The death of enchantment

What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by Gabriel Josipovici

It’s perhaps fitting that in sitting down to write this review I found myself struggling with how to start and with questions about my authority to say anything.

There are three broad strands in What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici writes a brief history of modernism (though he wouldn’t thank me for saying that). He makes an argument for why modernism is not a historical event or movement but an ongoing challenge to art (he might thank me for that). Finally he offers a critique of contemporary English literary culture (which got his book more discussed than read, but then that’s true of so many books).

I … want to argue that Modernism needs to be understood … as the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.

A few years back I had a fondness for popular science books. Among my favourite authors in that field was John Gribbin. Gribbin writes about complex concepts in modern physics, but he does so in a hugely accessible way. He knows his stuff, but he can explain it to laymen. If you’re interested in understanding the rudiments of quantum physics and lack the relevant background Gribbin’s your man.

I read a fair few Gribbin books, and thanks to him have a reasonable grasp (as reasonable as I probably can have anyway) of what’s going on in the world of modern cosmology. Even so, I couldn’t pick up a text aimed at actual physicists and have a hope of understanding much beyond the commas.

What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a work of literary criticism. Literary criticism is a bit like economics. If we read and enjoy literature then literary criticism can seem intuitive, obvious even. In the same way because we all, with varying success, balance our bank accounts economics can seem intuitive, obvious even. The truth is though that I, and probably most people reading this blog, lack the background and training to engage in literary criticism at the academic level.

That’s relevant to a key problem with this book. What is it? Populist or academic? It’s a bit of both, and that raises difficulties which I’ll return to.

Finally, I should note that in order to talk about the book I’ll have to summarise its nearly 200 pages of closely argued text in my own words. That means I can’t do the argument justice. In paraphrasing it I diminish it. To properly capture what Josipovici says I would have to write it out again verbatim.

For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the “disenchantment of the world”. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws (yes, I did just gloss over about 400 years there).

This is absolutely critical to everything that follows. The death of enchantment does not mean that people were happy in the middle ages but disillusioned thereafter. It is not a personal loss of enchantment. The point is that the European concept of the world changed from it being a place in which the natural and supernatural were different facets of the same reality to a world in which the natural and the supernatural were firmly separated (and in which the supernatural could therefore potentially be discarded entirely).

With the death of enchantment comes the death of meaning. Before the disenchantment of the world it is possible to speak with authority, because the world has meaning from which authority can be derived. After that disenchantment there is no longer such an authority. The only authority that exists is that which we assert.

For Josipovici this raises questions about the authority of the artist. In particular, the authority of the author. If the world no longer grants authority then where does it come from? What right has the author to assert that what they write is in any sense true? Worse, if the world is without meaning is not the act of writing a novel itself a form of lie about the world, an imposition of narrative where none in fact exists?

Josipovici explores this in part by a frankly fascinating discussion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. He focuses particularly on the way through the foreword and other authorial insertions Cervantes undermines the reliability of his own work and on how the text is no more reliable than Don Quixote’s perceptions within it.

Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative. And it dramatises the way we as readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world. It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment when the world is growing disenchanted. We need enchantment and are prepared to pay good money to get it. The profound irony of Don Quixote is this: that we as we read about the hero’s obvious delusions we believe that we are more realistic about the world than he is, less enchanted, whereas we are of course ourselves in that very moment caught in Cervantes’ web and enchanted by his tale.

Historically, BC (before Cervantes) the artist could appeal to tradition. The death of enchantment though means that tradition can no longer be trusted. It is founded on nothing beyond itself. The author can of course create their own tradition, can create their own reality, but in doing so they create narrative and so write something which has no real relation to the actual world around us.

In this sense then modernism is an attempt to address the problem faced by art in seeking to represent a world that is independent of humanity. When the world was created in our image we could trust it in some sense to reflect us. If it is not, we cannot, and tools of art such as perspective, harmony, narrative, may all be nothing but our own inventions; not mirrors at all.

In our modern age, an age without access to the transcendental and therefore without any sure guide, an age of geniuses but no apostles, only those who do not understand what has happened will imagine that they can give their lives (and their works) a shape and therefore a meaning; the shape and meaning conferred by an ending.

What does all this mean though for the author? If you are driven to write because writing is intrinsic to your very nature, but you no longer believe in tradition and are troubled by the implications of the act of writing, where does that leave you? The problem of modernism is the problem of the artist who no longer believes they have authority but yet must create art.

We are now in a position to understand a little better the nature of the anxieties that gripped the writers of our opening examples. What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannstahl, Kafka and Beckets is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world – imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have – and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.

Modernism then is “… the effort, through art, to recognise that which will fit into no system, no story, that which resolutely refuses to be turned into art. That effort is at the heart of modernism.” This is the essence of Josipovici’s argument.

Modernist fiction is fiction which seeks to engage not only with reality but also to engage with its own reality. If the only possible authority is that which the author establishes for themselves then the work itself must establish that authority and in order to do so must recognise its own existence. That means that in order to be realistic, it must acknowledge its own artificiality and therefore the fact that it is not real.

Or perhaps not. Josipovici spends a fair while attacking “false friends” of modernism. Various critics and writers who while advocating it and defending it have missed the point and so diminished it. This raises again of course a question of authority. What authority does Josipovici have to assert his interpretation over those others he regards as mistaken? Naturally, only that he establishes through his arguments through the course of his book.

