Friday, July 30, 2010

"Whatever Happened to Modernism?"

Asks Gabriel Josipovici:
... according to one leading academic, leading contemporary British authors such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes are unworthy of the accolades they receive.

In an outspoken attack, Gabriel Josipovici, the former Weidenfeld professor of comparative literature at Oxford University, condemned the work of the giants of the modern English novel as hollow. He said they were like "prep-school boys showing off" and virtually indistinguishable from one another in scope and ambition. * * *

"We are in a very fallow period," Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel "profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears".

He said: "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

"I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock." Such faults were less generally evident in Irish, American, or continental European writing, he added.

Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy remained more avant-garde than the so-called avant-garde today, Josipovici argued.

"An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie's just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration."

Currently a research professor at Sussex University, Josipovici hopes the criticisms – to feature in a forthcoming book, What Ever Happened to Modernism? – will spark a wide-ranging debate on the assessment of modern English literature.

While great novels deal with complex events beyond the full understanding of both the characters and the reader, too many contemporary works follow traditional plots with neat endings, he said.

Referring to graduates, like McEwan, of the University of East Anglia's famous creative writing course, Josipovici said: "They all tell stories in a way that is well crafted, but that is almost the most depressing aspect of it — a careful craft which seems to me to be hollow."

He singled out The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's story of obsession, as easy to read but lacking "a sense of destiny, of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words", unlike that experienced through Proust or Henry James. McEwan's novel is read "to pass the time", he said.

Such novels had a "lack of vision and limited horizons".

"One finishes them and feels, 'So what?' – so very different from the gut-wrenching experience of reading Herman Melville's Bartleby or William Golding's The Inheritors," said Josipovici. * * *

Josipovici extended his criticism to one of the behemoths of modern US writing, Philip Roth.

"For all Roth's playfulness – a heavy-handed playfulness at the best of times – 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."
Obviously one would want to see Josipovici's argument in his book, rather than rely on a newspaper account, but his argument seems to be that these novels lack sublimity, which he connects interestingly to literary "control" and mastery of language. The sublime is what appears beyond the ability of our thoughts and language to comprehend or describe.

I would be curious to know what Josipovici thinks of Gaddis, Pynchon, and Wallace ... and what James Wood thinks of Josipovici's criticism.

The bottom line, of course, is that the modernist has never been an award-winner. Proust, Joyce, Woolf, and even Lawrence never won the Nobel.


  1. I think it's fair to say that modernism is rooted in a revolution of form and language rather than content (wasn't Forster's abandonment of the novel the feeling that the medium was exhausted, not the message?). That makes it inherently subject to the fault of textual refinement for its own sake. I'm not as deep as I need to be in the modernist canon, but I can't bring to mind more than a couple of modernist/post-same works that have lasting emotional power, appealing as they are in other ways. The same criticism might be directed at impressionist art, which is often sublime, but doesn't exactly shed light on the human condition in any explicit way, which is the other arm of Josipovici's dissatisfaction. (Woolf, Proust and Van Gogh being standout exceptions).

    So, passing thought, maybe high craft and great power can be equally sustained over the short run, which gives us modernist poetry; but not at length, which is why novels necessarily surrender one quality to excel in the other, and J. is really onto something.

    Nothing like a few good counterexamples to puncture a theoretical argument, though. Your turn...

  2. But how many novels of the 19th century "have lasting emotional power," as opposed to being entertaining social vignettes, etc.? I think we've done (we did?) at least as well as that regard in the 20th.

    I would say that the "revolution in form and language," to be more than merely clever, has to help us feel and experience more from the novel. Woolf, Proust, and Joyce do that (even if Woolf had her doubts abut Joyce). And Josipovici appears to argue that the conservatism in style of recent authors has prevented any such effect.

  3. " ... and what James Wood thinks of Josipovici's criticism."

    Wood wrote a long review of Josipovici's "On Trust" here:

    Subscribers only unfortunately.

    He hasn't written very much about US writers, though I'd guess from my knowledge of his work that he doesn't rate Gaddis or Pynchon very highly; DFW may be different. He's not fashionable nowadays, but there is a brilliant essay on Saul Bellow in The Portable Bellow.

  4. Thanks, Stephen! Wood's admiration for modernism leads him to pull the trigger a bit too quickly on "postmodernism" IMHO, whereas I tend to see Gaddis and Pynchon as carrying on modernism rather than conforming to any pomo fashion. (Not that I have much use for Pynchon after Gravity's Rainbow, alas.)

    I would think that Gaddis's commonalities with Flaubert would make some impression on Wood.