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

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?