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That was the century that was

BY THE time one has read all 736 pages of Peter Conrad's account of life and art in the 20th century, it is difficult to avoid a sense of fin-de-siecle. Like the 20th century, this book is a heroic endeavour and, like the 20th century, one is quite relieved to have got to the end of it.

Conrad's range of reference is hugely impressive. Unusually, he is equipped to write about music and opera as elegantly as he writes about painting, architecture, film and fiction. There is not a bad sentence in the book, and his 166 illustrations are precisely chosen.

Conrad describes what he has written as "not quite a cultural history" - the only uncertainty in a performance of complete assurance. It is not a work of criticism, for critical judgements are rare, though by implication the works chosen are worthy of inclusion. It is not a history, for although broadly chronological, Conrad assumes a familiarity with the century's events. But if it is not "quite" a cultural history, it is more than an attempt "to understand what it has meant to be alive in the 20th century".

Essentially, this is a narrative of the shifting relations between two defining terms, "modernity" and "modernism". Conrad is not always precise in his use of them, but modernity stands for the conditions and events of the century; while modernism stands for the cultural responses to modernity in works of art.

In this book, these are almost exclusively works of high art, because they "stay around to be investigated". The choice betrays Conrad's own taste, and explains why the emphasis is on the first half of the century, when the modernist movement was at its most creative. Conrad does not like the category "postmodern", which arguably is our present condition.

Paradoxically, 20th-century modernity represented a leap forward and back. It was a leap forward in that it was a decision to dispense with the past. Conrad's hero - or anti-hero - is Albert Einstein who, in 1905, abolished the linear progress of the 19th century with his Theory of Relativity, substituting the simultaneity of time and space - a simultaneity that threatened to eliminate both. By the end of the century, Conrad writes, place, if not space, has disappeared.

This radical reshaping of the world was also a leap back into the Dark Ages. Nietzsche and Freud revealed the true primitivism beneath our assumed enlightenment. While culture struggled throughout the new century to replace nature, man's barbarism put technology to ever more brutal uses.

The conflict of 1914-18 was only the beginning of a war that has lasted ever since. If Charlie Chaplin is "the representative modern man", his double, Hitler, must be taken seriously as potentially the representative modern artist. Having escaped the supervision of God (pronounced dead by Nietzsche), Hitler's will to power included the planning of his own destruction. The horrors of the Holocaust were followed by the atrocity of the atomic bomb (fathered by Einstein), to which Conrad devotes some of his most evocative pages.

Conrad suffers from the pessimism that afflicted founders of literary modernism such as TS Eliot, and his account is really a commentary on that tradition. Though wide-ranging, his citations are almost entirely from the high-modernist canon, and his view is Eurocentric. America and Japan are admitted to this canon as locations of the last "citadels of modern society", a list that begins with Vienna, Moscow, Paris and Berlin. London is not on the itinerary, and British writers hardly figure. For that matter, Conrad loves opera but does not seem very interested in theatre or poetry.

This also reads as a very masculine century. Apart from Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Leni Riefenstahl and the photographer Margaret Bourke- White, women are largely confined, along with blacks and homosexuals, to a chapter on "Others". Even an index as impressive as his (there are no references or bibliography) is an easy target for accusations of omission, but discussion of a writer such as Salman Rushdie - whose work comes not from inclusion or exclusion, but the more common late-20th-century experience of marginality - would have done justice to a wider world. What "it has meant to be alive in the 20th century" turns out to be what it has been like for a highly educated white male.

In the end, in Tokyo, postmodernism asserts its inescapable condition. In a world that only continues in the present by quoting from the past, an entropic pessimism sets in. Modernism has tried to get rid of the past, and used up the future in the process. The irony - that most modernist of devices - of Conrad's achievement is that he has created a vast work of synthesis while the subject of this synthesis - the 20th century - has ended in fragmentation and quotation. Conrad faces this plight with a tragic optimism. Eliot said it first in 1922: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin."

Robert Hewison