Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jonathan Greenberg's "Modernism, Satire, and the Novel"

Jonathan Greenberg is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Montclair State University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Modernism, Satire and the Novel, and reported the following:
I can’t say whether page 99 of Modernism, Satire, and the Novel reveals “the quality of the whole,” since I’m hardly a fair judge of the quality of my own work. But if you open to that page, you’ll find yourself part way into my reading of Stella Gibbons’s 1932 novel, Cold Comfort Farm. This hilarious book—you don’t have to be English to find it funny—tells the story of Flora Poste, a young, savvy woman who flees the prospect of secretarial drudgery in London for an extended stay on a farm in Sussex with eccentric and often disgusting cousins, the Starkadders. Although something of a cult classic, the book has received little critical attention; with a few exceptions (Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, and the fine work of Faye Hammill) it’s been mostly ignored in studies of modernism, even studies of modernist women writers.

I read Gibbons alongside other satirist of modernism: Evelyn Waugh, Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett. In the Gibbons chapter I discuss how she reworks the language and conventions of the agricultural novel to spoof both the country and the city. At first she may appear simply to send up the barbaric, violent, sometimes incestuous ways of the rural Starkadders (they’re like an English version of Faulkner’s Snopeses, only weirder). But it turns out that she equally satirizes the urban sophisticates—the modernists—who find in the agricultural way of life an authentic sexuality missing from their own modernized world. On page 99, I spell out the argument pretty carefully. Flora’s difference from her country cousins, I maintain, is not so great as she imagines; this difference is, I write, merely “a fantasy of difference.” It’s a fantasy, moreover, “created precisely for enjoying vicariously whatever unruly pleasures the Starkadders are shown to enjoy.” (I don’t love that sentence, but there it is.) Satire disavows its targets, but the disavowal doesn’t nullify the appeal of the targeted transgression. Instead it provides a kind of moral cover that allows the writer and reader to participate in the pleasure of representing those “disgusting” transgressions. Page 99, then, turns out to present a pretty neat example of the book’s larger argument. Ford may have been onto something. Or maybe I just repeat myself a lot.
Read an excerpt from Modernism, Satire and the Novel, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

Writers Read: Jonathan Greenberg.

--Marshal Zeringue