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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

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