Despite the puffed-up title (taken from a Willa Cather observation), Bill Goldstein’s quadruple biography, “The World Broke in Two,” is engaging and very well researched. The year in question is 1922, and all four of the soon-to-be-canonical authors are at an impasse, three of them full of worry that they will be considered “prewar,” that they will be incapable of finding a means of creatively addressing the impact of World War I. Their frustrations are heightened by illness, money worries and writer’s block. By the end of the year, Goldstein explains, there would be a “creative renaissance” for all four writers.
But as the year opened, Virginia Woolf was in bed with influenza, T.S. Eliot was recovering from a nervous breakdown and E.M. Forster was “exhausted,” lonely, and under the thumb of “an old, fussy, exacting mother” (his words), with whom he lived. Woolf’s novels had gotten enthusiastic praise from friends, but tepid judgments from other reviewers, leaving her, at 40, fearing she had not yet written a worthy novel and unsure how to proceed. Forster had not published a novel in 14 years. Slightly older than Woolf, he felt that he was “fingering the keys but only producing discords.”
While their American friend Tom Eliot had won acclaim with his 1915 poem “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he seemed unable to bring his long poem, “The Waste Land,” to publication. Money worries and marital unhappiness drew him away from his literary work. Goldstein paints a portrait of Tom and Vivien Eliot as two emotionally frail people whose “happiest moments … were before the wedding.”
Into this scene of stasis entered two writers whose works re-energized Eliot, Woolf and Forster. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1922) shook up the idea of what a novel was. Less disruptively but more usefully, Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” (1913) demonstrated how memory and subjectivity could be solidified into characters. The war might be concluded, but it certainly was not over. As Woolf put it, Proust’s novel encouraged her to “vary the side of the pillow.”
And what of D.H. Lawrence? He is certainly the outlier in this book. Lawrence had little use for the “Woolves” and the Bloomsbury set. He sliced open the pages of “Ulysses,” but read little of it. While the other writers lived near London, Lawrence traveled from Sicily to Ceylon to Australia to New Mexico, always searching for a new ideal community and a “new incarnation.” Nor did Lawrence experience writer’s block — one novel regularly followed another.
The 1922 problems that Lawrence faced were legal ones stemming from accusations of obscenity. Goldstein’s sections on Lawrence are every bit as good as the others — but D.H. is not a true member of the team.
Goldstein’s insightful and graceful prose reveals four authors during troubled moments of their careers, and he is fortunate in having a trove of writings from which to draw. Forster, Woolf and Eliot knew each other very well, read one another’s writings with an eye to what might be artistically useful, and reviewed one another’s work in journals. This year-in-the-life chronicle gives us a remarkable look at the gestation of literature.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
The World Broke in Two
By: Bill Goldstein.
Publisher: Henry Holt, 351 pages, $30.