The Conradian: Review

By Alexandra Peat, Franklin University Switzerland

Robert Burden, Travel, Modernism and Modernity. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. 275pp. £65.

Robert Burden’s Travel, Modernism and Modernity is the latest arrival into the fairly crowded market of books on Modernism and travel. Burden offers a survey of Modernism with a focus on travel as “narrative paradigm and trope” (7). His general focus is on Anglo-American Modernism, with chapters on Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. Peter Kalliney has recently written about the “recalibration of the Modernist canon” to account for non-white, non-Anglo-American writers, [1] and such a shift has, for obvious reasons, been particularly significant in approaches to Modernist travel, as we see a renewed critical interest in non-privileged modes of travelling as well as those who travel in unexpected directions or, as Anna Snaith has put it, “the wrong way.” [2] With this in mind, Burden’s particular selection of authors might seem narrow or slightly old fashioned, but his approach also suggests how canonical figures, such as Conrad, who risk being left behind in the recalibration of canons can be continually revisited and critically reinterpreted. While Burden’s central premise that “travel and travel writing had a significant impact on literary Modernism” and that Modernism “transformed travel writing in formal and thematic ways” is very much in line with established critical trends (235), this study nonetheless places renewed emphasis on the relationship between theme and form. Burden merges a discussion of theories of modern travel offered by David Adams, Helen Carr, and Caren Kaplan (among others) with formalist approaches to Modernism. He coins the term “late” or “radicalised” realism (2, 6) both to understand the emergence of Modernism and to define much Modernist writing about travel writing as a response to representational and cultural crisis.

Travel, Modernism and Modernity considers a plethora of travel-related themes within diverse theoretical frameworks. Burden discusses various modes of travelling, including expatriation, exile, quest, exploration, and pilgrimage. He considers voyages through sea and land, from forest to city. He explores the interrelated spaces of home and abroad. And, he examines questions of gender as well as imperial and orientalist journeys, considering the role of the traveller’s gaze in constructions of cultural difference. Throughout, Burden returns to several interrelated arguments. Firstly, he places an emphasis on aesthetic form. For him, these are all aesthetically revolutionary but politically conservative writers who envisage travel as a retreat from the modern world. He consequently understands travel, for these Modernist writers, as a mode of nostalgia and a search for “the real.” This “real” is, for Burden, located away from modernity and, particularly, in a kind of authentic travelling that is opposed to the modern tourist experience.

Each chapter of the book focuses on a single author and follows a similar structural pattern, beginning with a discussion of the authors’ lives – with a particular focus on their travelling experiences – and then interweaving an analysis of their writing about travel. Burden provides a broad survey of each author’s œuvre, moving deftly from non-fiction to fiction and including both familiar and more critically neglected works. The chapters are organized internally by various thematic subheadings, such as (in the Lawrence chapter) “Home Thoughts from Abroad “ and “Landscape, the Spirit of Place and the Other” (113, 119), but this loose structure entails that the discussion of key themes and texts can sometimes seem slightly repetitive, both within the individual chapters and across the book as a whole. At the same time, the individual chapters are scrupulously researched, dense with quotations, and rich in interesting detail.

The chapter on Conrad that starts the book is, to my mind, the strongest. While Conrad’s work has undoubtedly gained fresh significance in light of postcolonial studies of Modernism (see, for example, Howard J. Booth’s Modernism and Empire: Writing and British Coloniality 1890–1940), in discussions of travel in Modernism, Conrad often serves as preface or prologue. Burden firmly puts Conrad in the frame of Modernism. Particularly valuable is his discussion of Conrad’s writing of sea voyages and his complex constructions of the sea as at once a space for trade and commerce, and a metaphoric signifier of refuge and freedom. From the placid gulf of Nostromo to the turbulent storms in Lord Jim, Conrad’s sea-voyages deconstruct the traditional adventure story; in the process, Burden notes, Conrad offers a critique of European imperialism, while, at the same time, expressing a nostalgic yearning for the masculine bonds of the sea-faring community. Burden does not just focus on the significance of the sea in Conrad’s work though, including briefer sections on his evocative sense of place and anthropomorphized views of nature – both of these often symbolic and abstract – and on Conrad’s unreal and disorienting cityscapes.

Burden’s book is at its best with richly layered and textually detailed readings of works including Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, and The Nigger of the Narcissus. A feature of Conrad’s own writing is the way in which it asks the reader to see and then to re-see, to look again from a different perspective, position, or context. Such a complex matrix of viewpoints is, indeed, characteristic of much Modernist writing about travel, which not only adopts travel as a theme but also evinces a mobile way of seeing and understanding. As Burden guides the reader back and forth through the ambivalences of Conrad’s texts, he both elucidates and, to an extent, echoes Conrad’s own formal strategies, deepening our understanding of how important travel was to Conrad, not just as a thematic occupation but also as a structural device.

