Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Encounters with Modernism: Ian McEwan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and the Ethics of Abstraction

What distinguishes modernism’s legacies from the afterlives of other literary or cultural movements? To begin to answer this question, let’s glance back to 1941, when several writers of transatlantic renown composed what we might call obituaries for the modernist arts. Djuna Barnes’s “Lament for the Left Bank,” for example, an elegiac piece published in the American periodical Town and Country, memorialized a Paris made brilliant by overlapping arcs of collaborative innovation: Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes; George Antheil and Ezra Pound; Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Coco Chanel. The essay ends with the line, “The dreadful thing is not that all these things were done, but that they are over.”[1] The things that were done and the things that are over: Barnes identifies the tensions that would come to mark modernism’s legacy in the twenty-first century, the dialectical occurrences of cultural continuity and discontinuity, of originality and repetition. For Barnes, Left Bank artists in the 1920s and 1930s did “things”—a single, compact word for modernism’s kaleidoscopic transformations—that were over by 1941, a conviction varied and echoed in other coeval “art-historical post-mortems,” to borrow from Richard Meyers, by Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Anaïs Nin, and Cyril Connolly.[2]   

I take my first cue from the periodizing gestures of these writers, many of whom were central to the creation and circulation of interwar metropolitan modernism and who then bore witness to subsiding experimental energies under the shadow of the Second World War. Accordingly, my argument here concerns itself less with reading twenty-first-century fictions as modernism’s proliferating sequelae (which is the prevailing direction of much recent scholarship), and attends, instead, to explaining deliberate revitalizations of a cultural phenomenon whose dominance—however indelible its stamp, however elemental its impact on perception—faded before the war.[3]

Such a move establishes a temporal framework for modernist legacies and thereby counters certain expansions of the movement; it does not, however, satisfactorily answer my opening query about what makes those legacies distinct.[4] Certainly, modernism is by no means the sole movement to lay command to transhistorical value, or whose aesthetic practices or generic innovations hold interest for contemporary writers, or whose texts are remade for twenty-first-century audiences. Let us then step away from reading modernism primarily as a determinant of contemporary style (and, in the process, sidestep the vexed term “post-postmodernism”), and look instead at early-twentieth-century modernist arts and letters as a source of ethical and affective pressure.[5] What happens to the individual, the group, or the institution confronted by the presence of the aggressively new art-object? In “Lament for the Left Bank,” Barnes recalls the publication of Ulysses as a cluster of high-pressure confrontations:

[O]ne day in February, 1922, something...happened. A copy of a book, bound in blue and named Ulysses, appeared in the window of Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. Expatriate pens stood still. Wasn’t this that book that had been, in its serial form in The Little Review, hailed into court before it had reached many pages? It was. Pernod, Byrrh, Dubonnet, Cognac stood motionless in their glasses. This time writers were floored....[Joyce] was ushering out an age....Stein’s star, Cocteau’s moon, had set. (115–16)

Stillness, astonishment, outrage, transition: here are some of the psychic and historical dimensions of diverse encounters with the self-consciously modern arts. What characterizes modernism’s reappearance now, I argue, is the form-giving role of such pressure-laden encounters in wide-ranging contemporary novels in English. Writers such as J. M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy, Francine Prose, Tom McCarthy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Cunningham, Ali Smith, and Ben Lerner—stylistically incompatible at first blush—treat modernism as an aesthetic and an experiential formation, capable of determining plot, character, moral possibility, and history itself. Their fictions engage the conflicted cultural and ethical status that accrued to modernism at the century-old moment of its inception.

