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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

John Sutherland
What Ever Happened to Modernism?
By Gabriel Josipovici (Yale University Press 224pp £18.99)

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What we have here is less a monograph than a genteel shriek of pain. How is it, a tormented Gabriel Josipovici asks, that the English have never taken to Modernism?

More to the point, why do the English (Josipovici invariably uses this term rather than 'British'), unlike more enlightened peoples, so obstinately refuse to reform their insular, provincial, middle-brow, resolutely unmodernised cultural character? What ever happened to Modernism? England ignored it.

We have, as a nation, let Gabriel down. And Modernism.

Looking around, after half a century of living among us, Josipovici sees a sad sight - a culture stuck in its primeval mud. Worse than that, a childish and rather nasty culture. 'Reading Julian Barnes', Josipovici says (wearily):

like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner ... I wonder where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock. We don't find it in Irish or American culture, or in French, or German, or Italian culture. The English have always been both sentimental and ironical, but there was never that sense of prep-school boys showing off, which is the taste these writers leave on my tongue.

Oh that the patron saint of the Literary Review, Auberon Waugh, were here to take to his monthly pulpit and answer back. Bron's father, Evelyn, gets a sharp rap over the knuckles from Josipovici for his chauvinist closed-mindedness. Like Gilbert Pinfold (his fictional alter ego), Evelyn Waugh's 'strongest tastes were negative. He disliked plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz - everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.' Everything, that is to say, 'modern'. How English. How depressing.

Mockery aside (for a moment or two), What Ever Happened to Modernism? tells two stories. Both are well told; both are interesting. One is of a young cosmopolite who in 1958 found himself a student in England, enrolled at Oxford. It was - what with Angry Young Men, the Movement, Godot and winds of change gusting all over the Empire - as culturally tumultuous a moment as that half a century earlier, when, according to the Woolfian calendar of Modernism, 'human nature changed'.

The newly landed Josipovici eagerly took his place at a lecture given by Lord David Cecil (then the grandest of Oxford grandees) at the university Literary Society on the subject of 'The English Novel Today'. The audience was duly directed to 'Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and, said Lord David, a young writer to watch, Iris Murdoch'.

Unfledged as he was, young Gabriel was mightily perplexed. More so when, as instructed by Lord David, he looked at these 'novelists of today'. 'They obviously wrote well', he conceded, 'but theirs were not the novels which touched me to the core of my being, as had those of Kafka and Proust.'

Indulgently, Josipovici gave England time to catch up with its more advanced neighbours across the channel. And him. As the decades passed, and he fought - in print and on the podium - the pro-Modernist fight, with the intention of helping the English 'grasp the nature and implications of that Modernism of which I felt they formed a part', Josipovici found, to his appalled amazement, that 'English culture was actually growing steadily less interested in or aware of these issues.' Not only were they/we failing to catch up with Kafka, Proust et al, we weren't listening to Gabriel Josipovici - a man, it would seem, like Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 'out of key with his time'.

Josipovici created for himself a kind of internal exile of the mind where he could read and think about those writers and artists who touched 'the core of my being'. Now in his seventies, he is formidably cultivated. One typical chapter in this book, the eighth ('A Universe for the First Time Bereft of all Signposts'), discusses: Tolstoy, Mallarmé, Claude Simon, Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes, Kierkegaard, Proust, Sartre, Wallace Stevens, Cézanne, Herman Melville, Robert Pinget, and Robbe-Grillet. Josipovici, one apprehends, reads these writers, about whom he writes so confidently, in the original. He is not a man many of us can meet on level terms.

Not that he condescends. Josipovici carries his learning lightly and the meditations on Modernism which make up the body of this book are instructive and accessible. But widely as he has read, why has he not, one may ask, engaged at any length with critics who have defended unregenerate 'Englishness'? Donald Davie, for example, who eloquently argued that the main strand in our national poetry is not Eliot, or Pound, but Thomas Hardy (a naif on whom Josipovici will not waste a single sentence). Or A S Byatt, a novelist and critic who leapfrogs over Modernism back to the sustaining realisms of George Eliot. The English, this is to protest, may not be benighted - or, as he likes to put it, shrouded in the 'fog' of their provincialism. They may merely be of a different mind from Gabriel Josipovici.

The second story this book tells is larger. How was the modern English character - specifically with regard to literature and art - (de)formed? Josipovici takes his analysis back to the Reformation and Protestantism. Together with the concurrent rise of capitalism, Josipovici presents this as the emergence of individualism. It's a variant of the Max Weber thesis familiar from Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel, in which Watt argues that the novel is the literary form that accommodated post-Reformation individualism.

As individualism rose the 'numinous' disappeared - along with the Pope, the priests, feudalism, the divine right of kings, and leprosy. It meant freedom, but also the downside of freedom, loneliness. 'When in the sixteenth-century', Josipovici records, 'religion takes its inward turn ... the world becomes a colder space.' And a smaller space.

Modernism, as Josipovici understands, doesn't mend things - but it is honest about the unmendability. Modernism rejects the 'bad faith' of Romanticism and Realism - the two great movements on which traditional English literature and art rest. Modernism is cosmically 'disenchanted' (Josipovici borrows this key term from Max Weber). But it is not frightened to look, even if what it looks at is as paralysing as Medusa's head. Josipovici takes as axiomatic Beckett's proclamation that the Modernist writer has 'nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.' It is despairing but brave - and, more importantly, true to the human condition.

The teasing question posed by this book is about Gabriel Josipovici himself. His career has been passed at the University of Sussex, where (colleagues confirm) he is highly respected. He has written books - notably the extraordinarily brilliant The World and the Book - which would, at any point of his career, have afforded him a passport to any of those foreign parts where a more welcome taste would have been left on his tongue than that deposited by Kingsley Amis et al.

Why is he still here? Why has he chosen to live in an England which he deplores as 'narrow, provincial and smug'? Because, I suspect, he needs to be embattled - as Modernism itself needs to be in perpetual conflict with the bourgeois. This is a book which denounces us, but which - despite that - one can't help rather enjoying. More so as, after all, Gabriel Josipovici has chosen to be one of us.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL.