Guide to Modern World Literature, by Martin Seymour-Smith

So, Seymour-Smith’s great encyclopaedia has finally arrived and yes, it’s now officially my biggest book: – bigger than 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, bigger than the Penguin Deluxe edition of Genji Monogatari – bigger even than Javascript 2nd Edition. In fact, it’s 3 inches in page width.

And yes, it’s exactly what I expected it to be, too.

I admit, I had a similar project in mind, on that far-off distant day when I discovered myself at last well-read: I’d write a great compendium of world literature in the c20th (for these are Seymour-Smith’s limits: 1900 to about 1980 or so (it was first published in 1973, but has clearly been updated) – even the cut-off doesn’t really matter, since very little of quality was published in the last 20 years of the c20th) – but my idea was slightly different: where Seymour-Smith wishes to be comprehensive; I was only going to include writers I thought worthy of mention – meaning that my work would be without bad reviews, whereas Seymour-Smith’s is full of them. – Perhaps, after all, Seymour-Smith had the more enjoyable idea.

On a first idling flick-through, Seymour-Smith’s opinions annoyed me, for I was looking in it for the opinions I knew would annoy me. I looked up Lawrence Durrell (whom I already know I appreciate against the world’s opinion) and he has this to say:

[The Alexandria Quartet] has been an enormous popular success, hailed by modish critics; it amounts, however, to little more than what Leslie Fiedler has called “warmed-through Proust”. The French see the same profundities in it as they once saw in Charles Morgan. The clue to its lack of real quality is contained in Durrell’s pretentious prefatory note … The vulgarity of “soup-mix” is characteristic. How could the coffee-table public fail to fall for something that was not only as “deep” as this pompous statement implies, but also sexy and overwritten (“beautiful” or “poetic” writing)? … The quartet is muddled, and the self-consciously lush writing is an indication of its essential meretriciousness … the entire conception is robbed of whatever atmospheric power it might have had by its author’s ambitious, polymathic vulgarity: his adolescent obsession with decadence, his preoccupation with occultism, his fatal penchant for potted wisdom. This is the kind of thing naturists read aloud to one another after sunset and before exchanging sensual essences (or whatever) …. Nietzsche-and-water … By 2000 his quartet will be as dead as Sparkenbroke is today – and orgasms will still be non-philosophical.

Seymour-Smith’s main problem (our main point of disagreement) is that he doesn’t like “overwriting”, as we can see also with the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. I can’t be bothered to type out this whole section, so here are a few of Seymour-Smith’s favourite pejorative words and phrases culled from it instead: lush, baroque, perfectly middlebrow, vulgar, specious, “deep”, middlebrow public, meaningless but high-sounding, “purple prose”, magniloquent, “a kind of prose which can be praised by critics only to their shame”, pretentious, meretricious, the depths of pretentiousness, loathsome portentousness, neo-Baroque prose, foolish symbolic writing, a perfect middlebrow “deep” read, insulting the people of whom he writes, patronizing “philosophy”, his over-written oeuvre. “His work does not deserve to last, and it is unlikely that it will”.

I think, though, your attitude to Seymour-Smith is entirely dependent, as so often with this kind of “literary criticism” on whether your opinions coincide with his. He really likes, for instance, Juan Carlos Onetti; and he has this to say about Michel Tournier’s Gemini:

Gemini …, a convoluted exercise on the theme of two twins and their homosexual uncle, is a book of ideas using people as counters to express these ideas. This, the homosexuality of Uncle Alexandre is based on a delight in sameness. But Tournier says absolutely nothing about narcissism; it is as though that ‘idea’ did not contain any psychological reality. Novels are not built out of ideas, and people do no function simply through ideas; there is something peculiarly frigid about Tournier’s attempts thus to dehumanize life and at the same time obtain a gratifyingly large audience. It is even more disheartening to find a literary columnist comparing him to Flaubert to the latter’s disadvantage. Abstractionism is repulsive and heartless, and the self-satisfied Tournier embodies these characteristics. Successive fiction and criticism has grown more obviously jejune, dealing with such matters as fetishism.

Now, just replace the word “Tournier” with the phrase “Tom McCarthy”, and the word “Gemini” with the letter “C”.

As you may have noticed, and like a lot of fashionable “modernist” “literary critics”, there’s no word he loves more than “middlebrow”, as in:

Middlebrow material is never wholly junk – junk is Cartland, Danielle Steele, Mills and Boon – but neither can it be wholly literature. Furthermore, as we have seen, some true literature has middlebrow appeal. Middlebrowism is ubiquitous because a part of ourselves is intent upon suppressing energy, which is disturbing and threatens inertia … Thus readers (and books) are either more or less middlebrow – never simply middlebrow or not-middlebrow.

So yes, it’s a fine book, if you want one man’s opinion about twentieth-century literature – in which he argues for and against books by the simple usage of pejorative and non-pejorative language (a familiar enough tactic, and one it’s difficult to better in the science of rhetoric literary criticism). It’s nicely divided into sections, which are mostly countries, but occasionally (like Latin America) continents, and occasionally odd conglomerations of things, like African and Caribbean literature amalgamated (though curiously Carpentier above appears in the Latin American section) and Irish literature oddly subsumed into British literature. Of course, there’s far too much attention paid to literature written in English (the U.S. gets 165 pages, which is more than the whole of Africa, the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, China, Russia and Eastern Europe (excl Poland) put together. How about that for cherry-picking an argument!), but on the other hand, I haven’t yet come across any serious omissions. So yes, I’m sure, aside from its many faults, it will become well-thumbed (though at other times, it will stand forgotten at the bottom of my bookshelf).

4 thoughts on “Guide to Modern World Literature, by Martin Seymour-Smith

  1. Seymour-Smith sounds like a pompous but occasionally entertaining middlebrow ass. On the other hand, anybody who likes the depressing but simultaneously, er, “life-affirming” Onetti can’t be all bad!

  2. Yes, that’s exactly what S-S is like.

    I forgot to include this, on Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Green House:

    His next novel is a very bad one, The Green House … It is chiefly bad because one of the areas in which it is set, Amazonian Peru, is wrongly presented … Here he makes his people talk as – I am informed by an anthropologist who knows the area well – they quite simply do not talk. He has got it all wrong; and this is a serious matter … The book is reprehensible, especially from the man whose mentor Arguedas was.

    No, Mr S-S, it isn’t. It has no bearing on the quality of the work at all. (In general – as far as I can see, and I’ve never read it – most people seem to think The Green House is Vargas Llosa best novel, or The Feast of the Goat).

    This is the only argument he puts forward against it, whilst praising the two novels he wrote before and after it, except also to say it is “boring, and does not cohere”. – He really likes José María Arguedas too, as this passage implies.

  3. I haven’t read that partic. Vargas Llosa novel yet (it’s in my mix for next year), but almost every blogger I know who has says it’s among his most ambitious, difficult and successful works (this is counting Peruvians and others AND people who are lukewarm on VLl in general). From what I understand of it, I get that it might be “reprehensible” from a moral or sexism standpoint but from an artistic or stylistic one? I have my doubts. Funny to see Seymour-Smith play the anthropological card, though! By the way, Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World, the only thing I’ve read by him so far, is quite good in my opinion and not at all overwritten. I forgot to mention this to you in my first comment above, Obooki, so I hope the wait was worth it or at least not “reprehensible” or “a serious matter” to you or any of your anthropologist friends. Cheers!

  4. Yes, The Green House is pretty high up my list of books to read soon (along with 200 others). – Do those Peruvians you know who enjoyed it include Peruvians who live in the area of Peru which Vargas Llosa so inconsiderately misrepresented? – I wonder though, considering his delight in Arguedas, whether this hasn’t clouded his judgement over Peruvian literature in general: – Arguedas was, so I discover, an anthropologist. Perhaps he’s mixing up anthropology and literary value.

    Your quite wrong about The Kingdom of The World: it “reek[s] of the ‘purple prose’ which wrecks Carpentier’s later and even more ambitious and magniloquent works”. – By which he means The Lost Steps and Explosion in a Cathedral, which again are generally agreed to be his finest.

    Just in an attempt to turn you against him for good, he also doesn’t like Cortazar or Perec.

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