The Secret History of Modernism

C.K. Stead

Vintage 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
A chance meeting in Auckland in 2001 breaks Laszlo Winter's writer's block and revives memories of his life as a student in London in the late 1950s, in particular of the nearly-but-not-quite love of his life Samantha Conlon, who he met on the ship to London.

Samantha is studying T.S. Eliot and working on a secret history of modernism; she is in love with the married Freddy Goldstein. Rajiv is disillusioned by Eliot and studying Yeats. The Australian siblings Margot and Mark seem unnaturally close. And Lazslo himself is studying Shakespeare — and trading lessons on Shakespeare for lessons on sex with fellow-lodger Heather — but unsure of his vocation. Stead's story of student life and loves is sprinkled with literary references and a dash of politics, but is straightforward and appealing.

The Secret History of Modernism interweaves this with Laszlo's life in the present as he rediscovers connections to his past. The potentially confusing structure is held together by the logic of memory and nostalgia, with Stead/Winter managing to be both inside his story and outside it, combining the dispassionate dissection of a historian with the immediacy of first-hand experience.

Falling outside this structure is the story of Freddy Goldstein's family and the Holocaust, which is told in three chapters. Freddy and his parents escape to New Zealand via Palestine, while his uncle and family are on the St Louis, then go into hiding in the Netherlands before being captured. There's nothing wrong with this, but it seems a little staged and its connection with the rest of the work — Samantha's exploration of the relationship between modernism and fascism — isn't strong enough to carry such a weighty topic. This is more an aesthetic failing than a practical one, however, and is unlikely to prevent enjoyment of Stead's sparkling novel.

September 2004

External links:
- buy from or
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- C.K. Stead - The Death of the Body
- C.K. Stead - Talking About O'Dwyer
- more Australian + New Zealand literature
%T The Secret History of Modernism
%A Stead, C.K.
%I Vintage
%D 2003
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0099447061
%P 230pp