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Exploring British modernism – over @ShinyNewBooks :D

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As if there isn’t enough excitement going on at the moment, what with the #1936Club and all, I have a new review up today on Shiny New Books which I want to share with you!

The book in question comes with the rather long title “Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists” and it’s written by Caroline Maclean. She takes a look at a group of creators based in the Hampstead area of London during mainly the 1930s, including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and any number of others who moved in and out of their orbit, extending even to European luminaries like Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus.

“Ancestor 1” by Barbara Hepworth at the University of Birmingham (Francisclarke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The book is a fascinating read, particularly if you have an interest in Modernism. I know it’s not for some – I’ve heard, for example, the sculptures of Hepworth and Moore described as “quite nice” and “inoffensive” which is faint praise… I personally like the Modernist ethic in buildings and furnishings, and I’m fond of abstracts too, so I really enjoyed reading this. The book is not without its flaws – in many ways, it suffers from trying to fit too much information into too short a work – but it’s definitely a wonderful introduction to the subject. You can read my review here!

“The mirror reflected his image disinterestedly.” #henryparland #topieces @norvikpress

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To Pieces by Henry Parland
Translated by Dinah Cannell

You might recall me reviewing back in June a wonderful pair of books for Shiny New Books, issued by Norvik Press. The duo of modernist works by pioneering women authors (Hagar Olsson and Karin Boye) were excellent reads and really opened my eye to a whole strand of Scandinavian literature of which I hadn’t really been aware before. I was so impressed by the books that I felt moved to go and have a look at Norvik’s back catalogue – which was probably a mistake… One book was ordered straight away; another couple are en route; and this is obviously going to be an imprint which very much appeals to me!

The first book I was drawn to is “To Pieces” by Henry Parland, an author I’d not come across before. Born in Vyborg 1908, he had an intriguing background; his early years were spent in St. Petersburg and Kiev, where he spoke Russian and German. Come the Russian Revolution, the family decamped to Helsinki, where he attended first a Finnish School, then a Swedish school and finally the University of Helsinki, becoming a writer in the Swedish language. He was part of the avant-garde in that city, publishing one poetry collection during his lifetime – Idealrealisation (1929) – before dying tragically young of Scarlet Fever in 1930. He had been working on his novel “To Pieces” at the time of his death, which was left unfinished.

It’s striking how many of the Scandinavian avant-garde writers I’ve encountered recently had short lives; Karin Boye took her own life, and Edith Sodergran (who’s in my line of sight at the moment) died of TB at the age of 31. Used as we have been in the modern times to longer lives and effective medicine, it’s a timely reminder of our human mortality. But I digress…

As I mentioned, “To Pieces” was left unfinished on Parland’s death, but as the afterword by Per Stam reveals, the book went through a long chain of publication in various forms before it reached this definitive critical edition in 2005; and that’s the version which has been translated by Dinah Cannell and published by Norvik. The book is a short work (106 pages) and is narrated by a young man called Henry. As the book opens he’s recalling a disastrous love-affair, attempting to reconnect with his death lover Ami by developing photographs he took of her. He talks to these, they seem to talk back, and he goes over the story of their problematic love and constant misunderstandings.

Henry is something of a man at a loss. Struggling to make ends meet, speculating with his money and having to constantly negotiate credit, an affair with a woman like Ami and her expensive tastes is not the best thing for him. They’re drawn together, yet it seems that they have little in common, and the book follows the developments and then reverses in their relationship. When Ami dies of some kind of fever (and this is no spoiler, because she is obviously dead as the book opens) there is an inevitability; and bearing in mind Parland’s eventual fate, a horrible poignancy. Having recounted the end of the affair, the second part of the book sees Henry recalling their initial meeting and how random was the chain of events which led to this. A reminder, perhaps, of how arbitrary life really is.

…if, ignoring the anxious feeling that always grabs me by the scruff of the neck when I let the memory in, I dwell on it for a moment instead and let it expand to fill the full space of my imagination, the shutter-like structures in my consciousness suddenly slide aside as I, unimpeded, move among the events of that summer. All I need to do now is bend down and pick up one situation or another from the ground to feel how it wriggles through my fingers and then, with some reluctance, eventually settles down submissively on the pages of this book.

