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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

What Ever Happened
to Modernism ?

Gabriel Josipovici

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To purchase What Ever Happened to Modernism ?

Title: What Ever Happened to Modernism ?
Author: Gabriel Josipovici
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 191 pages
Availability: What Ever Happened to Modernism ? - US
What Ever Happened to Modernism ? - UK
What Ever Happened to Modernism ? - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : engaging but limited

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 13/8/2010 Peter Aspden
The Guardian . 4/9/2010 Tom McCarthy
The Independent . 24/9/2010 Amit Chaudhuri
Irish Times . 18/9/2010 Brian Dillon
Literary Review . 8/2010 John Sutherland
The New Republic . 15/12/2010 Robert Boyers
New Statesman . 13/9/2010 Michael Sayeau
The NY Rev. of Books . 23/6/2011 Eliot Weinberger
The Observer . 3/10/2010 James Purdon
The Telegraph . 5/8/2010 Philip Hensher
Wall St. Journal . 25/9/2010 Eric Ormsby

  From the Reviews:
  • "The author is sound in his eclectic and learned exposition of the beginnings of modernism, tracing its roots back to the 16th century. (...) So, the first three-quarters of the book rattle along in pleasing enough fashion (.....) In its final couple of chapters, the book suddenly turns into a polemic, as if an impatient publisher had exhorted the author to provide some juicy Sunday supplement fodder." - Peter Aspden, Financial Times

  • "Interconnectedness is a feature of this book, providing not only one of its central themes but also its discursive method. A typical paragraph will zap us from Dürer to Mann to Flaubert to Dostoevsky in order to make a point about Kierkegaard. It can disorient at times, but the associative or digressive approach is the right one for the task. What I'm not so sure about is the overall "pitch". (...) Adopting the vocabulary of the middlebrow in order to legitimise the vanguard merely robs it of what animates it most." - Tom McCarthy, The Guardian

  • "What needs to be restored to modernism, then, is its radicalism, and a case made for how that radicalism speaks to us today. Whatever Happened to Modernism ? is more a personal mapping of what modernism means to Josipovici, and what makes it both difficult and irreplaceable in his eyes. (...) His book is similarly eloquent, besides being, in its task of charting modernism's uniqueness, ingenious, unexpected, astute and insightful. It's also -- because of its passion and intelligence -- readable, in a way a modernist would approve of, though it disintegrates, very occasionally, into journalese." - Amit Chaudhuri, The Independent

  • "If What Ever Happened to Modernism ? were just a polemic against cultural timidity -- which is how it has been read, not without resentment, by several commentators -- it would not carry quite the charge it does. (...) If thereís a criticism to be made it is that Josipovici sometimes shies from the logical extremity of certain of his subjects" - Brian Dillon, Irish Times

  • "What we have here is less a monograph than a genteel shriek of pain. (...) Mockery aside (for a moment or two), What Ever Happened to Modernism ? tells two stories. Both are well told; both are interesting. (...) Not that he condescends. Josipovici carries his learning lightly and the meditations on Modernism which make up the body of this book are instructive and accessible. But widely as he has read, why has he not, one may ask, engaged at any length with critics who have defended unregenerate 'Englishness'?" - John Sutherland, Literary Review

  • "(A)t once a polemic and a rigorous exposition of certain aspects of modernist practice. Like other such works on this subject, the book is confident and erudite, though often misguided and occasionally bizarre. (...) Apart from his unfortunate caricature of the classic novel, Josipovici informs and disappoints in more or less equal measure. He does beautifully when he juxtaposes old and new, like and unlike, in an effort to get at the core attitudes at the heart of modernism. We are gratified to learn that not only Borges and Ionesco can point the way to the heart of the matter, but also Cervantes and Rabelais. But I must wonder why the focus of the book did not allow for the raising of questions that have been opened up before but never adequately or decisively addressed." - Robert Boyers, The New Republic

  • "In its range and approach, therefore, What Ever Happened to Modernism ? is more reminiscent of one of those classic works of literary criticism -- Erich Auerbach's Mimesis comes to mind -- than the jargon-ridden obscurantism of most academic monographs in literary studies today. Even though the publicity Josipovici has received has centred on his polemical response to the practices of the present-day crop of English novelists, the interest of his book lies in the way it rethinks the stakes of literary criticism and academic writing." - Michael Sayeau, New Statesman

  • "As it is, What Ever Happened to Modernism ? is barely about whatever happened to Modernism. The presumed -- and presumably decadent -- present day implied by the title is dispatched in only a few pages (.....) What Ever Happened to Modernism ? -- the actual book, not the one proposed by the title -- is largely a stringing of short ruminations on the works of favorite writers, artists, and composers. (...) Ultimately, Josipoviciís Modernism is entirely interior, the result of a few ideas and much agony, despair, and self-doubt." - Eliot Weinberger, The New York Review of Books

