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    Mapping the birth of Modernism - a blog by Kevin Jackson

    Published on 16/04/2014 by David Birkett

    The following blog has been kindly contributed by author, filmmaker and moose-enthusiast Kevin Jackson, who has been published by Random House, Reaktion and the British Film Institute, among many others.  Kevin is a frequent collaborator with the renowned cartoonist Hunt Emerson, and the pair recently produced a graphic novel version of Dante’s Inferno.

     

    When you’re a writer, the people you meet – if they’re not taxi drivers who tell you that ‘they could write a blimmin’ book, mate’ – tend to ask you much the same sort of questions: ‘How much do you earn?’ [Answer: ‘Vastly less than you would probably be willing to believe’]; ‘What kind of working hours do you keep?’ [Answer: ‘Depends on what you mean by work. One of the best ideas I ever had came when I was dreaming’.]; ‘Why don’t you get a proper job?’ [Answer: ‘Unqualified for anything else except teaching or bar-tending.’]; and, more often than not: ‘How long does it take you to write a book?’

    Not a bad question, that one, and hard to answer concisely. I once wrote a very short book about the Mayflower in ten days, and it sold very nicely, thank you; on the other hand, my biography of Humphrey Jennings took me about six years, got lovely reviews, and sold in such tiny numbers that it never went into paperback. So I’d say the average would probably be about two to three years for a decently-sized book. My last big hardback volume, Constellation of Genius, took about three years, if you’re simply looking at the time I spent shuttling between libraries and my study. But in a way, it was also the work of four decades.

    COG cover

     

    Constellation of Genius is a book about the year 1922, and attempts to record, pretty much on a day-by-day basis, what was happening during that year around the world in the realms of literature, art, science, cinema, architecture, fashion, philosophy, politics, war, entertainment and society. Why 1922? Mainly because the American poet Ezra Pound, who is a leading character in Constellation, famously declared that it was Year One of a new world order – the brave new world summoned into being by the publication of James Joyce’s astounding novel Ulysses, which Pound had helped into print.

    Pound was also a crucial promoter of, and adviser to, the young American poet TS Eliot, who published his masterpiece The Waste Land in the October of that heady year. The curious fact that the most influential novel and the most influential poem of the twentieth century both appeared in the same twelvemonth has struck many readers and critics since that time. It first struck me in the summer of my seventeenth year, when I was working at an exceptionally tedious job for the National Westminster Bank in the City of London (and consoling myself with the thought that Eliot had toiled here in similar fashion for Lloyd’s Bank when he was drafting his poem), and reading Ulysses in the evenings to maintain my will to live.

    A few years later, when I was at university and luxuriating in the delicious privilege of having a study all to myself, I pursued the question of the Great Coincidence of 1922 a little further. It became clear that there was agency here as well as pure chance: Pound had made sure that Joyce and Eliot knew each other, read each other’s work (Eliot’s awareness of Joyce is obvious once one has been tipped off) and supported each other. In later years, having escaped his bank and joined Faber & Faber, Eliot became Joyce’s English publisher. This was an interesting set of links, it seemed to me, and a great deal of my reading and listening and gallery-going over the following decades was devoted to enjoying the fruits of what is usually termed ’Modernism’, though that word has almost as many definitions as are there are writers who use it.

    Flash forward to the twenty-first century, by which point in what I might laughingly call my career I have become a full-time writer, with enough of a track record to persuade my agent and a big publisher (Hutchinson) to take on my proposal to write a book which will enlarge on the story of that strange and, to my tastes, wonderful explosion of talent which took place shortly after the end of World War One. As is often the case, the book changed as I researched and wrote it; at one point I thought I might try to model it on John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, and throw in headlines, prose-‘newsreels’ and the like. In the end, I settled on breaking it down into twelve chapters, one for each month of 1922, and each chapter, as far as possible, into the relevant number of days. The result was far too long, and the text had to be cut harshly. And twice.

    The outcome? Well, as Valery said, a work is seldom completed, merely abandoned. Some reviewers thought that the diary structure was lazy and meaningless; others thought it was the best thing about the book. Some reviewers raved (thank you, Will Self!!), others accused me of destroying Western Civilization, which is at least some kind of compliment, I suppose. Still, the book was very beautifully made, with lovely purple footnotes and chapter headings in the Hutchinson edition, and an austere but impressively magisterial cover for the US edition by Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

    For good and ill, Constellation of Genius has been my most widely-noticed book, though by no means a commercial triumph. As I write, I have no idea if it will ever earn back its modest advance. Samuel Johnson, one of my literary heroes, once said that no one but a blockhead ever writes for anything except money (his actions tell quite another story, which is quite another story.)

    By Johnsonian terms, I am very much a blockhead. I have no objection at all to the idea of making an honest penny, or even a few pounds or dollars, by my writings, but the real reason I write – and this is true of most of my friends in the mystery – is that it is like an illness or a compulsion. I would write, or at any rate string words together in my head, if I were in solitary confinement, on a desert island or on my deathbed. To have some of those words printed and sent out into the world is a wonderful bonus. And to hear that even a few people have been diverted, instructed or moved by those words is one of the greatest satisfactions that a writer’s life offers. Mind you, I have long since followed the example of W H Auden, and when taxi drivers ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I am a mediaeval historian.

     

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