Whatever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici, Yale University Press, 220pp, £18.99 (hardback)

In literary journalism vinegar catches more flies than honey. The reason why Gabriel Josipovici’s unapologetically high-brow little book on modernism received so much publicity last year was because of its scathing remarks on the state of modern British letters, especially the novel. But it is only in the penultimate chapter (of fifteen) that Josipovici lays into the ‘beady-eyed’ philistinism of Amis, McEwan, Barnes et al. Entertaining as his assault is, this is a more challenging and ambitious book than simply a jeremiad on the contemporary cultural climate.

Yet, nor is it an attempt to answer the question posed in its title. There is nothing on post-modernism, or the fate of the little magazines or the processes by which modernism has become institutionalised into university syllabi and specialist journals. A more accurate title might have been ‘What Are the Roots of Modernism?’ or ‘Whence Does Modernism Come?’ But that might have been less unbuttoned and marketable.

‘Marketable modernism’? That is surely a contradiction, when so many modernists thumbed their nose at the vulgar tastes of the bourgeois consumer. One of the unexplored paradoxes of this book is how, in its forceful style and synoptic viewpoint, it embodies an accessible, consumable criticism which contravenes the troubled, restless, deliberately difficult versions of modernism it valorises. Writing criticism in a modernist style would need a more fragmented, aphoristic quality, such as we find in the prose of Roland Barthes, or Kierkegaard’s ‘dialectical method’ – both lodestars for the arguments in this book. But Josipovici’s voice is reasoned and accessible. Modernism is for Josipovici above all crisis of expression – a war against what Samuel Beckett once termed ‘the distortions of intelligibility’. But, since he is seeking to convince and persuade, one cannot blame Josipovici for finding a realist language to assert the artistic importance of anti-realism. He adopts a modernist sensibility, but not a modernist style.

At the sane time, it is difficult not to relish the irony when, with no small conviction, even hauteur, he preaches the need to recognise the ineffable and inarticulable strangeness of reality. There is a conflict between his appeal for writerly humility and his own tone. He can be scarifying on his fellow critics and historians of modernism, though lavish in his praise of those he admires, and a little tetchy with the punters. ‘If that is your reaction,’ he upbraids his reader at one point, ‘you have not been taking in what I’ve been saying.’

If we think of modernism as the ‘authoritative’ critical pronouncements of Eliot or Pound, or the bombastic manifestos published in magazines like Blast or transition, the tone of Josipovici’s appeal becomes less anomalous. But, importantly and surprisingly, Josipovici’s understanding of modernism does not centre on the usual high modernist ‘period’. For him it is a positivist error (‘positivist’ is one of his key pejorative terms) to regard modernism as a passage in literary history or something that happened and has now passed. The modernist spirit occurs in great art when the intractability of the world, and often our alienation within it, is painfully registered. It is, as Eliot put it ‘a raid on the inarticulate’, one which is aware that the received methods are shop-soiled and broken. If it is impelled to create new methods, it does not thereby solve the problem but gains its insights through rueful recognition. It is never triumphalist, never certain. Modernism tends towards noble failure, which succeeds by recognising itself as such. Not surprisingly, one of the key figures in this book is Beckett, the twentieth century’s master of artistic failure (‘fail again, fail better’). His fellow Irishman, James Joyce, author of the most celebrated modernist novel of all, scarcely merits a mention. However experimental and innovative Ulysses might be, it is an assertion of artistic power, representing the modern world, and the processes of human cognition, through an exhaustive plurality of styles. Contrasting himself to Joyce, Beckett describes himself as a ‘non-knower’ and a ‘non-can-ner’, who bases his art in ignorance and impotence. That Josipovici chooses Beckett over Joyce says much about his understanding of modernism here.

It is an arresting, if idiosyncratic understanding. Many will find it partial and incomplete. Nonetheless, Josipovici traces a fascinating literary tradition behind the artists’ response to the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Unlike many stories of modernism, he does not start his survey in the 1920s, the 1890s or even the 1850s. He begins surprisingly in the sixteenth century, with Albrecht Dürer’s etching Melanchoia 1 and Cervantes’s Don Quixote wherein he intuits a growing awareness of disenchantment, disconnection, and breakdown in communication. The development of humanism has severed individual agency from the sacralised rhythms of a medieval world, indeed from tradition itself. This leads to a stricken realisation that he sees as key to the modernist sensibility: ‘the coming to awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities.’

Not least of the virtues of this book is its nimble and probing reading of artistic works. If Josipovici takes a broad sweep in his historical tracing of modernism, he is most gifted as a miniaturist. From Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens, from Rembrandt to Duchamp, we have a penetrating guide, who burrows in to the weft and warp of individual works finding surprising nuggets and brilliant connections. His analysis is abstract and interpretative, and he often reads his artworks through favoured critics, from whom he quotes liberally. His readings of Picasso have an undisguised debt to Rosalind Krauss; he presents the anti-humanist tragic vision of Aeschylus aided by the little-known Oxford don, John Jones. He also relies heavily on commentary by artists on their own work, often in interview, including Beckett’s dialogues with Georges Duthuit and Francis Bacon’s with David Sylvester.