That takes me back to something I mentioned early on – the issue of whether this is a populist or an academic book. Josipovici backs his arguments through frequent references to Hegel and Kierkegaard, neither of whom I’ve read. In a very real sense I’m simply not qualified to debate the points he raises. This isn’t though an academic text. Stylistically it feels aimed very much at me. It makes its arguments in lay terms but by reference to texts that most laymen won’t be familiar with.

The problem is that Josipovici is making a case for modernist literature as a valid and relevant literary form. He argues that it is a form which is superior to the novels currently enjoying success among the English speaking literary readership. To do so he must write at a populist level, but his argument is not populist and understanding it takes real work. As I write this I’m unsure that I have understood it (but am sure some would say I haven’t). This may not be an avoidable problem, but it could be that modernism needs a John Gribbin and Josipovici is by nature a physicist, not a populariser of physics.

I’m conscious that I’ve made this book sound terribly dry. That’s unfair because it’s not. Josipovici ranges widely in his use of examples, moving within the space of a page from Mann to Stravinsky to Picasso. He quotes even more than I have here, and his quotes are well chosen. He examines the poetry of Wordsworth and makes an excellent case for it as being more exciting, more innovative than in all honesty I had ever recognised. He is excited by modernism, and he communicates that. I finished the book with a fresh (if possibly wrong) understanding of modernism and a renewed desire to engage with it.

There’s a lot in here and I can only touch on a fraction of it in this blog entry. Josipovici talks about Greek drama and its focus on action (praxis) and social context rather than the individual. He made me reconsider my views on some of Picasso’s work and has me reaching for Stravinsky recordings my wife owns that I hadn’t previously even bothered to listen to. At times reading it is invigorating.

Where Josipovici is less successful is where he criticises others. To his credit he doesn’t hide behind generalities. He names authors that he regards as having missed the point of the challenge raised by modernism and who he sees as producing works that are flat, unexciting, mere anecdote. He doesn’t always persuade me on them though.

Among his examples of writers of slightly dull realist fiction (which he would note is nothing of the kind) is Anthony Powell. I have though read the entirety of A Dance to the Music of Time and to read it as purely a story, as an exercise in narrative, is rather to miss the point.

Powell is telling a story, yes, but he’s also exploring issues of the nature of personal identity, the degree to which the individual is an extension of a social context rather than an atomic unit. Powell is quite consciously looking back himself to Greek drama and to questions of what it means to have free will (arguably Nick Jenkins lacks free will, Widmerpool possesses it and this is not necessarily to his advantage).

Put bluntly, I don’t agree with Josipovici on Powell. Equally, I don’t agree that the problem with McEwan is that he is a stylistically conservative writer who writes supposedly realist novels that are in fact suffused with a wholly fictitious meaning. Actually, as I write that (and I’ll let it stand) I’m persuaded that’s precisely the problem with McEwan. He writes ostensibly realist novels that are in fact so slavishly plot driven that they become more fantastic than anything Tolkien wrote.

The irony here is that I only heard about What Ever Happened to Modernism? because of a handful of pages where Josipovici criticises certain members of the current literary canon. That got his book discussed, but it’s a very small part of it. Josipovici’s main interest is in arguing for modernism, not against what we have instead (though he is absolutely scathing about Nemirovsky, querying why a fairly middlebrow novelist is being hailed as a major literary discovery).

A little controversy is nothing to be afraid of. To argue for something is inevitably to argue against something else and I like that Josipovici names names. It also doesn’t hurt that I instinctively agree with him. I do think current Anglo-American publishing is deeply conservative and that we lack in a formally unexciting period.

… ours is an age which, while being deeply suspicious of the ‘pretentious’, worships the serious and the ‘profound’, so that large novels about massacres in Rwanda or Bosnia, or historical novels with a ‘majestic sweep’, are automatically considered more worthy of attention than the novels of, say, P.G. Wodehouse or Robert Pinget.

Quite. Still, was there ever a time that wasn’t true? Did The Great Gatsby outsell The Green Hat? I doubt it (though if it did that analogy will look pretty silly). Modernism is on Josipovici’s account a challenge, and the challenging will always be less popular. We most of us read for enjoyment, perhaps for escapism, and narrative is inherently enjoyable. It’s a lie, but it’s a beautiful lie.

I opened unsure how to start, and I close unsure how to finish. Josipovici ends by recognising that he has himself no intrinsic authority. He recognises that it could be argued that all this is just a matter of taste, though he hopes he’s shown it’s not that simple. He expects the argument to continue, and I expect he’s right. Like him, I’m glad that’s true. There are no endings in art, no final summations, so it’s probably right that I don’t really have one here either.

Here is a (predictably acid) review by Philip Hensher, here a (predictably glowing) one by Tom McCarthy. There’s also an excellent blog entry on the book by Danny S Byrne here which I strongly recommend. As I wrote this I was given the link to this blog entry which I have yet to properly engage with (partly as I didn’t want it to influence my own thoughts while I was still crystallising them) but which looks exceptionally well informed.


