1) Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
Published in 1936, Nightwood is a haze of alcohol, glamour, sex, and love in all its desperate, unconventional, and painful forms. It tells the story of the mesmerising Robin Vote, who leaves a trail of cigarette ends and empty bottles through the lives of the other characters as she flies from one party to another, one romance to another. Nora Flood (widely believed to be a thinly veiled version of Djuna Barnes herself) is a woman deeply in love with Robin, and tormented by her lover’s free nature. In spite of their difficulties, they are bound together in a love worthy of greatness. As the character Dr. Matthew O’ Connor remarks: “Nora will leave that girl some day; but though those two are buried at the opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both.” This novella is known as one of the earliest works to centre on explicit homosexuality and transsexuality, and numbers among the greatest works of queer fiction. It is also a poetic, modernist masterpiece. For a more in-depth review, Jeanette Winterson’s introduction to the new editions is a beautiful read, which you can find HERE.
Published in 1899, this novella marks a turning point into the modernist era. It is a story about a journey up the Congo river and into the heart of Africa as told by the character of Marlow. He recounts his tale to his shipmates aboard the Nellie, which is docked in London. This narrative framing serves two purposes; it links the “darkness” of London to the “darkness” in the heart of Africa, questioning the distinctions between the civilised and the uncivilised, and it creates a story within a story that gives the impression of a journey into the deeper recesses of individual and social psychology. The figure of Kurtz, an ivory trader stationed in Africa, is a monstrous representation of Western avarice and corruption, yet, troublingly, some of the biggest horrors to his characterisation are in the representations of his having “gone native”; displaying severed heads on poles outside his residence. This text has been criticised for the way it uses Africa as the uncivilised other to Western society: Chinue Achebe, in his 1975 lecture on the book called it “offensive and deplorable,” arguing that it de-humanises Africans. In spite of (and perhaps because of) these criticisms, Heart of Darkness remains a much studied, much discussed early modernist text, but one that requires a critically aware reading.
Published in 1952, Ellison’s richly layered novel follows the story of a man who describes himself as “invisible,” because he is black, and society refuses to see him as he is. The narrator is unnamed, setting him up as a kind of everyman and universalising his experiences as a black man in America. Throughout the novel, this narrator, a promising student and gifted orator, is subjected to cruel, unfair and dehumanising treatment at the hands of other people. He is forced into a demeaning physical fight in order to gain his scholarship. His letters of recommendation are exposed as damagingly negative, and after an accident at his job in the paint factory he finds himself an unknown black man in a hospital bed and subjected to medical experimentation. The main themes of the narrative are racial heritage and community, and building a sense of personal identity in a racist society. In contrast to the protest novels of other African-American writers such as Richard Wright, Ellison creates a style of writing that embraces a variety of modes of expression, making it quite a difficult novel to categorise. Some of the most significant aspects of his writing, though, are his use of modernist symbolism, and the influences he takes from jazz music. The combination of these elements alongside Ellison’s use of multiple literary and cultural references and the underlying sense of an existential quest for a recognised identity place this novel within the modernist tradition, though there are postmodernist, naturalist, and realist elements all open for exploration.
Published in 1910, Howards End is often seen not as a modernist novel, but as the last in the tradition of nineteenth-century “condition of Engand” novels. Howards End describes the relationship between the commercial, right-wing Wilcox family, and the intellectual, left-wing Schlegels as representatives of competing attitudes towards modernity and social convention in Edwardian England. The house, Howards End, comes to symbolise England itself as the Wilcoxes and the Shlegels each desire to stay there, the shifting tenancy recalling the back and forth of British political values. The other family central to this narrative are the less well off Bast family. Interested in the arts, the Schlegel’s seek to raise them in society, but despite their good will, the impoverished Leonard and Jackie Bast are crushed under the weight of the class system. The ironies of Helen Shlegel’s desire to “only connect” are drawn out through the social necessity of being well-connected, without which people like the Bast’s cannot survive.