Simply looked at as a story, “To Pieces” is moving and poignant, and a marvellous portrait of the life of the times; with the loosening of society’s restrictions, visits to the beach, dancing and drinking and cinema-going, this is a world which seems very modern. However, what takes the book to another level is its experimental nature; Parland uses fragments of memories and meditations on photography to explore the relationship between Henry and Ami; and he often imbues objects with feelings and needs in a most engaging way. The writing is particularly atmospheric, with beautiful imagery and metaphor.

Photography, in particular, is a touchstone throughout the book, with Henry using the close study of the photos he develops as a way to reconnect with Ami and see her more clearly than he did in real life. The descriptions of the whole developing process have an almost sensual quality, as if Henry is using this as a metaphor for his love for her. This is one of many elements of modernity in the book; telephones, too, play a major part, with much of the communication between the lovers being phone conversations; and in fact Henry hears about Ami’s death by telephone. It’s often very meta; and frankly, what’s not to love about a book which open with a chapter titled “The writer inspects himself in the mirror”?

Henry Parland in the 1920s (Anonymous Unknown author / Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“To Pieces” is a fascinating book, and despite the label ‘modernist’ is very readable. There are many layers to the story, and Parland provides the book with a motto hinting at a plagiarism of Proust; certainly memory is the thread which runs through the book. Stam’s afterword discusses many of these layers, as well as providing context and the history of the book’s long journey to a finished form. The question has to be asked as to whether, with a first-person narrator called Henry Parland, this is autofiction, and I can’t answer that – it would probably take a biography to reveal the solution, and there *isn’t* much available about Parland in English that I can find. Whether it is or not, “To Pieces” is not only an excellent piece of short fiction, it’s also a study of the process of storytelling, of the tricks of memory, with the narrator often standing back at a distance, stepping outside of his tale to comment on what he’s doing and the way he’s constructing his past. I picked Parland’s book up at random, liking the sound of it; and I’m so glad I did as it was a most enjoyable and stimulating read. It’s a tragedy that he died so young, leaving such a small body of work, but at least we have this book; and I do wish his poetry wasn’t so hard to get hold of… 😦

#1930Club – “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”

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My final read for the #1930Club is perhaps a bit of a contrast to the others, but tends to reflects some of the trends in literature at the time. Author John Dos Passos is remembered as a modernist writer, and with the first part of his ‘USA’ trilogy, “42nd Parallel”, which was first published in 1930, he was certainly experimenting with style.

I’ve had this book for a looooong time, and why I’ve never read it before is unclear to me… It’s certainly a Big Book (the three works collected together here run to over 1000 pages) but the first part is 340 pages which you would think is manageable. I started it early for our club week, but have only just managed to finish in time – for reasons I’ll talk about later!

“42nd” is set in America in the early part of the 20th century and the structure is a little unusual. Parts of the narrative follow the life stories of the main characters, but these are interspersed with sections called “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye”. The main narrative is relatively straightforward; the other sections fragmented and impressionistic, building up a composite picture of the developing modern world of America at the time. “Newsreel” has fragments from newspapers and song lyrics, capturing specific historical events and grounds the narrative in a time period; “Camera Eye” is particularly stream of consciousness, capturing the thinking of contemporary characters; and interspersed with these varied narratives are potted biographies of notable and relevant people of the age.

The four main characters are themselves a varied and interesting bunch; initially we encounter ‘Mac’ McCreary, firstly as a young boy known as Fainy (from Fenian – his Irish heritage and his left-wing family have led to him being named after the Irish Republican movement) and thereafter as he grows up, makes his way in the world and becomes heavily involved in a variety of working class revolutionary movements. Then there is J. Ward Moorhouse, who again comes from a poor background but takes a different trajectory through life, following his ambitions to become rich and successful. Janey Williams is a young stenographer whose aspirations are independence and to earn her own living – a relatively new ambition for women of the time. And finally, Eleanor Stoddard is a social climber; a cold woman, again from a poor background, she’s determined to make her way into society.

