What Ever Happened to Modernism?

It's been a long time since a work of academic literary criticism has generated the buzz of newspaper-driven controversy, but Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? seems to have broken the media embargo. Late last month, a piece in the front section of the Guardian offered an extract of some of the harsh words that Josipovici, writer and former professor of comparative literature at Oxford University, has for the present crop of English novelists.

The piece, which ran under the title "Feted British authors are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic", quoted extensively from the book, in which Josipovici claims that reading many of the big names of current fiction gives him a "sense of prep-school boys showing off". He writes:

Reading [Julian] Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, 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.

But readers who pick up What Ever Happened to Modernism? expecting a monograph-length diatribe against Amis and McEwan might be disappointed, as the literary situation today receives sustained attention only in the 14th chapter of 15, a tiny subsection of the work. What we get instead is a remarkably wide-ranging, lucidly written and intellectually ambitious tour of the development of art and literature over the centuries.

It might seem odd that a book ostensibly devoted to modernism should discuss works from classical Greek tragedy to the novels of the present day. But Josipovici's central argument is that modernism should be understood not as "a style, like mannerism or impressionism", nor as a "period of art history, like the Augustan or the Victorian age", but as a complex of certain perennial artistic problems and the various responses that artists down the centuries have offered to these problems. He characterises the issue at hand as "the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities" in the wake of the "disenchantment of the world" that occurred under the sway of Enlightenment thought and science.

Josipovici moves from the emergence of narrative self-reflexivity in the works of Cervantes and Rabelais, through Søren Kierkegaard's struggles to write in "an age without access to the transcendental and therefore without any sure guide", to the works of writers more conventionally known as modernists, such as Wallace Stevens and Samuel Beckett. Throughout, he identifies in the writing he examines a strain of artistic vitality that comes neither from indulgence in Romantic abstraction nor in the vividness of realist representation, but rather a dynamic collision between the two.

He writes that his "sense of narrative being alive does not depend on the disruption of syntax or the use of demotic speech, but on a more fundamental relation of the writer to the medium". And what goes for writers also goes for painters, composers and other artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. In short, Josipovici's book would be much more accurately described as a sustained examination of what was modernist about what happened in the art and culture of the past several centuries than as an approach to the question of what happened to modernism and why it seems to have disappeared in recent years.

In its range and approach, therefore, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is more reminiscent of one of those classic works of literary criticism - Erich Auerbach's Mimesis comes to mind - than the jargon-ridden obscurantism of most academic monographs in literary studies today. Even though the publicity Josipovici has received has centred on his polemical response to the practices of the present-day crop of English novelists, the interest of his book lies in the way it rethinks the stakes of literary criticism and academic writing.

Since the era of "high theory" came to an end, literary studies has lost its place on the front table in the world's better bookshops, ceding it to work by other academics from other disciplines. Whatever we make of Josipovici's attacks on the likes of Ian McEwan and Adam Thirlwell, that he presents this work as an intervention in the debate over the future of the novel as a going concern gives it a sense of purpose and a pertinence sorely missing from most of the other books produced by academic presses in the literary field. As Josipovici writes at one point, "If writers do what they are drawn to do, critics and cultural analysts need to do a little better." What Ever Happened to Modernism? provides, at the very least, a persuasive model for doing just that.

What Ever Happened to Modernism?
Gabriel Josipovici
Yale University Press, 224pp, £18.99

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in English at University College London

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis