Remapping the Present: The Master Narrative of Modern Literary History and the Lost Forms of Twentieth-Century Fiction

By Richardson, Brian | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Remapping the Present: The Master Narrative of Modern Literary History and the Lost Forms of Twentieth-Century Fiction


Richardson, Brian, Twentieth Century Literature


For the most part, modern literary history - particularly the history of twentieth-century fiction - is regularly abbreviated to an all-too-simple tale of dynastic successions: Realism, the crowning achievement of nineteenth-century narrative, was supplanted by modernism, its inevitable successor, which, due to its own inherent limitations, in turn gave way to postmodernism. Despite our thoroughgoing suspicion of origins, we can assign plausible dates for the inauguration of each movement; more dialectically, we can point to the internal deviations and contradictions that mark the transformation from one movement to the other: Edwardian writers Ford, Conrad, and Forster, accompanied by the earlier D. H. Lawrence, provide the fulcrum that impels literature from one mode to the next. On the other end of modernism, Brian McHale has designated the very moments in Beckett's trilogy that demarcate the transition from modernism to postmodernism (Postmodernist Fiction 12-13).(1)

This narrative of modern literary history is not of course limited to British and Irish writers. In any number of national literatures, the individual names vary while the general pattern remains the same. Realists like the Goncourts, Tolstoy, Galdos, Mann, Tagore, and Tanizaki are succeeded by the modernists Proust, Biely, Cela, Broch, Rao, and Kawabata, who in their turn become displaced by the postmodernists Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Rios, Grass, Rushdie, and Banana Yoshimoto. In what follows, I will focus my investigation on the British version of this suggested historical progression, though my critique is intended to be applicable on a much wider scale.(2) It might also be pointed out that the target of this paper is not so much actual histories of modern literature, a number of which pay close attention to their subject's nuances, as what I suggest is a near ubiquitous idee recu that circulates unchallenged throughout the profession.(3)

The main problem with the standard narrative of modern literary history is precisely its narrative features: a distinct origin, a series of causally connected events in a linear sequence, a teleological progression culminating in the present, the absence of unconnected or distracting subplots, the unspoken but uncontested male domination of narrative agency, and the unproblematic closure implied by this version of history.(4) There is also the inevitable moral that this structure lends itself to, that postmodernism is a superior representation of human experience, more recent and therefore more appropriate, if not also more ideologically responsible.

Each of these aspects of the standard account of modern literary history derives more from the conventional structure of traditional narratives than from a careful assessment of the radical heterogeneity and "untimeliness" of twentieth-century literary practice? A hard look at both the texts and the histories that purport to circumscribe them can quickly reveal just how misleading streamlined conceptions of literary history can be.

There is of course another master narrative of modern literary dealings that is even more stark, uncompromising, and relentlessly teleological than the one I have just outlined, and that is the history of modern critical theory. The irreversible sequence humanism [greater than] formalism [greater than] poststructuralism has become so entrenched as to be virtually unassailable, and this entrenchment probably seems so inevitable in part because of associations between each literary theory and a corresponding type of narrative practice. Humanism, perhaps most prestigiously in the form of Lukacs's Marxist humanism, became the spokesman for and beneficiary of the achievements of the major texts of realism. Formalism, on the other hand, was to a large extent invented by the original practitioners of modernism (along with their early advocates) in order to explain its aims, aesthetics, and distinctive accomplishments. Postmodernism has in turn found a happy union with poststructuralism; it is no accident that Derrida valorizes authors like Blanchot and the tel quel novelists. …

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