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The Best Modernist Novels

recommended by Michael Clune

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin by Michael Clune

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin
by Michael Clune


Modernist novels emerged as a reaction against modernity but, in their focus on inner consciousness, captured the experience of living life like never before. American writer and critic Michael Clune picks five of the best modernist novels from 1936 up to 2013. Modernist literature is still with us, he explains, because what it was reacting against is still with us.

Interview by Francesca Mancino

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin by Michael Clune

White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin
by Michael Clune

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What is modernism and what differentiates it from other periods of literature?

Modernism is a literary movement that arose around the end of the nineteenth century, which broke with traditional ways of writing, producing novels that were more complex, multi-layered, and formally experimental than most earlier fiction.

What motivated these writers to break with traditional conventions? In many ways, modernism was a reaction to the condition of modernity. The hallmarks of that condition are still with us: cultural fragmentation, the displacement of traditional forms of work and life by technological capitalism, the rise of mass media, the shift from country to city, environmental degradation, transformed relations between men and women. Modernist writers sought to counter some or all of these developments, which they generally found to be malign. Instead of seeking to appeal to the cultural mainstream, they rejected it. They wanted their work to be challenging, to force readers to re-examine our preconceptions about literature and life.

For instance, many writers believed that language had been degraded, rendered vapid and superficial through the mass media. Today we’re familiar with the replacement of serious writing online by ‘clickbait.’ Similarly, the fast, uniform, conformist, and above all easy language of newspapers—followed by radio and television—drained language of its capacity for mystery, erasing local dialects.

So writers began to make their language difficult—writing prose and poetry that was everything mass media language is not: complex, multilayered, ambiguous, rich. This commitment to difficulty, and the accompanying resistance to what the critic Theodor Adorno called ‘the culture industry,’ is a hallmark of modernism, and distinguishes it from the Victorian writing of Dickens or Tennyson. It is less easy to draw a sharp distinction between modernism and what succeeded it.

Modernist literature—writing that seeks to carve out, through rich, complex language and counter-realistic forms, a space sheltered from the blather of the culture industry—is still with us, because the culture industry is still with us.

You’re interested in how modernist novels explore consciousness, a main feature of literature from this time. How do your picks reflect this?

Some of the greatest literary modernists, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, retreated from the public world—the world that was largely the focus of the great nineteenth-century realist writers—into the world of individual consciousness. As never before, these writers gave language to what it was like to experience life. To do this, they felt they had to dismantle the concepts and categories with which we discuss inner experience in public.

They hewed so closely to the granular texture of living, subjective experience, that those public concepts and categories sloughed off. After reading the first fifty pages of Proust’s vast novel, you realize how much can be concealed, and even destroyed, by the easy phrase “I remember.”

“Modernist literature…is still with us, because the culture industry is still with us”

Modernist writers endowed the world of private inner experience—of memory, desire, anxiety—with a form that could allow these experiences to circulate among us, without falling prey to the killing, dulling tendencies of conformist mass-mediated language. They discovered that the world of experience represents a stronghold against the degradation of modern life—but it is a threatened stronghold. Their writing sought to preserve our inner experience from its colonization by advertising, by political slogans, by quantification, by the cult of efficiency, by all the forces of modern life that seek to render our experience of the world mute, and irrelevant.

In my list, I try to move beyond the best-known modernist writers, to explore works that retain their capacity to shock us out of our complacency as readers.

This brings us to your first book, French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s 1936 novel Death on the Installment Plan (sometimes translated into English as Death on Credit). Why is it your first pick?

Celine’s novel combines immersion in the narrator’s consciousness with a thoroughgoing attack on every aspect of modern life. This negativity is an important dimension of modernist writing. Each modernist discovered their voice, discovered what they loved to write about, by first discovering what they hated. Celine pushes this tendency to its absolute limit. Critics have compared his short sentences, separated by the trademark three dots, to machine gun fire railing against bourgeois hypocrisy, the self-satisfaction and complacency of interwar Europe, the idiocy of public opinion, the vacancy of popular taste, and the grinding of urban poverty.

The novel is the story of his youth and young adulthood as a child of a struggling lower-middle-class couple who never quite reach economic or social security. It opens, as does the first great European novel, Don Quixote, with a satire of chivalric romance and its idealism. For Celine, as for Cervantes, idealism contrasted with reality allows us to see the pettiness and tawdriness of real life, even as idealism itself is exposed as a pathetic attempt to escape reality and responsibility. Celine’s vast masterpiece is a machine that dissolves objective, social existence into dark laughter.

On the back cover of New Directions’ edition of Death on the Installment Plan, Celine’s influence is said to have “revolutionized the contemporary approach to fiction” in that he’s considered a “forerunner of today’s ‘black humor.’” How do you see black humor aligning with the modernist movement?

Dark comedy is art’s weapon against a modern world that co-opts every ideal and turns it into some kind of cheap advertisement, or, worse, a slogan for totalitarian politics. The writer and artist respond by developing an attitude that works like a kind of inverted religiosity, exposing every aspect of social life as hollow. The modernist philosopher Henri Bergson described laughter as attacking the “encrustation of the mechanical onto the living.” The mechanical conformity and regimentation of modern life are eaten away by Celine’s dark comedy. One might even say that dark comedy attacks objective reality itself. Thus, in Death on the Installment Plan, two primary features of modernism—the focus on subjectivity or consciousness and the attack on modernity—fuse. The narrator’s consciousness is where the world comes apart.

The potential risks of Celine’s intense negativity can perhaps be seen in his subsequent career, in which he became a Nazi collaborator and was declared a national disgrace at the end of WW2. Much debate has raged about the relation between his first two great novels, and the grotesque anti-Semitic writing of the later 1930s. But his case is a reminder that the revolt against modernity can take both liberal and illiberal forms.

Next is Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951), the first book in The Beckett Trilogy. What can readers expect from this one?

Molloy, like Death on the Installment Plan but in an even more extreme fashion, immerses the reader in the narrator’s consciousness. Like its predecessor, this book is just very, very funny. Perhaps its most famous episode is the several pages in which Molly describes in painstaking detail how he arranges his “sucking stones” in his mouth. It’s impossible to convey the magic of this scene through summary or paraphrase.

The critic Wolfgang Iser pointed out the great, dynamic paradox of the novel. On the one hand, the world it describes—a confusing and confused reality confronted by a character who suffers from multiple and often nameless disabilities—is incredibly bleak. But on the other hand, each sentence manifests a creative energy and intensity that reveals life at its fullest and richest. What should reduce one to tears, or to stoicism, instead convulses one with laughter—an extreme excitation of the organism. Molloy shows how modernism makes something out of nothing. And I mean that in a spiritual sense—the book causes us to feel awe and terror at the emergence of form out of emptiness.

Your third pick is Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967). What’s it about?

Ice is a science-fictional work describing a young woman pursued by two different men, in the context of a climate apocalypse, with glaciers slowly covering the surface of the earth. This novel offers a feminist interpretation of modernism’s obsession with the relation of subject and object. The woman is relentlessly objectified by the male gaze. Thus the book mediates on the power relations that determine what persons get to express and explore their inner lives.

Yet a clue to the deeper dimensions of the novel can be found in the question: Why would Anna Kavan—a woman writer—choose to write a book from the male point-of-view, in which a character who resembles her in many ways, is denied subjectivity, agency, even consciousness, and is turned into a thing?

The novel—in identifying the objectified ice-like girl with the civilization-crushing climate catastrophe, suggests the primal power that sometimes inheres in becoming an object. The richness and ambiguity of the novel’s central images and characters—combined with the intensity and concentration of its narrative arc—make this a wonderful, idiosyncratic example of modernism.

As it stands, your first three selections strike me as genre-bending in terms of style, themes, and structure. Can you touch on how you see the relationship between modernism and genre?

Perhaps the most important genre instability linking all the novels on my list is the blurring of the line between fiction and autobiography. Celine’s novel is based largely on his own experiences, with the insertion of several spectacularly fictional episodes—episodes which from some perspectives might actually be autobiographical also, in the sense of recording hallucinations the author may have experienced. Anna Kavan’s work has an interesting relation to autobiography. In some sense, she can be said to have remade her actual persona to accord with the novel’s female character, dying her hair platinum blonde. It’s hard to decide which character—the writer Anna Kavan or Ice’s nameless girl—is the origin of the other, which is the “truth.” Beckett’s work—recent scholarship has discovered—is in some ways an expression of the author’s own experience of intense anxiety—recording and transforming the perceptual and cognitive distortions of the writer’s condition. And my next pick, Ralph Ellison’s dark comic Invisible Man, takes actual events in Ellison’s life—such as his experience in the famous Tuskegee Institute—as the basis for the narrative.

I think this movement between reality and fiction speaks in some sense to modernism’s oscillation between two different visions of literature. On the one hand, this writing wants to imitate, to faithfully describe the workings of consciousness. On the other hand, literature wants to flee this world, to turn its back on reality, to see the value of reality only in terms of what it can be made into, and how it can be made unrecognizable.

That’s a great segue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), your fourth selection. How do you view this novel as juxtaposed to your other picks?

Invisible Man is concerned with a particular version of the object-subject relation which dominates all of the works on my list. According to a tradition in Western philosophy going back to Hegel, I become a subject by identifying with the object you see me as. If I grow up in a world where everyone sees me as smart, beautiful, admirable, I will form a certain conception of myself, and understand my agency in certain ways. If I grow up despised and hated, I’ll form a correspondingly different self-image. But what if everyone I encounter simply fails to see me? Perhaps I’m not literally invisible, but invisible in the sense that people project categories onto me that feel so alien to my experience and actions that I can’t possibly identify with them.

For Ellison, American racism creates a condition in which the black person is unrecognizable in this sense. Using the resources of dark comedy—especially in the incredible Trueblood and Battle Royale sequences—Ellison describes the mingled, ambiguous fusion of subjection and power, imprisonment and freedom, that comprise the black condition in midcentury America. I think of Ice and Invisible Man as the two great works of midcentury modernism that most powerfully—and subtly—explore the difference race and gender make to modernism’s key themes.

Lastly is Tao Lin’s Taipei (2013). How do you see Lin’s novel in aligning with the modernist tradition?  

This novel, which was published in 2013, is a great example of what we might call 21st-century modernism. Since the turn of the century, there has been a renewed interest in the novel as a means of conveying the mystery of conscious experience. A largely autobiographical work about a writer who moves between New York and Taiwan, Lin’s book does an especially wonderful job at capturing those perceptions that often feel too fragile and too trivial, to lodge in memory. For instance, consider this passage from early in the book:

“Paul, walking self-consciously toward her, vaguely remembered a night, early in their relationship, when he somehow hadn’t expected her to enlarge in his vision as he approached where she’d stood (looking down at a flyer, one leg slightly bent), in Think Coffee. [He remembered] the comical, bewildering fear — equally calming and surprising, amusing and foreboding — he’d felt as she rapidly and sort of ominously increased in size.”

The seriousness with which Lin details this unserious misperception signals his novel’s fascination with the moments of consciousness which create tiny fractures in reality—as in the sudden strange idea that someone in the distance might not get larger as one approaches. As these moments accumulate, the narrator’s perceptions—often distorted by social media and drugs—create one of the most powerful and disturbing images of the mind in contemporary literature. Lin’s break with consensus reality is less barbed or nihilistic than Celine’s. He follows the path of wonder out of the labyrinths of modern urban life, towards an escape that is perhaps the most total and complete of any of the writers surveyed here. The intensity and conviction of Lin’s desire to flee from our world might mean something bad about life, but good for literature.

Interview by Francesca Mancino

June 2, 2023

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Michael Clune

Michael Clune

Michael W. Clune is Knight Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. His most recent critical book is A Defense of Judgment (U of Chicago Press, 2021); the 10th anniversary edition of his book White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin has just been released by McNally Editions. Clune's critical and creative writing has been supported by Guggenheim and Mellon Fellowships, and has appeared in venues including Harper's, Critical Inquiry, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and the Atlantic.

Michael Clune

Michael Clune

Michael W. Clune is Knight Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. His most recent critical book is A Defense of Judgment (U of Chicago Press, 2021); the 10th anniversary edition of his book White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin has just been released by McNally Editions. Clune's critical and creative writing has been supported by Guggenheim and Mellon Fellowships, and has appeared in venues including Harper's, Critical Inquiry, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and the Atlantic.