The New Guide to Modern World Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith (Peter Bedrick/Harper & Row: $60; 1,413 pp.)

<i> Marcuse is editor of the Literary Research Newsletter and author of the forthcoming "Reference Guide for English Studies" (California)</i>

This large but relatively inexpensive volume ($39.95 until Dec. 31, 1985) is one-man’s guide to 20th-Century literature. It contains a total of 33 chapters that treat all modern national literatures individually or in groups. African and Caribbean literature is treated collectively; so are the Baltic, French and Belgian, Indian and Pakistani, Jewish, Latin American, Scandinavian, and both Eastern and Western Minor Literatures. A chapter each is given to American, Arabic, Australian, British, Bulgarian, Canadian, Chinese, Czechoslovakian, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, New Zealand, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, South African, Spanish, Turkish, and Yugoslavian Literature.

Unquestionably, the production by one individual of so comprehensive a work is in itself a remarkable accomplishment. Seymour-Smith’s essays on each national literature are coherent, discursive treatments of literary movements and their authors in a roughly chronological order from the late 19th Century forward to about 1980. In addition, abundant cross-references imbedded in the text continually relate authors, movements and national literatures to each other. I estimate the number of authors that he covers at more than 2,700 and the number of titles he discusses at more than 7,500. Convenient access to his treatment of both authors and titles (as well as some subjects) is through the 90-page double-columned index that concludes the volume.

Reception of the 1973 first edition of this book, published in America under the title “Funk & Wagnall’s Guide to Modern World Literature,” was mixed. Reviewers celebrated the work’s scope and its energetic, readable prose. But many criticized the sometimes eccentric, highly personal contents. Similar response will greet this fully revised and expanded “New Guide” because the author’s conception of his task has not changed.

To begin with celebration: One must admire Seymour-Smith’s energetic study of modern literature. When he apologizes for the delay between the first and this edition, he confesses: “I was obstinately determined to acquaint myself more thoroughly with a literature, or even the works of a particular author, than I had heretofore been.” And for Seymour-Smith, getting acquainted means more than a passing nod, for his subtitle is “A Comprehensive, Critical and Entertaining Account of Twentieth Century World Literature.” A grasp firm enough to exercise both wit and judgment is no superficial thing. Nor can the work be faulted for superficiality.


An enormous amount of reading, thought and learning has found its way into this book. And yet though always thoughtful, there is no question that Seymour-Smith can be outrageous. Consider, for example, his declaration that V. S. Naipaul “writes in the tradition of the English and not the West Indian novel and is therefore to be considered as an English writer,” or his claim that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is “ultimately sterile inasmuch as it amounts to an analytical assault not merely on marriage but on all heterosexuality.” Or try out his assessment of T. S. Eliot as “a minor poet: He cannot write about love: He lacks real sympathy or empathy; he is frigid. . . .” But note, too, that each such extreme claim repays consideration.

One must admire, also, the energy with which Seymour-Smith presents and defends the works of authors that he finds too little regarded. Ford Maddox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and Pirandello, to mention three among dozens, are treated with a respect that will doubtless bring them new readers.

Seymour-Smith’s interest in sexuality and in writers’ relations to their own sexuality is everywhere so apparent as to be almost a theme. His treatment of homosexual writers is unmatched in reference books on modern literature, and his focus on sexuality is always intriguing, if sometimes too easy. I question, for example, whether his judgment of Eliot’s relative failure is quite so interesting once he accounts for it by putting Eliot in the closet. At times, one feels that Seymour-Smith’s view of a writer’s sexual life--an aspect of authorial biography--dictates his critical judgments, as when he announces that Auden “has nothing of intellectual and little emotional substance to say” because he refused to face his homosexuality.

Actually, such considerations bring one directly to the essential problem with this work: However encyclopedic, the book is finally a personal testament. Seymour-Smith’s own critical preoccupations and theoretical preferences thus become essential topics of consideration, since they govern so drastically the amount and quality of information one finds here.


Be that as it may, the point is that Seymour-Smith’s title is ambiguous. As an authoritative, critically detached, scholarly encyclopedia of modern world literature, this “New Guide” must be rejected in favor of a volume like “The Longman Companion to Twentieth Century Literature” (3rd ed., 1981). Its judgments do not represent anything like the general consensus to which such a guide must refer.

This book’s use and more appropriate title is that of a Reader’s Advisor. The “New Guide” is a large, engaging, highly opinionated and delightfully written volume. It steers the common reader through the nooks and crannies of modern-world literature as explored by the intelligence and sensibility of one remarkably energetic, strongly committed, and, to my mind, finally sympathetic guide. As such, it is well worth owning.