THE SECRET HISTORY OF MODERNISM By C.K. STEAD | Harvill Press | 224 pages $24 hardcover
As a young man, Joseph Brodsky was intoxicated by Ezra Pound‘s famous modernist rallying cry, “Make it new!” Then, in an insight of devastating genius, Brodsky realized that the appeal of Pound’s dictum lay in what it concealed, namely that the “‘it’ was fairly old.”
I thought of this frequently in the course of C.K. Stead‘s seductively titled novel The Secret History of Modernism. When I was an undergraduate, Stead’s The New Poetic, a study of Eliot, Yeats and Pound, was required reading; but even then it seemed implicitly to be a book about the old poetic. Stead‘s new novel acknowledges and updates this tension.
From his vantage point in the 21st century, an old New Zealand novelist, Laszlo Winter, looks back on the summer of the 20th, when he and his friends were drunk on the initial modernist moment of T.S. and W.B. It’s the 1950s and Winter is living in a bed-sit in foggy London, doing research on Shakespeare, while nursing ambitions to become a writer of fiction. His Indian friend Rajiv starts out researching Eliot but abandons him in favor of Yeats. Samantha — also from New Zealand — gets a job at a literary magazine while privately working on a book of “interlocking stories from the lives of twentieth-century writers” called The Secret History of Modernism. Laszlo is in love with her, but she is having an affair with Freddy Goldstein who, as a child, fled with his family from Germany to Palestine before settling in New Zealand.
The story of these interlocking lives is certainly alluring. There is, however, a fundamental problem: The renowned New Zealand novelist is a very poor writer. Which novelist? Stead or Laszlo? That question is easily answered by another. Would Stead spend an entire book pretending he can‘t write without simultaneously making us aware that he can? Of course not. But he tries a few ways of exploiting this critical loophole. At one point Laszlo comes across a review claiming that he, Laszlo, “was bored by the necessity of having to body forth scenes, and so shirked [his] duties as a fiction writer.” It’s an old dodge — hoping to ward off the reader‘s suspicions by articulating them within a book — and it rarely works. Especially when the novel in question often reads like a textbook digest. “As the election of 1932 approached there was an atmosphere of hysteria and violence. Nazi vilification of Jews increased. Everywhere there were flags, banners, uniforms, candlelit marches.”
In the narrative of literary London, meanwhile, we learn that T.S. Eliot “was a strange mix — literary revolutionary, political and social reactionary. Like Picasso in painting and Stravinsky in music, he was famous for works which excited people who considered themselves ’avant garde,‘ and enraged the ones who liked to assert that they didn’t know anything about paintingmusicpoetry but ‘knew what they liked.’” And this is meant to be the secret history? Such writing, as Samantha says of Eliot‘s Four Quartets, isn’t “just dead. It had never been alive.” When Eliot makes a cameo appearance, he‘s vividly familiar. That’s because he‘s dressed up, in Virginia Woolf’s well-known observation, like “a man in a four-piece suit.” But what about characters such as Samantha whose lives are not a matter of public record and therefore cannot be kitted out with off-the-rack quotation? She‘s “passionate about poetry in general, and modern poetry in particular.” It is, in every sense, a textbook example of a signature habit of summarizing instead of embodying. As a young man, Laszlo was particularly passionate about the need to bring out “the human situation behind [Shakespeare’s] writing.” As an old man, he‘s presumably trying to do the same with the hungry young moderns. He actually stages what Stead, in an earlier novel, All Visitors Ashore, calls a “cardboard caricature of the literary life.”
Having come to The Secret History of Modernism somewhat intimidated by the expectations it aroused, the truth — that the book was laughably bad — took a while to sink in. I began to wonder if Stead’s reputation had benefited from vicarious association in people‘s minds with another New Zealand writer called Stead. As if flirtatiously acknowledging this possibility, she — Christina — makes a brief appearance in C.K.’s pages, but no number of literary guest stars or self-referring textual gambits can alleviate the stubborn ungainliness and plodding crudity of Stead‘s prose. Here is Laszlo using a sexual encounter to get himself metaphorically worked up: “She was amused by the circuitous flight-path my eyes took, passing from her face to a book we were discussing, or to my mug of tea, and back again, without overflying any of the perilous regions of her lower body.” The end of Samantha’s relationship with Goldstein is summed up with Hallmark (as in the greeting cards) tenderness: “her love for him, which she‘d once thought inextinguishable, had fluttered like a weak flame and gone out.”
The issue here is not only one of stylistic banality. This relationship provides the link — signposted, inevitably, by E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” — between the aesthetic imperatives of modernism and the larger upheavals of 20th-century history. Goldstein, in fact, hoped that in her Secret History Samantha might “explain why all the great Modernist writers of that period had been fascists.” She wanted to go further, but when she “tried to connect them” with what followed, “right down to the camps . . . the whole exercise started to seem frivolous.” Or, to put it another way, the central conceit of Stead‘s book flickers like a weak flame and goes out. Not to worry. Other issues resonate in the reader’s mind. “Did changing people‘s names make autobiography into fiction. Did real names . . . make autobiography less fictional?” Discuss (for about 10 seconds).
At the end Laszlo concedes that his completed book is “too literary. I know that.” Actually, mate, it’s not nearly literary enough.
Geoff Dyer is the author of Paris Trance: A Novel and editor of John Berger: Selected Essays.