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30 January 2022updated 03 Oct 2022 2:51pm

1922: the year that made modernism

Ulysses, “The Waste Land”, Jacob’s Room: a year of radical experiments changed the course of literature.

By John Mullan

In the spring 1922 issue of the avant-garde American literary journal Little Review, Ezra Pound published a calendar for a modern era. The months were renamed after Greek and Roman deities, under the heading “Year 1 p.s.U”. Readers in tune with literary innovations knew that those letters stood for “post scriptum Ulysses”, or “after the writing of Ulysses”. With the publication of James Joyce’s novel in February 1922, on the author’s 40th birthday, a new age had begun. Pound (his most famous slogan: “Make It New”) was a great one for announcing, or demanding, literary revolutions; this time history would vindicate him. A century on, 1922 still looks like the year literature changed, when modernism came into its own.

It was the year not only of Ulysses, but also “The Waste Land”, by the 34-year-old TS Eliot, first published in October. The great novel of modernism was followed by its greatest single poem. These would be enough to mark 1922 as a watershed. But in this year too, Virginia Woolf, the same age as Joyce, published Jacob’s Room, her first radically experimental novel, and began writing Mrs Dalloway. Pound, who was living in Paris, was embarking on his magnum opus, “The Cantos”. It was he who creatively edited the early drafts of “The Waste Land”, telling Eliot what to cut from the copious first drafts of the poem. Thus Eliot’s dedication of the poem to him, quoting Dante: “Il miglior fabbro” (“the better maker”).

The main participants in this literary revolution were highly conscious of being part of a shared enterprise, a concerted effort to break with established forms. This was their historical moment. The alliances and rivalries between individual writers gave literary modernism a singular self-consciousness. The web of influences and friendships, and sometimes collaborations, was necessary to their literary innovations.

Eliot was Joyce’s most ardent advocate: he had read early, serialised sections of Ulysses and declared Joyce “the best living prose writer”. In August 1920 the two men met in Paris (in the company of Wyndham Lewis and scornful of this obscure Irish émigré). A bond was sealed, and Joyce started sending Eliot manuscripts of unpublished parts of Ulysses as he completed them. Eliot, meanwhile, had been befriended by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. In June 1922, four months before it was published, he read “The Waste Land” aloud to them at Hogarth House, the Woolfs’ Richmond home. “He sang it & chanted it rhythmed it,” Woolf recorded in her diary. She admired its “great beauty & force”. “What connects it together, I’m not so sure.” ‘The poem, first printed in Eliot’s journal the Criterion and then in America in book form in December 1922, would be published with Eliot’s added notes by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1923.

Traditional literary forms still held sway in 1922. Readers of polite fiction could buy the new omnibus edition of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, which had been completed the previous year. Soon they would have the new Arnold Bennett novel, Riceyman Steps (1923). They might relish Bennett’s dismissive review of Jacob’s Room in Cassell’s Weekly, one of the respectable literary magazines of the age. Yet the sniffiness of established writers about new experiments in fiction confirmed a clash that the modernists relished. Bennett’s review provoked Woolf’s well-known rejoinder, her essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, eventually published in revised form in Eliot’s Criterion. Here Woolf advocated new ways of representing characters in fiction, catching the movements of consciousness rather than merely providing information about them, as Bennett and his fellow Edwardians did.

Ulysses was the ultimate demonstration of this new way of doing things. Before it appeared in book form, Woolf was aware of Joyce’s novel-in-progress. In September 1920 Eliot had come to stay with the Woolfs at Monk’s House in Rodmell, their damp and chilly East Sussex retreat, where Virginia was at work on Jacob’s Room. He was keen to discuss Ulysses, as Woolf recorded in her diary. “This, so far as he has seen it, is extremely brilliant, he says.” Woolf read Ulysses during August and September 1922, while she was writing Mrs Dalloway. She was slightly resentful at having to interrupt her reading of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the latest volume of which, Sodome et Gomorrhe II, was published a few months before the author’s death in 1922. Joyce’s novel fascinated but perplexed her. A quarter of the way through it, she wrote in her diary: “An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me.” How could Eliot think it “on a par with War and Peace”? Yet she could not dismiss it. The day she finished it, she wrote, “Genius it has, I think”, though it was “diffuse”, “pretentious” and (again) “underbred”. The next day, she shifted: a review had convinced her it was “very much more impressive than I judged”. She would have to read it again.

