:: Article

The Sins of Disillusionment

By Max Dunbar.


What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici, Yale 2010

In 1958, the young Gabriel Josipovici came out of an Oxford lecture by Lord David Cecil with ‘a list of names: Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and, said Lord David, a young writer to watch: Iris Murdoch.’ Working through the recommendations, Josipovici found that Powell and Murdoch ‘told entertaining stories wittily or darkly, with sensationalist panache’ and yet their novels had not ‘touched me to the core of my being, as had those of Kafka and Proust.’ He links this memory to that of another lecture from his youth, where a philosophy professor kicks at his lectern while bellowing the names of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre, finishing with the judgement that ‘Nothing that a good walk on the Downs wouldn’t have put right!’

The narrator of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, told by a drunken academic that the study of classics is all ‘wars and homos’ reflects that all vulgarities contain a kernel of truth. Josipovici concedes that ‘One can easily lose patience with Kafka’s masochism and his self-centredness, of Picasso’s egotism and Beckett’s elegant, almost mannered expressions of despair’ just as the self-conscious scatology and immaturity of the Larkin/Amis set can grow equally tiresome. Yet there is a small but vocal group of neo-Leavisites out there, exclusively online writers (their writing is so tedious that no editor would commit it to print) who denigrate the establishment Victorian conventions of story, characterisation and coherence and have whittled world literature down to a single small canon: Kafka, Blanchot, Beckett, Bernhard. Josipovici’s book seems written with this cadre in mind.

Not that there aren’t problems with contemporary fiction today. Its growing insularity means that serious readers and critics are deserting the novel form for TV drama, which currently offers greater characterisation and narrative drive. (The Wire, scripted by American crime authors, represents not the death of the novel but its victory.) There is a surfeit of overfamiliar names. Peter Carey may well win the Booker for the third time. Who reads this stuff, you ask yourself. The answer is: the right people. To paraphrase Manchester publisher Ra Page, contemporary awards shortlists frequently read like ‘an invite checklist to make sure all the ‘right’ people – or same people – are coming to the party’.

‘From the start [the novel] pretended or pretended to pretend to be something else; a translation from a lost Arabic manuscript, the true account of the wreck of a boat on a desert island, the memoirs of a whore, a rake or an orphan.’ The novel has no authority, Josipovici suggests. Yet novelists admire Dickens above all others, a man who wrought the world into order and narrative: like him, today’s authors are ‘being false to the world – imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning that it doesn’t have’. Josipovici singles out Dickens’s use of almost unbelievable coincidence to illustrate this point. But every human life is also a story. Story is, in fact, hardwired: we are pans narrans, the storytelling ape. The writer need not feel guilty about ‘imposing’ a narrative on the world, because non-writers do this, every day. And the world is full of wild and fantastical improbabilities that no novelist would dare attempt.

That’s if Josipovici wants fiction to take on the world. Does he take as a criticism John Bayley’s line that ‘No novelist has profited more richly than Dickens from not examining what goes on in his own mind’? The success of Dickens, Josipovici says, and also that of other novelists, rests on ‘their inability to question what it is they are doing… In that sense they are the first modern bestsellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture.’ Here we get to Josipovici’s ideal qualities of the ideal writer: a sense of insecurity and worthlessness leading to creative near-paralysis. His is the endless, baseless disenchantment of Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur: ‘he would happily reduce the earth to rubble and swallow the world in a yawn’.

Kafka: ‘I can’t write. I haven’t written a single line that I can accept, instead I have crossed out all that I have written – there wasn’t much – since my return from Paris. My body puts me on guard against each word.’ When Beckett was asked with what he would replace an art he had denounced, he replied: ‘The expression that there is nothing to express… nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’ One must suffer the burden of having nothing to say: but one must, above all, keep saying nothing.

It is this joylessness that makes What Ever Happened to Modernism, despite its great rolling vistas of erudition, leave the reader with an overwhelming disgust and an urge to hurl the thing at the wall. The earlier sentence declaring a division between artistic strength and popularity denotes an old fallacy of elitism: that nothing successful can be good and nothing good can be successful.

‘Finally, ours is the first generation in which High Art and Fashion have married in a spirit joyously welcomed by both parties,’ Josipovici says. He is incensed that ‘a serious newspaper like the Independent offers its readers the chance, as a Christmas bonanza, to gatecrash a book launch of their choice with one of the paper’s literary critics’. Writers and readers drinking at social events? Quelle horreur! One imagines what Josipovici’s ideal literary culture would look like. You get a picture of some monochrome wasteland, with a Beckett-style narrative intone of disjointed words and phrases, and perhaps the odd glimpse of Afganistan drone attacks flashing up on the screen. Josipovici writes that ‘melancholy is the hallmark of genius’. No, it isn’t.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 15th, 2010.