Modernism, 1922: The Year That Changed Everything

constellation of geniusIf you enjoyed watching Owen Wilson shake hands with Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s 2011 flick, Midnight in Paris, get yourself a copy of Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius as soon as you can. Following an excellent introduction that bookends 1922 with the twin towers of James Joyce’s Ulysses (published in February of that year) and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (October), Jackson’s narrative takes us through the year day-by-day, month-by-month. Composed of short journal-style entries, the book mainly flutters back and forth between Europe and the United States like a trans-Atlantic soap opera, delivering intimate details gleaned from letters, rumours, dinner table conversations, reviews, articles, and diary entries about the who’s who of modernism in 1922.

Jackson is not the first to fetishize 1922; this particular year was instrumental to the lives and careers of a host of now-legendary artistic giants: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Proust, Pound, and Hemingway for literature; Satie, Stravinsky, and Armstrong for music; Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, and Dali for painting; Hitchcock, Laing, Disney, Cocteau, and Chaplin for film (to name just a few). Needless to say, then, Constellation of Genius is a specialized book that will abore or enthrall, depending on the level of one’s interest in modernism and literary history. Fans of the era will find this gem a delightful romp of vicarious details. How did Salvador Dali go from being an “agonizingly shy” introvert with “long, thickly tangled hair, flowing down over his shoulders in imitation of a self-portrait by Raphael” to one of the wildest, most uninhibited painters associated with the dreamscapes of Surrealism? What was Chaplin’s first (and only?) artistic flop? What did Joyce and Marcel Proust talk about over dinner at their one and only in-person encounter (hint: it was extremely blasé)? The experience of reading Constellation is similar to watching Neo in The Matrix open his eyes and say, “I know Kung Fu.” Expect an information overload.

Will Self from The Guardian called this book “Insanely readable” and I have to concur; its chronological format makes for a uniquely seamless and eclectic narrative that is uncomfortably difficult to put down. In fact, its readability is the book’s strongest feature, as well as Jackson’s main achievement. For the uninitiated who want to see what all of the fuss is about, this book will be Modernism 101. It introduces an otherwise nebulous and complex movement with clear engaging prose. For those who consider themselves well-versed in the era, it will still deliver a payload of new insights and historical tidbits. I suspect there is very little new here in terms of literary history, but in order to find all of this material elsewhere, one would have to read a spectacular number of books and miscellaneous documents. Better to save the time and absorb these 536 lively pages instead.