A Baedeker of Decadence: Charting a Literary Fashion, 1884-1927.
Bohemia in London: The Sofficial Scene of Early Modernism. By P . Basingstoke and London: PalgraveMacmillan. 2004. xiii+204 pp. 45[pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-333-98395-5.
An elementary comparison of these two books, Brooker's which studies London, and Schoolfield's which, at twice the length, has astonishingly detailed discussion of decadent writing in European country after country, could begin with the pricing policy. At 45[pounds sterling], no one who should will buy Brooker, and if Yale can afford to produce Schoolfield at 30[pounds sterling], then what are the publishers--or the accountants--for Brooker's book thinking of? The irony is compounded since Schoolfield looks academic and Brooker's book, which has maps and photographs, appears as if it could break through frombeing simply an academic book, addressed to the trade as it were, and could become more popular. Palgrave should have had more conviction about producing a popular guide to English modernism which was rooted in some very precise venues whose detail of description could send out some readers to do their own investigations of these London scenes. It is doubtful whether their pricing policy will do anything for the book at all, and it certainly has not been well enough produced to justify any other than a university library laying out 45[pounds sterling].
Both writers are enthusiasts for their subject, both know almost everything there is to be known about it, and both want to pass it on. In Brooker's case, this means giving a survey of writing and writers in London between 1908 and 1920, the terminal date meaning that the immediate post-war years witnessed an end to the collective life of modernist experiment (p. 9). The penultimate chapter, then, is a speculative biography of T. S. Eliot in the light of The Waste Land (1922) and the last chapter discusses Bloomsbury, giving careful attention to the year 1910 (p. 168) and to the point that Virginia Woolf coming back to Londonin 1919 realized that everything had changed, and that the years she valued were 'from 1909 or 1910 to 1914' (p. 163). It is these years that Peter Brooker tracks in such detail, giving special attention to Wyndham Lewis, toPound, and to other modernist swhom he has earned the right to discuss in detail, such as John Cournos, author of Babel (1922).Yet in another way, the central figure in this book is London, and Brooker distinguishes between the Kensington in which Pound was to live, and the cafes around the British Museum, and the Cafe Royal in Piccadilly, the haunt of Whistler and Wilde, Arthur Symons, Verlaine, Shaw, Arthur Ransome, and Max Beerbohm. Anotherc hapter dwellson the Cave of the Golden Calf in Heddon Street, Soho. One of good thing about the discussion here is that London does not suffer in comparison with Paris, and Brooker emphasizes, for instance, how much Arthur Symons (an author also discussed by Schoolfield) saw London through Whistler, Pater, and Baudelaire: quoting Symons that 'the especial beauty of London is the Thames, and the Thames is so wonderful because the mist is always changing its shapes and colours, always making its light smysterious' (p. 32). Brooker's writing is an interesting contribution to urban studies in that it links the city as text to the texts that London produced. Dealing with textuality, it tries to create its own fictional text, by drawing on earlier writings: perhaps too self-consciously. The impression it leaves with this reviewer is that this city-analysis could be extended in relation to architecture and to specific places and addresses, about which more empirical research needs to be done, and also that Brooker had not quite succeeded in creating a narrative which would enable all these lives to appear separately as well as interlinking with others.
For Brooker, the theme is bohemianism, and modernism, and he says that these two (both themes of Walter Benjamin, along with the flaneur) have not yet been put together in critical writing (p. 178). But Brooker does not theorize bohemianism differently from characterizations of it as it existed much earlier in the nineteenth century; certainly, this bohemianism does not seem to be at the heart of the book as much as modernism. About decadence he has little to say, despite having a chapter on the 1890s, presumably because he would fold the category, as a bourgeois term of abuse, into discussion of modernist practice. George C. Schoolfield's approach is opposite. He has nothing on modernism, but traces decadence through the modernist period, starting with A rebours in 1884 and D'Annunzio in Il piacere (1889), taking these two touchstones of decadent writing throughout his other examples. These comprise assorted writers matched with different countries. Just the list of them is intimidating: Ireland (Moore, then Somerville and Ross), Sweden (Strindberg, then Levertin, Geijerstam, Soderberg, and Stromberg), England (Wilde, then Stoker), Holland (Couperus), Norway (Garborg), Belgium (Rodenbach), Poland (Przybszewski), Finland (Tavaststjerna), Austria (Andrian and Rilke), Wales (Machen), Portugal (Ec"a de Queiros), Spain (Valle-Inclan), Germany (Mann), Denmark (Bang), Australia (Richardson), the USA (Huneker), and Iceland (Laxness). Schoolfield is a professor of German and Scandinavian at Yale, and this shows in the selection, but even given his scholarly predilection, we can wonder why there is not more on Nietzsche (or Freud), Paul Bourget, or James, or speculate on the absence of certain countries (Russia, and Andrei Bely?).
But while each reader may be able to produce one or two figures of decadence not included, and wonder about the masculine preponderance, no one will be equal to the list that Schoolfield has produced, or feel that the writer is not thoroughly in charge of his subject, and while he has few theories about decadence (nothing at all about the social construction of sexuality in the period, for instance), and while the nature of the authors he has chosen to describe means that he has to work at a fairly elementary level with each to start with, he manages to pack in an extraordinary amount of historical detail while introducing authors whom he translates himself. Classic decadence is defined by 'the dead city, the heavy hints of an infernal plot, and the portrayal of the decay of a fragile neurotic' (p. 116) who is often seen as homosexual, usually repeating a homosexuality within the writer's life. Schoolfield has some interesting discussion of decadence in music, usually with reference to Chopin and Wagner (as at pp. 67, 110, 118-20), he has a fascinating round-up of titles of texts which have death in their title (p. 136) in order to discuss 'thanatophilia', he has good comments on the prevalence of assassination in the period he discusses (p. 187), and the discussion of gardens in titles of books (p. 207) is also suggestive. The book is, in fact, full of these cross-referencings and connections. Though it has a good bibliography and index, it has no footnotes whatever, and makes very few refererences to other critics, who, when they are cited, appear in the most general way. It is one of the signs that the book, which ironizes itself in its title, making fun of Baedekers by an introductory clutch of quotations about them (incidentally, making E. M. Forster's absence from the chapters curious, while also implying a relationship between decadence and the cult of the Baedeker), was written not so much for an academic audience but for pleasure. That means that Schoolfield has, usually, no distance from the texts he discusses.
UNIVERSITY OF HONG KONG
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|Title Annotation:||Bohemia in London: The Sofficial Scene of Early Modernism|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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