Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Simon Turner - On Josipovici and Welton

Okay, so I admit it: I was drawn to Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?, at least in part, by virtue of the controversy surrounding its initial publication in hardback. You must remember the headlines? ‘Notable Critic and Novelist Calls Out Some of the Most Feted Names in Contemporary Literature as the Mealy-Mouthed Also Rans They Truly Are, Whose Work is Only Upheld by a Timid And Critically Conservative Broadsheet Reviewing Culture That’s Afraid of Any and All Forms of Experimentation, and Prefer Quasi-Intellectual Pap to the Hard Dynamics of the Modernist Novel or the Narrative Honesty and Joy of Genre Fiction’. Or something similar. Basically, Josipovici had the temerity to call it as he saw it, and as he saw it, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes were not all they were cracked up to be; that their predominance on the contemporary literary scene spoke volumes about the aesthetically insular character of post-war British letters; and that there was a world of exciting experimentation just waiting to be discovered if only people were prepared to dig a little in the Modernist archives. As usual, the press took a little titbit – what amounted to a single paragraph in one chapter of a densely-argued two hundred page critical work – and blew it out of all proportion: literature’s only news if someone’s nose has been bloodied in the process, as we all know. When I first opened the book – I picked up the paperback copy a few days ago – I made a paltry show of reading it in a linear fashion, but my curiosity was piqued and I jumped ahead to the offending passage that got the broadsheets so worked up. Turns out that Josipovici’s polemic was nowhere near as fiery as I’d been led to expect, that in fact all he was saying was that he’d initially enjoyed the early novels of Amis and Barnes and their contemporaries, but felt their work had ossified into a series of stylistic tics and pitfalls, cynical gestures indicative of a closing of the English mind, that refused to see the full possibilities inherent in the language and form of the novel as it’s been passed down to us in the wake of Modernism and its children. He actually says much the same thing about Alain Robbe-Grillet a couple of chapters beforehand – the early work’s good, but after that abstraction takes hold and the novels lose their dynamism and tension, leaving the reader effectively sitting at the edge of a conversation in a language he has no knowledge of, and in the outcome of which he has no stake – but no-one got in a stink over that because no-one (aside from Josipovici and, I’m assuming, some other academics) really reads Robbe-Grillet any more, and the headlines are concomitantly less compelling. Besides anything else, Josipovici – I’m going to start calling him ‘Jo’ if that’s okay with you, my putative reader – is far tougher on Irene Nemirovsky and the critical raptures that broadsheet critics worked themselves up into over Suite Francaise, but, again, it’s a less attention grabbing moment because Jo’s critique of Nemirovsky is couched in some close reading that a lazy journalist might actually have to wade through if he was going to pull a juicy story from the critical wreckage. But that’s never going to happen.

Did I enjoy it? Yes and no. On the one hand, I love Jo’s style: it’s punchy and fluid and dense and inviting all at once, quite at odds with what one usually expects of critical material that’s been put out by a university press (I’ve read so many bad pieces of academic writing over the years that part of me – the cynical part – thinks that at base academia might be a vast and elaborate, almost Byzantine system designed to suck the last trembling globules of joy out of the very subjects it purports to celebrate and study; but then the non-cynical part of my brain kicks in and explains, in calm and measured tones, that that’s utter hooey, and that in spite of three years undergraduate and five years postgraduate study, I’ve entered something closely resembling adulthood with my capacity for literary joy and enthusiasm almost completely intact), which strength is also the book’s primary weakness. Joey Boy doesn’t slow down, really, unless he’s picking apart the nuances of a specific text – he’s especially good on Wordsworth, whom he rescues from the twin hells of critical over-praise and over-dismissal, placing his work squarely in the proto-Modernist camp, which is a bold and interesting move: Coleridge might have been a more obvious choice, which is why Jo’s so much fun to read – so that there’s a tendency for sweeping generalisations to go unglossed, or for bold pronouncements to remain unsupported by corroborating evidence (yes, Gabe, genres do make an appeal to the authority of tradition, which is all well and good when a genre’s established, but what about at the point of its birth? What tradition was Wilkie Collins appealing to when he was writing The Moonstone, or HG Wells when he started work on The Invisible Man? [1]), whilst secondary critical material that Jo’s enthusiastic about can’t be introduced without some kind of adjectival modifier signalling how great he thinks x’s essay on y’s late paintings is. Something of the breathlessness of the over-eager undergrad enters into Jo’s debate at these points, but it’s a small quibble, really. It’s more than made up for by the insights and arguments he puts forward elsewhere: I particular liked the notion that Modernism is really the sound of art ‘coming into consciousness’ of its own limitations. I’ve not heard it put better, frankly, and such a formulation rescues Modernism, as Jo sets out to do, from being read too rigidly as an aesthetic or historical moment. Modernism, Jo seems to be saying, will always be with us in some way, and has been with us for much longer than we might readily be able to admit or understand.

