The World Without Me

January 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discrete signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

Of Literary Bondage

August 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

This appeared in the August 2013 issue of Numéro Cinq, with a wonderful introduction by Douglas Glover:

Of Literary Bondage

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How is the marchioness? Still playing Alice in Rubberland?
– Adam and the Ants, “Rubber People”

Surprising as it may seem, “The marquise went out at five” ranks among the most famous quotes in modern French literature. It could have been tossed off by some Gallic Bulwer-Lytton type, and in a manner it was, albeit a fictitious one. These hapless words were first recorded in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, midway through a rant against what Barthes would dub the “reality effect“. André Breton recalls the time when Paul Valéry assured him he would never write a novel, adducing his aversion to opening sentences à la “marquise”. Referenced by numerous authors, from André Gide to Nathalie Sarraute through Francis Ponge, the marchioness and her teatime peregrinations, came to embody everything that was wrong with a certain brand of conventional fiction.

It was not just the insipid incipits of well-made novels that Valéry objected to. He believed that writing always betrayed the complexity of human thought. “The more one writes,” he wrote, “the less one thinks.” Valéry’s Monsieur Teste — a close cousin of Melville’s Bartleby and Musil’s Ulrich — is particularly scornful of novels and plays, in which “being is simplified even to stupidity”. Like his character, the reluctant author felt that prose was essentially prosaic — a communication tool as pedestrian as a peripatetic marquise in a potboiler. Poetry, on the other hand, was conversant with the ineffable, and could therefore be regarded as a true art form. The fact that some of the greatest novels of the last century merged prose with poetry, and that some of the greatest poets of our time (Gary Lutz) are fiction writers, seems to invalidate this dubious theory. Nonetheless, Valéry’s quip tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment with the novel, which, despite some very notable exceptions, already seemed to have ossified in its Victorian incarnation. Compared with the avant-garde movements’ attempts to bridge the gap between art and life — chief among them, Breton’s Surrealism — the novel’s “puny exploits” (Beckett) seemed risible.

Above all, Valéry objected to the arbitrary nature of such perfunctory preambles, anticipating Knausgaard‘s recent crisis of faith: “Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”. Here, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to breaking point by the nagging feeling that the marchioness could just as well have been a duchess on a different timetable, or an alien on another planet. What is lacking, to quote Dylan Nice, is the sense of “a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of the novel. Gabriel Josipovici analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. It is this crisis of authorial authority that Valéry’s marquise throws into relief.

In Reading Writing, Julien Gracq took Valéry to task over the alleged randomness of his imaginary opening sentence. “Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem,” he argues; it just takes longer for patterns to emerge. Quite. Even at a micro-level, any minor amendment can trigger a butterfly effect. Should the marchioness morph into a princess, for instance, we might suddenly find ourselves slap bang in fairy-tale territory. Should she pop out, say, instead of simply going out, the register, and perhaps even the meaning, would be altered, and so forth. The point, however, is not whether everything counts in a novel, but whether a novel of this kind counts at all.

“The marquise went out at five” parodies all those narratives that aim for verisimilitude whilst inadvertently advertising their fictive status. In so doing, the sentence conjures up a quantum multiverse of alternatives. It haunts itself, begging to be rewritten over and over again, until all possibilities have been exhausted, and it can finally be laid to rest. The most recent example of this repetition compulsion is Jean Charlent’s Variations Valéry (2011) — a series of pastiches of 75 different authors, riffing off the famous phrase (which Claude Mauriac had cheekily used as the title of an early novel). Significantly, the marchioness made an appearance in One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s famous collection of ten sonnets (1961). Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it comes in the singular — but fittingly ludic — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Queneau thus succeeded in producing a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — which Queneau launched with François Le Lionnais, in 1960.

Queneau parted company with the Surrealists over aesthetic, as well as political, differences. He increasingly objected to their experiments in automatic writing, premised on the idea that freedom was “the absence of all control exercised by reason” (Breton). “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” countered Queneau, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. It is, paradoxically, through the observance of rules that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

Historically, the importance of the Oulipo is to have provided an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) through the reintroduction of external constraints.

Oulipo: Freeing Literature By Tightening its Rules

July 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 July 2013:

Oulipo: Freeing Literature By Tightening its Rules

By imposing multiple restrictions on the processes of writing, this group of French writers seek to find what literature might be, rather than what it is

Billions of ideas ... Raymond Queneau Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Billions of ideas … Raymond Queneau Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

You might think Raymond Queneau was guilty of a little overkill when he cured a bout of writer’s block by writing One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, but this flipbook presentation of 10 sonnets did more than paper over a barren spell, it became the founding text of an experimental literary collective.

The 14 lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms) — the signatures of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop (OuLiPo) launched by Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960.

The Oulipo replayed literary modernity in ludic mode. It was, inter alia, an attempt to reconcile CP Snow’s two cultures, an undertaking which was embodied by the workshop’s co-founders: Queneau was a writer fascinated by science; Le Lionnais, a scientist fascinated by writing. In their own way, they were reprising the early Romantic ambition that “all art should become science, and all science art” (Friedrich Schlegel). Despite such lofty claims, the collective adopted a very pragmatic approach to fiction, which is rather unusual in France, where literature has preserved much of its mystique and creative writing programmes are almost unheard of. According to Daniel Levin Becker, Oulipians consider “literature in the conditional mood; not the imperative“. They do not profess to know what literature should be, but attempt to uncover what it could be, either in theory or practice. In the early days, the emphasis was firmly on the former (i.e. “anoulipism” in Oulipospeak). When they were not scouring the great works of the past in search of proto-Oulipian procedures, the group members were busy establishing a lineage of “pre-emptive plagiarists” (Lewis Carroll, Raymond Roussel et al.). The invention and possible deployment of new writing constraints (“synthoulipism”) soon became the main focal point, however, and under the aegis of Georges Perec (who joined in 1967) the production of ambitious new works took centre stage.

Oulipians are into literary bondage. Their fetish is predicated on the notion that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language itself. The solution, in their view, is not to try, quixotically, to abolish constraints, but to acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively. For Queneau, “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery”. Italo Calvino (who was co-opted in 1973) concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. Choosing the “right road” from the outset, instead of stumbling upon it haphazardly, is the Oulipian way: once the Apollonian structure has been circumscribed, Dionysus can work his magic. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

As Gabriel Josipovici argues in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, modern literature was forged out of a refusal to submit to external constraints, with the novel a “new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. “Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than is a return to the world of the ancien régime,” writes Josipovici. The Oulipo escapes the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) by reintroducing external constraints, which are self-imposed.

Whether or not constraints should be disclosed to the reader is a moot point. Harry Mathews refuses to do so, while Jacques Roubaud (another mathematician) argues that the constraint(s) should be the very subject matter of any truly Oulipian work. Some constraints are a trifle gimmicky, like Jacques Jouet’s metro poems, or even Jean Lescure’s N+7 procedure. Others are far more convincing, for example, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style in which the same anecdote is retold in 99 different ways. “The problem, when you see the constraint,” Perec observed, is that you no longer see anything else. It is a testament to his prodigious talent that one of the first reviewers of A Void (1969) should have failed to notice that the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language. This lipogrammatic tour de force is particularly poignant because the missing e (pronounced “eux” — “them” — in French) refers to all those (including the author’s parents) who went missing during the second world war.

For Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, the Romantic fragment “stands for itself and for that from which it has been detached,” making it both finite and (theoretically) infinite. According to Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, the Oulipian constraint serves a similar purpose: “The work which results may be ‘complete’ in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint”. Exhaustion is the “necessary corollary” of potentiality, they continue. This is particularly true in the case of Perec, who, like an agoraphobic miniaturist, focuses on manageable, bite-sized chunks of reality, which he then tries to shoehorn into his books. He claimed that his ambition in Life A User’s Manual (1978) was “to exhaust not the world” but “a constituted fragment of the world”. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) — his famous exploration of the “infra-ordinary” — involved spending three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice observing what happened when nothing happened.

One could argue that the failure of the Oulipian project is Perec’s major theme. In one of the dreams in La Boutique obscure — recently translated for the first time — Perec discovers an edition of A Void in which the banned letter e keeps recurring. In Life A User’s Manual, Bartlebooth dies clutching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which turns out to be the wrong shape. The plot — based on an algorithm enabling the knight in a game of chess to touch every single square on the board once — enacts the novel’s failure (there is a missing chapter corresponding to an unvisited basement). “The Winter Journey” (which Atlas Press is bringing out in a new edition) revolves around the discovery — and subsequent loss — of a book (the eponymous Winter Journey) proving that all the great modern poets were in fact plagiarists. Also, 53 Days — about an unfinished book left by a writer who disappears — was left unfinished by Perec, when he disappeared in 1982. The most famous Oulipian — himself a crossword constructor — knew that literature was an unsolvable puzzle.

Some say that the Oulipo increasingly resembles a gathering of ageing cruciverbalists: it started off looking for “pre-emptive plagiarists” and is now largely concerned with archiving its glory days. In an age of N+7 Machines and ebooks, many of the Oulipo’s algorithm-based experiments have lost their cutting edge. The recent revival of interest, in the English-speaking world, is due to translations of works by historic Oulipians, as well as Daniel Levin Becker’s youthful transatlantic enthusiasm (he is the group’s latest recruit). Perhaps it is a measure of the movement’s success that these days some of the most interesting debates and experiments are taking place outside the narrow confines of the group. Take Multiples, for instance, which originated as a special issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell, which Portobello is bringing out here next month. It is a typically Oulipian exercise in which 12 short stories are translated by 61 novelists into 18 different languages. Each story is translated into or out of English several times, until something new is found in translation.

****

Here is a longer, unedited version of the above piece:

One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s fabled collection of ten sonnets, appeared in 1961. Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it came in the singular — albeit fittingly juvenile — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page were printed on individual strips, so that every line could be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Rather than a mere gimmick, Queneau had produced a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — launched by Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960.

The Oulipo replayed literary modernity in ludic mode. It was, inter alia, an attempt to reconcile C. P. Snow’s two cultures. This bold undertaking was embodied by the workshop’s co-founders: Queneau was a writer fascinated by science; Le Lionnais, a scientist fascinated by writing. In their own way, they were reprising the early Romantic ambition that “all art should become science, and all science art” (Friedrich Schlegel). Despite such lofty claims, the collective adopted a very pragmatic approach to fiction, which is rather unusual in France, where literature has preserved much of its mystique and creative writing programmes are almost unheard of. In Many Subtle Channels (2012), Daniel Levin Becker explains that Oulipians consider “literature in the conditional mood; not the imperative”. They do not profess to know what literature should be, but attempt to uncover what it could be, either in theory or practice. In the early days, the emphasis was firmly on the former (i.e. “anoulipism” in Oulipospeak). When they were not scouring the great works of the past in search of proto-Oulipian procedures, the group members were busy establishing a lineage of “pre-emptive plagiarists” (Lewis Carroll, Raymond Roussel et al.). The invention and possible deployment of new writing constraints (“synthoulipism”) soon became the main focal point, however, and under the aegis of Georges Perec (who joined in 1967) the production of ambitious new works took centre stage.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Oulipians are into literary bondage. Their fetish is predicated on the notion that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language itself. The solution, in their view, is not to try, quixotically, to abolish constraints, but to acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively. “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” argued Queneau, who rejected the Surrealists’ automatic writing: “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino (who became a member in 1973) concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. Choosing the “right road” from the outset, instead of stumbling upon it haphazardly, is the Oulipian way: once the Apollonian structure has been circumscribed, Dionysus can work his magic. It is thus through the observance of rules — which make it possible, for instance, to eradicate linguistic automatisms — that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of modern literature. Gabriel Josipovici brilliantly analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves, hence a crisis of authorial authority. “Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than is a return to the world of the ancien régime,” writes Josipovici. This is perfectly true. However, the historical importance of the Oulipo is to have found an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance). This was achieved through the reintroduction of external constraints — self-imposed this time round, in compliance with the laws of the French Republic, but within a collective framework (that of the workshop).

Whether or not constraints should be disclosed to the reader is a moot point. Harry Mathews refuses to do so, while Jacques Roubaud (another mathematician) argues that the constraint(s) should be the very subject matter of any truly Oulipian work. “The problem, when you see the constraint,” Perec observed, is that you no longer see anything else. It is a testament to his prodigious talent that one of the first reviewers of A Void (1969) should have failed to notice that the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language. Some Oulipian constraints are a trifle gimmicky, like Jacques Jouet’s metro poems, or even Jean Lescure’s famous N+7 procedure (which consists in replacing every noun in any text with the seventh following noun in a dictionary). Others are far more convincing. In Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (recently republished by New Directions) the same anecdote is retold in 99 different ways, thus proving that writing is never just writing. Perec’s aforementioned lipogrammatic tour de force is particularly poignant because the missing e (pronounced “eux” — “them” — in French) refers to all those (including the author’s parents) who went missing during the Second World War.

In The Literary Absolute, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy write that the Romantic fragment “stands for itself and for that from which it has been detached,” making it both finite and (theoretically) infinite. According to Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, the Oulipian constraint serves a similar purpose: “The work which results may be ‘complete’ in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint” (The End of Oulipo?, 2012). They go on to explain that exhaustion is the “necessary corollary” of potentiality. This is particularly true in the case of Perec, who, like an agoraphobic miniaturist, focuses on manageable, bite-sized chunks of reality which he then tries to shoehorn into his books. He claimed that his ambition in Life A User’s Manual (1978) was “to exhaust not the world” but “a constituted fragment of the world”. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) — his famous exploration of the “infra-ordinary” — involved spending three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice observing what happened when nothing happened.

One could argue that the failure of the Oulipian project is Perec’s major theme. In one of the dreams in La Boutique obscure — recently translated for the first time — Perec discovers an edition of A Void in which the banned letter e keeps recurring. In Life A User’s Manual, Bartlebooth dies clutching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which turns out to be the wrong shape. The plot — based on an algorithm enabling the knight in a game of chess to touch every single square on the board once — enacts the novel’s failure (there is a missing chapter corresponding to an unvisited basement). “The Winter Journey” (which Atlas Press are bringing out in a new edition) revolves around the discovery — and subsequent loss — of a book (the eponymous Winter Journey) proving that all the great modern poets were in fact plagiarists. 53 Days — about an unfinished book left by a writer who disappears — was left unfinished by Perec, when he disappeared in 1982. The most famous Oulipian — himself a crossword constructor — knew that literature was an unsolvable puzzle.

Some say that the Oulipo increasingly resembles a gathering of ageing cruciverbalists: it started off looking for “pre-emptive plagiarists” and is now largely concerned with archiving its glory days. In an age of N+7 Machines and ebooks, many of the Oulipo’s algorithm-based experiments have lost their cutting edge. The recent revival of interest in the English-speaking world is due to translations of works by historic Oulipians, as well as Daniel Levin Becker’s youthful enthusiasm (he is the group’s latest recruit). Some of the most interesting debates and experiments are taking place outside the narrow confines of the group. Take Multiples, for instance, which originated as a special issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell, that Portobello are bringing out here next month. It is a typically Oulipian exercise in which 12 short stories are translated by 61 novelists into 18 different languages. Each story weaves in and out of English several times, until something new is found in translation.

The Unread and the Unreadable

June 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.

The French Protect Their Language Like the British Protect Their Currency

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

This first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 23 May 2013. It was reprised in The Guardian Weekly (31 May-6 June 2013, p. 48):

The French Protect Their Language Like the British Protect Their Currency

A row over using English in universities has blown up in France, where language is at the heart of the national identity

'The nod to Asterix (left, pictured with Obelix) – the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion – is highly significant.' Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/United Artist

‘The nod to Asterix (left, pictured with Obelix) – the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion – is highly significant.’ Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/United Artist

The front page of Libération, one of France’s leading dailies, was printed entirely in English on Tuesday. “Let’s do it,” ran the banner headline. Sounding like a Nike slogan penned by Cole Porter, it in fact referred to a new bill, which, if passed, would allow some university courses to be taught in English.

Inside the paper (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix — the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion — is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed — a kind of Gallic take on the Blitz spirit.

The reason Uderzo and Goscinny’s books resonated at the time of their publication is that they replayed the myth of French resistance in the context of the cold war. This time around the invaders were no longer German or Roman, but American. Asterix’s first outing (in a long-defunct magazine called Pilote) occurred in 1959, the year Charles de Gaulle became president, and grammarian Max Rat coined the word “franglais“. My contention is that this is not purely coincidental.

France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else. This may be due to the fact that French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will. Language, for instance, is at the heart of the Organisation Mondiale de la Francophonie, France’s answer to the Commonwealth. The flipside of a state-sponsored language has been a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline. The official custodian of the French tongue — the Académie française — was partly created, back in 1635, to counter pernicious Italian influences.

French nationalism was largely discredited after the second world war, because of the Vichy regime and collaboration. As a result, it often took refuge in cultural — particularly linguistic — concerns. De Gaulle’s inflammatory 1967 speech in Quebec, when he took the linguistic battle into the very heart of enemy territory, speaks volumes. “Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!” declaimed de Gaulle (en français dans le texte, of course). Quebec was repositioned as a besieged Gaulish village, and French as a symbol of resistance — perhaps even as a surrogate magic potion. For de Gaulle, liberating Quebec meant reversing France’s defeat at the hands of the English in 1763.

My feeling is that France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the US fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Fears over the decline of French vis-à-vis English are exacerbated by the knowledge that the enemy is also within. Although the linguistic watchdogs regularly come up with alternatives to anglicisms — “mercatique” for “marketing”; “papillon” for “Post-it note” — American expressions are often adopted with far more enthusiasm in France than across the Channel. David Brooks’s portmanteau word bobo (bourgeois bohemian) is more ubiquitous here than in Britain. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the French penchant for unwittingly redefining (“hype” for “hip”) or making up new English expressions (brushing, footing, fooding etc.).

The unregulated flexibility of English probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, French is “a language that tends to break when you bend it”. It is significant that many young French speakers today should suddenly switch to English when writing a mél or courriel (if you’ll pardon my French) to a friend.

So what is all the fuss about right now? The higher education minister, Geneviève Fioraso, wants to amend the 1994 Toubon law so that French universities are allowed to teach a limited number of courses in English (which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools). The main aim of this is to attract foreign students, particularly from rapidly expanding economies such as China, India, or Brazil.

Unfortunately, Fioraso committed an unforgivable faux pas — on a par with Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the Princess of Cleves — when the idea was first mooted in March. She warned that if teaching in English were not introduced, French research would eventually mean “five Proust specialists sitting around a table”. This led to accusations of philistinism on the part of those who believe that sitting around a table discussing the works of Proust is precisely what being French is all about.

Not surprisingly, reactions have been far more favourable in the scientific community than in literary circles. The Académie française is up in arms over what it sees as “linguistic treason”. Prominent academic and author Antoine Compagnon fears that the measure may lead to dumbing down, since most of these lectures would be spoken in “Globish” rather than the true language of Shakespeare. Bernard Pivot, who used to host a top literary TV programme (and belongs to the Académie), argues that French will become a dead language if it relies on English borrowings to describe the modern world. Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist, concurs, saying that France’s very identity is at stake.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.

***

Here is a longer, unedited version of the same piece:

On Tuesday, the front page of Libération, one of France’s leading dailies, was printed entirely in English. “Let’s do it,” ran the banner headline. Despite sounding like a Nike slogan penned by Cole Porter, it referred to a new bill, which, if passed, would allow some university courses to be taught in English. Inside (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix — the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion — is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed — a kind of Gallic take on the Dunkirk/Blitz spirit. Part of the resonance of Uderzo and Goscinny’s books is that they replayed the myth of the French resistance in the context of the Cold War. Now, of course, the invaders were no longer German or Roman, but American imperialists who spoke the tongue of perfidious Albion (or at least a variant thereof). Asterix’s first outing (in a long-defunct magazine called Pilote) occurred in 1959, the year de Gaulle became president, and grammarian Max Rat coined the word “franglais”. My contention is that this is not purely coincidental.

France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else. This may be due to the fact that French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will. Language, for instance, is at the heart of the Organisation Mondiale de la Francophonie, France’s answer to the Commonwealth. The flipside of a state-sponsored language has been a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline. The official custodian of the French tongue — the Académie française — was partly created, back in 1635, in order to counter pernicious Italian influences. The title of Joachim du Bellay’s Defence and Illustration of the French Language (1549) — one of the first concerted efforts to raise French to the level of Latin and Greek — is eloquent: defence takes precedence over illustration.

French nationalism was largely discredited after the Second World War, due to the Vichy regime and collaboration. As a result, it often took refuge in cultural — particularly linguistic — concerns. The defence of the French language would be instrumental in de Gaulle’s attempt to counter Anglo-Saxon domination by embodying a third way between the United States and Soviet Union. The President’s inflammatory 1967 speech in Quebec, when he took the linguistic battle into the very heart of enemy territory, speaks volumes. “Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!” declaimed de Gaulle (en français dans le texte, of course). Quebec was repositioned as a besieged Gaulish village, and French as a symbol of resistance — perhaps even as a surrogate magic potion. The Canadian PM countered that “Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France and other European countries”. The two leaders were talking at cross purposes. For de Gaulle, liberating Quebec meant reversing France’s defeat at the hands of the English in 1763.

My feeling is that France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the United States fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Fears over the decline of French vis-à-vis English are exacerbated by the knowledge that the enemy is also within. Although the linguistic watchdogs regularly come up with alternatives to anglicisms – “mercatique” for “marketing”; “papillon” for “Post-it note” — American expressions are often adopted with far more enthusiasm in France than across the Channel. David Brooks’s portmanteau word “bobo” (bourgeois bohemian) is ubiquitous over here, but has failed so far to take off in Britain. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the French penchant for unwittingly redefining (“hype” for “hip”) or making up new English expressions (brushing, footing, fooding etc.). None of this is new, of course. Dropping English phrases in conversation was already the last word in chic for the crème de la crème in the days of Proust, and René Etiemble’s famous Parlez-vous franglais ? was published as far back as 1964. The unregulated flexibility of English probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, French is “a language that tends to break when you bend it”. It is significant that many young French speakers today should suddenly switch to English when writing a “mél” or “courriel” (if you’ll pardon my French) to a friend.

So what is all the fuss about right now? Higher Education Minister Geneviève Fioraso wants to amend the 1994 Toubon law (or “loi all good” as it is sometimes called) so that French universities are allowed to teach a limited number of courses in English (which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools). The main aim of this reform is to attract foreign students, particularly from rapidly-expanding economies such as China, India, or Brazil. Unfortunately, Ms Fioraso committed an unforgivable faux pas — on a par with Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the Princess of Cleves — when the idea was first mooted in March. She warned that if teaching in English were not introduced, French research would eventually mean “five Proust specialists sitting around a table”. This led to accusations of philistinism on the part of those who believe that sitting around a table discussing the works of Proust is precisely what being French is all about.

Not surprisingly, reactions have been far more favourable in the scientific community than in literary circles. The Académie française is up in arms over what it sees as “linguistic treason”. Prominent academic and author Antoine Compagnon fears that the measure may lead to dumbing down, since most of these lectures would be spoken in “Globish” rather than the true language of Shakespeare. Bernard Pivot, who used to host a top literary TV programme (and belongs to the Académie), argues that French will become a dead language if it relies on English borrowings to describe the modern world. Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist, concurs, saying that France’s very identity is at stake.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.

[* In The Guardian Weekly, this article appeared under the following heading: “The French Are Right to Protect their Language: It Runs to the Heart of their Identity and Offers a Different Worldview to English”.]

Detour in the Orthodoxy

February 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

This interview with Clémentine Deliss was published in 3:AM Magazine in December 2005:

Detour in the Orthodoxy: Andrew Gallix Interviews Clémentine Deliss

3:AM: I gather that Metronome was primarily an arts magazine. Why did you decide, after nine years, to launch into fiction with a new publishing house called Metronome Press?

CD: Metronome has always worked with fiction. The very first issues included texts of fiction rather than criticism or theoretical texts written by art critics. The intention has been to create a detour in the orthodoxy of a person’s work whether they are an artist, critic, or writer. There is no point in replicating the same identity that one carries as a professional within the context of Metronome. Metronome is there to create a short-circuit between professionals working in different fields of aesthetic practice, and in many cases, in different urban locations (spanning Africa to Europe). The spark or trigger that awakens professional curiosity is potent when a moment of differentiation or otherness is recognised by the participating interlocutors (there can be no complacency with regard to the intersection of different theoretical discourses within art). So fiction in the context of contemporary art practice sets up a certain field of expression in contrast to the more standardised forms of writing we find in art magazines. Metronome is an organ, not an art magazine as such. To set up Metronome Press is to build on the ongoing interest in fiction and translation, nothing more. There is no exception to the rule.

London launch of Metronome Press at the Arts Club: Tom McCarthy & Louise Stern

London launch of Metronome Press at the Arts Club: Tom McCarthy & Louise Stern

3:AM: Metronome Press is “dedicated to developing fiction and new styles of writing in relation to contemporary art practice”. Why are you so interested in the art/writing interface? Is the distinction between the two worlds disappearing?

