review

The Persistence of Realism in Modernist Fiction by Paul Stasi

Northrop Frye argued that behind every realist narrative was a displaced mythic structure that could explain the deeper meaning of its themes and patterns. Frye’s archetypal theory was in many ways a modernist one. Had not James Joyce and T. S. Eliot themselves sought to unify the seemingly random data of modern experience by indicating for their readers deep mythic structures undergirding their works? Myth was not held on to so much as a system of belief as for its ability to give a kind of formal unity—even if only latently—to the otherwise centrifugal force of the new and diverse material of modern life. In modernism, myth allied with literary form against the messy, debased business of daily existence in post-traditional society. But what if this is the wrong way to tell the story? This is the question posed by Paul Stasi in The Persistence of Realism in Modernist Fiction, which discovers behind modernism not myth but the displaced form of the realist novel.

A Violent Peace: Media, Truth, and Power at the League of Nations by Carolyn N. Biltoft

The title of this swift, powerfully written monograph on the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva offers a prodigious portrait of its real object of study: the so-called “interwar” period in European culture. Rather than a mere history of the League itself, A Violent Peace reads like a humanistic treatise on the most magmatic chronotope of western late-modernity: the ironically utopian, painfully bureaucratic, Freudianly fascist years that put into question, arguably for good, earlier concepts of reality, opinion, State, and world.

Poetics of Liveliness: Molecules, Fibers, Tissues, Clouds by Ada Smailbegović

Lisa Robertson’s 2001 book The Weather is a classic of the post-pastoral, in which the “architecture” of constantly shifting patterns of clouds and vapors supplants the nostalgia of landscape. A note at the end of the book tells us that it resulted partly from “an intense yet eccentric research in the rhetorical structure of English meteorological description.” BBC shipping forecasts, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, and the cloud sketches of John Constable were among Robertson’s sources, as was the delightfully titled Essay on the Modification of Clouds by the nineteenth-century amateur meteorologist Luke Howard.

Time: The Present. Selected Stories by Tess Slesinger

In 1932, Tess Slesinger published her most famous story, “Missis Flinders,” a bracingly candid look into the mind of a woman in New York City returning home from her abortion. Slesinger’s story—inspired by her own decision to terminate her pregnancy that year—does not fit neatly into the rhetoric that surrounds our ongoing political and legal debate over women’s reproductive rights. During the Great Depression, economic scarcity meant that abortion, if still illegal, was not policed or stigmatized as bitterly as it would be in earlier or later decades. Neither simply “pro” nor “anti,” Slesinger’s tale instead explores the psychological afterlives of this experience for one woman, trying to reconcile her decision with the feelings that linger after, with her identity as an intellectual, and with her husband’s own intellectual insecurities.

The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence

The bad side of books, Lawrence says, is “the beastly marketable chunk of published volume,” the “miserable tome” as an object, “the actual paper and rag volume of any of my works,” “a bone which every dog presumes to pick with me” that “delivers me to the vulgar mercies of the world.”

What Proust Heard: Novels and the Ethnography of Talk by Michael Lucey
Two men talking
What Proust Heard: Novels and the Ethnography of Talk. Michael Lucey. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2022. Pp. 346. $105.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper); $34.99 (PDF).
Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel by Dora Zhang

With its tight focus on figuration in a hypercanonical trio of authors—Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia WoolfDora Zhang’s Strange Likeness feels almost deliberately unfashionable. Its fine readings, its deft deployment of narrative theory, its rigorous illuminations of the uses of description and metaphor in modernism, all read in many ways like the work of an earlier and more confident moment in the history of literary studies. It is refreshingly free of the cant that can seem everywhere now: the trumped-up claims for ethical urgency, the desperate engagements with novel and often barely relevant theoretical frameworks, and the confused substitution of criticism for politics. At a moment when not just modernist studies but literary studies writ large are facing institutional eclipse, it is thrilling to be reminded that, in the right hands, the old tools can still do so much. (This is not to imply that Zhang insulates herself from contemporary theoretical developments. In particular, she avails herself of some of the newer ways of talking about emotion that have become popular in recent years.)

 

Zhang goes in chronological order—from James to Proust to Woolf—but I’m going to begin at the end, with Woolf. Zhang picks out a feature of Woolf’s writing that every reader of Woolf will recognize, even if they hadn’t been aware that they had noticed it before. That’s the tendency, in moments of charged epiphany, or baffled love and inarticulate affection, or accesses of transcendence or just the suspicion of transcendence, for Woolf’s free indirect discourse to resort to the demonstrative or the deictic, “This” or “That.” Think of Mrs. Dalloway’s “This moment of June,” or, more idiosyncratically, “She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herse

HERmione (1981) by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

H.D.’s HERmione opens with a meditation on the past, courtesy of her daughter, Perdita Schaffner. In H.D.-like prose, Schaffner reprimands herself: “Don’t delve and dredge. Cut down on nostalgia, that too can be insidious.”

Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons by Hannah Frank

One cannot review Hannah Frank’s Frame by Frame without observing that it is a book marked by tragedy, specifically its author’s passing in 2017. That might have meant the end of the present volume—a lightly edited revision of Frank’s dissertation—had it not been for a few prominent advocates who saw it through to publication, even as they cautioned that, without much opportunity for revision, readers should consider Frame by Frame a work in progress. In his editor’s introduction, Daniel Morgan explains that the book “is basically the dissertation that Frank defended in August 2016,” and “not the book that she would have published,” as Frank had already begun planning extensive changes to the manuscript that she did not live to complete (xxii).

Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America by Nadia Nurhussein

Nadia Nurhussein’s 2019 book, Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America, analyzes the literature and texts being produced in response to broader Western interest in Ethiopia and its leadership during an 80-year stretch of Black history from the 1860s to the 1940s. Drawing on a wide range of materials such as poetry, novels, newspaper articles, and theatrical or cinematic performances, Nurhussein demonstrates not only how entrenched these conversations were in African Americans’ lives but also the ways that this interest created a paradox: How does one advocate for Black freedom when the focal point of the Ethiopians’ fight is a monarchy that is bent on expanding its territory, little different from the Europeans that threaten it?