Keeping the Wound Open

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Book Review: What Ever Happened to Modernism? Gabriel Josipovici (Yale University Press 2010)

When a dreadful book like Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question can win a major literary award against a novel like Tom McCarthy’s C, this is a question well worth posing and not just in relation to 2010’s Booker prize winner. Think of some previous winners –The Gathering, Life of Pi, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha – and the question begins to hurt until James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, the winner in 1994, comes to mind and rubs some balm into the sore state of contemporary fiction in English.  This is churlish, though, for who said the Booker prize has anything to do with Modernist fiction or that those awarding the prize would know or care enough about Modernism to think of considering it as a criterion?  The judges chosen to award the prize for 2011 are Matthew d’Ancona, journalist; Susan Hill, author; Chris Mullin, politician and author; Gaby Wood, from the Daily Telegraph; and the chair is the former Director-General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington.

The Booker show  may be just a symptom of  present times, dipping into the surfeit of middle-brow, middle-of-the-road fiction for middle-class readers and choosing a few to politely dither over and then praise inordinately so that readers shopping for a book have some idea of  what counts as a ‘good’ novel. A Which guide for literary-minded consumers. One should therefore look elsewhere for evidence of Modernism’s edgy influence; not necessarily extreme avant-garde writing of the kind once called ‘experimental’ but non-parochial literary fiction that reminds us of an exciting tradition, that revolution in thought called Modernism that queried its own art forms. Gabriel Josipovici went looking for it in Britain but drew a blank and a few remarks to this effect  in his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? about big-name English authors like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Blake Morrison, and the critic John Carey (author of that monumentally dull biography William Golding: The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’) created a little kerfuffle, stirred up by The Guardian (see this New Statesman article for background).   Now that the hoo-ha is over, Josipovici’s book, which was published last summer, is worth a second look.

Disenchantment with the world is the wellspring of Modernism for Josipovici, the sense that something important has been lost, the loss of objet petit a, and feeling the loss with a fineness that only art can render with the visceral quality it deserves. This awareness did not suddenly erupt and its beginnings are traced back to the sixteenth century, neatly exemplified in two of D?rer’s woodcuts: ‘Melancholia I’ is where we are today; ‘St. Jerome in his Study’ is what we have lost. What takes place with Modernism proper is artists becoming painfully aware that they are creating emblems for an external  world, not mirroring it, not lining them up against it like a ruler making a measurement. Novels with their naturalistic settings, realistic characters and psychological verisimilitude are good at making the reader think otherwise; before you know it you’re wallowing in the feelings and relationships of the characters and emoting all over the carpet.

The problem is that, just as after Dylan songwriters like Donovan and bands like Procul Harem came along with sub-Dylan lyrics, it is too easy to be glib about disenchantment:

Among so-called negative thinkers, there are some who after having had a glimpse of the negative have relapsed into positiveness, and now go out into the world like town criers, to advertise, prescribe and offer for sale their beatific negative wisdom – and of course, a result can
quite well be announced though the town crier, just like herrings from Holstein … But the genuine subjective existing thinker … is conscious of the negativity of the infinite in existence, and he
constantly keeps the wound of the negative open, which in the bodily realm is sometimes the condition for a cure.

This is Josipovici quoting Kierkegaard approvingly in the early part of his book, before building up his case and intensifying it in the penultimate chapter to attack a lot of what passes for the best of contemporary literary fiction. He certainly hit a sensitive spot laying a little too close to home by singling out the poor quality of English authors, to judge by some of the reviews of his book when it came out — a catty and snidey one from the novelist Philip Hensher in The Daily Telegraph and a supercilious piece from John Sutherland in Literary Review – that share in a more polite form the kind of reaction that greeted Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley from some British critics when the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In this sense What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a welcome wake-up call but it is also far more subtle than its polemically sounding title might suggest. The chapter on ancient Greek tragedy, for instance, raises more questions than answers and many of his observations are glancing facets that stimulate thought. Indeed, what helps make What Ever Happened to Modernism? such a good read, apart from what he says about artists like Picasso, Duchamp and Francis Bacon,  are the author’s probes into particular poems and novels, some known, others unknown; some read about but not read: Don Quixote, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Comedian as the Letter C‘, Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers, William Golding’s The Inheritors are some of the titles you may find yourself downloading, reserving at the library or purchasing.

It is not that Josipovici actually wants all serious fiction to be written quite in the kind of way he champions in this book, although his examples are refreshingly eclectic, but that a new language-game is needed. Our current prize-winning authors are often overrated and meretricious and what Josipovici brings home is the realization that Modernism questioned the nature of its own media and found it wanting but these writers are not in that tradition. There is no distance between the language of their fiction and the world being depicted; it’s not so much that their characters and plots that are boring as the way they are written about that makes them so. That’s why some of their books are hard to finish – inertia sets in because the reader doesn’t really care what happens to the characters and their precious, finely tuned feelings. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a yawn-inducing chore to read and given that life is short, who wants to dip into or even see the front cover of another collection of Irish short stories? Thank goodness Will Self is around to prove not all contemporary writers are as wearisome as most of those whose new novels automatically find their way into the review sections of Sunday newspapers, having being allowed in by the gatekeepers of the Literary Establishment.

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4 Responses

  1. Pope Epopt

    January 15, 2011 6:15 pm

    ‘There is No Alternative’ seems to have come to apply to contemporary Anglophone fiction in general, with hardly any exception that I can bring to mind. This applies equally to poetry, at least of the Heaney generation. To much self-satisfaction, to little unease with the yawning inadequacies of language and narrative. I don’t want to be comforted, but the market for fiction, it seems, does.

    I can’t be bothered with much contemporary work in English these days because of it’s lack of ambition. Especially the English school of Amis et. al. Not when there’s all that truly original work written decades, indeed centuries ago that I haven’t yet read, as well as translations from less inhibited literary cultures.

  2. William Wall

    January 15, 2011 8:50 pm

    Great review that raises some difficult questions. I venture to suggest that there are quite a few modernist novels wandering around the slush piles of British publishers – those that the agents are letting out of their grasp that is. It’s not so much that they’re not being written, but that the British publishing business has certain ‘aesthetic’ criteria – a plot that an advertising agent can summarise in 25 words, at least one character that the reader can like, preferably the protagonist, a redemptive ending – all desperate clichees, but all beloved of the people who really run publishing houses – marketers. When a book like Kelman’s wins the marketers and their subalterns – the media critics – go bananas. Kelman (whose work I love, btw) was fine as long as he remained a colourful Glasgow character, but when he dared to tread the national stage – dear god, it never happened in Victoria’s time. A socialist writer winning the Booker? Whatever will happen next? Though a different case, John Banville’s The Sea received the same treatment.

    It used to be true to say that if something is good enough it will get published. But now you need to contend with the hegemonic process that is government/publishing/media/marketing/bookshops/three for the price of two etc. Sorry to be so negative.

    Many writers will have had the experience of being told that a publisher/editor loves his/her book but she can’t persuade the marketing department to take it on.

  3. Wally Burns

    January 16, 2011 2:50 am

    I’m glad to see an article like the above which questions current literary trends and the prize-awarding industry. I have been suspicious about the processes involved in whittling over a hundred novels down to shortlists of, say, a dozen and then announcing the Big Winner on the night at a gala nosh-up in an expensive city hotel. Publishing companies love these glitzy events and all the publicity they are designed to create. (Creative is a buzzword in the advertising industry too.)

    The general reading public is the consumer target of the book promoters. There are many discriminating literature lovers among that general public. Such people could get involved in local readers circles and moot the idea of writing letters to the papers about concerns about the prize awarding industry. They could also try, without sounding intellectually snobbish, to discuss the craftpersonship (ha ha, I avoided the non-PC craftmanship)of award winning novels and poetry collections and their social significance etc.

    Finally and briefly: it seems to me that serious public discussion of the arts and literature is lacking in Irish print and electronic media. Much reviewing seems to be free publicity dressed up as synopsis and comment. Publishers and writers gleefully measure the column inches and centimeters. That’s another reason I welcome the above review by Seán Sheehan. Incidentally, has anybody here read the online Dublin Review of Books? It carries lengthy review-essays on nonfiction books too.

  4. Prenderghast

    January 19, 2011 12:03 pm

    William has it right, I think. Publishing is an industry that is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few massive houses driven purely by the bottom line, which often means celebrity-driven booklists, predictable plots aimed at loyal readerships, and avoidance of risk, financially and stylistically. And not even literary fiction is immune to these calculations: The literary world has its “celebs” too, viz. Barnes, Amis, Rushdie et al.

    Anything radically experimental is going to be found at small, independent presses or marketed by self-published writers.

    Or, of course, on blogs. 🙂