The analysis is supple, learned and profoundly integrative. Yet it can seem a tendentious tradition of modernism that is being unearthed and pulled together, a selection based not only on the exigencies of space but also on the favourites of the author. Josipovici rejects positivist history, but asserts, in his somewhat muddled final chapter, both that he believes his story is ‘right’ and that there are many other stories that could be told. The passion of the convictions and the inevitable partiality of the story sit somewhat ill at ease, and the disdain for positivist history does not satisfy the unanswered questions and unexamined authors.

Josipovici favours Barthes’s definition: ‘to be modern is to know that which is not possible any more’. His problem is with those who smugly assume that it is business as usual or, worse, that our secular age has put paid to mystery, that scientific thought and realistic art have together answered all the questions. Modernism on the other hand is precisely the opposite of complacency – it is restless in received genres because it is alienated from inherited traditions, it realises the serious, sacred enterprise of art which is why it is spurred by the ‘obligation’ to express. Yet at the same time it knows with Kafka that writing is a kind of ‘violation of the world’ or as Beckett put it ‘a stain on the silence’.

Against this comes the sludge of middle-brow formulaic art, the indulgence in the escapism of easily consumable anecdotage, stories which, with their trite descriptiveness and ordered plots, give us the illusion that life is contained, regular and safe. Josipovici targets Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch, as well as their successors today. But more than pedestrian novelists he reviles supine, somnambulant critics – those who know what Eliot and Woolf sought to achieve but who are happy to lavish praise on the dull and mediocre in our time.

You have to admire the seriousness with which Josipovici takes literature. His indignation and passion can inspire. But his strictures seem overly taut. Realist writers of fiction, like Dickens and Balzac, are ‘the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of the split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture’. This is surely a mite unfair to the authors of Bleak House and La Comédie humaine. It would have been interesting to see Josipovici locking horns with a serious apologist for realism, like Georg Lukács, but there is no room for dissent in this pacy polemic.

The problem with Philip Roth, according to Josipovici, is that

he never doubts the validity of what he is doing or his ability to find a language adequate to his needs. As a result, his works may be funny, they may be thought-provoking, but only as good journalism can be funny and thought- provoking.

Whatever the value of the tradition of modernist struggle that Josipovici delineates, this seems a harsh reason to dismiss one of the most respected post-War novelists. Joyce claimed that he could justify every word he wrote. Is he therefore a mere journalist? The art of broken communication that Josipovici values should be placed at the centre of the western tradition, whether we call it ‘modernist’ or not. But surely we should not demand as a criterion for admission to the literary canon that a writer should be fraught with doubt about his or her expressive capacity. To do so would be to denude the western literary tradition.

Josipovici is wary of the ‘false friends’ of modernism who see it simply as a form of anti-Romanticism. When he comes round to his critique of contemporary letters, he decries the philistinism abroad that sees ‘facing up’ to the ugliness of things, the squalid dreary details, as a way of getting to the ‘real world’. He eviscerates Julian Barnes, with his quasi- Flaubertianism, for embodying these values but rounds also on the narrow view of the world and the attenuated imaginative resources of the celebrated English novelists already mentioned, and the senior critic he groups with them, John Carey. Such authors revel in unsparing description, in the ugly detail, but their supposed unflinching recognition of the ugliness of life is really a form of suburban banality. Josipovici, controversially, finds the approach endemic in England:

All of them ultimately come out of Philip Larkin’s overcoat, and clearly their brand of writing and the nature of their vision speak to the English, for they are among the most successful writers of their generation. I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, the terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock. We don’t find it in Irish or American culture, or in French or German or Italian culture.

Not surprisingly, such remarks raised hackles in the media and distracted a great deal from the main arguments of this book. The charge of English philistinism, often self-directed, is an old one, and gets an airing every few years. In 1988, Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers made similar suggestions about English anti-modernism and stirred the same hornets’ nest. Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds has demonstrated that the idea of England as anti-intellectual does not stand up to historical scrutiny. Indeed, many Anglophone countries might look with admiration at the mainstream media attention accorded to Josipovici’s book. England surely does not have a monopoly on over-hyped, gently experimental novelists and Josipovici’s arguments would be stronger if he had some contemporary, as well as historical, figures to contrast with his English dullards. Too much of the literary scene is left untouched for these dismissals to be convincing. There is no mention of post-colonial fiction, no treatment of writers from Rushdie to Chaudhuri who have blurred the borders around the ‘English’ novel. What does he make of the work of a contemporary modernist writer – and Booker manqué – Tom McCarthy? Or W. G. Sebald?

One of the problems with going back so far is that even great writers are tainted by not being in on the crisis. There are some surprising inclusions in the history here, not least Wordsworth. But just as not every great Renaissance or Restoration artist can be enlisted to this definition of ‘modernism’, the same should surely be allowed of the contemporary scene. Some writers produce great art from despair and melancholia; others from confidence and comedy. There is remarkable contrast between the plural register of modernist discourse and the prescriptive demands laid down here. If modernism stretches and rends language to express properly the ineffability of the world, can we not allow some plurality within literature itself? Can we not savour a realist beside a modernist tradition? If the world is, as Louis MacNeice put it, ‘incorrigibly plural’ can we not allow the same for literature? Many of us will continue to maintain that, in the house of art, there are many mansions, and will admire both the realist and the modernist traditions – both Eliots, George and Thomas Stearns.

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