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Cross-Channel Modernisms, edited by Claire Davison et al.

Reviewed by Rowan Anderson, University of Oxford

Cross-Channel Modernisms, edited by Claire Davison, Derek Ryan, and Jane A. Goldman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. £80.00. ISBN: 9781474441872.


The English Channel has become a metonym for transcultural exchange in modernist studies, with texts on this topic published in recent years including Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever’s edited volume The Literary Channel: The Inter-National Invention of the Novel (2002) and Andrew Radford and Victoria Reid’s Franco-British Cultural Exchanges, 1880–1940: Channel Packets (2012). Cross-Channel Modernisms, edited by Claire Davison, Derek Ryan, and Jane Goldman, moves beyond discussing this exchange in an abstract sense in order to pinpoint specific acts of crossing the Channel itself. The Channel becomes the focus of journeys by Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West on holiday to France at the beginning of their relationship, Jean Rhys in her toing and froing between London and Paris, and, across both the Irish and English Channels, James Joyce’s migration to the continent. The foundation for this project, as the editors write in the introduction, comes from the ubiquity of Channel crossings in modernist texts in the early-twentieth century:

New cheaper, quicker crossings and interlinked political alliances inevitably favoured a multiplication of crossings in the cross-Channel era that we are exploring here, as new classes of traveller, the newly defined indispensable paraphernalia of travelling and the cross-currencies of language and financial exchange along the way impacted upon the poetic forms best suited to recount the traversing of borders. (8)

            A further impetus for the collection comes from contemporary focus on the channel as a site of anxiety about national borders, with the Channel both contributing to and placing in question an image of an isolated Britain divided from the rest of the world. The editors write that ‘the dismal state of transmanche imaginaries and Britain’s ongoing constitutional crisis, which is founded on the political and cultural permeability of the waterway, makes our volume all the more timely’ (8). It is the subversive undercurrent of modernism that the editors seek to harness in order to disrupt narratives surrounding the impermeability of borders, writing that, ‘at this time when swords are being sharpened, if not crossed, in the name of reactionary forces, the essays collected herein revisit and renew the radical potential of modernist cultural crossings in an effort to channel more positive, creative and collective intellectual and artistic exchanges’ (11). This contextualisation also places the volume’s ethos within a wider field of transnational, internationalist work in modernist studies, which includes Jessica Berman’s Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (2012), and Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel’s edited volume Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity (2005).

            Translation forms a fundamental aspect of the collection’s focus: Derek Ryan’s  introductory section  cites Adam Piette’s assertation that ‘much of Anglophone modernism was constituted by translation’ (14), owing to the fact that Proust, Woolf, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Pound all worked on translation. This utopic vision of modernist internationalism is emblematised by Max Saunders essay ‘Impressions of Translation: Ford Madox Ford’s Cosmopolitan Literary Crossings’. Here, Saunders describes how Ford’s multilingualism – across English, French and German – informed his writing, to the extent that he advised writers such as Rhys, if they were struggling to articulate something in their writing, to write first in French before translating back into English. But to what extent does this portray a hyper-idealised vision of modernist international collaboration, in which modernism’s call to ‘make it new’ broke down the staid ideas of nationalism? After all, it is difficult to disentangle the slogan ‘make it new’ from its originator, Pound, whose writings are rarely discussed without mention of his fascist collaboration and antisemitism. The inescapable influence of fascist and reactionary politics remains a thorn in the side of modernist studies, with volumes such as Paul Morrison’s The Poetics of Fascism (1996) grappling with the more troubling ideological undertones that permeate the work of Pound,  Eliot, and Paul de Man – who were also, incidentally, frequent border-crossers – as well as across the wider movement. This volume therefore exemplifies this tension between conservatism and innovation within modernist studies by concentrating exclusively on the progressive facets of modernism.

