The overlooked masterpieces of 1922
John Self/BBC :
In our age of Covid-19 and climate change, it’s easy to think that no one has had it tougher than us. But 100 years ago, people thought the same. World War One and the Spanish flu pandemic had each killed tens of millions of people, and the social order in Europe had been overturned. Even in the years before these cataclysmic events, an increasingly technological society cars, planes, the first radio broadcasts felt as revolutionary to those born in the 19th Century as the internet does to those born in the 20th.
The response of artists and writers was to remake their work: a way of seeking either to control the strange and uncontrollable, or simply to portray it more truthfully. If the world is chaotic and unsettling, went the reasoning, then the music, art and writing must be too. Spanning several decades, the modernist period gave us the atonal music of Berg and Schoenberg and the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque.
In literature the response to the challenges and opportunities of the early 20th Century was Modernism – the rejection of traditional linear storytelling and the use of more challenging styles to reflect the new world – and its annus mirabilis is usually seen as 1922. It was an apt time for breakthroughs: the same year saw, among other world-defining events, the appointment of Joseph Stalin as General Secretary of the Communist Party in Russia, the first treatment of diabetes using insulin, and the creation of the BBC. In literary terms, this was the year stamped at one end by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (first published 100 years ago today, on 2 February; Joyce’s 40th birthday) and at the other by TS Eliot’s book-length poem The Waste Land, published in October. These were books like nothing quite seen before, in their style, scale and ambition: in England the novel in this era was dominated by social realists writing traditional narratives, and poetry by the so-called Georgian movement of pastoral poems in sing-song rhythms.The two books had much in common. Both were determinedly new in subject matter: Ulysses reported on a day in the life of modern Dubliners, going everywhere with them including to the bedroom and the bathroom. The Waste Land addressed the bleak landscape of post-war Europe: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” Both books foregrounded their innovative styles, every page stamped with the author’s personality and unusual intelligence. They took a bricolage approach, assembling their texts from multiple voices and viewpoints (Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land was He Do the Police in Different Voices). They were comfortable with both high and low culture: Ulysses is structured after The Odyssey, mixes Latin and Greek into its prose, but talks of toilet habits, masturbation and sex (it was the subject of seizures for obscenity on both sides of the Atlantic); in The Waste Land multilingual ostentation sits alongside nursery rhymes and the voice of a pub landlord.Both, too, are difficult books but filled with beautiful, traditional literary language that anyone can enjoy, from Joyce’s “The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace,” to Eliot’s “A current under the sea / Picked his bones in whispers”.
They knew how to please as well as challenge the reader. This, and not just their newness at the time, is why they continue to be read and reread.