Of these four writers, the first three are well known. Wyndham Lewis was a modernist artist and writer who inspired Vorticism, a radical art movement, before the First World War. He was also a novelist: Tarr in 1918, The Childermass in 1928 and The Revenge for Love in 1937 – this last about the months before the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell is best known for Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), but also had a vigorous political and literary career in the 1930s: he fought in Spain in early 1937 before returning to write Homage to Catalonia (1938), and was a busy critic of Soviet communism. Will Self (b. 1961) is a novelist, satirist and cultural commentator whose fiction is both modernist and a critique of our oppressed present. His three most recent novels, Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017) are worth your attention. The fourth writer is scarcely known: he is from Plymouth (where I live), and a friend of mine who has published several books. As I hope to show, the poetry of Steve Spence may be less known, but is a modernism very significant for the present.
My talk will try to set up a relationship between early modernism (Lewis) and recent modernist developments (Self and Spence), with Orwell as a mediating non-modernist figure. Lewis as visual artist broke up the world around him, and as a novelist rejected the inner life of characters in favour of an external approach. Orwell’s two great books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, are concerned with power and the defeat of individuals and communities, but treats his characters’ inward lives conventionally. Self is a contemporary modernist who returns to exploration of the inner life within culture, and has a particular interest in the psyche, which he usually understands as broken up. Spence engages with language and identity in a special disintegrative way, as we shall see. All these writers are concerned by the presence of dominant structures in European social and political life, and I shall try to relate their writing to this.
Dr Alan Munton is sufficiently old to be an Honorary researcher in the English Department at the University of Exeter. He completed the first doctorate written on Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) at Cambridge University in 1976. He has written a bibliography, Seven Writers of the English Left 1916-1980 with Alan Young; a critical book, English Fiction of the Second World War; and an edition, The Collected Poems and Plays of Wyndham Lewis. He has written often for Poetry Nation Review (or PNR) on recent poetry; and has published numerous articles and reviews around modernism and recent literature. He is not (quite) a theorist.