by Gabriel Josipovici
Even though it's way too hot to be doing any typing in this house at the moment, I suppose a few cranky words are in order in regard to this uneven but ultimately invigorating example of literary criticism from sometime novelist and longtime Georges Perec fan Gabriel Josipovici. To begin with, Josipovici actually pissed me off early on with a couple of sweeping generalizations like the following one used to assert the importance of Rabelais and Cervantes as 16th and 17th century modernist forebears: "It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment when the world is growing disenchanted" (34). What the hell, man? Nobody in the world was ever disenchanted before the Protestant Reformation? And what about all the ancient novels like those by Petronius and Apuleius that emerged centuries before the ones described here? They don't rate a mention? Similarly, I was also mildly annoyed by Josipovici's somewhat lazy celebration of Don Quixote as the game changer among all genre-bending novels--not because I don't agee with the sentiment in itself but because Josipovici seemed to rather questionably overlook non-novel game changers like Ovid's 1st century Metamorphoses and Juan Ruiz's 14th century Libro de buen amor in his stressing of the "tradition" that provided authority to "genre-derived" works before Cervantes (65-66). Outside the novel format, the Quixote wasn't actually so novel in that regard (which the writer eventually owns up to in an important later chapter comparing Greek tragedy to contemporary drama). Josipovici also dismayed me on occasion with his hackneyed Old World references to how artistic conventions sometimes "mesh...with the conventions by which bourgeois society lives" (139), but maybe that's just the slovenly middle-class American in me finding a dapper Euro critic's comments about bourgeois society as laughably passé as references to "landed gentry" or some such other nonsense. In any event, these false starts aside, Josipovici clearly rallied as his extended essay progressed. While I don't necessarily share his conviction that "Modernism is a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them" (154-155), it's thankfully not necessary to agree on that point to enjoy the work as a whole. Using examples from the world of art and music to complement his focus on the modernist novel and poetry, Josipovici was frequently at his most insightful and/or provocative when drawing parallels between the nonconformist tendencies of modernists working in different media and eras. Insightful: Using Picasso's 1912-1913 collages to claim that that was the precise moment "when artists grasped that what they were producing were signs or emblems for the external world, not mirrors reflecting it" (114). Provocative: The sequence where Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass occasioned this interpretive nugget: "Duchamp being Duchamp--it is difficult to know whether to take [the boxes of notes that accompany the artwork] seriously or as a spoof. They have of course, like the novels of Thomas Bernhard, to be taken both ways" (134). A few pages later, Duchamp himself contributes a memorable anecdotal highlight of his own in the middle of a sequence where Josipovici has been discussing the way modernists and non-modernists confront "the threshold of boredom" during the creative process: "Dear Stieglitz, Even a few words I don't feel like writing. You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable. There we are. Affectueusement, Marcel Duchamp" (138-139). With people like Borges, Jarry, Proust, Robbe-Grillet, and Woolf getting a thumbs up from Josipovici and people like Austen, Dickens, Ian McEwan, Irène Némirovsky, and Philip Roth getting a qualified or even a complete thumbs down, it's safe to say that you might enjoy this book--but I'd definitely hesitate to recommend it to any bloggers contemplating a Library Loot, a Mailbox Monday, or a TLC Book Tours post anytime soon! (www.yalebooks.com)
What Ever Happened to Modernism? was the Wolves' May reading pick as selected by the lovely Frances. Please consider joining us June 24th-June 26th for the next pick, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as selected by the equally lovely Claire.