What Ever Happened to Modernism?

Gabriel Josipovici

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October 25, 2011
224 pages, 5 1/4 x 8 1/2'
6 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300178005
Paper

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A personal, penetrating, and polemical account of what Modernism is and how contemporary literature has failed it

The quality of today’s literary writing arouses the strongest opinions. For novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici, the contemporary novel in English is profoundly disappointing—a poor relation of its groundbreaking Modernist forebears. This agile and passionate book asks why.

Modernism, Josipovici suggests, is only superficially a reaction to industrialization or a revolution in diction and form; essentially, it is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities. And its origins are to be sought not in 1850 or 1800, but in the early 1500s, with the crisis of society and perception that also led to the rise of Protestantism. With sophistication and persuasiveness, Josipovici charts some of Modernism’s key stages, from Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes to the present, bringing together a rich array of artists, musicians, and writers both familiar and unexpected—including Beckett, Borges, Friedrich, Cézanne, Stevens, Robbe-Grillet, Beethoven, and Wordsworth. He concludes with a stinging attack on the current literary scene in Britain and America, which raises questions about not only national taste, but contemporary culture itself.

Gabriel Josipovici has spent a lifetime writing, and writing about other writers. What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a strident call to arms, and a tour de force of literary, artistic, and philosophical explication that will stimulate anyone interested in art in the twentieth century and today.

Gabriel Josipovici is a prolific and eminent novelist, literary theorist, critic, and scholar. He is currently research professor at the University of Sussex, where he taught in the School of European Studies for thirty-five years.

"[Josipovici's] approach does more justice to the complexity of Modernism than any capsule account could provide. And because Mr. Josipovici is himself an accomplished novelist, he knows how to craft a strong narrative. . . . The story he tells is unexpectedly compelling."—Eric Ormsby, Wall Street Journal

"Polemical, witty, passionate, and erudite, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a most compelling ode to modernism, and a most convincing defense of its relevance for literature and the arts today.  It is a remarkable journey through 500 years of literature and delectable from beginning to end.  I cannot recommend it enough."—Miguel de Beistegui

"A fine novelist's account of why the art he cares about matters to him and should matter to us. Many people will want to read this book, and some of us are already cheering."—Michael Wood, author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge

"His European sensibility never at ease with the often supercilious British reception accorded the great modernists – from Mallarmé through Beckett, from Cézanne to Picasso – Josipovici takes us on a grand tour of those artists and authors in a book full of developed insights and rich personal comments. Learned yet never academic, this book is a pleasure to read."—Geoffrey Hartman

“[A] small, elegant volume . . . Josipovici offers a refreshing retro-radicalism by rejecting the vetted reading list.”—John L. Murphy, New York Journal of Books

"An appealing literary-historical excursion . . . Quite engaging."—M. A. Orthofer, Complete Review

"A measured and accessible polemic against contemporary culture. . . . What we have instead is a richer, broader and more exciting book than is signaled by the title. . . . This book is so alive. . . . An inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers."—Ben Hamilton, The Millions

"Valuable . . . . You don't have to agree with all of Josipovici's demanding ideas about what it means to write fiction after modernism to be stimulated and provoked by this book."—Bill Marx, Arts Fuse

"In literary journalism vinegar catches more flies than honey. The reason why Gabriel Josipovici’s unapologetically high-brow little book on modernism received so much publicity last year was because of its scathing remarks on the state of modern British letters, especially the novel. But it is only in the penultimate chapter (of fifteen) that Josipovici lays into the ‘beady-eyed’ philistinism of Amis, McEwan, Barnes et al. Entertaining as his assault is, this is a more challenging and ambitious book than simply a jeremiad on the contemporary cultural climate."—Ronan McDonald, The London Magazine

'There is no better introduction to Modernism, or indeed to the central questions about art and literature that dominated the twentieth century.  And no one more passionate and erudite, to remind us that the emergence of Modernism was not a single moment in literary history, but something that should engage us everytime we pick up a book or look at a painting.' — David Herman, Jewish Chronicle

'... a welcome intervention in the long debate about the difference between art and entertainment.' — James Purdon, The Observer

'Whatever Happened to Modernism? is a personal mapping of what modernism means to Josipovici, and what makes it both difficult and irreplaceable in his eyes ...  His books is similarly eloquent, besides being, in its task of charting modernism's uniqueness, ingenious, unexpected, astute and insightful.  It's also - because of its passion and intelligence - readable, in a way a modernist would approve of ...' — Amit Chaudhuri, The Independent

"Josipovici's erudite and intelligent polemic raises more questions than it answers - always a good thing."—Tom McCarthy, Daily Telegraph

'This short, fierce book is clearly very personal ... Nevertheless, I enjoyed the sinuousness and vigour of Josipovici's arguments.'  — Sam Leith, Sunday Times

'Now in his seventies, he is formidably cultivated ... Not that he condescends.  Josipovici carries his learning lightly and the meditations on Modernism which make up the body of the book are instructive and accessible ... This is a book  ... one can't help rather enjoying.' — John Sutherland, Literary Review

'What can't be faulted is the plaintive logic running through this book.  In cultural terms, we live in deeply conservative times ... Yet can anyone, now, name the successful middlebrow writer of 1922 or 1915?  Of course not.  That alone should give Josipovici comfort.' — Tom McCarthy, The Guardian

"An essential work that is highly readable and quotable. Those familiar with Josipovici's work with recognize that respect, and the humanity underlying. . . . His position is well articulated. . . . Hopefully future writers will regard this impressive and impassioned book as an invitation to engage openly with [Josipovici's] story and view of modernism."—Jeff Bursey, American Book Review

"The story he tells is unexpectedly compelling. . . . Mr. Josipovici has a gift for sweeping the reader along."—Eric Ormsby, The Wall Street Journal

"One of the pleasures of Gabriel Josipovici's Whatever Happened to Modernism? is that it all but forces us—dares us even—to argue with it. . . . Careful moderate critics are useful, bit it it the fiery, aggrieved ones who scale the highest intellectual heights, and Josipovici has scaled those heights with brio and panache."—Matthew Cheney, Rain Taxi

“Gabriel Josipovici’s eloquent defence of Modernism seeks out its roots deep within the spirit of Western Culture.”—Geoffrey Heptonstall, Contemporary Review

“It is personal, engaged, sometimes a bit nuts – Words – worth a proto-modernist? Flaubert, the author of Bouvard et Pecuchet, a realist? – but consistently eye-opening, honest with its terms and, amazingly for a work of literary criticism, hugely quotable and never dull.”—Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

“Excitingly argued, Josipovici’s ideas have convinced me.”—Colin Waters, The Sunday Herald (Glasgow)

      “It is to Josipovici’s argumentative credit that he manages to pit commonplace preconceptions against the subtlety of his own    reading, which disrupts generalisation in favour of the close scrutiny of texts and images.”

 

  “While modernism is replete with preconceived valuations and powerfully contested assignations, Josipovici’s modernism is a deeply personal one which eschews much of the institutional politics often associated with contemporary ‘modernist studies’. […] Josipovici makes a resolutely independent contribution.”

 

—Andrew W. Hay, Essays in Cricism Vol 63, no 3, July 2013

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