PROUST, JOYCE, MANN IN MODERNIST CONTEXT

PROUST, JOYCE, MANN IN MODERNIST CONTEXT

Nemoianu, Virgil

PROUST, JOYCE, MANN IN MODERNIST CONTEXT. By Gerald Gillespie. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003. 324 p.

Gerald Gillespie belongs to an endangered scholarly species: that of the real comparatists. The high point of this distinguished category was in the 1950s and 1960s, when Wellek, Spitzer, Ziolkowski, and a score of others were at the peak of their creative activity. True, the comparatism of those days was somewhat limited in scope: West European literatures. Since then, we can notice clear gains in breadth (Eastern European literatures were first added to the mix, and then those of South America, Asia, and Africa), but unfortunately also losses in depth. The aggressive interference of sometimes faddish preoccupations, usually aspiring to the status of theory (poststructuralist and feminist first, but also multicultural, materialist, and a spate ofothers) did not help. Actual comparatism-the endeavor to find commonalities of writing and reading across borders of languages, literatures, and cultures-tended to be lost. That books such as Gillespie’s are still brought out by a few responsible and dutiful academic presses is a reason for applause and encouragement.

This study on three figures of High-Modernism writing in three languages is rather original, even unexpected, above all in its structure and methodology. It stubbornly resists even the most modest temptation toward generalization, theoretical system, strict classification. It defiantly proclaims as its need and purpose the pleasure of reading, as if harking back to Susan Son tag’s warning of four decades ago that we need not a hermeneutics but an erotics of literature. This sharply distinguishes Gillespie’s study from the vast body of criticism based upon hate and adversity as key controlling concepts, which seems to have dominated the publishing industry in recent years, and shows up the author not only as a faithful comparatist, but also as a true devotee of literature.

The first half of the volume (“Modernist Moments and Spaces”) is comprised of gentle and sly circular approaches and introductions, and despite Gillespie’s determined resistance against any such admissions, it contains the general idea of the book: that HighModernism is much better integrated in the general flow of Western literature than its avant-garde positionings and generally accepted readings would suggest, and that the true roots of High-Modernism, even those of an “iconoclast” like Joyce, are to be found hundreds of years ago, at least as far back as the Renaissance, probably earlier yet. Chapters 4 and 5 are particularly eloquent in this respect. Gillespie convincingly demonstrates the Hamletian and Goethean descent of Stephen Bloom (pp. 151-67), indeed of Joyce himself, and at the same time refers to Faust as a kind of “melting pot” of traditions that foreshadowed the procedures of many key Modernists. (Personally I would argue that Wilhelm Meister II supersedes, or at least equals, Faust as an early signpost.)

Another introductory section turns to the more recent domain of early cinema (pp. 117-28). While Gillespie deals here mostly with the way in which the new art was absorbed and used by novelists, he also alludes to the ways in which early cinema (and photography) continued seamlessly the work and thematics of prior art and literature within a new medium.

Perhaps even more important are chapters 1, 2, and 3 on the conspicuous and powerful presence of religion and nature in the roots and stems of the High-Modernists. This is important because these domains are often ignored whenever critical readings focus exclusively on aesthetics and ideologies. As a matter of fact, Gillespie points out, the “cathedral window light” is ever-present (of course many a page of Kafka’s prose has its place here), and nature, while not glorified as it was by the Romantics, is treated in original ways by Modernists.

All this does not mean that aesthetics and ideologies are entirely absent from these successive layers of introduction. A substantial and inspired reference to Walter Pater (p. 69) indicates very well the defenses of the aesthetic that were much on the minds of the typical high-modernist figures, at least when they started their work. As to the political, it is well known that chiding Modernism for right-wing inclinations, temptations, or even activities has grown of late into a flourishing cottage industry. Obviously, even the most ingeniously malevolent critics find it somewhat difficult to apply their overly righteous categories to Proust, Mann, and Joyce, all the while freely chastising Eliot, Yeats, and others too numerous to cite here. Gillespie is erudite and intelligent enough to cut down to size such dubious constructions and to calm their agitated rhetoric. An additional argument he might have used is that a certain intensity was simply part of the momentum of modernity. And more often than not this discursive need for “going overboard” was leftward rather than rightward. Substantial and exhaustive books (Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims, Oxford University Press, 1981, for example) offer plenty of information in this respect to those inclined to ignore the posturings and panderings of Picasso and Aragon, Malraux and Eluard, Brecht and Doblin, Auden and his circle, Sartre and Hemingway, and dozens of similar luminaries.

The second part of the book (“Metamorphosis, Play, and the Laws of Life”) contains excellent analyses, with an emphasis on Mann’s Zauberberg, the first two volumes of Proust’s A la Recherche, and Joyce’s Ulysses. These chapters are both memorable and stimulating: the comparisons between Joyce and Sterne (pp. 226, 267) or Rabelais (chapter 10), the brilliant discussion of Hermes in Mann’s writings (chapter 11), with recourse to the correspondence between Mann and Karl Kerenyi, the illustrious myth theorist (p. 202). There is also the shrewd choice of Michel Butor (rather than of the better known and more frequently cited Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon) as the leading and most substantial figure inside the French “nouveau roman” (chapter 13 and elsewhere).

Even more subversively, in chapter 9 (“Educational Experiment in Thomas Mann”) Gillespie comes very close to challenging courageously the manner in which Mann separates values in “The Magic Mountain.” Indeed, it is often perplexing, not to say frustrating, that Mann proclaimed luminosity and organicism as opposing qualities and attributed them to Settembrini and Naphta, respectively, thus splitting the Goethean model.

These chapters are peppered with short penetrating insights and felicitous formulations: “Ulysses [. . .] seems to function as a gate of convergence through which all the past emerges reconstituted in an infinite present” (p. 244), or, “with K., we are drawn into an ever-deepening darkness, and into extreme recesses of interiority and interpretation, to glimpse a haunting radiance from a yet more recondite source” (p. 247), or the description of the “new kind of novel” as an attempt to “overcome time” in the form of a modernist “mosaic assembled out of intervibrating fragments” (elegantly paraphrasing Rilke on p. 299), or, “The rekindling of fascination for knowledge of every kind in The Magic Mountain on the part of that parodie Faustus, Hans Castorp, causes the novel’s enchanted space to expand exponentially, so that the chapters acquire the growth pattern of a widening spiral in proportion as we rediscover the heritage of millenia hidden in the moment” (p. 295)-to give just a few examples.

One could take issue with Gillespie more than once: Transylvania is and was not a “country,” but rather a province or, at most, a principality (p. 73); Lotman is a Baltic, not a Russian, theoretician (p. 117). There are occasional overlaps and repetitions (for example, chapters 3 and 7). The examples culled from Barth refer exclusively to his earlier, less accomplished novels, when Gillespie’s case would have been better served by engaging his mature novels. The discussion of modernist rewriting would have been greatly enriched by references to Derek Walcott and Charles Johnson. Irritatingly, von Musil (as much a leading High-Modernist as any of Gillespie’s heroes) is hardly mentioned. Many a quotation out of Zauberberg would have benefited by reference to the brilliant observations of his great contemporary, the Swiss essayist Max Picard (for example, p. 123, n. 12). Any discussion on plunging into the urban world and appropriating it with the urban walk is bound to be incomplete without at least a side-glance to the opinions of Ernst Junger and Walter Benjamin (pp. 133, 245). The importance of Freud was indeed great for the authors discussed, but it has tended to dwindle precipitously more recently, which is not obvious enough in Gillespie’s examinations.

Perhaps satisfying many of the above quibbles would have over-inflated the book, however: too much erudition may lead to indigestion. As it stands, Gillespie’s book is true to itself-it is a friendly and learned companion for the intelligent and book-loving reader, the genuine auxiliary sought, by those who regard literature as relevant, and beneficial for our human substance.

VIRGIL NEMOIANU

Catholic University of America

Copyright Comparative Literature Fall 2004

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