With its tight focus on figuration in a hypercanonical trio of authors—Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf—Dora 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
H.D.’s HERmione opens with a meditation on the past, courtesy of her daughter, Perdita Schaffner.
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).
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?
In 2017, at the Jewish Museum in New York, the exhibition “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” abounded in marvels for me and many others. Who was missing from the paintings mattered less than the astonishing presence of figures we all cared so about, presided over by Marcel Duchamp, on whose portraits and chess fascination Aaron Tucker expands so intelligently. There was Duchamp often, relaxed and no less brilliant than always.
For many interwar writers, the women’s suffrage movement was a force as powerful as the war itself in shaping modernity. In her undeservedly forgotten novel The Call (1924), Edith Ayrton Zangwill takes up the history of both suffrage militancy and the war, chronicling their impact on women’s professional, political, and personal lives. The novel tells the story of a young chemist, Ursula Winfield, who is initially more absorbed in questions of science than in questions of women’s rights.
“The ghost of Roger Casement / Is beating on the door.” So runs the refrain of William Butler Yeats’ “The Ghost of Roger Casement.” An imperialist who wrote scathing reports of colonial human rights abuses in the Congo and Brazil, Roger Casement sought German military aid for the 1916 Easter Rising: the British government arrested, sentenced, and hanged Casement for high treason. In her new study, The Literary Afterlives of Roger Casement, 1899-2016, Alison Garden frames her inquiry within the language of haunting and intervenes in Casement’s very indeterminacy: “towards the repetition of an unfinished history; the particularly ghostly fashioning of Casement’s literary afterlives” (14).
When fiction narrates speech, who is talking? Even for those who typically understand modernist fiction as skeptical of straightforward representational uses of language, scholars tend to assume that fictional characters mean the words they speak: that Bartleby would prefer not to and that Molly Bloom says yes. Elizabeth Alsop’s Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction offers a subtle, significant provocation, challenging mimetic interpretations of dialogue in modernist fiction.
When it comes to writers’ lives, what remains is fragmentary and incomplete. In her 1963 novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood refers to such remnants as “the tatty wreckage of my life.” The image of Plath in popular culture is linked to her poetry, but often emphasizes her suicide. Red Comet addresses these assumptions as it sheds new light on Plath’s cultural moment and relevance today. Any biography must confront the fact of an incomplete archive.
Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study “declines to take up arms in the method wars” (9). But let’s not be fooled. This pacifism is not passive. This avoidance of “our metadiscourse” conditions an act of critical sabotage which defuses weapons of mass abstraction—i.e. formalism, historicism, ideology critique, postcritique, surface reading, distance reading, and so on (9). Buurma and Heffernan’s new history neither minds the gap nor suggests liberal, incremental readjustments. Rather, they make the claim—a revolutionary one—that what we “will watch,” “follow,” “see,” and “encounter” in the pages of their study “overturns,” “demolishes,” “scrambles,” “dispels,” and “dismisses” “nearly every major account of what the history of literary studies has been” (1, 6).