I USED TO THINK that books without stories could not be moving. Needless to say, I’ve never been a fan of high — or come to think of it, low — modernism. Books or films without stories could be tedious, they could be profound, but lacking a basic narrative thrust, they could hardly be junky enough for me to find them moving.
I had to change my mind after seeing Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, a reimagining of the original production of The Mikado in 1885. Like most of Leigh’s films it’s a true ensemble effort, a story totally unable to prioritize one point of view over another. We see characters buckling under the weight of the time they lived in, or neatly excelling within it, and it feels incredibly authentic. The grandeur of the scale of life within which these characters move is exposed at the exact moment that the world of the past, in porcelain miniature aesthetic, seems so small to us. And this, for some reason, is incredibly moving.
Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius is an equally panoramic gesture. A biography of 1922, a year whose steady influx of innovation defined it—according to Jackson’s thesis — as the true birth of the modernist movement, is an attempt to describe a year that was so full of interlinked, contradictory, and unusually consequential events that it is impossible to impose real order on its very specific form of chaos. This is, after all, a year that ushered in both the death of Proust and the birth of Philip Larkin. Sex was invented in 1963, said Larkin, and everything else, apparently, in 1922. It was then that the temperature, so to speak, began to change, and Jackson’s account of it — broken down in entries by month, day and location — is at once boring, moving, and revelatory, much like the fruit of modernism itself.
“Everyone is reading Proust,” writes Virginia Woolf to E.M. Forster in a letter. She continues:
I sit silent and hear their reports. It seems to be a tremendous experience, but I’m shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid sort of notion that I shall go down and down and down and perhaps never come up again.
This is the sort of thing that feels justified the further into 1922 one gets: the writers in Constellation are set apart as its brightest stars, an endearing, bitchy group of people in the midst of dumping or having just dumped some infuriating masterpiece on the world: namely Joyce, whose Ulysses came out in February, and T.S. Eliot reveling (sort of) in the release of The Waste Land. This was, after all, a time in which books, such as Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend, were still capable of setting off “a moral panic.” The same twelvemonth span saw the end of the Ottoman Empire, Freud’s last conference, the creation of the BBC, the death of Lenin and rise of Stalin, and the centenary of Murger’s much-referenced work, La Vie de Boheme, alongside the first printing of such diverse works as The Enormous Room, Babbitt, and the groundbreaking, sexually explicit Sodom and Gomorrah. Jackson places The Waste Land and Ulysses at the center of it all, providing the context for the social and political changes that bordered their release, from the growing violent unrest in Russia and Ireland to the beginning of construction on Yankee Stadium and the inception of the Eskimo Pie.
One of the side effects of reading — and part of what makes Constellation the rare, successful work of curation that it is — is the sudden realization that the birth of the Eskimo Pie might have been as defining a generational moment as The Waste Land. Not even the birth of the pie itself, but of the idea of it. Ideas in 1922 are as good as currency, and genius in 1922 has a very specific shape, sound, and flavor. Part of the reason for this is the denseness of the population of people who were about the change the world. Jackson makes sure we get a glimpse of them all: Bunuel, Lorca, and an 18-year old Salvador Dalí spending a formative year together in Madrid. Joyce and Proust (looking, to Joyce, like “something out of The Sorrows of Satan”) meeting at a dinner party where they end up bitching about health concerns. The young Cocteau fruitlessly pursues the much younger Raymond Radiguet. We watch as capitalism and creativity converge in the burgeoning careers of Man Ray and Stieglitz, a new generation of artists who are also tradesmen, salesmen. We witness politics bleed into the literary mindset in unexpected ways: the evolution of Hemingway’s style, his early reporting overseas leading him to finally “master the art of telegraphese,” and a young Churchill developing his own oratory style in an early speech for a (lost) Dundee constituency. The great artists of the first half of the century are shown here engaged in sophomore efforts, poised on the brink of their greatest work: a pre-Metropolis Fritz Lang releasing the multi-part Der Spieler, Chaplin finishing the two-reeler phase of his career and preparing to enter the world of features — and drama — with A Woman of Paris in 1923. A young Nabokov copes with the assassination of his father and the first published work by Dashiell Hammett appears in the pages of The Smart Set. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North sets the standard for nonfiction filmmaking and contaminates it in the same breath.
