Poets, prophets, and revolutionaries : the literary avant-garde from Rimbaud through postmodernism /

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Main Author: Russell, Charles, 1944-
Format: Book
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Review by Choice Review

Charles Russell has written a judicious survey of the international literary avant-garde, free of the pretension and modishness that the topic sometimes invites. He chooses the seminal figures and movements (e.g., Apollinaire, dada, futurism, Brecht) to demonstrate that the avant-garde's literary innovations implied a new role for writers in society and an alliance with progressive or revolutionary social movements. The argument itself is not strikingly original; readers should compare Peter Burger's Theory of the Avant-garde (1984). But Russell's presentation is so lucid and thoroughly documented that this book will likely become the best English-language introduction to more arcane theorizing about the avant-garde. The individual chapters are competent essays in their own right, attentive to literary detail and careful to distinguish the ``avant-garde'' impulse from the more generally ``modernist.'' Russell appraises the surrealists' and Mayakovsky's troubled relations with left-wing politics and, in his most debatable chapter, scans the crowded field of postmodernism and the neo-avant-garde. He says that today's writers' obsession with language and self-reflection prevents them from being ``in advance'' of today's society. Here, as throughout, Russell's command of his topic is encyclopedic, though in the final chapter his tone seems a little breathless, the pace a little rushed. In all, a most thorough, readable, and up-to-date assessment of the avant-garde. Highly recommended for larger public libraries and all undergraduate collections.-P.E. Bishop, Edison Community College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Bone-dry, too abstract, and not much fun--but an impressive and useful study nonetheless. Russell (English, Rutgers) has mastered a vast amount of material--who these days has read the Italian Futurists?--and presented it with clarity and admirable fairness. He begins with a crucial (and valid) distinction between the modernists (Proust, Pound, Joyce, Woolf, Gide, et al.), who ""despair of finding in secular, social history a significant ethical, spiritual, or aesthetic dimension,"" and avant-garde writers (Rimbaud, Apollinaire, dadaists, surrealists, Brecht, and many postmodernists), who try to ""sustain a belief in the progressive union of writer and society acting within history."" The avant-garde sees itself as part of a continually evolving modern culture, whose dominant values it rejects. Yet its members and supporters (Russell is clearly one of the latter) want to create a new artistic identity and join ""with other existing progressive or revolutionary forces to transform society."" Most importantly, the avant-garde hopes to give birth to new forms of perception, expression, and action that will canonize its writers as ""poets, prophets, and revolutionaries."" A splendid programmatic vision, but, as Russell honestly admits, seldom fulfilled. Many of Rimbaud's later works descend into utter hermetic obscurity. Apollinaire is best when he looks nostalgically to the past. The dadaists self-destructed or frittered away their movement. The surrealists stood their ground, but Russell is hard put to find anything really interesting about them except their theories. Mayakovsky quite appropriately killed himself, and the Russian Futurists vanished beneath the wave of socialist realism. Brecht would seem to be Russell's one triumphant test case, but in his best work (e.g., Mother Courage) he hardly qualifies as pure avant-garde. Then there are such dim luminaries as Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Cage, Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and others in the postmodernist camp, whom Russell respects but whose groping art he doesn't overrate. This is one of those few books that might have been better at twice its length, or at least with many more examples to flesh out the bones of its carefully thought out arguments. Fine analysis, mediocre exposition. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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