The Short Story: An Introduction

By Paul March-Russell | Go to book overview

9
Modernism and the
Short Story

In his pre-Marxist study, The Theory of the Novel (1920), Georg Lukács wrote that 'the short story is the most purely artistic form':

It sees absurdity in all its undisguised and unadorned nakedness, and the exor-
cising power of this view, without fear or hope, gives it the consecration of form;
meaninglessness as meaninglessness becomes form; it becomes eternal because it
is affirmed, transcended and redeemed by form. (Lukács 1971: 51–2)

Though Lukács would become one of modernism's most trenchant critics, here he diagnoses one of its chief underlying qualities: the need to grasp the meaninglessness of existence through a heightened, self-conscious use of artistic form. As discussed in Chapter 3, the poet Charles Baudelaire had defined modernity as 'the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable' (Baudelaire 1995: 12). If modernity was insubstantial, devoid of lasting content and evacuated of meaning, then how to reconnect the 'torn halves' (Adorno and Benjamin 1999: 130) of art and culture? One solution, as Baudelaire suggests, was a type of 'mnemonic art' that grasped the essential outlines of the object as it faded from view. In itself, this method would not only entail a new approach to writing but also the adoption of new forms, one of which was the short story. The emergence of modernism towards the end of the nineteenth century does not so much constitute a resolution of this question as a dramatisation of its fundamental tensions.


Flaubert and Early Modernism

In 1857, both Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert published their landmark texts, respectively The Flowers of Evil and Madame Bovary. The

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