Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence

With the emergence of Modernism in the 1910s and 1920s came an entirely new way of writing novels. The so-called ‘stream of consciousness’ style innovated by James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) imagined characters as living beings whose entire thought-processes might be explored on the page via linguistic invention and unconventional style (Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the last chapter of Ulysses is one long sentence and follows an internal logic representing the thought process in progress). Both Joyce and Woolf’s masterpieces follow their main characters through a single day. This would have been quite impossible in the traditional novel because character and event tended previously to pan out over months or even years. They established a literary version of 20th century individualism (later taken to extremes by Kerouac and other solipsists). The logical extension of the Sternean shaggy dog tale, these Modernist novels – like Tristram Shandy earlier – were playful, inventive and serious at the same time. They were also controversial, but Ulysses is high in many ‘favourite book’ lists to this day (perhaps not least because it is such a challenging work and therefore seems to bestow a certain academic prestige upon its readers). By this time the novel, and fiction in general, seemed to have inverted and was looking in on itself via random characters on the outside. Highly academic writers in fiction (as in poetry – see Ezra Pound and T S Eliot) took the novel back from the masses and "into the classroom" again as William Carlos Williams explained. Rarely passionate (Molly Bloom aside), not genuinely tragic or particularly funny in any traditional sense, and never deigning to focus on anything actually happening, these novels revel in the sheer ordinariness of their subject matter and the newness of the way they are explaining it.

If we say that fiction was written initially to stimulate the mind, to entertain, to consider possibilities, and /or to educate then Modernist writing can be seen as a freak occurrence. It does none of these things directly and all of them extremely indirectly (or not at all as some would have it). Their appeal cannot be explained easily, but they were extremely influential. The importance of the tiny details in life was what they dragged up, and the novels of D H Lawrence, especially Sons and Lovers (1913), were very much of this school. They investigated the minutiae of life, the irrelevancies that become the most important parts of life: in many ways they can be claimed to be the origin of the fly-on-the-wall documentaries so popular on television. Like Joyce’s beautiful and influential short stories, Dubliners (1914), Lawrence’s work is poignant but exceptionally unhappy. They were, in Lawrence’s case, though, unusual for being set in the unfashionable North of England and with working class characters: for once the novel was actually displaying novelty.

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