What Ever Happened to Modernism? — Gabriel Josipovici

I’ve been meaning to write about What Ever Happened to Modernism? for a while, but this This New York Review of Books essay by Eliot Weinberger hits the major points I’d like to make better than I would’ve. It also describes the major issue I have with What Ever Happened to Modernism?: we never really find out what, if anything, happened to Modernism—or who, in Josipovici’s eyes, we should admire. Weinberger notes that “There are some unkind words about Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (“this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”) [. . .]” and that “Regardless of whether a climate can see—and Josipovici’s condescension that laureled mediocrities can’t help being what they are—the argument is undermined by the fact that he declines to name a single living author who should be praised.” Both are true. Polemics work best when we have positive and negative examples. Josipovici mostly gives us the negative.

The other thing I notice in What Ever Happened to Modernism? is the slipperiness of definition, which leads to the larger problem of Modernism and Postmodernism in general: we can get point to some works that we think embody some values of either movement, but we find deriving general principles from those specific works hard, if not impossible. Now, the real question to anyone who says anything about Modernism or Postmodernism is, “What do you mean by those words or artistic movements?” Even the phrase “artistic movements” might be wrong, since some have argued for the political value of them, and to the extent art and politics are separate one should note the binary.

How do we decide on what Modernism is? We can’t, really, as Weinberger notes:

Every general consideration of Modernism quickly crashes on the rocks of categorization: Which Modernism? Is it Rilke or Tristan Tzara? Matisse or Duchamp? Thomas Mann or Gertrude Stein? Arnold Schoenberg or Duke Ellington? Nearly anything that can be said about the one can’t be said about the other. Josipovici attempts to navigate these waters by simultaneously broadening the definition of Modernism itself, while greatly limiting the range of its concerns, its varying contexts, and its enormous cast of twentieth-century characters.

The more specific the definition, the more it leaves out; the more general, the harder the whole idea is to discuss. That doesn’t stop writers of polemics, of course, and as I read What Ever Happened to Modernism? I did think. . . something. I’m just not real sure what exactly I thought or why. I’m flipping through my much-marked copy, looking for a characteristic passage or turn of phrase, but you’d be better off reading Weinberger on Josipovici.

I suspect I’m not the only person with such a hazy reaction. Lately, I’ve been rereading novels I really admire as I start another novel of my own. Those I admire include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Tom Perrotta’s Election, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. After reading them, I almost always have a better sense of what I should be doing as a writer and what a particular book should do. This feeling isn’t limited to fiction: I get the same sense from James Wood’s How Fiction Works, or John Barth’s essays in The Friday Book. They’re all enmeshed in individuality.

Josipovici is aware of his narrativizing tendency and some of the dangers of definition; he says:

Naturally I think the story I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that take more or less account of the facts. I am aware too that these stories are sites of contestation; more is at stake than how we view the past.

There are many stories, and I don’t fully buy his.

Speaking of Barth, I find myself most drawn to his formulation in The Friday Book, which is cruelly out of print:

I happen to believe that just as an excellent teacher is likely to teach well no matter what pedagogical theory he suffers from, so a gifted writer is likely to rise above what he takes to be his aesthetic principles, not to mention what others take to be his aesthetic principles. Indeed, I believe that a truly splendid specimen in whatever aesthetic mode will pull critical ideology along behind it, like an ocean liner trailing seagulls. Actual artists, actual texts, are seldom more than more or less modernist, postmodernist, formalist, symbolist, realist, surrealist, politically committed, aesthetically ‘pure,’ ‘experimental,’ regionalist, internationalist, what have you. The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.

Notice how Barth conveys his view of generality in a single word: “suffers,” as if literary categorization is a disease. In the wrong person, it is one. Discussing generalities is not much fun unless you have a lot of specifics to back them up, and I have no way to paraphrase or add to Barth’s last sentence from that quote: “The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.” Martin Amis’ Money, regardless of how you categorize it, still stands out to me as being a) unique and b) good, which very few novels of any sort achieve. To lambast Amis in general, as Josipovici does, is to miss all those particularities that make him stand out. Of course, I’m committing the same sin here because I’m not citing specifics in Money. But I also sometimes rise to the level of the work being discussed, so perhaps that sin can be excused.

