Modernists on Fiction

ONGOING:

A bunch of writers had things to say about the art or act of fiction: James, Conrad, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Beckett, Stein, and others. I’ll just summarize their main points here (with some help from Jeff Wallace’s chapter “Modernists on the art of fiction” in some Cambridge Companion”:

James is into the point of view as the means to registering the immense variety of human life (often this means dramatizing the failure of point of view, as in “The Jolly Corner”), the “strange irregular rhythm of life.” This means that it is impossible to distinguish between moments of “description” and moments of “narration”: they always penetrate one another. There’s a lot more to James, of course, but he can be summarized, sort of: art can become life to the degree that it hold to outmoded codes of “realist” representation, preferring to offset its description to things as they get pushed through the lens of a character.

Woolf is also invested in life: for her, life describes a liminal zone between consciousness and the outside world (semi-transpartent envelope, a luminous halo): the artist job is to represent “atoms” as they collide with this halo.

Both Lawrence and Forster are attuned to the class politics underwriting the claims for the novel as “high art.” Lawrence diagnoses the social constraints dogging the novel in Hardy: he thinks the novel should embrace a full-blooed Nietzschean ideal. The novel is able to full convey this: it is “the highest complex of subtle inter-relatedness that has discovered.” Likewise, Forster praises the novel’s flexibility (saying that the highly wrought aesthetic beauty of James late fiction sacrifices the human).

Beckett uses Proust to describe Modernism more generally in terms of Bergson–in short, involuntary memory in Proust breaks down the subject by spatializing time, allowing the subject to inhabit (to be inhabited by) multiple temporalities: we do not have memories, we are memories. [Talk about opening of Dalloway] We can “reconstruct” the past outside of the strictures of cause and effect.

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