Filed under Josipovici, Gabriel, Modernist fiction

49 responses to “The death of enchantment

  1. I have read a few reviews of this book now and after the first I thought I don’t want to read it but after the third I ordered it, just because I’m in a spirit of contradiction. Many critics are critics, some like Josipovici are writers too, whenever a writer criticizes other writers I’m very suspicious. I also wonder where does postmodernism come in? I thought it was a given that modernism is dead. Usually modernism is a movement against the conventional and post-modernism built a bridge back to the conventional.
    I need to read it to form a proper opinion. Have you read any of his novels? Does he do what he preaches?

  2. Thanks for linking to my review. I won’t respond except to minor issues. You quote the passage about “large novels [that] are automatically considered more worthy of attention than the novels of, say, P.G. Wodehouse or Robert Pinget” and don’t disagree, but then ask “Still, was there ever a time that wasn’t true? Did The Great Gatsby outsell The Green Hat?”. But Josipovici’s point isn’t about sales, it’s about “attention”. And this follows into Caroline’s worry: he is less criticising writers than those critics who claims such writers as McEwan and Roth are somehow as great as the writers we recognise as at the pinnacle of literary achievement. Also Caroline, as you’ll find out, his contention is that Modernism is not dead at all but a virus at the heart of western culture. The book is a radical revision of our understanding of the term, which so befuddled Hensher that he failed to summarise it.

  3. Nice review Max, and many thanks for the plug. I know what you mean about GJ’s ‘pitch’, and Tom McCarthy raises it in his review as his only reservation (though TM, being devilishly erudite, thought that if anything it was pitched too low). There’s an occasional tension between the apparent desire to translate the thesis into layman’s terms on the one hand, and on the other doing so using a range of references with which the layman is highly unlikely to be familiar (though he may be best advised to use it as a life-changingly insprational reading list). Did GJ intend this to be a personal and subjective account aimed at the general reader, or as a fully-fledged and academically robust reconsideration of our understanding of modernism? (in which case you sense he may have diluted the academic force of his argument somewhat in the interests of bringing it to a wider audience).

    I think the answer is a bit of both, which he discusses in the introduction, though I don’t have it to hand. That said – and being more widely read in GJ than I am Steve will be able to confirm – I think writing in an accessible manner about high-falutin thinkers and ideas is kind of his style. I’m thinking particularly of The World and the Book, which I remember reading at university and finding to be a superbly cogent exploration of the sort of ideas that often encourage the most impenetrable prolix in the hands of others. Even in academic mode his thought tends to be fairly neat.

  4. Caroline,

    I think the idea that modernism is dead is precisely what Josipovici wishes to address. In his view, as Stephen says, it can’t be dead. It’s an ongoing problem in art that English letters is refusing to recognise.

    Regarding his novels, I just read Everything Passes. In fact, I read it twice in a row. He practices what he preaches. I was blown away by it. I found it invigorating in fact. It very much follows what he argues for here and interestingly contains within itself criticisms too of his own approach. I’ll write about it soon.

  5. Stephen, thanks for the comment.

    Looking at what I wrote again one part sticks out to me as wrong. The modernist novel needn’t necessarily recognise its own artificiality. I wonder now if I misunderstood or if I disagree, but that doesn’t seem to me to allow for Rhys (or indeed Proust).

    When I think of modernism I think of a kind of psychological impressionism. Prose which reflects the fractured nature of consciousness. I think Josipovici would know what I mean, but I’m not sure I found that in his book.

    Anyway, leaving that aside (and responses on major issues, particularly errors, are always welcome).

    Regarding the point about popularity versus attention you’re quite correct so thanks for that. That said, I think the point still holds (just not that example). When did modernist fiction get more critical attention than naturalist/realist fiction? Isn’t this Tom McCarthy’s point in part that he’s spoken of in various interviews? In art the critics understand the challenge of modernism, in literature it’s far from clear if they ever have.

    Regarding whether Josipovici is criticising the critics or the writers you’re correct that his main target is the critics, but that’s unavoidably also a critique of the authors. He’s not saying McEwan is a great writer but you critics laud him without understanding why he is great. He’s saying as I read him you critics are failing because you are hailing McEwan as a great writer when in fact he is not a great writer. The critics may be the main recipient, but if a school’s inspector criticised a schoolteacher saying “you say Max is brilliant but he isn’t and that reflects poorly on your judgement as a teacher” sure it’s the teacher being criticised but as Max I think I could feel I was being judged a little myself too.

  6. Danny,

    I did wonder who the real audience was. When he speaks to Hegel and Kierkegaard I’m forced to rely on his authority as a literary academic since I have no personal way (presently) of knowing if he’s fairly representing their views or not. That’s problematic in a way.

    His peers though, the literary establishment such as it is, responded in a way that with many made me question if they’d even read his book. I saw several comments suggesting it was a case of “don’t read their [McEwan, Amis et al) books, read mine” but that’s profoundly missing the point.

    So, in part he’s speaking to people like me who are ill equipped to understand him but would like to, in part to those equipped to understand him but who do not wish to and in part to a (I suspect very small) audience of those both equipped and willing to understand most of whom probably already agree.

    In part I wonder if he is the audience. Writing down one’s ideas can help clarify them, as every blogger knows. And as Rabelais apparently knew the act of writing is a form of absurdity since one writes for an unknown audience. Perhaps Josipovici wrote it because he had to.

    I will be returning to your blog entry in a day or two. I couldn’t comment properly before as I hadn’t read the book.

