Modernism: The Lure of Heresy by Peter Gay - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Art Against Authority

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy


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Modernism had a long run, more than a century indeed. Its duration and variety make it almost impossible to define. When Cyril Connolly gave us his 100 Key Books of the Modern Movement, he included several works and authors that seem only doubtfully Modernist (Betjeman or Somerset Maugham, for example). As his subtitle suggests, Peter Gay regards Modernists as being attracted by heresy; yet long before Modernism may be held to have died, the heretics were those who stood out against it.

Even some of the most difficult Modernists had their own doubts. Gay quotes from Nathalie Sarraute’s essay ‘L’Ere de Soupcon’, but doesn’t mention her observation that ‘the traditional novel has an eternal freshness’.

At first Modernism was directed against the bourgeoisie and its conventional attitudes and morality. It wasn’t necessarily innovative in manner: Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine all wrote in conventional metre. Flaubert, sharpest critic of the bourgeoisie, lived as a bourgeois himself and his greatest novels, Madame Bovary and L’Education Sentimentale, are

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