Thursday, November 29, 2007

The question of Modernism

What has happened to our culture such that serious critics and intelligent well-read reviewers, many of whom studied the poems of Eliot, the stories of Kafka and the plays of Beckett at university, should go into ecstasies over Atonement or Suite Française, while ignoring the work of marvellous novelists such as Robert Pinget and Gert Hofmann?
This was one of the more provocative questions from last March when at least three literary bloggers attended Gabriel Josipovici's lecture What Ever Happened to Modernism? in Russell Square, London. Read about it and the stir it caused in the audience here and at The Sharp Side. But even better, read an abridged version in this week's TLS (unfortunately not online). Alone it's worth the cover price, but you also get to read the Books of the Year choices of TLS writers. One notable choice: The Archbishop of Canterbury recommends William T Vollmann's Poor People.


  1. Just found your blog via Litlove, and I look forward to learning about some new authors here. I love modernists, though I've feared Joyce's long novels. Ulysses, here I come!

  2. Not wishing to split hairs LK, Josipovici has argued that Ulysses is less the first great Modernist novel than the last great Victorian novel! The essential modernist novelists, I would say, are Proust, Kafka and Beckett.

  3. Joyce not a modernist. Proust a modernist. Now there's a challenging thought to take one through the weekend!

  4. I agree with Josipovic that Joyce is not writer of modernist fiction; the whole structure of Ulysses depends upon two absolutely traditional, even trite, ideas: following a man throughout the course of one day, and using a epic already classic as a foundation for metaphors. And of course the vaunted "stream of consciousness" writing is just borrowed from Victorian psychology, making it a double farce. Joyce himself knew he was the last of something. And his good friend Italo Svevo was more a modernist (more original in my view) than he.

  5. But where does that leave Proust with his detailed naturalistic descriptions, individual psychology, social comedy etc etc? And the classical myth-underpinning is central to Eliot, Pound etc etc. What worries me in all this, as someone who agrees largely with Josopovici about the shortcomings of anti-modernist writing, is the "four legs good, two legs bad" aspect of this debate. Why are we obsessed with a hundred year old label? Why not just search out the writing that matters without branding it, assigning it to one camp or the other, writing off a book like "Ulysses" because it doesn't fit some sort of critic's taxonomic criterion?

  6. Who's writing it off? I think the point is not whether something is modernist or not but whether it addresses or denies the fundamental questions about art that modernism raised; or raised again, if you accept that they are also fundamental to many pre-Modernist works. That lecture includes the Iliad and a Border Ballad. Modernism was just the return of what Victorianism repressed.

    As for Ulysses itself, the essay I was referring to ends by saying the author maintains too tight a control on the work where "mere accumulation of detail and complexity is an unquestioned good" and "every 'letting go' has to be carefully fitted into its place in the overall design, even though there is no longer, by [Joyce's] own admission, any authority for the pattern the design itself assumes". He was probably overstating the case but it also explains to me why I'm not drawn by massive "ambitious" novels that get the herd-reviewers in a tizzy ( "the Great American Novel" and all that). "In Search of Lost Time" isn't like any of these. If it was, it wouldn't exist and we'd have "Jean Santeuil" instead.

  7. I'd suggest the first half of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground- necessarily in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation which is true to the intentional crude strangeness of the language itself-is perhaps a, or even the, key moment in the tearing asunder of artifice and pretensions; philosophical, scientific, literary. Whether the monologue of Part 1 would be a novel is another issue.

    I admit to a violent allergic reaction to Ulysees every time I give it a look, experiencing it as unhealthy, tedious and psychologically suffocating. This reaction ytends to happen so quickly that little gets read.
    There seems to me a comparisson with Andrei Tarkovsky's attitude to the films and technique of Sergei Eisenstein, which he believed with its rapid editing apt to be an exercise in intellectual autocracy, and the resulting art bereft of the breath of life; sterile.



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