  7. Great stuff. Philip Hensher and Tom McCarthy have both written awful books for my money but I’d have to back McCarthy on this one.

    And try reading Solar. It’s exceptionally competent, it’s often quite funny, some lovely writing…lifeless.

    Any argument on this subject prompts an immediate reference to 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray.

  8. Alasdair Gray, and for that matter Will Self, Russell Hoban and Haruki Murakami (not that he’s British) are notably lacking from Josipovici’s analysis. It’s not all Amis all the time out there.

    Which McCarthy did you not rate? I loved his Remainder. It’s one of those books that continues to resonate with me long after finishing it (particularly the final images, which for obvious reasons of spoilers I won’t discuss here).

    Solar I probably will read, despite my dislike of McEwan. I work in that industry so how could I not read it? Still, he’s such a plot driven writer. If I want plot driven books I’d rather read Mickey Spillane, who frankly is better at it.

    I’m not really surprised by Hensher’s hostility. Partly because he seems reflexively hostile to a great many things, and partly because Josipovici’s thesis calls the value of Hensher’s art into question. How could Hensher respond but negatively? In a way it’s mischevious to ask him to review it. A cheap way for a newspaper to generate some controversy.

  9. Thanks for the summary, that’s something I’ll never read. It’s out-of-reach for my peasant mind.

    “If we read and enjoy literature then literary criticism can seem intuitive, obvious even.” I don’t recognise me in this. I’ve always hated cutting hair in small pieces and that’s what literary criticism is to me. (highly scandalous thought, I know. Academic readers and literature students are going to boo me) And I’ve always loved books – and very literary ones sometimes.

  10. Out of interest possibly, from seeing your blog I don’t think it would be out of reach.

    In all honesty having now read his Everything Passes I’d recommend that instead. He makes the same points but in the context of a well written (if stylistically a bit challenging) novel. I’m glad I read this, but Everything Passes is better.

    I know what you mean about criticism. It’s never tempted me for that reason. The risk of killing the work seems too high, the need to engage with matters beyond the work too great (such as biographical details of the author – of no interest to me).

  11. Actually Max, I think you explained this very well (in spite of your reservations that you did not). Sounds like an intense read, and funnily enough someone I know is currently reading this too.

    I saw you next reading choices upstairs. Can’t miss on either of those.

  12. It’s the Huysmans, with the Carr hopefully to follow.

  13. I’m glad to hear he writes well and am now looking forward to read this book and you review of the novel.

  14. Thanks, Max. I very much appreciated this post — I won’t be reading the book but I certainly appreciated the summary (and I accept your warnings that these are your interpretations, not necessarily what the author was trying to say).

    I just finished Easter Parade by Richard Yates and find the contrast with Josipovici’s agrument interesting. I think Yates is brilliant (and I also quite like McEwan). The reason that I like them is because I find they set themselves the task of examing their era and portraying it.

    Modernism seems to want to not only duck that question, but pretend that it doesn’t count. I guess from one point of view, that’s fine — as a reader, I find it to be very self-indulgent — indeed, selfish to the extreme. GJ may go back decades to find his precedence and I can understand that. My suggestion would be that the world his “modernists” want to create is dependent on their deliberate decision to ignore and deflate what surrounds them.

    I can certainly appreciate why they do that and it is a legitimate choice. It also explains to me why I find their fiction so wanting as a reader — they want to write about a world that has no relation to the one that I live in. I suspect they would find that description a positive reflection — as a reader, I don’t. I’m afraid I admire the authors GJ trashes more useful than the ones that he likes.

  15. Max, in reply to me you said: “When I think of modernism I think of a kind of psychological impressionism. Prose which reflects the fractured nature of consciousness. I think Josipovici would know what I mean, but I’m not sure I found that in his book.”

    Yes, he’d know, but this is a definition limited to the traditional understanding of modernism as a range of techniques – stream-of-consciousness being the most illustrious – rather than a symptom of something larger, precisely what he summarises in the book (the disenchantment of the world).

    In fact, your understanding that prose “reflects” something is itself part of this lack so profound that we can’t see beyond it and have to rely on the echoes in another’s prose (something Proust writes about, as described in Josipovici’s essay “Vibrant Spaces” on the Bible, in “The Singer on the Shore”). In What Ever… he doesn’t foreground any technique because each solution has to be unique. I think it sets authors struggling to find their voice free to discover their own uniqueness, hence the despair with critics who laud bestselling genre authors (McEwan included) without recognising how limited and limiting their examples are.

    Emma: TS Eliot said criticism is inevitable as breathing, so you shouldn’t hold yours. There are some critics who can enrich your life, not just your reading: Josipovici is definitely one of these, as is Maurice Blanchot. Borges is another. Your thought is scandalous only for how self-destructive it is. What Ever Happened to Modernism? is out in paperback soon, so order it to try.

  16. Steve
    actually after posting my comment it occurred to me that as a reader I’m probably the M Jourdain of literary criticism anyway. I’m interested in the context of a book and sometimes about the biography of the writer. But to caricature to the extreme I don’t care about alliterations in sentences. Maybe I only saw the boring side of lit crit.

    Ps: I don’t think I could read that in English and I’m not sure there’s a paperback edition in French. (So far)

  17. I’m glad it was useful Kevin.

    While I don’t share your appreciation of McEwan, I do share that of Yates and I’ve of course enjoyed other novelists who are highly traditional in many respects, Toibin for example, and others who take on the task of describing their time and their society.

