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What we’ve enjoyed this week, #9

Settle into December with this selection of modernist goings-on:


Modernism in Vienna

The LA Review of Books this week reviewed Marjorie Perloff’s new book, Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire.


Take me  to the church on time…

A new book discusses St Peter’s Seminary, a modernist cathedral in Cardross, described as ‘both Scotland’s best and worst 20th century building and still continues to captivate’.


Grand Designs

This 1960s modernist home in rural Wiltshire is up for this year’s RIBA House of the Year Award.


Sunshine Modernism

If Wiltshire isn’t to your taste, what about jetting off to Hawaii to experience the work of ‘the undisputed master of Hawaiian modernism‘, Vladimir “Val” Ossipoff.



And finally….

Congratulations are due to Paul Saint-Armour, who won the 2016 Modernist Studies Association Book Prize for his book Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form.



What we’ve enjoyed this week, #8

A round up of some modernist happenings we’ve spotted this week.



If you aren’t there in person, make sure to follow along with #MSA18.


Modernism in Japan…

See this great piece in the Japan Times about the forgotten women of Japanese modernism.


…and in Mexico

Paint the Revolution, 1910-1950′ is a retrospective of Mexican visual artists of the first half of the twentieth century.


Get your glad rags on

Head to the Fashion & Textile museum in Bermondsey and enjoy its JAZZ AGE: Fashion & Photography exhibition.


And finally…

Elton John. Yes, you read that correctly. The Tate Modern is showing a collection of his ‘unrivalled modernist photography‘, including images from Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, and Aleksandr Rodchenko.


Review: No’s Knife, The Old Vic


Photo by Manuel Harlan. Courtesy of The Old Vic.

Not much is known about the genesis of Texts for Nothing, Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic series of thirteen prose pieces. Originally composed in French as Textes pour Rien, they were first published in English in 1967 with other short works under the portmanteau title No’s Knife (the phrase occurs in Text XIII). Beckett did not consider them to be dramatic works, and in his letters he repeatedly relates them to L’Innomable, the last part of his trilogy. Although he gave encouragement to a staging of the Texts (with parts of How It Is) in 1983 by the American actor Joseph Chaikin, it’s still something of a surprise to see a selection of them now staged at the Old Vic under their first English title. The new monologue is conceived and performed by Lisa Dwan, who has rightly made a name for herself as an excellent Beckett interpreter. After her sensational standalone performance of Not I at the Royal Court, she included it in a trilogy with Footfalls and Rockaby, the three together forming an exhilarating and demanding evening. My expectations were therefore high for this latest production, though with some doubts about how such a work might be presented.


Her appearance on stage immediately evokes other female Beckett characters: Dwan’s partial enclosure in a cleft brings to mind Winnie’s stasis in Happy Days, as well as W in Rockaby, and the highly constrained position of the actor in Not I. This seems appropriate: motifs of stillness, even stasis, also featured in exchanges between Beckett and Chaikin when discussing how to stage the work. When Chaikin offered an image of a man “mostly motionless”, Beckett responded with “Seated. Head in hands. Nothing else”. Yet a frantic desire to escape becomes apparent as Dwan modulates rapidly from one voice to another, the addition of sound treatments to some of her phrases adding to a sense of hyperactivity. The scene changes three times in the space of the seventy minute running time but the third section has echoes of the first, suggesting a triptych structure. The sense of closure turns out to be mistaken when the fourth section commences. Each movement of the piece sees Dwan suggesting a different character or aspect of a personality brought out by the altered mise en scène and the selections from the texts. These changes contribute to the sense of restlessness apparent throughout, as do her abrupt transitions between voices and moods. Some passages were so rushed they were inaudible, whether intentionally or not.


For most of the performance I was reminded of a reading of Lessness, another short piece of Beckett’s prose, at the Barbican’s Beckett Festival in 2015. Simply staged, with Olwen Fouéré reading the text at a desk, this was Beckett uninflected yet intensely musical and rhythmic. By contrast, at the Old Vic, Dwan’s virtuosic but relentless changes of voice, mood, and pace meant that her efforts to characterise the words only seemed to obscure their already complex music. With the energy of her performance brought to the fore, the text almost seemed to take second place. Beckett himself, listening to Chaikin’s rehearsal recordings, found them “too brisk and lively”, and commented later, “I hear it myself with less colour, a voice almost spent”.


Altogether, it seemed remarkably unlike Beckett. His typical scenarios, of claustrophobic or potentially suffocating environments, or situations that resist the imposition of meaning, lead his characters to circle around the possibilities of escape or diversion, but such relief rarely arrives. Dwan’s eventual crossing of the boundary between stage and auditorium in the final section broke with this paradigm of containment, needlessly underlined by the simultaneous highlighting of the proscenium arch. It only seemed to confirm what had become all too apparent much earlier in the evening – that this interpretation emphasised the actor rather more than the text she was straining to give life to.


