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  • Review of The Modernist Masters
  • Beth Rosenberg (bio)

The man or woman of letters is a critic whose scholarship is the product of vast reading, often thought of as impressionistic and idiosyncratic, uncritical and nontheoretical. But it is a tradition that goes back to Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets and continues into the twentieth century in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, Lionel Trilling, and Harold Bloom. The beginning of the twenty-first century is a difficult time for the person of letters, but Morton Levitt's The Modernist Masters demonstrates that there is still room for the critic who has read vastly and widely over a lifetime and who has allowed himself to reevaluate his point of view. The breadth of Levitt's reading is more than impressive, it reflects the benefits of experience and maturity.

Stanley Sultan, in his Preface to The Modernist Masters, describes the characteristics of Modernist fiction that Levitt focuses on: the radical uncertainty (ambiguity) in the perception of reality; the writers' creation of ironic ambiguity in their narrative personae; humanism, the assertion of decent values such as honesty, responsibility, moderation and tolerance; and "the Jewish experience." Levitt's study demonstrates these characteristics (or the lack thereof) in such diverse Modernist masters as Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Jorge Luis Borges.Levitt's choice of authors crosses gender and nationality, and his approach reflects current trends in international Modernism. He also moves toward a cultural reading of Modernism in his reading of Jews, Judiasm, and Jewish experience in these works.

The book begins by grounding Modernism in the late work of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and the early Joyce. It is here that the role of narration is described and defined. James is considered a nineteenth-century novelist because his books suffer from too much authorial presence; he sees the world in terms of certainty rather than the ambiguity of the Modernists. Conrad, [End Page 166] "born and bred to both national and personal instability" is the first novelist to eliminate all authorial presence and therefore makes possible the Modernist revolution (2). Finally, it is Joyce's Dubliners, not A Portrait of the Artist, which serves as the true introduction to Modernist narrative. This is especially true of "The Dead" which, in its ability to show "in the most private of circumstances a public presence may remain," represents the humanistic or communal qualities of Modernism. The Dubliners heralds Joyce's later work as well as the comparable union of public and private in the points of view of other Modernist masters.

One such master is Proust. Like the other Modernists, Proust is able to forge a narrative persona that is detached and whose point of view is ambiguous. Though Levitt is hesitant about using the word "reflexive" to describe Proust's narrative, he argues that Proust ultimately shows us that "life and art and narration form a unity, that the telling of a tale of a writer comes finally to join his art to his life, his life to his art, is itself part of the tale" (49). This is where the humanist Proust comes out; he is able to merge the public and private in a innovative narrative technique.

Levitt's argument takes its most interesting turn as it begins to analyze the public component in Proust's work. This is found in Proust's Jewishness (his mother was a Jew), a little discussed fact of his biography. Levitt claims that in A la recherche du temps perdu there is ample evidence of the movement of Jews into French society at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries; this is the historical condition that led directly to the Dreyfus Affair. Proust's Jewishness must have affected his perspective. Like a good Modernist, Proust uses the Dreyfus Affair as a myth. The Jew in his work becomes a metaphor for Modernist ambiguity. His myth is not superimposed from the outside with references to ancient literatures. Instead it is inherent in the society of which he writes. As a Proustian myth, the Dreyfus Affair is explicitly and directly Jewish...


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pp. 166-170
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