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)

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile