Ernest Hemingway’s novel Torrents of Springis not very good. An author’s note at its end informs us that it was written in ten days and if this account of its composition is true, it very much shows. The reason I am choosing to inflict this reading experience on myself is because of my PhD research; my stylometric analysis of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, which involves identifying words which are particular to each author, informs me that Torrents of Spring marks a departure from Hemingway’s usual range of expression, away from words like ‘hell’, ‘bottle’, ‘drink’, ‘hit’ and ‘you’re’, to words like ‘wife’, ‘woman’, ‘happiest’, ‘agreed’, and ‘herself’, words Hemingway does not use anywhere else in his oeuvre. It’s worth pointing out that Hemingway wrote Torrrents of Spring as a satire of Sherwood Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter. How successful it is in this regard I don’t know, what I am more interesting in tracing, is the opportunity Hemingway takes to launch a broadside against the modernist project at large.
There’s not a page that goes by that Hemingway does not satirise the prose styles of either Gertrude Stein (‘Yogi Johnson walking down the silent street with his arm around the little Indian’s shoulder. The big Indian walking along beside them. The cold night. The shuttered houses of the town. The little Indian, who has lost his artificial arm. The big Indian, who was also in the war. Yogi Johnson, who was in the war too’) the more folksy thoughts of Leopold Bloom (‘What is that old writing fellow Shakespear says?’) or the weightier thematising of D.H. Lawrence (‘In some ways the pump-factory had hardened him. His speech had become more clipped. More like these hardy Northern workers’). More than these individual examples however is the broader alienation or discomfort intergral to modern life in industrialised Anglosphere after the first world war, summed up in the persistent refrain: ‘What was it all about? Where was it taking her?’
This is a familiar story underpinning literary modernism’s emergence, and we know well the formal strategies which emerge as a means of containing the modern sensibility, be it fragmentation, referentiality, the drawing on literary antecedents as a guarantor of one’s own fundamental seriousness. And none of these emerge unscathed either. The waitress at the diner to whom one of the main characters becomes engaged is from the Lake District (‘Wordworth’s country’ comes the helpful gloss), for instance.
The culmination of all this comes in Hemingway’s solicitous addresses to the reader which are interleaved throughout the text, about his luncheons with John Dos Passos and how F. Scott FitzGerald’s just been by, and how difficult it was to research the history of Native American tribes in the last chapter and if the reader has a manuscript themselves to drop it by one of the cafés, etc. Subtlety is obviously not what Hemingway’s about here, but it’s an interesting observation on the tension between what the modernist project said about itself and how Hemingway regarded it in practice. Rather than being founded on autonomy and transcendence, it inculcates a cult of the author and whatever mastery they exhibit over their materials. The insular gossip culture of Paris travels as far as Petoskey, Michigan, with factory workers and waitresses trading anecdotes about Henry James’ last words and Ford Madox Ford’s encounters with high society. It is this sublimated, parasocial aspect to the modern that is most noteworthy in Torrents of Spring, and certainly appears to be the most enduring, based on how the vast majority of them are now marketed (‘just think of it, H.G. Wells talking about you right in our home. Anyway, H.G. Wells’). The final author’s note, injuncting the reader to tell their friends about the book if they enjoyed it because of how hard it is to shift units these days, make clear in precise terms what these poses, aesthetic though they may be, are really all about.
Mike McCormack’s novel Solar Bones can be regarded as of a piece with the resurgence of Irish neo-modernism, enacted variously by writers such as Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh and Claire Louise-Bennett. The motivations underpinning neo-modernism in other sectors, be it the academy, poetry, performance art and architecture, are highly varied and will not be treated in full here. I would contend that these writers in particular have advanced modernist aesthetics in the name of a feminist agenda, deterritorialising the masculinist stylistic tropes formerly associated with writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett et al. and putting it to radical political ends. McCormack’s modernism, I argue, aligns him more closely with his Anglophone peer Will Self, who tends to distillate their writing through quite academic notions of ‘what ‘proper’ modernism shouldlook like’. Self, in his war against the modern reader and their smartphone, seems to have adopted modernism as a rearguard action against post-modernity’s fallout, seeing it as the only means of producing ‘a new classicism’. This formalist objective has the effect that some of the texts in his modernist trilogy can take on the shape of a normative or flatpack modernism. Solar Bones, far from being as schematic as Umbrella,neverthelessengages very deliberately with the notion of the individual in society and how that broader ‘mass’ might best be understood from a narrative perspective, belying its distillation through quite scholarly theories of ‘what modernism is’.
It should be noted that, contrary to many, many reviews reporting the opposite, Solar Bones is not composed of one long sentence.Solar Bonescontains paragraphs, margins, and the rhythm is always subject to an intensely calculated amount of control, which renders the text an eminently readable one. What these paragraphs do facilitate, is a break with chronological time, and any given blank space might bring the reader anywhere from ‘the present’, an hour in the life of the novel’s protagonist Marcus Conway, to his childhood, his late adolescence, or an average working day before the event of his retirement. This disconnectedness exists less to fragment than to illuminate, to represent Galway as existing within a global totality, with references to news events such as the transmission of H5N1 across species barriers, car bombings in Baghdad, pessimistic economic forecasts, or the west of Ireland’s unconstructed water infrastructure inert on a drawing board in Ottawa. His games with time and space allow McCormack to realise in novelistic form, the impersonal political and economic forces which govern the life of every citizen in the state, as in this paragraph in which his daughter’s birth certificate is signed:
it fixed her within a political structure which undertook to spend a percentage of its GDP on her health and her education and her defence among other things and over twenty years later I can still feel something of that mysterious pride which swept through me as I sat there behind the steering wheel, the uncanny feeling that my child was elevated into something above being my daughter or my own flesh and blood — there was a metaphysical reality to her now — she had stepped into that political index which held a space for her in the state’s mindfulness, a place that was hers alone and could not be occupied by anyone else
The quotation above is indicative of a scope and ambition of Solar Bones, rarely glimpsed elsewhere in Irish fiction, which allows McCormack to delve into issues such as emigration, without dependence on prior convention, and present a convincing portrait of late-stage capitalism, a mode of production in which his son Darragh, has far less in the way of career prospects than he did, and the steady paternalist order which he represents, is slowly fading away. All of this serves to make McCormack a novelist as good as bringing politics into conversation with literature which refracts reality as anyone writing in Ireland today (Anne Enright aside).
One might almost frame the style as the realisation of the dialectic in literary form, minutely tuned to the mechanics of action, reaction, stimulus and response. This is not to say that it is immune to being overcooked at times, ‘giddy fit of enraged irrationality’ being just one example. McCormack’s cadences can be so expertly balanced that he winds up in a compulsive even-handedness. Solar Bones thereby becomes a machine for the reproduction of its own style, which enacts in turn a significant number of exclusions, constructions and silences. The political ramifications of this are most visible when Marcus describes his son’s concept of a role-playing game based on the H-Block hunger strikes in the eighties:
all his night spent poring over accounts of the hunger strike till he had amassed a broad and detailed comprehension of the background material and the complex political context in which the strike occurred with all its ebbs and flows, all its moves and countermoves
All these ebbs, flows, moves and countermoves produce a gentle and rocking inflection which imply that the conflict was in some sense equal, rather than determined by coercion exerted by the British state and the desperate strategies which arise in response to occupation. Another example, when Marcus speaks about his voting preferences:
I have, through the years, voted left, right and centre, each time doing so with some shade of that solemn meeting at the gable of the house renewing itself and prompting me, time and again that sense of consequence which attends putting a stroke on a ballot paper coming to me in the prvacy of the voting booth as it did
Here we see the return of the gentle, rolling and rollicking, and elegant dip and bend, precise whirling and turning and ripping and riving and jumping and jiving of the sentence almost weaving in and out before our eyes, as though the choices being weighed up in the voting booth were somehow neutral; when society is viewed as being interconnected, and subject to thermodynamic laws of reaction/counter-reaction, everything is flattened, and class struggle is nowhere to be seen.
It is through Marcus’ vocation as an engineer and his increasing disenchantment with Irish politics, its failed attempts to make manifest an authentic spirit of social democracy that the book’s political disposition is most legible. Twice in the text, Marcus’ expertise is frustrated by gombeen men, aspiring parliamentarians and councillors pushing a parish-pump agenda, trying to get their photographs taken on the front of local newspapers to secure re-election rather than building a sustainable infrastructure. At one point the gombeen politician begins to sound like Marcus’ parochial cosmology, which I don’t think was the intended effect:
I’ve spent the last three years trying to build an electoral base in the south-west corner of this county, the largest and most far-flung constituency in the whole country — leaflets, clinics, church gate collections — the whole lot, anything to harvest a quota of first preferences in an area with no major urban centre, just a few scattered villages, an area which is, by and large covered with some of the wildest bogs and the highest mountains in the whole province, an area populated in the main by black-faced sheep, none of whom, to the best of my knowledge has the vote, because if they did I would be sitting on a nice fat surplus…till then I have to take to the highways and the byways of this country for funerals and festivals
This even-handedness is most detectable in the novel’s representation of the 1977 general election, the year in which the Fine Gael/Labour coalition was wiped out by Fianna Fáil under Jack Lynch. However, no party, nor key political figure is named. Instead we get euphemisms such as ‘law and order party’, ‘blue and green’. This may sound unfair on McCormack, and may well be due to Ireland’s libel laws, but I feel very strongly that it is a tremendous loss to Irish literature that Liam Cosgrave does not appear in a televised address during the biggest failure of his political career, or indeed during the campaign when he pledged to run down English elements of our commentariat like ‘mongrel foxes’, which is to say nothing of how much hay he could have made with Labour TD James Tully’s catastrophic attempts to re-draw the national constituency boundaries in advance of the election. In occasions such as this the form of the novel seems to be at odds with its attempt to make a serious political intervention; while the novel does the local and the global well, the national between these layers seems to be missed.
I find this novel’s choice to elide all the systems at work on the national level, while representing and naming two incompetent and cynical gombeen men and thereby implicitly diagnose irish politics’ problem as a populist spirit aiming at fulfilling the grubby wishes of unwashed rural voter unfortunate, and too much an outgrowth of views expressed in many sectors of our media, both national and private. Marcus isn’t a saint, but i’d argue the novel positions him as a benevolent philosopher king, capable of making long-term decisions that our political system of proportional representation cannot. This is attested to by his narrative ability to zoom out and ‘go cosmic’, both throughout the body of the novel (the mundane nature of everyday reality and memory considered through the screen of modernist sentencing expanding and expanding until its takes on the shape of a window into the universal) and at its end, when he begins to sense the beginning of a communion with God, ‘a fellow engineer’.
This is underlined by the fact that his wife remains, like Molly Bloom, very much rooted in the physical, the only time she touches the face of the divine is, quite revealingly in my view, in the context of ‘fucking the world into redemption’. Her being infected with the cryptosporidium parasite (her various physical ailments, discharges receives no small amount of narrative attention) places her in the realm of the fleshly, which is to say nothing of the young attractive waitress Marcus eyes up for a bit too long in a café towards the end. (Please, please, please, can I never read another novel where a middle-aged man lustily eyes up a young woman). Women have bodies, they are flesh, associated with food, sex, sickness and warmth, men are cold, have thoughts, think about politics, eventualities, the future, what roads are made of, they’re Angry, but in a way that’s somehow Important. Men’s thoughts are the stuff of novels, while women undress themselves, parade naked in the streets performing inscrutable (and perhaps frivolous) performance art and create installations.
I am, in case this is not clear, talking about Marcus’ daughter, Agnes. Agnes is a visual artist, whose major work takes the form of a sequence of excerpts from local newspapers:
when I got him to the ground, Your Honour, I administered
we have stood by him even though he has caused us untold grief
a series of consecutive slaps, Your Honour
which appear to Marcus as follows:
the red script which covered the entire gallery from ceiling to floor along its length, handwriting in various types and sizes, a continuous swathe of text…all dealing with court cases which covered the full gamut from theft and domestic violence to child abuse, public order offences, illegal grazing on protected lands, petty theft, false number plates, public affray, burglary, assault and drink-driving offences…rising and falling in swells and eddies through various sizes and spacings, congested in the tight rhythms of certain examples only to swell out in crashing typographical waves in others, a maelstrom of voices and colour
Now, for me, this description amounts to nothing less than the text’s repressed stylistic unconscious, and its attempts to put a shape onto the restlessness of postmodern experience breaking through the polished, male, modernist veneer. The maelstrom of voices, the subterranean accounts of voiceless victims of state exclusion battling with The Great Narrative of the Declining Man; it’s no wonder Marcus nearly gets sick and has to leave the gallery. Marcus is an old-fashioned realist, who dislikes his son use of the term ‘onto-political’ and rubbishes revolutionary proposals for political change because he views it as impossible to get hard-nosed rural voters on board with workers’ soviets. He prefers instead the causality of modernist time, the supra-structure, after which the novel is named:
upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible from the moment I get up in the morning and stand at the kitchen window with a mug of tea in my hand, watching the first cars of the day passing on the road, every one of them known to me
It would be great to see McCormack’s next work take on issues related to the troika and the recession, one in which would require him to name names, and might pressure a narrator such as Marcus to investigate the root causes behind the normative governing structures of the country he’s representing being put under greater and greater levels of pressure.
(Skip to results if you want to miss the boring parts, or look here for a more granular, in depth account, including the code itself. If you code, yeah, I’m so sorry, I’ll make it more elegant soon)
This post will document a statistical analysis which was carried out on a corpus of 500 novels. 250 of these texts are generally categorised as ‘realist’ and will be used as a benchmark against which we might define modernist literary style, a mode of writing which arose in the early twentieth century, (though it should be noted that this chronology is increasingly subject to revision due to the work of new modernist scholars).
The first novel in the naturalistic corpus, chronologically speaking, is Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, and was written in the year 1794. The final one is Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, which was published in 1895. This corpus contains the complete prose works, a phrase here encompassing novels, novellas and short story collections, of fifteen writers, Jane Austen, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte, Stephen Crane, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray, Leo Tolstoy and Émile Zola.
The corpus of 250 modernist novels begins in the year 1869, with Henry James’ first bloc of short stories, and continues all the way to Samuel Beckett’s 1988 novella ‘Stirrings Still’, so there is some overlap between these two corpora’s starting and end points. This modernist corpus otherwise consists of the complete works of nineteen writers such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Elizabeth Bowen, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott FitzGerald, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kakfa, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Flann O’Brien, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf.
This disproportion between the two corpora, with fifteen realists versus ninteen modernists, may seem disconcerting at first, but what is required in order for the statistical analyses to function is for the number of observations to be equal, rather than the number of novelists. Unfortunately, realist authors wrote more novels than modernist authors, and this compromised our ability to retain the same number of authors on each end of the generic spectrum.
One other aspect to consider is the international dimension. The realist corpus includes ten novelists who wrote in English, but there are also two Russian and three French realists, two of whom, Zola and the aforementioned Balzac, were far more prolific than any other writer in either corpus. Zola and Balzac composed 86 and 34 novels, short story collections or novellas respectively. This has the consequence that well over half of the realist corpus is in translation from another language in comparison to just under 10% of the modernist corpus. I intend to address this when I am at a later stage in my research. There has been some work published on the issues surrounding the quantification of literature in translation and across language, but I do not yet possess a sufficient breadth of knowledge in this field to comment intelligently on the matter. I do think it is important to have French and Russian writers included in the realist corpus on the basis that many of them, be they Tolstoy, Flaubert or Balzac, exerted a significant influence on their modernist successors.
Whether or not these are ‘the best’ or most accurate translations is sort of beside the point, from the reading I have done around the issue of literary translation, their being subject to change over time is in the nature of how text is received and re-constituted in different eras for different communities of readers (this discussion between Will Self and Kafka’s translators is particularly illuminating in this context, please do not be put off by Self, he gives the translators so much space to discuss the process, you really should watch it). The germane point here is that the translations being analysed in this instance could not be considered to be the most contemporary. There might be an argument for retaining these older translations on the basis that they are more likely to be the versions of the text which would have been circulating in the early twentieth century and therefore the translations modernist authors would have been more likely to have read, but making this claim would require a greater burden of proof, such as what languages each author read novels in and what their reading habits were more generally.
So, to turn to the analysis. My research is directed towards the quantitative analysis of grammar, the rationale being that we could, by examining varying quantities of particular categories of words, such as verbs, adjectives or prepositions, develop an understanding of how literary fiction changes from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, and, more specifically, how literary modernism departs from, or, perhaps remains contiguous with, this previous generation of novel writing. This was carried out using a POS tagger from the Natural Language Toolkit in Python.
From realism to modernism:
average sentence length decreases by 4 words, from an average 22 words to 18 words per sentence.
Personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them) increase by 1% from 5% to 6%. Interrogative pronouns (who and where) also decrease by 0.01% from 0.03% to 0.02%
Verbs in the past tense increase by 1% from 6% to 7%.
Adverbs increase by 0.5% from 4.5% to 5%.
Prepositions, (after, in, to, on, and with) decrease by 0.4% from 10.9% to 10.5%
Wh Determiners (words beginning with wh, such as ‘where’ or ‘who’ acting to modify the noun phrase) decrease by 0.2% from 0.6% to 0.4%.
Particles (parts of speech with grammatical function with no meaning such as ‘up’ in the phrase ‘I tidied up the room’) increase by 0.1% from 0.4% to 0.5%.
Non third-person singular present verbs (verbs in first or second person) decrease by 0.1% from 1.6% to 1.5%.
Existentials (words such as ‘there’ which indicates that something exists) increase by 0.04%, from 0.17% to 0.21%.
Superlative adjectives (adjectives such as ‘best’, ‘biggest’, ‘worst’) decrease by 0.01% from 0.14% to 0.13%.
It will not have escaped your attention that a lot of these percentages are quite small. The extent to which any given text is made up of this hyper-specific categories is pretty minimal in the first place, so this is why many of these quantities seem so laughably tiny. Rest assured that they are statistically significant, this does not mean that they are important, this requires a greater burden of proof, more analyses, more exploration, but that they are noteworthy considering the quantities involved.
One boxplot which might be of interest, is the one below, which shows the ‘spread’ of the data for average sentence length between realism and modernism.
What we see on the left is the variation of the sentence length data (the term ‘variation’ here meaning the general ‘dispersedness’ of the data) for realism, which goes from 10 to roughly 35 words per sentence with an outlier or two on either end, whereas if we consider modernism, we have everything from zero (Samuel Beckett’ novel How It Is which has no full stops in it) up to forty-five, with far more outliers on the higher end. Higher outliers, are data points with values greater than 1.5 times the interquartile range above the third quartile, lower outliers, of which there are three, are more than 1.5 times below the first quartile. For one’s own general knowledge, the modernist outliers for sentence length are
William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (46.4), and Intruer in the Dust (42.3)
Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (42.9), In a Budding Grove (40.2) In a Budding Grove (40.2), Time Re-gained (38), The Prisoner (37.2) and The Captive (35.7) The Guermantes Way (34.1) and Sodom and Gomorrah (30.9).
Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and The Unnamable have 40.5 and 32.9 words per sentence respectively
Gertrude Stein’s novels The Making of Americans and Everybody’s Autobiography have 33.9 and 33.5 respectively.
Henry James’ The Ivory Tower and The Young Lovell score 31.8 and 29 respectively.
The three lower outlier values for sentence length are all written by Beckett, such as the aforementioned How It Is and also Worstward Ho (4.9) and Ill Seen Ill Said (7).
It can be tempting I think, when we see these sorts of names surface so prominently, in conjunction with a visual confirmation of the existence of an avant-garde to think that modernism in its most pure form was a kind of relentless maximalism, an uncompromising movement towards longer sentences, more pronouns, and that all other manifestations of it are inadequate or insufficient in some way. This is a kind of a boring and masculinist overview of the genre, which takes, I think, too many of the claims made by its most dogmatic adherents at face value, and it’s not a modernism I’m particularly interesting in defending or instantiating. There can also, of course, be a regressive or rearguard aspect to modernism, which is perceptible in the following boxplot, which displays the distribution of past tense verbs.
As was pointed out above, modernism displays an increase in past tense verbs overall, but here we see a large number of outlier values moving against the overall trend. These novels are:
James Joyce’s Ulysses (4.3%) and Finnegans Wake (2.7%)
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (4.2%) and Requiem for a Nun (3.6%)
Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies (3.9%), Fizzles (2.5%), Company (2%), Texts for Nothing (1.8%), The Unnamable (1.7%), Worstward Ho (1.6%), Ill Seen Ill Said (1.4%) and a corpus of his miscellaneous and unpublished short fiction (2.2%).
Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s collaborative novel The Nature of a Crime (2.6%)
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (2.4%)
Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1.7%)
The higher modernism outlier is Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel The Years (10%) and the lower realism outlier is Balzac’s 1841 novel Letters of Two Brides (2.7%)
In this way we can see that modernism is not just a unidirectional commitment to a narrow sequence of stylistic changes. Instead, it’s a contradictory movement in which a number of different stylistic markers jostle against and subvert one another. In this particular instance, for example, we can perceive the authors most generally understood to be among the most uncompromising; Joyce, Beckett, Stein, Woolf and Faulkner, resisting the overall trend.
From the two boxplots I’ve generated so far, you might have noticed that in, modernism tends to generate a greater number of outliers, and I can confirm that this trend of a greater degree grammatical heterogeneity manifesting itself in modernist novel-writing than naturalistic novel-writing persists across the other categories of grammar, which you can validate by looking at the complete analysis here.
This struck me as important development, so I quantified the extent of each data point’s outlier-ness, and then grouped them according to author. These values were then divided by the number of outlier data points, because some of these novelists only have a small number of novels in the corpus versus others. Austen’s complete works would be totally outnumbered by Balzac’s for instance. The results appear below:
Please do note the values on the y-axis; Jane Austen is barely above zero because the only outlier text she wrote is Mansfield Park, which marks itself out for its disproportional use of adjectives. I thought it better to not exclude her from the plot though, because, I didn’t want it to turn into even more of a boy’s club than it might otherwise be. It would be useful, and exciting I think, to conceive of this plot as an indication of early breaches with conventional form, perhaps some nineteenth century anticipations of modernism. Reading Dostoevsky, Zola and Balzac in this manner would all be coterminous with changes taking place in the study of modernism now, but reading Thackeray and Eliot in these terms might be a more surprising development, and I’d be interested to read these texts in light of what we’re seeing here.
The modernism plot for deviation appears below:
From this plot we can see that the most avant-gardist prose writers, considered from the perspective of their grammar, appear to be Beckett, Stein, Woolf, Conrad and Joyce. Of course, this is nowhere near a definitive answer as to what modernist style is, or who its most innovative practitioners were; these measurements are atomistic and are quantifying individual words. But style is not just words in isolation, style is agglomerations of words, spaces between words, the clandestine networks and relations the phrases these words add up to compose in the mind of the reader, and, if these digital methodologies are to have any chance of illustrating this shift (an inadequate term in the first instance, since it is more an accumulation of changes distributed over a broad corpus than a sudden or transformational one that we are here concerned with) it is in these cumulative terms that style must be quantified, in order to avoid drifting into the reductive and schematic scientism that numerical analyses of this kind are frequently accused of perpetuating.