In 1988 I'd been reading seriously for only a year and a half, trying everything and, more often than not, being secretly disappointed. By "secretly" I mean that disappointment was held secret from me. I might have enjoyed a prize-winning author's prize-winning book, but something was missing. Deep down I knew these books weren't what I'd hope for yet kept on reading novels by the big names assuming I had missed something. What drove me back to the big city library and to read the Sunday review pages and journals like the LRB was the hope of isolating the decisive factor in those rare books that got beneath the surface. So this is why in November of that year I read Barbara Everett's review of Hugh Kenner's A Sinking Island, his highly-critical critical book about Modernism and modern English authors. Two issues later I read Gabriel Josipovici's letter in response. This is what I can repeat here. As you may notice from some of the names mentioned, things would never be the same again.
He begins by praising the review as "thoughtful, often profound" before getting on to the issues at hand:
Barbara Everett is right to insist that Eliot's impact depends on the interconnection of the aesthetic and the moral in his work, and that 'the inward debate of authority' is crucial to our sense of him. The same is true of Beckett, and the attempt to see both as ‘high priests of Modernism’ does a disservice to them and to Modernism, suggesting as it does that they wish to substitute art for religion. But the mere introduction of Beckett into the picture makes one see the weakness of Everett's attempt to see [Kingsley] Amis’s work as in some way akin to Eliot’s and as unjustifiably slandered by Kenner. Those novelists who are highly regarded in their own countries and in the rest of Europe, but not in Britain, such as Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras, Yaakov Shabtai and Aharon Appelfeld, have all, like Eliot and Beckett, sensed that to speak 'with the voice of a person subject to his own experience, like everyone else: not a preacher, not a poet' (Everett’s words about Larkin) requires a formal adventurousness, a willingness to take risks with the manner of speaking, which is quite absent from the work of Amis and the other much-touted English writers of the present.But it wasn't the names alone that stuck in my head, it was phrases too, from the original article and the letter: "the inward debate of authority", "the acknowledgment of defeat", "a person subject to his or her own experience", "formal adventurousness" and "a willingness to take risks with the manner of speaking". Simple summaries of now familiar ideas but then entirely new to me; new yet precisely those factors I had sought.
Of course one can go on playing the game of who 'really' is in the Modernist tradition and who isn't. I myself, like Everett, would make Auden rather than Bunting central. But that, as I understand it, is not the main thrust of Kenner’s argument. In this country, today, 'ambitious' tends to mean 'long'; 'wildly imaginative' tends to mean 'working in the minor mode of fantasy'; 'sensitive' and 'compassionate' to mean 'this author still writes like Hardy.' Instead of the ambition of an Eliot, a Kafka, or Beckett, to speak the truth at whatever cost in terms of popularity, we have variants on Hemingway's absurd boast that he could take Tolstoy to 15 rounds, or the even more debased ambition to win a major prize. What I find absent from the bulk of contemporary English fiction and poetry, clever and witty as much of it is, is precisely that sense of the voice of a person subject to his or her own experience, which Everett finds in Larkin. 'Defeated, the poet starts to sound like a person: unique,' she writes. I think she is right, and not just about Larkin: there is a profound conjunction between the acknowledgment of defeat – as a writer, as well as as a person – and the quality of art. But the implications of that have not, it seems to me, ever really been taken on board in England. I don't think American letters have all that much to boast about at present, but unfortunately more of Kenner's critique of English writing holds than Everett is prepared to accept.
One still can't imagine such phrases being uttered by the gatekeepers of English literature in their Sunday Supplement columns, let alone being understood. Even the LRB has long since given up any interest in fiction.