That was the century that was

Friday Book: MODERN TIMES, MODERN PLACES BY PETER CONRAD, THAMES & HUDSON, pounds 24.95

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

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable