The Sound Mirror

My review of The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. The Irish Times, 4 September 2020, p. 13:

The Sound Mirror starts on such a high note that one wonders how the author will ever manage to sustain it. After an opening sentence such as “She is going to kill her mother today” — with its nod to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Ann Quin’s Berg — the only way is down, surely. Against all the odds, Heidi James rises to the challenge, parlaying this expository gambit into an exhilarating, heart-rending work that is full of surprises. The main motif, crudely put, is the past in the present; the collective in the individual. It is introduced in the first chapter and reprised in the last, but what may have come across as theoretical is now so emotionally charged that the words resonate in the pit of your stomach, bringing tears — of joy as well as sorrow — to this reader’s eyes. Quite an achievement.

The pre-emptive incipit notwithstanding, James is a mistress of suspense. Chapters alternate between the three women — Claire, Tamara, and Ada — whose destinies are limned from the second World War to the present day. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Claire and Tamara are related, although this is only established at a late stage — a few pages, in fact, after we finally discover how Ada’s life intersects with the other narrative strands. The first clue that Claire and Ada’s paths are about to cross — a dead horse blocking the road (possibly evocative of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin) — is so unobtrusive that it could easily be overlooked.

Time is out of joint in this hauntological saga, and not only because of the parallel lives and abrupt flashbacks. Tamara’s mission — as the last female in her family line — is to erase the past after cancelling the future. The chapters devoted to this character are narrated by a Greek-style chorus composed of all her female ancestors. “What we are,” they declaim, referring to a long history of hurt, both endured and inflicted, “is the story she is made of”. Tamara’s tinnitus, like the trauma encoded in her DNA, is but a manifestation of this collective voice: “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not”.

James’s fourth novel is dotted with references to mythology and tragedy: it is the chronicle of a death foretold, free will is locked in battle with fate; Persephone crops up twice, not to mention matricide and incest (already contained in the Nabokovian name Ada). The most striking feature, however, is the figure of Tamara as conduit: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through”. This condition is usually associated with oracles, rhapsodes, or Aeolian harps, not the head of communications for a high-street bank, hence the giddy feeling that one is reading a contemporary feminist novel composed by Sophocles’ sister.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the realm of poetry can only be accessed through the madness of the Muses. The “family sickness” Tamara has inherited “like a tarnished heirloom” is also a form of madness — that of generations of women “trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts”, their horizons “snipped small”. One of her ancestors describes it as just a kind of “second sight” but the boundaries between past, present and future are now “leaking and mixing and contaminating” at an alarming rate (mimicking the convergence between the three plot lines). The disease turns out to be degenerative: “She is a translation. A bad one. The code has been perverted. It will, having been replicated too many times”.

Language — at the heart of the tension between atavism and “unbelonging” — is another code that has been corrupted by overuse. Claire, who justifies her venomous tongue by claiming to speak as she finds, only happens upon hackneyed phrases as clapped out as her husband’s nag. Like Tamara, she is ventriloquised. Her cockney patois (that remains just on the right side of Dick Van Dyke) will prompt her daughter to belittle her own offspring for dropping her aitches. Racist shopkeepers pretend that they cannot understand Ada because she was born in Calcutta, recalling Claire’s father’s attempts to eradicate all traces of their “eyetie” origins.

Language is also a means of reinvention. A posh word like “marvellous” fills Claire’s mouth “like a sweet heavy cream”. Throughout their lives, all three women try out different versions of themselves, but are borne back ceaselessly into the traumas of the past. James should be commended for not writing the pain away. The pathetic fallacy Tamara expects, following the climactic event, fails to materialise: “There’s no magical sign from the universe. No portent, no natural phenomenon she can misread”.

This defamiliarised family saga ends with a ray of sunshine: in spite of everything, love can be found between “what was and what will be”. We are “stories in transmission” — and the saga goes on.