World history is shown through a non-sepia lens that still feels, at its barest, fictional. The Irish fight for independence as seen through Yeats’s window: a window quite literally cracked from the force of a bomb blast in Merrion Square. A scene of the young Eric Blair in Burma, seeing workers getting abused and fostering a nascent sense of a broad-spanning social injustice that would become the major theme of his work. The rise of the Italian Black Shirts as reported by Hemingway for the Toronto Star. At the end, one is left with a feeling like the submergence Woolf fears in Proust — that down and down and down and never up again, the world waking from a sort of slumber into a golden age of complexity, wherein the personal is always political. What we think of as old developments in the world of thought and literature are shown to us here with a sense of their newness intact: Pound’s famous dictum of “Make it new!” seems to be lurking behind every conversation, private and public, between artists of the time. And even the private conversations, had in letters and at bars, snippets of overheard conversations recorded in diaries, feel like they were conducted with some kind of audience in mind: nothing private is truly private in a world of artists so intensely aware of and curious about each other (“Everyone is reading Proust”). It is at these points that Constellation is most moving, even when it doesn’t mean to be: inside the snippets of overheard conversations, weird little surveys and private realizations loudly expressed. Within a handful of pages we get a glimpse of artists in increasingly recognizable poses.
“That’s not art,” says George Moore of Ulysses, “that’s attempting to copy the London directory!”
“The middle age of buggers,” writes Woolf of E.M. Forster’s mental funk, “is not to be contemplated without horror …”
“Perhaps the greatest curse of my life” Eliot writes in a letter, “is noise and the associations which imagination immediately suggests with various noises …”
Inside of this, Jackson’s desk-diary format begins to resemble something out the Dos Passos of The U.S.A. Trilogy and Manhattan Transfer — himself a figure whose style is wedged between a sort of new classicism and the burgeoning modernism of his contemporaries. If at times Constellation does lack a certain empathy (as the best of Dos Passos sometimes does) it makes up for it by getting across that grasping-at-straws sense of all the worlds stories being broken and senseless that modernism, at its best, purveys — that Septimus Smith babble that characterizes the world on the brink of great moral compromise and total commercialization. Alfred Stieglitz, in the December, 1922 issue of MSS magazine, quaintly asked: “Can a photograph have the significance of art?” Marcel Duchamp’s response sums it up best:
You know exactly what I think of photography.
I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable —
There we are.
At times one yearns for a character, a story to latch onto. But the moment a story gets momentum it abruptly ends, to be resumed 20 pages later, in as infuriatingly short a breath. This kind of blueballing is modernism at its best, and Jackson makes us understand that to pause for a longer look, to come up for air even for a second, would be to miss something crucial that was happening on the other side of the world. Or, indeed, on the same side of it — a subtle change in the mind of someone destined to write something important, an observation that will grow more and more pertinent the further it travels from the temper of the time that occasioned it.
In a review of Ulysses, the critic John Eglington takes the opportunity to notice that: “There is a growing divergence between the literary ideals of our artists and the books which human beings want to read.”
Of all the revelations that come to us through Constellation, this is the one, oddly, that really sticks: for what was 1922’s final accomplishment if not to create a feeling of responsibility, still fostered today, toward the ugly, the uncouth, the indescribable, the depressed in art? The world was full of things waiting to be made bearable — or perhaps unbearable — by art. But has it? It becomes hard to read about such radical and yet workman-like changes going on in the world without feeling like the present century has somehow let them all down.
It’s a strange thing to feel moved by something so broad and impersonal as a year in the life of the world — stranger still to feel bored and angry at it for not moving fast enough, or for moving too fast, presenting too many contradictions, as if history could be held accountable for believability in the way of a fictional work. But I kept coming back to this idea of a divergence between things people want to read and the things that get written. It seems such a modern problem — modern in the sense of today, current, present. With the beginning of work that could truly reflect on the type of change that would set the course of the world for the next hundred years, there was also the beginning of the chronic dissatisfaction that would accompany it. It’s not something one thinks of as being particularly modernist — yet perhaps this is where, like most everything else, it began.