- Literary History of the Contemporary
It might be best to consider David James’s Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel as foremost a work of literary history and an argument for its value for literary studies. The most interesting and valuable insights of James’s book lie in the area of critical methods, particularly in the examples that his reading practices provide. With its interest in technique and craft, Modernist Futures can also be seen as a kind of New Formalist literary history—that is, a history that combines politics with a close attention to aesthetic form. Aside from the study of “influence,” serious literary history has largely fallen out of favor. This neglect is in part a result of literary history being seen as inherently conservative, as primarily a vehicle for promoting and policing a strict canon. In regard to the postwar era, the issue is compounded by the fact that the literature of the last fifty or sixty years is often thought not to have a history (or rather, because its history is our history, it is an already known part of the present and therefore subordinate to the concerns of politics, theory, and culture). As obviously false as this notion is, James points out its persistence in the study of postwar fiction, a mistake that has consequences for how we understand the literary politics of contemporary literature. Modernist Futures corrects this misunderstanding by tracing an alternative account of recent literary history based on the [End Page 634] “continuance” of modernist concepts of innovation rather than their degradation and exhaustion (1). At stake in James’s argument is a challenge to “ingrained habits of periodisation as well as the very terms of analysis—aesthetic, historical, and socio-political—that accompany them” (19).
The overall literary-historical arguments of the book are important and deserve wide circulation. James makes a convincing argument for a “more multifaceted view of postwar literary history” that understands innovation in terms of continuance, wholeness, and integrity rather than rupture, fragmentation, and instability (20). He traces this less antagonistic version of the relationship between inheritance and innovation back to modernism itself, in the process challenging what seems like the “basic premise” of “any modernism” to break with all inheritance (2). Identifying what he calls “modernism’s own dialectical relation to tradition,” James rewrites the typical developmental or progressive history in which the innovations of modernism are taken to their ironic and destructive ends in postmodernism, which in turn erases the possibility of the serious, experimental novel under the weight of self-referentiality (2). One of the goals of Modernist Futures is recovery of experimentation, aesthetic beauty, and formal innovation from accusations of political quietude.1 When James says that “questions of form are indissolubly linked to questions concerning how fiction confronts the material world through its imaginative simulation of how that world is sensed and known,” he is making a more audacious claim than at first it might seem (7). By “form” he means those poetic features such as sound, syntax, alliteration, and repetition associated with visceral pleasure and the experience of beauty, the features of literary texts that have been taken as most distant from the political and material world.
Modernist Futures shows “how tradition and experiment productively coincide” in the work of six major postwar novelists: Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Michael Ondaatje, J. M. Coetzee, Ian [End Page 635] McEwan, and Toni Morrison (44–45). James tracks this continuity in the persistence of “modernist resources” taken up and deployed by these writers in response to the specifics of their politico-ethical situations (4). This is a key element in the structure of the book, which centers on these resources, not on a matching-up of old and new writers by style or technique. James states that he “isn’t concerned with tracing modernist afterlives through the lens of influence, or with framing modernist legacies by detecting allusions or by tracking styles. . . . [but in tracing] a perpetuation of a certain sensibility towards modernism’s continuance” (45). James here...