Book Review: Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain

3rd July 2020

Nell Wasserstrom, Boston College

Sarah Collins, Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Within literary studies, the growing body of critical work dedicated to “late modernism” has tended to define the term in more or less two ways: first, as the “cultural turn” of modernism in the 1930s, and second, as a late (1930s-50s) reflection on the (failed/flawed) project of so-called “high” modernism. These two discourses are by no means mutually exclusive, as the many studies over the past few decades have shown: Tyrus Miller’s seminal work, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (1999); Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (2004); Marina Mackay’s Modernism and World War II (2006); and, more recently, Thomas S. Davis’s The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (2016). Despite differences in context, periodization, and choice of figures, texts, and method, these critical works attribute the late modernist “turn” to a specific historical event (the General Strike of 1926, for example, or the contraction of empire), and each event marks the particular way in which late modernism forms a “break” from modernism “proper.”

In Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain, Sarah Collins (University of Western Australia) offers a refreshing variation on this theme by claiming that “lateness is not a chronological demarcation, but instead involves a particular type of approach to questions about art’s relation to its past, its context and its audience” (12). Rather than insisting on lateness in terms of a certain periodization, Collins seeks to reevaluate lateness as a “form of relation” at once trans-historical and historical (8). As a supra-historical category, Collins associates lateness with “late style”: “a form of ‘going against’ without pre-determining the form of that withdrawal” (7). Lateness in this sense suggests transition, an “unwillingness” to “charge towards disintegration, on the one hand, but also an unwillingness to consolidate or synthesize, on the other” (7).  As a concern about certain forms of consolidation, however, lateness can also articulate a historically conditioned attitude, and within the cultural milieu of interwar Britain, this particular expression of lateness manifests as a response to the threat of the “codification of modernism – the idea that modernism had hardened into one particular form of stylistic experimentation” (4). This position was taken up not only by canonical literary modernists (Lawrence, Lewis, Pound, Eliot, H.D.), but also by a set of composer-critics who were closely associated with these figures (Philip Heseltine, Cecil Gray, and Kaikhorsu Sorabji).

The attitude of lateness that Collins sketches allows her to make the interdisciplinary argument that is the book’s major intervention. As a shared set of concerns about and responses to the past—as a “style of being” (8)— lateness offers a means of tracing how musical discourse played a central role in the formation of literary modernism, and, perhaps more compellingly, Collins argues that reading literary modernism through certain works of music literature generates a different understanding of late modernism. Focusing on “lesser-known” composer-critics who worked side by side with the well-known figures of British modernism, Collins maps how these personal relationships informed the sense of lateness that transcends both historical and disciplinary boundaries, as well as the literal and figurative spaces where these relationships developed: the Café Royal in London, for example, and shared publication forums, such as The New Age, The Athenaeum, and The Sackbut. These personal and intellectual exchanges are outlined in the second chapter, which introduces the cultural milieu defined under the “rubric of lateness”: those “artists who still identified with the modernist legacy, yet found themselves disillusioned by its increasing marketization” (16, 29). Like the disillusioned “Men of 1914” (Lewis, Eliot, Pound Joyce), Collins argues that Gray, Heseltine, and Sorabji embraced a new approach to “classical” values: “an expression of isolation and self-creation, an absence of history and a cultivated attitude of untimeliness” (31). This cultivated attitude shapes both the music criticism and literary practices of interwar lateness, as well as the relation between them

The remaining chapters of the book (three, four, and five) examine the various forms of relation that constitute the sensibility of lateness outlined in the first two chapters by exploring a specific association between a musical and literary figure. Relying on an impressive array of textual sources (including letters, diaries, autobiography, memoir, criticism, and fiction), Collins “reveals hidden alignments” within the interwar musical and literary milieu that are grounded in personal interactions and shared sources of inspiration (41). Chapter three, for instance, examines the relationship between D.H. Lawrence and Philip Heseltine through their shared interest in “temporal conceptions of the self” (14), which reveals an urgent sense of untimeliness expressed in both Lawrence’s writings and Heseltine’s music criticism. Similarly, chapter five develops the sense of lateness as it shaped both a concept of music history and a theory of poetry through the close relationship between Cecil Gray and H.D. Chapter four, however, broadens in scope to focus not on a specific personal relationship, but on the ways in which the music criticism of Kaikhosru Sorabji, as it appeared in The New Age and participated in the reactionary political discourses of interwar Britain, can be traced to the work of T.E. Hulme. Here, Collins argues that the “fear of abstraction,” which shaped the ethos of interwar lateness and its approach to art and politics, gives rise to a new understanding of late modernism’s relation to the public. 

While Collins’s theorization of lateness can at times seem slippery and diffuse given the amount of work it performs (it is simultaneously an ethos, a form of relation, a tendency, and an attitude that must be historical and trans-historical, a periodizing concept and a means of thinking beyond periodization), the strength of Collins’s argument lies precisely in its central aim: “to counteract the disciplinary tendency to relegate music criticism and historiography to the status of supplementary material” within modernist studies by mobilizing lateness as a category that moves across disciplinary boundaries and cultural expressions (13). Collins offers a significant intervention into our understanding of the mutual intellectual impact of literary and musical modernism and how this impact informs late modernism’s ambivalent and productive relation to its own untimeliness.

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