Tender is the Night — Fitzgerald

Early in Tender is the Night, we find this about a relatively minor character named McKisco:

“I don’t see what it’s all about,” he said helplessly. “I don’t see why I’m doing it.”

The context is a conversation putatively about duels, but one could take McKisco’s confusion as a synecdoche for the novel as a whole: no one see what it’s all about or why they’re doing it. Even Dick Diver, psychologist, doesn’t really; he’s supposed to have mastered the mind but hasn’t mastered his own. Some of the novel’s descriptions and transitions mirror this confusion or uncertainty, which makes Tender is the Night feel more Modernist than its predecessors. Take, for example, this:

When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.

The description goes from a relatively literal rendition of the Americans’ surface into a metaphoric one of their souls. But I have no idea what “vague racial dusk” means, which is perhaps why it needs “vague” out in front, or why that would blind observers; perhaps those theoretical observers are used to judging based on categories that Americans defy, or think they defy. If so, the novel is a journey into the ways Americans are more ensnared by history than we might want to be, and why we might be more obscure than we’d like to imagine. In this way, the structure of the novel mirrors its themes: it cuts many of the “she shifted her attention to the fight” transitions that might otherwise make this easier to follow:

Nicole was glad he had known so many women, so that the word itself meant nothing to him; she would be able to hold him so long as the person in her transcended the universals of her body.
“Hit him where it hurts!”
“Hey, what I tell you get inside that right!”

A chorus shouts after Nicole’s Deep Thought, and in re-reading Tender is the Night I see where Tom Wolfe got some of his techniques for representing speech.

Some of the stylistic tics, like the “vague racial dusk” are meant to make us poetically see something in a new light, but they often feel more like work compared to a novel like Gatsby. It feels more indulgent, too: this is Fitzgerald wanting to write a novelist’s novel, meaning that it should have enough strangeness to make it hard to figure out what’s happening and why. This brings pleasures of its own, especially on second reads, but the danger of obscurity for obscurity’s sake remains, as when a voice suddenly shifts from third person limited to first:

All that saved it [the offer of marriage? something else?] this time was Nicole finding their table and glowing away, white and fresh and new in the September afternoon.

How do you do, lawyer. We’re going to to Como tomorrow for a week and then back to Zurich. That’s why I wanted you and sister to settle this […] (166)

My confusion mirrored McKisco’s in this narrative jump. Eventually that confusion was (mostly) remedied, but not so remedied as to make the novel boring.

Continuing was worth it: Fitzgerald knows how to end a novel. Tender is the Night isn’t quite so overtly poetic as Gatsby, with its boats being beaten back into the past, but it has a sense of melancholy and emotion that few novels do. I’m being vague because I don’t know how to describe the feelings evoked; perhaps that is one definition of a powerful novel. Melancholy is a part, but like a good wine, it’s only a single strand of a complex weave, one cannot appreciate the whole without appreciating all its parts.

There’s one other thing that Tender is the Night reminds me of: the habit that literary history has of doubling back on itself. Received opinion—so received that I don’t know where I got it from—holds that people didn’t start really writing about divorce and affairs and torrid sex and so forth until Updike and Roth. Marriages were more stable, at least as depicted artistically, and the really great fireworks caused by social changes didn’t hit until the 1960s. But the more I read the less that narrative seems to fit: Tender is the Night encapsulates Updike’s Marry Me: A Romance and maybe even Couples. Middlemarch has marriages that end. Even Pride and Prejudice has its affair between Lydia and Wickham, although the sex they’re having is so powerful that it remains unspoken.

Madame Bovary doesn’t encapsulate Tender is the Night but at least presages it. The drama of adult relationships, which I’d thought a (relatively) recent invention in fiction, isn’t. Neither is the childishness that such relationships sometimes entail. More continuity exists over the course of history than I thought, and what seems new in terms of content no longer does. Even the style of Tender is the Night holds up: if it were published today, I’d not know the difference. one can see greater stylistic continuity from Fitzgerald to the present than from, say, Middlemarch to Fitzgerald (this is part of what James Wood discusses in his nominal discussion of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, a topic that I will return to later).

I don’t know what to do with this idea concerning continuity and change save note its existence, at least in my reading. Perhaps the rhetoric of the love story hasn’t changed that much, except perhaps for the inclusion of overt female desire in a larger number of more recent novels; it’s hard to see a good precursor of Allison Poole in Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. Poole feels a long way from Nicole Diver, but the feeling of a search for something that cannot be adequately defined continues, and the inability to find that absent something propels novels and stories forward.

Lev Grossman vs the haters

I’m on the record praising Lev Grossman’s essay “Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard.” Predictably, that piece generated a fair amount of blowback (and a concomitant amount of misinterpretation, like the fallacious argument that Grossman is arguing that good books can’t be hard); see a sample of it here, complete with a comment from yours truly.

Now, however, we can see how Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece, as spoken by the man himself. Read it when you get a chance. It’s not terrible, but I think he could do better, and I hope he does “write more (if anybody cares) when I’m back in civilization.”

One thing I’d strongly disagree with comes when Grossman discusses Twilight’s sales: “All those millions of people might be idiots or have bad taste. But I think it’s kinda intellectually lazy to say that.” I don’t, and they do have bad taste. I’ve read a book and a half of the series, and they’re so cliche-ridden that they make Harry Potter look like Shakespeare, and the writing has originality and verve that make Dan Brown impressive by comparison.

To be fair, he goes on to say, “Meyer is doing something very very well, or at least giving people something they really really want, and I don’t think we have a good critical vocabulary yet for talking about what that something is.” She might be doing something well, yes, but writing isn’t it. That’s why a lot of people who are literary and/or like good writing don’t think much of her.

Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard

In my essay on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, I cited his Wall Street Journal article Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard:

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly? Part of the problem is that to find the reason you have to dig down a ways, down into the murky history of the novel. There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.

Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. In the 1920s alone they gave us “The Age of Innocence,” “Ulysses,” “A Passage to India,” “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Not to mention most of “In Search of Lost Time” and all of Kafka’s novels. Pity the poor Pulitzer judge for 1926, who had to choose between “The Professor’s House,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Arrowsmith” and “An American Tragedy.” (It went to “Arrowsmith.” Sinclair Lewis prissily declined the prize.) The 20th century had a full century’s worth of masterpieces before it was half over.

Read the whole thing. I’m drawing special attention to it because there are few essays I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I agree with more, ranging from Grossman’s analysis of the current situation to its historical roots to his call for future action.

If you haven’t clicked the link, you shouldn’t be reading this. Once you have clicked it, however, consider the next step: B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto.

EDIT: See also Jeff’s excellent comment.

Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard

In my essay on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, I cited his Wall Street Journal article Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard:

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly? Part of the problem is that to find the reason you have to dig down a ways, down into the murky history of the novel. There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.

Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. In the 1920s alone they gave us “The Age of Innocence,” “Ulysses,” “A Passage to India,” “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Not to mention most of “In Search of Lost Time” and all of Kafka’s novels. Pity the poor Pulitzer judge for 1926, who had to choose between “The Professor’s House,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Arrowsmith” and “An American Tragedy.” (It went to “Arrowsmith.” Sinclair Lewis prissily declined the prize.) The 20th century had a full century’s worth of masterpieces before it was half over.

Read the whole thing. I’m drawing special attention to it because there are few essays I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I agree with more, ranging from Grossman’s analysis of the current situation to its historical roots to his call for future action.

The next step is B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto.

EDIT: See also Jeff’s excellent comment.

