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Tony Grist

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Modern Times [Apr. 10th, 2007|05:20 pm]
Tony Grist
I just finished Novel On Yellow Paper. It's seventy years old and yet feels completely modern. Of course the cultural landscape is different-  they haven't had the second world war yet and there isn't any TV or internet,  but the voice- Stevie Smith's voice- is the voice of a contemporary. She thinks and speaks like one of us. You don't at any point find yourself thinking, well she would say that because those were autre temps, autre moeurs.

How old is the modern era? When exactly did olden times turn into modern times? Are the Victorians modern? Of course not. Is H.G. Wells? No, not quite. Is Charlie Chaplin? No - though Buster Keaton may be. My guess is the First World War marks the point after which you no longer find yourself thinking autre temps, autre moeurs. Pre-war people (that is to say, people whose characters were formed before the war) and post-war people (those whose characters were former during or after it) are two different species of human being. It's as if, during those four years, human evolution put on a spurt.

And what exactly is the difference between the two species? I think it's this, that modern people find it difficult to take themselves entirely seriously.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: zoe_1418
2007-04-10 05:22 pm (UTC)
I remember liking Novel on Yellow Paper when I read it in the 1980s. I also liked the idea of an office drudge (which i was at the time) writing a novel during work time.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 08:54 pm (UTC)
The book is nakedly autobiographical so I imagine Stevie really did write her novel on the firm's time. Well done, her!
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[User Picture]From: upasaka
2007-04-10 05:34 pm (UTC)
I think "modern" starts with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury crowd, at least in English-speaking culture.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 09:00 pm (UTC)
I think maybe the poets were the first to make the breakthrough. I'm thinking Eliot and Pound in particular.

And then there's Joyce- but I think Joyce was in some ways still a Victorian.
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[User Picture]From: saare_snowqueen
2007-04-10 05:46 pm (UTC)
Except in America - where, that's when they began to take themselves TOO seriously.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 09:01 pm (UTC)
Hah....

I couldn't possibly comment :)
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-04-10 10:15 pm (UTC)
*splorf* Trust her, she's right. ;)
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-04-10 05:56 pm (UTC)
The interesting thing is that some fiction from the 20s and 30s really does read in an autre temps, autre moeurs fashion. Look at Georgette Heyer's early novels (Barren Corn is the only title that springs to mind, but there were four of them set in contemporary England that weren't part of her rash of detective fiction). Look at Dion Fortune's fiction, and there I don't mean the magical elements but the minor bits of social background that slide in. It would be very interesting to compare Novel on Yellow Paper with, say, Barren Corn and The Goat-foot God and see if one could pick out the differences that make Stevie Smith's voice so recognizable today where DF and GH seem dated and odd. (I haven't read Novel on Yellow Paper yet. I need to get to it when either I have money in the cookie jar again or the county public library system reopens.)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 09:16 pm (UTC)
I don't know Dion Fortune's fiction- only (some of) her non-fiction work. Her style is very fin de siecle/late Victorian I think.

She was born in 1890- so she was a young woman by the time of the outbreak of WWI- which nicely fits my theory.

Heyer I've never read. She and Smith were both born in 1902

Of course not everyone flips over at the same time.

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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-04-10 09:44 pm (UTC)
DF almost sits on both sides of that fence. Aspects of her morality and so forth are very much a part of the pre-war culture she grew up in. Yet she was definitely modern in her take on paganism and also on the necessity of sorting out (read: chucking out) Victorian ideas about sex, the latter in spite of her own deep inhibitions. Her fiction breaks a lot of ground in some ways, and yet there's always that little moral monitor creeping in waving the Victorian flag of purity. Reading it can be an exercise in frustration because you keep wanting to ask her characters to please behave as though they have something below the waist other than buckram wadding and a certain amount of constipation. It's all very interesting in the light of the claim that she had an illegitimate child in her teens; that would explain so much.

GH's four early novels (the ones that were neither historical romances nor detective fiction) were attempts to deal with the psychological effects of the change from The Old Ways (Victorian culture) to Modern Life. Barren Corn, IIRC, is about the effects of breaking down class barriers while the social prejudices accompanying them are still very deeply engrained. The example is a love match across class lines, which fails and ends with the wife's suicide. Another novel (I've forgotten the title, it's been yonks since I read them) is about the effect of sex on a young woman who's never been told the least little thing about it and who flips out on her wedding night because it's all so beastly and horrible. During the course of the novel her husband, who has chivalrously chosen to forego sex until she's ready, helps her to work her way through her own psychological messes and find her way to the point where she actually wants sex. In the end, she seduces him.

These GH novels weren't successes commercially, but they did deal with real situations people were facing at the time. I think they read as dated now because it's so hard for us to get inside the heads of a culture with the ideas about sex, morality, social class, etc, so distant from our own. It's much easier to sympathize with the misfits who think more as we do now than with the "normal" people who seem so very abnormal to us.


