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.

Popularity and Artistic Authority

Josipovici develops an argument on the distinction between naivety and simplicity into thoughts on authority:

Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority. There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth. It doesn’t rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Beethoven and Wordsworth. It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepreneurs: their inability to question what it is they are doing. In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers 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.

Wordsworth’s ‘A Night Piece’

I’m making slow progress, intentionally, through Gabriel Josipovoci’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?. It is so thrilling to read a book packed chock full of so much insight. Between scribbling notes and pausing to reread passages, it will be an enjoyable week’s reading.

In parallel I am reading Heinrich Von Kleist’s The Marquise of O- and Other Stories. In the Penguin Classics edition the first story, which I read in the garden drinking breakfast tea, is The Earthquake in Chile: the denouement is inevitable and yet so chilling. I’ve wanted to read The Marquise of O- for a long time. This edition includes Michael Kohlhaas, which Josipovici names, with Madame Bovary and The Devils as the greatest nineteenth century novels.

Back to Josipovici’s latest: in the current chapter he is juxtaposing one of my favourite poets with a similarly favoured painter Caspar David Friedrich. In doing so he cites one of my most cherished of Wordsworth’s shorter poems, A Night Piece:

The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground – from rock, plant, tree, or tower.
At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye
Bent earthwards; he looks up – the clouds are split
Asunder, – and above his head he sees
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens.
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along,
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away,
Yet vanish not! – the wind is in the tree,
But they are silent; – still they roll along
Immeasurably distant; and the vault,
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its unfathomable depth.
At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.