Book Review: Samuel Beckett in Confinement

4 August 2020

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

James Little, Samuel Beckett in Confinement: The Politics of Closed Space (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

In October 1960, Samuel Beckett began his move into an apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris. From his new study window, he had a view of the sinister building of the Santé Prison. He wrote to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy of this detail prior to the move: ‘the view of the Santé Prison from the den I’ll have is beginning to upset me in prospect. I’ll learn to raise the eyes to Val de Grâce, Panthéon and the glimpse of Notre-Dame’.[1]But over the following years Beckett found his eyes drawn time and again to the prison blocks and exercise yards opposite his window, even on occasion attempting to communicate with inmates through hand gestures and a mirror. It is said that he came to know the panoptic layout of the prison extremely well.[2]This gestures towards Beckett’s abiding interest in confined spaces and his sympathy for the incarcerated, though, as James Little shows, he also remained acutely aware of his own distance from such experiences of suffering.[3]As early as his 1931 essay Proust, Beckett had written of the complications in speaking with or for the other: ‘Either we speak and act for ourselves – in which case speech and action are distorted and emptied of their meaning by an intelligence that is not ours, or else we speak and act for others – in which case we speak and act a lie’.[4]Looking and gesturing towards the prison across the Rue Jean-Dolent from his window, this gulf between self and other must have seemed vast. Continue reading “Book Review: Samuel Beckett in Confinement”

Book Review: British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime

4 August 2020

Kevin Neuroth, Humboldt University of Berlin and King’s College London

Beryl Pong, British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)

In our understanding of modernism – both as a cultural movement and as a historical process – the First World War occupies a central place. There is a broad consensus among scholars that the experiences of the years 1914-18 played a central role in the development of the high modernism of the 1920s, from the experience of shell shock represented in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) to the mood of civilisational collapse pervading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). By comparison, the 1930s and 1940s remain under-researched. In her book Modernism and World War II (2007), Marina MacKay (University of Oxford) argues for the ‘historical and political’ importance of late modernism and wonders why so ‘little of the [Second World] war’s literature has ever fully registered on the critical field of vision’[1]. Continue reading “Book Review: British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime”

Book Review: Mirrored in a Glowing Cover: Carl Rollyson’s The Last Days of Sylvia Plath

3rd July 2020

Aleksandra Majak, University of Oxford

Carl Rollyson, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2020)

Content warning: violence

In his preface to The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Carl Rollyson says that every biography is also an autobiography, expressing an implicit belief that something in the author’s own life qualifies them to speak to the life of another. As I read this line, I recalled my first encounter with Sylvia Plath, opening the blue Faber volume of her lyric on the ‘Morning Song’. The poem’s simultaneous seeking and rejecting of motherly love felt instantly familiar, yet also deeply uncomfortable. Later, I have come to believe that to write about Plath is not only to confront the public myths and tropes of her life, work, and suicidal death, but also one’s own psychobiographical motives. In other words, to ask: what is it that speaks to me personally about the author known as, in the words of American critic M.L. Rosenthal, a ‘confessional’ poet? Through trying to answer this question, the readers of biography could not only discover something new about the most well-known American female poet, but perhaps also about themselves.

Continue reading “Book Review: Mirrored in a Glowing Cover: Carl Rollyson’s The Last Days of Sylvia Plath”

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.”