Beckett sat in on Patrick Magee’s recording of the texts in 1974 and complained that the actor was reading them “too emphatically, it should be no more than a murmur”. It was as if, he explained to Magee, he was watching people in the street from a ground floor window just a few yards away, but the distance was more like ten thousand miles. Dwan was too emphatic in her attempts to bridge that enormous gap between reader and hearer and her performance raises larger questions about how free an actor can be in their interpretation. But Beckett repeatedly indicated to Chaikin, somewhat uncharacteristically, that he was happy for the actor to do as he saw fit with the work. And in another letter in 1981, Beckett wondered of the Texts, “how stage that bodilessness?” The question remains. No’s Knife was a brave but unsuccessful response.


No’s Knife was at The Old Vic 29.9.16–15.10.16. This review is of the opening night.


About the author

Mark Liebenrood recently completed an MA in History of Art at Birkbeck with a dissertation on Agnes Martin’s grid paintings. He has co-edited Dandelion, Birkbeck’s postgraduate arts journal, and contributed research to a Tate In Focus article on Louise Nevelson. He has long been interested in Beckett and is on Twitter, ambivalently, as @markliebenrood.


Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities (The Return)

Writing a conference report is always tricky, usually enjoyable, and never successful. Like a good poem, you might say, it isn’t possible to capture a conference in paraphrase. But it might just be possible to extend it, explore it, and, with sufficient luck and judgement, even add to it. And Irish Modernisms is the kind of conference that deserves to be extended, explored, and added to. It will live on, influencing the approaches and interests of all who attended it and helping shape the next steps in the now settled—perhaps too settled—field of Irish modernism. As co-organiser Paul Fagan suggested in his opening remarks ‘The time has come to cease announcing the rising of a new field […]. It’s time to test a field that is now firmly established. To look for blind spots, gaps, and new openings. To question its canon-formations and its borders’.

Where once Irish modernism could safely be defined entirely through Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett (it was either limited to them or by them), decades of important critical spadework has made it impossible to conceive of Irish modernism as a remnant canon, made up of those left behind (literally and metaphorically) by those who went into European exile. The ‘problem’ of Joyce and Beckett (and in a slightly different way, Yeats) raised its head at various points in the conference. Both were well-represented in the form of papers (Yeats, strangely, not at all) but the question of whether these three are beasts to be slain or boons to be celebrated came up time and again. If we can’t simply section some Irish modernists off from others as we did in the past (we can’t and we shouldn’t try to) then there is a danger in reintroducing these writers too simplistically into a broader narrative of Irish modernism. Not because they don’t belong there, but because this reintroduction risks distorting and overshadowing the work done by those writers who remained—whether proudly, ambivalently, or antagonistically—within the Irish context. They become, all too easily, ‘accompanying artists’, drawn into the teleological aggrandisement of Ireland’s authors of global standing.

This double-bind was by no means the central concern of the conference, but it was a point that begged constantly to be addressed. As Patricia Coughlan put it in the first of two excellent and inspiring keynotes: ‘Ireland has three of the greatest world figures of English-language literature; we need to get over that’. These figures will always, and simply have to, overshadow their contemporaries. Rather than fight against this, we must accept this as a fact and move on to more interesting discussions. For Coughlan, we might begin with someone like Elizabeth Bowen who ‘always seems to be caught in the process of acceptance into the canon of Irish modernism’. The point, she suggested, is to study these writers in the knowledge that ‘even without Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, there would still have been an extraordinary flourishing of Irish modernism’.

Lucy Collins rather proved Coughlan’s point in the second keynote of the conference. There is, Williams showed convincingly, an entire generation or more of women poets who have been largely left out of the history of Irish literature. The point is not simply to place them, unresisting, into the chronology of Irish modernism—indeed, Collins’s cogent criticisms of chronological renderings of this history generated the most unexpected and perhaps most persistent of the conference hashtags, #thwartchron—but to understand the processes by which these poets were sidelined, exempted, and overlooked in the extended moment of Irish canon-formation. Key poets such as Eavan Boland, Collins suggested in response to a question from Michael McAteer, can be forgiven for aligning themselves with a soon to be critically re-discovered Irish Revival, rather than a more recent, but already dismissed body of women poets. Why battle to resurrect failed poets, when you could ride on the wave of resurrection that was already underway? But, now that the canon has been formed, it’s time to reform it, to do what these poets were unable to do in their own lifetimes and fight back against the gendered historical and canonical perspectives that have limited their appreciation. One of the most effective arguments Collins made was simply to display and read extracts from the work of Blanaid Salkeld, Rhoda Coghill, and Sheila Wingfield. The power and quality of the poems on display were a delight and a surprise to me, who, to my shame, had never come across this work before.