Then and Now; or, Now, as Then

Modernism’s meta-presence in its own moment often took the form of an unresolved equation between the defamiliarizing gesture on one hand and the affective consequences created by that gesture on the other. We can conceptualize gesture and consequence through Adorno’s term parataxis, a poetic device that supplies a structural language for reading modernism at its point of origin as well as in its afterlives. Adorno defines parataxes as “striking artificial disturbances that evade the logical hierarchy of a subordinating syntax”: the device negates a unifying or synthesizing drive towards poetic meaning.[6] Modernist fiction, I argue, often treated modernism itself as a paratactic force-field, a revolutionary phenomenon whose “artificial disturbances” determined the relational outcomes of narrative. The meta-presence of the modernist movement within early twentieth-century fiction disturbed or evaded the “subordinating syntax” of modern sociability, mandating a new interpretive ethos from those who found themselves in the presence of modernist art-forms and practitioners. It is a commonplace that in its multiform incarnations across genres, countries, and decades, early-twentieth-century modernism provoked adulation as well as condemnation, shock as well as indifference. What is less well understood, and what holds the key to understanding modernism’s presence today, is the tension among those provocations within artworks that themselves registered the cultural force of aesthetic experimentation. Consider the modernist autocritique that shapes interwar British fictions by Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, H.D., Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and Jean Rhys.[7] Such fictions tussle with the ethical implications of the very innovative techniques their works employ, while coeval works by Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Wyndham Lewis document, parody, and warn of the consequences of modernism’s self-styled revolutionary postures.[8] The “things that were done,” to return to Djuna Barnes, were cast in the role of character-determining parataxes: one’s relationship to the modern arts revealed one’s place within modernity itself. This relationship shaped the turning points of a substantial body of interwar narrative fiction.

Fig. 1. Subscription advertisement from September 1929 issue of Vanity Fair featuring Picasso’s 1909 cubist painting Portrait of Braque..

Two 1929 advertisements for the glamorous periodical Vanity Fair magazine exemplify modernism’s call to a new ethics of interpretation and reception. Founded in 1914 by the publishing magnate Condé Nast and the art collector Frank Crowninshield, Vanity Fair magazine declared itself a “class publication”—the first of its kind—and sought to build up its readership through a deliberate tactics of exclusion. From 1914 to 1936, the magazine was a powerful engine for promoting as well as parodying the transformative accomplishments of metropolitan modernism.[9] Vanity Fair shed witty and flattering light on the worlds of Bloomsbury and the Harlem Renaissance, a burgeoning axis of modern American letters spanning Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edmund Wilson, and Clare Booth Brokaw; the rise of Art Deco; the urban subcultures of queer arts and fashion; and the rise of twentieth-century celebrity culture. Its editorial introductions and subscription ads exhorted readers to view the magazine as a sourcebook for modernism’s unprecedented newness. By posing questions—coy and probing in equal measure—about “what is communicated in the shock of the unintelligible,” as Adorno writes in “Commitment,” Vanity Fair turned defamiliarizing aesthetics into a tests of readerly sophistication.[10] Consider an advertisement from September 1929 (fig. 1) featuring Picasso’s 1909 cubist painting Portrait of Braque and bold text that demanded:

Somebody paid $3500 for this. WHY? Why did Picasso, master draughtsman, choose to paint a portrait like this?—Why Braque...Derain...Matisse...Cézanne?—What do they mean? What do you say when your pretty dinner partner asks you?—Could you even tell if this were wrong side up?—You’ve got to know. Not just gulp soup!—One way to find out...READ VANITY FAIR![11]

A second subscription advertisement from 1929 (fig. 2) declared:

MODERNISM is sweeping the intelligent world.

YOU find it in music, in the arts, in literature. You can’t ignore it. Yet, what do you know about it? What do you think of it?

You won’t always understand modernism. But you should at least be able to appreciate it.[12]

The ad went on to laud Vanity Fair as the “true mirror of modernity,” promising that the magazine’s subscribers would attain fluency in the lingua franca of modernism.[13]

Fig. 2. Subscription advertisement from February 1929 issue of Vanity Fair.

Ubiquitous but inaccessible, dangerous but incomprehensible, degenerate but rarefied: the modern arts, as the Vanity Fair subscription ads suggest, called a complex field of social relations into being.[14] Modern art infiltrated the private lives of remarkable and unremarkable modern people, and the very process of that infiltration—paratactic, anti-synthetic—became a key element of modernist discourse. The underlying conviction of the Vanity Fair advertisements is that your reaction to modernism reflects and determines who you are. It is this relationship, I argue, that gets carried forward to constitute modernism’s contemporary presence. Thus, early-twentieth-century modernism takes center stage in several twenty-first-century fictions not solely as homage, stylistic inheritance, or as the measure of literary continuity or prestige, but more potently, as a dynamic agent of disruptive change. The new modernist studies, to be sure, has persuasively demonstrated the limitations of understanding modernism as a function of shock, moving away from the language of rupture to emphasize modern modes of continuity.[15] But contemporary fiction’s modernist turn focuses on the movement’s revolutionary claims and the status of the defamiliarizing act, revisiting modernism’s promise to rewrite private and public social discourses through the violent, surprising, or thrilling erasure of the habitual and the known. Read this way, we see that contemporary reactivations of experimental modernism invest the movement with the auratic power to rearrange the connective tissue of sociability itself. Crucially, this investment has no unified or dominant stylistic disposition. Aesthetically diverse twenty-first-century fictions ask what it means to affiliate oneself with the modernist arts: and this question, freighted with ethical and formal import, demands a stance that distinguishes modernist legacies from the afterlives of other movements.

Plotting Against Modernism: McEwan and Lahiri

Let me illustrate these claims about modernism’s consistently problematic roles in contemporary literature by narrowing my focus to the contrasting figures of Ian McEwan (whom we can very easily recognize as an experimental writer) and Jhumpa Lahiri (whose writings are staunchly devoid of stylized literary self-consciousness). McEwan and Lahiri appear to be strange bedfellows, but their fictions share an antipathy towards early-twentieth-century formal innovation. The idea of modernism, and its attendant emotions and psychic conditions, lends form to each writer’s work: and these forms are concerned with mapping the moment, cause, or consequences of modernism’s emergence. In McEwan’s and Lahiri’s hands, modernism veers between protagonist and antagonist, sometime midwife and sometime nemesis of social community. Never an inert historical presence or neutral cultural context, modernism clarifies the sources of a story’s tension and provides a litmus test of political, social, or ethical intent. These writers plot against modernism in order to forge novelistic and social integrity.

McEwan’s Atonement (2001) is both a tribute to Virginia Woolf and a quarrel with the modernism she invented, a novel in which McEwan aims to “enter into a conversation with modernism and its dereliction of duty in relation to...the backbone of the plot.”[16] This dereliction of duty, McEwan maintains, manifests itself in the relationship between literary style and human intimacy, and Woolf and her modernist peers achieved the former at the expense of the latter. McEwan has adopted this complex attitude towards modernism in novels that succeeded Atonement. Saturday (2005), a single-day novel patterned on Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, silences experimental feminist poetry to find refuge in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”; the quasi-biographical Sweet Tooth (2012) plots its protagonist’s fate in the tense space between reliable realism and deceptive experimentalism; and The Children Act (2014), a rewriting of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” exacts marital trust and suicide as the cost of exchanging religious faith for a love of modern poetry and music. But it is Atonement, celebrated for its rich archaeology of English literary history and profoundly indebted to To the Lighthouse, where McEwan develops his conviction that modernism deforms social bonds.

Atonement tells the story of Briony Tallis, a thirteen-year-old girl whose storytelling ambitions lead her to falsely accuse her sister’s lover of rape. On a June morning in 1935, Briony witnesses but fails to understand an exchange between her older sister Cecilia and a young man named Robbie Turner. Her incomprehension of events seen through a bedroom window inaugurates the literary sensibility that will later distinguish the novels she writes as an adult:

She could write that scene three times over, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains....There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive....

Six decades later she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature, beginning with stories derived from the European tradition of folktales, through drama with simple moral intent, to arrive at an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself, one special morning during a heat wave in 1935.[17]

Here is the birth of a modernist disposition, the genesis of aesthetic postures that, for McEwan, constitute themselves through the absence of “simple moral intent.”

McEwan indicts modernism’s ethical fragility in 1941, the year with which we opened, when Briony, tormented by guilt for having sent Robbie to prison for rape, composes an experimental piece about Robbie and Cecilia titled “Two Figures by a Fountain.” She submits it to Cyril Connolly at Horizon, and, at this point in the novel, McEwan weighs the value of self-consciously modern aesthetics through a metadiscourse of originality and repetition.[18] Briony views her story’s formal originality as evidence of her own authorial exceptionalism:

What excited her about her achievement was its design, the pure geometry and the defining uncertainty which reflected, she thought, a modern sensibility. The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots....Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn....It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time....The novel of the future would be unlike anything in the past. She had read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves three times and thought that a great transformation was being worked in human nature itself, and that only fiction, a new kind of fiction, could capture the essence of the change. (McEwan, Atonement, 265)

