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October 02 2010

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici | Book review

If you're looking for a solution to the current debate over modernism in Gabriel Josipovici's book, look elsewhere

"Why," BS Johnson once asked, "do so many novelists still write as though the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened?" Almost 40 years on, the question remains valid, and Gabriel Josipovici should be well placed to answer it. He is a distinguished novelist, critic and teacher, a polyglot scholar and a research professor at the University of Sussex. Here he argues, rightly, that modernism in the arts must be considered not simply a period or a style, but a deeply rooted response to crises of truth, authority and originality that stretch back to Cervantes and beyond.

As that synopsis suggests, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is essentially an academic book, and its appearance in the review sections is largely due to a classic literary spat stirred up by a Guardian journalist. Professor Josipovici objected that a few disparaging comments about Amis, Rushdie et al had been taken to represent a thesis that was in fact "not interested in personalities" – a defence that would have been more convincing were it not that the chapter in question mounts an ad hominem attack on those "English pseudo-Modernists" and their "beady-eyed refusal to be taken in by highfalutin language".

Headlines aside, the book itself is a welcome intervention in the long debate about the difference between art and entertainment, although it's a shame that Josipovici is not always as lucid or precise as one could wish. While making a point about a passage of early Wallace Stevens, for instance, he explains Stevens's response to the impasse of modernism by recalling "what Donne long ago recommended: 'He who would truth find/ About must and about must go'". The quotation is superfluous to the argument, but it is good advice, and would be even better were it closer to what Donne actually wrote:

On a huge hill

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go,

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.

It's a small slip, but hardly a minor one, since the point of quoting Donne's labouring lines is that the metre requires of a reader the kind of struggle counselled by the words, just as Stevens requires of his difficult verse that it strain towards an essential truth while holding open the possibility that such truths might remain out of reach.

It's hard to fluff the couplet unless you're dealing solely in abstractions, which should be a warning about the abstractions that too often pass here for reasoning. More to the point, a sceptical reader is unlikely to be persuaded to pay more attention to the prose of Robert Pinget, or to the music of György Kurtág, by a critic who has just made a molehill out of a metaphysical mountain.

So what did happen to modernism? Professor Josipovici seems reluctant to answer his own question, other than to hint that it may have crept back to the continent whence it came, shaking its head ruefully at the provincial attitudes of small-minded, beady-eyed Britain. Can that be true? Or might it simply have gone to ground in its natural habitat: the small presses and little magazines? And can we take seriously a book that raises the issue without mentioning – to name only a few writers – Henry Green or James Hanley, Alasdair Gray or Angela Carter, WS Graham or Iain Sinclair? After all, to complain that McEwan, Barnes & Co aren't living up to the legacy of British modernism is a little like complaining that the cheesemonger has run out of chalk.

In 2004, a similar media storm was brewing around Randall Stevenson's volume in the Oxford English Literary History, which had favoured the abstruse poetry of JH Prynne – a modernist of a kind – over that of Philip Larkin. Asked by the Today programme to adjudicate, the late Frank Kermode replied, generously: "Why can't people like them both?" To tackle that question, which is more than rhetorical, would entail thinking hard about arts education, about publishers and prizes, and about the failings of critics and journalists. It is worth pondering, and remains to be answered: there are no solutions here. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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