The Father of Modernism

The Carnival of Bloomsday, and the Death of the Western Novel
Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 17 2004 10:54 AM

The Father of Modernism

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Dear Jim,

This time through, your text reaches me with only the hyphens and apostrophes messed up, an accident that allows me to believe we're making increasing sense. Certainly I think you've brought the issue into clarity. That's the question: Was avant-gardism merely an historical reaction, good for its time, or is it a constant necessity in the making of literary art?

Before I get into that, let me say that I'm not trying to bring Ulysses down a notch. Like you, I adore Joyce's earlier work, especially A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, but "The Dead" as well. I'm glad he didn't keep on writing stories like "The Dead" because I think Ulysses represents the fulfillment of his particular talents. This whole week, as I've seen people gathering to read Ulysses aloud through the night (in Berlin, mind you), as I've heard the book discussed on the BBC and even seen it eulogized on the editorial page of the New York Times, as Dubliners celebrate the novel along with the Chinese, I find myself caught up in the carnival. So let me register the party mood I'm in. What do we mean by "greatest book of the 20th century" if we don't mean, at some level, all the hubbub and fanfare surrounding this 100-year anniversary of Bloomsday? What other author, or book, commands such global worship as Joyce? You have to go back to Shakespeare, really, to find its like. Maybe if I lived in Dublin like John Banville I would be sick and tired of the Disneyfication of Joyce. From where I sit, I'm just happy that a book can last like that, cast such a shadow, and loom so large in what's supposed to be a time of declining interest in novels. And isn't it great that it's Joyce and not somebody else? What if it was, I mean, D.H. Lawrence or somebody?

Nevertheless: I'm struck by your idea that we can get along fine without an avant-garde. I'm not sure I've ever heard it put quite so bluntly before. Joyce was writing Ulysses in the aftermath of World War I, when Europe and the European dream of progress and Utopian rationalism lay in ruins. I can imagine, in such a desperate, broken time, wanting to read books that were in no way like the books that had come before, books that, by the sheer destructive force of their aesthetics, spoke to the real destruction of war and, at the same time, began to show a way ahead by virtue of their grand experiments.

This isn't how I feel right now. There's a lot of noise in my head, coming from all directions, the radio, the television, the computer, the street. You could write a book that echoes this cacophony, but that might serve only to amplify it. What I want in a book is a refuge from the noise and confusion, plus a reminder that another human being is on the other end of the exchange, someone who isn't peddling me false consciousness but is bringing, or at least attempting to bring, things into light. Maybe this is just creeping middle age, but it's the way I'm tending these days.

On the other hand, I am more and more hostile to the first-person narrator. We've gotten to the end of the merely personal. Self-examination has been done to death, and the novels we need now require a broader, less single-minded perspective. But again: Order and clarity are not the enemies.

To be different without being confusing, to be radical without promoting a scorched-earth policy, to be intellectual while remaining emotional and to be emotional without succumbing to sentimentality, to find a new form that is immediately negotiable—these would be the aims I'd shoot for, in our drear day.

The objections you foresee for your 1977 theory are the same that occurred to me. It's likely someone older or younger would name other films or artists as being the last great ones. Your pinnacles are pretty much my pinnacles, but I'm leaving room for other views ...

You asked about the multicultural novel. OK, here goes. The majority of so-called multicultural novels are nothing but new wine poured into old bottles. What's the great subject of the novel? Marriage, of course. In the West, we've lost that subject. Marriages aren't arranged anymore. Divorce is no longer unthinkable. You can't have your heroine throw herself under a train because she left her husband and ruined her life. Now your heroine would just have a custody battle and remarry.

What the multicultural novel has going for it is the marriage plot. They can still use it! The societies under examination are conservative, religious, still bound by custom and tradition. And so—voilà—you can be an Indian novelist or a Jordanian novelist and still avail yourself of the greatest subject the novel has ever had. Arranged marriages, dowries, social stigma at divorce—it's all back again, in perfect working order.

This doesn't mean that these novels can't be enjoyable. I don't blame them for using the marriage plot. But using it in the way they do has consequences. Though these books are coming out now, they're already at least a hundred years old. Plus, the 19th-century subject matter begins to infect the prose. It makes the characterization creaky. There are cobwebs between the sentences. Entire paragraphs smell like mothballs. The multicultural novel is not alone in this. Most novels smell like that. My old teacher, the great Gilbert Sorrentino, used to put it like this. Of all the books coming out, he'd say. "These books don't exist. I mean, they exist. But they don't EXIST!"

I know what he means. You see?  On some level I remain,

Your friendly neighborhood avant-gardist,

Jeff

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