If novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici has, for much of his career, written from the literary margin, it is because he has deliberately positioned himself as an anathema to the English establishment. He has pledged himself with monomaniacal devotion to arguing the cause of modernism, a form he would have us all recognize as the only viable mode of aesthetic expression. As anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary British fiction will have noticed, his case for modernism hasn’t exactly prevailed, so Josipovici laid the groundwork for his new book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by making a lot of noise. He attacked Amis. He attacked Barnes. He attacked the prim insularity of Englishness as an existential category. His book has provoked the same kind of reckoning in the British literary press as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom recently has on American shores. It’s a rare book that demands a culture take stock of its own presumptions, and for that Josipovici deserves no small amount of credit. But a book that throws down this kind of gauntlet asks to be held to the highest standard, and this is where Josipovici begins to run into trouble.
For a book of 187 pages, What Ever Happened to Modernism? covers formidable ground. Josipovici’s claim, in broad strokes, is that modernism is less a historically contingent cultural development than an instantiation of artistic self-awareness that appears in flashes, like Halley’s comet, every so many years across the Western canon. Don Quixote is as much a modernist work as The Waste Land, Caspar David Friedrich no less a modernist visionary than Marcel Duchamp. What a modernist work achieves is the recognition of its own inherent limits; the artist—be he a writer, a painter, a composer—comes up against the constraints of form in a way that produces not merely a structural conundrum but a real, soul-shattering anxiety. The danger of assigning dates to modernism, Josipovici warns, “is that Modernism is thereby turned into a style, like Mannerism or Impressionism, and into a period in art history, like the Augustan or the Victorian age, and therefore as something that can be clearly defined and is safely behind us.” The years 1850 to 1950, often considered the brackets of the modernist period, reduce modernism to simply a phase in the inexorable logic of the dialectic, a call and response to previous artistic currents that will in turn engender its own questions for rebuttal. Which is, of course, exactly what postmodernism attempts, except that to Josipovici, there are no cultural possibilities after modernism.
Dispensing with chronological markers liberates modernism from the shackles of history, and frees Josipovici to claim in turn that the subsequent tides of culture are all moot. This willingness to cast modernism as a living problem, rather than a closed movement, is the book’s most interesting achievement, not least because Josipovici has the erudition to make his case compellingly. He flits between mediums, languages, and periods with the ease of an armchair traveler, making the occasional slip-ups forgivable (what is Joseph Stiglitz doing photographing Duchamp’s first readymade, circa 1917?). There’s something admirable in the boldness with which Josipovici writes his own canon. He dismisses Dickens, Balzac, and any number of others for their refusal to question their own artistic authority (“No novelist has profited more richly than Dickens from not examining what went on in his own mind,” he quotes John Bayley) and draws some unlikely writers into the modernist fold: Wordsworth, Golding, and Spark rank among Josipovici’s anointed. Few critics have this kind of singular vision of what, artistically speaking, constitutes the good.
While declaring modernism the apotheosis of art may reestablish its relevance to contemporary literary culture, it also gets Josipovici stuck in a logical quagmire of his own making: what is modernist is good, and what is good is modernist. The only standing measure of a work’s value is how it navigates the problem of its own status as art. There’s no turning back from Mallarmé, Kafka, and Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos’s crises over the mediated nature of language:
[T]hey all testified to their revulsion at having, for the sake of something called art, to repeat the confused and half-thought-through actions of their predecessors, which, far from shedding light on the human condition, only muddied the waters. When Lord Chandos confessed to being moved only by the unnamed or the barely nameable, an abandoned harrow, a dog in the sun, a cripple, he touched unwittingly on the antidote to this, 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 the Modernist enterprise.
To Josipovici, any writer who doesn’t enact this problem is working under the auspices of a willful delusion.
In this respect, Kierkegaard emerges as one of Josipovici’s heroes; Kierkegaard recognizes that artistic authority has no source other than the artist himself, and that this loss of an objective reality against which to measure art, once realized, can never be undone. “This dialectical movement,” Josipovici writes approvingly, “is typical of Kierkegaard, and of Modernism.” In an age of disenchantment, “only those who do not understand what 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.” There’s a tension in Josipovici’s temporal logic that he never resolves: he seems to insist, paradoxically, on both the necessity of the dialectic and on the reality of its end, in the form of modernism. Is all that remains for the novel to sound, again and again, the alarm bells of its own fakery?
