Yale, £18.99, 208pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Whatever Happened to Modernism?, By Gabriel Josipovici

In 1987, soon after arriving at Oxford as a graduate student, I went to a talk by Gabriel Josipovici at New College. He was held in high regard as a critic; besides, he was a novelist – an author of avant-garde fictions that were striking, at least to me, for their brevity.

1987 saw publishing, in Britain, at a kind of crossroads: the jackets of literary novels still had an air of creative abandon; British bookshops were diverting places to linger in; Picador and Penguin paperbacks offered a disarmingly cosmopolitan range of reading. Meanwhile, a certain kind of compendious novel was on the rise, crowding out genres like poetry.

My own interest in the slimness of Josipovici's novels was that I intended to write slim novels myself. Length was an anxiety in a climate in which novels – especially from India – were weighted towards the gigantic.

In 1992-93, a great deal changed with the publication of Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. We were introduced to the free market-induced cult of the first novel; chatter about "record-breaking" advances; and the re-emergence of a certain kind of narrative which Roland Barthes, Josipovici reminds us, called the récit, beginning, always, with a generic sentence, such as, "The marquise went out at five o' clock."

Moreover, bookshop chains grew, but the variety of books in them shrank, reflecting Tony Blair's extension of Thatcher's punitive approach to culture. I don't think I would have been able to publish my first two novels, which were around 30,000 words long and had little "plot" in the conventional sense, after the mid-1990s.

Josipovici, one of an increasingly rare breed, the writer-critic, was a casualty of that change, as were the poetry lists of most mainstream publishers; while the Booker Prize, and the novelists who early on quickened Josipovici's curiosity, and then disappointed him – Barnes, Amis, McEwan – benefited from the Blairite revolution. Josipovici's book is not just a reminder that there was once a place for modernism in commonsensical, empiricist England, but that literary affiliations and hierarchies were less clear-cut earlier than they are today.

The talk that Josipovici gave at New College – containing a sensitive reading of an early story by Beckett, "Dante and the Lobster", which reappears in this book – was a plea on behalf of modernism as well. The enemy then wasn't the narrowness of British culture, but the rise of postmodernism – perhaps a more immediate threat in the late 1980s.

However, it's not as if Josipovici spends too much time on the enemies of modernism in the new book, or on those who've annulled its legacy – despite the impression given by some newspapers that it constitutes a rant against an elite and ageing club of English novelists. Maybe we want such a rant, and Josipovici has become part of our wishful thinking.

Besides, the question its title asks is a more valid one than the one John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? did a few years ago. But Josipovici doesn't dwell on the title's implications; there's relatively little, for instance, on the decisive intellectual shifts that laid modernism low: the rise of postmodernist self-reflexivity; the post-structuralist dismantling of the phenomenological bases of modernism, and its deeply idiosyncratic and moving relationship to "reality"; and the postcolonial critique, which saw modernism as integral to elite European history.

What needs to be restored to modernism, then, is its radicalism, and a case made for how that radicalism speaks to us today. Whatever Happened to Modernism? is more a personal mapping of what modernism means to Josipovici, and what makes it both difficult and irreplaceable in his eyes;. As he said recently, and eloquently, in the New Statesman: "Modernism will always be with us.. for it is not primarily a revolution in diction... but is art coming to consciousness of its limitations and responsibilities."

His book is similarly eloquent, besides being, in its task of charting modernism's uniqueness, ingenious, unexpected, astute and insightful. It's also – because of its passion and intelligence – readable, in a way a modernist would approve of, though it disintegrates, very occasionally, into journalese.

Josipovici's view of modernism itself isn't groundbreaking. Modernism, in this view, is co-terminous with the artist's sense of his or her belatedness. The artist or writer arrives into a world in which their vocation no longer fits its traditional definition. Their true gifts have been made irrelevant by history, the genres used by an earlier generation suddenly become a dead rehearsal of convention (as in Barthes' récit: "The marquise went out at five o' clock").

There's a chasm between language and the world. The old world, before the rise of humanism, is one in which the artist works within a fixed cultural order in equilibrium; the new world, in which the life of the subject assumes centrality and interferes with the earlier order, is a place of disenchantment.

Indeed, disenchantment defines modernism, and, to this end, Josipovici locates its origins not in the usual epiphanic dates (1910, 1922), but wherever disenchantment and disjunction direct and transform artistic vision. Here, his marshalling of evidence, sources, and examples is at once idiosyncratic, contentious, and thoroughly absorbing. Following the critic Erwin Panofsky, he compares, for instance, Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving of St Jerome in his study, writing the Latin Bible, to another Dürer engraving from the same year, "Melencolia I", where a winged female figure sits brooding with a pen, unable to write. Although the pictures are contemporaneous, St Jerome belongs to the old universe's harmony, while "Melencolia" shows us an epoch in which genre and language have outlived their purpose.

Josipovici's exemplars of disjunction include usual suspects, like Beckett and Kafka, and unusual ones, like Thomas Mann and Wordsworth (whom he reads persuasively), rather than, say, Wordsworth's successor Matthew Arnold, who is all "belatedness". Yet Josipovici doesn't tell us enough about how modernism, through its primary instruments - the fragment, the heightened moment and the image - is also about the enchantment of the "real": an enchantment that the postmodern mixture of fantasy and history can't, and won't, convey.

Nor does he mention the dissenting traditions in modern British writing, encompassing Ted Hughes, JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Geoff Dyer. Moreover, aren't accounts of modernism, too often, a consequence of, or, as in this case, a response to an Anglo-American point of view? Is modernism dead in the "rest of the world"; and can one make a simple distinction between modernism and postmodernism outside of globalised Anglophone culture – say, in a street in Berlin, or in relation to the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami?

In order to engage again with modernism's legacy, it needs to be taken out of its usual geographical parameters. So, among Josipovici's crucial instances, I would add Rabindranath Tagore's 1895 essay on Bengali nursery rhymes, the first literary borrowing of William James's "stream of consciousness" in the interests of an attack on linearity. This map is actually dense with markings and signs.

Amit Chaudhuri's latest novel is 'The Immortals' (Picador)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism