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