Further comments on John Barth’s Further Fridays

(See my initial laudatory post here.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays continued to delight till the end, and it hovers ceaselessly around literary questions about form, character, ways of telling, and meaning. Do those sound boring? Maybe when I list them, but when they become part of Barth’s stories—and the Further Friday pieces feel more like stories than essays—they come alive like a Maryland Blue Crab. Consider this great big chunk of quote—appropriate, maybe, for someone who often delivers great big chunks of novel—but it also shows some of Barth’s gift at the level of sentence and idea:

I confess to having gotten increasingly this way [as in, insisting for just facts, whatever those are] myself over the years—an occupational side effect, I believe, in the case of those of us for whom the experience of fiction can never be innocent entertainment. We’re forever sizing it up, measuring ourselves against its author, watching to see how the effects are managed and whether all the dramaturgical pistols that were hung on the wall in act one get duly fired in act three. We’re like those musicians who can’t abide background music: They can’t listen except professionally, and if they’re not in the mood to do that, they prefer conversation, street noise, silence—anything but music.

Right: notice the quick metaphor of the dramaturgical pistols—alluding to the idea that a gun seen in an early chapter should be fired in a later one—and the slightly more developed metaphor of the musician. The musician idea is particularly relevant to Barth, who played as a young man—more on that later—but it also expresses one of the central themes in his work: that innocence prolonged is detrimental to the person holding it and that naive readings eventually give way to sophisticated and experienced readings. They show the growth of not just the critic, writer, or reader, but also of the individual, whose early actions and impressions should be tempered by experience. But some attempt to prolong naiveté foolishly, while others forget to try and see the perspective of the innocent or the childlike joy that can lead to great art. So what is one to do? Muddle along as best one can, Barth seems to argue, and learn as much as you can about that imperfect state we call life and the reactions of other smart or wise people to it.

I realize that the above paragraph sounds almost like self-help lite, but it would be a mistake to see Barth that way, and he discusses far more than just the nature of a particular story. Elsewhere, he deals with literary categorization, which has never been among my favorite subjects because it often seems to generate vastly more noise than music, and its combatants often mistaken that cacophony for a symphony. Barth does a reasonably good job—which is to say, as good a job as one can, given the subject matter and persnickety pedants likely to be interested—of not being caught in its brambles. Adding sufficient qualification makes for fewer explosions but greater harmony; as Barth says of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero

“the whole of literature,” [as Barth quotes Barthes] “from Flaubert to the present day, becomes the problematics of language.” If only he had been content to say that “the problematics of language”—indeed, the problematics of every aspect of the medium of literature, not language alone—becomes one of several prominent field-identification marks of our literature after “Flaubert.” But that kind of reasonable modification, I suppose, de-zings such zingers.

Given the choice of being mostly right and demure or mostly wrong and provocative, Barth takes the mostly right path. Still, he’s not “demure” as in boring, and his essays are filled with unusual zest. Sometimes the footnotes are the best parts; the blockquote above is one, and he sneaks another comment into a footnote, though it’s reiterated elsewhere in the body text: “As for twentieth-century literary Postmodernism, I date it from when many of us stopped worrying about the death of the novel (a Modernist worry) and began worrying about the death of the reader—and of the planet—instead.” The sentiment has its tongue-in-cheek enough not to be taken completely seriously, and yet it’s accurate enough to consider further consideration. Maybe in jokes we tell the greatest truths that could never slide by as bald assertions.

The piece the modernist definition comes from was published in the 1980s, although it reprises arguments from 1968 and 1979, about which one can read more in The Friday Book. But its concerns are still germane: global climate change fears fuel cataclysmic scenarios that aren’t implausible, as do those involving the death of reading. Reading’s demise seems to be greatly exaggerated—what do most of us do online and via e-mail if not read, as Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Dawn of the Digital Natives—but the quality of reading seems to diminish apace online. Still, websites with global reach and many visitors seem fairly literate, and the only well-known, sub-literate blog I can think of is Mark Cuban’s, which I won’t dignify with a link. Then again, Cuban is also sitting on such a giant pile of cash that I doubt he cares about literacy, or Postmodernism.