But modernist innovation loses its authority in the space between its claim to newness and a critic’s disdain for such claims. Jamais vu, dejá vu: Briony may regard “the techniques of Mrs. Woolf” as a template for the novel of the future, but Connolly, the editor, dismisses them as the dead weight of modernism past (294).[19] Connolly rejects Briony’s submission, faulting “Two Figures by a Fountain” for its adherence to outdated modernist pieties about time, consciousness, and the dissolution of objective certainty. His rejection letter (which cites Elizabeth Bowen as the voice of a post-Woolfian literary present) suggests that modernism has run its course:

[W]e wondered if it owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf.  The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry...However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement. Put the other way round, our attention would have held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative....Simply put, you need the backbone of a story. (McEwan, Atonement, 294–96, ellipses added)

Connolly’s argument that self-referentiality lacks the “underlying pull of simple narrative” shatters Briony’s worship of autotelic form, which, she realizes, suppresses not only her authorial presence, but also the lie that sent Robbie Turner to prison: “It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone” (302). Atonement deploys and then condemns modernism’s paratactic gestures to suggest that literary plotlessness encrypts social and moral plotlessness. In other words, Briony’s leveling of event to opaque, directionless impression exemplifies McEwan’s complaint about modernist “dereliction of duty” to the “backbone of the plot.”

At the novel’s end, McEwan reveals that Atonement—the book we have been reading that tells the story of Briony’s lie—is actually a work by Briony Tallis herself, an established canonized novelist now afflicted with irreversible vascular dementia.[20] The new title Briony gives to the revised story rejected by Connolly foregrounds her departure from modernism’s obsolete techniques: the abstract spatial arrangement of “Two Figures by a Fountain” has turned into the linear plot of cause-and-effect implied by Atonement, the totalizing, morally centered promises of “at-one-ment.” Thus, the metamodernist work of this novel frames a tribute to Austenian realism, a dialogue with Woolfian form, a destabilizing metafictional ending, and the condemnation of experimental literature’s self-serving nature.[21]

Unlike McEwan, Jhumpa Lahiri is generally not included in conversations about modern or postmodern literature, and, as I have argued elsewhere, is virtually invisible outside of identity-based scholarship about Indian American or immigrant writing.[22] Her four works of fiction in English—Interpreter of Maladies (1999), The Namesake (2003), Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and The Lowland (2013)—set forth a realism notable for its mimetic qualities.[23] Lahiri names William Trevor, Bernard Malamud, Mavis Gallant, and James Salter as her models; and these influences are visible in the jewel-box perfection of her prose.[24] But although her somber fictions never directly take up issues of aesthetic inheritance, they advance a powerful case against the modern arts. Characters affiliated with modernist discourses are villainized for their capacity to disrupt lines of social and familial continuity. If modernism does not feature centrally for Lahiri, as it does for McEwan, it nevertheless performs an indexical function in her narratives, separating, in the simplest terms, the good from the bad.

In Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, a short story collection about New England families, plots arrange themselves around the textual markers of modern artistic innovation. Lahiri heralds the collection’s preoccupation with continuity, discontinuity, location, and dislocation through an epigraph drawn from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 “The Custom House,” the prefatory essay that frames The Scarlet Letter:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.[25]

For Hawthorne’s narrator Surveyor Pue, the custom-house official who witnesses people and goods entering and leaving America, humanity can only thrive through cycles of rupture and reintegration. Each of Unaccustomed Earth’s eight stories explores the difficult promises of this conviction. Whether describing a family’s move from Brooklyn to Seattle, a romance brought to a violent end by infidelity, or an alcoholic’s near-fatal narcissism, Lahiri enshrines communal continuity as a safeguard against the ineluctable trauma of rupture, or of inhabiting “unaccustomed earth.” The celebratory aesthetic ruptures that Lahiri associates with early-twentieth-century experimental modernism jeopardize that continuity.

