Moving with the times

The University of Newcastle's Head of English, Dr Jesper Gulddal, has always been fascinated by travel adventure stories, but gone are the days when fictional characters were footloose and fancy free to navigate a plot's twists and turns on a whim.

Dr Jesper Gulddal 

"Traditionally, many novels based their plots on travelling and free mobility – on adventures encountered on the road," Dr Gulddal says. "But mobility of the carefree type – where you simply depart – ceased to exist in many places more than 200 years ago. Modernity is precisely an age of movement control, and my point is that this has deeply affected the genre of the novel."

Dr Gulddal has been focusing his research energies on a book project on movement control – passports, borders and immigration law – from the point of view of literary history. With the introduction of modern movement control as of the late 18th century, the free and easy style of narrative becomes more and more implausible.

An early example illustrating this is Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. This novel is still based on free mobility but at the same time, Fielding is keen to contain this mobility and the subversiveness associated with it. And he does that, Dr Gulddal notes, via formal innovations that echo the proposals for a British passport system he made as a London magistrate.

"But this is just the beginning of the story," Dr Gulddal says. "In the 19th century, the highly restrictive passport systems in continental Europe are associated with a type of novel driven by the attempts to subvert or avoid the control measures – Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma are good examples of this.

"And in the 20th century, the drama of the refugee or the stateless person confronted with closed borders becomes a key theme of many novels."

Often, the passport motif is used as a means of criticising movement control in the name of either individual freedom or social inclusiveness, Dr Gulddal says. "Think of a novel like T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain from 1995. What we find here is a fictional space totally dominated by different kinds of borders and movement restrictions. And the point seems to be these borders are ultimately just a means of upholding an unequal distribution of wealth, rights and opportunity. At the end of the day, they lead to misery on both sides.

"I'm also interested in the methodological implications of this research," Dr Gulddal adds. "I like to think of the passport motif as an interface that connects a specific historical mode of controlling movement and, on the other hand, a specific way of writing novels. In this sense, the passport motif doesn't just anchor a fictional text historically, but provides the starting point for a narrative interpretation of movement control as one of the defining institutions of modernity."

Dr Gulddal, who has a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Copenhagen (2005), completed his postdoctoral work at Cambridge before accepting a senior lecturer position at Newcastle in 2010.

His former research project focused on anti-Americanism and resulted in the monograph Anti-Americanism in European Literature.

"What interested me about anti-Americanism was not so much the topicality or the controversies, but rather the historical derivations and roots," Dr Gulddal says. "I wanted to explore how anti-Americanism is produced and activated in literary texts, how novels are crafted with a view to making an all-out assault on America. And I wanted to make the case as well that literature has been important in disseminating anti-American discourse to a wider audience."

Dr Gulddal explains that literary history is full of examples of authors juxtaposing European refinement and American boorishness. The story of the disillusioned European chasing the American dream and returning home unfulfilled – think of Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit – is a perfect example of this.