 

 

The Hippest Man in Paris

My tribute to the late Marc Zermati in the Guardian, 17 June 2020:

Marc Zermati: Farewell to the ‘Hippest Man in Paris’

Zermati, who has died aged 74, was an anglophile dandy whose label Skydog crash-landed rock’n’roll into conservative France

Marc Zermati with the Clash’s Joe Strummer. Photograph by Catherine Faux (Dalle/Avalon.red)

Marc Zermati, who died of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 74, was a true underground legend: a national treasure France had never heard of and probably did not deserve. Rock Is My Life — the title of a 2008 exhibition celebrating his career on the radical fringes of the music business — would serve as a fitting epitaph.

Skydog, which Zermati co-created with Pieter Meulenbrock in 1972, was the first modern indie label, directly inspiring the launch of Chiswick and Stiff in England — its most successful release was the Stooges’ Metallic KO in 1976. As a promoter Zermati organised the world’s first punk festival, at Mont-de-Marsan, and introduced bands such as the Clash to a French audience. His heroin addiction and wheeler-dealing landed him on the wrong side of the law, and in latter years his curmudgeonly rightwing views alienated many people. But as one of the earliest champions of punk his importance in rock history cannot be overstated; if cut, he would have bled vinyl.

Zermati was born into a family of Sepharadi Jews in Algiers. Growing up against the bloody background of the war of independence, he took refuge in rock’n’roll records imported from the US, which were more readily available — as he often boasted — than in metropolitan France.

Like so many other pieds-noirs (the name given to people of European origin born in Algeria under French rule) the family fled to la métropole in 1962, when the country gained independence. Zermati would always entertain a conflicted relationship with his new homeland, which he deemed backward-looking and inimical to youth culture. Lest we forget, the 1968 student uprising was sparked off by a protest against single-sex halls of residence at Nanterre — France, at the time, was not all nouvelle vague flair and post-structuralists zooming around in sleek Citröens.

It was in fact often very conservative — socially and culturally — and pop music from the US or the UK was frequently met with xenophobic contempt. In interviews, Zermati recalled how the police would constantly harass, and sometimes even arrest him on account of his long hair, and how he would escape to London, where he felt free, as often as possible. In recent years he bemoaned the “Toubon law”, introduced in 1996 to compel radio stations to play at least 40% francophone songs, singling it out as yet another instance of Gallic insularity — further proof that France and authentic rock music were incompatible.

It was not all bad, though. He joined the ranks of the fabled Bande du Drugstore, fashion-conscious members of Paris’s jeunesse dorée who hung out on the Champs-Elysées and were notorious for their hard partying (referenced by Jacques Dutronc on his 1966 hit “Les Play Boys”). These minets, as they were mockingly called, had a great deal of influence on the mod look across the Channel. This week, journalist Nick Kent wrote on his Facebook page that when he first met Zermati, in 1972 (when the New York Dolls were in town with their future manager, Malcolm McLaren), he was the “hippest man in Paris bar none”. Along with Yves Adrien, Patrick Eudeline, Alain Pacadis and a few others, Zermati — whose idea it was to dress the Flamin’ Groovies in sharp Fab Four suits — belonged to a typically French line of anglophile dandies, who would go on to shape the punk and post-punk years.

In the mid-60s Zermati worked in an art gallery in Saint-Germain-des-Prés where he rubbed shoulders with Joan Miró and Henri Michaux, and befriended Max Ernst — the German surrealist encouraged him to explore the burgeoning American counterculture. His first taste of LSD (in Ibiza, where he stayed for a year) was a turning point in his life, and he always claimed to be able to tell people who had experienced its mind-expanding properties from those who had not, however cool they attempted to appear. L’Open Market, the record emporium he opened in 1972 was originally a head shop, where people congregated to peruse the international underground press and smoke dope. The records on sale were few but carefully selected, and it was this loving curation that outlined a rival tradition, bypassing the progressive cul-de-sac and leading straight to punk. Kids who came in asking for the latest Yes or Genesis were shown the door unceremoniously. Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Jon Savage, Chrissie Hynde, Malcolm McLaren and all the local punks-to-be ranked among the customers. Nico could often be found cooking in the apartment above the shop, while bands such as Asphalt Jungle would be rehearsing in the basement.

