Stances

DW:This brings us quite neatly around to a question with which we could ‘close’ this discussion, if only by opening it onto others. Let’s say that, as ever, literature’s death looks a little exaggerated. If this is so, I’m with you in ardently wanting not to ‘have done with’ the modernist impulse, in the way we’ve sought to describe it.

“How then might writing return to the problems that modernism presents? Or rather, how will writing refuse to delude itself that it’s rid of those problems? And can it still do so while ‘making it new,’ that is, without lapsing into pastiche, or fetishising a ‘period’ that’s part of the past?

“For the record, one literary form I do think is ‘dead’ is the novel of ideas. I’m a cultural pessimist insofar as I can’t see our future producing another Mann, a Goethe, a Sartre. But nor would I want it to. I’d say the days of the great, stately ‘philosophical’ novel are gone, and they’re gone for a reason. Put bluntly, I think it’s no longer enough for writing to ‘thematise’ its conjuncture. Today, treating modernity as a theme has become one more way of turning away from it.

“You mention Bernhard in the same breath as Lydia Davis, which I think is fruitful. What I mean here is that I read Bernhard for the same reasons I read some recent American writers. I want to say that I read for the style, but I don’t mean ‘style’ in the ‘superficial’ sense you astutely describe. In the work of the writers I most admire, a style is always also a stance. That is, for them, a way of arranging words on the page is also a way of reaching a view of the world.

“I don’t want to go on and on, so all I’ll say is this: if modernism persists, it surely doesn’t do so as a disembodied idea. Instead, it’s deeply embedded inside the stylistic stances of writers who might not think of themselves as ‘modernists,’ but whose writing itself somehow can’t help but be modern.

Modernism then and Now By David Winters and Anthony Brown.

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