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.

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