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'The World Broke In Two': Four Writers, One Transformational Year

The title of literary historian Bill Goldstein's book refers to a familiar quote from writer Willa Cather. In a 1936 essay, sensing that the literary landscape had shifted under her feet and that her own work was passing out of fashion, she lamented,"The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts."

She was referring to the appearance, in that year, of three towering works of modernism: James Joyce's Ulysses, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and the English publication of the first volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

The ingenious conceit of Goldstein's book is to follow, using excerpts from both their correspondence and their diaries, the intertwined personal and literary lives of four writers — Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and Eliot himself — as the three seismic shocks of those publications ripple through their lives, and their work. To do so, he narrows the focus and imposes strict parameters. Very strict, as it turns out: Apart from some contextualizing commentary, The World Broke in Two rigorously limits itself to the span of days from January 1st to December 31st, 1922.

If any of the above suggests a dry accounting of facts, or an academic's penchant for grappling with insular abstractions at 30,000 feet, know this: In letting these four writers speak in their own words — their own witty, gossipy, often waspish words — Goldstein neatly avoids a dutiful chronicling of anything so weighty and abstruse as The Rise of Modernism. Cannily, he sacrifices historical sweep and gravitas for something much more grounded and intimate. In his hands, these literary lions prove surprisingly — and bracingly — catty.

Again and again, he highlights the disconnect between their public praise of another's work and their private dismissal of it. Woolf, for example, would eventually praise Ulysses, albeit begrudgingly, in The Common Reader ("... there can be no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably important.") In her diary, however, as she first struggled through the work in 1922, her opinion was considerably less politic, even more insufferably snobbish — and, not coincidentally, a lot more fun ("An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.").

All four of the writers Goldstein profiles entered the year 1922 rocked back on their heels and in a state for recovery: Woolf from a debilitating bout of influenza, Eliot from a nervous breakdown, Forster reeling from grief over an unrequited infatuation, and Lawrence from both stinging reviews and a restlessness that would send him roaming the world seeking a contentment he was perennially ill-equipped to experience, much less enjoy.

The book comes alive in the ceaseless churn of these intersecting egos, as they turn their withering writerly gazes upon one another — and, less eagerly, upon themselves. Their professional and personal jealousy, spite, anxiety and outrage — the familiar hallmarks of the writer's personality — become a kind of humanizing background noise, drawing us in and allowing us to see them more fully. Woolf emerges as a patrician gossip, Forster as a broken-winged romantic, Eliot as "almost unbearably formal and pretentious" and Lawrence ... well. Here, Goldstein shows an eagerness to step in and throw some elbows himself, primly noting that "There was very little about Lawrence that wasn't irritating to someone."

Capturing this on-the-ground feel of these writers' literary lives is only one of the book's aims, of course. The other — enumerating how the year transformed their work — proves the heavier lift, and Goldstein finds more success with some writers than others. As Woolf, for example, works on the story that would become Mrs. Dalloway, Goldstein assiduously lays out the many ways that her reading of Proust and Joyce enriches and enlivens her approach, without inserting any pat, overdetermined "Eureka!" moment. He walks us through Forster's inwardness and grief, and allows us to see his delighted relief as he starts to grapple with the book that would become A Passage to India. Protracted dithering over the agreement to publish The Waste Land takes up a great deal of the book's Eliot content, and proves about as fascinating as any account of contract disputes tends to be — but to be fair, that tiresome back-and-forth took up a great deal of Eliot's year, as well.

The chapters on those three writers — Woolf, Forster and Eliot — prove the most successful, as their lives were most indelibly intertwined. All three lived in London, socialized to some degree, and — crucially — the projects they were working on in 1922 have since become pillars of the Western literary canon. The chapters on Lawrence have a more difficult task, both because he spent the year travelling abroad, and because the book he worked on — the autobiographical novel Kangaroo, written and set in Australia — is now largely overlooked. Goldstein makes a good case that the book was important to Lawrence's experience, but the Lawrence chapters of The World Broke in Two never quite manage to integrate or advance the book's thesis.

But again, Goldstein avails himself of excerpts — in this case, from the correspondence of Lawrence's long-suffering wife, Freida — to vividly portray what having to actually live with such an impulsive, narcissistic man who so performatively fancied himself an iconoclast was like, day to day. "Lawrence is wear and tear," she wrote to friend. You'll come away from The World Broke in Two convinced that she had the guy's number.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.