What Ever Happened to Modernism? makes detours into art and music, but at its core, it is a history of the novel, and of its failures in particular. Josipovici singles out the novel as the medium most suited to the challenges of modernism, and reserves no small dose of venom for novelists who refuse to meet its demands head-on. Most of said novelists, incidentally, are English: “[T]hough . . . we are not dealing here with a purely English phenomenon, there is a greater resistance to or lack of awareness of Modernism right across the board in England than there is in the rest of Europe and even in America.” Josipovici, though born in France, has lived in England since 1956, and his hatred for the cultural tendencies of his adopted country seems to extend beyond boundaries of reason.
Josipovici’s critical voice throughout What Ever Happened to Modernism? borders on smug—the book’s founding axiom is that he knows more than you, and in all fairness, he probably does. He writes from the vantage of his own presumed exceptionality. While he can get away with this when explaining, lucidly and concisely, why the Protestant Reformation created the conditions of disenchantment necessary to modernism, it serves him less well when, in the book’s last chapters, he shifts into a polemical register. One gets the sense that Josipovici’s entire 150-page detour into the emergence of modernism is simply a prelude to the book he really wants to write: an attack on the complacency of the English literary establishment.
Josipovici deploys the royal we with a frequency most writers reserve for, say, adjectives. And it is not a conspiratorial we. He writes with an imperiousness by which “we” only includes “me” insofar as it conveniences him to claim the imprimatur of collective wisdom. To prove his point about the banality of contemporary literature, Josipovici quotes blocks of text “chosen at random” from novels by “living writers” whom he can’t be bothered to name. These works recount “anecdotes which may or may not hold our attention but to which we certainly would not want to return, since they lack that sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words, which we experience when reading Proust or James or Robbe-Grillet.” Having given us the measure of our tastes, Josipovici shows his hand: one of these “anecdotes” is by Philip Roth. “But surely, you may say, Philip Roth is an experimental writer! He writes novels in which a character named Philip Roth appears; he writes novels with titles like The Counterlife, which play with the notion of possible other worlds. Is that not what Modernism is about?” You are only a part of the “we” until you are stupid.
These block quotes are a cheap mode of criticism. It’s impossible to read Josipovici’s random selections from McEwan et al. (the Booker winner Josipovici declines to name is McEwan) and not feel the gnawing of shame:
‘What is it, Mary?’ Colin said, and reached for her hand. She shrank away, but her eyes were on him, and he shivered as he fumbled for his shirt and stood up. They faced each other across the empty bed. ‘You’ve had a bad fright,’ Colin said and began to edge round towards her. Mary nodded and moved towards the French window that gave onto the balcony.
Is The Comfort of Strangers, which I remember poring over in a single sitting in a squalid noodle shop in midtown, really so vacant? Here is a selection, similarly chosen at random, from one of Josipovici’s own novels:
Whenever Goldberg thought of his friend Isaac Sinclair, his heart grew heavy. A promising, if somewhat sentimental poet, Sinclair had earned his living as tutor to several aristocratic youths. His fiery temper and passion for perfection had not been exactly what most parents were looking for, and he had frequently been asked to move on.
What distinguishes the writers Josipovici admires from the pale imitations of today, he would have us believe, is the urgency of their writing. Spark and Borges and Beckett found a way out of Kierkegaard’s censure against conferring arbitrary meaning on a narrative by drawing authority from the very fact of their self-doubt. “They have done so not, of course, because they wanted to be on the right side of eminent philosophers,” Josipovici writes, “but because, in a sense, their life depended on it.” Here Josipovici falls straight into the hands of modernism’s own self-mythologizing. It’s not that he’s making it up, exactly—McEwan’s famed drunken lunches with Amis and Hitchens do indeed sound like more fun than Kafka’s slow tubercular death in a Viennese sanatorium—but that he falls prey to the easy romance of the tortured artist.
There’s a kind of facile ethics at work in Josipovici’s claim that there is, in the breakthroughs of modernism, Truth at stake:
Modernist writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. Not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the reality of the world, as uncomprehending critics charge them, but, on the contrary, out of a profound sense that they will only be able to speak the truth about the world if the bad faith of the novel, its inevitable production of plot and meaning, is acknowledged and, somehow, ‘placed.’
An act of imagination, in other words, must assert its provenance in the imagination to escape it. Josipovici would have art be, perpetually, like a Beckett play—stuck in the feedback loop of its own innate circularity. The novel must launch itself from the zero hour of its own paradoxical status. Everything else is a lie.
