Jonathan Foltz, The Novel after Film: Modernism and the Decline of Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press 2018) 289 pp. £46.49 Hb. ISBN: 9780190676490
This book offers a fresh approach to the simultaneous and interlinked analysis of literature and film by reassessing the contributions of such major authors as Virginia Woolf, H. D., Aldous Huxley and Henry Green. Each one of these respected modernists turned their attention to contemporary cinema in order to understand (and perhaps learn from) the violations of narrative style that motion pictures epitomised – and which modernists found increasingly attractive given their deep fascination with the changed aesthetic values of the era. The Novel after Film: Modernism and the Decline of Autonomy is a comprehensive book about the atmosphere of the way in which the modernist movement witnessed how film influenced and transformed the way novelists worked, eliciting anxiety about the 'death of the novel'.
Progressing in a logical order, Jonathan Foltz establishes a clear connection between the different chapters of his book by making frequent references to Lionel Trilling's account of the 'death of the novel' which is regarded as a key reference point for modern literary criticism. Trilling argued that a panic about the novel's future emerged in modernist times because the role of this genre had to be redefined in order to meet the standards of modernism's formal ambitions. Trilling suggested that the 'death' of the novel was itself an inherently modernist idea in that forecasting the end of the novel was merely another way of asserting its importance and achievements. Having said that, Trilling suggested that the public's lack of interest in novel-reading was a direct result of the Second World War. Readers may have been interested in the written portrayal of human life as an aesthetic form before the war, but it no longer seemed valid afterwards. The existence of such horrors as the Holocaust, for example, urged the public not only to imagine but to see human evil in depth. The incommunicability of malevolence and hardship went beyond the literature's power as the audience turned to the camera – the 'emotionless medium' – instead, which produced representations that discouraged the activity of the mind. For Trilling, reading and thus the active mind produces imaginative resistance to human suffering, whereas watching in itself fails to do that. The unspeakable hardship recorded by cinematic images, therefore, increases the feeling that written forms of experience, memory and remembrance had lost their effectiveness. The problem with this attitude, as Susan Sontag describes it, 'is not that people remember through photographs, but that they only remember the photographs, This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering [...] Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us' (218). One might ask the question how was it still possible for visual texts to fundamentally shape and change the nature of storytelling in the early twentieth century. Foltz's book charts different points of communication that underscore the interdependent relationship between literary and cinematic cultures.
The Novel after Film is concerned with the literature of the modernist period through its historical encounter with film. Foltz divides his argument into five main chapters framed by an Introduction and an Epilogue. Establishing literature as a form of art, Chapter One summarises film's alarming influence on key modernist debates about aesthetic form. Film in the modernist period was commonly interpreted as aesthetic paradox: it lacked the required form and stylistic tone that 'true art' possessed, yet it embodied a sort of detachment from life that art was supposed to achieve. Foltz suggests that the cinematic image became increasingly popular exactly because it managed to express the concealed contradictions of modernism's aesthetic reasoning. Chapter Two concentrates on the status of character in modernist works, especially those of Virginia Woolf, who was the most prominent leader of the narrative representation of psychological depth. Woolf's opinion about the close relationship between film and fiction is discussed in this section of the book, highlighting the guiding principle in her aesthetic in which she acknowledged that thought can be 'rendered visible without the help of words'. She argues that the 'likeness of thought', rather than the thought itself, is provided in motion pictures. Chapter Three juxtaposes novelistic perspectives and cinematic spectatorship. It focuses on H. D.'s contribution to the film journal Close Up, in which she discusses the similarities and differences between the act of writing and the act of seeing. H. D.'s rejection of imagism and her dedication to prose is of central importance here. Chapter Four considers modernism's throwing of narrative omniscience into doubt. Bringing into focus the theories of Henry Green, Foltz highlights how Green's fictions in the 1930s identified and acknowledged omniscient narrators as unworkable and (after the emergence of film) outdated. According to Green, the power of film lies in a mode of storytelling that lacks a direct narrator and adopts the silent perspective of mere scenes, which novelist should practise, too. Green argues that literature, similarly to film, should not tell the reader what to think about the actions or the plot, rather it should simply present events without describing/narrating them and allow the reader to add their own interpretations. Concluding the book, Chapter Five deals with the possibilities of how authors can track film's role in indicating the prospects of novelistic irony. Novels hang onto the suggestive power of language when it comes to narrating irony, but film suggests new ways in which novelists can learn to view their work in the guise of parody or satire. Foltz explores this problem in the writing of Aldous Huxley, satirist and screenwriter, who believed cinema could achieve automatically what took much effort to literary authors to attain.
The Novel after Film comes to the conclusion that the novel did not decline. In the wake of modernism, the printed text forged a silent partnership with the visual text in that novels drew upon the destructive energy of film's futile attempts to offer a number of possible versions of the 'death of the novel', realising that with generic endings provided by films it would always be necessary to narrate what might come after. The Novel after Film is an impressive critical work that goes beyond a limited study of the relationship between cinema and literature, offering a wealth of additional materials to engage with.
Dr Teodora Domotor, Karoli Gaspar University, Budapest