It is difficult not to imagine that Ulysses had a direct influence on the work that she was herself writing. Mrs Dalloway, not completed until late 1924, is also a novel set on a single day, while reaching back in time through the fragmented memories of its main character. It inhabits the consciousness of this narrator as she leaves her house, walks around a city (London instead of Dublin), performs ordinary tasks, and then returns home. Just like Ulysses, it follows an urban map and an hour-by-hour chronology.

Woolf’s and Joyce’s narrative methods are sometimes called “stream of consciousness”. The phrase, borrowed from psychology texts, was first used in a literary context by the English writer May Sinclair in 1918 to describe the narrative method of Dorothy Richardson’s novel sequence Pilgrimage (which Woolf knew well). The phrase hardly does justice to the ways in which the sentences of Ulysses proceed. Thinking happens through words, bringing associations that surprise the character as well as the reader. Speech and thought are hardly distinguished on the page (Joyce does not use what he called “perverted commas” to mark off dialogue).

Joyce shared with Proust a concern to blend the working of consciousness with sensuous experience: taste, touch and, especially, smell. In Ulysses, Joyce is the most sensitive olfactory novelist since Dickens. In the “Calypso” section, where we first meet Leopold Bloom, our hero relishes, in his memory, “a fine tang of faintly scented urine” on the mutton kidneys he is going to buy for breakfast. Out in the Dublin street in the morning, he thinks of the home to which he is returning. “To smell the gentle smoke of tea, fume of the pan, sizzling butter. Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” He takes his wife, Molly, a cup of tea in bed and she talks of Boylan, the organiser of a concert in which she is to sing. “Her full lips, drinking, smiled. Rather stale smell that incense leaves next day. Like foul flowerwater.” Later in the section, Bloom goes to the outside lavatory with a copy of Titbits: “Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.” Everything ordinary has its place in this novel.

Beneath the stream of Bloom’s thoughts and reactions, there is a complex domestic plot. Why is Molly hiding a letter from Boylan? We will only eventually discover the reason. We have to trace the merest hints through the long novel to understand so much: that Bloom cannot help thinking of his son Rudy’s death, as a baby, ten years earlier; that this is connected to him and his wife having ceased to have sex; that he imagines she might be having an affair; that he himself is dallying with a possibly amorous pen pal. The narration may take us into Bloom’s thoughts, but they are his thoughts on one day, from one moment to another, without explanation. The story of his life must be pieced together by inference.

There is no limit to the subjects on which the mind might dwell, so there are no longer any limits to what can find its way into fiction. The appalled reflexes of some critics responding to Ulysses on its first publication are a measure of the sheer, heady uncensoredness of the novel – less remarkable to today’s reader, but extraordinary in 1922. It was banned for “obscenity” in both Britain and the US. In Britain, the director of public prosecutions Archibald Bodkin read only the last section, Molly’s monologue, and confirmed that “there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity”. In 1922, 500 copies were seized by customs at Folkestone and burned. Eventually, a 1932 court judgment in the US allowed it to be published in the country. It became freely available in Britain only in 1936. It was almost impossible, meanwhile, to obtain Ulysses in Joyce’s homeland. Yet the novel was a succès d’estime, the ban sealing its mythical status. Eliot had no doubts. “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.” He did not, however, dare to publish it under the Faber & Faber imprint. (Joyce grumpily dubbed the firm “Feebler and Fumbler”.)

In 1930 Faber did publish Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study, a guide with lengthy quotations on which Joyce had collaborated, advertised as “the only substitute for the masterpiece itself”. It was the beginning of the Joyce critical industry. The novel’s “enigmas and puzzles” have “kept the professors busy”, as Joyce jokingly hoped they would. A centenary edition of Ulysses, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in June, will be the most thickly annotated yet, punctuating the novel with introductory essays by academic experts, prefacing each of the episodes of the book, and explaining literary allusions and historical references in footnotes.