Zermati’s taste in music, as well as clothes, was always impeccable. The first release on his label was a wild jam session between Jim Morrison, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix (whom he had met in London and venerated), followed by the Flamin’ Groovies’ legendary Grease EP. You would be hard pressed to start on a higher note. As early as 1974, he set up the first independent distribution network in partnership with Larry Debay; alongside the two Mont-de-Marsan festivals, he organised three nocturnal punk gigs at Paris’s Palais des Glaces in April 1977, with an unbeatable lineup featuring the Clash, the Damned, Generation X, the Jam, the Stranglers, Stinky Toys and the Police (still with their French guitarist, Henry Padovani). At one stage in the 80s, he even became the Clash’s de facto manager.

Following a spell in prison, he co-launched another label, Underdog, and went on to promote gigs in Japan (where he took Johnny Thunders). His greatest achievement, however, will always be transforming Paris, for a few short years in the run-up to punk, into what felt like the capital city of the rock world.

The Quiddity of Andrew Gallix

The multi-talented Sam Mills has done my portrait (as part of a series of writers’ portraits). The beauty of it is that she’s actually managed to make me look good! This is the second draft. Sam said, “I found it easier to draw your eyes when I realised you have similar eyes to Lucian Freud, who I’ve also been sketching (his ghost kindly sat for me…)”.

Sam Mills: “Evidence: if you compare this photo of Lucian Freud with you, I think you have a similar profile, with regard to long lashes/slant of lips? Something similar somewhere”.

Sam Mills: “It’s a colourful pic because you look very vital, with a lot of sun and shukra in your skin, but a close look suggests a jaded edge, as though you’ve not had much sleep or you been imbibing or something (!). Anyway, I was struggling with another portrait & found myself drawing it; here is the half-finished sketch”.

The Hippest Man in Paris

I have written a piece in homage to the late Marc Zermati for the Guardian. Great photo by Catherine Faux of Zermati with Joe Strummer in Paris back in 1981.

Marc Zermati, who died of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 74, was a true underground legend: a national treasure France had never heard of and probably did not deserve. Rock Is My Life — the title of a 2008 exhibition celebrating his career on the radical fringes of the music business — would serve as a fitting epitaph. . . . [A]s one of the earliest champions of punk his importance in rock history cannot be overstated; if cut, he would have bled vinyl…

The Quarantine Hotline

Gallix, Andrew. The Quarantine Hotline, episode 6. Interview by Fernando Sdrigotti. Minor Literature[s], 2 June 2020.

Topics discussed: 3:AM Magazine, making something out of nothing, punk, money and literature, and the myth of Paris.

Listen to Fernando Sdrigotti‘s great questions! Listen to me repeating ‘you know’ over and over again!

(Picture by Grant Hutchinson.)

Saving Lucia

My review of Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. The Irish Times, 9 May 2020, p. 57:

The pages of Saving Lucia are so joyous and full of life that they seem about to flap away. Reading Anna Vaught’s third novel is akin to catching your first glimpse of London’s parakeets. It produces a similar sense of wonderment and disorientation — a feral flash of exotic technicolour splashed across a monochrome canvas.

The seed for this “more-or-less true story” — as the narrator calls it — was planted when Vaught discovered that Violet Gibson and Lucia Joyce had both been inmates of St Andrew’s, a psychiatric hospital in Northampton. History does not say whether the two Irish women ever met, but then this is a book about awaking from its nightmare, not replicating it.

The date is 1956. Violet — daughter of Baron Ashbourne, a former lord chancellor of Ireland — has been locked away for 30 years, following her attempted assassination of Mussolini. Sensing that her time is almost up, this devout Catholic convert with a penchant for profanity (“go fack yourself doctors”) and killer one-liners (“Decorum is essential in a lunatic asylum”) enrols Lucia as her Boswell.

As the title indicates, writing this book will save Lucia — who was committed to St Andrew’s two years earlier — from being reduced to “hearsay and notes in hospital archives” by providing a sounding board for her silenced voice. In fact, the four voices she channels could be construed as different facets of her divided personality. The characters, after all, are often difficult to distinguish, forcing the author to punctuate the text with “I, Lucia” at regular intervals.

