MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 382-384
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Edward Engelberg. Solitude and Its Ambiguities in Modernist Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 223 pp.
While referenced often in literature of the West, rarely is solitude, as theme or condition, afforded any kind of sustained critical analysis. This dearth of attention motivates Engelberg's thoughtful study of solitude, both as "a deceptively contentious and ambiguous issue" historically and as a dominant theme in modernist fiction specifically. What Engelberg sees in modernism (here, the period from the 1920s to the dawn of postmodernity in the 1950s) is a heightened, largely existential crisis within the traditional "double bind" of competing desires for society and separation. Modernism definitively breaks from this history, argues Engelberg, when "the solitary no longer merely refuses Society to embrace, say, Nature, but rejects Society and Nature, an act that forces an inevitable confrontation with the Self, whose consequences are devastating." The question then becomes "how to achieve solitude and then cope with its newly emerging contradictions." Although he begins with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as a "defining text in the post-Renaissance trajectory of solitude," Engelberg devotes the bulk of his study to analyses of selected modernist texts: Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Mann's The Magic Mountain, Sartre's Nausea and Camus's The Stranger, and finally Beckett's trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable).
As preface to his individual readings, Engelberg's first chapter provides a useful and well-documented synopsis of the shifting literary and philosophical understandings of solitude's merits and dangers, [progressing] from the Renaissance, through Romanticism, to the alienation that characterizes the twentieth century. In chapter 2, Engelberg critiques Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as a progenitor in the eighteenth century of what the future of solitude became, namely an internal discourse between Self and (the Self as) Other. From here, [End Page 382] Engelberg measures the growing imbalance within this dichotomy in modernist texts to follow. He sees Woolf's To the Lighthouse, for example, as a case of aphasia, where a balance between soliloquy and colloquy cannot be reached, either for the Ramsays or for Lily Briscoe, in spite of Lily's attempts to break out of her solitude through her painting. Engelberg thus resists what he calls the "cheerful" readings of the novel's ending "that have become almost de rigueur." Though Engelberg initially characterizes To the Lighthouse as a novel of "spatial solitude," this focus shifts to other issues,such as time, the process of artistic creation, emptiness, and the impossibility of a conclusive ending. While these issues may attend solitude, Engelberg does not, perhaps, reconcile them to his overall thesis as fully or as clearly as he might.
The ensuing chapters on Mann, Sartre, Camus, and Beckett more clearly demonstrate the pathogenic possibilities of solitude that Engelberg is most inclined to isolate. Nonetheless, in Nausea and The Stranger, for instance, we realize that these early works are primarily philosophical encounters with existence and the possibilities of meaning or meaninglessness. As such, they lead up to, but do not truly explore what might be called an existential solitude. The endings may or may not be ambiguous, but they are prefatory to, not demonstrative of, the experience of solitude. The choice of Beckett's trilogy hits closer to the mark, but here again the texts depart from solitude into states such as loneliness and alienation, what Philip Koch has called solitude's "near relations."
In his conclusion, Engelberg asks: "How did solitude, once the domain of the strong who freely elected it as a balm for the mind and soul [. . .] devolve to become the condition of the anguished, the forlorn, the misanthropic, the alienated?" In part, Engelberg's answer is a tautology, determined by the very selection, and readings, of his texts. As presented here, solitude's historical trajectory is cohesive, but perhaps not comprehensive. Neither in life nor in literature does the impulse toward solitude inevitably lead to existential endgames or postmodern aporias. As such, Engelberg's final chapter, though brief, is in many ways the most inviting, for...