Irish Modernisms was packed full of probing, intelligent, and creative panels on, for example, Joyce, Beckett, ‘sensory modernism’, the Irish stage, and the ‘Geography of Modernism’. There were too many standout papers to list them all, but Michael MacAteer’s account of Standish James O’Grady’s marvellously bonkers tale of an Irishman transported through time to 22nd Century Argentina and back should get a mention. As should Daniel Curran’s reading of Thomas MacGreevy’s war poetry as imagistic, even as MacGreevy showed a cultivated disdain towards Pound’s poetics (MacGreevy responded to Pound’s How to Read with the words ‘God help the poor idiot’). Joe Brooker offered a virtuoso reading of Hugh Kenner’s masterful own reading of James Joyce, in which he showed that, time and again, Joyce’s writing obliges critics to write as Joyce. Lloyd Houston didn’t so much present as perform his extremely engaging paper on Synge and Irish discourses of degeneration. Ronan Crowley’s insistence on developing our understanding of the Roman a clef (including Ulysses) as perhaps the defining Irish form of the first half of the twentieth-century was convincing and eye-opening. And Paul Fagan’s analysis of Ireland’s proud history of ‘hoax’ publications—which he traced all the way through to circular and undermining uncertainties of Beckett’s prose—opened a new avenue for Irish modernist studies particularly, as well as, I think, modernist studies generally. All the organisers’ papers were fittingly excellent. I was lucky enough to share a panel with co-organiser John Greaney, who presented a fluent and engaging reading of Elizabeth Bowen’s attempt to negotiate a prose style that could capture the experience of living with Ireland’s traumatic history. I could only admire from an audience berth third co-organiser Tamara Radak’s excellent account of the flamboyant refusal of closure that occurs in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Indeed, the organisers deserve immense credit for all aspects of the conference planning, presentation, and execution, from the meticulous detail of their pre-conference, emails through to the timetabling of two-hour, schnitzel-filled lunch breaks. Not every conference can or should offer access to schnitzel, but anyone planning to organise a conference in the next five years should take note that I and every other attendee of Irish Modernisms will no longer suffer one-hour lunches in silence.

One last point: if you want to get a fuller, richer, better account of this conference than I have been able to offer here, simply load up Twitter and search ‘#irishmods2016’. While the most recent Joyce Symposium pushed it close, I can’t imagine that any humanities conference has ever been so well tweeted as this. As well as usually cogent summaries and analyses of the papers presented, it is here and only here that you will get anything like a true sense of how intellectually stimulating, amusing, and downright enjoyable Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities was to attend.


About the author

James Fraser has lectured at Cambridge and the University of East Anglia, and is currently a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Exeter. His first monograph, Joyce and Betrayal, will be published by Palgrave MacMillan this year.

Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities (University of Vienna, 29th September – 1st October)

Irish writers made diversely vital contributions to literary modernism, to an extent arguably disproportionate to the country’s size and population. A few – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, especially – have been central to the modern literary canon. The new modernist studies since the 1990s has tended to provide more historically detailed and archivally evidenced readings of these central figures, while space has also been found for hitherto less regarded artists. Networks of publishing and activity have also been under consideration, and the relation between the overlapping concepts ‘Irish Modernism’ and ‘The Irish Revival’ has been rethought, mainly resulting in greater overlap.


The conference on Irish Modernisms held at the University of Vienna this Autumn set out to increase the attention on the previously overlooked and to bring marginal figures and issues to the centre, filling some of the ‘gaps’ in its title. The call for papers cited the Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism (2014) as a starting point while encouraging work on ‘marginal modernisms and previously neglected genres, forms, and sites of publication or expression’; the conference would be ‘dedicated to testing the borders of Irish Modernism’. This project might be called revisionist, if that term were not already so overloaded with freight in Irish Studies. In the event, numerous papers dealt with well-established names – though in one decentring development, none directly addressed the figure seemingly most central to the whole epoch, W.B. Yeats. This brief report will not seek to cover every paper (strong material on the more canonical writers will go undiscussed below), but rather will note a few elements of the conference in relation to its specific aims of exploring the field’s margins and borders.


In any consideration of canonical ‘gaps’ and absences of attention, questions of gender must figure prominently. The Irish canon of the modernist period is plainly dominated by male writers, raising the question whether this primarily demonstrates a dearth of opportunities for women writers at the time or a failure of critical attention over subsequent decades. No doubt both factors are involved. Some discussion at the conference suggested that women had found access to networks of publishing and publicity easier during the Irish Revival (here meaning, say, the pre-Rising years), and harder subsequently (during the notoriously censorious and restrictive Free State). The middle-class women activists and thespians detailed in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2014) might provide evidence for that view. But much work can still be done to bring into focus the writing of Irish women in the period. One simple way this conference did that was to feature two women as keynote speakers, both of whom focused on women writers. Professor Patricia Coughlan of Cork University spoke on Elizabeth Bowen, perhaps the most canonically settled of all Irish women writers of the period. (Two other papers also addressed Bowen’s fiction.) Professor Coughlan also remained a constant source of knowledge and authoritative perspectives on a range of issues throughout the rest of the conference. In a second keynote address, Lucy Collins of UCD introduced the work of a number of Irish women poets, including Blanaid Salkeld and Sheila Wingfield. Discussion of the poetry was prefaced by an extensive consideration of the nature of canons and periods, and how these more mid-century poets had fallen between the visibility of the Revival at one end of the century and of Eavan Boland at the other.


