A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

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This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 26 February 2008:

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

Modernism’s strong, silent types not only redefined the purpose of literature – they saved on paper, too

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“Neither am I,” quipped Peter Cook, when a fellow partygoer boasted that he was working on a novel. There is far more to this bon mot than meets the eye, as George Steiner‘s My Unwritten Books illustrates. In fact, the “non genre” lies at the very heart of literary modernity. Blaise Cendrars, for instance, toyed with the idea of a bibliography of unwritten works. Marcel Bénabou went one step further by publishing a provocative volume entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. In this manifesto of sorts, the anti-author argues that the books he has failed to write are not “pure nothingness”: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian library of phantom fictions. This is precisely what Steiner means when he states that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” But what prompts writers to withhold themselves at the conception?

Some say that everything has already been said (La Bruyère et al); others have spoken of the futility of writing in the shadow of Joyce (Sollers) or in the wake of the Holocaust (Adorno) and 9/11 (McInerney). At a more fundamental level, as Tom McCarthy recently reasserted, literature is “always premised on its own impossibility”. Kafka even went as far as to state that the “essential impossibility of writing” is the “only thing one can write about”. Or not. Taking their cue from Rousseau (“There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist”) the proponents of the “literature of the No” (or “workless artists” as Jean-Yves Jouannais calls them) prefer to abstain rather than run the risk of compromising their perfect vision. Written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter.

This sense of creative impotence stems in part from a dual historical process which deified authors while defying the very authority of their authorship. In Europe, writers and artists were called upon to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the growing secularisation of society. For a while, the alter deus stood above his handiwork, paring his fingernails, but then “I” — the “onlie begetter” — became another, the signifier dumped the signified, and it all went pear-shaped. To compound matters, the gradual relaxation of censorship laws proved that the unsayable remained as elusive as ever when everything could be said.

The realisation that, at best, writers could only hope to dress old words new and recreate what was already there led to a spate of literary eclipses. Hofmannstahl’s Lord Chandos, who renounces literature because language cannot “penetrate the innermost core of things”, epitomises this mute mutiny instigated (in real life) by Rimbaud. Wittgenstein would later insist that the most important part of his work was the one he had not written, presumably because it lay beyond his coda to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Keeping stum and tuning in to the roar on the other side of silence was a soft option. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov — who attempts to defeat God by desiring his own humanity and therefore his own mortality and death — heralded a wave of phantom scribes. Forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, writers such as Marcel Schwob came to the conclusion that the urge to destroy was also a creative urge — and perhaps the only truly human one.

Authors, of course, have always been tempted to destroy works which failed to meet their impossibly high standards (vide Virgil), but never before had auto-da-fé been so closely related to felo-de-se. The Baron of Teive (one of Pessoa‘s numerous heteronyms) destroys himself after destroying most of his manuscripts because of the impossibility of producing “superior art”. In Dadaist circles, suicide even came to be seen as a form of inverted transcendence, a rejection of the reality principle, an antidote to literary mystification as well as a fashion. “You’re just a bunch of poets and I’m on the side of death,” was Jacques Rigaut‘s parting shot to the Surrealists. Like him, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Danilo Kupus, Boris Poplavsky, Julien Torma and René Crevel all chose to make the ultimate artistic statement. The rest, of course, is silence.

Living Poetry

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This appeared in the Guardian Books Blog on 25 September 2007:

Living Poetry

If you thought writing was a prerequisite for being a literary hero, think again.

Flaubert famously decreed that the successful author should “live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god”. The enduring appeal of the Beats lies, to a great extent, in the possibility they seemed to offer of living, as well as thinking, like demi-gods. On those grounds one could argue that Neal Cassady — who embodied the mad-to-live “essence of Beat” — was actually the most important creative force in the group, although he never published a single book during his lifetime. Along with Jacques Vaché and Arthur Cravan, he belongs to an unholy trinity of self-destructive, protean pranksters who burned like fabulous yellow roman candles as they turned their existence into poetry.

Vaché (1895-1919) was not simply a dandified anglophile who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. His actual military career, serving with the French army in the first world war, was rather less outwardly distinguished. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life by (as he put it) deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side.

It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform and threatening to shoot at random that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire‘s Les Mamelles de Tirésias on account of its arty-farty production. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose which may have been an accident, but is commonly interpreted as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. His stroke of genius, he maintained, was “to have produced nothing”.

Fabian Lloyd aka Arthur Cravan (1887-1918) put all his genius into his short life; he put only his talent (and a limited one at that) into his works. As David Lalé writes in the recently-published Last Stop Salina Cruz: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form”. Almost too bad to be true, he inspired Gide‘s Lafcadio — the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will — and kick-started the Dada insurrection when he crossed paths with Picabia in Spain.

After being expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher, Lloyd relocated to bohemian Paris where he adopted his pseudonym, partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and managed to become France’s heavyweight champion without fighting a single match. Never one to shy away from self-promotion, Cravan ruthlessly exploited his reputation as a pugilist poet (although his boxing was on a par with his writing skills) and got a lot of mileage out of being Oscar Wilde‘s nephew. His antics — including giving lectures during which he insulted, mooned and fired gunshots at the audience — led to rough justice at the hands of an angry mob of avant-garde painters as well as a duel challenge courtesy of poor old Apollinaire. Significantly enough, he printed his literary journal on wrapping paper from a butcher’s shop.

The onset of the war marked the beginning of a convoluted vanishing act that led him — in various guises — from Paris to Mexico where he disappeared at sea on a drunken boat of his own making. His body was never found. Cravan, the eponymous colossus of Mina Loy‘s novel, had always been larger than life; now, he had taken elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. For decades, he would continue to be spotted in different parts of the world. He is still at large.

Slow-Cooked Books: The Virtues Of Writing Slowly

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This was published in Guardian Books on 3 July 2007:

Slow-Cooked Books: The Virtues of Writing Slowly
In an age of unreflecting haste, there are many good reasons for authors to take their own sweet time.

Responding to an article in these very pages, back in February, I expressed concern at the accelerating pace of publishing and called (half-jokingly) for the creation of a Slow Writing Movement (SWM), modelled on the Slow Food phenomenon. Word processing probably enables people to write faster than ever, and the internet provides the sometimes dubious means of instant publication.

As a result, what often passes for fiction today would have been considered no more than an early draft only a few years ago. In truth, however, the digital age has simply compounded a problem caused by the increasing hegemony of one school of writing (the Ionic) over another (the Platonic).

Platonic writers tend to see their works as imperfect reflections of an unattainable literary ideal. They do not celebrate the birth of a new opus so much as mourn the abortion of all the other versions that could have been. In short (a keyword here), written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter. Authors (and characters) belonging to this lineage have been known to give up writing altogether or contemplate destroying their own works, although they usually settle for spending an awful lot of time producing precious little.

Platonic writers are the antithesis of Grub Street hacks: for them, less is resolutely more. Since publication is, of necessity, an abject compromise with base reality, they agonize over endless revisions (like William H Gass whose novel, The Tunnel, was 30 years in the making) or grace the world with a slim volume of acerbic aphorisms whenever they can be arsed (à la Cioran).

In Plato’s famous dialogue, Socrates argues that the eponymous Ion and his fellow rhapsodes (the slam artists of Ancient Greece) are possessed by the gods whenever they tread the boards. According to this tradition, the artist, in the throes of creation, is under the influence — be it of the Muses, drugs, alcohol, a dream vision or some other variant of divine inspiration. Ionic Man does not speak: he is spoken through (or played upon like Coleridge’s Aeolian harp), hence the cult of “spontaneous prose” in its various guises. The work of art comes as easily as leaves to a tree, appearing fully-formed in a blinding flash of inspiration or in an accretive, free-associative manner as if under dictation. In both cases, logorrhoea beckons.

