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Multilingualism and the Twentieth-Century Novel: Polyglot Passages by James Reay Williams

Reviewed by Katherine Helmick, University of Oxford

Multilingualism and the Twentieth-Century Novel: Polyglot Passages, James Reay Williams. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. £59.99. ISBN 9783030058104.


Multilingualism has gained increasing recognition as a critical area of study, particularly in the field of comparative literature. The topic is as difficult to define as it is omnipresent: indisputably the underlying reality of not only the global literary market, but also the everyday lives of people whose experiences often went overlooked in previous eras devoted to nationalization and linguistic standardization. Multilingualism nonetheless often defies recognition through its complexities and ambiguities. Before exploring multilingualism, a critic must consider questions such as, what qualifies as language, and how to isolate its role in a literary work from the very material of which that work consists. The controversies entangled with the most basic questions regarding multilingualism render its study elusive and even problematic.

            In this book, James Reay Williams aims to explore multilingualism in the twentieth-century novel, as well as to situate multilingualism within the field of literary criticism more generally. He draws together strands of postcolonialism and modernism studies to investigate the novel itself as a form inherently pluralistic and therefore resistant to monolingualism. Williams defines his purpose as destabilizing Anglophone literature through the novel – a form associated with Empire and monolingual nations but inherently equipped with a plurality of voices. He undertakes this project by bringing authors embraced by the Anglophone canon – Joseph Conrad and Jean Rhys – into conversation with the Caribbean authors Wilson Harris and Junot Díaz. The result cuts an unusual course through the popular understanding of these literary categories to reveal surprising links between the authors and their works.

            Williams’s book divides into four main chapters, along with an extensive introduction and brief conclusion. In the introduction, Wilson identifies multilingualism as a key site for modernist authors within and outside of Europe over a long twentieth century to engage with the legacy of imperialism. To avoid a Eurocentric understanding of modernism, he follows Eric Hayot in defining it as the ‘“world-denying” mode [...] in which communication becomes a cacophony’ (19). This understanding not only equips Williams to involve authors from the periphery, but also foregrounds multilingualism as a critical feature of the texts under discussion. A functional rather than identity-oriented definition of modernism lays the groundwork for Williams’s argument that modernism represents both a crisis for the novel and also an opportunity to extend its capacities.

            The chapter on Conrad, ‘Post/Colonial Linguistics: Language Effects and Empire’, focuses on Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. Here Williams investigates how Conrad’s works interrogate European colonialism through the breakdown of language. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad builds an introspective mono-narrative paradoxically through the breakdown of and encounter with many voices. In Nostromo, Conrad departs from a facade of monolingualism, but the environment of linguistic pluralism effectively renders the characters ridiculous. While approaching the problem of language from opposite directions, these two works act in concert to undermine assertions of European hegemony. Williams emphasises that neither work resolves these issues, but rather forces a recognition of their ongoing complications.

            In Chapter 3, ‘Lost for Words in London and Paris: Language Performance in Jean Rhys’s Cities’, Williams observes a shift from the psychological to the social impact of language. Noting the author’s complicated attitude towards her own multilingualism, he observes that language acts as a weapon for and against her characters’ efforts to belong in the urban centers of London and Paris. He emphasises instances of wordless language, such as laughter and ‘aphasia,’ or tongue-tied silence, while underscoring the complexity of assigning native or fluent speaker status to language users. For Williams, the characters’ struggle with language reveals the instability of constructing national identities. Just as Rhys’s works are often relegated to the periphery of the modernist canon, so her marginalised characters represent a challenge to the urban centre.

            Williams turns to a Caribbean author in Chapter 4, ‘Self, Dialect and Dialogue: The Multilingual Modernism of Wilson Harris’. Famously difficult to interpret, Harris’s works engage with the colonial past by invoking mythological figures from El Dorado in The Dark Jester to Poseidon in The Secret Ladder. Williams draws out a parallel between the river-bound journey in Palace of the Peacock and Heart of Darkness, emphasising the characters’ dive into their own subconscious. In Harris’s work, the relationship between language and identity is even more conflicted: the colonial imposition of shared language on indigenous and enslaved people renders language itself an erasure of identity. Unusually among his counterparts, Harris addresses this issue by advocating for an inward turn to discover a collective identity. The postcolonial identity depends on its essentially linguistic nature: an internal dialogue that reveals universal truths.

            Chapter 5, ‘The Dangerous Multilingualism of Junot Díaz’, engages with the contemporary critique of a Dominican author living and writing in the United States. Similar to Conrad and Harris, Díaz confronts the problems of postcolonialism through an obscure and often opaque text. His unconventional use of footnotes in his 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, brings attention to his engagement with readers. Williams concludes from the variety of references and often untranslated languages that no single reader could be expected to possess the breadth of knowledge necessary to grasp fully Díaz’s text. The combative tone of footnotes directly addressed to readers, combined with the violent content of the plot, leads Williams to suggest that Díaz deliberately reflects the violence of colonisation onto his readers by making this multilingual text aggressive, intimate, and ultimately impossible to interpret.

            The strength of this book lies in its awareness of the overall critical landscape. As demonstrated by his argument that modernism is both a crisis and an opportunity for the novel, Williams persuasively bridges the gap between contrary accounts of the novel to enrich our understanding of the genre. By making language ‘praxis,’ or practical use, central to his analysis, Williams offers the possibility of engaging with contemporary issues such as migration and multilingual nation-building. The book effectively introduces some uncommon works to other more famous novels, examining both from an original perspective.

            The major drawback is that the book’s conclusion falls short of drawing all the threads together and closing the loop between the four authors. While Williams occasionally references works from other chapters, the overall effect is more of reading four separate essays than one unified study. In juggling the wide range of authors and topics, his analysis of multilingualism itself becomes somewhat overshadowed by the emphasis on modernism and postcolonialism.

            As Williams emphasises in his conclusion, this book does not seek to prescribe a particular solution to the problems it explores. It is not an assertion of what the novel should be but rather evidence that the Anglophone novel does not exist. Because the novel as a form constantly questions language, it cannot belong to any one particular language. Williams offers a substantial contribution to the study of the twentieth-century novel by spotlighting multilingualism as a critical area of engagement between authors and their contexts, as well as between authors from different eras. He navigates longstanding debates over more inclusive definitions of modernism, proposing an innovative approach without attempting to discredit other views. As this discussion often looms larger than the question of multilingualism itself, however, his work will be of more  interest to scholars seeking a fresh perspective on familiar fields than to those hoping to break into a new one.