How modernism is ancient by Darran Anderson.
‘On or about December 1910,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, ‘human character changed.’ Homo modernus had emerged, like some rough but eloquent beast, in the depths of an English winter. Woolf’s perspective of the birth of modernism was subjective of course and the date has been continually disputed. In his recent study, Constellation of Genius, Kevin Jackson selected as late as 1922 as ‘Modernism Year One.’ For many, T.S. Eliot included, the industrialised threshing of an entire generation of European youths by their parents in the Great War of 1914 to 1918 fragmented the old order and created something different, either as a presence or an absence. This was supported by the appearance of dada in the wartime refuge of Zurich; being a wilfully deranged but, to paraphrase R.D. Laing, rational reaction to an insane world. Yet there were identifiable modernists before this – Apollinaire, Marinetti, Jarry – to say nothing of the forerunners of modernism: Nietzsche, Ibsen, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Conrad, Strindberg, Lautréamont, Rimbaud. What becomes clear the further back you go, is this process does not effectively come to a standstill. There is no absolute point of beginning. As a way of looking at the world and recreating it, modernism, meta-modernism, postmodernism and deconstructionism have always been with us, long before we gave them such ludicrous names.
The timing of modernism is important because of the vacuum it’s perceived to have left when it dissipated (a likewise disputed period between the World Wars). With commendable intentions, the more adventurous writers today bemoan the fall of the movement and the retreat of much of the literary community into pseudo-Victorian ways of approaching the novel. They discuss its loss with a hint of grief and the desire that it will come again, resurrected to save the day, like millenarian peasants awaiting the Messiah or Jacobites the Young Pretender. Who will save us from ourselves? A more compelling view is that modernism was not entirely obliterated in a collective loss of nerve but survived abroad, in isolated pockets, underground, or flourished in science fiction and comic books. Yet when you begin to list the writers who have reputedly kept the spirit of modernism alive, you find their number is colossal, making up the more critically acclaimed sections of contemporary literature. Indeed, the loss of confidence is not restricted to mainstream novelists. The admirable question posed by Gabriel Josipovici – What Ever Happened to Modernism? – has been answered not by polemics but by fiction. It is still there when we search for it.
Modernism didn’t disappear because it never definitively appeared. It has been part of our character since at least the earliest identifiable story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the trail only runs cold there because the archaeology of the written word does. It’s not a question of colonising the past and extending modernism back through the centuries. Rather, it is to merely detect what’s already there when we look back.
Evan Lavender-Smith interviewed by David Winters.
On the strength of two short books – each slim enough to be read in a single sitting — Evan Lavender-Smith has established himself as one of America’s leading literary artists: a writer whose work reconfigures the relations between fact and fiction, form and content, writing and reading. Not only this, but Lavender-Smith speaks as much to philosophers as to lovers of literature. His books have been copiously praised by some of the most pioneering voices in contemporary fiction (Gary Lutz, Brian Evenson, Michael Martone) and by prominent scholars of continental thought and critical theory (Clare Colebrook, John Mullarkey, and Ian Buchanan, among others). Lavender-Smith’s first book, From Old Notebooks (BlazeVox, 2010; Dzanc, 2012) presents a constellation of self-reflexive fragments — scattered thoughts on writing, thinking, and the comic chaos of family life — that combine to create a vivid, living literary meditation, reminiscent of Montaigne and David Markson. His second book, Avatar (Six Gallery Press, 2011) treads strikingly different territory: recalling Bernhard and the late works of Beckett, this grief-crazed monologue gives us a glimpse of life at its limit, stranded in space, left only with tears, stray strands of hair, and degraded memories for company. Taken together, these two texts testify to a level of intellectual and aesthetic adventurousness rarely seen in recent literature. Evan and I corresponded by email throughout September 2013, in a conversation that ranged from the legacy of modernism to the vital importance of style and form for both literary and philosophical writing.
David Winters: Forgive me for beginning with some fairly broad brushstrokes. Reading both of your books together, my first instinct is to try to make comparisons between the two. This may be a mistake on my part (I’m not sure why two texts’ shared authorship should automatically make them candidates for comparison) but perhaps there are commonalities. For instance, both books present what we could call the “rhythm of thought”. But each book is driven by a different rhythm—most rudimentarily, that of the fragment on the one hand, and the unbroken monologue on the other. So, to start with, I’m interested in how you conceive of the relationship between these two modes, and the capacity of each to reflect (or rather, produce?) “thought”…
Evan Lavender-Smith: It seems that my own thought often proceeds in one of those two ways, either in the mode of the concise fragment (e.g. “Need eggs”) or in the mode of the excessive interior monologue (e.g. “Eggs eggs Walmart today tomorrow eggs must buy them don’t forget the eggs …”). I’ve spent a lot of time trying to really think about the way I think, but I’m still not sure that I have a very good handle on it. I listen to myself think; invariably I forget what I’ve heard, so I return to the most basic questions. Do I think in words? If so, what type of syntax is involved? These are the simple, first-order questions; it gets trickier when the relationship between thought and writing is introduced. How is (or isn’t) language/writing commensurable to thought? What might a formalist representation of thought look like, in contrast to a realist representation of thought? That last question has particularly interested me, the possibility of non-realist literary forms reflecting the hidden or forgotten rhythms and syntaxes of thought. As to your point about the literary mode producing rather than merely reflecting thought, yes, of course, at a certain point it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other: I perceive my words and sentences feeding off other words and sentences in the same way I perceive my thoughts feeding off other thoughts; I intuit a certain immanence about content, as determined by form, just as I perceive a certain immanence about thought, as determined by the body. I don’t know that the language’s self-generative ability is any more marked in the fragmentary mode as it is in the monologic mode; it seems to be a fundamental feature of both modes, or of any mode in which I write, including the rambling mode of the answer to the interview question.
Adam Thirlwell interviewed by Susan Tomaselli.
In the British literary establishment (and let’s face it, named Granta Best Young Novelist not once but twice is ‘establishment’), Adam Thirlwell is something of a Trojan horse: ‘Good novelists (or, maybe more honestly, the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are morally avant-garde as well.’ His novels – Politics (2003), The Escape (2009) – use Milan Kundera and Philip Roth as templates, and feature digressions on Osip Mandelstam, the Bauhaus and Saul Bellow, to name but a few. With their narratorial interventions and other unconventional stylistic quirks, they flaunt the rules of sexual comedies. But Thirlwell is a master of turning ideas upside down and inside out, no more so than in his novella Kapow! (2012), a response to the Arab Spring that uses typography, fold-out pages and wordplay to mimic the noisy confusion of events as they emerged on Twitter and YouTube. It is the missing link between Tristram Shandy and the Lissitzky designed For the Voice. Thirlwell has always been interested in the international and the experimental, and his Miss Herbert (2007), named for an English governess who may or may not have been Flaubert’s mistress, and may or may not have helped him translate Madame Bovary, is his understanding of the possibilities of translation through a miniature history of the novel (or, an ‘anti-novel, with novelists as characters,’ as he puts it). It’s a theme he continues to explore in Multiples (2013), a ‘project for multiplying novels in any language,’ inspired, partly, by Augusto Monterroso.
Though today considered a minor classic (not least by Zadie Smith), Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder was rejected by the mainstream before finding Parisian art-house publishers Metronome Press. It is a novel about authenticity, about failed transcendence, about death, themes McCarthy continues to explore both in his novels (Men in Space, the Booker shortlisted C) and with his ‘semi-fictitious’ art organisation the INS.