Sunday, August 13, 2017

The World Broke in Two: 1922, The Year that Changed Literature

Willa Cather pronounced that 'the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts'. WWI had been one of the most devastating conflicts in world history, leaving 41 million dead. Those who survived combat returned home wounded in body and soul and mind. Vast stretches of Europe had been turned into a wasteland, leaving millions of refugees. The Victorian world view and values were irrelevant and archaic. A new world view was arising from the ashes.

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein presents the personal and artistic struggles of  T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence to create literature that spoke to this changed world.

James Joyce's Ulysses and the newly translated In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust were the literary sensations of the day. T. S. Eliot was a huge promoter of Joyce's book, which Lawrence found unreadable. Proust was a huge influence on Woolf, as was Eliot's poem The Waste Land which he had read aloud at her home. Forster was inspired by Proust. Each writer was searching for a new voice and vision.

"Well--what remains to be written after that?" Virginia Woolf after reading Proust in 1922

The authors' personal lives were a mess.

Eliot suffered a nervous breakdown and had an ill wife. He could not seem to let go of his poem The Wasteland and strung publishers along. He wore green tinted makeup to appear even more pathetic.

It had been years since Forster's last published novel. He lived with his smothering mother and was sexually frustrated, longing for love. He escaped by taking a position in India. He fell in love with a younger, married man who played the lovestruck Forster. And then the man died. Forster was in grief, unable to finish what was to become his last novel, A Passage to India.

Woolf was ill much of the year. She was trying to find a voice and style that was new. Mrs. Dalloway started as a minor character but was growing into her own novel. Goldstein writes that Joyce, Proust, and Eliot seemed to raise the question: "What connects it together?" Woolf sought to find "some sort of fusion" that was missing in Ulysses and The Waste Land.

And Lawrence continued to wander the world with Frieda, his novels banned as obscene. They had left England in 1917, going to Australia, and then America. Invited to live in Taos, he determined to write an "American novel from that centre."

The Waste Land was finally published late in the year, and a monetary prize was given to Eliot. He left his bank job to work for the publisher that became Faber and Faber. Forster's novel A Passage To India was published in 1924, dedicated to his beloved, and became a best seller. Lawrence published Aaron's Rod in 1922 and his Australian novel Kangaroo the following year. He became financially comfortable. Woolf's story Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street was published in 1923 and her novel Mrs. Dalloway in 1925.

My first Forster book was A Passage to India. I discovered Eliot in my late teens. Woolf was a later happy discovery; I have also read several books about her life. Although I have not read Lawrence's novels I have enjoyed his stories and poetry. And, in college, I had an honors course on Joyce's Ulysses.With this background, I was very interested in learning about the relationship between these writers and how they were inspired by Joyce and Proust.

I had not realized how much of Eliot's personal life can be found in The Wasteland, including clips of conversations. The oppression felt in the poem was very personal, rooted in his private life, as well as influenced by his contemporary world. Forster, Woolf, and Eliot suffered from depression and were emotionally fragile. Poor Forster, unable to be open about his sexual orientation, writing about love between men and women and longing for a fulfilling adult love of his own.

A reviewer I read said she would not want to spend time with any of these writers. I found that sad. I am amazed to think what these authors accomplished considering the burdens they labored under, Eliot working in a dull office job, his loveless marriage and ill wife; lonely Forster staying with his overbearing mother; Woolf fighting depression; Lawrence driven from place to place with Frieda. All having seen a devastating war upend everything that seemed permanent.

I found Goldstein's book an interesting read both as biography and as an examination of an important moment in literature.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature
by Bill Goldstein
Henry Holt and Company
Publication: August 15, 2017
Hard cover $30
ISBN: 9780805094022