The Surrealists‘ experiments with automatic writing belong to this school. So do the numerous penis-extension tall tales of binge typing. A driven Kerouac composed On the Road in a three-week, benzedrine-fuelled session after fashioning a scroll manuscript which allowed the all-important free flow of words to go unimpeded. Capote‘s famous quip — “That isn’t writing; it’s typing” — unwittingly captured the histrionic quality of Kerouac’s feat. This is action writing that transforms a sedate, sedentary, haemorrhoid-inducing activity into a heroic performance.

Another prime instance of Ionic braggadocio is the legend according to which Georges Simenon once locked himself in a glass cage to toss off a novel in three days and three nights while spectators gawked. This planned publicity stunt never actually occurred, but it may well have inspired Will Self who, back in 2000, wrote a novella in a London art gallery during a two-week residency: the words were projected live on to a plasma screen behind the desk where he sat. These experiments, and others like National Novel Writing Month, are all interesting enough, but perhaps the time has come to ditch literary hothousing in favour of the Platonics’ “precious little” aesthetics.

Yes, of course, there is a social angle to all this. The Platonics belong to an aristocratic lineage which is at odds with our egalitarian times (how many authors can afford to be so unproductive?), but that should not blind us to what they have to offer. They write as if their lives depended on it. Whereas the Ionics try to merge life and literature into a seamless continuum, the Platonics, spurred on by what Paul Eluard called the “difficult desire to endure”, often sacrifice the present on the altar of posterity. How many works of fiction produced today have any staying power?

Everything comes to those who can wait, so join the Slow Writing Movement — if not now, then when you get round to it.

Join the Slow Writing Movement!

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This article appeared in Shrug Magazine (August 2007)

Join the Slow Writing Movement!

Derangement of the senses is all fine and dandy as long as it is a prelude to recollection in tranquillity.

‘Here’s a lap-top. Here’s the spell check. Now write a book.’ Don’t get me wrong, I love the Brutalists’ gung-ho approach to fiction as much as the next ageing punk. In fact, my dream is to come up one day with a story as perfect as an early Buzzcocks single. The snag, of course, is that writing — even of the gonzo variety — is ill-equipped to capture the adrenaline rush of music. The Brutalists (Tony O’Neill, Adelle Stripe, and Ben Myers) can pull it off because they are talented, but most people who do the DIY punk lit thing fail dismally. Recollection in tranquillity, not derangement of the senses, is the sine qua non of good writing.

As a result of the accelerating pace of both writing and publishing, much of what passes for fiction these days would have been considered no more than an early draft only a few years ago. In truth, however, the digital age has simply compounded a problem caused by the increasing hegemony of one school of writing (the Ionic) over another (the Platonic).

Platonic writers tend to see their works as imperfect reflections of an unattainable literary ideal. They do not celebrate the birth of a new opus so much as mourn the abortion of all the other versions that could have been. In short (a keyword here), written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter. Authors (and characters) belonging to this lineage have been known to give up writing altogether (Rimbaud) or contemplate destroying their own works (Kafka), although they usually settle for spending an awful lot of time producing precious little (Cossery).

Platonic writers are the antithesis of Grub Street hacks: for them, less is resolutely more. Since publication is, of necessity, an abject compromise with base reality, they agonize over endless revisions (like William H. Gass, whose novel, The Tunnel, was 30 years in the making) or grace the world with a slim volume of acerbic aphorisms whenever they can be arsed (à la Cioran).

