Two Modernisms, Plural Solitudes

Reviewed by James Gifford

Like a palimpsest, Translocated Modernisms and Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space overlap each other, past events, and prior writings. Both could be read as products of notes interleaving with other books, with each other, and with themselves. As edited collections, it’s inevitable. It’s also part of the excitement. It also traces an unstated question. The internal conversations between chapters are the excitement, particularly in Ballantyne, Dvořák, and Irvine’s Translocated Modernisms with the colloquy between Linda Morra’s and Adam Hammond’s readings of Sheila Watson’s Paris journals, in which they not only discuss each other’s work but also cite each other’s chapter in the collection. This is the excitement made possible by a conference proceedings based on the post-presentation discussion and lengthier conversations that the original Paris event afforded participants in 2012. An unstated question likewise links both books: what conversations occurred in another room? Mota and Paul Tiessen write on Lowry in both books, but outside of annotations, theirs is the only nod to Lowry in Translocated Modernisms. It is doubly surprising to then find Mark Goodall’s detailed study of Lowry’s influence on the Parisian Situationist International and Guy Debord opening Lane and Mota’s collection.

Both books will find ready readerships. The University of Ottawa Press excels with its Canadian Literature Collection, recently adding several Lowry projects, including The 1940 Under the Volcano, Swinging the Maelstrom, and In Ballast to the White Sea, the last of which Mota and Tiessen discuss in Translocated Modernisms. Their argument at the 2012 Paris conference is obviously preparation for the 2014 scholarly edition. Both collections are also concerned with the construction of canonical works and scholarship. Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space extends his literary legacy through the archival recuperations and by working through the troubles of a largely biographical body of scholarship. Translocated Modernisms seeks a wider canon for Canadian modernism but builds from the assumption of a later beginning to Canadian modernist works complicated by bypassing modernism for the postmodern. While the contributors whom Ballantyne, Dvořák, and Irvine collect all assert a postwar Canadian modernism, in large part through the conceptual revisions of the New Modernist Studies, they share a reluctance to find Canadian voices of the 1920s through the 1940s to be “modernist.” Elizabeth Smart appears once in passing, though not in the index, and Watson and Mavis Gallant pull the time frame forward in tension against Morley Callaghan and Wyndham Lewis (the four most frequently cited writers in the collection). The scholarly canon, however, is settled. The normative understanding of Canadian modernism from Brian Trehearne to Glenn Willmott to Dean Irvine to Gregory Betts is traced a number of times, most overtly in the introduction and the engaging coda from Kit Dobson. Who does and does not appear tells a story here.

Both books are entangled with problems of space, place, and borders, with all the troubles of national identity, colonial privilege, and regionalism that confront Canadian literature generally. The poetics of spatiality and gestures to psychogeographies have an established legacy in studies of modern literature, and all contributors to Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space are keenly aware of the challenging overlap between regional obsessions in Lowry’s works and his capacious imaginative links across the spider’s web of a global migration. The same problem confronts the “lost generation” of Canadians in Translocated Modernisms with Ernest Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, and Sheila Watson all moving between Toronto and Paris, even if not overlapping. Hence, both books implicitly disrupt the concept of “Canadian” in their plural modernisms.

The reader’s task, then, parallels Dobson’s challenge to the modern through Bruno Latour. That is, if both collections reform and form canons, scholarly and aesthetic, they aptly engage in the characteristic struggles of modernist studies and its “Men of 1914” and “annus mirabilis” of 1922—demarcating what is and is not Canadian modernism. It’s a process of punctualization for Latour. But if a symmetrical understanding between art and scholarship calls both into relation, then depunctualization reveals their conflicted investments and interests. For many, this is the signal critical move of the New Modernist Studies: to reveal not only what modernism (or modernisms) might mean but also the conflicted interests through which they come to mean differently at different times and places and for different purposes or as expressions of different commitments. The problematic in these strong collections, then, is still “where is here”—here is still the nation-state, the Canada in “Canadian modernisms,” yet both terms define each other based on their definitional alliances and needs.

This review “Two Modernisms, Plural Solitudes” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 130-131.

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