What Ever Happened to Modernism?

This review of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? (Yale University Press, 2010) appeared in the Irish Times.

‘WHEN I BEGAN WRITING it was a great period of shock . . . But when it came to prose the English common man knows what prose is, he talks it all the time and he wasn’t going to be taken in.” Thus Evelyn Waugh, interviewed on the BBC in 1964, before proceeding to bloviate about the “gibberish” written by Gertrude Stein and “a poor dotty Irishman called James Joyce”.

Modernism, the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici notes in this reflective but furious study, has long been a problem for the English. Arriving at Oxford in the late 1950s with his head full of Proust, Mann and Kafka, the young Josipovici was dismayed to find that the privileged examples of cutting-edge prose were notBuddenbrooks or À la Recherche du Temps Perdu but a set of well-crafted middlebrow novels by Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch. The names may have changed in half a century but not, he concludes, the bluff refusal of experiment.

If What Ever Happened to Modernism? were just a polemic against cultural timidity – which is how it has been read, not without resentment, by several commentators – it would not carry quite the charge it does. In fact Josipovici essays instead a brief but incisive precis of the modernist project tout court. And he starts, surprisingly, not in the 20th century but with Don Quixote and the art of Albrecht Dürer. In Cervantes’ novel and Dürer’s famous engraving of a melancholy angel we see the modernist predicament already clear: “The coming to awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities.” It’s a painful knowledge later shared by Wordsworth, whose Prelude dramatises how far the poet feels from the heart of his own creation, and by the anxious personae devised by Kierkegaard.

Dickens and Balzac, by contrast, went about their prolific business entirely untroubled by aesthetic or existential doubt; modernism is nothing if not a costive fretting about one’s power simply to produce.

In the last century the pervasive sense of doubt about art’s ability to express the artist’s intentions, or to seize on external reality, gave rise to a frenetic culture of conscious failure. Mallarmé had written of feeling like “an old man and finished at twenty-three”. Kafka now confessed to Max Brod: “I can’t write. I haven’t written a single line that I can accept.” And of course there was Beckett, complaining that he had “nothing to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express”. What was lacking, precisely, was a sense of tradition; the writer laboured without rules to formulate the rules of what might be written. As Roland Barthes put it in the 1950s, “to be modern is to know that which is not possible any more.”

Josipovici is a spiky and eloquent guide to this tormented history. (It’s also, one should say, a comic history: from Melville’s laconic slacker Bartleby to the botched anecdotage of Hamm in Endgame .) He follows the art historian Rosalind Krauss in refusing to make blanket pronouncements about the progress of modernism and instead tries to worry away at it from the inside. As a result the book is divided into 15 chapters, all of which might easily stand alone as trenchant essays on specific writers or knotty genera. And there are startling intuitions along the way, not only about literature: in a bravura link he contends that Dürer’s Melencolia I is a precursor to Marcel Duchamp’s esoteric masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even .

If there’s a criticism to be made it is that Josipovici sometimes shies from the logical extremity of certain of his subjects, preferring the complex humanism of a Picasso or Francis Bacon to the outright avant-gardism of a Duchamp or Robbe-Grillet. At one odd moment he approves Picasso’s “correct intuition as to where lay the health of art and the true destiny of Modernism”, though it’s something of a conundrum how we got, say, from Rimbaud’s bracing “derangement of the senses” to talk of health and destiny.

As for the book’s highly amusing assault on recent (mostly English) fiction and the journalistic pieties that attend it, there is much to applaud and, again, some mysteries to contend with. Josipovici is surely right to deplore the liberal-humanist dullardry of Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, as also to despair at the excessively craft-loving, Beckett-loathing Martin Amis. When he reads these novelists, he says, he is left “feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner”. Nor do critics escape; he takes well-merited aim at the likes of John Carey, whose The Intellectuals and the Masses and (worse) What Good Are the Arts? have set the current standard in proud Anglo philistinism.

What is less clear is quite why Josipovici cares so much about these people as to devote the whole of his penultimate chapter to disparaging them. What Ever Happened to Modernism? arrives at a moment when it seems the modernist inheritance and the possibility of an avant-garde are once more on the agenda for relatively mainstream fiction writers. Josipovici makes some hasty comments about the experimental art and fiction that came after high modernism, but it would have been instructive to read him on such diverse authors as WG Sebald, Lydia Davis and David Foster Wallace. Or even, if the Anglocentric focus had to be present, the novels of Tom McCarthy. But that might have involved him in another question, as yet mostly unbroached by critics: what ever happened to postmodernism?

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