- The Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism by Andrew Shail
The inquiry into the relationship during the early twentieth century between the budding institution of cinema and the emerging literary aesthetic known as modernism, has for Andrew Shail, long been circumscribed by the question of “whether modernism was mostly imitative of or mostly reactive to cinema” (196). Shail’s The Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism successfully provides an alternate narrative that moves away from looking at cinema as a “stylistic toolkit” that was “sampled and emulated” (3) by modernist writers, and instead places the cultural institution of cinema as a “major pillar for the emergence of modernism” (196). To this end, Shail moves away from understandings of cinema as an ahistorical aesthetic practice to a historically grounded image-regime that came into full force in the first two decades of the twentieth century. This historicist impetus lets Shail detail “a history in which modernism was not an aesthetic reformation in response to cinema, but a consequence in literary practice of its appearance” (3).
One of the strengths of Shail’s project is its exhaustive research into the early history of UK cinema. The payoff of this historical excavation is Shail’s attention to the way 1911 marked the “second birth” of cinema. Leaving behind its status as a mere parlor trick or innovative technology, film distribution and production in the UK by 1911 had cemented narrative cinema as a cultural institution and as an everyday discourse.
Moving nimbly between historical archives, literary history, and detailed close readings of key texts, Shail’s chapters tackle three complementary aspects of the way “the cinema” (Shail’s shorthand for cinema as an everyday discourse) precipitated modernism. Chapter 1 traces the shift from impressionism to the first inklings of modernism through the narrational status of language. In order to show the changes at the level of prose and narrativity that the advent of cinema was having in British writers, Shail examines Ford Maddox Ford’s Chance (1914) and The Good Soldier (1915) alongside Joseph Conrad’s Victory (1915). For Shail, Ford’s and Conrad’s novels show how instead of constituting an assault on representation, cinema’s nonlinguistic form of narrativity offered a model of narration that required no metalanguage. In the cinema of narrative integration, as Shail states, “cinema’s utterances were produced structurally by cinema itself” (56). Ford and Conrad’s novels mark a turn in their respective careers, turning away from the impressionist credo of transcribing impressions and moving toward what will become key tenets of modernism: “the deliberately inflated enacting of realist [End Page 388] metalanguage as linguistic act” and “the replacement of stable metalanguage with the utterances of a consciousness” (92). Conrad and Ford’s texts show them synthesizing those impressions, thus putting emphasis on the literary act. The very narrativity of cinema is for Shail, a crucial element that helps us broaden our understanding of the various ways writers embraced the very materiality of language—a concept that was central to modernist writers.
Chapter 2 moves from the “materialising of metalanguage as language that spread to all of the works we now call modernist” (92) and instead focuses on “the time-sense of an increasingly narrational cinema and the turn to interior monologue” (40). This chapter focuses on James Joyce’s “Wandering Rocks” chapter from Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). It is in this chapter where Shail’s insights forcefully show how an attention to the historical dimension of cinema can help us explain certain aesthetic elements of literary modernism. Particularly illuminating is Shail’s correction of the established critical notion that stream of consciousness as displayed in Joyce’s chapter and Woolf’s novel is evocative of cinema because it functions as montage. Instead, Shail argues that this particular modernist formal trope is interested in keeping a sense of spatial and temporal continuity.
Thus, what feels cinematic in these texts is not their appropriation of a cinematic element (montage) but the way in which they integrated the very feeling of a...