- Modernism, History, and the Novel
A literary work is born in specific historical circumstances and, like it or not, it is nurtured by them and responds to them. Text and context, literature and history, mutually illuminate each other. This would seem to be a truism, but it needs to be restated when we encounter literary analysis that employ a methodology that undermines historical context, presenting works as semi-autonomous entities detached from their time. Literary history disappears in both too-immanent and too-transcendental hermeneutics. The three books reviewed here are examples of this methodological matter.
Mark Larabee’s Front Lines of Modernism deals with the violent crossing of history and literature, as it analyzes the impact that the First World War had on British modernism. The theme itself is broad and has been treated in a large number of studies Larabee is very aware of, from Paul Fussell’s seminal The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford UP, 1976) to Vincent B. Sherry’s [End Page 100] The Great War and the Language of Modernism (Oxford UP, 2005), so the author concentrates on a specific and at first glance secondary topic: military topography. His study seeks to show how modernist fiction was affected by topographic advances that occurred in the war, that is, how novels incorporated the traumatic experience of war precisely in what it meant topographically (i.e., discovery, classification, and rationalization of a territory; planning and effort to manage and express chaos). In short, he examines the balance between subjective and objective vision and therefore the constitution of experience by how individuals locate themselves and apprehend a space. The question of how to make the map of the territory where two armies clash closely resembles that of how to tell what happens in the fields of sensibility and consciousness.
Larabee focuses on several topographical acts, that is, literary descriptions of spaces related to the Great War. Chapter 1 deals with three different strategies for redefining the role of mapping: Edmund Blunden’s appreciation of maps as purely aesthetic and nourishing artifacts in Undertones of War, Richard Aldington’s redeployment of mapping as an artistically revelatory instrument in Death of a Hero, and Ford Madox Ford’s proposal for a reconstruction of the self based on an alternative form of mapping, emotional and subjective, rather than positivist and scientific, in No Enemy. Chapter 2 chronicles the substitution of the objective, impersonal, prescriptive, and conventional valorization of places for a descriptive, personal, subjective, and experience-based vision of them through the tracking of the glory and fall of the once famous Baedecker travel guides in novels by E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, and H.M. Tomlison. Chapter 3 compares the persistence of an aesthetics based on pictorial landscaping in C. E. Montague’s Disenchantment and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier. In their narrations both writers subordinate topographical factuality to emotional content and use their texts to address underlying anxieties about the postwar role of returning soldiers and the need to regenerate a devastated culture. Chapter 4 is probably the most risky one: the author strives to produce what sometimes appears as an over-elaborated reading of two classic novels: Conrad’s The Shadow-Line and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Although in both works the Great War seems to occupy a secondary role, Larabee toils to make them books on the Great War, and more specifically on the transposition of it to the sea, through an interpretation of certain passages that force them or make them too subtle allegories, for example: “the shadow of the shadow-line signifies death—not in the abstract, as many critics have argued, but in the physically present mortal danger posed by the enemy’s front line trenches. In...