The Modernist Review #21: Modernism’s Late Temporalities

3rd July 2020

We’re accustomed to thinking of timeliness as a moral quality: it’s rude to be late. There’s the white rabbit clutching his pocket-watch, mumbling ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ as the palpable anxiety of missed appointments prompts Alice to spiral. In light of COVID-19, the last few months have asked us to live in one such spiralling deferral. In Pandemic Temporalities: Crisis, Curve, Crip (in a Twitter keynote here) Beryl Pong suggests ‘We yearn for the “Before Time” and prepare for the “After Time”’ even as we know these delineations to be false and the effects of the virus to exacerbate already existing inequalities. Repeatedly, we’ve been told these are ‘unprecedented times’ – but unprecedented for who, in which epoch, under what conditions? Laura Ryan asks this very question in The ‘Late’ Modernism of Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille, exploring how a novel so ‘ahead of its time’ shows our own times to still be behind. As Ryan puts it in view of the Black Lives Matter protests: ‘Worldwide events today are the result of centuries-old dreams deferred, progress postponed, promises broken’. The urgency demanded of our contemporary moment can no longer afford for our institutions to be late to the party.

The pandemic has also shown up the ways time is ordered to maximize production. Elizabeth Freeman uses the term ‘chrononormativity’ in which ‘institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts’ as schedules, time zones and calendars insidiously become part of our natural rhythms. Against this mode of productivity, Tyrus Miller offers us Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Delay in Glass’ where a ‘delayed and diffused production, elaboration, and reception, allows us to glimpse something that withdraws from the artistic act’. To stall, to put off, to delay and eschew might also offer space outside of what our labour yields and embrace a creative process that dispels deadlines to exist for itself. We need to feel time passing, to luxuriate then activate. To live fully in the sinew of a second, the power of a minute, the achingly boring extension of an hour. Hyunjung Kim’s essay ‘Gertrude Stein’s Affective Time’ suggests that late modernism’s experimental forms offer a way to inhabit the discomfort of the extended present as ‘Stein’s indigestible semantics stops the reader at every word to take some time, yielding moments of wonder’. 

Work made in the 1930s, the de facto (although not unproblematised) period of late modernism, occupies this issue. Ann Marie Jakubowski argues that a sense of ‘untimeliness’ actively informs the poetry of David Jones. As a poet, painter, engraver, essayist, and World War I veteran, he wrote his first collection In Parenthesis (1937), recalling memories of war twenty-years after their occurrence on the brink of yet another global disaster. Aoiffe Walsh explores eternal and temporal tensions between post-war Britain’s parochial myths and the ebbing flow of continental Surrealism. Carrie Kancilia’s essay on George Orwell’s The Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), deals with a decayed and deviant Britishness through the fictional town of Knype Hill (a place ‘incompatible with modernity’). The older inhabitants are invariably described as grotesque, decrepit epigones of a backwards looking congregation. They capture ‘ageing anxieties’ and cast intergenerational conflict as a source of post-war malise. 

Orwell’s ageing grotesquery gives nothing of the internal life of the older people described. Taking account of older modernist’s late lives and creative output offers the chance to examine what it means to make creative work in later life. As Caroline Knighton reminds us, in her essay on ‘Mama of Dada’ Beatrice Wood, (who passed away in 1998, aged 105) the autobiographic project isn’t always so simple. To understand Wood’s story of ageing we must read her ceramics, described as ‘a big pot, shaped, designed, and filled by the people one has known and loved’ across a century. Aleksandra Majak’s review of The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (2020) by Carl Rollyson also asks us to think through the auto/biographical in light of a poet who is constantly revisited in successive aftermaths as archival findings are unearthed. 

Nell Wasserstrom’s review of Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain by Sarah Collins opens up a new way of viewing lateness, not as a periodised, chronological development but as ‘instead involv[ing] a particular type of approach to questions about art’s relation to its past, its context and its audience’. How then do contemporary writers relate to being present in the aftermath of a late modernism that has kept resurging across the decades? Liam Harrison asks: are we in a time of post-millennial modernism? by applying theories of late style to Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013). McBride’s novel seemed to herald a momentary modernist resurgence in experimental prose looping lateness back round again into a contemporary moment. 

This issue interviews two contemporary writers who have published debut fiction this year. Speaking with Shola von Reinhold, author of LOTE (2020), ambiguous temporalities abound as their novel brings forth the gaps between transfixion, imagination and archival recuperation through the figure of forgotten Black, Scottish modernist Hermia Druitt. In an interview with Jen Calleja, we discuss the short story collection I’m Afraid that’s All We’ve Got Time For (2020) which explores the value of a missed experience, the ‘rediscovered’ author as a ‘posthumous booby prize’ and characters who find themselves empowered by apathy and lateness.

Thank you to everyone who has submitted to this bumper Special Issue, showing that in the multifarious, ever-changing definitions of ‘lateness’, ‘late style’ and ‘late modernism’ there is always something more to say as time goes by.

Jade French

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