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“Albert Cossery’s Last Siesta” appeared on Dazed Digital on 16 July 2008. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Albert Cossery was a lazy old sod — a relic from the past who looked, of late, as if he felt he had outstayed his welcome. Always dressed to the nines, this dandy anarchist could be observed sitting in the legendary Café de Flore, casting an Olympian eye over the aimless crowds outside, biding his time. His militant idleness coupled with a strange mummified existence blurred the boundary between life and death for so long that his passing away, last month, could almost have gone unnoticed — had he not been a living legend.”

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Albert Cossery Loved Men God Forgot

This appeared in Guardian Books on 8 July 2008:

Albert Cossery Loved Men God Forgot

The Egyptian lived radically lazily on the Left Bank, challenging social norms with books devoid of materialism and ambition

Albert Cossery was a living legend — until he died a few weeks ago. The Egyptian author was one of the last links to the glory days when Paris was the capital of world culture, with Saint-Germain-des-Prés its swinging epicentre.

Having already sampled the louche pleasures of interbellum Montparnasse, Cossery left Cairo in 1945 and relocated to the Left Bank where he hung out on a nightly basis with Genet, Giacometti, Gréco, Queneau, Sartre, Tzara, Vian et al. His first book, Men God Forgot, was published in the States courtesy of Henry Miller, one of his biggest fans. Accompanied by Camus, he cruised the streets of the Latin Quarter, soon acquiring something of a reputation as a Levantine lover. Indeed, by the early 90s he was boasting that he had bedded more than 3,000 women which, if true, would put him right up there in Simenon’s priapic super league. When the American secret services suspected him of being a spy, Lawrence Durrell — another close friend — pointed out that he was far too busy shagging.

The secret services had good reason to be wary of this dapper anarchist, often dubbed the “Voltaire of the Nile”. His caustic satire burned like the desert sun, undermining all forms of authority. In La Violence et la Dérision (unfortunately not translated into English) freedom fighters use mockery and contempt, not violence, as political weapons against state tyranny.

All his life, Cossery sided with those he felt God had forgotten: petty thieves, pretty prostitutes, exploited workers and hungry vagrants. He despised materialism and eschewed the rat race. In Proud Beggars (1955), usually considered his masterpiece, a university professor finds peace of mind by becoming a bum, proving that beggars can be choosers. In The Lazy Ones (1948), a character stays in bed, out of choice, for a whole year. Another decides, on reflection, not to take a wife for fear she might disrupt his precious sleep patterns. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood even take up arms against all those who prevent them from snoozing in peace until midday.

For the author and his lovable rogue’s gallery, sleep, daydreams and hashish-induced reverie are endowed with mystical qualities. Idleness is more than a way of life. It offers the greatest luxury of all: time to think and therefore the chance to be fully alive, “minute by minute”. The overt message of these people whom God has forgotten (but who themselves have not forgotten God) is that paradise is not lost, but most of us are too busy to bask in “the Edenic simplicity of the world”.

There is, however, a darker covert message. In practice, living “minute by minute” meant living the same minute over and over again. Time seems to have stood still for Cossery as soon as he settled in Paris. In 1945, he checked into a small room in a hotel called La Louisiane on Rue de Seine and remained there until his death. Every day, he got up at noon (like his characters), dressed up in his habitual dandified fashion and made his way to the Brasserie Lipp for a spot of lunch. From there, he usually repaired to the Flore or the Deux Magots where he would cast an Olympian eye over the drones passing by. Then it was time for his all-important siesta. Repeat ad infinitum. Cossery, who once described sleep as “death’s brother”, lived a strange, mummified existence, reminiscent of Beckett’s “sleep till death/ healeth/ come ease/ this life disease”.

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My blog on the late Albert Cossery appeared on Guardian Unlimited today:

“Albert Cossery was a living legend — until he died a few weeks ago. The Egyptian author was one of the last links to the glory days when Paris was the capital of world culture, with Saint-Germain-des-Prés its swinging epicentre.