Like Barth, I seem to have wandered a bit, and also like him, I’d like to circle back round to the main point of this post, which is to emphasize how good Further Fridays is. Sections repeat and reiterate earlier ideas, but I think of the repetitions more as variations in different keys than as irritants, and I think Barth would like that metaphor: he played jazz as a teenager and writes of going to Julliard to discover he had no or too little talent for music (my own musical talent, if I had any to begin with, has probably become undetectable thanks to lack of exercise). Milan Kundera also took up writing after music, and I wonder if other good example of musicians-turned-writers exist aside from Alex Ross, who turned from music to write about music. Barth is as self-referentially modest about his musical abilities as his other points, almost cloaking himself in faux humility when he writes, for instance: “My modest point is that the story of your life might be told as a series of career moves, or love affairs, or intellectual friendships, or houses lived in, or ideologies subscribed to (even magazines subscribed to), or physical afflictions suffered, or what have you, and that every one of those series might be recounted from very different perspectives, to very different effect.” Indeed: and we appreciate that, and the way it implicitly makes the case for reading. He preaches like the native to a religion he nonetheless realizes fewer practice:

If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes… as I was and remain, and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord [of reading] under your belt, for ballast.

Incidentally, I’m fascinated with the catastrophic view of reading and its discontents: consider Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone:

I used to consider it apocalyptically [there’s that end-times terminology again] worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.

I wonder too, as this blog probably demonstrates. Still, I’d argue that you can’t avoid keeping one foot in your native bog, regardless of whether that metaphorical bog is the boring suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, as it was for me, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or New York City, so you might as well do so in a way that makes you part of the wider rather than narrower world, so you can reconcile the two as best you can. The most efficient way to do so, it seems to me, is the way Barth recommends: promiscuous and wild reading, and ideally of books as interesting as Further Fridays.

To the Lighthouse

Are people afraid of Virginia Woolf, per the Edward Albee play, because she’s got the reputation of being a big tough writer, or because she’s genuinely hard to read and understand? As a a relative latecomer to her, the issue was at the forefront of my mind as I read To the Lighthouse, as was how glad I am to have come to her now as opposed to earlier, when I don’t think I would’ve been prepared. Now, I see To the Lighthouse as it was intended: as a vast artistic statement with much history behind it, which makes it a writer’s novel, or an intense reader’s; it reconciles so many opposites, being both fluid and structured, artificial and real, and yet at the cost, I suspect, of being easily understood through one’s first reading. To the Lighthouse demands such familiarity with what conventional narration is that to comprehend it with any fullness requires wide and deep reading as initiation. In Reflections on the Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco describes how he came to structure The Name of the Rose:

After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill (41).

Such a process isn’t built into To the Lighthouse, and without preparation, I suspect reading it would be like trying to understand trigonometry without knowing algebra. That might be an unfair comparison, especially given the hackles I’m sure it raises in the math phobic, but I make it for good reason: Woolf is built on understanding why and how she uses her great strength and technique: free indirect speech or limited omniscient narration, depending on the term you prefer, which allow her to peer into all her characters’ minds, allowing each to perceive the other’s limitations, weaknesses, foibles, and problems. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Those who wonder: Am I smart enough? Do I not get it? Am I like one of the characters, each of whom is shown with flaws more glaring than those of most hardboiled detective fiction?

The way we learn of those flaws also startles because of the novel’s shifting temporality: long paragraphs of thought explaining an interaction interrupt speech, so that the first statement and response to it are alienated. In later writers, like Raymond Carver, the speech and situation are simply assumed to be alienated from one another, the domestic situation strained or unspoken, and no longer interruptions necessary. But in Woolf, we have an explanation—but only from a character’s point of view. Here is one such passage, quoted at length because shortening it would defeat its purpose:

‘You won’t finish that stocking to-night,’ he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted – the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.
‘No,’ she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee. ‘I shan’t finish it.’
And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something – wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could always say things – she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so – it was not so. It was only that she could never say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? […]
[This continues for much longer, until, finally—]
‘Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tonight.’ She had not said it, but he knew it. And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again.

