18 January 2011

Experiment, and Contemporary English Literature

Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? was published last July, although TLS didn't review it until this week. In this article, Bharat Tandon challenges Josipovici's contention that modernism has all but disappeared in British literature, stating that there is no mention of B.S. Johnson's Albert Angelo (1964), Alasdair Gray's Lanark (1981), and Ali Smith's The Accidental (2005). It's rather odd that Tandon singles out just one work by the three authors, and three novels over such a time are insignificant, but let's be fair to him: he could also have mentioned Alexander Trocchi, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Niall Griffith's Grits (2000) and Sheepshagger (2001), etc. But Gray, Smith, Trocchi, Kelman, and Leonard are all Scottish, and even if Griffiths was born in Liverpool, the Welsh have with good reason laid claim to him.

But what happens if we limit modernism to English literature alone, and extend that tricky term 'modernist' to 'experimental'? How many names could we come up with if we scratched about some more?

We already have Johnson firmly in the experimental bag – and we can add Ann Quin, Rayner Heppenstall, Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Stefan Themerson, Angela Carter and Anthony Burgess – but what of other relatively recent writers? Nicola Barker maybe? Certainly there's Stewart Home (several of whose novels are a pastiche of pulp novelist Richard Allen), Daren King, two novels by Tom McCarthy, and work by the very young Ben Brooks, but after that the struggle becomes more difficult.

Anna Kavan was English, although she was born in France and lived in several other countries. And Christine Brooke-Rose (the writer of such wonderful bizarre novels as Out (1964), Such (1966), Between (1968), and Thru (1975)) has lived in France for many years. And Ian Monk – the only (ever) English member of the experimental literary group Oulipo – also lives in France.

So here is the essential difference: literary France has experienced symbolism, modernism (and let's not forget that James Joyce was influenced by Édouard Dujardin's Les lauriers sont coupés), surrealism, the nouveau roman, Oulipo, and many contemporary works can be described as experimental - in fact, it wouldn't take long to compile a very long list of experimental French writers. But where is all the literary experimentation in England since, say, Virginia Woolf's death in 1941?

Bharat Tandon suggests that instead of disappearing, perhaps modernism has made a sideways movement. That has a clever ring to it, whatever it means, but unfortunately Tandon doesn't elucidate.

On closing his article on Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Tandon notes that Kosipovici was much better analysing Georges Perec's La vie: mode d'emploi. Well, well.

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