Book review: Constellation Of Genius, 1922: Modernism Year One by Kevin Jackson

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THERE’S too much Eliot and too little fascism in this fascinating study of the birth of Modernism

Constellation Of Genius, 1922: Modernism Year One

bY Kevin Jackson

Hutchinson, 536pp, £20

It was the annus mirabilis: not only did Eliot publish “The Waste Land” and Joyce Ulysses, but the BBC was founded, Proust died, the Irish Free State was declared, the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, Wittgenstein published his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Gandhi was sentenced to prison for sedition and the playwright Lorca met director Luis Buñuel and the painter Salvador Dalí for the first time. In future fictions, 1922 was the year when Serge Carrefax dies in Tom McCarthy’s C, and when Audrey Death succumbs to encephalitis lethargica in Will Self’s Umbrella.

Kevin Jackson’s book is both a fascinating reconstruction of that year and a problematic proposal about it. The book takes the format of a diary, with each day telling the reader what a certain important cultural or political figure was up to – and you can take your pick from Chaplin, Hitler, Cocteau, Einstein, Duchamp, Disney, Corbusier, Keynes, Stein, Mussolini, Keaton or Freud. Jackson doesn’t do all 365 days of 1922, which is a mild annoyance, and concentrates on “High Modernism”, which is a flaw. That said, the book is wonderfully diverting and the clashes between what the aesthetes were doing and the failed aesthetes were doing is informative. The entry for 27 November notes Virginia Woolf’s bright memoir note about the publication of her novel: “People – my friends I mean – seem to agree that it [Jacob’s Room] is my masterpiece”. The italicised “my” reveals a degree of ego, the enthusiasm about a work that would be followed by Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, The Waves and Between The Acts. On 30 November Hitler addressed a crowd of 50,000 members of his National Socialist Party. He too would go on to larger, more ambitious projects; he too had already found “friends” to give him succour, self-interested praise and support. He too would italicise my.

Jackson has tracked down a gloriously contradictory range of contemporary sources – so we have the moments where DH Lawrence and the future Edward VIII briefly cross paths or where TH Lawrence writes a fan letter to the then out-of-favour politician Winston Churchill. A coil of phoneys – from Gurdjeriff to Crowley – snake around the underestimated and emergent talent.

The focus on Joyce and Eliot has at least their mutual friend Ezra Pound, and his contention that 1922 was the “break”. But this is to take one version of Modernism: I have always felt that it is too baggy a term for the different kinds of Modernisms that were in play at the beginning of the 20th century. Hiberno-Anglo-American Modernism is only part of the story. Both Joyce and Eliot were influenced by French literature, Joyce aiming to push the verisimilitude of Flaubert to its extreme, Eliot developing the Symbolism of Laforgue, Mallarmé and Valéry.

One might equally concentrate on the less well known Germanic modernism: Hermann Broch’s 1931/32 trilogy The Sleepwalkers, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930-42), Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in 1924, Robert Walser’s short stories or Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Or indeed the variants of Russian and Soviet Modernism from Fyodor Sologub’s The Petty Demon (1907), Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916), or the astonishing work by Daniil Kharms. Jackson rightly includes the “Week of Modern Art” organised by the Brazilian Mário de Andrade, whose poem “Hallucinated City” is equal in import to “The Waste Land” for Latin American writing, but the focus on the whole tends to be less international than one might wish.

This tight focus on the hierophants of High Modernism also means that the reader cannot really appreciate the wider culture in which they were working. Jackson is rather patronisingly dismissive of writers like HG Wells, AE Housman and Rudyard Kipling, whose cultural standing was supposedly diminished by the publication of Ulysses and “The Waste Land”.

Kipling, in particular, we can now see as a far more complex figure – from the shocking war-novel The Light That Failed to the nuance of a poem like “McAndrew’s Hymn”. But these are nonetheless “literary” writers. 1922 also saw the publication of popular works that give a different angle on the era. It was the year of Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood and John Buchan’s Huntingtower, the last of Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel novels and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Pellucidar, “hollow earth” novel, At The Earth’s Core. Arthur Conan Doyle published a short story and Compton Mackenzie wrote The Altar Steps. Jackson mentions HP Lovecraft, but only in passing: yet many of the events and personalities detailed in the book intersect with his weird oeuvre. Seeing one of the unimaginable horrors in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, Lovecraft says of his protagonist “He tried to drive them out, and repeated the Lord’s Prayer to himself; eventually trailing off into a mnemonic hodge-podge like the modernistic Waste Land of Mr. T. S. Eliot”.

He constantly made reference to Einstein and to Cubism; and one story was directly inspired by Howard Carter’s discoveries (with a nod to Harry Houdini as well). The idea of an unbreachable divide between “High” Modernism and “low” popular culture cannot be supported, even if they interchanges were tetchy and suspicious.

Jackson’s book does reveal, to the close reader, how fractious and internally divisive “modernism” was. Those of the Modernist Canon – as best exemplified by Malcolm Bradbury’s book and television series, The Modern World – frequently disliked each other’s work (Eliot and Joyce being a key exception). Woolf was haughty about Joyce, satirical towards Eliot and consumed with jealously about Katherine Mansfield. Hemingway moved from liking Stein to being bemused by her rejection of normal syntax. Any sensitive reader will see that it is not in terms of aesthetic similarity that one might group together Pound’s Cantos and Hart Crane’s The Bridge or Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer and Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke.

A similar problem exists with musical modernism. Although united by a dislike of the impressionistic lushness of Debussy and the grandiosity of Wagner, it’s hard to see common ground between the neoclassicism of Poulenc and Prokofiev, the use of folk tunes and primitivism in Nielsen and Bartok, and the emerging jazz of Armstrong and Gershwin (except perhaps that Stravinsky used them all). The real rupture in music came with Schoenberg’s 12-note serialism in the late 1920s.

Finally we have the link between Modernism and ideology. The way in which Jackson counterpoints Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin with modernist artists tends towards irony and dark foreshadowing. It is impossible to gloss over Pound’s admiration for Mussolini (though Jackson places it in tension with Hemingway’s observations).

The link, however, between certain Modernists and fascist politics is underplayed. This was not a case of fellow-travelling or naive enthusiasm: Pound, Céline, Gabriele d’Annunzio (who was nearly assassinated in 1922) and Knut Hamsun were all ideologically confirmed fascists. DH Lawrence’s abhorrent enthusiasm for eugenics – including the culling of the disabled – is still horrific.

By contrast, some of the writers deemed aesthetically backwards or idly conservative were much more perceptive. Towards the end of his life, G K Chesterton declared that there were two enemies to humanity: Hitler and Hirohito. The constellation of genius orbited a moral black hole all too frequently.

What does then unite the Modernists? One has to go back to Arthur Rimbaud’s 1873 “A Season In Hell” and its declaration “one must be absolutely modern”. That the modern age – with its wars, technologies, social changes and scientific discoveries – required a modern aesthetic is Modernism’s heterogeneous legacy. It is one we overlook at our own peril today.