Triumphed? In what context? I hear Kurtz saying, “The Horror! The Horror!” and wonder, like an uncontacted tribe before a helicopter. The “triumph” comes at the end of To the Lighthouse’s first section, and it is as enigmatic as what proceed it. Notice that “he wanted something,” but it’s not clear that the thing he wanted or that she found so difficult is the love mentioned in the next part of the sentence. “Something” hangs ambiguously, like a writer trying to give the reader what the reader longs for but never knew they longed for.

Instead we long for something that we give imperfect names: depth of characterization, fastness of plot, reality, “entertainment,” symbolism, aesthetic experiences, or the other facets of a gem we call literature, or experience, or many other names. In Woolf, the mystery of that search comes from the deep internal lives of the characters and that contrast with their external lives—inside, they register knowledge, social orders, hierarchies, shifts, and even epiphanies, but all this happens beneath the veneer of social propriety and limited, clipped speech like “Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tonight,” ending an internal, gushing well of feeling that finds so little expression in speech. If someone like Robert Penn Warren strives to balance speech and internal monologue, making them reflect one another, abd Elmore Leonard pushes to strive almost entirely for description through speech, then Woolf, in contrast, pushes the seesaw almost solely on the side of the internal—which she can only accomplish through deft, extraordinary use of free indirect speech—otherwise we would have the hammering of a single and limited consciousness, which would deafen us with the repetition of its primary and perceptions, making us try to see through it rather than allowing the narrator to work. But the shifts aren’t easily perceived, making them different from novels where the narrators are clearly delineated, like Eliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity.

These traits make Woolf an acquired taste but one essential for writers to sample, and it’s also one usually acquired after tiring of novels driven solely by plot and novels without the depth of characterization Woolf has. Maybe Faulkner is the same way: I’ve never enjoyed reading his novels even as I recognize their importance. Yet I think I see a dividing line with Woolf and Proust—another modernist favorite more cited than read—on one side and Faulkner and Joyce on the other, with moving toward the former rather than the latter. This post in part articulates why, but there’s much more I can’t yet articulate. All four writers offer mystery above all, and not one that can be explained by finding out whodunit; therefore, I’m left describing without adequately explaining.

What would Woolf make of starting this problem? I’m not sure, as I complete this slippery review that too often uses the word “I,” establishing myself as a single perspective against the many “I’s” in To the Lighthouse. Still, Woolf influences how I now write posts: acknowledging myself, my biases, and the problems with my own reading, as well as what others would say to critics over-fond of “I”: narcissistic, obsessed with their own response, and the like. To them I have no perfect answer, though Virginia Woolf seems a good one.

Modernism — Peter Gay

The great danger of a book as broad as Modernism is also its strength: breadth. In trying to cover a gigantic, multifaceted movement that lasted, by Peter Gay’s definition, from the 1840s into the 1960s, one risks a superficial treatment of so many topics as to make the entire book superfluous. But Gay avoids that fate in all subjects save film, which is the weakest section of a book that I otherwise would call “magisterial” were that term not so overused. He also uses his best tool in writing a history of all the branches of modernism well: adept comparisons abound, which show the parallel developments in visual art, books, music, and architecture and the interplay among them. Modernism ruled in some fields more than others; architecture, which, by its nature, is a rich person’s sport, sees much less modernism than, say, literature, which requires only inexpensive writing instruments. Music sat between architecture and literature, and it’s also hard to describe because it split in many directions—the rise of modernism occurred concomitantly with that of pop music. Technological developments helped cause classical music’s share in the average mind grow with the birth of radio and shrink as time progressed.

