Neo-Avant-Gardes: Post-War Literary Experiments Across Borders | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Neo-Avant-Gardes: Post-War Literary Experiments Across Borders

Neo-Avant-Gardes: Post-War Literary Experiments Across Borders
Bart Vervaeck, Editor

Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2021
424 pp. Trade, eBook, and PDF, $165.00
ISBN: 978-1-4744 8609 5; ISBN: 978-1-4744 8611-8; ISBN: 978-1-4744-8612-5.

Reviewed by: 
Robert Maddox-Harle
June 2022

This is a very well written and researched book. Considering the theoretical complexity of certain sections of the book, each chapter without exception is highly readable, interesting, and enlightening. There are two parts: Part 1, Concepts, Genres and Techniques this has 10 chapters each written by scholars with in-depth knowledge of post-war neo-avant-garde history, focusing on conceptual issues, matters of genre, and technique. Part Two, Movements and Authors has 11 chapters looking a little more at individual authors and the movements they belonged to, as an example Chapter 12, The Neo-Avant-Garde in Latin America: The Case of Mario Bellatin.

A book of this size, already 424 pages, cannot be expected to be totally comprehensive, as the introduction notes: “...this book is not to be read as a representative, let alone exhaustive, form of historiography, but rather as an intervention, aimed at prompting a new paradigm in literary historiography” (p.3).

Recognising the confrontational nature of the historical avant-garde, Dada, Surrealism, and so on, the neo-avant-garde is seen by a number of authors as a sort of ‘watered down version’ of the historical phenomenon. Because as the confrontational and ‘new’ gains acceptance and becomes institutionalised it loses its critical powers, as an example Duchamp’s (in)famous Urinal. “Silverberg claims that the neo-avant-garde’s challenge goes beyond the level of institutional critique to the more general level of ideology critique” (p. 11).

The nature of the avant-garde, neo or historical, is to question the accepted status quo of literature and art, produce works which ‘shock’ the public and critics, challenge the validity of authorship, and reject the commodification of their creations. These concerns are discussed in detail throughout the book. As an example of this, in my opinion, clear-headed critique, Jan Baetens in his chapter In Praise of Hybrid Purity: Nomadism and Pierre Joris states, “On the one hand, it is definitely non-nomadic to try to exert too tight a control on the way text will be read. On the other hand, however, only the initial understanding of the text will allow the reader to continue beyond where the author and text cease” (p. 117). This to me is a very important point to understand!

The book seems to provide a balanced approach to the discussion of just what was the historical avant-garde, what validity, if any, did the neo-avant-garde have, especially throughout the “long-sixties”, and the difference between new experimental art and literature and a true neo-avant-garde?

This latter point is brilliantly analysed by Gaëlle Thëval in Chapter 7 Sound Poetry in France: A Neo-Avant-Garde? “The sound poet thus associates the avant-garde not only with the idea of a group, which he [sic] places in opposition to freedom, but also with the ‘ideology of progress’ and the presumption of originality (Foster 1996; 5), with the ideology of the tabula rasa and of leaving behind” (p. 151).

Then taking a different approach to this analysis we note, “Hence, for both critiques [sic] and artists, the point is no longer to reflect on the ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ of the avant-gardes, nor to construe the ‘novel’ as the only viable currency for poetic practice. Although those practices seem to reinstate the avant-garde notion that each new generation is a new ‘rupture’, the issue is to neither idealise the past (or to regain the prestige) nor to re-enact the postures of the avant-gardes, but to be in the hic and nunc” (p. 309).

I have a couple of minor criticisms of this book. Firstly, with the lack of examples of the literature being discussed; some chapters go on and on without one example of the actual poetry or prose being presented. Perhaps these could have been included in an Appendix, one exception to this is Chapter 13. Secondly, as a brief history of the neo-avant-garde, the book is highly successful, but the relevance of the neo-avant-garde to the first decades of the 21st century is highly questionable. That is, there appears to be no boundaries, no institutionalisation of art now, what is new and a ‘shock’ is now highly transient –“here today gone tomorrow”.

It seems that in the long sixties the “anything goes” concept was not valid, artists and writers challenged the status quo for sure but with a definite purpose, but now anything does go, critics and the public are well over shock values for shock value sake. The present state of much contemporary art and literature, not of a traditional nature, is caught up in the hopelessness of postmodern nihilism.

This is an interesting, challenging, and stimulating book.