THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO
Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature
By Bill Goldstein
Illustrated. 351 pp. Henry Holt. $30
World War I wounded or killed almost 40 million people, upended the balance of power that had prevailed in Europe for a century, heralded a new age of mechanized warfare and redrew borders around the globe. It also transformed literature. Since the days of the Black Death, writers in English had fashioned books from other books. Chaucer plundered Boccaccio to good effect. Shakespeare filched parts of “Hamlet” from Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy.” Milton retooled Virgil for English Protestants. And such theft and fealty persisted well into the era of internal combustion. Dickens worked lines of Sir Philip Sidney into the 59 chapters of “Great Expectations.”
The Treaty of Versailles made no provisions against the canon, but it might as well have. After the war, Virginia Woolf claimed to have “burst out laughing” at the sound of Tennyson. But such mirth came mingled with despair, and one could plausibly define literary modernism as the washing of the corpse of tradition, albeit sardonically. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” performed last rites for Homer’s “Odyssey” and destroyed the whole of the 19th century, at least according to T. S. Eliot. But it was also a joke. Eliot’s own writing was just as funereal and just as wry. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” a voice in “The Waste Land” intones, as if from sanitarium or deathbed. Yet Eliot’s working title — “He Do the Police in Different Voices” — quoted Dickens at his liveliest and goofiest. In the 1920s, writers could still root themselves in the past, but only as eulogists or parodists. The best were both.
In his fresh account of four modernists, Bill Goldstein, a former editor of the books section of this newspaper’s website and an interviewer for NBC New York, does not tell this story. Instead “The World Broke in Two” chronicles Morgan (Forster), David (Lawrence), Tom (Eliot) and Virginia (Woolf) as they wage personal battle in tremendous earnest against blank sheets of paper to create important new works from the inner recesses of their genius. Goldstein offers a snapshot…