World War I wounded or killed almost 40 million people, upended the balance of power that had prevailed in Europe for a century, heralded a new age of mechanized warfare and redrew borders around the globe. It also transformed literature. Since the days of the Black Death, writers in English had fashioned books from other books. Chaucer plundered Boccaccio to good effect. Shakespeare filched parts of “Hamlet” from Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy.” Milton retooled Virgil for English Protestants. And such theft and fealty persisted well into the era of internal combustion. Dickens worked lines of Sir Philip Sidney into the 59 chapters of “Great Expectations.”
The Treaty of Versailles made no provisions against the canon, but it might as well have. After the war, Virginia Woolf claimed to have “burst out laughing” at the sound of Tennyson. But such mirth came mingled with despair, and one could plausibly define literary modernism as the washing of the corpse of tradition, albeit sardonically. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” performed last rites for Homer’s “Odyssey” and destroyed the whole of the 19th century, at least according to T. S. Eliot. But it was also a joke. Eliot’s own writing was just as funereal and just as wry. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” a voice in “The Waste Land” intones, as if from sanatorium or deathbed. Yet Eliot’s working title — “He Do the Police in Different Voices” — quoted Dickens at his liveliest and goofiest. In the 1920s, writers could still root themselves in the past, but only as eulogists or parodists. The best were both.
In his fresh account of four modernists, Bill Goldstein, a former editor of the books section of this newspaper’s website and an interviewer for NBC New York, does not tell this story. Instead “The World Broke in Two” chronicles Morgan (Forster), David (Lawrence), Tom (Eliot) and Virginia (Woolf) as they wage personal battle in tremendous earnest against blank sheets of paper to create important new works from the inner recesses of their genius. Goldstein offers a snapshot history of their careers in deference to the American now, embracing not only the chatty familiarity of first names but also, and more significant, the biographical details of authorship that most 21st-century interest in literature seems to depend upon.
The year is 1922. “Ulysses” appears in February, “The Waste Land” in October. By then, everybody is reading C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust. The four writers bid farewell to 1921 in bad shape and greet 1923 in good. Eliot recovers from a breakdown, wins prize money and publication for “The Waste Land” and starts The Criterion, the journal that will house his rise to critical pre-eminence. Woolf bucks the flu, sublimates her class disdain for Joyce, channels Proust, publishes “Jacob’s Room” and commences work on “Mrs. Dalloway.” Forster loses a secret lover to tuberculosis, burns his unpublished dirty stories, is delivered from artistic malaise by a random bump of celebrity and transforms an aborted manuscript into “A Passage to India.” Lawrence arrives in a United States where obscenity trials have just legalized his racy fiction, publicized it and earned him money.
In diaries and letters, the four make literature of their daily lives, and Goldstein is comprehensive and exuberant curating this material. Forster, Woolf writes, is “evanescent, piping, elusive,” “timid, touching, infinitely charming,” “whimsical & vagulous,” a “vaguely rambling butterfly.” Eliot has “a big white face,” “a mouth twisted & shut; not a single line free & easy; all caught, pressed, inhibited.” Proust’s prose inspires in Woolf an “astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification,” a pleasure that “becomes physical — like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.” Meanwhile, “Ulysses” leaves her “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”
“The World Broke in Two” sedulously traces correspondences between lived details and the published novels and poems. A child’s voice in “Jacob’s Room,” disrupting a painter trying to paint, originates in the irritating children outside Woolf’s own window. The spooky refrain in “The Waste Land,” “Hurry up please its time,” echoes the shortened wartime hours still in effect for cafes and pubs in London. Lawrence’s “Kangaroo,” written in a burst in the summer of 1922, is an almost real-time transcription of his stopover in Australia.
Emphasizing the personal, Goldstein neglects the allusive, mythological and abstract dimensions of the works. This short changes Forster only a little and Lawrence hardly at all. But it seriously cheats Eliot and Woolf. Edmund Wilson’s famous review of “The Waste Land,” which categorized the source material — Vedic hymns and Ecclesiastes, Ovid and Augustine, Jessie L. Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance” and Sir James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” and much more — interests Goldstein far less than Wilson’s take in a private letter. There, he judges “The Waste Land” “a most distressingly moving account of Eliot’s own agonized state of mind during the years which preceded his nervous breakdown.” Phlebas the Phoenician, ageless Tiresias and the vista of Himavant might as well never have existed. Yet the ancient inheritance was crucial to Eliot, as the national one was to Woolf. She loved the English canon, hated its implacable maleness and wove that love and hatred into the warp and weft of her masterpieces. Goldstein cuts a year-sized piece from this fabric, though it stretches back to the Battle of Hastings.
Eric Bennett is the author of ‘Workshops of Empire’ and ‘A Big Enough Lie’.
Source: The New York Times