In Plato’s famous dialogue, Socrates argues that the eponymous Ion and his fellow rhapsodes (the slam artists of Ancient Greece) are possessed by the gods whenever they tread the boards. According to this tradition, the artist, in the throes of creation, is under the influence — be it of the Muses, drugs, alcohol, a dream vision, or some other variant of divine inspiration. Ionic Man does not speak: he is spoken through (or played upon like Coleridge’s Aeolian harp), hence the cult of ‘spontaneous prose’ in its various guises. The work of art comes as easily as leaves to a tree, appearing fully formed in a blinding flash of inspiration or in an accretive, free-associative manner as if under dictation. In both cases, logorrhoea beckons.

The Surrealists’ experiments with automatic writing belong to this school. So do the numerous penis-extension tall tales of binge typing. A driven Kerouac composed On the Road in a three-week, benzedrine-fuelled session after fashioning a scroll manuscript which allowed the all-important free flow of words to go unimpeded. Capote’s famous quip — ‘That isn’t writing; it’s typing’ — unwittingly captured the histrionic quality of Kerouac’s feat. This is action writing that transforms a sedate, sedentary, haemorrhoid-inducing activity into a heroic performance. Legend has it that the author sweated so profusely while typing his masterpiece that he had to change T-shirts several times a day. Perspiration, here, is inspiration made visible, and the connection between the two perfectly illustrates the desire to abolish the distance between literature and life. Ben Myers, whose first novel was also written in record time (six days and nights while facing eviction), explained that ‘There was no heating so I typed quickly’.

Another prime instance of Ionic braggadocio is the legend according to which Georges Simenon once locked himself in a glass cage to toss off a novel in three days and three nights while spectators gawked. This planned publicity stunt never actually occurred, but it may well have inspired Will Self, who, back in 2000, wrote a novella in a London art gallery during a two-week residency: the words were projected live on to a plasma screen behind the desk where he sat. The following year, Robert Olen Butler did something very similar via the internet and three webcams. These experiments, and others like National Novel Writing Month, are all interesting enough, but perhaps the time has come to ditch literary Stakhanovism in favour of the Platonics’ ‘precious little’ aesthetics.

Yes, of course, there is a social angle to all this. The Platonics belong to an aristocratic lineage which is at odds with our egalitarian times (how many authors can afford to be so unproductive?), but that should not blind us to what they have to offer. They write as if their lives (and after-lives) really depended on it. Whereas the Ionics try to merge life and literature into a seamless continuum, the Platonics — spurred on by what Paul Eluard called the ‘difficult desire to endure’ — often sacrifice the present on the altar of posterity. How many works of fiction produced today have any staying power?

Everything comes to those who can wait, so join the Slow Writing Movement — if not now, then when you’re done procrastinating.

Uncrap Books

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My interview with Sam Jordison was published in 3:AM Magazine today:

“Being something of a klutz myself, always prone to dropping things — both of a physical and verbal clanger nature — I guess I sympathise with life’s losers. I share their pain and that makes it all the more piquant and funny for me. I also hope I show they often have some kind of dignity in defeat. And that there’s a much finer line between spectacular success and humiliation than is often supposed.”

Rebel With a Literary Cause

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“Rebel With a Literary Cause” was published in the Guardian Books Blog on 2 May 2007:

Rebel With a Literary Cause

From Goethe to Rimbaud, a new book from Jon Savage reminds us of teenagehood’s bookish origins.

Rupert Brooke

Through some felicitous coincidence, a stage adaptation of Absolute Beginners recently premiered in London just as Teenage was hitting the bookshelves. Colin MacInnes‘s late 50s cult masterpiece — often described as Britain’s answer to Catcher in the Rye — takes up the teenploitation motif almost exactly where Jon Savage teasingly leaves off. Mirroring the transitional nature of its subject, Savage’s Teenage chronicles the “creation of youth” from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the second world war. Like Peter Pan, this “prehistory” is frozen “in a state of suspension, of permanent becoming.” In its end — the birth of the modern teenager circa 1944 — is its beginning.

