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  • Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form by Paul K. Saint-Amour
  • Jackson Ayres
Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form. Paul K. Saint-Amour. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 368. $99.00 (cloth).

Paul K. Saint-Amour opens Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form with a series of short examples—including Lewis Mumford’s caustic description of civil defense rituals of the war metropolis and Hans Erich Nossack’s memoir of Allied bombing raids on Hamburg in 1943—that point to his book’s central concern: “the relationship between warfare and futurity” (7). These prefatory anecdotes indicate a widespread collective psychosis, forged in the trauma of early-twentieth-century warfare, in which increasingly destructive future violence feels foreordained. According to Saint-Amour, “in the immediate wake of the First World War, the dread of another massive conflict saturated the Anglo-European imagination, amounting to a proleptic mass traumatization, a pre-traumatic stress syndrome whose symptoms arose in response to a potentially oncoming rather than an already realized catastrophe” (7–8). Tense Future, then, attends to modern British literature in light of this cultural anticipatory syndrome.

Focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on Britain’s interwar period, Saint-Amour locates this syndrome in an assortment of canonical and mass cultural texts. His readings deftly draw from a number of critical perspectives, including trauma, post-colonial, and queer theories, making Tense Future a valuable contribution to several fields. However, this study will be of primary interest, as the author explains, to critics interested in “expand[ing] our sense of what it means to write in a modernist temper ‘about’ war” (11). This growing body of scholarship builds on groundbreaking studies such as Vincent Sherry’s The Great War and the Language of Modernism (2003) and Marina MacKay’s Modernism and World War II (2003), as well as more recent volumes like Leo Mellor’s Reading the Ruins (2011) and Patrick Deer’s Culture in Camouflage (2009). As part of this emergent sub-field, Tense Future offers not only novel readings of major modernist texts alongside total-war discourse but also a compelling portrait of the interwar years as the moment when the experience of late modernity, structured by the expectation of terrible violence, is most strikingly articulated and challenged in literature.

Tense Future is divided into two parts. The first part reads a wide range of interwar texts, from Virginia Woolf’s fiction to the archival theory of Hilary Jenkinson and 1920s “future-war” speculative fiction. As the diversity of texts and authors included in these chapters suggests, part 1’s readings cover considerable ground but all focus on how the formulation of total war, as a concept, transformed the literary imagination. Saint-Amour’s reading of Woolf’s fiction, to take one example, rethinks her literary project: While Woolf’s essays such as “Modern Fiction” called for an aesthetic approach that “might be described as a writing of apprehension in which the mind understands, grasps, or literally ‘reaches toward’ what it beholds” (92), Saint-Amour portrays “Woolf as one of our central anatomists of the other apprehension: the sense that something terrible, even annihilating, is at hand” (93). In Saint-Amour’s analysis, then, Woolf surprisingly becomes an interwar practitioner of literary suspense. Part 1’s initial chapter, moreover, provides an equally unexpected reconciliation of interwar air-power theory with the period’s popular literatures. Air Commodore L.E.O. Charlton—conscientious objector to RAF bombing policy in Iraq, writer of triumphalist military aviation histories, and author of boys’ imperialist adventure books like Near East Adventure (1934)—receives considerable attention here. The contradictions in Charlton’s various meditations on British air policy in its colonial territories point to crucial gaps in total-war discourse, chiefly its elision of the fact that “forms of violence forbidden in the metropole during peacetime were practiced in the colony, mandate, and protectorate” (55). This chapter’s provocative critique of asymmetries in the interwar period’s theory and practice of state violence, maintaining that total-war discourse “misrecognizes [End Page 829] and misrepresents its view of totality as exhaustive even as it contains intimations of that view’s partiality” (55), lays the...


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