Published in 1929, A Farewell to Arms is set during the Italian campaign of the First World War. It follows the American Frederic Henry over the course of his time as an ambulance driver in the Italian army, where he meets and falls in love with British nurse, Catherine Berkley. Amongst its preoccupations with love and war, the novel is most successful in its de-romanticising of the idea of the war-hero with its unflinching portrayal of the stark realities of modern, mechanised warfare. There is nothing romantic or heroic in the gruesome injuries and meaningless deaths Hemingway describes, and his hero Frederic comes to abandon these outdated myths of masculinity and desert from his position. Typical of Hemingway, the primary focus of this novel is masculinity. Frederic tries on many of the masks of traditional masculinity throughout the book and finds them wanting. In contrast to much (largely biographical) Hemingway criticism that labels his writing as misogynist, this novel is particularly interesting in the way it portrays gender. It experiments with gender roles and representations, showing that the division between masculine and feminine isn’t always clear-cut (e.g. Catherine and Frederic’s merging identities). This sets up many of the elements behind his later work For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) which more readily opens itself up to feminist-friendly readings.
Published in 1928, Point Counter Point may be a surprise to readers who know Aldous Huxley through his more widely read Brave New World. Far away from the dystopic future world of his most famous work, this novel is a realist satire of English society in the 1920s. Like Howards End, it takes as a theme the political atmosphere of the time, and issues surrounding the English class system. It also reaches into philosophical discussions about art, life, science, and relationships. As the title might suggest, this novel is formally experimental in its relationship to music, with many pieces of classical music referenced throughout the book. The characters move around each other in an orchestrated counterpoint which also extends to certain values and attitudes, specifically the relationship between art and science, and those attributed to the working and middle/upper classes. The vast array of elements to this novel are kept in check by Huxley the great conductor, who undercuts his own orchestration with a biting wit that leaves no character, and no idea, unsatirised.
7) Ulysses by James Joyce
Published in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses is perhaps the modernist novel. In documenting a single day in the life of one Leopold Bloom, Joyce draws on the structure of the Greek epic Ulysses, using symbols, metaphors, and ambiguities to build a network of connections beneath the surface of the novel that invite comparison between the characters and situations in Joyce’s Dublin and those in the story of Homer’s returning hero. Over the course of the day, Bloom eats, drinks, goes to the bathroom, laments the adultery of his wife, attends a funeral, and thinks lurid thoughts about women he passes along the way, but everything he does and everyone he encounters is given greater significance through the connections that exist beneath the novel’s surface layers. Another important character in the narrative is young Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus), Joyce’s literary alter-ego from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The first three chapters follow Stephen as he wakes up, has breakfast, and discusses his opinions on religion. His later appearance in the novel, when Leopold’s storyline is in full flow, sees young Stephen again holding forth, this time on Shakespeare and fatherhood. Following the structure of the Greek epic, Bloom and Dedalus (Ulysses and Telemachus) would be father and son, though in Joyce’s construction Bloom has two children; a daughter (Milly), and a son (Rudy) who died. The eventual meeting between Bloom and Dedalus and their conversation over cocoa forms the apex of the novel, which offers a closer examination of the themes of fatherhood and the value of intellectualism. The novel is seen as a modernist masterpiece for its experimental prose, its use of stream of consciousness narrative–particularly in the famous final soliloquy delivered by Molly Bloom–for its focus on the individual and the minutia of everyday living, and for its numerous literary and cultural references and allusions.
Published in 1913, D.H. Lawrence’s novel is a semi-autobiographical exploration of working-class life. Paul Morel and his older brother William grow up under the tyranny of their father, Mr Morel; a miner and frequent drinker prone to occasional violence. The relationship between Mr and Mrs Morel was based on a passion that could not be sustained on a miner’s wage, and Mrs Morel lives with the feeling that she has married beneath herself, maintaining aspirations beyond her lowered social position. In moving away from her husband, she becomes very close to her children, seeing them as her way up in the world and–at least on some level–selecting them as replacement partners. When William dies, her focus turns to Paul, and the rest of the novel follows his failure to maintain relationships with other women due to his bond with his mother. The final section of the book deals with his mother’s death as a tragedy equalling that of a lost romantic love. Sons and Lovers has, of course, been read alongside Freud as a classic example of the Oedipus complex, but it is also interesting for its discussion of education as a means of escape from poverty (at least for men), and of industrialisation and the impact that has on the countryside and on traditional ways of life.