Unaccustomed Earth ends with a coming-of-age trilogy titled “Hema and Kaushik,” an extended tragic dialogue between the two title characters. Hema and Kaushik are childhood acquaintances separated and reunited over their lifetimes as their families “strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” Modernist affinities in the trilogy span two generations disastrously. Kaushik’s mother Parul, an outlier in the Boston immigrant Indian community, rejects traditional New England architecture and elects to live in an oceanside modernist house with “a perfectly flat roof and whole walls of glass” as well as a floating staircase (Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth, 251). She furnishes it with a Noguchi table, an arc lamp, and a white Parsons table on which she arranges “a generous cluster of fresh fruit or flowers” rather than trays of Indian condiments (259). Deemed “stylish” and therefore self-indulgent by Hema’s mother (whose middle-class conventionalism Lahiri signals through the character’s Avon perfume and Good Housekeeping magazines), Parul wears Chanel perfume and reads Vogue and Harper’s; even the Indian decorative arts in her home are the abstract geometric forms of a madhubani print textile. These subtle matters of taste, and Parul’s desire for those aspects of modernism that brought aesthetic experiment into everyday life, correspond to a detachment that Lahiri associates with the decay of social collectivities. Indeed, after deliberately choosing a life without community, Parul’s body eventually wastes away from breast cancer.

Following Parul’s death, Kaushik’s father remarries a Bengali woman with two daughters and takes his place among other Indian immigrant families. Kaushik describes this marriage as a move to silence “whatever lingered of my mother’s spirit in the place she had last called home” (293):

A few weeks before my college graduation my father called to say that he was selling our house, that he and Chitra and the girls were moving to a more traditional one in a less isolated suburb of Boston. There were other Bengalis nearby and an Indian grocery in the town, things that were more important to Chitra than the proximity of the ocean and Modernist architecture had been for my mother. I would not be following my father to that new house. (292)

After his father turns his back on the memory of a “stylish” wife and makes a late return to tradition, Kaushik becomes a photo-journalist. His mother’s love of solitude and design translates into a psychic remove that enables powerful documentary photography. Kaushik emerges into this profession while traveling through El Salvador and witnessing a death squad shoot a young man:

[H]e crept forward and lifted the camera to his face. When he thought back to that afternoon, he remembered that his hands were shaking but that otherwise he felt untouched by the situation, unmoved once he was behind the camera, shooting to the end of the roll....And so he began to take pictures for a living....He photographed bodies with faces smashed and throats slit and penises hacked from between their legs...he was hired by the New York Times, and they sent him to Africa and then to the Middle East. He could no longer remember all the corpses he’d photographed, their faces bloated, their mouths stuffed with dirt, their vacant eyes reflecting passing clouds over their heads. (304–05, ellipses added)

Kaushik’s body of photographic work, a collected record of global political violence, suggests modernist montages in which, to return to Adorno, “negation of synthesis becomes a principle of form.”[26] The detachment that enables the production of such images and that propels Kaushik to international fame, however, infects his private life and dictates the character’s fate. In Rome, Kaushik meets his childhood friend Hema, now a scholar of the Italian Renaissance engaged to marry an Indian man, and draws her into a love affair. But as with McEwan’s Briony, the suppression of empathy that Kaushik’s vocation demands, and the dissonant, disordered spectacles he preserves on film, limit his ability to imagine himself into a partnership, family, or community. Even during sex, Kaushik’s response to Hema’s body echoes his response to the fragmented corpses he photographs: “He could be aloof in bed as he could be in general, focusing on some part of her body to the point of seeming to forget her” (31). Intimacy itself exposes the “negation of synthesis” that eventually pushes the two characters apart.

