Friday, January 06, 2006

The last Modernist?

James Wood’s introduction to Henry Green's novels in this week’s TLS is admirably clear and fluent. I read it furtively at my desk through the working day and never lost the flow. Much as I appreciated the stimulation, two things bothered me. First, it does have the whiff of upper class English boys admiring that the slums got so much soul: “one of Green’s greatest literary achievements is his ability to write about unliterary people, and to catch the half-thoughts of unlettered minds”. I don't believe such people exist. Later though Wood admits that “a great deal of [Green’s] genius lies in how he invented a plausible magic on the page for his speakers”. Speech in his novels “is consistently more savoury and inventive than it would ever have been in ordinary life”. He gives the example of the word ‘draggers’ used by one of Green’s best characters: it’s "a literary word", he says, "but it does not belong to high-literary diction". What, I’d like to know, isn’t a literary word? And more, what isn't high-literary diction? Is it something like the opposite of speech in ordinary life? If so, how can we know what it is once it is presented on the page? If it's convincing, wouldn't this be because it's a plausible magic? And if it isn't convincing, then it's probably not literary enough. The oddest thing, however, is the title: the last English Modernist. Wood doesn’t justify labelling Green a modernist, let alone explaining why he is the last one in this country. Perhaps it is because
he removed those vulgar spoors of presence whereby authors communicate themselves to readers: he never internalizes his characters’ thoughts, hardly ever explains a character’s motive, and avoids the authorial adverb, which so often helpfully flags a character’s emotion to readers (“She said, grandiloquently”).
This seems to be the nearest to an explanation. But modernism isn’t a style or even a range of techniques. One could say it’s an implicit exploration and critique of style and technique. Admittedly the majority of postwar English novelists didn't give much attention to such explorations and critiques, but I can think of a few. Yet according to Wood “English literary Modernism essentially expired” after Loving, Green’s 1945 novel. Perhaps it seemed to expire because there was a dearth of popular English critics who wanted to write about literature as an artistic problem rather than an insight into the half-thoughts of the little people or as a cultural phenomenon or as mere entertainment. This might answer why a writer like Green has remained “so essentially neglected”. Ten years ago, in my first review for Spike (of a book called The Last Modernist), I lamented “the assumption that modernism is an historical event rather than a virus at the heart of culture”. Nothing has changed. The assumption continues. It’s a shame that the most powerful contemporary English critic isn’t drawing our attention to neglected contemporary writers. I can think of a few.


  1. Anonymous6:10 pm

    “the assumption that modernism is an historical event rather than a virus at the heart of culture”

    That, I must say, completely changed the way I looked at Modernism. You are absolutely correct.

    By virus I assume you mean how William Burroughs used the word?

  2. Paul, I don't know anything about Burroughs (except through the film of The Naked Lunch). How did he use the word?

  3. Anonymous5:35 pm

    Stephen, I used to find it quite spooky that younger people had to be taught Modernism as though it were history, but when I first read Joyce, Ulysses was already sixty years old. Being Catholic helped me enormously in reading both Ulysses and The Recognitions - the echoes of Dante, European literature and Biblical writing in Beckett are also reasons why journalists choose to ignore modernism. After all they only have a feature length article or less to work this stuff over.

    I don't know anything about Green -is there any chance Wood may be confusing modernism with social realism?



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