Blows to the Head

It may be that, some years ahead, I look back on this curvaceous year of 2010 as a personal literary milestone, a transformative year. So far in 2010, I have read three books that have redefined my literary appetite.

As a journey, it is similar to the pre-teenage passage when gradually music, and the girl’s hand you held at the beach, supersedes Action Men and comic books. Suddenly some old friends on my library shelves no longer call out to me with quite the same Siren song.

Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Joyce’s Ulysses have fulfilled Kafka’s oft-quoted dictum, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Making up the third in the triumvirate of blows to the head is Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? I accept that this might be a personal and idiosyncratic choice. As Josipovici says:

My own ‘story’, as I have tried to present it here, discovering what it was as I went along, is that only an art which recognises the pitfalls inherent in both realism and abstraction will be really alive. That is why I warm to the novels of Perec and Bernhard more than to Finnegans Wake or the novels of Updike and Roth, the pictures of Bacon and early Hockney more than to Pollock or Tracy Emin, to the music of Birtwistle and Kurtág more than to Cage or Shostakovitch. . . But I realise that this may be largely because of who and what I am.

I am a common reader. As Woolf wrote, a common reader differs, “… from the critic and the scholar, He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” There are, however, uncommon and erudite readers like Jospovici.

What Ever Happened to Modernism? enables me pin down just why some writers and artists electrify me and others leave me cold. It has given definition to what I had previously thought an almost arbitrary, random collection of preferences. I recognise why I buy each new book of several once favourite writers and leave them unopened on my shelves.

In What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici pins down Modernism, and argues that, “… it is a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them, in return of course for many impressive achievements . . .” He challenges “… the prevalent English view, epitomised by Waugh, Larkin and Amis, that Modernism that was just a blip in the serene history of the arts,” and argues for its sustained relevance today.

Polemic in part, Josipovici’s book is persuasive and deeply thought-provoking and above all personal:

Naturally I think the story  I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that tale more or less account of the facts.

One final quote, succour to English readers:

So many English novelists today confess to wanting to write like Dickens that it might be thought that the difference between England and France and Germany is that we have no great model to look back to, who might give us an understanding of what it might mean to have a European sensibility, that is, to be as English as they come and yet have a real historical awareness. But there is one, as I have suggested: Wordsworth.

5 thoughts on “Blows to the Head

  1. >Dear Anthony,Thank you for this summary look and for the blogging you have done to post excerpts. I shall have to look this one up!(By the way, agree absolutely on To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, I would add Absalom, Absalom! and Mrs. Dalloway to the mix [among others]}.shalom,Steven

  2. >Steven – I shall have to read Mrs. Dalloway again soon. I enjoyed it very much but it did not have quite the impact of To the Lighthouse.I have had many "blows to the head" but only three this year.Thank you.

  3. >Steven, hello.Thanks for writing on Josipovici, and particularly appreciated is the level-headedness of your post, so unlike the sensational newspaper stories concerning a few select excerpts from a longer work. His fiction exemplifies interest in form (as Gilbert Sorrentino said, "form is content") and also a deeply humane sensibility. Not often found together.You talk about blows to the head. If I can share, some of mine were Henry Miller's _Tropic of Cancer_, WIlliam Gaddis' _The Recognitions_ and Blaise Cendrars' _Moravagine, but not all in the one year. 2010 has been good for you.Jeff

  4. >Jeff – Thank you for your comments. I imagine Josipovici was surprised to elicit such interest, albeit misplaced. Perhaps it helped sell a few additional copies, however unwittingly.I read Tropic of Cancer many years ago. I must look it out again some time. The Recognitions is on my shelves, one day perhaps.

  5. >Anthony, I could see how Josipovici's study might provide a blow to the head for a fellow if read at the right time and with the right good fortune. I was inspired by much of it and look forward to pursuing some of its leads as time goes on. Anyway, enjoyed your enthusiastic post.

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