Published in 1928, McKay’s novel is a key work emerging from the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of arts and culture that came out of Harlem in the 1920s. It depicts the vibrant nightlife of the era; the heady mix of music, sex, and echoes of an African past, and picks up on many themes surrounding racial identity. One of McKay’s overarching ideas is that African-Americans are more natural, closer to the earth and the truth of life than the white population of America and Europe, and he celebrates this in the atmosphere of the Congo Rose nightclub. In his privileging of more natural interactions between people, McKay draws on the influences of his contemporaries, such as D.H. Lawrence, who viewed industrial modernity with great mistrust and questioned its impact on humanity. The main character, Jake Brown, represents McKay’s vision of a natural man, living a rural, folk existence in an urban setting. The refrain of “home, home to Harlem” keeps ideas of history, heritage, and a return to one’s roots at the centre of the novel. Jake is contrasted with Ray, a Haitian intellectual and a waiter working on the same train as Jake. Ray represents the wider world engagement with black writing, specifically Aime Cesaire’s notions of ‘Negritude’ as an affirmation of black identity–taking something negative and making it positive. In many ways Ray and Jake represent two sides of the same personality, two ways of confronting the African-American situation.
Published in 1913, the first instalment of Proust’s seven-volume novel follows two related stories. The first describes the childhood experiences and memories of Marcel, particularly his time in the French town of Combray. The second follows the romantic relationship between Charles Swann, a once regular guest of Marcel’s parents, and Odette de Crecy. This book is most famous for the ‘Madeleine scene’ of Marcel’s storyline where, upon eating the cake, Marcel experiences an involuntary memory of his childhood. As this scene reveals, the novel is concerned with how we experience time, and the impact things like memory and habit have on a person’s own sense of time. Marcel’s storyline is also well-known for the Oedipal family dynamic, Marcel being unable to sleep without a goodnight kiss from his mother. As well as these more existentialist and psychological themes, Swann’s Way deals heavily in social satire, offering one of the longest descriptions of a dinner party in all of literature. It also touches on homosexuality, the intellectual life, and explorations of human emotions and drives such as love, jealousy, and egotism. Above all, Swann’s Way is a beautifully written, almost poetic book, with long sections of vivid description and impressionistic imagery that remain as afterimages long after the book is finished.
Published in 1930, Vile Bodies is an interwar novel that captures the almost manic exuberance of a generation of “bright young things.” It follows a group of these young aristocrats and socialites through their maze of parties and events in 1920s London. The central narrative is concerned with the engagement of Adam Fenwick Symes and Nina Blount. Though Nina is deeply in love with Adam, she refuses to marry him unless he is wealthy enough to keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed, and Adam spends the length of the novel trying to make enough money to be able to marry her. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a major theme of Vile Bodies is the spiritual bankruptcy and emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle that came to represent the so-called ‘roaring twenties,’ and the alienation and disconnection this caused between the people living through it. Not only does this lifestyle drain all depth and meaning from romantic and social relationships, it also causes problems for the physical and mental wellbeing of the individual characters. There is a strong sense that this whirling sequined mass of society is spinning out of control, moving too fast for anyone to keep up with. This idea is captured in the demise of Lady Agatha Runcible, who dies in a mental hospital after taking a race car and crashing it in a moment of madness that borders on clarity, wherein she sees through the constant parties to the realities of life. In spite of these somewhat sombre themes, Waugh’s novel is humorous and highly satirical, and the characters remain likeable in spite of their flaws.
Published in 1927, To the Lighthouse tells the story of Mr and Mrs Ramsey and their eight children through the time they spend on holiday in their summer home on the Isle of Skye. The family are joined by a number of acquaintances, most notably the aspiring artist Lily Briscoe, whose ruminations on art and life and her difficulties in executing her vision on canvas provide interesting parallels to Woolf’s non-fiction writings. At the beginning of the novella, the youngest boy, James, is promised a trip to the lighthouse, a journey that is postponed due to the weather and isn’t undertaken until many years later in the book’s final pages. Between the initial promise and its delivery, the family has changed irrevocably, the eventual journey marking both a return to an old promise and the beginning of a new relationship between the father and his remaining children. Mrs Ramsey looms large throughout the book as a matriarch and “angel of the house” with a keen sense of her own martyrdom. In spite of her unceremonious death as a parenthetical in the hastily drawn “time passes” section, her absence is keenly felt. This middle section sees many other deaths, including some of the Ramsey children, as it summarises the events that occurred over the course of the first world war. The loss of life is not a grand moment in the narrative but a distant event that is felt mainly in the subsequent absences. This sense of distance and detachment reflects the experiences of those who lost loved ones in the fighting overseas. Woolf makes rich use of the ambiguous and shifting symbolism of the lighthouse throughout the book and picks up on many of the themes and techniques of modernist writing. Often cited as an example of stream of consciousness, Woolf’s writing in this novella can more accurately be described as utilising forms of indirect speech, moving from one consciousness to another and backward and forward in time.
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