- The Modern Novel: A Short Introduction
In his brilliant 2001 book, Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics, Jesse Matz did something very difficult: he breathed life, even fire, into the dusty subject of literary Impressionism.1 Matz's book offered an exciting, new theorization of the impression-as-episteme; he lucidly explicated the philosophical problems Impressionism set out to address, unearthed the thorny political assumptions built into the impression's supposed synthetic and redemptive qualities, and demonstrated how several proponents thematized these difficulties. Having managed this academic high-wire act, Matz has moved on to a task still braver—an impossible task, really: to give an overview of the "modern novel" from Henry James to the present in 180 pages, not including notes and index. Matz acknowledges the outsized challenge, noting that the book is "truly introductory," meant to "map in bold and plain lines a territory readers might later explore more fully, over the course of a semester or over the course of years" (2). As a book thus aimed, I gather, at advanced undergraduates, neophyte graduate students, and second-year M.A.s anxiously cramming for exams, The Modern Novel: A Short Introduction provides [End Page 394] a fine, admirably complex overview of the range of cultural forces that contributed to the modernist turn in fiction and the range of novelistic vantages and strategies by which writers attempted to deal with the uncertainties and ruptures of modernity.
Scholars of modernism will, of course, find much here that is familiar. Matz rehearses accounts of modernism ranging from old saws of the Paul Fussell variety—"These fragments bespeak a broken culture—a disintegration caused by modern war and anarchy, destructive to the modern mind" (40)—to views based on such theoretical concepts as primitivism, Shklovskian defamiliarization, and Bakhtinian heteroglossia.2 But academic readers should come to this book looking not mainly for new insights but for a useful classroom text. By this standard, the book's introduction and first five chapters, which take serious fiction from James up to World War II, are at least as good as anything I have seen at laying out fundamental building blocks for an initial understanding of modernism, among them the meaning of "modernity" as we routinely employ it, the turn towards "consciousness" as a primary subject of fiction, the sense that experiments in form are necessary to represent a fundamentally altered world, and the particular kinds of narrative revisions and games that result. Volumes such as the Cambridge Companion to Modernism or Blackwell's own A Concise Companion to Modernism provide greater specificity and a more complex, problematized vision of modernism, but at the cost of blurring the large outlines, the "bold and plain lines" that may be most useful to undergraduates.3
In the book's first half, Matz breaks the forms and contexts of modernism down into five useful categories. Chapter 1, "When and Why?" sketches out literary and historical contexts, including James's placement of consciousness at the center of fiction and the general sense of historical rupture that called forth a search for "some new way of seeing and understanding the world" (22). Chapter 2, "New Questions," deals with the period's epistemological uncertainties and the novel's ways of adopting these difficulties as subject matter and as a set of narrative strategies, thus producing a "new realism based strangely on doubt about reality itself," a realism categorized by "skepticism, relativism, and irony" (33). Chapter 3, "New Forms," and chapter 4, "New Difficulties," offer an overview of formal experiments as they pertain to narrative voice and treatment of time and space. These chapters, I suspect, will prove extremely useful to undergraduates, as they provide rich but lucid explanations of the basics of point of view, setting, and narrative time as they are called into relief by modernist fiction. Chapter 5, "Regarding the Real World: Politics," raises the question of modernism's political commitments. As it probably goes too far towards answering that question, it will likely be the chapter most likely to engage, and to vex, academic readers...