Savage has produced a work of cultural history, not literary criticism, but he clearly shows that the proto-teenager was essentially a literary construct. Chatterton and Goethe provided the live-fast-die young blueprint which — via Rimbaud’s disappearing act and Rupert Brooke‘s shattered beauty — would lead to the James Deans and Kurt Cobains of later years.

Premature death is one way of burning always with the hard, gem-like flame of youth and avoiding the dreaded pipe and slippers. The other is fiction. Apropos of Alain-Fournier (who, incidentally, is not mentioned in Teenage although Raymond Radiguet gets a look-in), Adam Gopnik makes a distinction between the “novel of arrival,” that charts the young protagonist’s journey to maturity, and the “novel of adolescence” where adulthood is rejected in favour of extended adolescence. Le Grand Meaulnes, that supposedly archetypal coming-of-age novel is, in fact, a “refusal-to-age story” — a Bildungsroman that builds nothing.

It is precisely this literature of arrested development that holds the key to the dark secret lurking at the heart of Savage’s Teenage. Shifting skilfully from biography to fiction and back again, he makes much of the obvious parallels between Dorian Gray and Peter Pan: the “Faustian nature” of the “contra naturem” contracts and the death instinct that derives from the cult of eternal youth. We learn, for instance, that Rupert Brooke — a devotee of Wilde who was obsessed with J M Barrie‘s “tragic boy” — believed that the world’s great fault was that “its inhabitants grow old.” Talk about dramatic irony.

“It’s funny,” says Nicky in Noël Coward‘s The Vortex, “how mother’s generation always longed to be old when they were young, and we strain every nerve to keep young.” This transformation was brilliantly analysed by Witold Gombrowicz, the great Polish writer Savage fails to mention and who remains steadfastly ignored in Britain (although Updike, Kundera and Sontag rank among his most fervent admirers).

In the most famous passage of his debut novel, Ferdydurke (1937), Joey Kowalski — an amorphous thirty-year-old — is visited by an eminent old professor who treats him like a kid before marching him off to school where he fits in as naturally as a pupil half his age. If Kowalski embodies the notion (later popularised by Sartre) that identity is in the eye of the beholder, his own sense of immaturity reflects Poland’s cultural inferiority complex which, in turn, comes to symbolise the growing infantilism of society.

Ferdydurke dramatises the emergence of the “new Hedonism” Lord Henry had called for in Dorian Gray as well as the shifting human relations Virginia Woolf observed in the early years of the twentieth century. Gombrowicz was the first to sense how curiously one-sided the age-old battle between old age and young bucks was becoming. Outwardly, he says, we strive for completion, perfection and maturity; inwardly, we crave incompletion, imperfection and immaturity. The natural progression from immaturity to maturity (and death) is paralleled by a corresponding covert regression from maturity to immaturity. Mankind is suspended between divinity and puerility, torn between transcendence and pubescence. Through Kowalski, but also the characters of the schoolgirl and the farmhand, Gombrowicz diagnosed this tantalising tryst with trivia which defines the modern world.

The Fascination of Phantom Bands

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Here’s a slightly longer version of the piece published by the Guardian on 27 December 2007:

The Fascination of Phantom Bands

Remember that time you opened the NME and chanced upon a picture of The Perfect Band? The one that was going to save your life? And then you read that they sounded like the roar on the other side of silence — only better? And then you rushed out the next day to buy their single (a limited pressing on 4’33” Records) but it had already sold out? And then you had to wait several long months for their eagerly-anticipated debut album that turned out to be…well…just ok? Tired of musicians who fail to live up to their hairstyles? Why not dance to the spirit ditties of no tone?

You see, when it comes to music, I take my cue from Keats: heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, hence my infatuation with L.U.V. or the Flowers of Romance. Even the greatest bands are mere approximations of the impossible dreams that conjured them up in the first place. However brilliant The Clash or The Smiths may have been, they often fell short of their own Platonic Ideal. More recently, The Libertines‘ music never did justice to the Arcadian rhetoric that made them so damn exciting.

