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D J Taylor
Our Island Stories

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As one of the many people who rushed to comment on What Ever Happened to Modernism? on the strength of an inflammatory article in The Guardian, I owe Gabriel Josipovici an apology. He has since written a piteous - but accurate - letter to the Times Literary Supplement regretting that the Guardian journalist 'took a few sentences from one chapter of a fifteen chapter book ... robbed those words of their nuance and context, and, on the basis of three telephone conversations in which I tried in vain to explain that I was not interested in personalities but in certain large and general literary and cultural issues, passed the whole thing off as an interview.'

In fact What Ever Happened to Modernism?, though trailed as a savage assault on such titans of the contemporary English bookshelf as Amis, McEwan and Barnes, turns out to be an exceptionally interesting piece of work. Like practically every academic study that approaches local culture from the angle of Europe, it is horribly partial and wrong-headed, but its conclusions are for the most part both generous and wry, and the remarks about Amis, McEwan and Barnes occupy perhaps 1 per cent of the volume. The moral would appear to be: don't give interviews to The Guardian. But in the circumstances - new book out, publisher's marketing department aflame - Josipovici's unworldliness can perhaps be forgiven him.

Astuteness notwithstanding, the central thread of Josipovici's enquiry isn't in the least remarkable, for he detects at the heart of modern English literature a hollow core, a persistent refusal to address the complexities of contemporary life based on an indifference to - or outright dislike of - the Modernist literary techniques that became fashionable in the early twentieth century. As such it expands a remark once dropped by the novelist Eva Figes, to the effect that 'the horrors of her lifetime' could not be accommodated by the English social-realist tradition. To put it bluntly - far more bluntly than Josipovici would like, I dare say - Belsen, Auschwitz and Katyn need something more than character, irony and sentiment to be done justice by art.

Josipovici's particular bugbear is Irène Némirovsky, and the fuss lavished on her posthumously published Suite Française: he has no difficulty in showing how hopelessly middlebrow her treatment of the German invasion of France is compared to such sturdy avant-garde talents as Claude Simon. He is also alert to the fact that some of the best defences of the Modernist approach to fiction appear in fiction itself. In particular he quotes a passage from Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange (1983), in which a magical realist from Eastern Europe informs the British Council's timorous envoy that he is 'really not a character in the world historical sense. You come from a little island with water all round it. When we were oppressed and occupied and when we fought and died, and there were mad mullahs and pogroms against the Jews, what did you have...?'

There are some very similar moments in A S Byatt's Still Life (1985), which features an émigré Cambridge don named Raphael Faber, who rails against 'stories with character, against whining, against insularity, against verbal sluggishness'. Most of Faber's family have been killed by the Nazis, and his response is a 'difficult' poem called 'Lübeck Bells' which contains no direct reference to the Holocaust.

Faced with a Raphael Faber, Bradbury's Katya Princip or even Josipovici, the specimen English novelist is entitled to protest that it isn't his fault he wasn't born with their disadvantages and that, in however general a way, a cultural tradition is only as good as the sum of its historical parts. There could never be an English Beckett, and most English novelists who have tried to follow the Beckett line have fallen flat on their face. As a fan of early twentieth-century American naturalism - those sprawling accounts of US big-city machine-age diaspora - I often used to wonder why, in the interwar era, the Americans had Dreiser and Dos Passos, and we had Arnold Bennett and J B Priestley. The answer, surely, lies not in anything so grand as a defective aesthetic but in the fact that Priestley lived in London and not Chicago. The point works both ways, and the library browser in Billings, Montana is likely to detect the same kind of bizarre exoticism in Anita Brookner as we do in Annie Proulx.

It is not, as Josipovici insists, that the postwar English novel has been let down by its novelists: the real failure, it might be argued, has come from its critics, both sympathetic and hostile. The most conspicuous victim of this tendency to domesticate and sanitise has been Anthony Powell, too often written off as a supercilious observer of the upper-class drawing room, when what he really specialises in are profoundly oblique and decentred analyses of quiddity - the things that, in the last resort, make one human being different from another. The same point could be made of Alan Sillitoe, whose early short stories reminded his French translators of Camus, but who was instantly pigeonholed over here as a documentary realist.

It could even be made of Josipovici, whose overlooking of the extraordinarily hybrid, if not eclectic, nature of much postwar English literature is made apparent by the fact that his two great heroes - Muriel Spark and William Golding - turn out to have been championed, respectively, by two of his great bogey figures, Evelyn Waugh and John Carey. Rather exasperated by what he judged the undue prominence given to the Mitteleuropa masters, Powell once offered a memorable pastiche that began, 'It was a summer's evening, old Kafka's work was done.' There are excellent reasons - historical and aesthetic - why it couldn't, and shouldn't, be continued.

D J Taylor's next novel, 'Derby Day', will be published by Chatto & Windus in 2011.