This is a small example of the idea that Gay reiterates well: that modernism was experienced by a relatively select few even as it influenced the many. It’s even true today, when, as he notes, about half of all paperbacks sold are small-r romance novels and the literary fiction covered by most major print outlets only receives a tiny slice of the market’s dollars. This is not to start a tedious genre debate, though no romance novel I’m aware of has broken from its pigeonhole, as many science fiction, fantasy, horror and detective novels have, and I suspect few owe much to “The Wasteland.” As Gay says on page 459 (of 510), “The question just whom modernist novels, or movies, were intended for was one that had been difficult to answer for decades” (there probably should be an “of” between “question” and “just”). Indeed! But such modernist works receive a share of critical attention far out of scope with their readership or waters.

Maybe the key tenants of modernism inherently limit its accessibility, especially given the definition Gay establishes for modernism: “the lure of heresy that impelled [the modernists’] actions as they confronted conventional sensibility; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” The case for using this, as opposed to other definitions, is an excellent one, and in reading Modernism I cannot help but feel that his ideas about what makes modernism modernism have been wandering about in my mind, unrevealed to me prior to this book. And yet, as Gay’s comments about romance novels demonstrate, he keeps his sense of proportion among the tectonic shifts in art and thought that occurred over the period he covers. Modernism has influenced nearly all avenues of thought, but some aspects of culture and emotion have been more touched than others, though probably none in Western culture remain unmoved.

The writing helps: Gay has many wonderful passages, including one I have already quoted and many more I would like to. A scholarly subject came surprisingly alive, like math taught by an enthusiastic teacher with a contagious sense of play—in other words, the one I never had till after I graduated from high school. But I digress: the point is that Modernism is having almost as much fun as its subjects, and perhaps implying that, even if some of its criteria are wrong or that modernists are not all that important, so what? It is an implication that I suspect modernists would agree with.

Still, the book can slide into academicese: “The indifference and hostility of conservative tastes and the ideological objections of powerful institutions often limited, or delayed, a positive response to aesthetic innovators.” Yes, I agree after Gay’s persuasion, but I’m still thinking that he traded ease for brevity. Elsewhere, he says “Much like the stream of refugees from Nazi Germany who signally enriched American and British culture, Italy, too, had its share of enforced cultural transfer […].” Wait, “signally?” What does “signally” mean here? I have no idea, but, minor issues are passing clouds in an otherwise sunny sky.

Sometimes Gay’s wrong notes do not seem part of an atonal scheme, but just an example of the elegant variation:* “On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, an irrevocable exit that would release worldwide rejoicing.” To my knowledge, suicide is always irrevocable, making the fussy phrase “irrevocable exit” redundant redundant, but he certainly gets the “rejoicing” aspect right. For the most part, Gay’s flawless prose operates on many levels:

From [Strindberg’s] subjective vantage point, he argued that human nature is not cast in bronze, but open to the most disparate pressures, some from social demands and others, less easy to trace, from inner urges. Nor can desire and anxiety escape the conflicts that contradictory impulses arouse in the individual. In a hysterical period—and Strindberg insisted that his culture was helplessly mired—contemporaries necessarily display an unsorted patchwork of qualities old and new that prove vacillating and are given to self-contradictions.

Wow: an argument about art, internal versus external manifestations of thoughts and feeling, society’s role in those manifestations, and Strindberg’s thoughts on them and his society. That I wrote “is it really, or did modernists make it so?” in the margin now seems churlish. He makes statements that are, at times, too strong or unsupported, as when he says we live in a “post-Christian” age—did no one tell America’s presidents or its legions of church-goers?—but in most ways he is just the professor you wish you had: knowledgeable, considered, devoted to correctness and willing to see many sides of a thing or idea.

He also reminds me of how far we’ve come: when I pass blank canvasses and other such foolery at the Seattle Art Museum, I just yawn and walk by. The frequent modernist cries in attempting to rip the veil from reality or “declare their [Van Gogh and Gauguin] innermost selves without bourgeois reticence” are themselves examples of veils or reticence. Such paradoxes, oxymorons, and the like might be another of modernism’s defining characteristics, and Gay shows many examples of them; I have not found a better curator.

