Whatnot, Writing 101: Class of 2014
Comments 13

A Conversation Between Two Modernists

Modernist novels that I love and hate

I’ve been reading a handful of modernist novels lately. In fact, I picked this as the theme for the book discussion that I hosted for our book club last month. Currently, I’m reading some palate cleansers to resume my modernist streak. But I want to go back soon. It’s evident with my choice of topic for today’s Writing 101 challenge.

Write a post based on the contrast between two things — whether people, objects, emotions, places, or something else.

Bringing together two different things — from the abstract and the inanimate to the living and breathing — creates a natural source of tension, and conflict drives writing forward. It makes your reader want to continue to the next sentence, to the next page. So, focus on your two starkly different siblings, or your competing love for tacos and macarons, or whether thoughts are more powerful than words, or…you get the idea.

Today’s twist: write your post in the form of a dialogue. You can create a strong opposition between the two speakers — a lovers’ quarrel or a fierce political debate, for example. Or you could aim to highlight the difference in tone and style between the two different speakers — your call!

Disclaimer: This challenge is no attempt to capture the personalities of the great writers I picked who are going to have an imaginary conversation. They are merely representatives of my feelings for their works, at least the ones that I’ve read. There are bound to be misrepresentations here, so I suggest not to cite this post as a reference for anything.

Knut Hamsun: I’m Knut Hamsun, one of the early literary modernists. I’m the author of Hunger and our host blogger loves this novel. I say he’s a great intellectual.

James Joyce: I’m James Joyce, one of the high literary modernists. I’m the author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and our host blogger hates this novel. I say he’s a dumb bore.

KH: Had you sustained the tone of your novel as it were in the early chapters, perhaps he would have at least been okay with it.

JJ: I really couldn’t care less for the common readers. My novels are meant for academicians. An I.T. major who has forgotten how to write a single line of code has nothing to do with this.

KH: That’s a little condescending for someone who’s supposed to have written a coming-of-age novel.

JJ: You don’t really expect me to write a YA novel, do you?

KH: I see where you are coming from. As it is, I feel that I have a more harrowing subject matter.

JJ: Now that is condescending.

KH: Themes of self-preservation and transcendence have been recurring in all of literature. And yet readers are intimidated by them.

JJ: I like that you chose hunger as a means for transcending, but seriously? An unreliable mad man? That’s very predictable.

KH: He is not merely mad. He is a man who can live comfortably if he wants to. But he didn’t. Now that is contrast.

JJ: That’s not contrast, that is stereotyping.

KH: And what about your Dedalus? It seems to me that his issues are non-issues.

JJ: Here you go talking about transcendence, and dismissing religious and artistic crises as non-issues at the same time.

KH: You have to admit that it has to do with how you wrote it.

JJ: We both wrote it using stream of consciousness, although yours sounded more like an interior monologue.

KH: Yours sounded like it was patches of scenes collated from various sources.

JJ: Which is exactly the point of psychological novels dealing with metamorphosis.

KH: Which also is exactly my point. I just managed to be cohesive and not too alienating to push away the reader.

JJ: As I mentioned, I am a meant for academic readings.

KH: So are we going around in circles?

JJ: No, unless you want to discuss Finnegans Wake. So why are we here again?

KH: Our host blogger is listening to us. Do you think he will still read you?

JJ: He attempted to buddy read Ulysses. But he failed. Ha! And you?

KH: He has also read Mysteries and he seems keen to read Growth of the Soil.

JJ: I’m pretty sure he’s going to pick up Ulysses again so that he can piss himself off.

KH: I don’t know why you have to be so difficult with everyone. No wonder you didn’t win the Nobel.

JJ: And here’s a Nobel laureate who sympathized with the Nazis.

KH: Didn’t you?

JJ: Don’t ask me. I just drank and drank.



  1. I remember finding James Joyce’s story collection Dubliners quite accessible as opposed to his later bigger and more playful tomes such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Maybe you can dig Dubliners better. I also found it difficult to appreciate most of Joyce when I tried reading some of his works some years back


    • Not about his works. I try my best to separate the art from the artist, and it’s quite a difficult exercise. That’s why I don’t like reading bios of writers. I only read the Nazi thing because it was mentioned in a random article that I was reading.


    • Monique says

      So… Will you read F. Sionil Jose’s works even if he is such a snob? :D


  2. Hamsun wrote Hunger and other masterpieces long before the rise of the Nazis. But he was already politically conservative even then.


    • Yes, his Nazi sympathies were revealed when he was Way behind his writing prime. I think it was already after WW2.


  3. Writers must be put to account for their politics. But oftentimes literary works also transcend the narrow vision of their own expressed views. The Cantos of Ezra Pound, a Nazi supporter, for instance, has been very influential to many Latin American radical and revolutionary poets. :)


    • It’s a good exercise to do that to understand more the context of the work. It’s just that I feel pressed for time so I usually don’t bother to research about the writer’s life, unless I get intrigued (usually triggered by unusual writing, themes, motifs, style).


  4. Okay, I have no clue about the personalities of KH and JJ since I haven’t read any of their books. But aren’t imaginary conversations fun? Love the meta touch, of you listening in on their conversation. Anyhu, what you said about separating the artist from the work…I just talked about it with a friend last weekend. And I told her how some poeple don’t like to meet their idols because they might turn out to be jackasses and they might not like their work as much. Then she told me about this documentary about JD Salinger and how he was a bit of a jerk. A fan went to great lengths to see him only to be turned away once he got to the door. The fan was mad of course. I failed to ask her though if it made him (the fan) shun Salinger’s works…blabbering…..


    • I’d still love to meet my idols, jerks or not, though I wouldn’t stalk them. Maybe I just want to put some personality in the mental images that I have formed.


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