    I do find modernist fiction interesting and often extremely refreshing. I enjoy grappilng with the prose, trying to work out what the writer is saying and why they’re saying it as they are. Josipovici’s thesis does resonate with me.

    Even so, I wouldn’t want that to be the whole of the world. Story is powerful and while it is necessarily untrue and implies order where none exists (creates order where none exists), storytelling is intrinsic to us as a species. Vikram Seth’s Love and Longing in Bombay, for example, is in part a celebration of the power of storytelling and I wouldn’t wish that power reduced or avoided.

    What’s interesting is that in Everything Changes, which I’ve yet to write up, GJ does address this. He provides a counterpoint to his own argument and asks whether the truth he holds up as being correct is a truth that can be lived by, if it is a useful truth.

    In fairness to GJ I don’t think he wants those writers he argues have been overated chucked out of bookshops and discarded in favour of his own heroes. I think it’s subtler than that. He wants modernism taken seriously. He wants it not to be ignored but recognised as the challenge it is.

    If part of that recognition involves rejecting it or finding it wanting so it goes, but that’s still a serious response. I think what pains GJ is not disagreement, but indifference. That said, I’m potentially ascribing motive to a man I’ve never met and that’s deeply iffy territory. Steve would know far better than I would.

  18. Steve,

    At risk of paddling beyond my depth, are the techniques not a way of addressing the larger issue? The disenchantment is the source of modernism, but the techniques are then what characterises it.

    Otherwise, is there not a risk of redefining modernism so that we get into no true Scotsman territory? I’ve seen SF fans argue that Star Wars is not an SF film because it addresses none of the questions which the SF genre seeks to explore. What use though is a definition which excludes that which everyone would instinctively include within it?

    Still, I take your point on not foregrounding technique because every answer has to be unique. If that’s so though how can we talk of modernist fiction at all? If every answer is unique, in what sense can there be a modernist novel?

    Perhaps though that’s the point. Not that there should be a modernist novel, but that the challenge of modernism is that each author should find their own voice and not that which a rootless tradition and market forces bid them to have. Can we be sure though that McEwan’s voice is not his true voice? What gives us the right to say that’s not a genuine expression of his art?

    Perhaps if we said to McEwan – I’m asking you to be yourself. We’d get the reply:
    -That’s what I am, Ian says. That’s me.

  19. Kevin,

    It occurs to me that both Proust and Rhys use their fiction to explore wider points about their era, particularly Proust.

    In fact, a criticism I’ve seen a few times of Proust (and one that always persuades me the critic in question hasn’t actually read anything by him) is that Proust is a mere chronicler of the life of upper-middle and upper class Parisians of his day. I think that’s profoundly wrong to the extent it’s claimed to be all he does but it’s certainly part of what he does.

  20. Max: Given your response to my first comment, I am inclined to make some changes to my far too strong original statements.

    If we take this as a case of both/and rather than either/or, I can fully enrol in most of the argument you phrased in your post. I have seen enough productions of Waiting for Godot (which I am assuming qualifies as modernist in GJ’s terms), that I can understand why it definitely has value — although it is not something that appeals to me as a steady diet.
    Your Proust reference is also valuable. I agree that he is a chronicler, but that merely sets the stage — it is the way that he explores life on that stage that is the real strength of his work. And I would assume that when you add in the speculation that Gilberte and Albertine may actualy be Gilbert and Albert, I’d assumed that moves Proust into GJ territory (and, yes, I accept there are many other reasons to do the same thing).
    As is so true of many genres (SF certainly comes to mind), their advocates tend to argue the case so strongly that they seem to disparage others — which gets my back up. McEwan and Toibin may well not be modernist authors — they happen to be very good contemporary ones. Whatever criticism the modernists may have of them (and it may be quite valid), both certainly give me pause to think about the era in which I live.

  21. Max, to answer the question: “If every answer is unique, in what sense can there be a modernist novel?” – There can’t, of course. Except, if novels are to be important to us as mortals thrown into an ocean of uncertainty, and so more than ephemeral commodities for an entertainment industry, then they are by definition modernist. In this sense the term “modernist” is itself the symptom of the genre-fication of art caused by those who have embraced or denied disenchantment. This is also why I would resist defining modernism as a range of stylistic techniques. There are superficially conventional novelists who nevertheless are modernist in character: Aharon Appelfeld for one. Josipovici’s post-war British heroes Golding and Spark are hardly radicals either.

    Emma: your “extreme caricature” is extreme in the manner of calling the surface of the Sun “ice cold”. There is no analysis of “alliterations in sentences” or anything like it in Josipovici’s or Blanchot’s literary critical writings. You are confusing them with dry academic works. Try reading the former’s essay on Borges:

  22. Russell Hoban is a great shout: Riddley Walker perhaps conveniently slipping GJ’s attention…

    I am perhaps the only person in the world that gave up on Remainder as I found it deeply annoying. I know, it’s me. I must have another go at some point.

    On Solar: you will no doubt find it accomplished and technically, on a sentence level, well drawn. But I’d hazard a guess that you won’t find it anything other than superficially adept.

    Hensher is very much of the old school, classically equipped to a degree but basically drab. ‘In a way it’s mischevious to ask him to review it. A cheap way for a newspaper to generate some controversy.’ – Precisely.

