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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Was 1925 Literary Modernism’s Most Important Year?

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It’s commonplace to call Woolf an impressionist in this peculiar sense, and yet it nails her novelistic craft. She is an inhabitant of minds. And the mind, in “Mrs. Dalloway” and later, in a more extreme sense, in “The Waves” (1931), is a kind of nebulous antenna tuning in and out of life’s frequencies, ever enveloped in its luminous halo. As the critic J. Hillis Miller once put it, the reader most often finds that she is “plunged within an individual mind which is being understood from inside by an ubiquitous, all-knowing mind.”

This is evident to us not from the novel’s immortal opening line — “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” — but from the one immediately following, which serves as a kind of mirror to the first, tipping us off that we must reread it as something other than objective assertion: “For Lucy had her work cut out for her.” Suddenly, with the lightly colloquial “cut out for her,” we are in the mind not of an omniscient narrator but of a character — Clarissa Dalloway, as the succeeding lines make clear. The reader ceases to think that she is being told what Mrs. Dalloway said about getting the flowers, and begins to think instead that Mrs. Dalloway is just remarking on that fact, as if to herself. And that changes everything.

This narrative technique, known as free-indirect speech, was part of Woolf’s quiet revolution. Though she did not invent it — arguably Austen, Flaubert and Edith Wharton got there first — Woolf perfected this mode, coloring it with the anxiety of modern subjectivity. Open any novel of the past 50 years, and you will find the narrator reporting thoughts that, for reasons of diction and tense, can only be those of a character. With varying degrees of indebtedness, each of these is an heir to Woolf and her narrators, who enter the world of their fictions as Clarissa Dalloway enters the world of her relations, “being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best.” That a narrator need not fiddle with chess pieces from on high but might linger like a cloud among foggy minds is a feature of modernism that has, as it were, contaminated literature ever since.

Opposed to the singularity of a work like “Ulysses” or “The Waste Land,” we have in “Mrs. Dalloway” the innovation of an enduring, deep structure — something like geometric perspective in painting, that contributes to the development of technique, rather than driving it up a dead end. So it is with “In Our Time,” “Manhattan Transfer” and “The Great Gatsby.” With “Big Two-Hearted River,” the last story in Hemingway’s collection, writers on either side of the Atlantic learned about the power of economy in writing. As if by revelation, it became clear that the solution to the problem of representing a collective trauma like World War I was not blabbering effusion, but its opposite.

“I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg,” Hemingway told The Paris Review in 1958. The “iceberg” technique became the calling card not only of postwar American writers like Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy, but also of the influential cadre of French existentialist novelists, including Céline, Malraux, Sartre and de Beauvoir. Most important, though, Hemingway became an exemplary stylist for the M.F.A. programs that sprang up across America after the war, and through which many of our canonized poets and novelists have since passed. As the scholar Mark McGurl puts it in his book “The Program Era,” “It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Hemingway on postwar writers, and … too easy to forget that the medium of his influence has been the school.”

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