September 2013

Jesse Relkin

nonfiction

Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One by Kevin Jackson

Declared Year One of a new era by Modernism's head cheerleader, Ezra Pound, 1922 is famously the publication year of the twin figures of Modernist literature, James Joyce's Ulysses and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. According to Kevin Jackson, these seminal works may have been the brightest stars of this landmark year, but they were in a sky "that was blazing with a 'constellation of genius' of a kind that had never been known before, and has never since been rivalled." Jackson navigates this spectacular starscape in his latest book, Constellation of Genius.

1922 was a very busy year in modern history. Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamun's tomb, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics, and the Soviet Union was founded with Lenin as its leader, with Stalin following close behind. Oh, and Disney produced his first short animated features, the Irish Civil War began, and Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago, where he helped introduce modern jazz to the public. Not to mention Virginia Woolf published her first truly Modernist work of fiction (Jacob's Room), Mussolini took over Italy, and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was formed.

Oh man, what didn't happen in 1922? Maybe a lot. But Jackson so masterfully fills his book with the year's most brilliant highlights that you're left well convinced of the year's significance. A lot of major events took place in 1922, but the year was far from monumental for many of the famous figures who appear in Constellation of Genius during more obscure parts of their careers: Churchill loses a reelection; Salvador Dali moves into the Residencia de Estudiantes, where he was to form his famous friendship with Luis Buñuel and Federico García Lorca; T.S. Eliot visits with Herman Hesse; and Virginia Woolf writes lots of shitty things about Ulysses and her rival, "K.M." (Katherine Mansfield), in her diary.

In fact, I think Jackson could probably write a prequel about the year 1910 (another year argued to mark the beginning of Modernism) or a sequel about 1925 (the year that Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway was published); either of these could be just as action-packed as Modernist chronicles. In this way, to some, Constellation of Genius may seem to fall short as a scholarly study of the historical inevitability of the 1922 twin publication of Modernism's most famous texts, but Jackson doesn't ever purport his book to be such. He asks in the introduction: "Is it a mere coincidence of the kind that crops up throughout the history of literature -- Cervantes and Shakespeare both dying on the same day, that sort of thing? Or was there some kind of historical inevitability at work here?" He quickly answers this question: "Both." Constellation of Genius is not an academic thesis, and that's perfectly fine by me, because it's one of the clearest and most entertaining texts about Modernism that I've read. Also in his introduction, Jackson says, "The following pages attempt to identify the most important stars in this constellation, and to show how the master works of Joyce and Eliot fit on the chart." And it's a heavenly experience.

Uniquely structured as a day-by-day chronicle through the year, Constellation of Genius reads like an absorbing novel or a readable play with an (enormous) all-star cast of characters. For avid fans of the era, it's a veritable Tiger Beat jam-packed with all your favorite Modernist celebrities. Included are the preeminent cultural and historical figures of the time -- with some more obscure figures thrown in the mix, too -- not only literary geniuses but artists, politicians, tyrants, thinkers, and scientific minds like Sir Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, W.B. Yeats, Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Charlie Chaplin. Jackson expertly manages this impossibly large cast in such a way that the reader glimpses their individual personalities, and they become not mere encyclopedia subjects but real people.

Some figures make multiple appearances throughout the chronicle, contributing to a sense of plot; others appear only in cameo roles once or twice. The ways in which their paths cross is astounding and bewildering. Many coincidences are so remarkable as to seem like the contrived fancy of some inexperienced screenwriter -- for instance, Hemingway, as a young journalist, seems to be present at and report on the most important events of the year (he interviews Mussolini twice). This sense of coincidental inevitability seems to dominate the book, leaving one with a heady impression of Modernist culture -- remarkable for being composed of highly-intertwined individuals influencing and reacting to each other and to their modern world.

It's not long before you cozy up with the cast of characters, a little star-struck and grateful for this porthole back in time to 1922 -- finally, Midnight in Paris in book form! I grew close with many of these guys, moved by their successes and failures, their rivalries and camaraderie, their madness and illnesses. By the way, there was so much illness. Mansfield, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Hemingway, and more. I wanted so badly to bring Eliot, who spends the bulk of the year with a debilitating flu, some wheat grass shots or at least some vitamin C. And does his first wife, Vivien, ever get out of bed?

Sometimes Constellation of Genius seems less like an orderly celestial configuration and more like a jumble, but that doesn't make it less readable. Many details seem utterly inconsequential, such as the Paris addresses of Proust, which only the most ardent of the author's fans could care to read about. Other details will likely delight most Modernist enthusiasts: the conversations said to pass between Joyce and Proust at their only meeting; the manner in which Salvador Dali dressed; the reviews of Ulysses published throughout the year; what occurred in Hemingway's first meeting with Gertrude Stein. The footnotes can be daunting, at times providing enlightening background, at other times gossipy and even boring. I still don't understand Jackson's methodology behind assigning details to the main text or to the footnotes. Even so, his footnotes contribute to his chatty, clear-as-day prose style, and the excited discursiveness of Constellation adds to its overall charm. In the end, although I had gotten to know many Modernist figures much more intimately, it was the spirit of the times that I grew to understand the best. In Jackson's dizzying, comprehensive chronicle, the main character that emerges is the year 1922 (or even Modernism) itself.

As a student of Modernist literature, I had thought I understood the foundation of the movement. It had been ingrained in me academically that Modernism was born out of postwar disillusionment and despair over the state of modern civilization. But with Jackson's book, I think I actually grasped for once the terrifying and wondrous world in which Eliot and Joyce wrote. Constellation of Genius may seem at times an unwieldy and disconcerting jumble of unsatisfying fragments -- some remarkable, others appalling -- but in this way, the book is like the world it seeks to capture, and as with Eliot's Waste Land, what emerges is something meaningful after all.

Constellation of Genius isn't all pop culture trivia and descriptions of artists suffering; Jackson exposes readers to the gruesome details of the early twentieth century. At times I was grateful to live in contemporary society with the terror of Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy behind us. For every drunken Fitzgerald celebrating his new bestseller, there's a Schoenberg who's just been through famine and the loss of everything he believed in. For all the millions of Americans flocking to the movies with delight, millions of Russians are starving to death in the famine of 1921, documented by Jackson with plenty of chilling footnotes. The disillusioned flappers are in the end overshadowed by ominous political forces taking shape in Europe and Asia.

Jackson quotes Harold Child, a reviewer of The Waste Land and The Criterion, a quarterly publication Eliot edited: Of the latter, Child says, "We know of no other modern poet who can more adequately and movingly reveal to us the inextricable tangle of the sordid and the beautiful that make up life." Constellation of Genius is entertaining and readable, yes, but it's more than that. It offers a lucid, insightful look at this remarkable and terrifying tangle that served as the backdrop behind the Modernist movement.

Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One by Kevin Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374128982
448 pages