Stirring lilacs, Norman Bilbrough

The Secret History of Modernism
C K Stead
Harvill Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1864069418

Usually I find it a pleasure to read my way into  C K Stead’s particular world; to encounter the consciousness beneath – and attached to – the narrative. To encounter his perceptions, his criticism and his witticisms. Like all good writers, he has the ability to take the reader beyond his or her assumptions; he can display the temerity that pushes the reader that extra bit. At their best, Stead’s narratives can be journeys full of sharp surprises.

Sadly, The Secret History of Modernism has no sharp surprises. Indeed those acute encounters, those unexpected corners that jolt a reader’s complacency, are replaced by fragments of characters’ lives that barely make a narrative. I read this novel with an increasing sense of disappointment, remembering the last book of his I’d read, The Blind Blonde with Candles in her Hair – stories that were energetic, immediate, and full of those intriguing perceptions. Stories that relied upon strong narrative and credible characterisation; stories that were real.

This novel is short on reality and, for me, short on credibility.

Of course, given the title and the arrangement of the book, I suspect this may have been Stead’s intent. He’s offering us a tease, a maze. He’s set out to write a tale that eschews the vagaries and restrictions of realism. He’s offering us a postmodern adventure.


The Secret History of Modernism is largely a fragmented journey into nostalgia. It mostly presents the story of a young New Zealand scholar, Laszlo Winter, in London in the 1950s. It’s about Anglophiles, those curious beings who, in many cases, are more English than the English. It’s about the admiration of another supposedly superior culture. And I believe that if you’re writing a novel where nostalgia and admiration exist as a sub-text, you’re treading on dangerous ground. Nostalgia doesn’t take kindly to narrative demands; it’s spiteful about character development and self-realisation. I suspect nostalgia is a snob about plebeian attitudes and certainly won’t tolerate any moral expansion that develops in the story. Nostalgia has tight boundaries: it doesn’t burst bubbles. In short, nostalgia has its place, but it can strongly inhibit a novel.

Of course, Laszlo is not overtly nostalgic, but he swims readily and exultantly into English culture. He’s a New Zealander, but for the purposes of the story he could be an Inuit Anglophile. This country simply gives him an alien identity that enables him to be an Anglophile.

But to start at the beginning – certainly a well-written beginning – whose immediacy, because of its conciseness, would normally have me intrigued. Instead alarm bells rang:

My name is Laszlo Winter. I’m a novelist, and for the purposes of this identification we will begin in Auckland, New Zealand, at the beginning of the new century, a time when I’d been experiencing, for perhaps three months, perhaps six, something new for me, an obstacle commonly called writer’s block. Maybe my writing life was over.


So we have a novel about writing. Not a great sign. But worse, a writer writing – in part – about writer’s block. A bad sign. I can’t help thinking that when authors undertake a story with writers (and their problems) as central characters, they are indulging themselves; and that there are no more stories at the bottom of this barrel. And, in part, The Secret History of Modernism confirms these prejudices. Furthermore, when one reaches the second chapter – “T S Eliot’s Rose Garden” – one realises with a sinking heart that
a literary novel lies ahead. …

This could be entertaining – if Stead had chosen to take a self-deprecating and oblique point of view. But he hasn’t. There is an amount of name-dropping – which is irritating. There is an amount of literary knowledge-dropping – just as irritating – and there are literary anecdotes that don’t really impress or entertain. In all, these components don’t contribute to a narrative.

But then did Stead actually intend there to be a narrative? By the close of the book, I thought: “Probably not.” He offers a slightly tangled string of anecdotes that at times forms a narrative, but at other times mostly constitutes an unkempt memoir. And at the end he offers a genuine postmodern flourish. He has told his “story” in his apparent attempt to break his writer’s block: “So what now? … Fiction calls. Fiction about what, though?” Well – sigh – the story that’s just passed. By this time of course, I was asking the same thing. What exactly was all this about?


When Laszlo hits London, he’s a postgraduate scholar, not yet a novelist, and on the voyage over he meets the other two characters who figure in his story: Sammy, an Australian woman, and Rajiv, another postgraduate. Sammy is writing something called Secret History of Modernism, and Rajiv is intending to complete a thesis entitled “T S Eliot and the Pursuit of the Divine”. Rajiv becomes disillusioned with Eliot – because of the poet’s private life – and switches his allegiance to W B Yeats. And Laszlo falls in love with Sammy. But the dynamic Australian woman is already in love with a charismatic Jewish refugee called Friedrich Goldstein – Freddy – who at one stage lived in New Zealand before becoming a journalist in Sydney. Freddy is married and he is coming, with his wife, to London.

The main characters are thus introduced, and the ensuing chapters are a kind of piecemeal presentation of aspects of their lives. This presentation, almost a kind of pastiche, tends to be tiresome. In the second chapter, the young Laszlo is properly introduced. He has a liaison with another New Zealander, Margot, also a scholar, and his haphazard journey through the book commences.

Sammy has her shot in the third chapter, “Concerning Sammy”. She’s a middle-class girl, who gets a good education – political and literary. She has a sound liberal left-wing lineage, and her life seems like an opportunity for a spot of name-dropping about the Australian literary world. As a young woman, she considers a career in journalism and thus meets Freddy, who is working on the Sydney Morning Herald.

Unfortunately, Laszlo soon reveals himself as a sort of non-character. He is deferential, neutral and seems to have no particular dynamic features – and he takes up most of the room in the book. The only time when he truly comes alive is when he is having sex with Heather, the prostitute who lives across the corridor in his rooming house.

A diversion here. Heather is the sort of character Stead is very good at: she’s idiosyncratic, she’s amusing and human, and she has depth. Fortunately for Laszlo, she’s mad keen for knowledge; so he trades his knowledge – and interpretation – of Shakespeare, for sex. It’s an intriguing arrangement, and, when it occurs, the narrative becomes invigorated – as I imagine Laszlo does. Heather gets rather keen on him (why I cannot imagine), but he doesn’t return her feelings. He’s still having unconvincing feelings for Sammy.

Then Sammy and Laszlo nearly have sex, Freddy arrives in England, and the reader encounters the first chapter of “The Goldstein Story”. This is an archetypal Jewish story: life in pre-war Germany, persecution, flight to Palestine, a sexual betrayal, return to Germany, then another flight. It’s a story that is so frequently told in different forms that it’s almost a cliché. Yet it’s a moving story: it’s the most moving narrative in the book. It’s not self-conscious, and it’s a real story.

Sammy then dives into literary London; she gets work for the literary editor of a famous weekly. The Goldstein story continues, and Laszlo can’t make it with Margot. There is an anecdote about Christina Stead, and Maurice Shadbolt appears as Dick Flinders, a man with a moustache, a pipe, and darkly horn-rimmed glasses. He’s just published a collection of stories called The South Sea Islanders. It’s a denigrating portrait of Shadbolt, and unnecessary.

The Goldstein saga continues, things come to a head between Freddy and Sammy, then between Sammy and Laszlo. If there is any narrative climax or climactic realisation, it is in this last scene, where Sammy forcibly kisses Laszlo. And although this event is possibly shattering for both, the tragedy somehow doesn’t impress the reader. I was unmoved.

But then – given the manipulations of time and place, the seeming non-character of the main character and the apparent anti-narrative intent of the author – was I meant to be moved?

Is The Secret History of Modernism no more than a major indulgence on the part of the writer? Is it a sometimes entertaining, occasionally moving but often irritating extended Writing Exercise? Whatever it is – and bearing in mind Stead’s intelligence and skills as a novelist – I confess to feeling cheated.


Norman Bilbrough is a Wellington writer.


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