  23. Steve,
    Thank you very much for the link. I printed the article and tried to read it. I’m afraid I don’t understand it, sorry. English isn’t my native language, it certainly doesn’t help. But mostly I don’t have the academic and cultural background necessary to understand such a work.
    I researched Blanchot on Wikipedia (in French) and even in French I don’t get what he means. I guess I’m more a reader for Jude the Obscur than for Thomas l’obscur.
    So, that leads me back to my first comment: Josipovici is most probably out-of-reach for me. Perhaps I’m missing something there but one has to live with their own limits.

  24. Lee, I don’t think Russell Hoban has slipped from Josipovici’s attention. I know Remainder hasn’t. A lot of people have responded with names of writers they think he would approve, but What Ever… doesn’t mention many of those he has praised highly elsewhere but don’t get a mention in the book. Off the top of my head: Rosalind Belben, Jacques Roubaud, Bernard Malamud, JM Coetzee. You have to make an argument why Riddley Walker deserves attention.

    Max: the will have to go for Alasdair Gray, Will Self and Murakami. Fine, highly enjoyable writers I’m sure (well, not Self, whose fiction I think is awful).

  25. Steve,

    “if novels are to be important to us as mortals thrown into an ocean of uncertainty, and so more than ephemeral commodities for an entertainment industry, then they are by definition modernist.”

    The problem is that these notions are highly subjective, so your definition of modernism becomes dependent upon that which you designate as important or not important. Hence the danger of opening up a definition of modernism so broad that it becomes a value judgement rather than a descriptive term. We may agree that great literature, regardless of period, style, technique etc, shares a certain analytical and self-reflective engagement (whether overt or otherwise) with the relation between the act of writing and the world, but to use ‘modernism’ as an omnibus term because of that – and despite many subtle and not-so-subtle differences in these works – risks stripping it of its useful descriptive function. Not that i’m arguing against Josipovici’s theory of disenchantment, which I think is an enlightening one that can be traced (as he does) through great art of many periods. Just that the leap from this to suggesting that any novel (or indeed piece of art) that demonstrates an analytical engagement with reality and its own relationship to it is ‘modernist’, changes it from being a desciptive term with a practical application to being a synonym for (a given person’s subjective definition of) ‘great/important art’. Ulysses, Madame Bovary, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex and Don Quixote may share a certain profundity stemming from the ‘disenchanted’ way that they engage with reality, but does a term which groups them all together, despite their manifold differences, actually have any practical critical use? According to your definition, can there be any such thing as bad modernist art, or does bad modernism become an oxymoron?

  26. Steve: I haven’t the time to do Riddley Walker justice here, but it’s a masterpiece, is the opposite of comfortable, staid, run-of-the-mill prose, is written entirely in a brilliantly employed vernacular, is thoroughly modern and is probably unique.

    I agree wholeheartedly on Self’s fiction. His journalism of late is of a similar standard unfortunately, but that’s normally his strong suit.

  27. “does bad modernism become an oxymoron?”

    No. Josipovici uses “false friends” of modernism, and I suppose there is false modernism too, which would be bad. My answer takes in Lee’s summary of Riddley Walker. A book isn’t modernisn *because* it is written in “a brilliantly employed vernacular”, though it’s certainly true that one of the greatest examples of modernism – Dante’s Commedia – does exactly that. So I suppose it is a value judgement rather than a description.

    Part of the problem with this debate is the deep-seated assumption of value itself: that novels are intrinsically good, hence the rhetorical questions about genre and the equality of Booker Prize potboilers and Richard & Judy penny dreadfuls. But the kind of novels I value are frequently destructive, negative and despairing. To me they feel liberating rather than controlling; they “drive the contradictions (of writing) out into the open” Josipovici says. Thomas Bernhard is a good example. Middlebrow populists often say how “screamingly funny” he is, usually as a sop to the Reading for Pleasure angle, but he’s also incredibly dark AT THE SAME TIME. There is no resting point. It’s similar with Proust and the uncertainty of waking that opens the ISOLT, and later in the moments that undermine Marcel’s assumptions about Albertine. Bernhard and Proust are incomparable but they both begin in an existential darkness, beginning from the beginning and not resting on genre to guarantee anything. Each has a unique voice, so it’s clearer.

    Bad modernism would then be books, say, alluding to the features of Proust’s writing (long, rich, thoughtful sentences) and then assumed to be as worthy as Proust (Javier Marias is a prime example) yet completely drained of the anxiety, urgency and promise of release that makes ISOLT such a joyful read and Marias merely admirable and diverting.

  28. When one reads a dark and destructive novel, does not not still ultimately read it for a form of pleasure? If they feel liberating that would suggest pleasure certainly. Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open is in many ways a profoundly disturbing novel which can be unpleasant to read both at the level of its imagery and at the far more profound level of its implications about the futility of existence and the impossibility of meaning. For all that though why does anyone read it save that they find something ultimately rewarding in engaging with something that dark.

    I think Danny captures my wider concern though. If the term modernism gets too broad what does it mean? More to the point, does the term remain useful?

    If Dante is modernist, and say Ann Quin is modernist, what does calling them that tell us that takes us forward? Danny said this very well so I shan’t rehash his point.

