FEARFUL SYMMETRIES PART 3 In the third of his series on the 20th century in retrospect, Alan Riach looks at the great decade of the Modernist movement – and much else besides: the 1920s

NEAR the end of Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration, about Siegfried Sassoon’s encounter with the psychologist WHR Rivers during the First World War, Rivers remembers something that happened to him on a trip to the Solomon Islands.

He’d been talking to a group of islanders, asking them questions about their society. But they turned the tables on him and started asking questions about his society. For Rivers, it was a revelation: “ ... their reactions to my society were neither more nor less valid than mine to theirs.

“And do you know that was a moment of the most amazing freedom ... I felt as if a ton weight had been lifted ... It was ... the Great White God de throned, I suppose ... Suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but that there was no measure.”

PART ONE: Alan Riach: The literary symmetries of Oscar Wilde and Charles Darwin

In the 1920s, this sense of the relativity of measurement unlocked all sorts of new possibilities in literature and art. What had been considered social anthropology could now be thought of as cultural production.

Picasso paints faces like African masks. The violent disruptions of the early decades of the century might be captured in cubist paintings, fragmented poems, narratives in episodic structures, where a moment in the day of a young office secretary might be placed alongside the tragic wisdom of the ancient prophet Tiresias, or an Irish-Jewish advertising man might be presented as a modern-day Odysseus.

There’s a healing energy at work here, even as it finds expression in a world without absolute measures of value, a world of anti-romantic ironies and relativity.

The great year of the Modern movement was 1922. At the limits of language, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published in English. At the limits of politics, Mussolini went into Rome. At the limits of literature, Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared, the latter published by the aptly named Boni & Liveright. High art and popular culture were finding new ways of joining forces.

Facade, the “entertainment” concocted by William Walton and Edith Sitwell, was first performed at the end of the year. The combination of linguistic excess, musical caricature, seriously determined playfulness and sheer brio is typical. Here’s the “Tango-Pasodoble”:



Pasquito arrived at the seaside

Where the donkey’s hide tide brayed, he

Saw the bandito Jo in a black cape

Whose slack shape waved like the sea

Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat

is silver like the sea;

the lovely cheat is sweet as foam;

Erotis notices that she




Wheat-king’s luggage, like Babel

Before the League of Nations grew –

So Jo put the luggage and the label

In the pocket of Flo the Kangaroo.

Through trees like rich hotels that bode

Of dreamless ease fled she,

Carrying the load and goading the road Through the marine scene to the sea.

“Don Pasquito, the road is eloping

With your luggage though heavy and large;

You must follow and leave your moping

Bride to my guidance and charge!”



Pasquito returned

from the road’s end,

Where vanilla-coloured ladies ride

From Sevilla, his mantilla’d bride and young friend

Were forgetting their mentor and guide.

For the lady and her friend

from Le Touquet

In the very shady trees on the sand

Were plucking a white satin bouquet

Of foam, while the sand’s brassy band

Blared in the wind.

Don Pasquito

Hid where the leaves drip with sweet...

But a word stung him like a mosquito...

For what they hear, they repeat!

This is a comedy of knowledge and experience. The 20th century was already too old for anyone to feel comfortable with innocence and youth. It was already full of ghosts. Joyce and Eliot both populate their works with spirits from the ancient world of Greek and other mythologies, recognising that the immense changes in technology and human capability brought about in recent years could only be measured fully, even in relative terms, against the longest perspectives.

This is what deepens and gives weight to the brilliant language surfaces of their writing. And it’s also partly why Stravinsky chose to set his Oedipus Rex in a dead language – to emphasise the contemporary relevance of the apparently archaic. Even earlier in The Rainbow, DH Lawrence had provided a vision of working-class miners as if their infernal world had been written by Dante:

The place had the strange desolation of a ruin. Colliers hanging about in gangs and groups, or passing along the asphalt pavements heavily to work, seemed not like living people, but like spectres. The rigidity of the blank streets, the homogeneous amorphous sterility of the whole suggested death rather than life.

There was no meeting place, no centre, no artery, no organic formation. There it lay, like the new foundations of a red-brick confusion, rapidly spreading, like a skin-disease.

Something of the era demanded that the sense of the masses, the sheer and various populousness of humankind, had to be taken into account by the artists. It’s there in The Waste Land as London is seen, then disappears in fog, as its inhabitants come and go, vividly, yet partially, in their Unreal city, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

You're sometimes tempted to ask of Eliot, where else would they have fixed their eyes? What do you expect? World-weariness and despair is not the only possible response, and to be fair, it’s not the only tone in The Waste Land.