  • "Headlines aside, the book itself is a welcome intervention in the long debate about the difference between art and entertainment, although it's a shame that Josipovici is not always as lucid or precise as one could wish. (...) Professor Josipovici seems reluctant to answer his own question, other than to hint that it may have crept back to the continent whence it came, shaking its head ruefully at the provincial attitudes of small-minded, beady-eyed Britain." - James Purdon, The Observer

  • "Gabriel Josipovici, an academic from Sussex, has written what might have been quite a good account of modernism. It is rather blotted, however, by his noisy conviction that much of what preceded modernism and almost all of what followed its high period was awful rubbish. (...) And he writes extraordinarily badly, with a tin ear for cadence." - Philip Hensher, The Telegraph

  • "Mr. Josipovici does not provide a simple, broadly applicable definition of Modernism -- it would be hard to do in any case -- but he does something better. He takes Modernism out of its traditionally limited time-frame and sets it within a long historical arc that begins in the 16th century. By the use of apt and often brilliant quotations from a wide range of authors -- from Homer to Irène Némirovsky -- he allows the contours of his subject to emerge. This approach does more justice to the complexity of Modernism than any capsule account could provide. (...) Mr. Josipovici has a gift for sweeping the reader along, but even so, reservations arise." - Eric Ormsby, Wall Street Journal

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:

       Rather than wonder What Ever Happened to Modernism ? Gabriel Josipovici spends most of the space in this book explaining how he sees Modernism, and what he values in it -- though a running theme is the failure of (most) English writers (and especially the popular contemporary lot) to properly adopt it. While not presenting a clear-cut definition of Modernism, Josipovici does offer an appealing literary-historical excursion suggesting how and why it came to the fore.
       For Josipovici, what he sees as the crisis of the absence of limits is the determining factor:

It was much easier to find one's own limits when there were external limits in place, precisely those limits which began to be called into question in the Renaissance and the Reformation and which had been abolished once and for all, in principle at least, by the French Revolution. In the modern world necessity seems too often a form of imprisonment rather than release
       That, coupled with the acute awareness of the artist that what s/he was creating was artifice -- as already abundantly clear in Don Quixote --, is what Josipovici sees as the dominant forces behind the art for our times (ever since):
what is at issue is reality itself, what it is and how an art which of necessity renounces all claim to contact with the transcendent can relate to it, and, if it cannot, what possible reason it can have for existing.
       A tall order, one might think; Josipovici certainly does: it is this that allows him to dismiss many of the popular writers of recent (Iris Murdoch) and current (Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis) times -- as well as to find: "There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi" (though admittedly with the caveat: "compared with Dante or Shakespeare").
       Josipovici does a fine job of explaining the rise of this terribly self-aware fiction (and art in general) and the historical (and philosophical) context that helped shape it. He is less convincing in his insistence on its primacy.
       Josipovici acknowledges that the book is a personal one, reflecting his tastes, and he makes a good argument for the value of the fiction he prizes. He also, however, rather stacks the deck, and when he criticizes a book or author -- as in his take-own of Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française -- shows no receptiveness to what qualities these do have (and which draws many readers to them) and only goes for the easy skewering (of course it's silly to call Némirovsky Tolstoyan) -- an exercise that could as easily be turned on his beloved Kafka, Beckett, or Claude Simon by readers unmoved by their visions and tone (or drone).
       Drawing extensively on examples from art as well, Josipovici's creative tour in What Ever Happened to Modernism ? is quite engaging (if a bit loosely focused). Disappointingly, he limits his examples: it is Adam Thirlwell that is rapped across the knuckles (especially for Miss Herbert), rather than his master, Milan Kundera, who goes unmentioned -- as do many of the writers Kundera has long championed (including Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, and Witold Gombrowicz) in his own fascinating polemics on writing -- and specifically the novel -- in the twentieth century. (Never mind that Josipovici's vision is almost exclusively Western; indeed, despite his raging against English insularity and what amounts to provincialism his range is also closely circumscribed.) There's more to fiction than Josipovici seems to want to allow for.
       What Ever Happened to Modernism ? is certainly of interest, and there are some excellent points and examples here, but even taking in art and literature from the ancient Greeks through Cervantes, Wordsworth, Kierkegaard, and the obligatory Kafka it remains too narrow a study.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 November 2010

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What Ever Happened to Modernism ?: Reviews: Gabriel Josipovici: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Gabriel Josipovici was born in 1940.

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