The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Modernism and the New Spain: Britain, Cosmopolitan Europe, and Literary History

Modernism and the New Spain: Britain, Cosmopolitan Europe, and Literary History. By Gayle Rogers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 304 pp. $65.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Patrick Query, United States Military Academy

In Modernism and the New Spain, a sense of failure creates perhaps the most inescapable and troubling impression: not the failure of Gayle Rogers’s book, which is a nearly unqualified success, but of literary plans and projects that promised so much in the interwar years and that all but invariably foundered before those years were over. Disappointed hopes and expectations are written all over the interwar period in European letters, so it is no surprise that they are also written into the history of Spanish-English literary exchanges of the era. Lorca is killed, the Criterion and Revista de Occidente both fold, the Republic loses the Spanish Civil War, and the Franco regime begins to silence Spain’s leading writers. The “new biography” loses its luster, resurgent nationalisms substitute partisanship for cooperation throughout Europe, and Spanish-English partnerships—once so vigorous—attenuate and end. “Franco’s victory,” writes Rogers, “made all but moot the bonds among British and Spanish writers that had been forming in the late 1930s” (199). What is remarkable is that writing linking two geographical margins of Europe—Great Britain (and Ireland) and Spain (and Latin America)—for a time expressed with supreme purpose, ingenuity, and scope a living vision of what Europe might be. By the onset of World War II, it was only a vision of what might have been.

The important relationship between Britain and Spain has long been underrepresented in studies of modernism in part because teasing out its particulars entails unusual difficulties for the contemporary scholar, as, indeed, did building the relationship for British and Spanish writers themselves. As Rogers points out, “The two countries had few long-standing literary relations, almost none among writers at the time, and each had strong, complex anti-European movements domestically [. . .]. Their writers wedded their cultural authority and reputations to one another’s, however, through a symbiosis between the production and the reception of texts” beginning in earnest in the early 1920s (7). Although from the outset the writers engaged in this project represented diverse political and aesthetic ideals, their thinking generally converged around principles of anti-fascism, pro-Europeanism, anti-nationalism, increased exchange of literary texts between nations, and new literary forms to meet the changing demands of a post-World War I Europe. Attendant upon their work, Rogers writes, were “struggles over the physical and metaphysical borders of Europe (historical and present), over the competing definitions of modernity and race between its north and south, over the imbalances of power between its ‘advanced’ and ‘benighted’ nations and their major and minor languages, and over the very status of culture and literature between two cataclysmically violent wars” (10). High stakes, indeed, for two nations that did not make the most natural of bedfellows, not least for reasons of geographical and linguistic difference. So it is exhilarating to see the ties between them detected, traced, and foregrounded by Rogers, who, equally at home in the Spanish and British literature, seems uniquely suited to the work.

The Introduction and first chapter speak much about literary exchanges, maps, networks, alliances, and so on (not, notably, manifestos and movements) that linked Britain and Spain and that suggested in outline the intellectual design of a new Europe. Rogers’s approach, though, is nothing if not particular, so while these early sections read like scaffolding, they are built upon an impressively detailed study of letters, periodicals, and political and philosophical texts, some very obscure in one country or both. The stars of these pages and of the initial efforts to bridge national divides in literary Europe are T.S. Eliot and José Ortega y Gasset, the respective founders of the Criterion and Revista de Occidente. Yet, Rogers expertly demonstrates, for these two primary (albeit short-lived) vehicles of interwar intellectual exchange, their editors’ star power may have been less crucial than their tolerance to the success of their journals,. The two men “provided schematic vocabularies and compatible, intersecting cosmopolitan sensibilities; their own positions were influential, not definitive” (31). It is an important corrective to the view of either writer as an ideological monolith presiding over any literary-periodical regime. Both published more views of cultural politics out of sync with their own than otherwise. “Eliot found,” for instance, “little support for his own cultural politics—especially his growing anti-liberalism—among his contributors” (57). An under-remarked inclusivity and generosity characterizes both Eliot’s and Ortega’s vision of Europe as expressed in the journals they founded and oversaw, and this spirit is central to the world Rogers describes.

The book gets more exciting as it goes along, culminating with the scintillating final chapter on Spender, Altolaguirre, and Lorca. This building excitement also means that the Introduction and first chapter, for all their considerable scholarly heft, leave one impatient for the kinds of analytical friction and literary particulars that come in later chapters. The second chapter, “Joyce and the Spanish Ulysses” immediately delivers. Rogers easily, but not unfairly, folds the Irish Joyce into the book’s British-Spanish model, focusing on Molly Bloom’s layers of cultural ambiguity as the flower of Gibraltar. This chapter impressed me earlier as an article, and it remains compelling in this new context. Chapters on Lytton Strachey and the New Biography (la nueva biografía as adopted in Spain) and on Virginia Woolf, the Argentine Victoria Ocampo, and the Spanish Civil War follow. Anti-Victorianism, anti-fascism, and feminism emerge as important notes in the Anglo-Hispanic dialogue.

The Lorca chapter is the ideal capstone for the book’s investigations. Here, Rogers comes closest to engaging in the kind of analysis of translation that might have served him well at a number of points previous. For all his discussion of the importance of new translations and their circulations to the project of reimagining Europe, Rogers says surprisingly little about these translations’ character or quality. His attention is more often on the machinations and motivations that surrounded such translation work than on close readings of the translating itself. Reception studies, periodical studies, and related approaches overshadow translation studies in the book, but one can’t do everything. Most of the book’s translations from Spanish are Rogers’s own, and he has modified others, so he might productively have said more about the microscopic level, as it were, of translation. It is a matter of approach and emphasis, not a fault, and he has done a very great deal in other ways.

I wrote “nearly unqualified,” so perhaps I should name what qualifications of the book’s success I can find. They are minor and not many. It is rather winning that Rogers doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that Modernism and the New Spain was initially a dissertation. Why hide it? But the characteristic place where dissertation-ness expresses itself—namely, the Notes—is the part of this book that seemed to act at times more as a drag on the argument’s progress than an aid to it. The end-noting is heavy indeed but, more surprising, not always manifestly logical. In a number of instances the link between text and note proved opaque, with the result that the notes could seem to function more like an appendix than an ally to the movement of analysis. Also, the works and ideas of contemporary scholars are almost entirely relegated to the Notes; rather than engaging with them directly in the text Rogers most often uses swaths of the endnotes to enumerate and acknowledge his debts to the work of others. Many first literary-critical books are guilty of packing too much into the Notes, and that is the case here, although Rogers’s acknowledgment early on that the book “has a bibliographical and topographical quality” provides some justification (25). 

Speaking of appendices, Rogers also provides a genuine one in an original translation of Marichalar’s 1924 essay “James Joyce in his Labyrinth.” One of the book’s unique highlights, it provides key raw material for the “Spanish Ulysses” chapter and showcases Rogers’s substantial gifts as a translator. If its inclusion also bespeaks that clearing-the-scholarly-decks quality, so be it. It is one among several markers that set Modernism and the New Spain apart from other studies of twentieth-century literary Europe. The thrill of reading Marichalar on Joyce is tempered only by the realization of just how much was lost as the mental frontiers of Europe, in Eliot’s words, gradually closed.

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