The Cambridge Companion to European Modernism

February 23, 2012

Editor: Pericles Lewis

Edition: First

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 288

Price: £55.00 and £17.99

ISBN: 9780521199414 and 36075

Literary Modernism is a cosmopolitan phenomenon. Its highlights, or so we tell ourselves, are The Waste Land, a poetic collaboration between two US poets living in London and Paris, and Ulysses, a novel written by an Irishman living in Trieste and promoted by the selfsame US poets. Yet it is hard for British and US readers to get outside the anglophone bubble. Despite their peppering of their writing with myriad foreign languages, both living and dead, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and James Joyce all wrote in English. Leaving aside the patriarchal connotations of the phrase “the men of 1914”, just as problematic is the Anglo-American bias that the idea promoted.

Pericles Lewis’ new volume of essays attempts a wider gaze, giving the reader an overview of the variety of European Modernisms that existed in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey and (even) Great Britain. Some names dealt with here - Proust, Kafka, Mann - are so familiar as to be canonical. Other writers are relatively unknown outside their national cultures.

In doing so, the volume also questions our ideas of what defined Modernism. Kafka, for example, although usually described as “Modernist”, never identified himself this way and was reluctant to join the avant-garde groups of the period.

A further question raised by the book is how Modernism and nation could be reconciled. Accustomed as we are to the idea of Modernist writers as rootless exiles, the local and national emphases of some varieties of Modernism have tended to be ignored. Yet for writers such as Mann and Pericles Yannopoulos, German and Greek respectively, the question of national identity was core to the writing they produced. There was even a British return to the local in the intricate late Modernism of the poet Basil Bunting. Bunting, who had known Pound and admired Eliot, produced the extraordinary late epic Briggflatts, a striking homage to the landscape of Northumbria in dense, allusive and musical verse.

Modernism’s roots reach back deep into the 19th century. Baudelaire is here as a key figure, as is Ibsen, whose influence not only on Scandinavian writing but on modern European literature as a whole is immeasurable. Where does Modernism begin? If the Paris street scenes evoked by Baudelaire are crucial, what of Dickens, whose London fog and strange symbolism seem to pre-empt the poetry of Eliot?

As with any decent book on this complex area, then, The Cambridge Companion to European Modernism asks more questions than it can answer. As it should; the concept of literary Modernism is in constant need of reappraisal. This is a thought-provoking and much-needed introduction to modern European literature.

Who is it for? English and modern languages undergraduates, literary academics, educated general readers interested in European literature.

Presentation: Clear, fluent, engaging.

Would you recommend it? A valuable purchase for anyone studying or teaching modern literature.

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