Observing Violet muttering to her beloved passerines in the courtyard, Dr Griffith remarks that she seems to be feeding them “with her words”. Little does he know that bird is the word.

Communication between the two female protagonists is pitched at a frequency that blurs the boundary between sound and silence. On one occasion Lucia is astonished when Violet responds to something she has just been thinking; on others, she catches herself speaking out loud instead of ruminating. The medical staff are unable to tune into this illicit wavelength. When Violet starts whispering to Lucia, at the beginning of their adventure, the nurse “hears it only as rustling and is not sure even if it is there”.

A network of associations running throughout the novel connects whispering to murmuration (a keyword) and rustling to both avian wings and writing. All these elements are brought together in the pivotal scene where the women fly away from St Andrew’s, setting off the hospital’s alarms in the process: “This was the bit the staff heard, but they’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil”.

In the beginning was the bird, and the bird was with Violet, and the bird was Violet. Through a process of transubstantiation or recirculation that James Joyce would have approved of, Lady Gibson feeds the birds “with her words” which themselves turn into birds, thus enacting the oft-repeated idea that confinement liberates the powers of the imagination.

“Come to us passerines,” she tells them, “Soon enough, we will come with you” — and so they do, accompanied by Blanche (the so-called Queen of Hysterics, whose antics under hypnosis attracted le tout Paris at the end of the 19th century) and Anna O. (the originator of the talking cure).

The four women travel through time and space, disrupting a seance by Madame Blavatsky or liberating the inmates of La Salpêtrière. These peregrinations climax when they catch up with Mussolini in an attempt to change the course of world history.

Saving Lucia highlights the role played by the patriarchy in defining and weaponising female madness. Is Violet more dangerous than a fascist dictator? Why is Lucia labelled insane whenever the associations she makes become “too lickety-split” while this is deemed a mark of genius in her father, the great author? (The Joycean pastiches are, incidentally, among the most accomplished passages.) And what of Charcot’s exploitative “theatre of neurology”?

“The novel I mentioned? You are reading it,” Lucia explains in the final pages, before adding, “Well I am sure you grasped that. You’re clever.” This is the novel’s major flaw. Despite its inclusive message and celebration of the imagination, everything is relentlessly spelt out. The narrator may well encourage us “to annotate the margins” of her book, but they have all been filled in.

Set against Anna Vaught’s tremendous achievements, however, this criticism is for the birds.

 

 

We Were So Turned On

Hochreiter, Susanne. “‘We Were So Turned On’: Reflections on Queer(ing) Past and Memory.” Sexual Culture in Germany in the 1970s: A Golden Age for Queers?, edited by Janin Afken and Benedikt Wolf, Macmillan Palgrave, 2019, p. 48:

The ghosts that we hear represent what Jacques Derrida referred to as ‘hauntology’ in his Specters of Marx: The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by an absent or deferred non-origin, represented by ‘the the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive’, as Andrew Gallix puts it (Gallix, 2011). . . . Many or even ‘all forms of representation are ghostly’ as Andrew Gallix puts it in his article: ‘Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escpes representation’ (Gallix, 2011).

[PS I’m afraid the first quote is actually me quoting Colin Davis.]

Towards a Digital Poetics

O’Sullivan, James. Towards a Digital Poetics: Electronic Literature & Literary Games, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 11, 12, 25, 104:

“Perhaps e-lit is already dead?” Andrew Gallix once mused (2008). Central to Gallix’s succint and useful account of the field is the idea that electronic literature has been “subsumed into the art world or relegated to the academic margins”, a proposition that I found time to reject the best part of a decade later: in the works of practitioners like Mez Breeze, Andy Campbell, Dan Pinchbeck and his studio, The Chinese Room, we see that electronic literature is finally having its contemporary moment, and that it does have a measure of popular appeal (O’Sullivan 2017) [p.11].

