Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture

February 2, 2012

The negotiation of the Blitz is still a permanent fixture of British post-war culture at the beginning of a new century. As the living record of eyewitnesses diminishes each year, the place of the Blitz and the war in the national consciousness is set to persist, thanks to its popularity in schools linked to the national curriculum and as a perennial favourite among authors, film-makers and television producers. The ability of a history of trauma to focus national sentiment is well understood.

Indeed, as the art historian Kristine Stiles has argued, cultures of trauma can reveal more than the violence itself. An acceptance of the culturally defining historical break that ignores the mechanisms by which violence and trauma are encoded diminishes the cultural productions of the periods that immediately precede and follow. The result is the equivocal evaluation of the literature of the 1930s through to the 1950s, still seen as a rather marginal scholarly pursuit of works of marginal literary merit. Viewed through the prism of the national myth of the Blitz and a dominant post-war sensibility, it is unsurprising that writing of the late 1940s and 1950s largely fails to deliver: a conceptual gap and deferral that must await the more overt social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Then there is the curious mystery of the disappearance of British Modernism. While there has been a great deal of discussion around the ever-lengthening Victorian tail of Modernism, there is a presumption that its fate seems to have been determined by the cultural guillotine of the Blitz.

Leo Mellor's meticulous and revealing study is an illuminating response to many of these problematic elisions. Destruction - social, cultural and technological - has a long aesthetic pedigree that lay at the heart of the various strands of thought and experimentation that sustained Modernism. From the 1890s, fears of invasion, the possibilities of technological terror and the mass obliteration of cities fed a particularly rich cultural ferment of which the Futurist celebration of the aesthetics of technology and war represented only an unusually well-codified example.

Most striking is Mellor's argument that necessarily fragmented perception and the materiality of fantastic surrealist effects resulting from the destruction of great swathes of London made the aesthetics of Modernism a matter of everyday life and, in retrospect, less remarkable to the critical eye. Tracing the anticipation of destruction in the 1930s, first-hand literary responses to the Blitz itself that are simultaneously surrealistic and social realist, through to the hauntings of London's buried past exposed to direct sunlight and blooming for the first time in centuries, the breadth and depth of his scholarship reinstates a context for many previously obscure(d) writers of the Blitz - including William Sansom, Henry Green and David Gascoyne - and reveals their broader significance. Moreover, writers seen as relatively minor talents eclipsed by the giants of Modernism and the post-war expectation of something new - such as Patrick Hamilton, Elizabeth Bowen and David Jones - are revealed to be significant figures of late Modernism. Rather than being overwhelmed by time and events, their work forms the aesthetic and conceptual bridge of post-war British culture.

Instead of allowing the cultural memory of one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century to obliterate an important era of literary history, Mellor shows how writers and other artists responded to the war and the Blitz through ongoing, inventive aesthetic experimentation. Throwing off the presumption that the Blitz and the war somehow restrained the emergence of works of power and persistence, Mellor has produced an original study that will do much to put a neglected period and a distorted literary judgement back into debate.

Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture

By Leo Mellor. Cambridge University Press 256pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781107009295. Published 15 September 2011

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