The affair ends when Kaushik asks Hema to break off her engagement but fails to propose to her himself, refusing to integrate their relationship into the cycles of marriage and reproduction that Lahiri identifies as the redemptive antithesis of the poisonous, paratactic autonomy that she associates with modernism. His character emblematizes modernist formal defiance, a “broken medium,” in Adorno’s words, “that does not fuse expression and meaning...but instead drives both to unreconciled difference.”[27] Following the breakup, Kaushik drowns in the 2004 tsunami that killed thousands of people in South and Southeast Asia, and the New York Times, fittingly, reports the death in an obituary whose brevity and pitiless tone mirror Kaushik’s own “aloof” photos of history’s anonymous victims. Thus, the Renaissance scholar Hema, safely married to an Indian man, pregnant at the trilogy’s close, and possessed of an unassailably reliable narrative voice, survives through social conformity and a career devoted to humanism; the nomadic, detached journalist drowns. “You had left nothing behind,” says Hema, addressing the dead lover now unbound from temporally continuous familial, professional, and national collectivities and consigned to “unaccustomed earth” at the bottom of the Indian Ocean (Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth, 333). Kaushik’s death in the tsunami, like his mother’s from cancer, illustrates a trope that binds all of Lahiri’s writings together: the workings of nature inevitably silence humanity’s attempts to make itself heard. And for Jhumpa Lahiri, even the most subtle, delicate traces of modernism are the first elements of human culture to be obliterated.

Modernism’s aura—invasive, evasive, pervasive—demanded the private as well as the public attentions of people in its midst. It is well known that modern aesthetics provoked heady, contentious debates among artists and critics. What needs to be better understood is how these aesthetics continue to serve as a metric for personal, literary, and cultural integrity. Modernism dared—and still dares—its audiences and practitioners to own it, define it, claim it as their own discourse. Its tests and temptations destabilized the legitimacy of non-experimental forms as well as conventional lives. And in metamodernist fictions such as those by McEwan and Lahiri, the movement remains dangerous enough in memory, history, and affect that today’s writers, whatever their own artistic inclinations, continue to engage in conversations with it. The things that were done, the things that are over: they are the unresolved pulse of twenty-first-century metamodernism.


[1] Djuna Barnes, “Lament for the Left Bank,” PMLA 130, no. 1 (2015): 110–18, 116. Originally published in Town and Country 96 (1941): 92, 136–38, 148.

[2] Richard Meyers, “Introduction: The Art-Historical Postmortem,” in When Was Contemporary Art? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 1–36. See Wyndham Lewis, “The End of Abstract Art,” New Republic 102, no. 14 (1940): 438–39; Virginia Woolf, “The Leaning Tower,” in The Moment and Other Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1941), 105–25; George Orwell, “Inside the Whale,” in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (London: Victor Gollancz, 1940), 131–88; Anaïs Nin, Paris Revisited (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1972), Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1938). One might note, too, Laura Riding’s 1941 renunciation of poetry.

[3] Scholarship about modernism’s stylistic aftermath includes Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Peter Boxall, Since Beckett: Contemporary Writing in the Wake of Modernism (London: Continuum, 2009); Aarthi Vadde, Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism Beyond Europe, 1914–2016 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges, The Contemporaneity of Modernism: Literature, Media, Culture (London: Routledge, 2018); David James, Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[4] On expanding the aesthetic periodicity associated with the early twenty-first century, see Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015) and Emily Apter, “Rethinking Periodization for the ‘Now-Time,’” in Being Contemporary: French Literature, Culture, and Politics Today, ed. Lia Brozgal and Sara Kippur (Liverpool University Press, 2016), 29–42.

[5] See Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Brian McHale, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Postmodern/Postwar and After: Rethinking American Literature, ed. Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016); and Adam Kelly, “Metamodernism, Anti-Modernism, and the New Sincerity,” talk delivered at the first symposium of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Metamodernist Research Network, January 31, 2018, Manchester Metropolitan University.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, “Parataxis: On the Late Poetry of Hölderlin,” in Notes to Literature, Vol. 2, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 109–50, 131.

[7] See Katherine Mansfield, Bliss and Other Stories (1920), H.D., Asphodel (1922), D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1923), E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924), Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark (1934), Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (1941)

[8] See Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (1930), Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow (1921), George Orwell, Burmese Days (1934), Wyndham Lewis, The Apes of God (1930)

[9] See Faye Hammill, Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010); Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); Mary E. Davis, Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, “Commitment,” in Notes to Literature, Vol. 2, 76–94, 79.

[11]Vanity Fair 33, no. 1 (1929), 32.

[12] Vanity Fair 31, no. 6 (1929), 18.

[13] The ad lists thirty of Vanity Fair’s “Distinguished Modern Contributors,” including Aldous Huxley, Carl van Vechten, Miguel Covarrubias, Jacob Epstein, Marie Laurencin, Pablo Picasso, and Edward Steichen.

