Modernism still matters

Writers such as T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett worked in synchrony with continental Europeans

Writers such as T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett worked in synchrony with continental Europeans such as Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, pushing against the limitations of art. Why have English-language writers turned away from this challenge?

One of the minor themes of my latest book, Whatever Happened to Modernism?, is that a grave problem with cultural life in Britain today is how all issues are reduced to a question of personalities. I learned just how true this is when, shortly before the book came out, the Guardian published an article that was ostensibly about it but which, in fact, was only about personalities (in this instance, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes). The journalist who wrote it found a few sentences in one chapter of a 200-page book, wrenched them from their context and, on the basis of three telephone conversations with me, passed the whole thing off as an interview. Following the appearance of the article, I was rung up by the Evening Standard and Radio 4's PM programme and emailed by Newsnight - all of which wanted me to "elaborate" on what I had apparently said in the Guardian. When I pointed out that I had not said those things and that I would talk to them only if they gave me the chance to set the record straight (and not discuss personalities), they lost interest. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut's narrator says. I am grateful to the New Statesman for giving me the chance to explain what I was trying to do in the book.

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 Cézanne? 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 indus­trialisation or the First World War, but is art coming to a consciousness of its limitations and responsibilities.

The principal issue is that of authority. Shelley talked of poets being the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world and the prophetic strand of Romanticism did, indeed, see the artist as inspired and authoritative. Modernism can be seen as a reaction to this and a recognition that the artist is no different from the rest of us. "I am no prophet," says Eliot's Prufrock, and "here's no great matter". Marcel Duchamp spelled out the implications:

The word "art", etymologically speaking, means to make, simply to make. Now what is making? Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting some of it on the palette, and always choosing the quality of blue, the quality of red, and always choosing the place to put it on canvas, always choosing.

If that is so, why not take a lavatory bowl, isolate it from its normal context, give it a title and, hey presto, it's art! Not all artists were as bold as Duchamp, but every modern artist has had, somehow or other, to come to terms with what he did. Kafka got it, but not Max Brod. Walter Benjamin got it, but not, for all his great gifts, William Empson. Simon got it, but not Irène Némirovsky. Tom Stoppard got it, but not John Osborne.

Alongside the prophetic strand of Romanticism, there runs another: despair at the thought of having come too late, of having only ruins to contemplate, of recognising that the voice of the nightingale can be heard only fleetingly, if at all. That, it would seem, is where the origins of modernism are to be located. But the coming of modernism is like the rise of the bourgeoisie - the closer you look, the further into the distance it recedes.

If, for the Romantics, Shakespeare and Milton were gigantic figures they could not hope to emulate, for some artists in the Renaissance their own age had already lost contact with authority. Albrecht Dürer sums this up in his two parallel engravings of 1514 Saint Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I. The former shows us the saint who gave the Latin west its Bible, at ease within tradition, working away peacefully in his room. The latter shows us a figure many modern artists have identified with: a wild-eyed, impotent giantess in a bleak landscape, surrounded by instruments of making, but incapable of making anything because she is unable to connect with any tradition. Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne later explored this pre­dicament in comic style and, for that reason, they seem to us to be strikingly modern, the true contemporaries of Borges and Beckett.

Thomas Mann understood all this; his wonderful novel Doctor Faustus is an exploration of the paradoxes and depths of the modernist crisis, which, as the title suggests, he locates firmly in the 16th century. Taking our cue from this, we could say that, for Homer, the Muses dictated both the content and the form of what he had to say; for medieval artists such as the sculptors of the great cathedrals, what was to be depicted was determined by the cathedral's clerics, and the forms - the way the beard of Moses or the hand of Christ were to be carved - was given by tradition. This gives medieval art, as both Pound and Proust recognised, an innocence and freedom from ego that both writers felt went missing from European art in the ensuing centuries.

By the 16th century, the consensus on which this was based had disappeared. Though patrons went on giving specific commissions to artists and composers for the next two centuries, artists were becoming increasingly conscious that, from now on, they had to rely only on their imagination. Our culture, which is still in thrall to the individualistic strain in the Renaissance and in Romanticism, welcomed this as a splendid new freedom. More prescient souls, however, sensed what Duchamp would eventually articulate so icily - if every choice is merely the artist's, why is one choice better than any other?

This is what Kafka, Beckett and Borges struggled with: how to escape the conclusion that whatever you do is private self-indulgence. Your work may earn you and your publisher money but, having no authority, it remains nothing more than an object of consumption, like a pair of shoes.
And yet the urge to speak remains. That is what we find with Prufrock, with Hamm in Beckett's Endgame, with Saul Bellow's Henderson. And this combination of the need, which we all have, to speak out our deepest feelings and the recognition that, as soon as the need is expressed, it becomes obvious that it is not what we meant at all is what makes the work of Eliot, Bellow, Beckett and Bernhard so moving. This is what is so signally lacking in the bulk of postwar English novels, which tend to consist of well-plotted tales in the first or third person, in which morality and the convolutions of plot now take the place of authority.

“How many poems he denied himself/In his observant progress, lesser things/Than the relentless contact he desired." So reads Wallace Stevens's poem "The Comedian as the Letter C". Modernism has found many ways of establishing that "relentless contact" with reality: the constant shift from book to world and back in Rabelais and Sterne; the sly reminders in Nabokov and Queneau that we are reading words on a page; the tragic, climactic wrenchings of Golding's Pincher Martin and Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt.

At those moments, modern art reaches beyond words to that which we share but cannot speak. I find it in the work of writers as diverse as Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, Peter Handke, the French-writing Hungarian Agota Kristof, Gert Hofmann and the Israeli Yaakov Shabtai. I rarely find it in the English-language writers of today.

Since the Romantics, English culture has been deeply suspicious of Romantic posturing and some of this suspicion is reasonable - posturing needs to be debunked. But suspicion too easily slides into philistinism and an intolerance of ambiguity and fear of the unknown. We find this in the cultural commentary of Evelyn Waugh (whose early novels I love and admire), Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. Unfortunately, it is now so ubiquitous that people no longer have even a glimmer of what has been lost. My book was written in an attempt to reawaken that sense.

Gabriel Josipovici's "Whatever Happened to Modernism?" is published by Yale University Press (£18.99)