A madeleine dipped in tea. April is the cruelest month. A stream of consciousness culminating in “yes I will Yes.”
These are some of the most familiar icons of modernist literature, all tied to the year 1922. In February of that year, James Joyce published Ulysses. Known for its literary experimentation, Ulysses transmuted the voyage of Odysseus to the perambulations of an adman in Dublin in 1904. If Joyce reimagined the possibilities of the novel, T. S. Eliot shattered and reknit the conventions of poetry in The Waste Land. There, even the springtime waves the cruel lash. Finally, tea-soaked cookie crumbs unlock a gusher of memories in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. Proust died in November 1922, the final volumes of his epic work not yet published.
A century after this literary banner year, modernism retains a reputation for difficulty. That’s certainly how major works by Proust, Eliot, and Joyce are described—as difficult. Virginia Woolf (another difficult writer) reflected on the role of challenge for modern art in A Room of One’s Own: “The living poets express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment. . . . Hence the difficulty of modern poetry.” Yet the past century has not drained the difficulty from their work.
I fell for modernism as a teenager. At that age, it’s hard to resist. Your brain is already rewiring itself, and that’s just what modernists want to do: to make it new, different, strange. The difficulty is part of the allure. It’s an accomplishment to complete a chapter of Ulysses, and every insight demands that you wrestle with the text, and yourself. The fragments of The Waste Land glitter. And I didn’t try to read Proust until my twenties, knowing the thousands of pages of In Search of Lost Time would be a commitment. They were.
Years later, the allure of these works persists, perhaps because of the demands they place on the reader. Many great works of modernist literature were labored over intensely. Joyce spent seven years on Ulysses. Ravaged by illness, Proust worked on his novel until the very end. These projects depended on the faith that great effort could pay great rewards—and that goes for readers, too. In an essay explaining his aesthetic principles, Eliot wrote that “the emotion of art is impersonal.” But modernist literature also dwells on the theme of personal depths.
The 18 chapters of Joyce’s Ulysses are like a prism held up to ordinary life: each chapter adapts a theme and a narrative mode. One chapter (partly set in a maternity hospital) stylistically follows the development of the English language. Another is composed of questions and answers, revealing both the ordinary habits and inner vulnerabilities of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom (the modern-day Telemachus and Odysseus, respectively). The characters slowly unwind throughout the novel, the course of which reveals their coiled traumas, passions, anxieties, and hopes.
Proust even more dramatically foregrounds the mysteriousness of the self. Memory is one of his favorite vehicles for examining it. In the famous madeleine episode that inaugurates the novel, the narrator finds himself lost in experience. A sip of tea mixed with cookie crumbs causes some flash of inner recognition. Of what? At first, he can’t tell. He knows he feels suddenly different: “A delicious pleasure had invaded me . . . I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.” He sips the tea again. And again. But that insight is not in the tea; he instead has to look inward. He turns this experience over and over in his head, searching for what memory could rise from the “deepest part of” himself. Then, the memory clicks. It is an echo of the madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that his aunt would give him when he was a boy.
This is not the contemporary model of the self as a transparent automaton of value-preferences and interests. Here, the self is an entity at play, not fully self-aware, mottled with blind spots and lurking insights. Throughout the course of the novel, the narrator recounts the evolution of his life—his childhood infatuations, his youthful intoxication with the social whirl, his tormented romances, his encroaching age. Technology, social controversies, and war transform France around the narrator and his dozens of companions. These characters find themselves lost in desire, memory, and consequences.
In Search of Lost Time spends thousands of pages over seven volumes presenting the narrator and his world: the meaning of art, the temptations of society, the frustrations of love, the challenges of knowing others, the clash between social classes. Proust can lavish paragraphs on the inner reflections of his narrator. As with Montaigne’s essays, this is thought rendered on the page.
The sense of showing the wholeness of things was a major theme for modernists. Joyce told a friend that he thought of Odysseus as the only fully rounded-out character in literature. This impulse to show complex wholes also informs Proust. One of the novel’s most brutal scenes happens at the end of The Guermantes Way, when Charles Swann tells his old friends the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes that he will soon die from a terminal illness. Earlier, the narrator observed that frantic social activity can distract from the shadow of mortality. And so the Duc and Duchesse have no time to reflect and mourn with their friend. They have another dinner party to go to, you see, and they can’t be late. Yet their rush to the carriage stops when the Duc realizes that his wife is wearing black shoes, which do not match her red dress. They do have time to correct that mistake. “No, no, we have plenty of time,” the Duc says. “You simply can’t go there in a red dress and black shoes.” The demands of red shoes may be greater than those of a dying friend.
This is an arch send-up of high society’s false friendships. But attention to the grain of experience complicates the satire. Yes, social performance may be a mode of distraction and the source of many pro forma, thoughtless expressions of sympathy. But the Duchesse also experiences a moment of doubt: her “own sense of manners afforded her, too, a confused glimpse of the fact that for Swann her dinner party must count for less than his own death.” There’s more than a trace of irony—as though some cultivated sense of manners is required to see the significance of another’s death. Yet there’s also a spark of human empathy, which involves trying to see beyond ourselves. Ultimately, that spark is smothered. But the people of Proust’s novel show layers of contrasting feelings.
This sense of the person in depth contrasts with the aesthetics of today, which are characterized by flatness. The “Corporate Memphis” illustrations of people popularized on tech platforms and large institutions transfigures the human form into a Frankenstein’s monster of fused polygons. Thoroughly de-individualized and maybe almost dehumanized, too, the emojified body is specific enough to check off some demographic boxes but otherwise anonymous.
Such illustrations are an aesthetic reflection of the drive to reduce the individual to marketable categories. Recently, the novelist Mary Gaitskill lamented the “deracination of literature,” the loss of faith in style as grounded attention to the world. The massive technological and social changes of the past two centuries have elevated the risk of deracination, as disruption unmoors us from old traditions and the sheer influx of novelty deadens our senses. William Wordsworth warned about this in his preface to the 1800 edition of the landmark poetry collection Lyrical Ballads. Art in part is a way of resisting this deracination, of finding roots in experience and our own inner thoughts.
Writing during the tempest of the early twentieth century, many literary modernists experienced dislocation. Joyce spent most of his adult life as an exile from Ireland. Nocturnal and debilitated by bad health, Proust passed his waking nights in a cork-lined room. T. S. Eliot fled Harvard and his ancestral St. Louis to start over in London. But their works also provide their own sense of place. Joyce never really left his homeland; Ulysses offers a minute-by-minute account of a summer day in 1904 Dublin. In Search of Lost Time’s labyrinth of mirrors recasted and tested the depths of Proust’s own life. For Eliot, the only way to make tradition anew was to immerse yourself in it. The cataclysm of The Waste Land demands an anchoring in a broader tradition.
Sustained attention to a work of literature is both a contemporary heresy and a therapy. Against the constant diffusion of attention, meditative reading calls for slow breaths and deep immersion. It asks us to look around the corners of words and ourselves. A century later, these modernist works reveal the demands and rewards of reading.