Lucy Collins’ paper did the most to introduce truly little-known writers. Other papers tended rather to turn a spotlight on writers with some reputation: thus Daniel Curran and Karl O’Hanlon on the poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and Denis Devlin respectively. Fionna Barber, a scholar of art history, brought visual arts more to the fore; the fine Dublin painter Mainie Jellett was an intermittently recurring reference point. The conference seemed to have an appetite for such material, suggesting that comparisons and connections between literature and painting might be a border to test in future. A different tendency was the revelation of obscure works from well-known names. Two examples stood out: Michael McAteer reported on The Queen of the World, a science-fictional time-travelling pot-boiler from the renowned mythographer Standish James O’Grady, and Michael Connerty disclosed the existence of scores of turn-of-the-century comic strips by Jack B. Yeats. A slide show offered examples of the strips, which were an extraordinary spectacle: animal characters including a clever circus horse (a possible connection with Yeats’ better-known paintings of circuses), a venerable flying proto-superhero named Dickie Bird, and the consulting detective Chubb Lock Holmes (which might call to mind Hugh Kenner’s whimsical comparison, in the 1950s, of Sherlock Holmes to W.B. Yeats). Questions remain about the material: did Jack Yeats write the scripts as well as draw the pictures? But Connerty’s material posed the relationship between modernism and mass culture in a spectacularly entertaining new way.


One other theme was an emphasis on networks and institutions rather than individuals. Tobias Harris talked of Dublin magazines of the 1920s, raising questions about the role of printers as well as writers. With characteristic originality and flair, Ronan Crowley introduced the roman a clef as a genre of the Irish Revival, with a long list of novels cutting across seemingly disparate spheres from naturalism to Ulysses and Murphy. And Des Lally, a scholar based in the West of Ireland, reminded us of the importance of Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the 1930s, as a cosmopolitan home for the arts which also sheltered marginal and prohibited sexual identities. It seemed to me that such a paper could point the way to further accounts of places and social spaces that enabled the production and circulation of the modern Irish arts.


Some overarching questions were aired in a closing panel. Should the corpus of ‘Irish modernism’ be extended in time, even all the way forward to Eimear McBride? My own sense is that what academics call ‘modernism’ as a whole has expanded enough by now, and if anything we need ways to keep the category in check. Still, if the corpus of relevant works enlarges to take in lesser-known authors of the era, then in what way are the new works to be read? Would Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ or data mining be a more suitable way to handle such large hoards of textual material? Or do those hitherto neglected authors, like those cited by Lucy Collins, deserve more sustained individual attention? Should we, Paul Fagan wondered aloud, revisit such critical classics as Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition (1962)? And when will George Moore come back into fashion?


From a distance, one might wonder at the conference’s location. Irish Studies may naturally thrive in Ireland, but it has also found homes around the rest of Europe like that of Vienna’s Centre for Irish Studies – fostered notably by the late Professor Werner Huber, who died just months before this conference and was remembered fondly here. It might be true that fully to understand Irish writing, you need to spend time in Ireland. But it could also be that the discussion of such writing is sometimes enhanced by taking it elsewhere, to a kind of neutral territory. Co-organizers Tamara Radak, Paul Fagan and John Greaney can be commended for making Vienna such a place at this conference.


About the Author

Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His books include Joyce’s Critics (2004) and Flann O’Brien (2005).



A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism?

It all started in another book… A prequel. After an archival project retracing global networks of late modernist radical poetry groups in the Second World War, I found several poets turned to popular pulp. And I don’t mean Day-Lewis’ punning mysteries as Nicholas Blake – more like the New Apocalypse’s Henry Treece, Ruthven Todd, or Alex Comfort. They wrote fantasy novels with magic and swords, or for Todd: cats in space. The post-war years were a time of need, and poetry (especially radical) never pays its bills. So, after picking up its tab and archival traces in Personal Modernisms, I wanted to relax with pulp. I wanted simplicity.

reedThat’s how I found myself in the basement of the Reed College Library’s Special Collections in Portland – it was even a road trip: a journey, a quest. A “Reedie,” David Eddings, later became one of the best-selling fantasy authors of the twentieth century, as far from modernism and into pulp as possible. I’d become curious after giving my little sister a set of his books, at the same age I was given them when they first appeared in the 1980s. So in Portland with Eddings’ papers in hand, ostensibly a splurge during research on Robert Graves and the Beats, I discovered an irruption of the marvellous. Eddings had been a tenured professor of English literature before quitting the profession. Worse still, he’d taught Modernism! I held his lecture notes from three courses on modernist English and American literature. When his quest narrative gave cheeky dialogue between an ancient wizard and a young boy (the target audience), he set free choice and determinism in conflict amidst a magical prophecy by asking why two and two make four.

“Simple things are always the hardest to explain.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Garion retorted, a bit irritably.

“Oh?” Wolf looked at him with amusement. “Let me ask you a simple question, then? What’s two and two?”

“Four,” Garion replied promptly.


Was he really thinking of “two and two make four” as the expression of determinism in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground? Well, he had lecture notes on it…  He identifies Dostoyevsky as the prototype of the sociological novel in all of his modern writing courses, pointing to The Idiot and the underground man specifically. Even his lengthy (and very good) lecture materials on Ulysses close with the troubling assertion that Molly Bloom is deliberately obscene. Rather than seeing her “gusto for life,” we’d do well to regard her as the creation of a mind trained to think of women as filth: “She is deliberately obscene” as well as “life itself.” Oddly, in retrospect, Eddings’ lust-driven character Salmissra the snake queen also has “The catalogue of Molly’s lovers p 731” (Fonds 7.20), yet her sexuality is neutral, neither good nor bad.