    I’m not sure where the idea that novels are intrinsically good comes from, in this debate anyway. I see that in popular cutlure. At least Dan Brown gets people reading etc. To be honest though I don’t much care if people are reading (nor do I object to them reading Dan Brown). People should do what they wish which may or may not include reading. The novel is not an educational tool. It is art. Art has no necessary function beyond itself.

    Shame I can’t spell mischievous.

  29. Pingback: I only write what I feel has to be written. | Pechorin’s Journal

  30. Sure, I understand that GJ’s whole argument stems from the recognition that it isn’t a particular set of stylistic features, like being written in “a brilliantly employed vernacular”/ stream of consciousness/fragmented narrative and so on, that makes something modernism (as he calls it). I think the argument that a philosophical backbone of disenchantment runs through the greatest art of several historical ages is a profound contribution to our understanding of the theory and practice of literature. And in the vast majority of cases the literature GJ likes is also the literature I like, so in a sense you’re both preaching to the choir.

    However, I’m still slightly uneasy at the way he appropriates the term ‘modernism’ itself (which, like it or not, has an array of connotations relating to a certain historical period) and in doing so adds a certain absolutism to an essential feature that he wishes to highlight within great literature/art in general. I find it perfectly convincing that there is a transcendent common thread running from Dante to Proust, Beckett and beyond, but to blanket them under the terms of the same literary movement risks overstating their similarity at the expense of some equally important differences. ‘Modernism’ also evokes certain historical circumstances (world war, technology, urbanization, Freudianism, the death of god, a reaction against realism etc etc) that are not relevant to Dante but are very much relevant to Joyce and so on, profound affinities notwithstanding. These contexts may be secondary to the fundamental way they approach the problem of representation, but transplanting the term ‘modernism’ bulldozes them altogether, which I find slightly reductive.

  31. Nicely put Danny. I also found the thesis on the death of enchantment extremely persuasive. It’s using the same term for Dante and Joyce that troubles me more.

    I also wasn’t wholly sure about the false friends concept. Again, why is their take on modernism less valid? Has GJ established via his argument sufficient authority to categorise the categorisation of others?

    Danny, on that point, there is a real sense that GJ is simply making an argument here. Yes, he hopes to persuade, but certainly none of the points I’m making are ones he would be unaware of as possible counters. Is there a risk of making his position seem more absolute than in fact it is? Is he not in part making a plea not to be agreed with, but for the issue to be recognised at all?

  32. No, I certainly don’t think any of these points are beyond the intellectual scope of Gabriel Josipovici! I think the context he writes within – a conservative culture that has all but written of modernism as a pretentious continental flash in the pan that has now been replaced by the empirical status quo – is important because a major part of his agenda is clearly making people realise that the issues that these authors were concerned with run through the history of literature and are as relevant now as ever.

  33. By coincidence, Josipovici has written an essay “Dante as Modernist” (Text & Voice). OK, so his broadening of the term may not “take us forward” but for me it takes us back to a time when it was too soon to label, and a book appears that wounds and stabs us, affects us like a disaster, that grieves us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.

  34. Danny, absolutely. These issues remain relevant and I’m largely persuaded by GJ’s thesis (and I don’t for a moment think any points raised here are beyond him, that would be silly). Partly what I like is that he leaves open the window of change. Where we are now may not be where we stay. Other approaches, many other approaches, are possible.

    That’s frankly refreshing. Kevin mentioned Colm Toibin. As a rule I’m not a huge fan of politely well crafted fiction, but I think Toibin is brilliant. The sheer quality of his craft is such that theory becomes irrelevant in the face of the magnificent practice.

    Toibin though is Toibin. I think his voice is his, it couldn’t otherwise be so powerful, but it’s again just one approach among many. There can be a tendency to elevate some approaches over others, naturalism as somehow natural. That I disagree with. It’s a point Chabon’s been making in his move to genre. He argues in part that genre is as reasonable a reaction to the world as naturalism, and I think that must be right if genre is the best means of expressing your own voice.

    Of course the problem there is that genre is a tradition and therefore one could argue (as Docx has) that writing within genre necessarily means circumscribing what could be said to what it is permissible within the genre to say. I think Docx is wrong though, and the adoption of a tradition is as meaningful a choice as any other if the structure of that tradition provides a framework on which to build your own thoughts.

    If each writer must decide for themselves how to say that which they must say, that must leave room for Toibin, for Chabon, as well as for Joyce or Proust. The point isn’t that anything goes, but simply that there is no default. I’m quite possibly departing GJ here but I would say Toibin is absolutely right for Toibin, but he is not necessarily a model for any other writer to follow. McEwan’s writing likely is a genuine expression of his talent, but that does not mean writing like McEwan is a sensible goal.

    I’m possibly starting to drift but that’s my problem with Banks. Banks’ talent in my view is not for classic literary fiction. He’s a gifted writer who writes in what are essentially two genres. Science fiction and a certain form of Anglo-American novel. The problem with the latter is it shouldn’t be a genre, but for him I think it is (as I would suggest it is for Docx actually, and Chabon, but not Toibin). Banks is a gifted writer of science fiction. On the evidence of his art I would argue that’s the true expression of his voice, not his literary novels which on his own account he only wrote because he couldn’t get published in SF.

