- Against the Event: The Everyday and the Evolution of Modernist Narrative by Michael Sayeau
If modernism and modernity are frequently treated in terms of the “shock of the new,” then what of the ways in which the modern also foregrounds the mundane, the familiar? As Michael Sayeau makes clear in this new book, modern life is defined as much by “banal continuity” as by the “revolutionary shocks” theorized by Benjamin, Simmel and similar thinkers (5). Correlatively, literary modernism’s imperative to “make it new” is moderated by its evolutionary emergence from earlier aesthetic forms; it is thus “at once obsessed with novelty and haunted by stasis” (41).
For these reasons, Sayeau approaches his subject through a shift of aspect: his interest lies less in the figure of modernist novelty than in the ground that surrounds it. Hence, in historical terms, he recasts the modernist paradigm as the “continuation of a story” beginning at least as far back as Flaubert (41). Likewise, in terms of literary form, he focuses less on the set-piece “events” of modernist texts than on their narrative counterweight: the “emptiness and meaninglessness” of the everyday (10).
Of course, the question of the everyday has received much attention in recent modernist scholarship. Liesl Olson’s Modernism and the Ordinary and Bryony Randall’s Modernism, Daily Time and Everyday Life are but two of several studies that have commenced a closer scrutiny of modernist representations of the quotidian. What distinguishes Sayeau’s analysis from this wave of critical work is his contention that the everyday should not simply be seen as a social phenomenon that is reflected and thematized in the content of literary texts. Instead, for Sayeau the everyday is first and foremost an issue of form: it is “an intrinsically formal dilemma,” rather than “an external temporality that modernist novels sought to represent” (38).
In moving away from a representational model of the everyday—that is, from a direct mimetic mapping of lived experience onto literary works—Sayeau aims to examine the manner in which this temporal quality expresses itself within literature, as an immanent principle, organizing and orienting narrative logic. On this reading, then, modernist novels do not merely contain representations of everyday life; more importantly, they seek solutions to the specifically “formal challenges” posed by modernity’s “empty time” (246).
According to this formulation, the everyday manifests itself in fiction as a force that threatens to stall the narrative production of meaning. At a formal level, Sayeau shows how his chosen modernist—and proto-modernist—texts “share a particular dilemma: how to maintain the coherence of the text, a rhythm of meaningful experiences, in a world in which time itself seems to be [End Page 581] flattening out, softening into circularity, reiteration, and stasis” (245). In this way, the everyday emerges as an internal element of the economy of the novel, pulling against plot progression and towards entropic dissolution.
It follows that this formal conception of the everyday cannot be defined without reference to what it negates: its “rhythmical partner,” the “event” (14). The event is precisely that which is not everyday: “that which features as a fundamental change in a situation” (3), or in a story. Sayeau acknowledges the theoretical freight attached to this term—his first chapter sketches its usage by Badiou, Lefebvre, Derrida, and others—yet he argues against a straightforward application of philosophical concepts to fiction. “We need to start,” he asserts, with “what literature is and how it works” (5). In so doing, he demonstrates that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels tend to “take a very different vantage point on eventfulness than we are used to finding in philosophical works” (4). Indeed, against the valorization of evental rupture found in, say, Badiou, Sayeau seeks to reconstruct modern fiction’s “resistance to the metaphysics of the event” (5).
Thus the bulk of this book consists of close readings of the “anti-evental” dynamics displayed by several key texts from the early (or pre-) history of modernism. Sayeau traces patterns...