IN THE calendar established with typical bombast by Ezra Pound, Culture has this week entered its 100th year. Year Zero was in 1922: the year that the world was reinvented by the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Radio 3 and Radio 4 are doing their bit for the festivities, with a range of programmes which inevitably tells us as much about the state of culture in the Year 100.
It might be a little churlish to demand that everyone who appeared on the BBC should have read Joyce’s great tome. There are not enough hours in the day, even for a novel that takes place over just one day. But the presenter, James Marriott, might at least have chosen for his team of experts (in an otherwise admirable Sunday Feature: The art of a day, on Radio 3) people who had actually read the book.
Nobody said that it was easy: A. L. Kennedy was eloquent and sincere when she told of her struggle to get through it, but left us with a beautiful articulation of why the effort was worth it. Ulysses is a book that one aspires to: an example of art which improves the reader by teaching a new way of reading. In contrast, the cinema critic Rhianna Dhillon was happy to admit that she had never bothered; but that didn’t discourage her from having a go and comparing Bloomsday to the film Die Hard.
Matthew Sweet’s excellent series 1922: The birth of now (Radio 4, weekdays) is similarly hampered by the worthy resolve to include diverse perspectives. He takes the “100 Objects” format for his essays, each of which focuses on a specific modernist work or episode to explore what, he appears to argue, is a global movement. The series opener was outstanding: the Shabolovka Tower in Moscow, built as a radio transmitter for the young Soviet state, epitomises the political and cultural confidence in the new, apparently democratising and yet, at the same time, shot through with a sinister vein of authoritarianism. Radio itself was the quintessential modernist medium: disembodied voices to which we tune in and out, hauntingly captured in Eliot’s masterpiece.
Less convincing were the essays on Lu Xun’s novel The True Story of Ah Q, and on Louis Armstrong, the case for inclusion being a good deal more frail. Overlaying in a sound collage the scat singing of Armstrong, the loudhailer of Edith Sitwell, and vocalisations from The Waste Land did nothing to help the cause. More profitable might have been an examination of modernism’s relationship with the past, itself a foreign country — with Homer, Dante, and the troubadours, for instance.
The modernist revolution of 1922 was inescapably Eurocentric; and, for that matter, was driven by people with views that most today would find distinctly unpalatable. Nevertheless, one cannot help feeling some sympathy for “Ole Ez” — the “miglior fabbro”, as Eliot deemed him. This was, as the great literary critic Hugh Kenner termed it, “The Pound Era”. And yet his name is never mentioned here without the accompanying epithet “fascist”.