There is the pleasure of the bar-room mandolin.

And the questions with which the poem draws to a close have been a positive force, with us in every generation since: What have we given? Have we truly sympathised? Shall we at least set our lands in order?

The first symphony of Havergal Brian also belongs to this era. He terms it The Gothic and it begins with a sense of an age of frenzy and chaos. The masses are here too and by the end of the work, two hours later, we’ve heard the full range of two enormous double choruses, brass bands, an enlarged orchestra including 17 percussionists, two harps and an organ, making a total of nearly 200 players.

Yet just as Eliot’s poem ends with a hushed prayer for peace, Brian’s Gothic Symphony ends in a choral murmur, serene and radiant. In the symphony’s final 36 seconds, the single line “Non confundar in aeternum”/“Let me never be confounded” is an affirmation of the spirit commanding our assent.

The National:

The affirmation that closes Joyce’s Ulysses is no less moving but it’s a lot more bodily, as Molly Bloom is saying “yes” not just to the eternal spirit of life and regeneration but also to the extremely temporal physical aspects that pronounce it.

She affirms her own remembered youth, her sexuality, lust and desire, with the utter conviction that the body can’t be excluded from any true measure of value. Joyce (above) gives her his approval. His great book is a celebration of the body as well as the mind and spirit.

For Joyce, no pieties are sacred. The Sirens of temptation can’t be easily turned down. More than any other, Joyce brings together the ancient and the modern, the extremes that meet in 20th-century women and men. He brings it all into the shifting light and will not let us look away.

Ulysses is the easiest book in the world to read, and the funniest. People have always complained that it’s difficult but it’s no more difficult than driving a car. All it requires is a little application and a sense of balance.

The American poet William Carlos Williams once said that a poem was “a machine made of words”. Well, reading Ulysses, it helps to know how the machine works, so you have to do some work with the manuals first. But when you get in and turn the key, it’s a drive like no other.

PART TWO: How literature fared in one of Europe's most horrific decades

But the manuals don’t tell you everything. For Joyce, words were magic, and the thing about magic is, you can’t explain how it works. But you can feel it working every time you read the book. It’s partly to do with Joyce’s command of English.

All the great English-language writers of the modern movement were exiles: the Irishmen, Joyce and Yeats; the Americans, Pound and Eliot; the Welshman, Dylan Thomas; the Scot, Hugh MacDiarmid; the Pole, Conrad; the Russian, Nabokov; the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield taking a caustic survey of the inhabitants of a German pension or looking back at her native country from the perspective of exile in Europe. For all of them, the English language was something that could never be taken for granted. In itself, it was something magnificently artificial, there for the most careful crafting.

The violent shocks delivered to society by political events in the early 20th century had their counterparts in the shocking strangeness and new idioms revealed by these writers, and even the native English authors had a sense of the language that was similarly exhilarating There was Virginia Woolf exploring psychology, femininity and time; Edith Sitwell, whose words we heard earlier, or DH Lawrence, giving voice to people whose lives had been almost entirely excluded from literature before the new century made it essential that their experience should be heard and understood.

There is something of that sense of possibility, even in the most sinister or neurotic aspects of the writing of the 1920s.

When Sergei Prokofiev ended the first movement of his first violin sonata, he remarked that it should sound like “the wind in a graveyard”. The haunting, scary sound of the violin’s eerie scales and pizzicato over the sombre piano chords might also suggest the figure of Marina Tsvetaeva, in her poem Insomnia, wandering a deserted midnight city, hearing

music, faintly, ghostly in the keen violin-stringed air from somewhere, winding through each street, tonight, till dawn, as if twined through the rib-cage of my skeleton breast, and on ...

But it is also related to Eliot’s dimly lit, tense, lonely, psychotic vision in The Waste Land, where

A woman drew her long black hair out tight And fiddled whisper music on those strings And bats with baby faces in the violet light Whistled, and beat their wings And crawled head downward down a blackened wall And upside down in air were towers Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells

For Prokofiev, as much as for Eliot, one senses the wells were exhausted and the cisterns empty. Yet the very act of writing, the poetry, the music itself, affirms against despair that there are still, as well, those “voices singing”.

Try Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No 1 and see what you think.