One of the most eye-catching pronouncements in Josipovici’s whistle-stop tour of Modernism and its meanings is the argument that Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear deserve a place in a history of poetic Modernism that’s at least the equal to the position afforded Mallarme and Baudelaire. It’s eye-catching not because I disagree – far from it: I’d go further and say that Lear and Carroll are of greater import than their French counterparts – but because I’ve not seen the argument made anywhere else (though I’m pretty sure the Surrealists thought that Lear was a more important poet than Tennyson, and the Oulipo have reserved an honoured place for Carroll in their roll-call of 'anticipatory plagiarists'). I suspect that Matthew Welton would agree with Josipovici’s judgement, too. I’ve been reading his new Eggbox pamphlet, Waffles, and looking back over his previous collections from Carcanet, and I’ve come to the following, wilfully hyperbolic conclusion: Welton is the single most enjoyable, exciting poet working in and with English today. There, I said it, and I’m not going to try to unsay it, either, if such a thing’s possible. Why is he so exciting? Because he recognises that form and content are vitally interrelated, that one’s decisions about language and rhythm and music not only help to create the framework of your content, they are, at some deep level I don’t quite have the capacity to put into words, that very same content. Likewise, content is form: what you want to say necessarily leads you to say it in a certain way, and not another way. Welton’s so exciting because he understands this instinctively, and understands that a dense textural surface to the poem doesn’t necessarily have to be stumbling block to the reader. Hence my suspicion that the heritage of nonsense and children’s verse is central to his project. There’s a lot of Dr Seuss in here, a lot of Edward Gorey, I’m sure; Lear and Carroll, too, no doubt. Welton’s innovation, however, is to read this tradition through Modernism and its own inheritances: the dense thicket of constantly mutating language that Welton creates in Waffles certainly recalls the ludic linguistic lunacy of The Hunting of the Snark, but it’s just as likely to recall Gertrude Stein or the musically allusive textual surfaces of early R F Langley. That’s before I get onto the various lessons he’s learnt from the Oulipo and conceptual writing and mimimalist musical composition, which gives Welton’s work its sense of scale. Waffles comprises, apparently, the first three portions of a twelve part sequence (eagle-eyed readers might note that the poems in Waffles are twelve lines long, with each line containing twelve syllables strung along an insistent iambic rhythm, a rhythm that I suspect will be maintained flawlessly across all twelve sections), which, for me, is just thrilling. No-one else is really making that kind of obsessive long-term investment in form – possibly for the best, some might suggest – which is why I look to Welton’s work not just for enjoyment but for inspiration too. It’s not a question of slavishly copying his method – influence is never only that, obviously, and we tend to disguise or bury the influence of those works that have had the most profound effect upon our own writing practices; and besides anything else, I don’t have the attention span to try what Welton does, even for a minute – but drawing from the work the capacity to push myself into new territories, to try new forms and ideas, and not to worry if they don’t work out. Just keep pushing the boundaries, buddy, and eventually you’ll make it through to Texas. Compositionally speaking.


[1] Remember that Wells’ fiction was classified as ‘scientific romance’ in its early days precisely because there was no such thing as ‘science fiction’: his publishers and reviewers had to appeal to the parameters of an existing genre in the absence of an existing ‘tradition’ that might lend authority to Wells’ strange new mode of writing.


oliver dixon said...

Hi Simon, I share your enthusiasm for Whatever Happened to Modernism: even when it's difficult to assent to all his arguments (Suite Francaise is hardly Joanna Trollope; Philip Roth is hardly Julian Barnes)the combative, astringent prose and impressive breadth of reference (Wordsworth as proto-Modernist is a brilliant critical insight) carries the book through, which as you suggest so well, leaves us with the sense that Modernism is less an historical movement than an aesthetic stance and set of strategies which was as pertinent to Rabelais and Cervantes as it is now to,say,Matthew Welton.
My only reservation with the text is Jo's over-veneration of tortured geniuses (Von Hoffmanstall, Mallarme, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Proust)so racked with ontological crises and the futility of logocentric utterance that they can barely bring themselves to write a sentence. While admiring each of these writers and myself being all for an ontological crises or two as an excuse not to get on with my work (falls on deaf ears round these parts), this painting of anguished inexpressibility as a badge of moral integrity and thereby an entry-card into Modernism's select elite leaves out of the frame other writers who were generally more preoccupied with formal concerns than existential ones. I'm chiefly thinking of Joyce and Pound, of course, who by and large just got on with it but without any discussion (or even mention?)of whom any book about Modernism must surely be lacking (you could easily add Gertrude Stein, Hope Mirrlees, William Faulkner, WC Williams, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens). Do you agree?
All the best,

The Editors said...

