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  • The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life by Thomas S. Davis
  • Len Gutkin
Thomas S. Davis. The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life. New York: Columbia UP, 2015. xi + 307 pp.

Thomas S. Davis takes the title of his study of late British modernism from Elizabeth Bowen's 1941 story "In the Square," in which a blitzed London square is described as "the extinct scene" (1). The word "extinction" might summon temporal vistas decidedly beyond what Davis calls "everyday life," but for Davis the phrase yokes together his book's twin focus on the quotidian and the global: Bowen's "extinction" is taken to register the impact of global crises on local, everyday experience. In Davis's words, "late modernist texts look to the everyday to explain a historical transformation in the structure of the world system" (2). Davis tracks this supposedly typical feature of late modernism across a rich series of texts, including Bowen's short stories, the crowd-sourced sociology of British Mass-Observation, the historical novel as reimagined by Woolf (The Years) and Isherwood (The Berlin Stories), the wartime journalism of Orwell in Spain and Auden and Isherwood in China, and, finally, the use of vernacular English in such novels of postcolonial experience as Vic Reid's New Day and Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners.

The first chapter offers an illuminating discussion of the "avant-garde sociological outfit Mass-Observation" (27) alongside British documentary films like Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon and Humphrey Jennings's Listen to Britain. Davis suggests that the apparently opposed aesthetic tactics of realism and surrealism are, in the hands of the documentarians, synthesized. "The experimental and 'scientific' side of surrealism," he writes, "rhymes with . . . Mass-Observation's other abundant references to a kind of 'realistic' art and literature. . . . Still wedded to techniques of defamiliarization and montage, Mass-Observation's aesthetic aims to produce a 'collective expression' of the everyday" (55). Interestingly, in Davis's account the British reception of surrealism turns experimental aesthetic practice to liberal-democratic use; it "disarticulat[es] . . . adversarial politics from avant-garde aesthetics" (66). The avant-garde, realism, and the documentary all meet on the ground of the quotidian in both Mass-Observation and state-sponsored British documentary film. The ideological stakes of this democratic inflection of experimental form involve nothing less than "the maintenance of liberal consensus" in the face of the Second World War. Modernism's turn outward entails its turn toward the liberal state.

Davis's reading of the outward turn as "a mediated expression of world-systemic disorder" (105) continues in chapters 2 and 3 with considerations, respectively, of the "historical novel at history's end" in Isherwood and Woolf (68) and the wartime journalism of Orwell, [End Page 763] Auden, and Isherwood. Davis reads Goodbye to Berlin and The Years as effecting "subtle transgressions of the historical novel's generic parameters" by "figur[ing] everyday life as a scene where we can witness the emergence of an aprogressive philosophy of history" (69). For instance, The Years presents "a newspaper story about the political frailty of the Balkans in 1913" (91) as a "stray detail" of daily life, available as "historical" only in retrospect. Davis is right that, amid the resurgence of the historical novel in the thirties, Isherwood and Woolf are attempting to think through the genre in new ways. One of his subtlest claims is that in these novels, modernist techniques are brought to bear on the very recent past—or even the present—in order to make them "seem historical" (74): "first, the present appears as the explosive point of a long fuse set years earlier; second, the anticipation of disaster makes the experience of the present the experience of becoming historical." This is a nuanced description of what, despite their many obvious differences, Goodbye to Berlin and The Years share generically.

In readings of Homage to Catalonia and Auden and Isherwood's Journey to a War—an idiosyncratic account of the Sino-Japanese War, interspersed with verse—Davis finds "the shape and power of war appear[ing] when it distorts the generic contours of the travel book" (106). Informed by political theorists like Schmitt...


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