            While the volume does not confront this issue in modernist studies directly, it does complicate the vision of idealised cultural interdependency. Ryan emphasises that contributors have attempted to ‘acknowledge the pitfalls of connectivity, and in a moment when the map of global modernisms seems increasingly networked, it seems timely to pause and consider the kinds of work connectivity does and doesn’t do – and about connection’s unintended effects’ (16). The volume opens with a humorous example of Woolf asking a passenger on a Channel crossing if the sea was ‘brusque’ rather than ‘agitée’, while Claire Davison writes in ‘On Unknowing French? Rhythm and Le Rythme on a Cross-Channel Exchange’ that understandings of Bergson’s conception of time may diverge on either sides of the Channel due to difference in connotations of the words rhythm and le rythme. In the entertaining article ‘Sydney Schiff and Marcel Proust: Table-talk, Tribute, Translation’, Emily Eells explores how Schiff’s desire for a mutually beneficial friendship with Proust, and to be seen as the primary representative of A la recherche du temps perdu in England, eventually resulted in a poorly rendered translation by Schiff of Le temps retrouvé in 1931. This version of the final volume contained such discrepancises as the line ‘Mlle Swann me jetait de l’autre côté de la haie d’épines roses, un regard dont j’avais dû, d’ailleurs, rétrospectivement retoucher la signification, qui était du désir’ being rendered as ‘Mlle. Swann throwing some thorny roses to me from the other side of the hedge, with a look I had retrospectively attributed to desire.’ Examples such as this led the final volume to be retranslated by Andreas Mayor in 1970 as part of the many-storied history of English versions of the Recherche. The volume therefore does not position these misunderstandings as a stumbling block, but as a source of productivity within modernist studies, since the impetus to analyse and correct leads to the proliferation of texts, and versions of texts. This places the volume within the overlap between translation and modernist studies, as it aligns with similar arguments within translation studies that see mistakes and incongruities as part of the generation of new ideas. Could this approach to incongruities perhaps also provide a starting point for making sense of the tension between modernism’s reactionary and progressive impulses?

            The focus on the Channel as a site of cultural mediation is nevertheless prescient and compelling, as the collection creates a convincing image of pan-European cultural interdependency that undermines the idea that Britain, and crucially, British culture, is ever a self-sustaining entity.  In line with the collection’s focus on the materiality of Channel crossings, the second section is firmly rooted in the physical implications of cross-Channel exchanges. In ‘Jean Rhys’s comédie anglaiseand ‘Betray to Become: Departure in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Vassiliki Kolocotroni and Naomi Toth both frame the act of physical displacement, as a result of Rhys and Joyce’s cross-channel voyages, as a fundamental driving force of their modernist aesthetic. This focus on writers as migrants is a key thread of the volume, and is further explored by Lauren Elkin in the article ‘Across the Other Channel: Elizabeth Bowen and Modernist Mediation’, in which Elkin explores Bowen’s much disputed Anglo-Irish-Welsh identity through the lens of Channel-crossings, across both the English and Irish Channel. Elkin proposes that Bowen’s frequent voyages across these waterways provide a useful framework for examining her writing in a way that moves beyond discussion in terms of national borders. By calling into question our ability to categorise each writer by national identity, Rhys, Joyce, and Bowen become a microcosm for the mutability of national borders within Europe.

            The volume concludes this thread with Patrizia A. Muscogiuri’s essay,  which explores Woolf’s conception of a cross-Channel space as a rebuttal to British censorship during the First World War, particularly in the light of her pacifist politics. Muscoguiri argues that, in texts such as To the Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room, ‘Woolf’s spectral aesthethics haunt the reader, insisting on bridging gulfs, crossing abysses, forging cross-Channel connectedness, pacifism’ (239). This promotion of the Channel as a pacifist image is emphasized by the paper’s acknowledgements: Muscoguiri dedicates the chapter to Jo Cox (1974-2016) and Liu Xiaobo (1955–2017).

            The scope of Cross-Channel Modernisms’ enlightening essays, with their interdisciplinary focus on the worlds of music and art, means that it would be of keen interest to researchers working across the breadth of modernist studies – particularly those working on interdisciplinary modernism and translation studies. Readers may also be interested in the possibility of further research prompted by the volume, such as examining border crossings through the lens of modernism’s undercurrent of reactionary politics. Additionally, in Jane Goldman’s introductory chapter to the volume’s third section on cross-channel mediation, she mentions that Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker crossed both the Atlantic and the Channel during their lifetimes. Given the volume’s contextualisation amidst contemporary discourse on Channel crossings, it would be compelling to see further research move beyond the Channel-crossings of canonical, typically white figures of Anglo-French modernism.