Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique

By Benita Parry | Go to book overview

10

Tono-Bungay: the failed electrification of the empire of light

To recall how theorists have observed the impact of imperialism on the emergence of metropolitan modernism is not a prelude to hailing Tono-Bungay1 as one such modernist novel. For within the shifting boundaries of the mappings offered by scholars, the modernism of a fiction written by a writer renowned for naturalist fictions and Futurist fantasies must appear uncertain. All the same, David Harvey's dictum on modernism as 'a troubled and fluctuating aesthetic response to conditions of modernity produced by a particular process of modernization' 2 may lead a reader acquainted with the novel's storyline to anticipate just such a move, the subject of Tono-Bungay and the occasion for its ethical critique being the impact of late nineteenth-century capitalist modernization on the imperial homeland. Not only does the imperialist dynamic of this process form the fiction's spatial and temporal coordinates and inflect its topological structure, but the narrative traces the seismic effects of accelerated socio-economic transformation on social arrangements in the domestic society; while one of the novel's themes is the making of the cosmopolitan capital city, womb and progeny of capitalism's expansion, and acknowledged as one of the distinguishing preoccupations of the modernist movement.

These narrative features, together with Jon Thompson's understanding of modernism as a plural literary phenomenon subsuming referential as well as autotelic writing - both of which problematize representation and share as a common objective 'the critical evaluation of modernity' 3 - make it more feasible to include this book within a literary modernism. This is a case already made by those critics who dispute Wells' relegation as a novelist uninterested in form, and have singled out Tono-Bungay as marking a break with nineteenth-century fictional tradition. 4 However, doubts about the novel's generic status return when we follow Raymond Williams's argument: while observing an 'internal diversity of methods and emphases', and remarking on its 'range of basic cultural positions', Williams designates aesthetic modernism as 'a distinctive movement in its deliberate distance from and challenge to more traditional forms of thought and art'. 5 Definitions of modernism which foreground ideological subversion, whether effected by radical technical experimentation and conspicuous virtuosity of style or by defamiliarizing the process of fictional representation, suggest the difficulty of placing a novel in which the critical thrust in narrating an epoch of specified volatility is reliant on verisimilitude, and the reading experience offered derives on the one hand from the fidelity of spatial landscape and on the other from the charting of social itineraries. 6 Furthermore, if we consider David Harvey's description of modernist writing and art in the period before the First European War as saturated in a 'sense of

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