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

Book Review: Dance, Modernism, and Modernity

Róisín O’Brien 

1 June 2020

Ramsay Burt and Michael Huxley, Dance, Modernism and Modernity, (London: Routledge, 2019)

Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the term ‘modern dance’, and you may get a vague answer relating to jazz, or that it’s ‘not ballet’. Ramsay Burt (De Montfort University) and Michael Huxley’s (De Montfort University) book Dance, Modernism and Modernity (2019) explores, amongst other things, how choreographies of ‘authenticity’, or the popular appeal of some productions, might not sit within but instead expand notions of modernism(s), alongside investigating how dance intersects with modernity. The authors aim to look at how ‘dancing developed and responded to, or came out of an ambivalence about, or a reaction against, the experience of living in modern times’ (p. 1). Continue reading “Book Review: Dance, Modernism, and Modernity”

Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic

Aaron Pugh, University of Kent

1 June 2020

Michael Davidson, Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

In Invalid Modernism, Michael Davidson compellingly situates disability at the heart of what he terms ‘the missing body of the aesthetic’ in modernist art and literature. In this study, Davidson produces a sweeping and persuasive survey that reveals a litany of bodies and minds which, he suggests, could no longer be contained, reduced or marginalised within ‘normative versions of national, gendered or racialised identity’ (p. 12). Davidson develops an intersectional statement of intent which repositions disability as being, not an extension, but a constitutive element of a varied range of modernist texts. Supplemented by close readings of canonical modernists such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, F. T. Marinetti and Virginia Woolf, Dadaist and Surrealist aesthetic interventions, as well as a selection of experimental contemporary texts, Davidson resolutely constructs a study that expertly demonstrates ‘the various ways in which disability is an absent presence in the theory and practice of cultural production’ (p. 141). Continue reading “Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic”

Book Review: Global Modernists on Modernism

Francesca Bratton, Maynooth University

Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology, eds. Alys Moody & Stephen J. Ross (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross’s Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology aims not only to provide a compendious resource, but, through its collation of self-theorising primary documents,  to ‘go beyond merely gesturing to the existence of modernists around the world, to defend the value of “global modernism” as a critical hermeneutic’ (p. 2).

Continue reading “Book Review: Global Modernists on Modernism”

Book Review: Aphoristic Modernity

Aphoristic Modernity: 1880 to the Present, ed. by Kostas Boyiopoulos and Michael Shallcross (Koninklijke Brill, 2020)

Rebecca Varley-Winter, University of Cambridge

Kostas Boyiopoulos (Durham University) and Michael Shallcross (Independent Researcher) open this collection of essays on aphorisms, epigrams, maxims and fragments with Irving Layton’s ‘Aphs’ (1969), which states: ‘An aphorism / should be / like a burr’ (p. 1). In Layton’s view, an ideal aphorism should stick in the mind, and sting it awake. Continue reading “Book Review: Aphoristic Modernity”

Book Review: Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism

Book Review: Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism

Diane Drouin, Sorbonne Université.

Over the last thirty years, the British-born poet and painter Mina Loy (1882-1966) has emerged as a flamboyant figure of transatlantic modernism. Given Loy’s cosmopolitanism and versatility, many scholars and readers have found her difficult to locate within the Modernist map and canon. Continue reading “Book Review: Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism”

Book Review: Primordial Modernism 

Christy Heflin, Royal Holloway, University of London

Cathryn Setz, Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, Transition (1927-1938) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Cathryn Setz’s book Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, Transition (1927-1938) is part of a series from University of Edinburgh Press titled Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernist Culture, edited by Tim Armstrong and Rebecca Beasley. Divided into four chapters, Setz brings the reader along an evolutionary path – from amoeba, to fish, then lizard and finally bird – while thoroughly examining Eugene Jolas’ experimental literary journal transition within the framework of modernist animal studies. However, there is much more than just a recital of animal imagery found within this important interwar publication. Setz weaves these creatures and the writers who invoke them into historical, political and scientific contexts showing that these references were not occurring in any sort of vacuum but were in fact part of the cultural zeitgeist. Throughout the book Setz establishes many new pathways of inquiry for both established and beginner scholars of modernism, giving the reader the impression of being guided by a benevolent mentor. There was no haphazard natural selection from the review’s contributors, and Primordial Modernism is organized in such a way that everything is laid out clearly and explained in such depth that many aspects of the book could be pursued for future scholarship. 

Continue reading “Book Review: Primordial Modernism “

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