Good point, BTW, about taking ourselves too seriously. Modern people don't seem to be able to take ANYTHING too seriously. The habit of worshiping lofty ideals as though one were a knight of the Round Table and they were noble ladies got blown out of us in the trenches of Belgium.

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[User Picture]From: sovay
2007-04-10 09:48 pm (UTC)
Another novel (I've forgotten the title, it's been yonks since I read them) is about the effect of sex on a young woman who's never been told the least little thing about it and who flips out on her wedding night because it's all so beastly and horrible.

I think this may be Instead of the Thorn (1923), but I wouldn't swear to it in a court of law.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-04-10 10:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, thank you, that's it. The other two were Helen and Pastel; both quite forgettable, although Barren Corn and Instead of the Thorn have their good points.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 10:10 pm (UTC)
Cyril Connolly says in his book about The Modern Movement that modernity is about more than just engaging with the issues of the day. We can't call books modern simply "because they are the first to defend abortion or explain relativity".

Modernity is very hard to define, but I think we know it when we see it. If, for example, Dion Fortune were to walk into the room now we would feel, I think, a need to mind our manners, to tread softly for fear of causing offence- as one does with a high-minded, elderly relative. But if Stevie Smith joined us we wouldn't feel the least bit inhibited.

I didn't know about DF and the illegitimate child. It must be new research. I've read Alan Richardson's Biography and I'm pretty certain he doesn't mention it- even as a rumour. It would be good to know more. She's a very elusive personality. Last time I checked there was only one, not very good, photograph of her known to exist.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-04-10 10:24 pm (UTC)
LOL! Very good, and I think quite right. She'd be the original maiden auntie who must not be offended. And yet I think she would be sad to cause such a response. I suspect she wanted to be more like Stevie Smith. I suppose what I've been groping toward is to say that she was perhaps a transitional figure, teetering on the edge of being modern and yet being too much a product of an earlier era to quite manage it.

Quite right about the photo. It's rotten, makes her look like the back of a cab (if cabs ever wore hair-nets). The thing about the illegitimate child is fairly recent, and likely to remain unproven as the purported daughter has died of old age since the rumor arose. Since the whole dates from the days when, to quote Dorothy Sayers, there were no tiresome rules requiring notification of births by doctors and midwives, and when parents named on the birth certificate could be adoptive rather than natural, I doubt we'll ever know. But, oh, it makes so much sense out of that weird little book The Problem of Purity!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 09:28 pm (UTC)
I see Wells as a transitional figure. He's still writing novels in the grand old Victorian tradition- and his prose style is a 19th century style- rather heavy and ornate.

Edwardian literature is interesting. I did quite a lot of work on Chesterton once- another transitional figure. He was in revolt against Wilde and the decadence but also sort of anchored and trapped in that mindset.
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2007-04-10 06:16 pm (UTC)
I guess I have a very different point of view. I do think that many of the Victorians were modern, and I would classify HG Wells, and Chaplin as modern. Buster Keaton definitely was. I *sort of* see what you're talking about, but it seems to fine a distinction to matter.

But I think Modern starts with the 19th century.

(Possibly this is a all a result of those many years spent studying Japanese...)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 09:32 pm (UTC)
There are degrees of modernity. You could say the modern era starts with the French revolution...or Rousseau....or Hume...or Newton...or even from the Reformation.

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[User Picture]From: sovay
2007-04-10 06:22 pm (UTC)
Is Charlie Chaplin? No - though Buster Keaton may be.

The Marx Brothers are modern. Or at least they aren't dated: that level of weirdness is completely unstuck in time.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 09:36 pm (UTC)
Certainly.

They connect with the commedia del arte but also with the Pythons.

And they're still funny.
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[User Picture]From: sovay
2007-04-10 09:44 pm (UTC)
And they're still funny.

"Left-handed moths ate the painting!"
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[User Picture]From: silveredmane
2007-04-10 08:24 pm (UTC)

Modern times

"Modern" depends on the context. As an analogy, the meaning of 'fine' depends on if the other end of the matrix is 'coarse' or 'rough' or 'unsatisfactoyr' or a variety of other things.

So the Modernism, for me, is one era in a series: Romanticism, Modernism, Post-Modernism. It that's the system in which we're working, the (contested) advent of Modernism is officially 1958.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-04-10 09:47 pm (UTC)

Re: Modern times

I'm not using "modern" in quite that technical sense, but rather as a synonym for contemporary.

My point is that Smith feels like she could be writing now. Her attitudes, her prose style haven't dated. You don't have to make allowances for her.

Move back beyond the 1920s and I don't believe there are any writers of whom this is true.
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