Books: Veering through the century at the speed of light
Sunday 15 November 1998
by Peter Conrad Thames and Hudson pounds 24.95
The subtitle of Peter Conrad's impressive new book is Life and Art in the Twentieth Century, obviously a subject that no single person could hope to describe in any adequate way; and in assembling his materials he must often have wondered how short or, more likely, how long his text should be. I think the book is short but would not wish it to be longer. Conrad discusses the culture of the last 100 years in 737 pages. He does so with enormous erudition and flair. Intelligence crackles in every paragraph. We always want him to say more than he does about the thousands of artists, writers, musicians and film-makers who flit in and out of his rapid prose.
And yet, quite early in the day, one has had enough of Conrad. He stimulates and provokes but never satisfies. Anyone with specialised knowledge of Beckett, or Eisenstein, or Genet, or Lowell, or Matisse, or Pollock - or, really, whoever - will be frustrated by Conrad's encapsulations. One always wants to say "that's not true"; "you haven't considered the evidence"; and "that's beside the point". This last criticism leads to the method and the elusive heart of . It has a genius for veering away from the point, often at speed. No creative figure is carefully summarised, arguments are thrown in the air rather than pursued, no historical development is traced or explained.
Put these strictures aside, and one can appreciate Conrad's enterprise. He's not writing a history of the century's art. His book is neither a guide nor an encyclopedia. Least of all is he offering an introduction to further study. Although Conrad holds a university post (at Christ Church, Oxford) he does not have an educational approach. That would be dull. His book is directed toward sophisticated people rather than undergraduates or other beginners. Fair enough, except that such sophisticates must forget about the academic tradition of Kulturwissenschaft. It could not be otherwise, for the essence of is in display. We read it not to learn, but to observe and appreciate its author's aerial, post-modernist mind.
Perhaps the manner of competitive, "brilliant" Oxford conversation has influenced Conrad's writing. Of course he has spent many hours and days in places where one does not talk, libraries. Conrad began to develop his method a good quarter of a century ago, in a book about Victorianism. In 1985 this was followed by The Everyman History of English Literature (whose target audience cannot have been the "everyman" who seeks a plain and friendly guide). His speciality is literature. I suspect that music is Conrad's delight and film his recreation. About the visual arts he is uncertain and ultimately irresponsible. Art has a leading role in the present book because it has been so lively and variegated in the last century. Alas, artists and their works are treated merely as tokens, to be ingeniously reshuffled in a game whose rules are unclear. Conrad lacks taste in art and cannot make convincing judgments about quality. But what a sight he is! And very quickly out of sight. He darts ahead of his readers on every page. No-one, especially not "everyman", can catch him. I know of no other writer who so naturally exemplifies the speed of cleverness, as compared to the relative slowness of wisdom. The failure of his book is that the cleverness so soon becomes boring.
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