‘The finest books are those which have the least subject matter’

Michael Sayeau, Against the Event: The Everyday and the Evolution of Modernist Narrative

Oxford University Press, 272pp, £55.00, ISBN 9780199681259

reviewed by Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Michael Sayeau’s Against the Event: the Everyday and Evolution of Modernist Narrative is an intensive study into the way the event shapes and constructs narrative in the modernist movement. Sayeau blends contextual socio-political details that informs modernism as a whole, with analysis of the structural imperatives he finds in modernist texts to suggest the inextricable relationship between the event in the life of the subject and the event in the scope of society.

The introduction demonstrates Sayeau’s intention to make distinctions between the differing terminologies contained within competing and divergent discussions of both terms. Though the everyday and the event sound as if they are familiar bedfellows, Sayeau points out the differing frames of reference that have so far stunted the possibility of their shared conceptual heritage and, therefore, literary implications. The introduction aims to elucidate how we can define the everyday, relating it to ‘the relative speed and segmentation of lived experience’. This kind of everyday exists both in and outside of the text; Sayeau finds that a modernist text forefronts the temporality of everyday, and by equating both the everyday and the event, thusly disrupts the reader’s sense of the constitution of narrative. Sayeau suggests that the event becomes a stress test against which we find out just what the everyday can signify in narrative, and moreover what can be contained within novels in the first place.

His inquiry into the event is very broad: he takes into account the philosophical positions of Heidegger, Deleuze, Badiou and Derrida, creating a sweeping arc through phenomenology and deconstruction in order to establish the working definition that will underlie his close readings later in the book. He is keen to point out, and does so several times, that the work is not long enough to be able to minutely investigate the jostling arguments of the differing philosophical positions, but brings them together to show how each of these philosophers crafts a meaning and use for the notion of the event, whilst maintaining a scepticism for an ability to exhaustively define and delimit the meaning of this concept. In fact, Sayeau takes the innate intractability of the word to suggest its link to the concerns of modernism itself, saying ‘[it] is not only symptomatic of a period in which grave doubts emerge about human agency and subject intentionaliy, but further stands as a symptomatic outbreak of the very literariness that literature itself would turn against modernism’.

This point is extended throughout his introduction and is one of the most interesting in the study. Sayeau articulates the tension between the imperative for a plot to somehow articulate eventfulness, whilst simultaneously revealing modernism’s forefronting of the daily experience of the ordinary life. He finds the epitome of this tension characterised by the ‘anti-evental’ nature of modernism; texts that describe events within a framework that is constantly subversive through its interest in the depiction of interiority; a location where both the event and the anti-event exist simultaneously, and where what is defined as ‘event’ is ambiguous. He finds this precedent in the work of Flaubert, problematised in Wells and Conrad, and fully realised in the work of Joyce, specifically in Ulysses.

My attention does start to waver when Sayeau repeatedly brings up cultural and historical contexts to account for modernism’s discomfort with the event. In his critique of Flaubert, for example, he refers to the writer’s opinion on the non-event of the French Revolution, and takes this as the basis for a large portion of the chapter. Though not an irrelevant or uninteresting point, it seems to detract from the power of his argument about the inherent problem within the idea of event itself, and the imperative this places upon a movement that is ostensibly, in his words, ‘anti-evental’. What’s more, his suggestion that this is a question that narratology has heretofore failed to engage with is very interesting, particularly when we consider the meta-textual expectations that reside within every narrative about the constitution of narrative in the first place. The persuasiveness of his argument comes from his assessment of the innate problem of eventfulness and gains less from repeated socio-political analysis, though clearly I do not discount its value. Perhaps my resistance comes from the familiar line of this type of inquiry; the contextual aspect of modernism is something that is often included in this kind of critical enterprise so that it now seems repetitive and dulls the shine of his more radical hypotheses. The argument seems compelling enough on its own; the additional comments in each of the chapters on the relevant contextual detail of, respectively, Flaubert, Wells, Conrad and Joyce appear to be superfluous.

However, Sayeau’s rigorous introduction is incredibly convincing, primarily because of the ambition of its scope; he points out that this monograph is concerned with the formal dilemma of modernism, as opposed to the kind of criticism found in Bryony Randall’s book Modernism, Daily Time, and Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press, 2008), a book that does not go deep enough into the terminology it uses: ‘…despite the usefulness of her approach, what remains to be considered in the emergence of the everyday as an intrinsically formal dilemma, a problem whose solution is in a sense modernist fiction itself.’ Sayeau’s criticism of this is important as it elucidates his concerns with the deeper complexities of modernism: his work has actively interrogated the kinds of terminology used when working with modernist texts to excavate the underlying issues that constitute the very structural foundations of the literary movement. So though his work may get slightly distracted by extra-textual details, the basis of the work is incredibly helpful when considering modernist texts.

I could not help but think of the television show Seinfeld when reading the quote by Flaubert that not only titles this review, but is also used by Sayeau to characterise Flaubert’s intention in Madame Bovary; a kind of artful nothingness that encapsulates the tension between the subject and the event. Seinfeld seemed to take enormous pride in its lack of content, and utilises the phrase even in its modern day advertising of late-night re-runs on the subways of New York (‘There is NOTHING on TV at 11.30’); by announcing its intention to be about nothing, though clearly answering to the textual imperative of being about something it seems to be a perfect illustration of Sayeau’s characterisation of the modernist dichotomy; Sayeau’s book is valuable because it brings this dichotomy to the fore.