Releasing a record is, ipso facto, a compromise whereas an unreleased (preferably unrecorded and strictly imaginary) record remains pure potentiality. In the final analysis, music can never compete with the silence it comes from and returns to — the silence inhabited by phantom bands.

In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds defines phantom bands as ones that exist “mostly as a figment of bragging and gossip”. The archetype is Liverpool’s The Nova Mob which included Julian Cope, Pete Wylie and Budgie. Cope explains that they had decided to form a purely conceptual group “that didn’t make music at all” but simply sat in cafés discussing imaginary songs — a practice they called “rehearsing”. Of course, they eventually went and spoilt it all by playing a disastrous headline gig at Eric’s following which they did the honourable thing and disbanded. Others, though, never sold out.

Designed to subvert showbiz from the inside, the proto-Pistols Chris Gray Band never existed beyond a few daubings in the vicinity of Victoria Coach Station. What they would have sounded like is anybody’s guess, but in my mind’s ear they are a gloriously shambolic cross between T.Rex and the MC5.

Talking of glammed-up rabble-rousers, no survey of phantom bands would be complete without a mention of London SS — probably the most influential group never to have released a record or played a single gig. Revolving around Mick Jones and Tony James (who are reunited today), their short existence was one long audition that brought together most of the major players on the future London punk scene. Legend has it that a demo tape exists somewhere, but the two founders have vowed, in true phantom band style, never to release it. Don’t you just wish more musicans followed their example? No Music Day would never sound the same again.

****

Here is the version that appeared in Guardian Unlimited:

The Fascination of Phantom Bands

From a ghostly Sex Pistols’ forerunner to Julian Cope’s conceptual collective, some of the greatest groups of all time were the ones that never happened

Julian Cope

Remember that time you opened the NME and chanced upon a picture of The Perfect Band? The one that was going to save your life? And then you read that they sounded like the roar on the other side of silence – only better? And then you rushed out the next day to buy their single (a limited pressing on 4’33” Records) which had already sold out? And then you had to wait several long months for their eagerly-anticipated debut album that turned out to be … well … just OK?

If this sounds familiar — if you’re tired of musicians who fail to live up to their hairstyles – why not dance to the spirit ditties of no tone? In other words, when it comes to music, I take my cue from Keats: heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. Hence my infatuation with phantom bands, such as L.U.V. or the Flowers of Romance. The appeal of semi-real or imagined groups is obvious, as even the greatest bands are mere approximations of the dreams that conjured them up in the first place. However brilliant the Clash or the Smiths may have been, they often fell short of their own Platonic Ideal. More recently, the Libertines‘ music never did justice to the Arcadian rhetoric that made them so damn exciting.

In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds defines phantom bands as ones that exist “mostly as a figment of bragging and gossip”. The archetype is Liverpool’s the Nova Mob, which included Julian Cope, Pete Wylie and Budgie. Cope explained that they had decided to form a purely conceptual group “that didn’t make music at all” but simply sat in cafés discussing imaginary songs – a practice they called “rehearsing”. Of course, they eventually went and spoilt it all by playing a disastrous headline gig at Eric’s, following which they did the honourable thing and disbanded. Others, though, never sold out.

Designed to subvert showbiz from the inside, the proto-Pistols Chris Gray Band never existed beyond a few daubings in the vicinity of Victoria Coach Station. What they would have sounded like is anybody’s guess, but in my mind they are a gloriously shambolic cross between T Rex and the MC5.

Talking of glammed-up rabble-rousers, no survey of phantom bands would be complete without a mention of London SS — probably the most influential group never to have released a record or played a single gig. Revolving around Mick Jones and Tony James (who are reunited today), their short existence was one long audition that brought together most of the major players on the future London punk scene. Legend has it that a demo tape exists somewhere, but the two founders have vowed, in true phantom band style, never to release it. Don’t you just wish more musicans did the same? No Music Day would never sound the same again.