But Gallix has a point, nonetheless, and the great divide has renewed significance [p. 12].

Responding to Andrew Gallix’s challenge that electronic literature sacrifices literary quality . . . [p. 104].

[PS My claim was not that literary quality was being compromised, but that the most interesting examples of digital literature — or so it seemed to me at the time — were morphing into something that was no longer literature at all. This was not a criticism on my part.]

The Dominant Animal

My review of The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan. The Irish Times, 25 April 2020, p. 60:

A woman cuts her hand while chopping onions. Chilled to the marrow, she passes out, having caught a glimpse of bone: “I saw it, white, swimming in the brimming gash”. This gory incident, which occurs in the collection’s concluding tale, recalls an earlier piece, where an obsessive hunter polishes animal bones “into gleaming white abstractions”. Lean and mean — whittled down to their very viscera — the 40 stories assembled in The Dominant Animal are certainly close to the bone.

As in her novel Aug 9—Fog (2019) — carved out of a found text — Kathryn Scanlan seems to proceed not by addition but subtraction, like a sculptor chipping away at a slab of marble. “Ta-da!” (as its title advertises) turns this process into something of a joke. It closes — just as dusk darkens the neighbourhood “from the ground up, like dye climbing a cloth” — with an Old Testament-style bush giving birth to a figure. An arm, leg and foot gradually emerge, while the female narrator looks on, entranced. “I’ve always been a sucker for origin stories,” she comments, “so I held my breath and waited to see how this one might begin.”

Ending with a beginning (this is the last sentence) is a way of neither beginning nor ending, just like newborns in these pages never seem fully alive while the recently deceased never seem quite dead. It is a ruse to tap into the primal darkness while holding it at bay. The book itself ends on a similar, albeit more sinister, note: a shadow springing forth from a dark corner in the protagonist’s backyard, “like a vision of God, gnashing his great white teeth”. Scanlan’s fiction never strays far from this point of origin that always threatens to reclaim it, as in this mystifying coup de théâtre: “For a while she could be seen in her white nightgown, but then the dark — it swallowed her”. Has the character really vanished, or is she simply obscured from view? The young American author’s audacious deployment of lacunae is a measure of her singular artistry.

Although the setting is usually suburban, a “frontier kind of aroma” hangs over the manicured lawns. The nearby woodlands act as a kind of annexe of the id for the local menfolk: “It drew their blood. It drank their piss. It ate their shit. It hid the light of day. It hid the stars at night. It hid the path to town”. Scanlan’s unsentimental approach to the animal kingdom is exemplified by the vet who gelds a horse and tosses away “what he’d cut” to a pack of hounds.

In the eponymous story, the female narrator notices a sculpture outside a church: two baby boys suckling at a she-wolf’s pendulous teats. This passing reference to Romulus and Remus is a reminder of civilisation’s pagan, animalistic roots. Animals and men are in fact so united in their bestiality that the slippage from the one to the other is almost imperceptible at times. Women suffer terrible abuse, but they give as good as they get, and some of the best stories are morality tales with a sting in their tails showcasing the author’s wicked sense of humour.

Scanlan claims that she either writes from the point of view of an alien or as though addressing one. The latter is achieved by shunning all forms of shorthand and cliche: the wealthy father in “The Candidate” is thus introduced as a “professional manipulator of spinal bones”. The wayward narrator of “The First Whiffs of Spring” — seemingly an alcoholic — embodies the former option. She attends a party but only understands why when a “swaddled body” (note the characteristic obliquity) lands in her arms. Having described her elaborate outfit, highlighting the belt “upon which I’d set my hopes of pulling everything together”, she goes outside, where the wind reverses the process, dissolving her social persona: “It undid my hair and lifted my skirt. It scattered me just like I liked”.

The author’s focus on this scattered self and life stripped back to its essence does not result in a defamiliarisation of the world but, on the contrary, in its refamiliarisation — as though we were emerging from a coma. It also lends these tales a timeless quality, enhanced by a style that tends to the irrefutable. These are sentences written in stone — to be read out loud or learned by heart.