[14] On varied inter- and intra-modernist cultural tensions, see Janet Lyon, “Sociability in the Metropole: Modernism’s Bohemian Salons,” ELH 76, no. 3 (2009): 687–711; Leonard Diepeveen, Mock Modernism: An Anthology of Parodies, Travesties, Frauds, 1910–1935 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014) and Modernist Fraud: Hoax, Parody, Deception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2019); Sean Latham, The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Urmila Seshagiri, “Modernist Ashes, Postcolonial Phoenix: Jean Rhys and the Evolution of the English Novel in the Twentieth Century,” Modernism/modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 487–505.

[15] See Kate Stanley, “Habits of Modernism,” Criticism 56, no. 4 (2014): 853–60; Liesl Olson, Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Lisi Schoenbach, Pragmatic Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[16] Ian McEwan, interview with Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm, KCRW, July 11, 2002. See also Adam Begley, “The Art of Fiction CLXXIII: Ian McEwan,” Paris Review 44, no. 162 (2002): 30–60.  

[17] Ian McEwan, Atonement: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 38.

[18] On Cyril Connolly and English literature in the years leading up to the war, see Ana Mitrić, “Turning Points: Atonement, Horizon, and Late Modernism,” Modernism/ modernity 21, no. 3 (2014): 715–40.

[19] McEwan gives Briony an artistic epiphany in 1941 that is chronologically out of step with Woolf’s own literary theories. “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” in which Woolf declared that “On or about December 1910 human nature changed,” was published in 1924; The Waves appeared in 1930. By 1941, Woolf had published “The Leaning Tower,” a speech-turned-essay calling on writers to engage with political history, and was composing Between the Acts, a novel that subordinates aesthetic experiment to the safety of the family in wartime.

[20] Briony’s end-of-life mental illness extends her ties to Woolf, as does a fictional biographical note that McEwan composed but did not ultimately include in the novel. The pseudo-Woolfian life arc he sketches here is the defanged aftermath of modernism, as he situates Briony among a generation of modern women writers who were read before the war, relegated to obscurity during the work of male-dominated midcentury canon-making, and then recuperated by feminist scholars and publishers in the 1970s:

About the author: Briony Tallis was born in Surrey in 1922....Her wartime nursing experience provided the material for her first novel, Alice Riding, published in 1948 and winner of that year’s Fitzrovia Prize for fiction. Her second novel, Soho Solstice, was praised by Elizabeth Bowen as “a dark gem of psychological acuity,” while Graham Greene described her as “one of the more interesting talents to have emerged since the war.”...Tallis’s sixth novel, The Ducking Stool, was a best-seller in 1965 and was made into a successful film starring Julie Christie. Thereafter, Briony Tallis’s reputation went into a decline, until the Virago imprint made her work available to a younger generation in the late seventies. She died in July 2001. (Quoted in Adam Begley, “The Art of Fiction CLXXIII: Ian McEwan,” Paris Review 44, no. 162 [2002]: 30–60, 56–57)

[21] See David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution.” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014):87–100.

[22] Lahiri voices disdain at being read as a “minority” writer in Julia Leyda, “An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri,” Contemporary Women’s Writing 5, no. 1 (2011): 66–83. See also Urmila Seshagiri, “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Modernist Turn,” Public Books, Feb 15, 2016.

[23] Note that my argument here is concerned only with the formal characteristics of Lahiri’s English-language fiction and not with the works she has published in Italian since 2012 (In Altre Parole [2015] and Dove Mi Trovo [2018]), when she renounced reading and writing in English and began working in a style characterized by abstraction.

[24] See Jhumpa Lahiri, introduction to Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel: Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), ix–xii; introduction to Mavis Gallant, The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories (New York: New York Review of Books, 2009), vii–xxii; Lahiri, “Spellbound,” Paris Review, April 5, 2011; “Jhumpa Lahiri Reads William Trevor,” interview with Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker, December 10, 2007.

[25] Nathaniel Hawthorne, quoted in Jhumpa Lahiri, epigraph to Unaccustomed Earth (New York: Knopf, 2008).

[26] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), 155.

[27] Theodor W. Adorno, “Presuppositions,” in Notes to Literature, Vol. 2, 95–108, 108.