The Making of the Monster (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992), p. 108.
  11. Rayner Heppenstall, The Master Eccentric: The Journals of Rayner Heppenstall, 1969–81, ed. Jonathan Goodman (London: Allison & Busby, 1986), p. 219.
  12. B.S. Johnson quoted in Jonathan Coe, Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson (London: Picador, 2004), p. 151.
  13. James Campbell, ‘Alexander Trocchi: The Biggest Fiend of All’, The Antioch Review vol. 50, No. 3, Thinking: Books or Movies? (Summer, 1992), pp. 458–71. p. 458.
  14. John Calder, ‘Obituary: Roland Topor’, The Independent, 18 April 1997 http:// topor-1268000.html (accessed 3 May 2013).
  15. Philippe Genaert quoted in Roland Topor, Théâtre Panique Tome 1, p. xii.
  16. Hélène Cixous, ‘Langage et regard dans le roman expérimental: Grand-Bretagne’, Le Monde, 6959. viia (18 May 1967), p. 16.
  17. Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 311.
  18. Philippe Sollers, Logiques (Paris: Éditions du Séuil, 1968), p. 50-51.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Fisher, p. 48.
  21. Ibid.