The Father of Modernism

Dear Jeff:

I take it that our task here is to examine what, from a novelist’s perspective anyway, are the uses and abuses of literary modernism and its progeny, a hundred years on. The date is of course slightly arbitrary, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday seems as good a marker as any. Moreover, there seems to be a certain anxiety in the air these days about what to do with this legacy—what, in fact, we can possibly do with it. Certainly that anxiety has been around since we started writing. (Let me note for our readers’ sake that you and I are roughly the same age, were educated in roughly the same way—though there are some interesting differences—and published our first books the same year.) In fact, it may be that modernism itself can be seen as a particular kind of obsession with the question of what to do with our literary past, in which case you and I will simply and inescapably recapitulate it here, or at best turn it back on itself. Oh, well.

And yet, if someone were to ask me what modernism means to me, I would have to admit, “Not so much, after all.” Yes, it was the stuff I was weaned on, and yes, I retain a deep fondness and admiration for many of its figures, but I don’t feel as if I’m working in their wake. In fact, I’ve found it useful to deny that modernism ever existed at all; instead, I see the great progenitor as Romanticism—where the Self was more or less invented and set down in a field of Others, and all attendant problems were allowed to bloom. By this measure, modernism is just Very Late Romanticism, and postmodernism is Very Very Late Romanticism, and the contemporary novel … well, that’s what we’re here to figure out.

You and I were initiated, directly or indirectly, by a generation of writers for whom formal innovation was the starting point. I believe you may have had more direct contact with these writers than I did—Hawkes and Coover and Barth and Gaddis and Gass, among others—but I could be wrong about that. I retain a certain affection for them, and a deep affinity for a few of them—Walter Abish, for example, whose last book, Double Vision, was a victim of criminal neglect. But what did I actually learn—from Barthelme or Pynchon, or for that matter Beckett or Raymond Queneau, or for that matter Joyce or André Breton? That writing has infinite possibilities, yes; but not all of them are equally worth exercising. The fiction I thought was so important when I was an apprentice—Céline, for example, and Borges, and yes, Joyce—now seems to exist in some distant dimension. I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant, exactly, but neither is it the first place I turn for inspiration.

Before I get accused, by you or someone else, of slaying my forebears too blithely, let me admit that many of my heroes were giants of the same era: Proust, first and foremost, and Auden and Stevens, Brecht, and I.B. Singer, and I could go on, but I won’t. Still, I don’t think of them as Modernists (though I realize this is slightly perverse). In a pinch, I’d call them later and later Romantics.

Perhaps the problem is this: We were taught, all too readily, to think of literature as progressing within the context of historical forces. Joyce leads to Beckett, Borges leads to Barth, Pynchon begets DeLillo, and so on. But of course, things don’t work like that. You can tell the story that way, and it’ll make some sense, but not for long. (Curiously, it makes more sense when the story is about the visual arts in the 20th century—but that’s another conversation.) It’s an over-optimistic and simplified view of the way literature works and changes, a view built, I suppose, on the model of progression in the natural sciences. But it holds sway in the academy, at least it did when we were there, and even for those who know it’s untrue, its force lingers.

“Make it new,” Pound insisted. How much pale ink continues to be spilled in the service of that demand. I, for one, would like to see an unofficial ban on the following things: stories in which the author shows up as one of the characters, stories built around lists, or with the marginalia of writing moved to the center (dedications, errata, footnotes, etc.). I would like to see mere cleverness and innovation removed from the practice, along with all cheap ironies, second-guessing, meretricious tricks with time (stories written in the present tense, narrative running backwards, games with simultaneity, and so on), the substitution of swaths of facts and factoids for inspiration and invention … and so on.

Above all, I would insist that novelists who think they’re smarter than their characters, and more sophisticated than the idea of the novel itself, and who cannot resist the temptation to demonstrate as much, ought instead to find deeper characters and better stories to write. I want a book to break my heart; everything else is television.

I am not proposing that sincerity is inherently a virtue; nor would I argue that there’s no room for bending and reshaping forms, or even for making them, somehow, new. Let me suggest to you an exemplary instance—by my lights, anyway, and I suspect you may have strong feelings about him, too.

W.G. Sebald did what I frankly thought could not be done: He found a distinct and unique form at the end of the 20th century that was so perfectly matched to his writerly temperament that he seems to have invented a new form of consciousness. It isn’t modernism, I don’t think, or an offshoot thereof; it’s something separate and uncanny, beholden to history, but also to his individual conscience, and, for all its archaic airs, absolute suited to contemporary times.

Well, all right; I’ve been going on a bit here. Let me end with Sebald as a model of what can still be achieved, outside the strict dictates of high modernism and its consequences. Remind me to give you my argument for why English-language culture ended in 1977; for now, I’ll stop and give you a chance to respond to whatever parts of this you want to respond to, or introduce some of the many issues I no doubt missed. I’m very interested in where your own thoughts match or diverge from mine. So, tell me.