Hi Oliver,

Yes, I agree entirely. In quite a lot of ways, Josipovici's a very old fashioned critic, favouring the tortured geniuses, as you note, and great men of the literary canon. With a tweak here and there, there are certain passages in WHTM? that have might been written by Harold Bloom at his most strident. The absence of the more exuberant elements within Modernism - the big American names like Williams and Stein, Tzara and the DaDaists (in spite of Duchamp being given argumentative pride of place), Apollinaire, Marinetti, Cendrars, and I'm sure a dozen names again - is an aggravating blind-spot in the book. Moreover, there's a whole other, fa more radical narrative of Modernism that's tackled in James Naremore's study of noir, More Than Night, where high and low culture mingle and interact within pulp forms like hard boiled fiction and B movies; where James M Cain is a direct influence on Camus; where American ex-pats in the 40s rub shoulders with crime writers and pornographers, philosophers and political theorists, and a whole wonderful cultural mess is produced (James Campbell's Paris Interzone is great on this period).

I suspect this is all a product of an underlying cause: GJ really isn't interested in the pragmatic aspect of literature - the buying and selling of books - but that's how literature is produced and consumed and it has an impact, for better or worse, on what literature means for the average reader and the critic alike, and it will inevitably have an impact upon how it is written and received. GJ seems to want literature to be produced in a vaccuum where the market doesn't intrude, and that's simply impossible (even defining yourself against the market is using the market as a means of self-definition, right?). Which is not to say we should all throw up our hands in despair and start writing bonkbusters for a living, simply that we have to recognise that experimental writing is a part of the process it's often critiquing. Moreover, when we buy Nabokov in Penguin Classics, or a new reissue of a long-suppressed Russian absurdist masterpiece from Dalkey Archive, we're engaging, aren't we?, in a process of commodification: the very commodification of the text that GJ seems to think is rendered impossible by the Modernist dialectic. Also, in a side-note, the discussion of Duchamp seems to want to re-establish the individuated aura of the artwork, which seems counter-intuitive when considering the work of an artist who was trying to trash that whole aesthetic in the first place.


Simon @ G&P

The Editors said...

Simon, please to be using paragraph breaks. I lost my place repeatedly reading this, nearly gave up after your pronouncement on Welton, (which I agree with).

GJ is fasscinating - I've not read it through, but I think he needs positioning in terms of his reading habits. You raise the issue of style, so here's something to put in the mix:

Tom McCarthy (I think?) reviewed this in the Garunadi and actually attacked the style. Yet for me GJ's style stems from a multilingual background, immensely steeped in French experimental traditions and theory, with an anti-insular approach. Yes it's dense at times, yes it sounds a few steps away from RP in places, but I began to feel McCarthy's criticisms bordered on a kind of racism, as if 'propah In-ga-lish' was the only way to be taken seriously as an intellectual.

The furore around the book completely missed the point. From GJ's perspective, mine also, the insularity of our petty island is frustrating. The need to realign the canonised of long-past their prime writers, in mass/broadsheet media especially, with some exciting literature, is driven by a high Modernist obsession with 'raising the intellectual level' and 'right reading'; so I totally agree with what Oliver and you both say in terms of his old-fashionisms.

At the same time, leaving aside GJ's choice of alternative writers and texts, the context for the book is a critique of the space he lives in. This book won't see a French translation; it doesn't need one. So actually, this is social critique of the UK embedded in literary critique, which is quite a jolt, in some ways, a step beyond a 'pure' literary critical tradition. (OK, that last clause is contentious, sorry, but I'll leave it there anyway.)

It's just a shame - and I think this is why GJ was so angry about the way the press came out - that this social critique was lost in the storm of journalistic idiocy. The social critique, if anything, was reinforced by those dumb readings.

I will read it thoroughly sooner now, not least for the point you made about "'art coming into consciousness' of its own limitations". (Oh, thesis, how I love you...) I'm all about boundaries and historical parameters of logic and cognition at the moment. Oh yeah, guzzle that cognitive estrangement juice, baby.


The Editors said...


I like your reading of the book as some kind of social critique of British cultural insularity, though I don't think you're reading against the grain in any way by asserting this: it's one facet of the book, though not one that's to the fore for the bulk of the argument.

I've not read the review by McCarthy for some while, but I remember thinking it a little combative at the time. To my mind, the problem isn't British literary culture per se, but broadsheet literary culture, which is inherently philistine, and is increasingly so as book pages shrink and review space is given over either to the big names, or eye-catching controversies like the one that overshadowed GJ's book. The LRB seems absolutely petrified of poetry, as far as I can tell; The Ian G Ruad, for all its pretensions to having its finger on the pulse of yoof culture, gives little or no airspace to anyone other than O'Brien and his ilk, with occasional and faintly patronising nods to the little presses; the Times is even worse. I can't comment on the Telegraph, as I don't wear tweed, but I imagine a similar picture on its cultural pages too.

The issue, then, is that the very space where the issues inhering in modernism and its influence - 'serious' literary pages in broadsheet newspapers - has been first of all eaten away, and is second of all inherently middlebrow in its tastes and editorial leanings. But there is a thriving literary culture beyond that framework, where Burroughs and Stein are treated like gods, and people are really excited about new ideas and innovation in literature. But you need a roadmap to navigate it. I suppose that's partly GJ's point, isn't it?

A controversial thought-experiment, by way of a coda: There is such a thing as 'middlebrow modernism' and Tom McCarthy is its current leading light. Discuss.