While many of the recent books on Modernist travel focus on either fiction or non-fiction, Burden brings these together, so we can consider, for example, Forster’s own attempts at a guidebook to Alexandria in the context of the contemporary guidebooks that he gently mocks in his fiction. However, Burden does not go as far as he might in exploring the significant overlaps or contradictions between fiction and non-fiction. He defines the stories concerning Conrad’s Marlow not as autobiography but “imaginative reconstruction” (29). Yet, while he emphasises how it is necessary to distinguish between Marlow and Conrad to understand the treatment of race in Heart of Darkness, he also draws a parallel between Conrad’s own “map-gazing” in “Geography and Some Explorers” and the map that Marlow projects his imperialist dreams onto in Heart of Darkness without sufficiently accounting for the ironic treatment of the latter. For many of these Modernist writers, the process of transposing their own travelling experiences into fiction entailed a different way of understanding travel. Moreover, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are often twisty and porous given the generic slipperiness of much Modernist writing about travel.

Burden forwards a view of Modernism as a reactionary response to cultural crisis and sees Conrad, Forster, Lawrence, James, and Wharton as aesthetically experimental but politically conservative writers. He repeats Frederic Jameson’s view that “Conrad didn’t believe in political change” (37), posits Forster’s “antiquarianism” and Lawrence’s “primitivism” as reactions to, and critiques of modernity (89, 110), and suggests that both James and Wharton choose an idealized version of a European Old World over the New World of America (168). Burden’s argument concerning what he sees as the Modernist privileging of the aesthetic is multi-layered, but, ultimately, he figures the aesthetic as an inevitable retreat from the political, a “flight from the present” (241), and a means by which to order the traveller’s desires and experiences. We might ask, however, if we still feel the need to choose between aestheticism and socio-political engagement in Modernism, particularly when the very processes of writing travel inevitably intertwine the two. To see these writers and their works as only nostalgic is, to my mind, overly simplistic and, in this respect, Burden’s analytical technique of moving between and picking from various different primary works proves something of a shortcoming as it does not always allow him to explore fully these writer’s complex negotiations with both the past and the modern present. While Burden is right, for example, that James’s Lambert Strether chooses Maria Gostrey over Mrs Newsome and New England, he has by the end of The Ambassadors gone beyond her, and his return to America seems more a new beginning than (as Burden sees it) a failure. When it comes to Forster, it is very hard to align his critique of empire and Victorian modes of sexual conservatism with what Burden calls “a deeply conservative stance” (240). For all these writers, the past is not a singular or monolithic entity but instead historically textured. Rather than simply rejecting modernity, their attitudes towards it were equally contradictory and ambivalent.

Burden reiterates the familiar distinction between the traveller and the tourist, affirming that “the quarrel with tourism is central to the critique of modernity” (80). His close readings, however, complicate this argument by showing how the spurious dichotomy between the traveller and the tourist breaks down. Forster, for example, satirizes tourists in A Room with a View but he puts the mocking words in the mouth of Reverend Eager, a thoroughly unlikeable character, and Eleanor Lavish, a thoroughly silly character. While I agree with Burden that much Modernist writing about travel confronts the “problem of the real” (237), many of these texts question not only the possibility, but also the desirability of pinning down an “authentic” travelling experience. After all, as James Buzard reminds us, the concept of going “off the beaten track” is the most well-worn travel cliché of all. [3] In this context, some further development of the interesting concept of “radicalized realism” may have been useful.

Burden’s book grants us the opportunity to revisit received ideas about Modernism and consider them through the frame of travel. In particular, the book moves towards a valuable reappraisal of the work of Joseph Conrad, putting him firmly in the mix of Modernism and understanding his tales of travel in relation to both a broader context of travelling culture and transforming ideas about how to translate the experience of travel into art. Throughout Travel, Modernism and Modernity Burden asks important and challenging questions about the ways in which travel transformed Modernism and Modernism, in turn, radically re-conceived travel writing. When it came to the answering these questions, however, I was left wanting a little more. The book is full of interesting insights, encompassing a broad variety of material, and Burden’s arguments are most convincing when he embraces, rather than attempts to resolve the nuances, inconsistencies, and contradictions – both aesthetic and political – of much Modernist writing about travel.

[1] Peter Kalliney. Modernism in a Global Context. London: Bloomsbury (2016), p. 25.
[2] Anna Snaith. Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945. Cambridge UP (2014).
[3] James Buzard. The Beaten Track: European Tourism, and the Ways to "Culture," 1880-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1993), p. 4.

© 2016 Alexandra Peat






last updated: Tuesday, March 29, 2016 1:21 PM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy