Who Made It New?

‘Samuel Beckett: Double Profile’; drawing by Avigdor Arikha, 1971

After rambling through Kierkegaard, Cervantes, Rabelais, Martin Luther, Wordsworth, Napoleon, Caspar David Friedrich, Dürer, Melville, Cézanne, Picasso, Eliot, Stevens, Beckett, Kafka, Mallarmé, Greek tragedy, and the nouveau roman, the British critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici finally arrives at the question posed by the title of his book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?

There are some unkind words about Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (“this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”), which have caused a small scandal in the British press, and a long expression of dismay at the successful reception of Irène Némirovsky’s “run-of-the-mill, middlebrow narrative” Suite Française:

…The question is not why she should have written as she did, but what has happened to our culture that serious and intelligent and well-read reviewers, not to speak of prize-winning novelists and distinguished biographers, many of whom have studied the poems of Eliot or the novels of Virginia Woolf at university, should so betray their calling as to go into ecstasies over books like Némirovsky’s while, in their lifetimes and now after their deaths, ignoring the work of novelists like Claude Simon, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard and Gert Hofmann.

Convoluted phrasing aside, the sentence, like many in the book, immediately raises objections: Hofmann may indeed be unjustly neglected, but Perec and Bernhard certainly aren’t, and it’s doubtful that anyone considers Némirovsky their equal—or rather, they occupy entirely different critical universes. Simon, though now rarely read, did, after all, win a Nobel Prize.

This sentence is then followed by: “To answer this would require a sociologist, perhaps, and another book.” If Josipovici had displayed a sense of humor elsewhere, one might have thought that this was a Modernist joke: the book we thought we were reading is not the book we are reading, but actually another book that someone someday may write.

As it is, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is barely about whatever happened to Modernism. The presumed—and presumably decadent—present day implied by the title is dispatched in only a few pages: Modernism is in a bad way because some British “realist” novelists whom Josipovici dislikes are wildly overpraised and win prizes; Adam Thirlwell, the British novelist, misunderstands the nature of reality in Modernism; British literary [his italics] festivals feature television stars; and—a bizarre grievance—British chain bookstores are now offering three books for the price of two. Apart from Philip Roth and a passing reference to Toni Morrison—both are dismissed—no living non-British writers (or artists or composers) are mentioned. In short, after excoriating the provinciality of the British intelligentsia, Josipovici claims that an international movement like Modernism is in the doldrums because of the mediocrity of a certain segment of literary life in Britain.

The perennial laments about the sorry state of contemporary culture tend to…

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