Modernism, Nationalism & The Novel

Winner of the Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Prize

Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2000; now available in paperback and Ebook editions) shows how novelists such as Conrad, Joyce, Proust, and d’Annunzio attempted through their experiments with the status of the omniscient narrator to respond to a crisis of faith in the liberal idea of the nation-state. The realist novel, Pericles Lewis argues, represented the nation-state as it was imagined in liberal theory: autonomous individuals pursued their own interests in the context of a shared social reality. The omniscient narrator acted as a guarantor of this shared reality, playing a role similar to that of the state in classical liberal political thought. In the modernist period, the rise of racial-ethnic theories of national character caused political theorists and novelists to question both the existence of a shared reality and the autonomy of the individual. The modernists scrutinized the distinction between an objective narrator and subjective characters with limited perspectives and gave life to a whole generation of narrator-heroes who forged new social realities in their own images. The modernists’ literary techniques focused attention on the shaping of the individual by the nation and on the potential for the individual, in time of crisis, to redeem the nation.


“The study’s considerable ambition involves both the crossing of boundaries between national literatures in several languages and the combining of aesthetic and political perspectives through conjoined attention to style and politics. Concerning the politics of European nations early in the century, Lewis focuses on the decline of liberalism and the upsurge in organicist nationalisms, ones that rely on a concept of race and understand the nation as ‘a homogeneous ethnic group’ based on national character. Lewis brings out particularly clearly alternatives and antecedents for biological notions of race, a word of special importance in Joyce. The book is a well-informed, suggestive comparative literary study that moves confidently from Balzac, Joyce, and the possibility of redeeming the nation in the introduction, to chapters on the crisis of liberal nationalism, Conrad and national character, Proust and national will, and D’Annunzio and embodiment. Lewis devotes significant attention to matters of style, particularly concerning the often blurred distinction between narrators and characters, in his discussion of the authors’ relations to nation. He provides a convincing commentary on the aesthetic politics of modernism that does not attack modernist writers as invariably reactionary. Instead, Lewis presents a range of political perspectives among his authors, as well as their variable success in mediating the gap between the individual and national contexts.”
– John Paul Riquelme, Irish Studies Review

“In a number of ways, Pericles Lewis’s Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel exemplifies the most productive aspects of new modernist studies: it closely rereads four major subjectivist novels—James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu (1913-27), and Gabriele d’Annunzio’s Nocturne (1921)—in a context of the period’s political discourse of liberal nationalism, providing a timely and provocative historicist reassessment of modernist politics and the modern novel. Lewis’s contextualization usefully complicates established readings of the “modernists’ concern with psychology, with the subjective experience of time, and with the form of the novel itself” as expressions of “‘introversion’ or a lack of political commitment,” literary retreats from “the ‘external reality’ that concerned nineteenth-cnetury novelists” (pp. 3-4). These famously self-involved novelists, Lewis persuasively demonstrates, used their subjectivist experiments with narrative and point of view (impressionism, interior monologue, and stream of consciousness) to focus “attention on the shaping of the individual by the nation and on the potential for the individual in turn to redeem the nation in time of war or crisis” (p. 11). For those of us practicing new modernist studies, Lewis’s text also helpfully raises critical consciousness about methodology and the politics of interpretation just as our critical practice threatens to become dominant and conventional.”
– Paul Peppis, Modern Philology