In 1922 the poet Ezra Pound wrote that “the Christian Era ended at midnight on Oct. 29-30 of last year”—that is, the moment James Joyce finished writing Ulysses. Pound’s pronouncement helped stoke a kind of folk tale that has accompanied the novel ever since. Joyce unleashed his experimental masterwork, the story goes, and then the rest of the literary world raced to catch up with his innovations.
Not so fast, says Bill Goldstein. Yes, Ulysses’ publication in 1922 was the biggest news in a big year for literature: T.S. Eliot’s pathbreaking poem The Waste Land also came out, for instance, and Virginia Woolf began writing what would become Mrs. Dalloway. But in The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, Goldstein argues that Ulysses wasn’t the major influence it’s often depicted as. Indeed, it repelled many of its most famous readers.
“Woolf hated Ulysses and couldn’t make sense of it for the most part,” Goldstein says. “What she did understand of it she didn’t like, but it helped her discover what it is she wanted to do. She grasped it, but she moved away from it.” Similarly unimpressed was D.H. Lawrence, who was traveling from England to the United States while writing his novel Kangaroo. He kept up with the Ulysses chatter and got hold of a rare copy, but soon declared himself among those who couldn’t crack it.
A more direct influence, Goldstein argues, was Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which Woolf was reading in French as the year began. Through Proust, Goldstein writes, Woolf found the interior language she sought and which played a critical role in the style of Mrs. Dalloway. E.M. Forster, heading back to England from a trip to India, would be similarly awestruck, writing, “Would that I had the knack of unrolling such an embroidered ribbon.” By 1922 the Howard’s End author hadn’t published a novel in a dozen years, but his travels and reading would provide the creative spark that led to 1924’s A Passage to India.
Woolf and Forster’s parallel experiences initially moved Goldstein to pursue a book about a year in the lives of a quartet of major writers. “That was really the germ of the idea, Forster and Woolf, both having this reaction to Proust in 1922,” he says. Goldstein, who’s covered books for Publishers Weekly, Newsday, and the New York Times (where he helped launch its books website in 1997), took a course on Proust at the City University of New York in the late 90s, which prompted him to seek out further connections.
It helped that the writers all knew and corresponded with each other to some degree. And Goldstein was pleasantly surprised to discover while researching the book that Woolf, Forster, and Eliot spent a September weekend together at the Woolves’ country home. “It didn’t come to me until almost nine months or a year [after writing the book proposal] that this is a scene to have in the book,” Goldstein says. “You’re just so relieved when you’re writing the book that you actually have the stories that complete the argument that you had in mind. I didn’t realize that the anecdotes and the what I like to call 'local color' was going to be there in such profusion.”
One virtue of The World Broke in Two is that kind of biographical detail, supported by the trove of letters and diary entries the book’s four central authors left behind. He also delivers some thoughtful analyses of the echoes of Proust in Woolf’s writing, and the impact of World War I on Lawrence’s work. But Goldstein was careful not to get overly tangled in critical analysis, especially when it came to Eliot’s forbidding Waste Land. “I had all of this material about what was in the poem,” he says. “But then it hit me: at the beginning of the year he doesn’t even know what the poem is and what it means. That let me off the hook at least for a little while, at least as far as telling the story of poem. I didn’t need to tell what the poem meant, because the poem hadn’t been finished yet.”
That uncertainty speaks to a point Goldstein often returns to: though we perceive these writers as commanding and assured, they were often hobbled by anxiety and uncertainty, befitting any artist trying something new. “They began what is heralded as the signal year of modernism all feeling as if they had no perch of literary accomplishment,” he says. “They felt that time had sort of passed them by. And they ended the year in a place they could not have foreseen. It’s a great story.”
Mark Athitakis is a regular Kirkus contributor and author of The New Midwest.