  35. Pingback: Literature and me: nursing the enchantment « Book Around The Corner

  36. Fisher

    You’ve perhaps touched upon an important thought… that the likes of modernism are reacting to the deliberately and ever increasing (and arguably contrived) staidness of realism by adopting a sworn enemy: genre.

    Readers familiar with McEwan can probably recall the bitter scorn of a quite-typical James Wood review denouncing one of Ian’s books (I can’t recall which) as a “thriller” (in fact, readers familiar with Wood are probably well aware of the connotation he installs in the word “thriller”). Or perhaps we can all recall Roth denouncing some genre writers as “not writers”. Realism, nowadays, it seems, defines itself by negation. It isn’t genre, it isn’t entertainment, it isn’t political, it isn’t sociological, it isn’t metaphorical, it isn’t anything but a sardonic sneer at what is isn’t (the heralded epitome of realism, Madam Bovary, is, after all, something of an anti-romance novel). Modernism then might be evolving to the biggest middle finger it can muster towards this artificially Jamesian snobbery: genre.

    The previously mentioned Chabon is hardly alone here (although I don’t consider The Amazing Adventures to a genre novel, even though many claim it so)… Harold Bloom is right to call Blood Meridian the “ultimate Western”, and that Big Lebowski redo that Pynchon wrote a year or two ago was always referred to as a detective novel. One of the most contemporary books I’ve experienced recently and would be so inclined to call modernist at heart is The Illegal Spy Novel (seriously, serious readers, read it), which is as much as a spy novel as McCarthy’s books are Westerns or Thrillers or Horrors or whatever whoever wants to call them.

  37. Fisher, from what I’ve read of him so far I do essentially regard McCarthy as a genre writer. I don’t see that though as being a damning indictment though, or any sort of indictment.

    I don’t blame authors for realism’s dominance. Authors write what they write. It sells or doesn’t. They do the best they can with the talent they have to say whatever they have to say.

    If blame falls anywhere it’s in the space between newspapers and their readers for me. In the UK the book pages get ever thinner, the reviews get shorter and the review subjects are often drearily obvious. That creates a staidness, but if readers wanted more they’d vote with their wallets and editors would increase the book pages again. They’ve shrunk because they’re a minority interest.

    The other place I’d lay blame, if I felt like doing so, would be the space between publishers and readers. Publishers are conservative, yes, but they’re also businesses. If the public were clamouring for challenging fiction publishers would deliver it. Now, to some extent they shape public taste by choosing what to offer (just like newspapers both shape public taste and are shaped by it). It’s not wholly their fault though.

    I don’t believe in the death of the novel. I do think though that the Anglo-American novel isn’t presently in particularly great shape, and I think that’s because of a conservative (small C, this isn’t a political point) culture which leads to publishers and newspapers avoiding risk and readers not asking for risk to be taken.

    The rigidification of genre is part of that conservatism. If I’m the sort of person who enjoys reading fat fantasy novels I can read just fat fantasy novels and never be troubled by anything else. If I’m the sort of person who enjoys quiet emotional devastation I can get that and only that. Narrowcasting. In a way this is most obvious in genre, the hard lines we have today between fantasy and sf wouldn’t have been nearly so obvious in say the 1920s, but it’s not restricted to genre.

    It’s also why in the UK much fiction is now marketed at women as if women’s fiction were a genre. I’m not sure how it could be, but the pastel covers, fonts, bylines, they all combine to create an impression that once again if you’re the sort of person who likes this sort of book this is the sort of book you’ll like.

    One point Josipovici makes is that none of this is new. He’s of course right. Just one example, when McIllvanney wrote the Laidlaw novels in the 1970s he was criticised for what was perceived as a move from literary fiction to crime. His view was that he was writing the same fiction he always had, these ones just had a detective in them. Still, he got categorised. He’s now held up as a forerunner of “tartan noir”, a made-up genre if ever there was one. None of that is McIllvanney’s fault. He just wrote books. It’s the fault if it’s anyone’s of publishers, newspapers and readers.

  38. I hadn’t Ronak. Thank you.

  39. I’m a little late with my comment, which should be right back at the beginning, before my floundering had become so pronounced.

    I’m with Emma, at least part of the way. I don’t believe I could comprehend a book like this, ever, but for me it remains an aspiration, if an unrealistic one. Despite the mental torment which would inevitably result, I am almost tempted to try. Should that happen I will hold you responsible, Max!

    Your review was neither dry, nor did it confer dryness. And I began to believe that I understood something. Fortunately, following up with the discussion in the comments deflated my ego to more manageable proportions.

  40. Pingback: What Ever Happened Indeed « Max Dunbar

  41. It’s a difficult conversation for me too Sarah though one I enjoy. Steve and Danny both know the subject better than I do and all too often I found that while I was mustering my thoughts Danny had already eloquently expressed them (for which I was quite grateful really).

    The real point of a book like this for lay readers like us is to serve as a form of inspiration. Because of this there are books I will likely now read that I likely otherwise would not have read. That’s why I read it and it’s in that regard that I’d probably recommend it.

    I didn’t agree with all of it and there were definitely times I had to pay some very close attention to it, but that’s part of the rewards. Also, as I’ve said with other books, it has the merit of brevity. If you hate it, at least you don’t hate it for long.

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  47. Steve Dempsey

    Bumped into your review quite by chance over here:

  48. Weird. Nice to see it remembered though. I spent a fair while on this piece.

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