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  • Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars
  • Joshua D. Esty
Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars. Tyrus Miller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xii + 263. $45.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

No one is very sure, of course, when modernism ended—or if it ever did. Nor is there general agreement about whether postmodernism represents a minor and belated development within the greater modernist trajectory or an independent counterdiscourse extending back to Jorge Borges and Samuel Beckett (if not to James Joyce, or even Laurence Sterne). Into the general morass of questions surrounding the proper periodization of modernism and postmodernism comes Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism, a convincingly argued case for the missing tertium quid in twentieth-century literary history. Late Modernism offers an extremely useful and sharp, but not rigid, set of distinctions by which we might identify the end of high modernism and the literary manifestation of something genuinely new. If Miller’s late modernists—most importantly Wyndham Lewis, Djuna Barnes, and Samuel Beckett—overlap in time, space, style, and sensibility with the modernists, they nonetheless form a distinct cadre of writers that has never fit very well into the modern/postmodern grid nor into prevailing ideas of “1930s writing” based on overt political commitment.

Late Modernism manages to balance an explanatory model of historical and formal change with persuasive readings of individual texts and writers, shedding new light not just on some prickly and elusive novels but on European literary culture after 1926. That the book describes only a relatively circumscribed set of Anglophone writers (a trio, or a quartet if we include a brief closing discussion of Mina Loy) is not so much a limitation of the argument as it is precisely the point. In the dire aesthetic and social circumstances that Miller describes, there were few enough writers who did not fall prey to despair, nostalgic retreat, unimaginative topicality, or the anxiety of modernist influence.

In describing the points of intersection among writers not generally treated as a cohort by literary history, Miller’s account does much more than rehearse the usual end-of-modernism predicaments. Still, there is a recognizable continuity between older 1930s notions of social engagement and the claim here that late modernism eschewed “formal mastery and orientation toward unique interiorized experience” in favor of “heterogeneity of materials” and “orientation toward everyday life and speech” (15). Late modernists took it as their charge to satirize and debunk the formalist, anthropomorphic, and redemptive impulses that Miller, following Walter Benjamin and Peter Nicholls, ascribes to high modernist fiction.

The originality and significance of Miller’s case comes through most clearly in his discussion of “generalized mimetism” to explain the particular representational crises of the period in question (43). He argues that a rising index of spectacular and simulacral phenomena in the social world of interwar Europe increasingly tended to collapse distinctions between subject and object, between the real and the represented. “Generalized mimetism” describes the process whereby imitation began to extend itself beyond the limited spheres of ritual and art to become a pervasive social principle, paving the way for a fascist politics of conformism and a benumbing consumer culture. In those conditions, artists and writers confronted a world whose derealization preceded its representation. Here Wyndham Lewis emerges as the hero of the piece; his satires unflinchingly present “a denatured reality of spectacles, codes, and models” (83).

Not surprisingly, given the mordant edges of Lewis, Barnes, and Beckett, the category of satire is central to Miller’s account of the period. A disruptive laugh that sounds “at the threshold of disappearance as a self” is the expressionist keynote of late modernist writing (54). The book moves beyond the Bakhtinian concept of “reduced laughter” in a brisk and refreshing theoretical [End Page 172] excursion that yields a nice description of the ways in which the mechanical, the parodic, and the grotesque converge in certain fictions of the late 1920s and 1930s. Miller thus effectively dispenses with misreadings of Beckett’s Murphy as a quasi-modernist novel of consciousness. If Beckett deploys the tropes of subjectivity, he does so without locating literary value...

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