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  • The Passage of Literature: Genealogies of Modernism in Conrad, Rhys, and Pramoedya
  • Laurel Harris
Christopher GoGwilt . The Passage of Literature: Genealogies of Modernism in Conrad, Rhys, and Pramoedya. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. xiv + 336 pp.

In The Passage of Literature, Christopher GoGwilt takes up Susan Stanford Friedman's call to "respatialize" and "reperiodize" (5) modernist studies by practicing what he calls a "postcolonial philology" (4) to reposition the "linguistic-literary coordinates" (3) of modernism with sufficient theoretical rigor. GoGwilt's philological approach effectively articulates the constitutive relationship between literary modernisms and the historical process of decolonization. Such an approach, which GoGwilt gleans from a number of scholars, including Edward Said, Walter Mignolo, Walter Benjamin, and Raymond Williams, offers what he calls a "philology without guarantees," which aims to continue "decolonizing English" through examining the circulation of literary text (243). GoGwilt focuses his study on three authors at the center of three modernist canons—Joseph Conrad as the exemplar of "English modernism" (1880s-1930s), Jean Rhys as the exemplar of "Creole modernism" (emerging in the 1930s, but flourishing from the 1950s-1980s), and Pramoedya Ananta Toer as the exemplar of "Indonesian modernism," (emerging at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century and reappearing in Pramoedya's texts from the 1940s-1980s). Reading passages of text between these three modernisms, GoGwilt demonstrates how the textual innovations of literary modernism are inextricable from colonialism and decolonization, and provides a theoretical structure for comparing transnational modernisms founded on the problems of reading and readership.

GoGwilt begins his study by examining the historical parallel between the construction of the Oxford English Dictionary from the 1880s through to the 1930s and the concurrent construction of the anticolonial lingua franca of bahasa Indonesia. The shared importance of the apparently decontextualized passage of text to each—to the OED as a comprehensive, colonial archive, and to bahasa Indonesia as a forever-disrupted, gap-filled anticolonial construction without an archive—initiates GoGwilt's dialectic between colonialism and decolonization realized within literary modernist texts. Each section of The Passage of Literature is devoted to a particular modernism, from English to Creole to Indonesian. These sections do not simply focus on their representative writers, but rather imbricate all three writers through practices of textual analysis such as Said's "contrapuntal reading" (40), or a reading aware of the related histories elided or displaced within literary texts. By conducting variations on this contrapuntal reading, GoGwilt aims to evidence how "alien genealogies [End Page 392] of modernism" are inscribed within each modernist genealogy's literary "family romance" (34).

Conrad and Pramoedya stand as thesis and antithesis in GoGwilt's dialectic. Their figures represent what he sees as the movement from English modernism as a formal confrontation with a global modernity that occludes conceptions of European universalism to Indonesian modernism as the "site of a semiotic rift" created by its discontinuous national history (251). This broken history is defined by an interrupted national literature written in Indonesian that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as well as the research on this period that Pramoedya had collected by the 1960s. The state destroyed Pramoedya's fragile archive when he was imprisoned on Buru Island in 1965 following the military coup that propelled the dictator Suharto to power. He orally relayed the stories that would form his Buru novel series, based on these lost documents, to other prisoners until he was allowed access to a typewriter toward the end of his imprisonment. Following his introductory chapter, GoGwilt begins his "English Modernism" section by reading Conrad's Malay trilogy, including his first novel, Almayer's Folly, against Pramoedya's Buru quartet, based on the life of turn-of-the-twentieth-century activist and journalist Tirto Adi Suryo. GoGwilt evidences not just the contrasts between these texts, but also their textual overlaps of meaning, implicit within the shared spatial and temporal coordinates of their fictions. In the first chapter of the "English Modernism" section, for example, he focuses on the representation of several traditions of music—European opera, East Indian opera, and the traditional Javanese gamelan—and their aesthetic valuation to reveal how both Conrad and Pramoedya grapple with related literary and cultural inheritances...


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pp. 392-394
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