Inconceivable! Political radicals and a modernist legacy amidst fantasy’s medievalisms and reactionary nostalgia? Could Futurism really shake hands with the anti-modern?

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But more was at work than this curiosity of my transformed childhood fandom. There was a lesson for my other self: the dusty prof in corduroy with elbow patches about to teach the textual variants of Hilda Doolittle. Eddings was a professor teaching modernism about as long as I’ve been as I write this, so underestimating seemed foolish. And if modernist concerns infiltrated Eddings’ fantasy novels, he was surely not alone. William Morris and Hope Mirrlees were obvious early voices, and my crew of radical poets in Personal Modernisms included several who turned to the genre after World War II. They were already infected by modernism. But what of those late arrivals who were only ever in the mainstream, like Eddings or Terry Brooks and Guy Gavriel Kay in the same 1980s moment? Was there anything a modernist might look to in fantasy outside of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany (and even then perhaps because they sit so close to modernism’s more comfortable discourses with science fiction)? For Eddings, there were also pop culture commentaries that tended toward the dismissive. Farah Mendlesohn calls Eddings’ conclusion to the Mallorean series a choice so predetermined it’s pointless, yet with his lecture notes, the inevitability of choice seems the point. It would be less different from the freedom to believe that two and two is four in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four than the two remaining volumes of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Orwell’s not bad company in which to share modernist sources.

Eddings also had a simple prose style with what some describe as minimal world building without the grit of “real life.” It’s like those who say he wrote for money, as if we don’t find ledgers in modernist notebooks (ahem, Dylan Thomas). But he set the rumours in motion in interviews by saying the commercial success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings inspired his turn to the genre: he found a copy of this late modernist predecessor in a bookshop in its 78th printing and hence a commercial model. His teaching notes and diaries revealed something different: a world as elaborate as Tolkien’s written prior to the narrative that became his Belgariad series. Except, Eddings’ lecture notes on Marx and Engels weren’t wasted, so economic and material conditions preceded ideology in his demesnes, unlike Tolkien… In each course he included a discussion of Marx and “system critics.” In “The Modern Novel,” his course introduction detailed the material forces shaping the aesthetic, structural, generic concerns of the novel form, especially commercial mass production. But for Eddings, the world-building that he built out from these critical interests was expunged from the commercial product (ahem, Lester Del Rey). Tolkien was also in his 1960s syllabus (long before the 78th impression) set amidst high modernists (Woolf, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, no less). So much for the story of commercial opportunism. When we pause to consider fantasy’s world building and form beside the allusive compulsions of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and H.D., it seems odd to exclude such contemporaries and descendants.


The archives also revealed a “real life” with plenty of grit, which differs from the narratives he offered of himself or that provide the biography on Wikipedia. Once seen, it became impossible to overlook in the terribly clean novels, just as his modernist preoccupations with allusion increasingly demanded attention. Even Eddings’ often repeated story of leaving his vaguely described (implicitly sessional or adjunct) tenured teaching post in protest against administrative fiscal greed is belied by his checklist prior to moving away from Dakota. The most important phrase in his “to-do” list is a question not a ledger: whether or not to sue for alienation of marital affections. He abandoned tenure and teaching modernism to work in Safeway, it would seem, to save his marriage. Clearly it was a strong relationship and lasted, and she appeared as co-author to his books after 1996 despite a series of strokes that left her unable to communicate – he cared for her at home, even though by then he was a millionaire. The many goody-goody troubled marriages in his fiction, in this context, suddenly become impossible to ignore, even if the narrative voice never dwells in a way that alienates the young reader. The wizardly drunkards are equally complicated by the drafts in his Alcoholics Anonymous recovery journals and a disturbing life chart graphing emotions against alcohol over a timeline of major events. Like the modernist authors on whom I work – Durrell, Hemingway, Elizabeth Smart, Wilde, Henry Miller – his public comments were storytelling to disguise deep-set intellectual and emotional concerns that, in retrospect, appear blindingly obvious in his superficially simplistic prose. It’s a plainness Hemingway shows took great effort. And yes, even Papa is much there in Eddings’ first novel as a student at Reed, though he valued Faulkner more.

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I now had a popular pulp author known for squeaky clean narratives who suffered infidelities from his lovers, struggled against addiction for most of his life, abandoned a tenured career for painful reasons, and had read deeply in Joyce, Woolf, Huxley, Amis, Durrell, and many others while admitting to only Chaucer, Spencer, and Mallory after his turn to pulp. He even used his time in Alcoholics Anonymous to outline his series The Dreamers as a response to the formal innovations of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, a work already in his lecture notes as a prototype, just as Dostoyevsky anticipated his prophetic determinism. Was this kind of literary interest typical of the genre as a whole? Well, that’s my next book…


Most tellingly, I set Eddings’ thesis and his fiancée’s, both completed in 1954, side-by-side: his a novel and hers a project on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Four years later, she wrote him a “Dear John” letter remarkably akin to Hemingway’s in In Our Time. It may even have been her model – she too had a college teaching career in literature. It seemed clear to me that a literary author painfully aware of the stylistic complexities of modernist prose had moved from the aesthetic to the commercial. His thesis-as-novel, How Lonely Are the Dead, mirrors Hemingway’s style with Fitzgerald’s concerns, and in his own phrasing, oh boy, was he commercial! The literary and the radical had not, however, vanished. Critiques of settler colonialism appeared in his (anonymous) letters to the editor, his recognition of philosophical anarchism (read: sympathetic) occurs in his lecture notes, and he set up an opponent in fascism (Pound) to set beside elitism (Eliot) in lectures from the mid-1960s that could be trotted out in our notebooks today. My recreational turn to my childhood pulp was not the break I needed after a deep archival project. It was an entangled nest of modernist legacies.

