Critic Bergonzi travels familiar roads without getting in a rut

The Myth of Modernism and Twentieth Century Literature, by Bernard Bergonzi. New York: St. Martin's Press. 216 pp. $27.50. Modernism's myth consists largely of the modern writer's tendency to deny, disguise, or conceal what truly influenced him, so that he may exaggerate the extent of his originality, or at the very least, claim that he was influenced by a less obvious, more exotic tradition than his fellow writers. (Thus, Ezra Pound claimed to have been influenced by Chinese poetry.)

Bernard Bergonzi's sensitivity to the modernist myth does not diminish his interest in -- or appreciation of -- modernism. A professor of English at the University of Warwick (England), and the author of books on Anthony Powell, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and literature of the 1930s, Bergonzi has compiled from his briefer writings of the past 15 years a set of essays on subjects ranging from the nostalgic allure of ``The Bloomsbury Pastoral'' to the latest twist and turn of England's leading literary Marxist theoretician in ``The Terry Eagleton Story.''

The pleasure of reading Bergonzi is not so much like the excitement felt on hearing a brilliant speaker expound new theories as it is like the satisfaction that comes from a good conversation with a friend after the speaker has spoken. Written in a lively, urbane style that will appeal to many readers, from interested amateurs to full-fledged literati, these essays display a penetrating wit and a firm grasp of the specific that we might not have expected from the book's grandiloquently vague title.

Although the pieces were written for different publications on different occasions, and although Bergonzi's views are not always consistent, the total effect is remarkably cohesive. An essay on Wyndham Lewis's offensive opinions modulates smoothly into one on Ezra Pound, and thence to another on Pound and Donald Davie. Bergonzi's astute discussion of Davie's ambivalent admiration for Pound (who was, as the critic Harold Bloom would put it, Davie's main influence, or precursor) is followed by an examination of a similar relationship between the critic F. R. Leavis and his precursor, T. S. Eliot.

Next, Bergonzi tackles with exemplary judiciousness that much-debated question of whether the late T. S. Eliot of ``The Four Quartets,'' speaking in his ``public'' voice, is preferable to the early, more ``personal'' Eliot of ``The Wasteland.'' Bergonzi's fondness for bifurcation also makes him an illuminating guide to the comparable careers and comparative merits of critic-poet Donald Davie and poet-critic Philip Larkin, who, like a pair of fraternal twins, seem more different the more one knows of them.

A similar juxtaposition -- Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh -- opens Bergonzi's sympathetic, yet discerning, consideration of ``The Catholic Novel.'' And, in his final essay, ``The Terry Eagleton Story,'' Bergonzi discusses, amid much else, the effect of Eagleton's Roman Catholic upbringing on his Marxist thought.

As even this incomplete inventory suggests, Bergonzi is not afraid to deal with frequently handled topics, where the risk of saying the obvious is very high. And, often enough, what he says is obvious, but is also just the sort of ``obvious'' thing that has been staring us in the face without our noticing it. For a critic, this ability to travel down much-traveled roads without getting caught in the rut of old arguments is almost as valuable as the ability to venture into uncharted territory: for the general reader, perhaps even more valuable. Certainly, we owe a debt of gratitude to a critic who takes central issues and formulates them thoughtfully, memorably, and engagingly, leaving us with ideas and insights that endure long after we have put ``The Myth of Modernism and Twentieth Century Literature'' back on the shelf and ungratefully forgotten where we first encountered them.

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