'O tempora! O mores!'

Stoddard Martin, Monstrous Century: Essays in 'the Age of the Feuilleton'

Starhaven Press, 204pp, £10.00, ISBN 9780936315409

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Is there any need to wonder which century it is that stands shamed by its monstrosity in the title of Stoddard Martin's timely collection? If Alain Badiou recently sought to recuperate its image under the polemically unqualified rubric of The Century (2005), Martin joins the majority in his disapprobation of the wretchedness of the interlude that extended from Art Nouveau to the internet age, from experimental aesthetic dynamisms of one sort and another to the global communications morass, and found room for countless varieties of bestiality in between. What we have here – politically, culturally, let's say anthropologically – is the accumulated evidence of what Kipling, in racial disparagement of those muckheaps of colonial India entrusted to the supervision of the colonised, earlier called a 'drainage-soaked soil sick with the teeming life of a hundred years'.

The age of the feuilleton addressed in the book's subtitle recalls the last great era of the printed newspaper, when what would in English come to be called the 'supplement' found room, after the news had been dutifully reported, for cultural criticism, commentary, intelligences of a non-topical, or only tangentially topical, nature. It was the conversation with themselves that cultures, or at least their appointed commentators, carried on before the worldwide web made such dialogues a permanent gridlock of honking horns. In among these snarled and snarling cross-currents, Martin seeks to recover a space for reflection, if not in tranquillity exactly, then certainly with the objective, often ironic, often bitterly bemused, optic of that choric commentator of the feuilleton age, the cultural critic.

Already in the immediate postwar era, Adorno disparaged the role of such authorities as that of 'salaried nuisance', specifically where their conservative tendencies led them to a revisionist attempt in Germany to overwhelm the recent past in the waters of historical Lethe. Martin sets himself no such remit, but rather trains the spotlight once again on the convulsions of the second quarter of that calamitous century, but also contiguously on its antecedents in the habits of mind and creative impulses of a culture-area he calls 'Anglo-Saxony', in whose colonial rampages, nationalist recklessness and aesthetic bombast the coming disaster was assiduously prepared.

Readers of culturally dissective novellas may well know the author as Chip Martin, a Hemingwayish nom de plume for the modestly proportioned but broadly canvassed fictional works of his that Starhaven also puts out. Indeed, he was one of the original authors of a publishing house that began life among the sun-splashed beachfronts of La Jolla, California, now domiciled in book-splashed Hampstead. The present collection is almost wholly made up of recent book reviews gleaned from the Quarterly Review, the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish Quarterly, and if collections of reviews are often as incipiently fatigued as yesterday's bread by the time they're published, the historico-philosophical focus of these is so perennially momentous, and the discursive approach sufficiently essayistic, that they retain a pressing legibility and a flow that makes this a fine compendium.

Certain figures and themes crop up frequently, and not just among the German High Command. Gabriele d'Annunzio, Stefan Zweig, the Wagners, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Hemingway himself put their heads round the door as often as persistently unwelcome neighbours, largely because, for all that their contributions to the intellectual culture of an age gone rotten with its own self-importance may span a chasm from the majestic to the criminally culpable and the criminally awful, they are in various real senses its architects. And there are still perspicuous things to say about them.

If Martin's translation from the west coast of America in the post-Altamont morning after to a London still caught between the gentilities of common-sense lit crit, the Listener, the Third Programme, and a version of social upheaval that made do without the shootings of students or the swinging of parliamentary democracy on its rusted hinges, he appears to have been an exemplary shock-absorber. There is in this volume much precise cultural attentiveness to his adopted home. Writing from the nadir of John Major's mid-1990s, Martin notes the national gift for mediocrity, often presumed to have saved the UK from the variants of political extremity on offer in the thirties: 'Our [British] internationalism was shallow then, as it is now. We still have Paul Johnson to rant from the pages of the Spectator against experimentalism in the arts; and the 'Fairest Isle' series on Radio 3, as well as ubiquitous Britten and Elgar revivals, show that we are not immune to glorifying our own perhaps more than is deserved.’

The author is not above his own resort to the Ciceronian 'O tempora! O mores!' when it suits, and when occasion merits. If he can heartily deplore the disappearance of adequate notes and citations in the productions of trade publishing, there is also the miserable consolation that whether any writer makes it or not, whatever that may now mean, is no more a lottery now than it has always been. 'Recognition of true talent,' he writes, reviewing an acetic novella by Arthur Schnitzler on the mercurial nature of hopelessly belated fame, 'is ever a crap-shoot.' Jean Rhys had to wither to her drink-sozzled seventies before being able to snatch at an illustrious second chance, the resultant celebrity all the more galling for being so long delayed.

There are greater concerns here, though, than personal achievement. A review of a German biography of Goebbels closes with the lament that 'evil, alas, is ever fascinating – often especially for the cosseted and immature who have never been seriously threatened by it'. If today's social media reactors fancy they see evil everywhere, recalling Hegel's dictum that seeing evil everywhere is one of the precursors of evil, they ought perhaps to be grateful for only having to deal with Bret Easton Ellis's version and not Céline's. The latter, Martin thinks, can be admired for his style, which is at once more coruscating and less aromatically poetic than that of Gide or Genet, but then it was the style itself that was so corrupting. When does violent anti-Semitism stop being permitted through its filter? And what do we do with it in the aftermath of exorbitant inhumanity and the inexhaustible, if enfeebling, need to prevent its recurrence?

Stylistically, Martin himself can be angelic. He has the gift, an indispensable utensil of book critics, of compressing a mass of historical detail into a tautly compacted sentence. On the Lithuanian Jewish émigré who wrote under the pseudonym Romain Gary: 'War rendered him French in a way that prejudice might have disallowed had catastrophe not turned west.' 'Zweig was a man in a hurry in an age that had an appointment with destiny.' The habit is particularly noteworthy in his short reviews for the Jewish Chronicle, but is always worth the extra vigilance when aphorising comes too easily, and risks producing an unexamined shorthand glibness. 'Facts morph into legend, legend into myth, myth into religion, serving ego and/or political ends.' It sets off bounding across the terrain of the dialectic of enlightenment, but stumbles into something more fumingly Spengleresque, the day before yesterday's secularist orthodoxy, tripping finally over that ugly oblique that it didn't appear to see coming.

On the other hand, who can lay aside the forceful concision, potent as decent liquor, of a comparative mapping of the respective cultural milieus of Kant and Bach, on one side of the Alps, and Vico and Vivaldi on the contemporaneous other? Its further analogy with the architectural obverses of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals ratifies a profoundly suggestive insight. The continuities between Wagner's and Eliot's urgent projects to salvage high culture from its ignominious despoliation (the theme of a 1978 study by Martin), a view that curators of the 'Degenerate Art' show that toured the Reich before the war and inhabitants of England's Sacred Wood would have in common, and which produced such retrospectively delicious paranoias as the suspicion that Schönberg's twelve-tone system was a deliberate anti-Nordic musical conspiracy, is a persistent theme of these reflections, one that remains as apposite to the present moment as the cordially despised Adorno found it to his.

Martin ends with the prose-poetical mythologising of Ann Wroe on Orpheus, unsatisfying in his estimation for its elision of the gap between biological and transcendental life. He thinks Wroe is looking on the wrong side of the given world for the embodiment of humanity's better nature. And, like it or not, whether from the mists of antique theologies or the nagging claque of secularist dogma, he must be right.