Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Reading: postwar British modernism

Just as an aside, I'm reading Bryan Appleyard's The Pleasures of Peace, which is about British art and culture from 1945 - 1989, and deals specifically with the way in which modernism disseminated in art, architecture and literature in the postwar era. It's much more open to notions of a British avant-garde than comparable studies, even if it (rightly, I think) ascertains that this avant-garde worked more by misprision of Franco-American ideas than by grasping the proverbial bull by the horns. Annoyingly, he doesn't cover music (by which I mean modern composition/ improv/ 'academic' music rather than the Beatles and punk) due to what he modestly admits to be his own vagueness about the field, but otherwise TPP is full of useful post-thesis ideas. Lots on English Surrealism, postwar architecture, the British Poetry Revival, Ballard, Bacon, Henry Moore etc. And he's pretty down on Larkin and the Movement, even if this critique is implicit and based on reading them as quasi-modernist in spite of themselves.


Jon said...

Thanks for the tip Joe - I found it for a penny at amazon... looks interesting...

Jon said...

Regarding a British avant-garde, at least in literature, what about Alex Trocchi? He seems to slip under the radar a lot, more so even than Ann Quin, or Gabriel Josipovici.

I think that the British avant-garde existed more as a potentiality: I keep getting the feeling that something was about to happen, something was about to get big, yet it didn't. [this comment really would be better over a beer somewhere] There are many apparently isolated (post)modernist practitioners, but they never seem to add up. For example, it's hard to think of Nicholas Roeg and Derek Jarman in the same breath, but they were making films at roughly the same time.

You probably know more about this than I do, but I think it's in need of rethinking (and the AHRC seems interested in the British 1970s at the moment, thinking in terms of jobs/funding)...

Joe said...

Trocchi: as Vic Sage once famously said, 'Hmmm...very interesting...IF YOU'RE A CULTURAL HISTORIAN!!!'

Appleyard, of course, is a cultural historian, so he does talk a bit about Trocchi. I haven't got to that bit yet, though. The thing about AT is that he is difficult to classify: I can't stand his 'poetry' and, novelistically, he's on a different tangent to either Quin or Josipovici. Some historians might link him to Alan Burns because of the Situationist/ Angry Brigade stuff but that still doesn't work properly. Cain's Book, to me, has more in common, dare I say it, with someone like Blanchot than with the more bricolage-like Brit avant lit of the sixties and seventies.

It's difficult to compare what's going on in the leftfield of British (post)modernism to comparable channels in France and the USA. You might, say, compare Prynne and Ashbery, but you wouldn't get that far, and I can't see the likes of Peter Riley or Tim Longville having much in common with French poetics from the era (not that British and French poetry ever really do the same thing, IMO.) Novel-wise, there's the soft experimentalism of Fowles and the like, which might superficially resemble American po-mo, but as the work becomes more leftfield (say at Ballard and Carter, working towards Burns & Quin et al) it acquires its own nuances which are distinct from Robbe-Grillet/ Pinget/ Sollers. And then there's music (say, Cage against AMM) and visual art (say, Jasper Johns against Bridget Riley).

I think all the above issues will work their way into Jenny's PhD, but I'm generally trying to limit myself to one or two specific areas at the moment. Are you looking at any of this?

Nick and I were having this conversation in a pub in York just before Christmas and, would you believe it, it started with a discussion of Oliver Postgate...

Jon said...

I'm not really looking at this but holding it in mind for post thesis work or maybe a conference paper. That said, Quin's Three and Brooke-Rose's Between will get some treatment in my thesis as they have translators as central characters (although in Three this is basically an excuse to have the guy stay at home the whole day).

Incidentally, Three reminds me of early Sollers (Le Parc, for instance).

I think Trocchi is worth more than that - Young Adam is a good novel, and links between the existentialists and the new novel (as do the short stories), but, as my placement shows, that's fitting it in the French tradition. Cain's Book I need to reread - I just remember the quote from Malone Dies that's in it. Blanchot is an interesting connection (I'm planning to reread most of the r├ęcits in the next few weeks (for work)).

My knowledge is probably much better in both American and French lit (seeing as that's what I'm writing about), but I've been thinking about the 1960s in British film and lit over the last few months, partially due to talking to Tim about his PhD, and partially just because. I think there is this really interesting moment in British arts around 1970 (in the same way as there is around 1960 in French and American arts (especially cinema and lit)), the years 1965-1975 offer a fascinating range of things.

Prynne did remind me of Ashbery, and it's interesting that Prynne, Raworth and Bunting seem more popular in the US than here, but you're right that the comparison doesn't go that far, and Ashbery's comparative popularity is interesting in that relation.

It gets hard to map this out - I really find it difficult to work out who's doing what at what time, where and who are their friends? Maybe there are books out there that do this, but whenever I've had this conversation with academics (my second supervisor is sorta interested in it), they seem murky on the subject too, but I might not know the right people.

Where is you Nick nowadays?

Jon said...

That should read "young Nick". Sorry

Joe said...

Man, I once tried to read Le Parc - in English of course. I read half and I don't think any of it got through. Jenny's your one to ask about Quin, particularly on this topic as her MA thesis was a comparative study between the British avant-garde novelists anf the French. She's just finishing her PhD app - she's emphasising the female grotesque in Quin, Brooke-Rose and Bridget Brophy as a marker of the 'English difference', I think.

For me, Alan Burns's Europe After the Rain would read as an interrogation of the nouveau roman that goes after the possibility of historicism in such works (definitely something I'd need to explain over a beer - it's quarter to eight and my brain hasn't woken up yet!) Perhaps it has similarities with A R-G's Dans le Labyrinthe, but it also has a real sense of being set in some foul, Gunther Grass-esque European hinterland. Actually, given its subject-matter, Petra R. at your place might have a copy to lend.

I'm more about the poetry, though, as far as what I know about that era goes. If you want some really interesting reading about this, there's Don't Start Me Talking, a book of interviews with contemporary avant-garde poets who talk a lot about the scene in the 60s and relate that to music (mostly free improv) and visual arts. There's Andrew Duncan's angry The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry, which is an ace polemic in favour of the leftfield which absolutely slays the Movement bores. Also, there's a softer but more developed version of the same line of thought in Robert Sheppard's The Poetry of Saying, which bases its argument on Levinas, who I know you've read.

There's good writing by all these people in the free Jacket magazine, which archives all its issues online (link further down the page on the left.) Keston Sutherland's polemical periodical Quid is also (mostly) archived as free PDFs from the Barque Press site. Sorry if I'm telling you stuff you already know, but it's well worth a look if you don't.

The whole thing is fascinating. And so many prominent people, who we almost take for granted now, are involved: the name Iain Sinclair springs to mind.

Cheers for all your advice over the last few days. I'll post a full review of the Appleyard book when I finish it...