- Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literatureby Rebecca L. Walkowitz
In many ways, Rebecca L. Walkowitz's 2015 ambitious and elegantly written Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, which came out in the Columbia University Press "Literature Now" series edited by Matthew Hart, David James, and Walkowitz herself, carries on the project of the author's first book, the 2009 monograph Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation. Quite befittingly, the latter closes with a chapter on W. G. Sebald where the critic sets out to "speculat[e] about the Britishness" (162) of a writer who resided in the U. K. but never gave up his German citizenship and literary language. In her new book, Walkowitz takes her "speculations" to a whole new level. More than once, she presents the works she attends to in Born Translatedas "opportunit[ies] to test the foundational concepts of the literary field" (209). The field in question covers the [End Page 359]entire modern-postmodern continuum and how we study it, more exactly, how we understand and deploy some of our core and time-honored critical concepts from authorship, originality, and origination to imitation, derivation, reading, publication, consumption, literary history, tradition, artistic citizenship, affiliation, and belonging but also how we think about these terms' relationships to the nationstate, national territory, birthplace, nativism, and language. Treating Sebald as a "British author" is, in this context, a taste of things to come, that is, of the conceptual and, to a somewhat lesser extent, methodological redefinitions and realignments more systematically and more clearly pursued in Born Translated.
Now, for many scholars, the retooling of these notions has by and large already taken place insidethe abovementioned cultural-historical continuum and has been part and parcel of a broader, late-1960s shift, away from modernism and to a postmodernism that, especially in its "late," post-1989 global stage, seems to be turning one more time, tentatively and slowly, into something else that is still awaiting its right name and comprehensive description. For modernist comparatists like Walkowitz, that stage appears to usher in worldwide a new literary age altogether—"the age of world literature"—and, notably, it is modernism rather than postmodernism that steps into it and "goes global." Whether or not a neatly marked modern-postmodern divide has ever existed to begin with, culturally and critically significant changes occur around the dawn of the twenty-first century and are becoming more noticeable from where we stand right now, so much so that, in hindsight, the modernism-postmodernism sequence looks more and more like a continuity, with modernism assimilating—again, retroactively—postmodern aesthetics, accommodating its dissent, and coopting it as a "growth crisis" chapter in a developmental narrative that has just crossed confidently into the third millennium. In the 2009 book, Walkowitz still felt compelled to make this point in an endnote (173). Also in Cosmopolitan Style, one comes on a complementary reference to "a strain of 'postmodernism' that links Woolf and other early-twentieth-century writers to contemporary postcolonial and cosmopolitan novelists" (12), but the scare quotes and the overall argument suggest that the critic has little use for the postmodern. In fact, in the 2015 monograph, the term is mentioned just once, apropos of the "cliché[s] of postmodern fiction" (142), and even though other cognate "clichés," techniques, and defining features are extensively discussed—from metafiction and self-reflexiveness to a plethora of intertextual modalities—they are neither associated with postmodernism nor deemed characteristic for it although, much like in Walkowitz's earlier book, examined writers include authors such as J. M. Coetzee, who, for decades, have been considered postmodern (and sometimes postcolonial also).
On the other hand, Coetzee himself seems to be switching gears after Elizabeth Costello, and Walkowitz does capture the formal and cultural mechanics of the [End Page 360]shift not only accurately but also without falling back on the postmodern vocabulary, which is apparently considered both obsolete and unnecessary. Instead, her study revolves around translation...