Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism? New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

51nu2KcgC2LReading this book over several months was not long enough. I took advantage of the requirement to concentrate this book demands to breathe slowly and allow myself to re read and re read again Josipovici’s carefully crafted phrasing. To take on this book requires a certain appreciation for the historical and persistent presence of modernism in literature and art. Josipovici does not take his readers through a mundane history of modernist literature. Rather, he draws them seductively and skillfully into certain key moments within certain creative struggles by certain writers, and asks them to enjoy with him the particular pleasure, and pain, of uncertainty.

It is the complex and terrible beauty of these moments that, once recognised for their intangibility, assume for Josipovici the essence of the modernist project – or rather, it’s necessary crisis. He strains towards each successive articulation with the same sense of yearning for the words to express the inexpressible employed by the writers whose work he explores. But where modern writers sought to render visible the alienation and suffering of a single character, or of a whole generation, Josipovici seeks to explain why the modernist project was, and is still, the benchmark of worthwhile art.

The uncertainties modernist writers and artists articulated in their work were not easily expressed, nor easily accepted by critics, or, indeed, by the writers themselves. Kafka wrote to Max Brod about his work in 1909: ‘each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side’ and ‘the phrases positively fall apart in my hands’ (4). This uncertainty, even fearfulness about expression is partly what gives the works discussed in this book their essentially modernist credentials.

To understand modernism one must understand what came before. The modern is only modern in relation to it’s predecessor. Josipovici quotes Roland Barthes: ‘to be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore’ (139). If one cannot stay still or go back – if history or the loss of certainty or fascism or emptiness of spirit or pain cannot be borne – one must go forward. But into what? What if there is no language for the future? What if the ways words have been arranged in the past no longer fulfill the needs of the present? Then one is silenced. Or one struggles to speak in a new as yet unknown language.

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Guilty Pleasure

November 7, 2010

Joyce Carol Oates , A Fair Maiden, New York: Otto Penzler Books, 2010

Reviewed by Gayle McIntyre

5711702You didn’t hear it from me.  I’ll deny that I recommended this adults-only page turner.  What can be so engrossing about a rich, sophisticated, well respected man befriending a young woman at the Jersey shore?  The sex, violence and sinister manipulation that ensue, might be the answer.

Joyce Carol Oates’ 2010 novel A Fair Maiden lures the reader in with a seemingly simple plot of boy meets girl at a summer holiday town.  The charming and handsome Marcus Kidder convinces the young and insecure Katya Spivak that they were destined to meet and be friends.  Unlike the children in her care as a nanny, she has had a harsh childhood and is trying to better herself, distance herself from her alcoholic mother, and desperately wants to be loved.  Receiving the attentions of the local artist and a long-standing member of the privileged society of this seaside resort has boosted her self-esteem considerably.

She sees the way he looks at her tanned legs and young body.  The catch is, he’s four times her age. Is he really interested in her only as a model for his paintings?  He certainly pays her more than she earns as a nanny.

Well, If I started out denying that I would admit to recommending Oates’ new novel, one would surmise that Marcus has more in mind than painting.  But he has more in mind than the obvious. He needs her, and it’s more complicated than sex.  This fair maiden of the title has a role to play in his scripted and planned life.   The exact role she is to play comes as a complete surprise to the reader, and how he gets her to agree to it, is manipulation at its best.  Although disturbing reading at times, I immediately went to the shelves for another novel by this author who has over fifty novels to her credit and counting.

The Simplest Thing

November 7, 2010

Tariq Ali, The Idea of Communism, London, New York & Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2009.

Mo Yan (Howard Goldblatt trans.), Change, London, New York & Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali is series editor of a new collection of essays, memoirs and short stories provocatively titled What Was Communism? Ali’s own contribution to this collection, The Idea of Communism, starts from the premise that “official Communism” failed in the twentieth century and capitalism was restored in Russia and China. But Ali argues that these facts do not negate some of the basic principles of the initial communist project. His work contextualises Marx’s historical materialism, provides a defence of pre-Leninist communist theory, and discusses the conditions in which “socialism in one country” and Party dictatorship failed. Ali follows Marx in promoting revolutionary views and active democracy with a genuine commitment to such fundamentals as press freedom, diverse (and quality) literature, and critical self-analysis. For Ali, communism is the unachieved but attainable realm of freedom. The bulk of Ali’s series is devoted to voices from within the beast of Stalinist, Maoist or Titoist states, or what Ali calls Utopia’s “misshapen Communist and socialist children.” What Was Communism? includes one contribution about Cuba, individual works from residents of the USSR, Yugoslavia, and China, and a collection of short stories from West Bengal.

Mo Yan’s Change is the fifth book in Tariq Ali’s series, presenting a memoir from one of contemporary China’s greatest writers. Mo Yan is best known for Red Sorghum, his rural love story set during the Chinese resistance to Japan. Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Change reveals the ironic power of Mo’s prose, and Mo’s work is both a record of the dramatic transformations in his personal life from the 1960s to 2010 and an accessible means of reflecting on China’s unprecedented reforms from the earlier age of Maoist autarky. Mo Yan’s narrative flow and anecdotes draw attention to differences in economic relations, political outlook, city landscapes, and even in social, culinary and sexual attitude. The overall picture is one of a decline in Maoist political distortions and increasing economic prosperity, but of a society riven with tensions and plagued by personal and systemic corruption, particularism, and massive social inequalities.

Mo Yan was born in 1955 in Shandong Province, the son of ordinary middle peasants. This fate situated Mo Yan within a less-than-ideal social and political class. Mao Zedong’s revolutionary structure placed a premium on the trinity of Party membership, military affiliation, or an inherited political blood-line traceable to the poor and dispossessed from before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Expelled from grade five on the false charge of giving his teacher (and most importantly the deputy chairman of the school’s revolutionary committee) the nickname “Big Mouth Liu”, Mo Yan busied himself reading classic novels such as Dream of the Red Chamber and Journey to the West and thinking of a career in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He later fantasised about fighting the Vietnamese enemy in the war of 1979 and becoming a revolutionary martyr. (So much for socialist internationalism and peace!) Mo Yan’s death would elevate his parents’ political status: “They would not have raised me in vain.” Mo Yan was not the only Chinese who thought that way: “It may have been a simple, immature way of thinking, but it was the twisted mindset we children of oppressed middle peasants had developed. A glorious death was better than a demeaned existence.” If he survived, Mo Yan would return home to be promoted for his valour. Nationalism and political calculation shaped the destiny of “Mao’s Children.” These children struggled with the class labels placed on them and their families by the Maoist state, and schemed for a way forward.

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