Ulysses was soon renowned. As Woolf wrote Jacob’s Room, she “reflected how what I’m doing is probably being better done by Mr Joyce”. Her own novel was highly experimental, enacting the elusiveness of its central character, a young man who is never quite present to us. All the other characters who come and go are in some way connected to him, seen in glimpses. The novel gives the reader one short episode after another. Sometimes these are rendered entirely in visual terms: we see what characters do, but must infer their feelings and motives. Or we overhear fragments of dialogue. When Jacob quarrels with a close friend, we just get the few disconnected words overheard by a servant. What you must notice most of all are the gaps and omissions between episodes. As the novel’s drifting narrative voice remarks twice: “It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done.” The elusiveness of Jacob is the more haunting because Woolf models his life on that of her brother Thoby, who had died of typhoid aged 26.

Jacob is destined to be killed in the First World War, but the novel requires you to infer the reason for his room’s emptiness at its end. The only reference to the war comes prior to this, when Jacob’s mother is half-woken by a distant sound of artillery, “as if nocturnal women were beating great carpets”.

The obliquity is characteristic of modernist writing. Mugs’ guides to modernism will tell you that it was produced by shattering historical events, but these are only glanced at in the literature itself. At the end of Ulysses, Joyce had printed the places in which and the dates between which the novel was written: “Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914-1921.” Like Eliot, he was a self-imposed exile, cut off from the political upheavals in Ireland. While he was re-imagining one day in Dublin a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, there was a civil war in his homeland.The Waste Land” was written in the wake of the First World War, yet does not mention it. The fragmentation of civilisation, culture and literature are enacted in the poem, but not historically explained.

Eliot provides the reader with “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”. He described Joyce’s “parallel use of [Homer’s] Odyssey” as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”. “The Waste Land” was another way. Eliot’s own semi-helpful notes would indicate, say, how Dante and Baudelaire and Webster had been raided for the utterly memorable passage on the commuters flowing over London Bridge (“so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many”). But equally audacious was the transformation into poetry of a spouse’s depressive twitchiness (“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me./Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak”) or some cruelly knowing women’s pub-chat (“It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said”), interrupted by a publican who sounds like Death himself (“HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME”).

Eliot liked to talk of the poet’s “impersonality”; “The Waste Land” is given over to voices quoted or overheard. In his first draft, Eliot had written passages connecting his fragments; Pound ruthlessly and brilliantly excised these. Yet, for all its heterogeneity, it is utterly controlled, with a matchless ear for lines that lodge in the memory. It was an instant critical success. Even those who were baffled by it often acknowledged its significance. As one reviewer put it: “To confess… that I don’t understand Mr Eliot’s poem seems to me to be no more a criticism of it than to say that (in the same sense) I don’t understand Shakespeare’s sonnets.” For other poets, it was, said Pound, “about enough to make the rest of us shut up shop”.

The experiments of 1922 still reverberate. Eliot knew the significance of the year. In his Selected Poems, he had “1922” printed between the title and the epigraph. “The Waste Land” was a poem of its time, renewing literature as civilisation faltered. A staple of a literary education, its originality is still alive on the page and is read with a kind of delighted puzzlement by each new generation of students. Phrases from the poem have seared themselves into the language. “April is the cruellest month”, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”, “Unreal city”. Woolf’s most successful and influential attempts to enact the workings of consciousness, Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), were yet to come. Both were influenced and liberated by Ulysses, a demonstration of what fiction could do to match experience. A hundred years on, Ulysses is still the successful non plus ultra of fictional innovation and its example inescapable. Some literary novelists – Eimear McBride, Will Self, Lucy Ellmann (whose father was Joyce’s biographer) – have adopted the Joycean method. The circadian pattern of Ulysses has been followed by many. Its wider influence, even on those who have not read it, is more profound. After Ulysses, the moment-by-moment unfolding of subjective experience became the proper subject of fiction. Joyce showed generations of writers (for screen as well as page) how to give shape to all the not-to-be-spoken stuff of a person’s thoughts. By formal audacity alone, his novel had made an ordinary day into a modern epic.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London

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This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under