* As defined by the eponymous blog:

The Elegant Variation is “Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do.”

Sleepless Nights — Elizabeth Hardwick

Sleepless Nights isn’t much good for sleepless nights because it’s not somnolent, and yet it also isn’t engaging. Rather, it’s a jagged and random novelette that so leaps from idea to idea and style to style as to make me roll my eyes and give up. It is a novel only in that it departs least from that form, but, unlike In Search of Lost Time, which has been described the same way, Sleepless Nights is irredeemably irritating. Nothing in it hangs together, and it is like a cruel parody of modernism without the levity of satire to make up for its deficiencies. With it I’m tempted to play the Derrida parlour game.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the game goes like this: take one of Derrida’s convoluted sentences and negate it, such that the sentence says the opposite of what it once did. Read or give both sentences to someone else, ideally an expert in Derrida, and ask them to decide which he wrote. I once tried to play this with a literary theory professor, who didn’t like the game. The same game could be played here too: does Hardwick say, “Nothing groans under treachery,” or,”Everything groans under treachery?” Does she say, “Real people: nothing like your mother and father, nothing like those friends from long ago […]” or “Real people: everything like your mother and father, everything like those friends from long ago […]”? Does she say, “The weak have the purest sense of history,” or “The strong have the purest sense of history?” Either could be true, with no change in the narrative or outcome, if you can call what happens “outcome.”

Then there is fuzzy language of the sort B.R. Myers hates; I have yet to see “acrimonious twilight [fall].” And do the weak have the purest sense of history, which the narrator (also named Elizabeth) posits? Maybe: but if so, this novel doesn’t prove it, or even do more than state it and move on. It also goes for the obvious and tautological in the place of the profound: “It was what she was always doing, and in the end what she had done.” Yes, the present becomes the future and we’ve eventually done whatever it is that we’re doing. This would seem obvious, and I wouldn’t note it if it were somehow connected to the rest of this disjointed narrative.

Nothing connects and little happens, which Geoffrey O’Brien excuses in the introduction: “The norms of fiction, the reader of Sleepless Nights might well conclude, are after all a constriction, or at least a superfluity: Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one?” There is much to be said about challenging the norms of fiction, but this book doesn’t: it wanders and meanders into nothing. And what O’Brien means by saying “to live is to make fiction” he never explains, and the only way to make living a fiction is to stretch fiction beyond whatever bounds it might have into something so unrecognizable that it covers all things and thus loses the specificity that make it a definitive concept in the first place.

This is, he says, “a novel that could allow itself to move in any direction in time that it chose, that could shift its attention from one person or situation to another as abruptly as a filmmaker might splice together two incongruous images; a novel that seem[s] to declare the impossibility of separating itself from life […]”. Even if a novel can move in any direction and through any time, perhaps the fact that it can doesn’t mean it should, as Sleepless Nights demonstrates. And all this double-talk is merely from the first page of O’Brien’s introduction. Compare O’Brien’s facile dismissal of “the norms of fiction” to what David Lodge says of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: “The process [of placing the novel in a historical period, which Lodge explains] demonstrates an interesting aspect of the composition of fiction, namely, that the acceptance of a constraint which may seem frustrating and bothersome at first often leads to the discovery of new ideas and story-stuff.” It doesn’t appear that Hardwick had any problem using constraints to discover new ideas and story-stuff, since Sleepless Nights has little of either.

To be fair, in the introduction O’Brien is describing what will come more than anything else, and it is not his description so much as his defense that I attack. And I attack it all the more because a few passages ring: “Every great city is a Lourdes where you hope to throw off your crutches but meanwhile must stumble along on them, hobbling under the protection of the shrine.” In this context, the passage is vulnerable to the Derrida parlour game, but it could be something more. Alas: amid the random thoughts, incomplete sentences, and even more random shifts in place, perspective, and the like, it is adrift, cut off from its network and lost amid the vicissitudes of a book with no spine.

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