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mount_taborWhile in the basement at Reed, waiting to climb Mount Tabor to pick blackberries (no allusion to Heaney since they were for eating now) with a colleague at work on Mina Loy and Pound (authors deeply influential in Eddings’ lecture notes), I realized it would be ridiculous to keep up the pretence anymore. I cannot not genre modernism. The convoluted academic prose of justifications only showed insincerity. It didn’t work, struggling to keep the modernist, the radical, and the fantastic apart. The scenario’s nearly an allegory – and here, it’s no longer “nearly.” Of course there was a modernist fantasy. Of course modernism and subversion met in a radical fantastic. Of course there was a fantastic form of modernism. And of course their offspring conversed. Of course this was a superficially simple narrative of a quest, from Vancouver to Portland, to find a relic. And of course it really didn’t mean any of those things. It meant something more to literary criticism and conceptualizations of movements, periods, and especially genres. Modernism’s legacy might need as much attention as its origins, its lowbrow as much as any other market, and its persistence and echoes after its moment just as much as its first statements. There’s Nicole Peeler’s modernist PhD before her urban fantasy career, just as Hope Mirrlees’ “Paris: A Poem” precedes the magical Lud-In-The-Mist, or rethinking Eliot’s Arthurian Jessie Weston in the misprisions of the strong poetess of the 1980s Mists of Avalon.

But Goblin Modernism is another project. It’s A Modernist Fantasy, set in motion by a modernist scholar tripping into the archives of fantasy’s popular pulp.



About the Author

James Gifford is Associate Professor in the School of the Humanities and Director of the University Core at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He teaches and writes about too many things in too many disciplines after taking degrees in English, Humanities, and Music. His most recent books include Personal Modernisms and From the Elephant’s Back, his next A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, & the Radical Fantastic is nearing the end of its quest, and he’s just completed a decade-long project, “To seek a home beyond the unknown sea”: The Collected Works of Edward Taylor Fletcher, a nineteenth century multilingual Canadian poet, translator, and travel writer. He also edits the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter of The Year’s Work in English Studies. He tweets at @GiffordJames and began blogging 15 years too late.

Ben’s fairy tales: how The Storyteller sheds new light on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy

Whimsical twists exist everywhere in Walter Benjamin’s fantastic newly translated collection: an ill empress considers a set of scales which she deems as fine enough to weight the world; a lovestruck baron has gone bankrupt by renting a palace solely to see its mysterious madame; a man with the name “Elephant” revealed as the origin of the animal’s name.

Benjamin unfolded his theory of fairy tales in his essay “The Storyteller” (1936), after which this collection is named, writing that “the first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales”. This short story collection explores the themes of dreams and fantasy, landscape and travel, and play and pedagogy.

The collection is, like the late nineteenth-century Parisian arcade was to its author, a phantasmagoria. It extends an enigmatic world with uncanny creatures and suspenseful happenings between the conscious and the subconscious, between utopia and dystopia, between images and words, and between the ordinary and the exotic.

The first section contains portraits of dreams and fantasies. A desperate nightwalker encounters a speaking rock in forest. A dwarf confronts twelve images emblematic of his unrealised desires in a New Year’s Eve gala. Snippets of childhood and families telling of Benjamin’s attachments in exile turn up as dreams – or texts in his archive of memory. He wrote these fragments between 1906 and 1912, with some pieces from late 1920s and 1930s.

The non-linear narratives of these dreams, to a certain extent, anticipate the modernist aesthetics before the onset of European modernism. They find echo in canonical works such as the mythical parody in Ulysses, the dystopian city in The Waste Land, and the flâneuse in Mrs Dalloway. These stories, with their emphases on dreams, archetypes, and folktales, also illustrate his longstanding adherence to the Jungian idea of the “collective consciousness” which appears in The Arcades Project (Belknap, 1999).

The centre of the collection is a series of travelogue and journeys through lands and seas. Benjamin was a sickly child when he was small, so going onto the streets of Berlin was most exciting. Such “erotic tensions of modern city life,” as the translators highlight in the introduction of the volume, never left him. In the late 1910s, he travelled to Bern, Capri, Moscow, Ibiza, and Paris; some of these would become places in which to set his stories. The narrator in “The Cactus Hedge”, for instance, recounts the metamorphosis of an ancient cactus hedge which inspired an Ibizan’s crafting of Negro masks. Aimless strollers or suspicious stalkers are ubiquitous in this central section, in which Benjamin shows that city spaces are allegorical locations with embedded meanings, as in “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”.

