Best Modernist novels
Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder is published by Alma Books and is currently being adapted for cinema by Film Four/Cowboy Films. His non-fiction work, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, is published by Granta Books. McCarthy is also General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, described by the art press as 'a semi-fictitious avant-garde organisation.'
"From time to time, Western literature undergoes an upheaval so momentous that its entire landscape is transfigured. The old order falls away, or rather is devoured and transformed by its own offspring, and the tremors carry on for decades, even centuries, with fault lines spreading out in all directions. Modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond."
1. James Joyce
If the Dutch claim to have developed "total football" in the 70s is true, "total writing" pre-dates their achievement by five decades. With the publication of Ulysses in 1922, the novel reaches a point at which each line, each image and each turn of phrase crackles and hums with the associations that it's firing off to every corner of the work. Tram-wires, advertising hoardings and printing presses speak to one another as they penetrate the most intimate reaches of consciousness. While written by a perhaps not-quite-European Irish holder of a British passport, and set in Dublin, it's for the most part in the high-Modernist melting pot of Paris that Ulysses finds its shape. With the publication 17 years later of Finnegans Wake, Joyce takes his total-writing logic to its ultimate conclusion, and presents what in effect is the source-code of the novel itself - of all novels, their very possibility.
2. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
"Time and Space died yesterday", screams Marinetti from the front page of Le Figaro on February 20th, 1909. With The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, the avant-garde storms the cultural stage. Speed, violence and technology become aesthetic objects in and of themselves. "We will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke..." The forerunner of everything from Star Wars to Kraftwerk to JG Ballard, Marinetti's vision is disturbing, bombastic, funny, arrogant, and - well, visionary.
3. Martin Heidegger
Heidegger isn't just the great thinker of modernity - of motorways, power stations and skyscrapers as Being's staffs and anchors - he's also the great thinker of Being itself. For my money, he's the most important philosopher ever. He's like a switchboard into which the Greeks all run, and through which their thought is transferred onwards to the likes of Levinas, Derrida and Virilio. Where Plato expelled the poets from his Republic, Heidegger installs them at the heart of his, unravelling the lines of, for example, Hölderlin and Trakl to show that techné and poesis are the very things that place us in the world and unfold us in time.
4. Paul Celan
No Heidegger without Celan, and perhaps no Celan without Heidegger. As the great philosopher throws in his lot (temporarily at least) with Hitler; the young German-speaking Jewish Romanian, meanwhile, after growing up in thrall to the same poets as Heidegger, is sent to a concentration camp. He survives to write the most powerful and dynamic poetry of the 20th century - work in which the German language buckles and tears with the impossibility of conveying the horror with which it has become charged. Celan visits a repentant Heidegger in 1967, and signs his visitors' book. "Whose name did it take in before mine?" he asks in Todtnauberg, loadedly.
5. Franz Kakfa
Phone-line interference in the form of children's voices singing just beyond the range of human hearing, mole-narrators meticulously describing their protective burrows, salesmen less shocked by being turned into beetles than embarrassed by the fact that their boss and family might see them this way - Kafka's warped and absurd snapshot of 20th-century humanity is, perversely, probably the most objective one there is.
6. Georges Bataille
After the rise of an idealism in philosophy that culminated in the thought of Hegel and a rationalism that, since Descartes, has affirmed the self as the font and measure of all knowledge, Bataille collapses the sublime into base matter and fragments the self within the kaleidoscope of its desires. He chops man's head off, makes the sun bleed and the sky reek with the stench of God's decomposing flesh. When I become Minister of Culture, his pornographic masterpiece Story of the Eye will be the first book on the National Curriculum.
7. Francis Ponge
Same reason: base materialism. How, as a poet, do you describe something as recalcitrantly material as an orange? When you "express" it juice shoots out and stains your hand: language leaves a residue - and good writing has to deal with that sticky remainder, that stain, and come to terms with the fact that it can never fully deal with it. Ponge's poetry is literature's great riposte to totalitarianism - in thought, aesthetics and, by extension, politics.
8. Maurice Blanchot
Nobody has better thought through the question of what literature fundamentally is than this man: it's a non-space, a vanishing, a being-towards-death. Blanchot was lined up in front of a Nazi firing squad in 1944, but was reprieved at the last minute and lived, albeit as a virtual recluse, until 2003, endlessly narrating the unnameable disaster - of history, thought, writing itself.
9. Samuel Beckett
The poet of post-history. It's happened, passed by, left us in its wake, so what do we do now? Like those French language learning tapes say, écouter et repèter. In my not-humble-enough opinion Krapp's Last Tape is the best play written since King Lear.
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