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100 years of literary modernism

Ezra Pound called 1922 "year one" of a new era. So what can we expect from year 100?

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Kafka, Eliot, Wittgenstein. Photos: IMAGO / AGB Photo, ZUMA/Keystone, Leemage

Whatever 2022 might bring, it is sure to be a boon for lovers of literary anniversaries and fans of High Modernism. This year marks 100 years since 1922, the extraordinarily productive year known as the annus mirabilis of (anglophone) literary Modernism. Expect publishers, editors and craven local books columnists to be jumping at the chance to re-release and reconsider various great works one century on.

It is for good reason that Ezra Pound called 1922 “year one” of a new era: that’s the year T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses came out; Virginia Woolf published Jacob’s Room and started Mrs. Dalloway, while F. Scott Fitzgerald released two major works. On the continent, Franz Kafka wrote The Castle and Rainer Maria Rilke completed his Duino Elegies. Meanwhile, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus appeared for the first time in English. (And we thought having new Sally Rooney and new Jonathan Franzen in 2021 was wild!)

Theories abound as to what made 1922 so special: the shock of World War I, the wartime solitude of many authors, the new expansion of technology and consumerism. These Modernist masterworks exist both inside and outside their context – when we read them today, we bring something of 1922 into the present. That, in a sense, is the value of the literary anniversary. It lets us step outside our time and into another, even if that collision has no justification beyond an arbitrary round number of years. The current moment is enriched by something we wouldn’t otherwise consider, while the old text gains new meanings through the passage of time.

Either way, the anniversary means some great classic reading to get through – including for Berliners. Local critic Ryan Ruby’s fine essay on Wittgenstein and parenting, published by The Believer last year, pairs well with an upcoming new Tractatus translation from fellow Berliner Alexander Booth; the latter is also publishing translations of Nicolas Mahler’s graphic novel versions of Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time. Prominent literary critic (and ex-Berlinerin) Merve Emre’s recent An- notated Mrs. Dalloway is well worth revisiting too.