These themes are not new to Josipovici, and What Ever Happened to Modernism? has all the grouchiness of a dexterous thinker hardening into dogma. The World and the Book (1971) similarly takes up the place of modernism in contemporary literary culture, but without the residual bitterness. Even then, he was frustrated with British parochialism, but he was content to lift a scolding finger instead of yelling. And it turns out that when one isn’t reading from the hunched posture of the berated, it’s possible to see why Josipovici might rank in the company of his subjects.
Josipovici’s aim in The World and the Book is to read books “as they ask to be read,” and what follows is a gentle corrective to critics who get bogged down in an analytical apparatus of their own making, who let a preconceived notion of what fiction should do provide the skeleton of their reading: “To study the modern novel, as most Anglo-Saxon critics have done, in the very terms of the traditional novel, is to condemn oneself to superficiality from the start.” His solution is to enter into a kind of communion with the novel, to work outwards from its own internal concerns and architecture. It’s the same project as What Ever Happened to Modernism?, but carried out by methodical close reading, as opposed to fly-by accusations of writing in bad faith.
The difference is that there’s a “why”: that the way the modern novel positions itself critically with respect to “tradition”—that is, chiefly, realism—makes it impossible to analyze using “traditional” tools. “Once we . . . re-examine literary history in the light of modernism we have to acknowledge that the old ways of accounting for those works of fiction which do not conform to the norms of the ‘realist’ novel are totally inadequate,” he contends. (In The World and the Book, modernism has yet to graduate to a capital M.)
To say that we are reading modern novels incorrectly is very different from—and more persuasive than—saying all novels should, accordingly, be modernist. There are multiple traditions at work in the literary canon, and modernism isn’t the only one with a living inheritance from which to draw. Should it be? Josipovici grounds his case for the primacy of modernism in its ostensible moral superiority, its formal honesty. What separates the modernist novel is the “shock administered to the reader when the work reveals itself as a ‘pure object’”—that is, in accordance with his title, as a book, and not actually the world. “The final meaning of a Robbe-Grillet novel (or, as we have seen, of a Nabokov or a Golding or a Bellow novel),” he writes, “resides in the effect which this discovery has upon us, an effect far greater than that which a novel by George Eliot or Tolstoy could have, since it is a shock administered to that most precious part of ourselves, our pride or inherent narcissism.” The sensation Josipovici describes here may be a powerful one, but the notion that it should fall to the novel to jolt us, over and over, out of the reality of our solipsism is itself the worst form of solipsism.
Can the explosive feeling of being transported by a book into the world really only be achieved by the revelation of form? What happens when we turn a novel’s last page and pick up a new book? Must we go back into ourselves in order to again be rooted out? Josipovici’s self-referential vision of what it is to read dooms us to begin always with the self. It implies that the imagination turns endlessly inward. Call me an idealist, but I think novels by Eliot and Tolstoy administer a shock by daring to traffic with the world in a way that doesn’t take our narcissism as a given. Josipovici’s claim that the “classic” novel “confuses possibility and actuality” seems to me a fundamental misreading of the prerogatives of realism. He writes as if its only ambition were mimetic, as if the realist novel—from the nineteenth-century to the present—aspires to nothing more than the collapse of all distinction between art and world. Quite the contrary. It’s by producing an apparently real, but sensorily heightened world that novelists like Tolstoy and his brethren explore this very boundary. In returning from the novel to the real, we come away with a sense of what could be: how the world would look if we forced ourselves into contact with all the subtleties and subtexts that are actually at play.
The best contemporary purveyors of this tradition—McEwan, Franzen, Zadie Smith, Joseph O’Neill, among others—aren’t blind to the challenges of modernism so much as they are interested in a different set of problems, in particular the disjunction between the capaciousness of classical realism and the atomization of modern life. Even J.M. Coetzee, perhaps the best author working in Josipovici’s preferred mold (though he goes undiscussed) owes at least as much to the moralism of Graham Greene as he does the radical metafiction of Beckett and, yes, Philip Roth. These are ambitious authors who operate at the behest of a different imperative than the one Josipovici admires, and with whom, McEwan excepted, he refuses to engage because they have no place in his vendetta against his own narrow version of Englishness. Josipovici’s insistence on reading them through the lens of modernism—or not reading them, as the case may be—stands in violation of his own first principle: he doesn’t read them as they ask to be read. But their relative unconcern with the legacy of modernism need not be taken as a failure of literature altogether. Josipovici’s mistake is to conflate the two.