Gabriel Josipovici: Why Modernism Matters

Is Modernism an antidote to the elitism of British fiction?
Gabriel Josipovici
Gabriel Josipovici has published an article in the New Statesman stressing the importance of modernism to contemporary literature. Encompassing the work of writers as varied and diverse as T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett and Marguerite Duras, it offers an antidote to the dominant conventions of British fiction. For Josipovici, the works of authors such as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis depend on outdated ideas of expressive realism and authorial mastery to evoke truth and morality, in ways reminiscent of the nineteenth century novel.

What we discover, looking back on nineteenth century fiction, was that its expression of 'reality' often asserted the cultural and political values of its time. Sympathies for Oliver Twist were won not on his neglected orphan status, but his natural birthright to upper class privilege. While the cultural anxiety of ghost stories, gothic horrors and Sherlock Holmes always seemed to conclude with a return to the way things should be. Or, at least, to the way Victorians thought things should be. Truth and reality were not eternal and timeless, but culturally constructed by the political values of the era.

But while culture has changed, and is forever changing, the work of McEwan, Amis and others seems to proceed as though everything is the same. McEwan's Saturday articulates a post-9/11 culture of middle-class conformity and the ennobling salvation of literature (the 'sweetness and light' of Matthew Arnold). While Amis' evocation of 9/11 in 'The last days of Muhammad Atta' sees reality through a troubling portrayal gender and racial identity. Neither is particularly convincing, but both are politically and ethically problematic. Conventional British realism appears too assured of its claims to truth, of old values and old ideas.

Modernism, aside from its virtuosity and playful approach, offers greater opportunities of inclusion through its questioning of natural distinctions, of language, culture and politics. To return to Josipovici's article, he begins by noting why he wrote What Ever Happened to Modernism? and why, for him, the 'movement' remains relevant today:
I wrote it in the first place to try to make sense of a problem that had long puzzled me: why was it that works of literature such as the poems of T S Eliot, the stories of Kafka and Borges, the novels of Proust, Mann, Claude Simon and Thomas Bernhard seemed worlds apart from those admired by the English literary establishment (works by writers such as Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan)? The first group touched me to the core, leading me into the depths of myself even as they led me out into worlds I did not know. The latter were well-written narratives that, once I'd read them, I had no wish ever to reread. Was it my fault? Was I in some way unable to enter into the spirit of these works? Or did they belong to a kind of writing that was clearly to the taste of the English public but not to mine?

There was another problem: no composer would dream of writing like Tchaikovsky today, except in an ironic manner; no painter today would dream of painting like Sargent, except in an ironic manner; yet novelists writing in English seemed to want to write like the Victorians and the Edwardians. Others might object that literature is simply different from the other arts and it is absurd to compare them. But then why did I feel that there were profound affinities between Eliot and Picasso, Proust and Bonnard, Simon and C├ęzanne? Were Eliot and Proust really in thrall to the debilitating idea that they should be modern at all costs? No one who has responded to them could ever imagine this to be the case. Yet critics and reviewers who paid lip-service to Eliot and Proust seemed to fail utterly to see that to take their work seriously meant asking questions about the bulk of current English writing that were simply never asked. Even writers such as William Golding and Muriel Spark, whose work gave me the same thrill as the one I got from Marguerite Duras and Milan Kundera, were treated as the quirky authors of books about children, shipwrecks and eccentric schoolteachers.

It had not always been like that. When I first came to England in the late 1950s, it was a reviewer in the Observer, Philip Toynbee, who alerted me to the novels of Claude Simon. It was in the pages of Encounter that I first came across the stories of Borges. The back pages of the Listener and the New Statesman were alive with critics familiar with European culture and with a wide historical grasp: John Berger, David Drew and Wilfrid Mellers, among others. By the early 1990s, Encounter and the Listener had gone, to be replaced by three-for-the-price-of-two creative writing courses and literary festivals. What had happened to literary modernism in this country? How did it expire like this, without leaving a trace?

To answer this question, it was necessary to show that modernism was not a "movement", like mannerism, or the name of a period. Like Romanticism, it is multifaceted and ambiguous. And it didn't begin in 1880 and end in 1930. Modernism, whenever it began, will always be with us, for it is not primarily a revolution in diction, or a response to indus trialisation or the First World War, but is art coming to a consciousness of its limitations and responsibilities. [Read the article]

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