A Fortnightly Review of
The World Broke in Two
by Bill Goldstein
By ALAN WALL.
IN ‘MR BENNETT and Mrs Brown’, Virginia Woolf remarks that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’. This remark would have been entirely meaningless to a miner in Barnsley or a mill worker in Bradford, but it evidently signified something to a number of her friends in Bloomsbury. It highlights a trait we have: the search for significant dates, liminal points where we can say, this is where things changed significantly. We have come after and are thus; had we come before, we should undoubtedly be otherwise. Bliss was it in that dawn…etc.
The year 1914 might have been such a point. The Great War demonstrated that the massive machinery of progress could be turned around at great speed to become the equally coordinated machinery of slaughter; 1917 was another such date which, like 1789, appeared to indicate that history could be seized and transformed by revolutionary agents, which is to say, ourselves. Things need never be the same again. John Reed’s title says it all: Ten Days that Shook the World.
The danger here is evident. Kierkegaard observed that biographies are written backwards, but lives must be lived forwards. In going back over our liminal moments we can too easily resemble Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s character who walks around muttering, ‘Woe is me. The Hundred Years War has just started.’ Read a book on modern art and you might get the impression that everything changed totally in 1907, when Picasso painted Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. But that painting was so ill-received, even by the painter’s confidants, that he rolled it up and hid it away for a decade. 1907 gains its chronological significance retrospectively. Like the biography, it is being written backwards.
Bill Goldstein has decided to take 1922 as the liminal year. If we are talking about modernism (which he is) this makes sense: this was the year of the publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses, founding texts of the modern movement. Not all of the characters discussed at length here had such a good year as Eliot and Joyce. E.M. Forster — Morgan in this book — spent his life oscillating between his dear old mum Lilie in Weybridge and the possibilities of homoerotic desire in India and Egypt. A man by the name of Mohammed el Adl provided delights certainly not available to him in Weybridge. Forster gets himself writing again and before long he will produce A Passage to India, with its mysterious civilizational clash in the Marabar Caves. What did happen down there? Forster claimed at the end that he didn’t know either, though it has something to do with sex and race, desire and misunderstanding — not to mention colonialism.
Forster comes and goes amongst the others, particularly in his role as friend to Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Leonard is shown tending Virginia, to whom he was unquestionably devoted, while they ran the Hogarth Press together and she fretted over the direction of her writing. She was elaborating the process she called ‘tunnelling’, whereby the writer finds her way into the character, and is not limited by the externalities of ‘realism’. Realism is receiving a bad press here, since the greatest examples of ‘the realist novel’, Middlemarch for example, find their way inside the characters portrayed in an exemplary manner too.
Ulysses tunnelled more daringly than any other novel ever had, but Virginia was troubled by it. She could see the brilliance, but felt that it was of a lower order – in just about every sense. All that stuff in the lavatory, for a start; Bloom jerking off down by the water’s edge; Molly’s soliloquy coming perilously close to linguistic gynaecology. She carried on tunnelling in her own manner, achieving a supreme success in Mrs Dalloway.
Meanwhile there is T. S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne. Tom and Viv in the danse macabre of their marriage, outsuffering one another in heroic proportions, till we have Eliot’s mental collapse and journey to Lausanne via Margate. This precipitated one of the indisputable intellectual events of 1922 – the publication of The Waste Land. We are given such exhaustive details of the tergiversations, delays and mild mendacities of the road to publication that at times it feels almost as exhausting as it must have been for those involved at the time. Finally the poem comes out in both America and England. Its publication in The Criterion also marked another triumph for Eliot: the launch of his periodical, with Lady Rothermere’s backing, a journal that would continue until 1939, in search of what Eliot called the European mind.
And then there was D. H. Lawrence, as egregious a free lover as Shelley, and often with the same disastrous consequences. Frieda Lawrence, née von Richthofen, abandoned her marriage to Ernest Weekley and her three children to become the devotee of DHL, though she reserved her right to put it about a bit. One account has it that she cuckolded him on their honeymoon, if cuckold is the right word here. Perhaps it isn’t. Lawrence had been offered what was in effect the role of writer in residence at the home of Mabel Dodge who invited him to Taos in New Mexico. There to lighten the tedium of her rich woman’s life, to provide a little spiritual brio. Lawrence was always desperate to escape modern civilization, which he detested, and which was pretty good at detesting him. So he was always escaping somewhere, tubercular and raging. His last book was Apocalypse. He had in so many of his writings turned sex into apocalypse; how to make the world disappear while remaining in the same place. He didn’t find the spiritual home he had dreamed of in New Mexico, though it seems Frieda grew even less restrained than she had been at the get-go. At least in New Mexico she got to meet the last love of her life, Angelo Ravagli, whom she married after Lawrence’s death.
WE ARE ALSO given a fascinating account of the activities of John S. Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He went for both Joyce and Lawrence, evident purveyors of dirty fiction. Had he possessed better reading habits, he could have gone for The Waste Land too. After all, those silk handkerchiefs deposited in the Thames were the pricey prophylactics of posh kids. No working man would have forked out so much for such brief pleasure; he would have accepted that sex comes with certain costs attached. Most of them translated into the future tense.
The significance of the year 1922 is beyond question. Kevin Jackson in Constellation of Genius calls it Year One of modernism, and Ezra Pound took to dating his letters from the date of completion of Ulysses. This was the end of the Christian era. Yeats had already remarked, after watching Ubu Roi: ‘After us, the Savage God.’ The fact is, however, that the year was not nearly so significant for all the characters assembled here. For Forster it was a work in progress, both spiritually and artistically. For Virginia Woolf, it was the following year that would see her greatest breakthrough. For Lawrence, it was one more attempt at escape, to scrape the industrial grime from his imagination. Fat chance. And Joyce is not a central character here; he comes and goes in the reactions and meetings of others. He is not really one of the party.
And there is a curious omission. 1922 saw the publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Although technically this is not a work of literature, but of philosophy, it has had as much impact on our intellectual world as any of the books mentioned here. It showed with exemplary clarity that the structure of our sentences embodies the structure of our lives. If one is askew, then so is the other. Wittgenstein completed it, decided all the problems of philosophy had now been solved, and cleared off into the Austrian countryside to become a schoolteacher. It seems that he had remarkable explanatory gifts, but he also had an extraordinary temper, which would be directed at anyone (of whatever age or gender) he suspected of stupidity. Some of these fits were so violent he had to quit teaching. He went back to Vienna and built his sister Margaret a house. It is constructed with the most extreme modernist rigour. Margaret was never comfortable inside its mathematical precisions. Both the Tractatus and the house represent the opposite of Ulysses, the most lived-in book ever published.
A relative of Joyce’s in Ireland was once asked if she had read Ulysses. Of course not, she replied, it’s too dirty to read. On hearing this Joyce mused: If my book is too dirty to read, then life is too dirty to live.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and a second collection, of his Fortnightly essays on Walter Benjamin, is in preparation.
Note: A minor change to this article was made subsequent to publication to correct an editing error.