James Joyce, author of Ulysses, and his publisher Sylvia Beach in her office in Paris

Literature’s year zero

One hundred years ago two literary masterpieces changed the literary world forever


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

One hundred years ago, in 1922, the world changed. Not the real world, of course — that had happened a few years before, with the war — but the literary world, which is always a few ticks behind (Roddy Doyle, at a recent event, when heckled by an audience member asking when he was going to get to the point, replied, “I’m a novelist, so it might take me a few months.”)
In the opening years of the twentieth century, as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a sensation in their respective spheres, Edwardian English literature remained solidly post-Victorian, dominated by chunky realists like Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy.

The world changed and literature changed with it

But during and after the war, a new type of literature gained prominence — modernism — in response to the belief among writers that their times were uniquely turbulent and complex, a belief that through mechanised war and its losses, and technological advancement and its gains, humanity itself had changed and needed new ways to tell its story — urgently.

And after the rumble, the explosion: the year of 1922 was indelibly marked by the publication of two great, still-standing, monuments to modernism: James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. These two, bookending the year, are the great granddaddies of the show, but other titles, as we shall see, were just as important.

So the world changed and literature changed with it — and, because art circumscribes our reality, the world changed a little more as a result. But who changed it, and how, and where have the paths they carved out led us today?

Modernism as a literary movement was inspired in part by Sigmund Freud’s concepts of the mind, and in particular the importance of the unconscious mind in our daily lives, and by philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea of time as a subjective construct that we should not seek to quantify into countable units: that could be, instead, “a succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines”.

So modernists believed, per Freud, that a well-framed narrative of the conscious mind would not do; and, per Bergson, that a formally structured beginning, middle and end was a preposterously poor way of representing real life. Both are neatly encapsulated by Virginia Woolf — the third great figure here alongside Eliot and Joyce — in her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction”: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

The key connecting figure in literature’s year zero was the young poet Ezra Pound, whose impatient desire for a new Renaissance (“make it new!”) saw him find a publisher for Joyce’s first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and read draft pages of Ulysses. It was to Pound that Eliot dedicated The Waste Land (“il miglior fabbro” — the greater craftsman). Literature, after all, is a human story, and the web of relationships that informed the new literature tell us much about its development and purpose.

In two meetings in France and England, the major characters of our story appear. In the Majestic Hotel in Paris, on 18 May 1922, patrons of the arts Sidney and Violet Schiff held a soirée that — along with hangers-on like Picasso and Stravinsky — hosted the only meeting between two of the century’s great literary geniuses, Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

Sources disagree on what occurred between them: did they exchange banal compliments, neither having read the other’s work? Or did they compare ailments: Joyce’s failing eyesight, the delicate Proust’s sensitive stomach? No, my preferred account is the one provided by Vladimir Nabokov, who said that when Proust and Joyce shared a taxi on the night, they spent the entire time arguing about whether to open or shut the window. “The encounter of geniuses,” wrote Simon Leys, “is not always the occasion for sublime exchanges.”

Proust on his deathbed in 1922

Joyce had just seen Ulysses published by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company in Paris on 2 February 1922 — his fortieth birthday — with the UK edition to follow later in the year from the aptly-named Egoist Press. But if Joyce was just about to reach his peak that year, Proust had been in bloom for some time, having just published the fourth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, and with the English translation of volume 1 about to appear.

Proust’s masterwork was indebted to Bergsonian theory too: the narrative, driven by involuntary recollection, moves forward not chronologically but by the impulse of memory. In this sense Ezra Pound was right to see, in the “beautiful boredom” of Proust’s sentences that you could live in, a link between the past and the future — both a nostalgist and a great innovator.

Indeed, the only bump in the road of 1922 becoming annus mirabilis for Proust, who was living on barbiturates and coffee in his cork-lined room on the Boulevard Haussmann, was his death from pneumonia six months to the day after his meeting with Joyce. Death, of course, was not the end: Proust’s friend Jean Cocteau, noting the manuscript volumes of À la recherche by his body, observed that “that pile of paper on his left was still alive, like watches ticking on the wrists of dead soldiers”.

The second meeting of minds that year was when Virginia Woolf hosted T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster at Monk’s House in Rodmell, Sussex, in September (Woolf’s brother-in-law Clive Bell had been at the Majestic Hotel with Proust and Joyce). There they discussed Ulysses: Eliot was very for (later describing it as “the book to which we are indebted and from which none of us can escape”), Woolf very not for (while recognising “the undoubted occasional beauty of his phrases”), and Forster vacillating characteristically.

By 1922 Forster — no modernist himself — appeared to have his literary career behind him, with his last novel Howards End 12 years in the past and only one more — A Passage to India — to come in his lifetime, though he would live almost another half century. He reportedly felt that he could not write about the new, post-war world, though only after his death would we see, with Maurice, his novel on a homosexual theme, how radical he longed to be.

Woolf may have been Joyce’s exact contemporary (she was born a week before him and died two months after), but she much preferred Eliot as a writer. The two were established friends by 1922, and he had read The Waste Land to her as a work in progress. “It has great beauty and force of phrase,” she wrote in her diary, but “what connects it together, I’m not sure.” This would have been of no concern to Eliot, for whom “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”, and despite her reservations, Woolf’s Hogarth Press would be the first publisher of The Waste Land in book form.

