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the Complete Review
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The Secret History of Modernism


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Title: The Secret History of Modernism
Author: C.K.Stead
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 230 pages
Availability: The Secret History of Modernism - US
The Secret History of Modernism - UK
The Secret History of Modernism - Canada
The Secret History of Modernism - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, well-written, story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 1/4/2002 Susan Hancock
Daily Telegraph . 26/1/2002 Shomit Dutta
The Guardian . 22/2/2003 David Jays
The Observer . 21/1/2002 Zoë Green
The Spectator A 26/1/2002 John de Falbe
Sydney Morning Herald . 9/2/2002 Andrew Riemer
The Telegraph . 20/1/2002 Mark Sanderson
The Times . 2/1/2002 Ruth Scurr
TLS . 25/1/2002 Peter Porter
The Washington Post . 7/8/2002 Chris Lehmann

  Review Consensus:

  A few resrevations, but generally impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Such post-modernist play works very well with a writer as various, urbane and controlling as Stead. The Secret History of Modernism is a work of almost perfect pitch." - Susan Hancock, The Age

  • "But while Laszlo stresses the importance of "story", Stead curiously neglects his own. The main narrative, which reflects the warp of Laszlo's memory, is strangely dissatisfying. We see too much of his own introspection, while other characters lack depth. (…) The Secret History of Modernism is packed with interesting ideas and insights, but Stead's insistence on also playing critic and historian puts it in limbo. It is too fictional to be criticism or history and yet too critical, especially of itself, to fully engage as fiction." - Shomit Dutta, Daily Telegraph

  • "His oddly prissy novel tries to disrupt modernist clarity with postmodern procedures (untrustworthy narrator; historical fact intruding into fiction) and to insist that literature can change your life." - David Jays, The Guardian

  • "Continually disarming, this is not a good read in any conventional sense. (…) This work is infuriating, confusing, yet ultimately a provoking take on the masochism of surrendering to narrative." - Zoë Green, The Observer

  • "This complex novel fits together so neatly that it might feel glib in the hands of a less skilled writer. But Stead’s crisp prose serves a vigorous and subtle intelligence, so that nothing is closed off. There is always another connection, another layer." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "In essence, The Secret History of Modernism is a domestic novel with more than a hint of the literary. (…) In a manner that might be called Proustian, this clever novel (…) manages to live up to the promise of its title." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "There is nothing new about The Secret History of Modernism or about authors playing hide-and-seek. The best chapters of the book are the three most traditional." - Mark Sanderson, The Telegraph

  • "Egoism has its limitations, and this novel is only anchored, not bounded, by Stead's personality. It stretches movingly and responsibly back through the history of the Holocaust, raising but firmly dismissing the possibility that this can be related to the history of Modernism in any simple and direct way." - Ruth Scurr, The Times

  • "Stead is a subtle contriver of plots, and many strands of life, seemingly remote from the story's main preoccupations, are woven into the tale. (…) However, his London apprenticeship is heavily literary, and everything which happens in life is secondary to images and examples drawn from the great poets and prose writers of the English tradition. (…) There is a feeling throughout of old notebooks being combed for anecdotes and instances." - Peter Porter, Times Literary Supplement

  • "At its core, however, is a rather simple tale told largely in flashback, using modernist self-consciousness as a foil for the tried, true and tender theme of young love gone haywire -- though as modern things will, the simple tale grows steadily more complicated in the telling." - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Secret History of Modernism seems an unlikely novel-title; one hopes it doesn't scare too many readers off. Modernism figures in the novel, but fortunately Stead is more concerned with character and story-telling than all-too theoretical speculation (or post-modern play).
       The novel is narrated by Laszlo Winter, a New Zealand writer not too different from Stead himself, suffering from a bit of writer's block and looking for a novel to write. Inspiration comes when a meeting with someone he hardly remembered having known in the first place brings old memories flooding back -- and leads him to contact an old, lost acquaintance.
       The narrative moves back and forth between the present and post-war England of the late 1950s, when Winter first went there as a student. He made some friends on the crossing: the Indian Rajiv Battacharaya and Samantha Conlan. Sammy, in particular, becomes important to him -- and it is her he re-connects with as he begins writing this book. An Australian, back then she herself was fleeing from -- and, as it turns out, to -- her great love, the married Friedrich ("Freddy") Goldstein.
       It is Sammy who first wrote:

something she began to call her Secret History of Modernism, which she said would be neither a work of literary criticism nor a work of fiction, but somewhere in between.
       All three are interested in literature: Winter works on Shakespeare (but finds his work tending towards the fictional rather than the rigorously academic), while Rajiv had a more contemporary focus (Eliot and Yeats). Sammy goes to work for the literary editor of a weekly. Eliot means much to all of them -- with Rajiv even crying at the news that Eliot married again: "This man deceived us", he rails.
       Their image of the writer is a difficult one to live up to, and it's an issue throughout. Winter has similar difficulties in deciding who Shakespeare really is -- and his work is marked by a similar concern (is it true to life or is it fiction ?). (There are also cameos by Eliot and Christina Stead in the novel -- neither quite the literary ideal the characters might like to imagine.)
       Finally, another story is also told over the course of the novel, the ultimately tragic saga of the Goldstein family and their plight (and attempts at flight) before and during World War II.
       Winter describes life in this England of his student-days nicely. Stead even manages to believably have him befriend a call-girl. But Sammy is his true love -- and she's (hopelessly) in love with someone else.
       It's a nice look back, and a good set of stories -- though the Goldstein family bits aren't ideally integrated into the larger whole. Stead writes well, and his narrator is engaging and sympathetic. The book seems true to life, in both its nostalgia and its realism: paths and lives crossing, and inevitably diverging, and love never quite story-book simple.

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The Secret History of Modernism: Reviews: C.K.Stead: Other books by C.K.Stead under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       New Zealand writer Christian Karlson Stead was born in 1932. He taught at the University of Auckland and has written many works of fiction, poetry, and criticism.

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