The notion of "modernism" has such residual appeal as both a normative and a historical category in literary studies that even the critical revolution represented by semiotics, deconstruction, and reception theory has left it largely intact. Despite the suspicion with which "modernism" as a special aesthetic practice and as a period designation has been treated by theoreticians such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Douwe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch manage to sustain an inordinately quaint approach to their subject together with a patina of theoretical learning that abets rather than challenges the received wisdom to which they remain curiously faithful in Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature, 1910-1940. David Hayman's study of "modernism" as a particular tactical disposition of writing in Re-forming the Narrative: Toward A Mechanics of Modernist Fiction provides a genuinely insightful inventory of twentieth-century literary practice without such pretence, and with the appetite of a veteran critic who relishes his materials with a welcome straightforwardness.
Fokkema and Ibsch define "modernism" by isolating those features of writing in a series of figures that make up what they call "the Modernist code" from 1910 to 1940—authorial "detachment," a "provisional" relation to values of any kind based upon an uncommon "awareness" on the part of characters in fiction and personae in poems, and a "fragmentary" style in both prose and verse that is the reflexive counterpart to such thematic postures. In chapters on securely [End Page 852] canonized figures such as Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Proust, Gide, and Mann, we revisit the usual verities of die past half century of literary criticism, often in the guise of a fashionable theoretical vocabulary, with almost no fresh insights—"the chronology of external events is subordinated to the chronology of the stream-of-consciousness"; Joyce's Dubliners deracinates the fixity of conventional symbols; the vaunted reflexivity of "modernist" texts constitutes a "metalingual scepsis" about the very possibility of "communication" in a world torn apart by the events of the present century. Distinguishing "modernist" texts from "Expressionist," "Symbolist," and "Surrealist" texts as well as from "Realist" and "Naturalist" ones (the authors are rather pedantically bound to the validity of such categories), Fokkema and Ibsch are so vague despite their self-announced "scientific" precision that the presumable exactitude of their project is washed away by the blandness with which they pursue it. The "syntactic" and "semantic" "decodings" upon which they claim to embark are no more than catalogues of recurrent sentence structure and shared vocabularies, and their analyses of most of the novels they study little more than plot summaries.
As recompense, Fokkema and Ibsch give equal time to less familiar "modernist" writers such as Menno ter Braak and Charles Edgar du Perron, as well as the still neglected Robert Musil. They thereby help to expand our customary sense of the bibliography of the period, at least from a European perspective, a scholarly habit that also lends their chapter on Mann, the best in the book, an especially rich account of the various intellectual and national contexts through which Mann's biographical journey took him.
Nonetheless, the series of paradoxes into which the authors' uneasy combination of fashionable terminology and conventional assumption leads them is almost endless, whether at the level of conception or in the close reading of particular works. Thus the excessive literalism of their "scientific" approach is at odds with the very "modernism" to which they address themselves, a literature of ambiguity and undecidability that, by definition, resists the kind of "decoding" by which they claim to organize texts that are bent on dismantling their own coherence. Similarly, Stephen Dedalus' development as an artist is "completed" in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, even though Joyce's own development as an artist depends upon the denial of the very notion of the "complete" in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Only once do the...