A Literary Revolution

Kafka knew that ‘to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done.’

The French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) once said that he could never write a novel because sooner or later he would find himself setting down such a sentence as “The marquise went out at five o’clock.” Why did the marquise leave at five? he wondered. Why not at six or seven? In fact, why did she go out at all? And why a “marquise”? Why not a duchess or a washerwoman? The arbitrary nature of narrative devices irked Valéry; they pretended to an authority that was, at bottom, a sham. They invited us to treat mere fancy as hard fact.

Virginia Woolf

In “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” Valéry’s sample sentence serves the English novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici as both a chapter title and a running motif. For, as he notes, the problem of our punctual marquise strikes at the heart of conventional fiction. A novel, to be compelling, has to have plot, dramatic incident and narrative momentum, but these are the very elements that are lacking in our daily lives, confused and messy as they are. It is the distinction of Modernism, Mr. Josipovici argues, to acknowledge that the stories we tell ourselves—even as we strive to fill them with coherence, dramatic logic and ultimate meaning—are hopelessly flawed, incomplete and contradictory.

Modernism, as conventionally understood, was an early 20th- century movement that affected all the arts; it simultaneously broke with tradition and drew self-consciously on tradition. The great modernist figures include Picasso and Francis Bacon in painting and Stravinsky and Schoenberg in music, all of whom figure in Mr. Josipovici’s account. But his main concern is with literature: Proust, Kafka, Beckett, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Mann, among a host of others. Mr. Josipovici, it should be said, is a champion of Modernism. He sees it as a valuable tradition in its own right, one that is not merely endangered but virtually extinct, especially in the smug, ultra-Philistine realm of contemporary British fiction.

Charles Dickens

In Mr. Josipovici’s view, Modernism is something at once vast and intimate, encompassing “nothing less than life itself.” Modernism isn’t a style, he says, but “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities.” Even more portentously, Modernism is a kind of anguished repudiation—”a response to the simplifications of the self and of life that Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them.” Its intimacy lies in the stubborn effort, especially on the part of Modernist novelists, to render those little hesitations, those sieges of doubt, those a nxious questionings that beset us even as we attempt to construct some credible narrative of our lives. The true Modernist narrative always involves a disrupted momentum.

Ezra Pound

Mr. Josipovici does not provide a simple, broadly applicable definition of Modernism—it would be hard to do in any case—but he does something better. He takes Modernism out of its traditionally limited time-frame and sets it within a long historical arc that begins in the 16th century. By the use of apt and often brilliant quotations from a wide range of authors—from Homer to Irène Némirovsky—he allows the contours of his subject to emerge. This approach does more justice to the complexity of Modernism than any capsule account could provide. And because Mr. Josipovici is himself an accomplished novelist, he knows how to craft a strong narrative, not unworthy in fact of those blinkered conventional novelists he finds so outmoded. The story he tells is unexpectedly compelling.

The origins of Modernism lie in disillusion or, more precisely, in what the German poet Friedrich Schiller called “the disenchantment of the world.” Unfortunately, Mr. Josipovici, who likes to quote his authors in the original, gets it wrong here, giving Schiller’s phrase as “die Entziehung der Welt,” or “the withdrawal of the world,” instead of the correct “die Entzauberung der Welt.” But this slip doesn’t impair his argument.

T. S. Eliot

In the mid-16th century, the old certainties, the immemorial rituals, the hierarchies of the heavens and earth seemed to crumble. As Mr. Josipovici explains, Schiller’s phrase was taken up early in the 20th century by the sociologist Max Weber, who used it to explain the radical transformation of the world that occurred after the Protestant Reformation, from a divinely appointed cosmos, alive with numinous presences, to a bustling marketplace of enterprise, production and rampant individualism.

In such a disenchanted world, the world we inhabit now, it’s not only pointless but dishonest to write or paint or compose in traditional ways, as though nothing had changed. The old human narrative has been fatally disrupted; it is false to pretend otherwise. Modernism is the anguished response—for Mr. Josipovici, the only valid response—to this irreparable fracture of the world and the self.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Honoré Balzac.

He begins his account with some astute observations on two famous engravings by Albrecht Dürer (his “Melancholia I” and “St. Jerome in his Study” from 1514). Dürer intended the engravings to be complementary; but in fact, as Mr. Josipovici argues, “Melancholia,” with its shadows and dozing bats, has come to depict our present state, while “St. Jerome” in its sunny serenity reveals all that we—we moderns—have lost. Clearly for Mr. Josipovici the shattering of former certainties, despite the gains it offers in self-knowledge, has left us bereft. For Dürer, the calm, orderly world of the saint was as real, as true, as the dark, jagged realm of melancholy. For the Modernist sensibility, however, serenity is no longer possible; truth, if it can be glimpsed at all, is invariably agitated.

Tracing Modernism’s long arc, Mr. Josipovici moves on to Rabelais and Cervantes, two 16th-century artists who “knew in their bones that they were living through a period of decisive change.” They, and such disparate 19th-century figures as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and—perhaps surprisingly—the English poet William Wordsworth, are the true precursors of Modernism, Mr. Josipovici argues. He is particularly good on Wordsworth, showing how the poet in his deepest moments of communion with nature remained “a stranger in the landscape.”

Thomas Mann

With the 20th century and his most cherished authors and artists, Mr. Josipovici comes into his own. Whether discussing a key passage in Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus” or quoting from an interview with the painter Francis Bacon, whether drawing on Rosalind Krauss’s studies of Picasso or on Marcel Duchamp’s comments on his own work, he is both passionate and lucid. If he is notably perceptive on such authors as Borges and Kafka, he is equally fine on less familiar authors, such as Claude Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist whom he cites to brilliant effect. Thus, in “The Flanders Road,” Simon evokes the German invasion of France in 1940, depicting the “civilians who doggedly went on wandering about in incomprehensible fashion, dragging a battered suitcase after them or pushing one of those children’s perambulators filled with vague belongings.” In such a scene, the pathos is one with the absurdity, and we feel the force of a difficult truth.

Marcel Proust

Mr. Josipovici has a gift for sweeping the reader along, but even so, reservations arise. One of the least attractive aspects of literary Modernism has been its penchant for casting what it dislikes into outer darkness. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were especially skilled at such excommunicatory tosses. I’ve known poets who refuse to read Virgil or Milton because of the belittling judgments of the high modernists; and the judgments are always couched as a polarity: Homer but not Virgil, Marvell but not Milton. Mr. Josipovici betrays something of this doctrinaire tendency; he is scornful of Anthony Powell and V.S. Naipaul, both of whom he dismisses with a quip. But Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” and Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas” are great 20th-century novels.

Franz Kafka

Mr. Josipovici faults Philip Roth’s fiction for lacking “that sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words, which we experience when reading Proust or James.” Then he imagines his reader objecting that “Roth is an experimental writer!” and “Is that not what Modernism is about?” Here Mr. Josipovici displays a peevish side, remarking: “If that is your reaction you have not really been taking in what I have been saying.” Well, maybe. He’s baffled by intelligent reviewers, “many of whom have studied the poems of Eliot or the novels of Virginia Woolf,” who “betray their calling” by praising what he considers second-rate work—not just Roth but Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Salman Rushdie.

Mr. Josipovici does not countenance the possibility that in the works of the Modernist writers, artists and composers he most admires there lay hidden some dimly willed element that led to their supersession. The caustic self-doubt, and doubt of the world, that drove their genius may have proved corrosive over time, diluting the severe standards they applied to art. He quotes Marcel Duchamp, for example, without acknowledging that his wry and cynical playfulness has led, decades later, to the trivial shenanigans of such poseurs as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Samuel Beckett

Perhaps the true question raised by “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” is about the way in which art grapples with reality. The 19th-century novelists created characters and set them within a narrative; this was an “arbitrary” process: David Copperfield and Père Goriot are as contrived as the marquise who went out at five. Balzac carried a cane inscribed with the motto “I smash all obstacles.” Kafka noted that he himself should have a cane inscribed “All obstacles smash me.” Kafka knew that, as Mr. Josipovici puts it, “to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done.”

For Mr. Josipovici, Modernism is ultimately an ethical proposition, and a stern one at that. He says that traditional fiction deludes us, encouraging us in the conviction that “we ourselves will never die”; it “actively prevents us from having a realistic attitude to ourselves and the world.” This probably isn’t Mr. Josipovici’s final view—he hedges a bit here—but he does fault the conventional novel for giving the reader “the impression that he or she understands something.”

Paul Valery

Is it really a false impression when we feel, after reading “War and Peace,” that we have a sense of what it must have been like to wander, amid the smoke and cries of the wounded, across the battlefield of Borodino with the baffled Pierre? Mr. Josipovici is harsh on realism in fiction—he thinks it a dangerous illusion—and yet we still respond to fictional replications of the world, not only in its inmost contradictions but in the sheer sensual beauty of its surfaces. We still take pleasure in make-believe and in the telling of tales, even tall ones, if only because they tell us something true about ourselves, a truth that perhaps we can grasp through no other medium.

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London.


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