Now that’s an aspirational title for you, and one that I will not live up to in terms of expectations. However, I wanted to write something for Bill (The Australian Legend)’s AWW Gen 3 Week (Part 2). As its focus is, primarily, Realism and Modernism in Australian literature from post-WW1 to 1960, and, as my plan is to contribute a review of an Elizabeth Harrower novel, I figured I could leap into this Realism-Modernism murk and see what I could find!
Essentially, of course, most of us readers just want to read good books, and not worry too much about the trends and “isms” that the academics love, but it is sometimes interesting to think about them – at least a little. Bill has written clearly on the subject on his AWW Gen 3 page, so I’m just going to add a few thoughts and ideas that I’ve gleaned from around the place.
Realism – social realism, which is really what we are talking about here – is fundamentally a sociopolitical movement which was concerned about the oppression of the working class by capitalist forces. Its drivers are social rather than psychological, group-focused rather than individual-based. It was the main fictional approach of the first half of the twentieth century, and was a driving feature of Australian literature of the 1920s to 1950s. Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (my review), published in 1961 but set in the mid-1950s, is a good example. In my post, I noted that the characters are types, reflecting the various “players” in the worker-capitalist struggle, but are also authentic, psychologically real human beings which helps make it such a good read. There’s no escaping the fact, though, that Calthorpe’s intent is political.
Modernism, on the other hand, focuses more on the individual – on, as Bill quotes, “decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse”. A significant exponent of modernism in Australia was Patrick White. A whole slew of Australian women writers are identified with Realism, but there’s also a good representation of them who worked in the Modernist style, such as Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower (all of whom I’ve reviewed here.) Modernism, the theory goes I believe, eschewed realism.
Realism, or Modernism – or, both?
However, as with all things, real life doesn’t always suit theory, and writers, in particular, don’t always “know” that they are supposed fit the prescriptions of the theorists! So, it was with interest that I read an article about Elizabeth Harrower that discussed this very problem. The article, which appeared in Australian Literary Studies, 15 (3) 1992, is by Nicholas Mansfield, and is titled “‘The Only Russian in Sydney’: Modernism and Realism in The Watch Tower“. Mansfield opens with
In the post-war period, the dichotomy between Realism and Modernism seemed to summarise all the important rivalries in Australian fiction — nationalist enthusiasm and political responsibility lined up against cosmopolitan sophistication and formalist experimentation. Given the approximate and tendentious nature of the terms of this dichotomy, it was inevitable that writing that could not fall easily into one or other of its broad categories would be met with some uncertainty and perhaps eventually ignored. The aim of this article is to show how a novel which met such a fate, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, both discusses and defies the simple dichotomy that Australian literary critics in the 1960s were so keen to maintain as their paradigm.
It’s a long article, but the gist is that while there is a Realist aspect to Harrower’s novel – a study of power, and a quest for freedom – it is Modernist by refusing to “definitively explain the basis of power” and by refusing to rely on an “essential truth”, on, I suppose, an absolute reason or answer. These refusals “radically contradict the traditional purposes of Realism” which he called “the most social and rational of all literary modes”. Mansfield argues that
Harrower’s novel, like the work of Christina Stead before her and Helen Garner after her, attempted to subject the techniques and concerns of the traditional social novel — especially the question of the nature and function of domestic power — to the self-consciousness that modernism demanded, without giving in to the temptations of either formalist machismo or realist belligerence.
Mansfield believes, however, that because Harrower’s novel combined “Realist” issues with more “Modern” responses, it confounded critics of the time:
Harrower’s novel not only rejected the quest for essential truth that had such poignancy for writers and readers of fiction in Australia at this time, but also confounded the binary opposition on which much criticism rested. For these reasons, even when it was positive, the critical reception of this novel was tentative, and soon ended in uncertainty and silence.
A case of critics trying to make the work fit the theory, rather than look at the work on its own terms? Anyhow, it probably didn’t help, as he also implies, that Harrower was a woman writing about women’s experience.
Interestingly, I also found an article (from Studies in Classic Australian fiction) that outlined why Patrick White’s works, which can look like “traditional, bulky, realist fiction”, are modernist. The writer, Michael Wilding, however, also admits that White “is playing with the realist tradition”, that he “gestures at realism” which he then denies or inverts. Voss, of course, is an excellent example of this, but Wilding discusses several White novels to support his argument.
I like Wilding’s definition of realism, as:
a committed left-wing realist mode: democratic in its sympathies, egalitarian in its perceptions, naturalistic in its causality and motivation, precise and laconic in its verbal manner.
However, while naming Katharine Susannah Prichard and Vance Palmer as purveyors of this style, he also includes Christina Stead! Just shows the limits of theory?
The question is …
Does all this mean anything? Well, not to our individual reading experiences I think. But, if we believe the arts are (partly) about reflecting and/or responding to our times, then these “trends” mirror what was happening. Social realism recognised a growing concern with the inequalities and oppression wrought on people by increasing industrialisation under capitalism, while modernism reflected a sense of alienation and meaninglessness that the times (progress, industrialisation, war, technology, urbanisation) were effecting in people. In current times, we are seeing, for example, a rise of “cli-fi” and climate-related dystopian literature in response to you-know-what. Literature, in other words, tells us about ourselves and these theories are a way of articulating that.
Anyhow, back to Bill. It will be interesting to consider how these traditions “behave” as we move into Bill’s Gen 4 next year. Meanwhile, I’ll just say that both these “isms” appeal to me. I love the reformist heart behind realist novels, but there’s also that part of me that relates to the modernist’s sense of alienation in an uncomprehending and incomprehensible world. I didn’t fall in love with TS Eliot in my youth for nothing!