He hated the newspaper office and the inclines and the overcast skies and the breakneck wooden stairs he was always scrambling up and down, and the smell of poverty and cabbage and children and washing in the rattletrap tenements where he was always seeking out Mrs Piretti whose husband had been killed in a rumpus in a saloon on Locust Street or Sam Burkovich who’d been elected president of the Ukrainian singing society, or some woman with sudsy hands whose child had been slashed by a degenerate.

In the sections bearing each character’s name, we watch their lives unfolding; the affairs, the marriages, the ups and down of business and finance, the struggle to make ends meet and the relentless mobility. The men, in particular, move from city to city; and in some cases, other countries. Mac, most notably, spends time in Mexico where he witnesses part of Zapata’s revolution; and other characters travel to Europe as well as all over the United States. They inhabit a world which is changing, where the certainties and stabilities of America’s 19th century are falling away. Each has their own aspirations and their own views of where the country should go, but the impact of the First World War begins to encroach. Towards the end of the book America enters that War and a new character makes his entrance, in the form of Charley Anderson. Charley is another character who starts out with nothing, from a poor and restricedly religious home. Although only the first part of his journey appears in “42nd”, with him enlisting to go and fight, I can see he’ll reappear in later sections of the book.

The only man that gets anything out of capitalism is a crook, an’ he gets to be a millionaire in short order…

“42nd Parallel” turned out to be an absolutely fascinating book; and for all its modernist tropes, very readable! There can be something intimidating about approaching a large work with a reputation, but once I got embedded in the story, I couldn’t put it down. When I approached reading Dos Passos I anticipated something stylistically interesting and perhaps challenging; what I hadn’t expected was such a refreshingly socialist novel! The author certainly nails his colours to the mast and you might regard the book as the novel as social history. The story demonstrates what Dos Passos sees as the pernicious effect of the American Dream; the quest for modernity, possessions and money corrupts some characters and grinds others down.There is a stark contrast between Mac’s viewpoint and that of his wife and her family with their aspirational American dream, which is built on the bones and the work of others. Even the responses to the coming of war vary, from those who see it as a money-making opportunity to those who want to fight for their country. It’s a fascinating reflection of different types of humanity, and that divide between moral viewpoints seems very modern…

As you can see, it’s a chunky volume which I’ve only read part of….

The structure of the book itself is fascinating; the individual stories exist in isolation for a good part of the book until they begin to intersect, and it’s fascinating to see one particular character from another character’s viewpoint as the different strands begin to dovetail beautifully. Although some sections are grounded in fact, the separation seems a little nebulous in places, and in fact one biography has a section which is directly attributed elsewhere. The Newsreel and Camera Eye segments act as anchors and signposts, giving the narrative context and background; and the composite structure of the book weaves a rich tapestry, building up a vivid picture of the America of the time.

Initially, I was a little uncertain as to the attitudes displayed towards the female characters, particularly the harshness in the “Mac” sequences which make up the early parts of the book. However, as the narrative developed and Dos Passos introduced female stories, I found his writing of the women reflected the difficulties they faced, the struggle to make a living and the complex negotiations with the demands of the men around them. His women are not ciphers, each an individual coping with different situations in their own way, and I’m going to be interested to see how they move through the rest of the sequence of books.

Because, of course, this is only the first book in a set of three; the whole promises to be an immensely impressive undertaking and I finished “42nd Parallel” very keen to see how events play out over later volumes! This was perhaps an ambitious read for me to launch into during a busy time at work and with a deadline of the end of the #1930Club week looming; particularly as the type is quite small and the pages quite dense, so there’s a *lot* in the book’s 340 pages. Nevertheless, I’m really glad I *finally* picked up my first Dos Passos as it was an absorbing and rewarding read, and a fitting end to a wonderful week of reading books from a really rich year in publishing! 😀

The Curse of Modernity

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All That is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman

Growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, it was impossible to ignore the changes going on in society around me. The old towns around me were being torn down and developed into brutalist and modernist concrete blocks; the shops were full of shiny consumer goods available to all; standards were changing; and new technology was dawning starting off with simple things like domestic cassette recorders and pocket calculators. I’ve consequently always had a nostalgic fondness for 1960s architecture and furniture, and this was one of the things that first attracted me to Berman’s book (along with the fact that it had long sections on Russian writers!). However, a read of this large and fascinating tome makes it quite clear that modernism is not something that began recently….

solid

As Wikipedia tells us: Marshall Berman (November 24, 1940 – September 11, 2013) was an American philosopher and Marxist Humanist writer. He was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The City College of New York and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, teaching Political Philosophy and Urbanism. His book, subtitled “The Experience of Modernity”, defines the modern age as having started when human beings made the transition from a feudal, rural kind of living to an urban, mechanical style and he uses the text “Faust” by Goethe to exemplify this change. The book goes on to travel through a wide-ranging series of works, discussing and debating the human experience of living in, and coping with, the modern world and all its conflicts. Berman covers texts by Baudelaire and Marx; Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Bely; and the late 20th century experience of living in New York during rapid and often brutal redevelopment.

It’s a breathtaking and audacious study, and quite amazing to read. Even if you haven’t read all the works Berman discusses, you can still understand the points he’s making. “Faust” for example is a story I know the basic plot of, but I’ve never read the full book. According to Berman, this is where modernisation begins, with Faust himself being the first large-scale developer, building huge cities and trampling all in his way. Cities and their boulevards become a crucial element in modern life, with the public space changing the ways humans interact with each other (a fact recognised by Baudelaire) And the section on Petersburg is inspirational, reflecting Russia’s attempts to engage with the rest of the modern world, dragging a hopelessly feudal and serf-bound society towards a way of living it couldn’t really comprehend.

By the end of the book, in the sections about the wholesale development and destruction of parts of New York during the 20th century, Berman has come full circle; we are once again witnessing the kind of large-scale push for progress that Goethe’s Faust was aiming for, and it seems that in our desperation for change and modernity, it is the little people and their human needs who will be swept aside. There is a dichotomy here, as Berman recognises, and even all this time after his book was written I’m not sure we have solved the problems.

MarshallBerman

“All that is Solid…” was first published in 1982 and has had something of a cult following since; Verso brough out this edition in 2010 and the book has had a new lease of life . Although some aspects are dated the basic premise, and the discussions of the dilemmas facing us, have not really changed (although he could not have foreseen the technological world with all its modern trappings that we are having to cope with and the political and social systems in which the individual is the least important thing).

In many ways the final section of the book, the New York portion, is the least successful; Berman moves from focusing on a literary/historical interpretation of the past to a much more personal response to the modernist developments of his lifetime. The focus has changed, and the arguments are a little harder to follow because of the author’s emotions about the destruction of the neighbourhood in which he grew up, all in the name of progress. The parallels with Faust are clear, but his narrative seems to have diffused a little. Nevertheless, it’s still a fascinating read, particularly with the perspective we now have of the decades that have passed since Berman wrote this book.

However, the part of the book I found really enlightening was the discussion of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”, particularly in relation to his views of the ‘Crystal Palace’. I’d often wondered quite why the Underground Man was so against a glass structure in London, but Berman puts the whole thing into context; explaining how Dostoevsky (and many other writers, in particular Chernyshevsky) had visited London and seen the Palace, and how it symbolised the progress of the West, with which Russia was unable to keep pace. Chernyshevsky had lauded the Crystal Palace, and it was this with which Dostoevsky had a quarrel (and indeed which Zamyatin satirised in parts of “We”). This section alone was worth reading the book for, and although I didn’t always agree with Berman’s take on things, it was always entertaining.

It’s pretty much impossible to go into the detail that this book deserves in a blog post, as there are numerous complex and intriguing arguments on display which I think could occupy many happy evenings of discussion. However, if you’re at all interested in how we got from a feudal world to a highly mechanised one, or in the works of art that reflect that change, this is definitely a book you want to pick up!

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