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
Illustrated. 351 pp. Henry Holt. $30
World War I wounded or killed almost 40 million people, upended the balance of power that had prevailed in Europe for a century, heralded a new age of mechanized warfare and redrew borders around the globe. It also transformed literature. Since the days of the Black Death, writers in English had fashioned books from other books. Chaucer plundered Boccaccio to good effect. Shakespeare filched parts of “Hamlet” from Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy.” Milton retooled Virgil for English Protestants. And such theft and fealty persisted well into the era of internal combustion. Dickens worked lines of Sir Philip Sidney into the 59 chapters of “Great Expectations.”
The Treaty of Versailles made no provisions against the canon, but it might as well have. After the war, Virginia Woolf claimed to have “burst out laughing” at the sound of Tennyson. But such mirth came mingled with despair, and one could plausibly define literary modernism as the washing of the corpse of tradition, albeit sardonically. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” performed last rites for Homer’s “Odyssey” and destroyed the whole of the 19th century, at least according to T. S. Eliot. But it was also a joke. Eliot’s own writing was just as funereal and just as wry. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” a voice in “The Waste Land” intones, as if from sanitarium or deathbed. Yet Eliot’s working title — “He Do the Police in Different Voices” — quoted Dickens at his liveliest and goofiest. In the 1920s, writers could still root themselves in the past, but only as eulogists or parodists. The best were both.
In his fresh account of four modernists, Bill Goldstein, a former editor of the books section of this newspaper’s website and an interviewer for NBC New York, does not tell this story. Instead “The World Broke in Two” chronicles Morgan (Forster), David (Lawrence), Tom (Eliot) and Virginia (Woolf) as they wage personal battle in tremendous earnest against blank sheets of paper to create important new works from the inner recesses of their genius. Goldstein offers a snapshot history of their careers in deference to the American now, embracing not only the chatty familiarity of first names but also, and more significant, the biographical details of authorship that most 21st-century interest in literature seems to depend upon.
The year is 1922. “Ulysses” appears in February, “The Waste Land” in October. By then, everybody is reading C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust. The four writers bid farewell to 1921 in bad shape and greet 1923 in good. Eliot recovers from a breakdown, wins prize money and publication for “The Waste Land” and starts The Criterion, the journal that will house his rise to critical pre-eminence. Woolf bucks the flu, sublimates her class disdain for Joyce, channels Proust, publishes “Jacob’s Room” and commences work on “Mrs. Dalloway.” Forster loses a secret lover to tuberculosis, burns his unpublished dirty stories, is delivered from artistic malaise by a random bump of celebrity and transforms an aborted manuscript into “A Passage to India.” Lawrence arrives in a United States where obscenity trials have just legalized his racy fiction, publicized it and earned him money.
In diaries and letters, the four make literature of their daily lives, and Goldstein is comprehensive and exuberant curating this material. Forster, Woolf writes, is “evanescent, piping, elusive,” “timid, touching, infinitely charming,” “whimsical & vagulous,” a “vaguely rambling butterfly.” Eliot has “a big white face,” “a mouth twisted & shut; not a single line free & easy; all caught, pressed, inhibited.” Proust’s prose inspires in Woolf an “astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification,” a pleasure that “becomes physical — like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.” Meanwhile, “Ulysses” leaves her “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”