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  • Machines for Living: Modernism and Domestic Life by Victoria Rosner
  • Václav Paris (bio)
MACHINES FOR LIVING: MODERNISM AND DOMESTIC LIFE, by Victoria Rosner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. ix + 292 pp. $35.00 cloth, ebook.

This book takes its title from Le Corbusier's 1923 phrase, "Une maison est une machine-à-habiter"—"a house is a machine for living in."1 "The phrase," as Victoria Rosner explains, "is a provocation: What could be more antithetical to the cozy, individualistic spaces of the house/home ('maison' is both) than a machine?" (1) This provocation is at once theoretical and practical: theoretical because it involves a kind of twisting of familiar concepts and an [End Page 359] attempt to put them together like the poles of a magnet. Machines involve work, while living happens outside of work. But it is also a practical challenge or aspirational motto for transforming one's domestic life into something more efficient, more hygienic, and more automatic.

The first chapter, or introduction, describes how literary modernism took up this provocation. As we learn almost immediately, the specific backdrop is the impact of the so-called "Rational Household" (2) on the lives of women. During the period covered—roughly 1900-1950, it was female homemakers who were at the frontline of the encounters between new technologies and domestic space such as electricity, the vacuum cleaner, or the indoor plumbing. This feminist orientation introduces a rich ambivalence to Rosner's study: on the one hand, literary modernism involves a utopian reimagining of domestic space; on the other hand, and often at the same time, it proves to be an important site of critique of this revolution. We see this, for instance, in Buster Keaton's 1922 film The Electric House,2 where a well-to-do family commits to electrifying their home, but many of the "efficiencies" introduced are showy flourishes rather than actual labor-saving practices. Dinner is served via an electric toy train that runs from the kitchen to the dining room on tracks around the table, stopping in front of each diner so that a plate can be removed. Meanwhile a traditional uniformed maid hovers in the kitchen (13).

The conflicted story of modernism in the kitchen, in the intimate, private, and familial spaces of everyday life—is one that has been ignored: "Critics of modernism have largely bypassed the home, perhaps because modernist writers themselves often insulted and dismissed domesticity and its ideologies" (4). In order to remediate this critical neglect, Rosner's book dwells on the domestic theme in familiar and unfamiliar texts by Anglo-American modernists, most often T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. It also, more importantly, knits together a skein of surprising links between modernist writers and representatives of other tangential discourses: domestic reformers, architects, planners, interior designers, child development experts, and so forth.

Chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to growing this networked and ambivalent involvement of modernism and domestic life through tracing formal analogies between the modern home and the modernist text. In chapter 2, the analogy is between so-called "Minimum Writing" (think of Pound's imagist directive—"[u]se no superfluous word"3) and the range of ideas surrounding the Czech architect Karel Teige's "Minimum Dwelling" (52)—a dwelling that would meet the minimum existential requirement of the masses of modern man.4 [End Page 360] Both of these concepts, as Rosner shows, were influenced by Adolf Loos's 1908 attack on ornament as crime.5 To be clear, the analogy between writing and architecture is not direct: it is not that a poem is like a house. It is rather that both minimal writing and new architecture begin at this moment to obey a set of functionalist requirements, whereby every component (whether of the bedroom or the novel) supposedly serves a non-decorative purpose. This parallel receives its fullest exploration in the analysis of the works of Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose archive is interspersed with that of her lifelong companion, Margaret Jourdain—a furniture and design historian.

The analogy in chapter 3, "Fear in a Handful of Dust" (87) is between modernist writing and germ theory. Rosner describes how the shift from...