First off, I haven't finished reading this book, yet... BUT... I'm going to write this review now... out of sheer excitement, frankly... I've been trying to understand why the books I really "connect" with were all written a long time ago (Beckett, Woolf, Mansfield etc.) and the contemporary English novel (with its parochial concerns and insipid language) leaves me disappointed and so, very, very bored (except for A L Kennedy and Ballard... and maybe, just maybe, a couple more). From the first quote in this book, I think I got the seed of an answer. The point is that the great works of Modernism were not an attempt to shock genteel, bourgeois society. Neither were they written by overly sensitive writers, obsessed with subjectivity, who spent far too long navel-gazing... They had a real and valid concern about their engagement with the world. This book looks like it'll construct a decent argument of how we pick up where Modernism left off, without descending into post-modernism, or even worse, the dull, dull writing that, each year, Booker judges serve up as the cream of English writing. If you've ever been disappointed by contemporary writing and want to experience the excitement you felt when you first read The Trial or Nausea or The Waves, you HAVE to read this book. Last thing, the fact that there are so many other positive reviews (press and from other amazon readers) makes me think I'm not alone in my frustrations... that, at least, is something :)
To me this book was a breath of fresh air, which I bought after reading short extracts from it in " The Irish Times ". I could never understand how Ian McEwan, a hero of mine in 1976 with " First Love, Last Rites ", had descended into a writing form that is so smug, self-satisfied and ' middle-England ', that I had come to the point that trying to read him was so depressing I had to give up, after the research-heavy, detail-obsessed, self-referential " Atonement ", which seemed to me to be two separate books stuck together with the most tenuous of links. I couldn't understand how his popularity had appeared to increase in inverse relation to the quality of his writing, and Josipovici's book for the first time articulated my doubts. Not least about " What Ever Happened To Modernism " is the enjoyment of reading the petty. petulant and sometimes spiteful reviews it has generated from the island-nation minds resentful of the opinions of some jumped-up foreigner to the prize-winning pride of their contemporary literature. That isn't the main focus of the book, though, and it covers such an interesting range of artists, many of whom I knew little or nothing about, that it is an education in itself. After reading Josipovici for the first time - and he's worth reading repeatedly - I went on to read, among others, Marcel Proust's " A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu ", the most rewarding reading experience of my life.
For Gabriel Josipovici modernism is a state of anxiety due to not being able to go on using language in the way it was used by Balzac and Dickens. He endorses Barthes' remark that `to be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore'. He identifies with Hugo von Hofmannnsthal whose whole body puts him on guard against each word. Josipovici claims the pre-modern novel confuses possibility and actuality by producing the impression in the reader that he or she understands something when the writer who cares for reality should be making the reader grasp the distance that separates us from others. For Josipovici modernism relieves anxiety with the detached gaze; and ushers in post-modern inter-textuality and difference.
He recognises that Wordsworth rejected pre-modern genres but his discussion of Wordsworth is perverse because it ignores Wordsworth's participation in, rather detachment from, events. In an attempt to appropriate `A Slumber did my Spirit seal ...' he claims that Wordsworth's slumber enables the poet to grasp who Lucy is. But the poem represents a waking and a turn in Wordsworth's perspective that cannot be accommodated by either pre-modern authorship, or modern detachment.
Josipovici admires Claude Simon, Cezanne and Picasso because, unlike the `passé simple' of pre-modern art there are multiple elements and no one element, e.g. background or foreground, is more important than another. Josipovici says the depth/movement of multiple voices that is lacking in monologue can be found in Eliot's The Waste Land and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Josipovici recognises that they have moved from resemblance/illustration/mediation to the ceaseless play of meaning. But what he means by play is the detachment of the flâneur. Simon, Cezanne and Picasso were not participants; they found life in detached spectacles.
An alternative to be the flâneur of the nouveau roman is an author who feels and responds to the power of events. There will be those who feel that Josipovici's omission of any comment on writers such as D H Lawrence is a sign that he is less interested in the play of meaning than in a celebration of his heroes.
Except for a few dry and academic sections, I was intrigued and delighted by this book until I got to page 124:
"There is no clearer indication that in the field of literature as well as in the fine arts, Picasso's instinctive aversion to both abstraction and the mass-produced was the result of his correct intuition as to where lay the health of art and the true destiny of Modernism."
This is just plain dumb. Perhaps the author has never seen good abstract art or simply doesn't understand it? How can one not acknowledge the depth, vitality and importance of what, say, Rothko, Mondrian, Malevich, Pollock or Albers achieved in their crucial roles within the history of recent Modernism? In this book, the author, in my opinion, should have refrained from commenting on visual art entirely and focused solely on Literature, his chosen medium. Reading the above quote was a shock to read and as shocking as if I had just read a fundamentalist or anti-semitic remark. Leading up to this, the book had wonderful insights about the 'real' as containing criticality and transcendence. Thinking back though I had a funny feeling that something wasn't quite right, much like the first time you hear Monty Python's Lumberjack Song. The first misstep you ignore, then cannot. The author's repeated praise of and bias towards Picasso gets tedious. Picasso is an artist, in my opinion, with limited depth and consequence, more and more evident as years go by. Is he even mentioned much in art schools anymore since the 1970's? The author could have used a different artist of the time to express the same points better. Perhaps Matisse?
In the end, I will take the good with the bad. In this book, the good is liberating, but the bad, in it's few places represents a misguided and uninformed perception about the place of modern art and literature, both figurative and abstract, within the history of Modernism. It is surprising that so many of the most important points in the book are abstract in themselves, yet abstract art and literature are dismissed. What is also lacking is an understanding of the relationship between the figurative and the abstract which should perhaps be a qualification for writing a book such as this. For me, the book is a compromised and disappointed opportunity to remind and clarify what the arts are really for.
To understand what is lacking in the book I suggest that the author take his own advice from his quote from Kierkegaard: "To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it." (pg. 69)
I was also confused by this on page 156:
"It is now accepted as probable that it was our human ancestors who put paid to Neanderthal Man." I don't know if this is a typo or fancy English, but what does it mean?