CD: I am interested in experiments related to interpretation. Metronome is an interpretational tool rather than a vehicle for the promotion of artists’ works. Metronome Press has a similar attitude. It has not been set up within a literary field, but within the context of writing produced in relation to art production. Our challenge is the art world, and its discourse, not the literary world. We do not deny that visual artists can produce good literature, nor do we exclude the input of writers within our framework, but our main area of investigation is research and experimentation in art practice.

3:AM: Three of the first four novels in the collection are by writers (Tom Gidley, Tom McCarthy and Phyllis Kiehl) who also have artistic activities. Are they primarily artists who write on the side, or is writing integral to their artistic vision? Did you encourage any of them to take up the pen for the first time, or were all three already writers as well as artists?

CD: Phyllis Kiehl and Tom Gidley are primarily visual artists. Both have written in the past, and have now produced novels. They were writers before I knew them. I had published Phyllis Kiehl’s short stories in several earlier issues of Metronome (4, 5, 6, 7), and Tom Gidley had written a lot for Frieze in the past. I knew that Gidley had withdrawn for a while in order to write a book, and so I contacted him when we set up Metronome Press to see if he was interested. Phyllis was working on Fat Mountain Scenes whilst she and I were living in Paris. By publishing Fat Mountain Scenes, she was able to place her novel within the art context prior to the literary world of publishing.

3:AM: How did you come across Tom Gidley, Phyllis Kiehl and Tom McCarthy’s works?

CD: As I said above, I knew Tom Gidley and Tom McCarthy had both finished novels and whilst I had not read them, I was curious to follow up the hunch that fiction within art practice might be the way forward. And Phyllis as I said earlier, was in the process of writing her first novel as we both moved to Paris. It all made sense and their inclusion in the first collection of fiction produced by Metronome Press is a sign that perhaps there is a further interest out there. We are keen to receive manuscripts, scenarios, novels, etc., from artists.

London launch: Phyllis Kiehl & Tom Gidley

London launch: Phyllis Kiehl & Tom Gidley

3:AM: In the US, it is quite acceptable for writers to play music and do art (or vice versa), but not so much in Europe. Is this something that should be encouraged?

CD: It’s always interesting to enter different territories. Today there is an important shift in the way we view art as an aesthetic field or set of practices, rather than as differentiated compartmentalised art productions (theatre/dance/visual arts/literature/film, etc). But you have to be lucid about whatever crossover you are ready to experiment with, and the context in which you are doing it. For Metronome Press to take on the airs of a literary publishing house in Paris, with all the history this city has, would be suicide! However, for us to work within art practice using fiction as a means of expression, and encouraging artists to experiment with other styles of communication, seems a logical step to take in today’s world.

3:AM: Do you see Metronome Press as a French, English or Anglo-French venture? It is based in Paris, but the first four novels are in English and one of your web addresses is a UK address…

CD: Metronome Press is based in Paris. It has no nationalist identity. It relates to those locations where we live (and that is necessarily subjective) and to those locations where we have worked.

3:AM: You are republishing Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil which had originally been published by Obelisk Press in 1933. How did this come about?

CD: Thomas Boutoux and I loved the book. It is languid and tight at the same time. A perfect combination of erotic thinking and scenic or episodic action with a touch of historical information on the art scene of the early twentieth century. We were fortunate to be able to secure the rights and reprint an edition that is laid out exactly as the first edition was. There are cheap versions from other publishers, but the graphics that Charles Henri Ford had developed are rarely respected.

3:AM: The latest issue of Metronome mixes fiction and erotica as a homage to Maurice Girodias‘s Olympia Press. Do you see Metronome Press as the heir of the Olympia Press?

CD: Metronome Press is inspired by the system that Girodias had developed. If we could have a hotel too and a bar like Girodias we’d be happy! Let’s hope, however, that we don’t enjoy the multiple bankruptcies that characterised Girodias’ professional career!

3:AM: Do you think the anglophone literary scene in Paris is about to enjoy a revival?

CD: I don’t think that is the issue. Everyone and everywhere is anglophone these days. But we do hope that Paris will open up even more to the international situation it has always nurtured.

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

October 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away

[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.

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