Earlier this year, there was an unexpected furore in the pages of the Guardian—of the kind that would probably fail to exercise newspapers in India. A report announced that Gabriel Josipovici, a former Weidenfeld Professor of English at Oxford, had, in his forthcoming book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, laid into the British writers’ old boys’ club: Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie. ‘Feted British writers are limited, arrogant and self-satisfied, says leading academic,’ ran the headline. In Britain, self-satisfaction continues to be a cardinal sin, while, in India, it hardly exists at all, because not being aware of something is to annihilate its existence (‘I think, therefore I am’). Josipovici replied that his book was only tangentially about these writers; that the report was mischievous; that far more important questions had been addressed in his short monograph. The upshot was that it got much more attention than it might have otherwise, and its title’s question received an airing. Josipovici has actually been around for a long time, part of a British avant-garde that seemed to vanish under Thatcher and Blair, but might just, in the uncertainty that surrounds the free market, be about to make a comeback. Josipovici’s view of modernism is, in a fundamental sense, Eurocentric and conventional—it is, for him, primarily about disjunction, about a moment in history in which language ceases to organically fit with or connect to ‘reality’—but his readings and the texts he uses to further his argument are often unexpected and illuminating. The book’s publication led to an animated conversation for two weeks in putatively middlebrow Britain on the significance of modernism today: could a similar conversation take place in India? I don’t think so, except among a handful of Indian English poets, and some of the so-called bhasha writers. Indians tend to view the word ‘modernity’ with embarrassment, because it’s largely synonymous, for them, with ‘Westernisation’. And no one considers a free discussion on the arts and culture a discussion of particular urgency.
That there’s more to British writing than Barnes and Amis—that there’s been more to it for years, in fact, with a strain of avant-garde surrealism practised by J.G. Ballard and Iain Sinclair—is gestured towards by the persistence of Geoff Dyer, the English laureate of slacking, and punitive enemy of linearity, plot, and anything that resembles ‘work’. His new book of essays, Working the Room (a teasing title), covers his various enthusiasms, including jazz, photography, D.H. Lawrence, and a particular kind of doughnut. Any writing of interest, non-fiction or fiction, must respond with alacrity to the present moment, and Dyer’s essays do this admirably. He’s fortunate in now having a publisher, Canongate, which values the idiosyncrasy of that response, as should we.