Woolf saw in Eliot his essential contradiction: his bank clerk manner (he worked at Lloyds for eight years) and his careful speech, set against the radicalism of his poetry and his eyes which seemed to “escape from the rest of him”, in a face to which he routinely applied green make-up and lipstick. (Clive Bell believed he did this to look “interesting and cadaverous”). The American Eliot saw himself as a “resident alien” in both England and the literary world, and it’s not hard to see a projection in his description of (and admiration for) the Bloomsbury group and “their nonconformity within a culture to which they nevertheless firmly belonged”.

What Joyce and Eliot, Ulysses and The Waste Land, had in common was a showiness, an overt ambition as well as a magpie approach to literature as assemblage. Eliot drew on multiple sources: Ovid and Augustine, grail legends and fortune tellers, hymnals and publicans — hence his Dickens-inspired working title for the poem, He Do the Police in Different Voices. If, as Eliot’s Prufrock had it seven years earlier, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” then why not say everything?

Where are the modernists now?

Joyce had a similar approach on a larger scale: loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, each of the 18 sections of Ulysses adopts a different literary style, borrowing from and pastiching newspapers, music, penny dreadfuls, children’s books and more. In this manner Joyce and Eliot’s works declare themselves. In the words of novelist Lawrence Norfolk, Ulysses and The Waste Land “exude the confidence of works that know what they will become”.

But we err if, in hearing the trumpets of these two works, we fail to listen to the ostensibly quieter but equally important literature published by women that year. In 1922, Katherine Mansfield published The Garden Party, developing her novel techniques of multiple perspectives and internal consciousness over external experience. And May Sinclair’s Life and Death of Harriett Frean appeared, though her fiction is overshadowed by her coinage of the much-abused literary term “stream of consciousness” when she reviewed Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

T.S. Eliot

And then there is Woolf. Her mature career is usually said to begin with Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, but it was in 1922 that she released her first truly modern novel, Jacob’s Room. It is a transitional work toward her best-known novels, but in contrast to the maximalism of Eliot and Joyce, Woolf went inward, with internal monologue and (yes) stream of consciousness. Where Ulysses had an anti-hero in Leopold Bloom (everyman, cuckold, masturbator), Jacob’s Room had a literal anti-hero: Jacob is largely not there, but recalled through letters, objects and others’ conversations.

Jacob’s Room met with a mixed critical response (her old nemesis Arnold Bennett said Woolf couldn’t “create characters that survive”), as did Ulysses and The Waste Land — reasonably so for books that so dramatically reshaped what the reading public knew. Even now, you don’t have to like them, but it’s futile to deny their significance.

One aspect of the contemporary responses was how the books, intended as a new beginning, were often seen as the end point of literature. Henry Green said Joyce, along with Kafka, was like a cat that had “licked the plate clean … There’s no one to follow [him].” Willa Cather, fearing that the new literature made her own novels seem “backward”, declared that “the world broke in two in 1922”. Even Woolf, reading Proust, was moved to ask, “Well — what remains to be written after that?”

This is the same sort of exceptionalism that created the appetite for modernism in the first place. It persists now, as some believe that Covid and climate and crisis upon crisis make our times uniquely febrile and unstable. And writers today still seek new ways to make sense of difficult times, albeit that the focus, in our age of autofiction, tends to be on individual distress rather than the collective. So syntax and typesetting is fractured to represent the traumatised mind, dialogue is merged into the internal monologue, and paragraphing abandoned in favour of unbroken blocks of text in a way not even the highest of modernists were cruel enough to inflict upon us.

Virginia Woolf

And if it’s subject matter of the individual’s experience in a time of crisis that is key these days, rather than form — the fiction shelves in bookshops will soon need their own climate change and pandemic sections — then perhaps the modernists of 1922 have been more influential than at first it seems.

Joyce’s innovation was not just stylistic, but also in bringing into the novel the everyday things we didn’t talk about: Bloom taking a shit “asquat on the cuckstool”, for example, “allow[ing] his bowels to ease themselves” as he read a copy of Tit-Bits (the magazine to which, incidentally, Woolf submitted her first article). Woolf for her part in Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925 but set in 1922, introduced the topic of mental ill-health through the character of shell-shocked ex-soldier Septimus Warren Smith.

Where are the modernists now? Joyce, Eliot and Woolf are all still read, though attention tends to be focused on one or two major works by each (similarly, volume one of Proust’s epic has an Amazon sales rank ten times better than the next five volumes). At times Eliot’s influence seems to be less in poetry than in providing sonorous phrases with which other writers may title their books, from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas to Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, and many, many, many others.

Some later writers tried to take the experiments further, such as William S. Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique; others like Tom Wolfe sought to reverse them, arguing that the best way to “remove the screen” and immerse the reader completely, as Joyce et al had sought to do, was not with artifice but with the complete openness of his New Journalism. Both results feel more dated now than the work of 1922 does.

The problem for modernism, as implied in Woolf’s comments above in “Modern Fiction”, is that it makes things harder for the reader, so it could hardly hope to compete in viability with realism. The year of 1922 also gave birth to two writers, later lifelong friends, who would embody not just an absence of modernist experiment but opposition to it: Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin.

Quietly, three days after the first publication of Ulysses, the world received the first issue of a magazine that would dictate library and bookshop choices more than the modernists ever could: on 5 February 1922, Reader’s Digest was born. Its unashamedly populist anthologies of abridged novels — four per volume — would at their peak sell 10 million copies per year. And they have never included Ulysses, The Waste Land or Jacob’s Room.

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