The last section, “Play and Pedagogy” are new evidence for reconsidering Benjamin’s conventional image as a writer “mired” in hyper-academism. In these stories, he emerges as an educator with a keen interest in riddle, brainteaser, and play. This section reflects a recent interest in Benjamin’s pedagogical, playful side, as exemplified by other recent publications of translated archive materials like Radio Benjamin (Verso, 2014) and Walter Benjamin’s Archive (Verso, 2015).

Benjamin had a sustained interest in word puzzles and rebuses: In the First World War, Benjamin and his wife, Dora, corresponded with Gershom Scholem, their friend, who was under observation in the army by encrypted letters; in 1938, his imprisoned brother, Georg, sent some riddles through his sister-in-law, Hilde, to Benjamin as birthday present.

Stories in “Play and Pedagogy” also testify to the lasting influence of Benjamin’s early years’ boarding school mentor and educator, Gustav Wyneken. Wyneken promoted a doctrine of Youth Culture, which purported that the young were more spiritually, morally, and intellectually superior to the old, and the youth were hence expected to equip themselves with a full range of artistic culture and scientific knowledge. Benjamin’s confidence in the youth’s creativity and intelligence is marked in the collected responses to his radio challenges in “Fantasy Sentences” and “Radio Games.”

In order to subsist during exile, Benjamin got a job to broadcast a series of 20 minute programmes entitled Youth Hour on German radio between November 1929 and March 1932. These included interactive radio programmes for children. He gave them keywords to write poetry; the children would then send their works to Benjamin in the following week to be read out in the programmes:

Corner – emphasis – character – drawer – flat

On the corner – he said it with emphasis – I saw a character that was flat like a drawer.

Benjamin’s interest in nurturing children’s creativity to challenge conventional linguistic rules is evident in his word games in these programmes, while the interest in opening multiple possibilities and interpretations in language would later be developed in seminal works such as The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), which presents a defence for allegory against symbolism.

From Virginia Woolf to T.S. Eliot, the early writings of modernists have always been overshadowed and underrated. The publication of this collection follows the recent archival turn in modernist studies. This collection invites readers to reconsider Benjamin not only as an established theorist, but also as a creator imagining a world of tradition, hopes, and wisdom during a time of persecution. It would particularly engage both novice and experienced Benjaminians, but would also interest those who simply enjoy stories. The volume alters reader’s way of receiving Benjamin as a critic known for his dense and elusive writings. By highlighting his childishness, the collection brings fore Benjamin’s eccentricities to bear on his prophetic vision of a philosopher.

The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin, illustrations by Paul Klee, is translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski and published by Verso (240pp, £9.09)

About the author

Jessica Siu-yin Yeung is PhD Candidate in the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her current research focuses on the intersection of life-writing and allegory.

She has been awarded scholarships to study in Hong Kong and previously taught English Literature subjects at BA levels at Caritas Institute of Higher Education and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Her articles are forthcoming in Virginia Woolf Miscellany and a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. Her Twitter is @jsyyeung

The British Association for Modernist Studies, Essay Prize 2016

The British Association for Modernist Studies invites submissions for its annual essay prize for PhD and ECR scholars. The winning essay will be published in Modernist Cultures, and the winner will also receive £250 of books.

Essays can be on any subject in modernist studies, including anthropology, art history, cultural studies, ethnography, film studies, history, literature, musicology, philosophy, sociology, urban studies, and visual culture. Please see the editorial statement of Modernist Cultures for further information:

The BAMS Essay Prize is open to any member of the British Association for Modernist Studies who is studying for a doctoral degree, or is within five years of receiving their doctoral award. You can join BAMS by following the link on our membership pages:

The closing date for entries is 31 October 2016. The winner will be announced by 31 January 2017.

Submission Guidelines

  • Essays are to be 7-9,000 words, inclusive of footnotes and references.
  • Entries must be submitted electronically in Word or rtf format to and conform to Chicago style.
  • Entrants should include a title page detailing their name, affiliation, e-mail address, and their doctoral status/ date of award; they should also make clear that the essay is a submission for the BAMS Essay Prize.
  • It is the responsibility of the entrant to secure permission for the reproduction of illustrations and quotation from copyrighted material. Essays must not be under consideration elsewhere.

Enquiries about the prize may be directed to Jeff Wallace, Chair of the British Association for Modernist Studies, at

In the event that, in the judges’ opinion, the material submitted is not of a suitable standard for publication, no prize will be awarded.

The forgotten art of Winifred Knights comes to life at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

In 1921, aged just 22, the artist Winifred Knights was hailed a genius. She had just become the first woman to win the prestigious and highly prized Prix de Rome scholarship, having already won a slew of prizes as well as the admiration of both her tutors and fellow students at the Slade School. This early burst of glory was to be short lived: despite her achievements, her name disappeared into obscurity following her premature death at the age of 48. As such, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, part of its current modern British series celebrating the work of neglected artists, provides a welcome introduction to this long-forgotten fascinating artist.

Knights’ prodigious talent is clear in the early displays of draughtsmanship, completed at the Slade under the tutelage of Henry Tonks. Her classical figure drawings are exquisitely executed and demonstrate the painstaking attention to detail that slowed her output in later years. Knights’ style quickly matures into something distinct, a modernist reinterpretation of renaissance styles unlike any other early twentieth century artist. ‘The Deluge’, a centrepiece of the exhibition, is as remarkable today as it was to the panel of judges who, in 1920, unanimously awarded her the Prix de Rome scholarship after viewing it. The painting’s angular forms suggest Quattrocento art, yet the image’s sharp lines and sense of driving diagonal motion evoke Vorticism. The planes of solid colour and geometric shapes that underpin the composition almost gesture to abstraction. While the curiously dispassionate figures first catch the viewer’s attention, in the background the flat buildings, minimalist Noah’s arc, and natural landscape are realised in a startlingly vivid and dynamic manner.

This inimitable structure is also in evidence in ‘The Marriage at Cana’, the first painting that Knights completed whilst studying at the British School in Rome. The influence of Piero della Francesca is clear, and the modern, stylised figures of the wedding guests signal that this much more than a pastiche piece. The vibrant pink, sharply curved segments of watermelon on the plate of each guest add a slightly surreal touch – particularly in the centre of the image, where a furtive man caught in the act of nibbling a slice appears, on first glance, to be holding it up to affect a comic smile. Although superficially inspired by Biblical scenes, Knights’ paintings lack any sense of salvation or transcendence. Her work is marked by an eerie stillness, which conveys a disturbing, underlying sense of tension. In the ‘Santissima Trinita’, a work inspired by Knights’ participation in an Italian pilgrimage, this static quality again verges on the surreal. The muted, earthy colours radiate an ethereal glow, which transforms a naturalistic study of a landscape scene into something much more beguiling. In the lower half of the painting, the presence of the peasant women, who are shown either asleep or engaged in quiet ritual, adds to the strangeness of the piece.

The exhibition also provides a glimpse into a fascinating, idiosyncratic life. Inspired in part by her aunt Millicent Murby, a campaigner for women’s rights and Treasurer of the Fabian Women’s Group, Knights possessed ambition and refused to be limited by her gender. After receiving criticism from some of her male competitors, when she was awarded the Rome scholarship, Knights wrote to Murby that ‘people seem to be sorry for the other men…why should they be, they had just the same chances as I and more’. Her outward image reflected this bold, unconventional attitude: eschewing the fashion of the 1920s, Knights designed and made her own clothes, wore her dark hair up with a severe centre parting, and often sported a wide-brimmed black hat. Her appearance was as striking and distinctive as her art; indeed, there are clear parallels between the two. The impassive figures that people her paintings are clothed in the long, bohemian peasant dresses that Knights created for herself; the simple colours of the outfits (as depicted in the paintings and as worn by the artist) are in harmony with Knights’ characteristically muted palette. This is most notable in ‘The Deluge’ and ‘The Marriage at Cana’, two paintings in which Knights depicts herself as a central character, facing out towards the viewer but with her gaze averted. Indeed, Knights appears in all of her paintings – sometimes multiple times – in an act of intriguingly defiant, almost obsessive self-portraiture. It feels as if there is much more to be said on her presentation and exploration of the self, as well as the clothing and costume designs that, one assumes, form a significant part of her oeuvre. One hopes that this exhibition sparks further critical reassessment of Knights’ output and its context, as regards other modernist artists and designers.

The exhibition comes to a close with a range of portraits in which Knights acts as muse for other artists, such as Colin Gill, Arnold Mason, and her husband Thomas Monnington – all of whom were, arguably, in possession of an inferior talent. This seems sadly fitting for an artist who, for so long, has been remembered only as a footnote in the biography of her husband. Knights’ premature death and her years of inactivity due to motherhood and struggles with mental health foreshortened the development of her singular talent. Nevertheless, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s thoughtful, timely showcase of Knights’ small but stunning body of work goes some way to rectify the long years of critical neglect. It is unlikely that Winifred Knights’ name will be forgotten again.

About the author

Lottie Whalen is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Queen Mary, University of London, where she is working on an AHRC funded thesis provisionally titled ‘Mina Loy’s Designs for Modernism’. She can be found on Twitter at @LottieAW.

What we’ve enjoyed this week, #7

And lo, the August Bank Holiday is upon us again. Here’s a few pieces we’ll be enjoying over the long weekend.


Stanley Spencer

The Hepworth Gallery announced a one day conference dedicated to the British artist. This runs alongside their current exhibition of his work.


Jazzy style

Get your tickets for the Fashion Museum‘s exhibition of 1920s fashion and photographs. Featuring Hollywood, flappers, the Great War, and more.


Good news for Sheffieldians…

The Sheffield Modernist Society is getting a permanent home in the city centre. Meanwhile, the Manchester branch of the society will be hosting a talk in September, entitled Making Post-War Manchester-Vision of an Unbuilt City


Machines for living

See a selection of Julius Shulman‘s images of mid-century America at the Guardian.


New York Modernism

While London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently exhibiting Winifred Knights, and will do the same next year for Vanessa Bell, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine is showing the work of women modernist artists including O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr and Zorach.


And finally…

…. do you know about the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Responses to Modernism? It’ll be launching soon. More details here.


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