Having already sampled the louche pleasures of interbellum Montparnasse, Cossery left Cairo in 1945 and relocated to the Left Bank where he hung out on a nightly basis with Genet, Giacometti, Gréco, Queneau, Sartre, Tzara, Vian et al. His first book, Men God Forgot, was published in the States courtesy of Henry Miller, one of his biggest fans. Accompanied by Camus, he cruised the streets of the Latin Quarter, soon acquiring something of a reputation as a Levantine lover. Indeed, by the early 90s he was boasting that he had bedded more than 3,000 women which, if true, would put him right up there in Simenon’s priapic super league. When the American secret services suspected him of being a spy, Lawrence Durrell — another close friend — pointed out that he was far too busy shagging.”

More here.

Spam Lit: The Silver Lining of Junk Mail?

“misfires”

This appeared in Guardian Books on 1 July 2008:

Spam Lit: The Silver Lining of Junk Mail?

Spammers embed chunks of literary classics to dodge email filters. Weird/wonderful nuggets are found in inboxes. ‘Spoetry’ is born

Ever since the dawn of the world wide web, to give it its old-fashioned moniker, our communications have been beset by spam. We ignore it almost as much as we receive it, but around the turn of the century Mammon’s pursuit of our attention led to an extraordinary coupling with the Muse.

Here’s what happened. In order to bypass increasingly efficient filters, spammers began embedding blocks of text — often pilfered from great literary works via Project Gutenberg — in their junk mail. Techniques like the Dissociated Press algorithm were employed to randomly generate new, essentially meaningless texts or text collages (“word salads”) so that each message would seem unique. Lee Ranaldo has compared the outcome to a “dictionary exploded”. Another early aficionado, Ben Myers, observed that “it was as if the text had somehow been remixed and shat out down the wires of modernity”. “Spam Lit”, as Jesse Glass dubbed it in 2002, uncannily mirrored bona fide literary experiments that were taking place simultaneously: Jeff Noon‘s exploration — through textual sampling and remixing — of “metamorphiction” in Cobralingus; Jeff Harrison‘s aleatoric poems based on Markov chains; or even Kenji Siratori‘s baffling cyber-gibberish.

Equally intriguing was the trend Wired magazine identified in 2006 as “empty spam”: Spam Lit messages that were, paradoxically, all lit and no spam. The consensus among geeks is that they were probably “misfires” due to faulty server connections. To their recipients, however, these instances of found poetry — often containing nuggets of unwitting but unalloyed beauty — seemed, in Myers’ words, like “scriptures from the future” or “postcards from another planet”. Discovering them in your inbox made you feel like Cocteau‘s Orpheus picking up cryptic poetic messages from the underworld on his car radio.

No wonder, then, that Spam Lit should have inspired the only new literary genre of the early 21st century (if we exclude crimping). The earliest examples of spoetry on record date back to 1999. A pioneering annual competition was even established by Satire Wire the following year. By 2003, when the BBC picked up on the phenomenon, it was already quite clear that writers were approaching spoetry in very different ways – an observation confirmed by Morton Hurley‘s Anthology of Spam Poetry (2007). Some, like Kristin Thomas only used the subject lines of spam messages; others were content to cut, paste and add their names à la Duchamp. Myers, who has just published a collection entitled Spam (Email Inspired Poetry) believes, for his part, that the secret lies in the editing: “A spam poet is as much an editor as a bard“. Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo, who has also just released an anthology (Hello From the American Desert), uses spam emails as a source of inspiration for his own work rather than as a raw material. Mark Amerika, meanwhile, describes the composition of his 29 Inches as a “spam collage” and a “narrative remix”.

Although published last year, Amerika’s work was written in 2004, which also happens to be the year when Myers and Ranaldo penned their first spoems. None of them were aware that others were doing similar things at the same time. There must have been something in the air. If my inbox is anything to go by, however, Spam Lit is now on the wane, so the time may have come to assess the merits of spoetry, its literary by-product. Beyond the genre’s obvious affinities with automatic writing, cut-ups, constrained writing (of the Oulipian variety) and found poetry, is it any cop?

All the Latest

My blog on spam lit was published today by Guardian Unlimited:

“Here’s what happened. In order to bypass increasingly efficient filters, spammers began embedding blocks of text — often pilfered from great literary works via Project Gutenberg — in their junk mail. Techniques like the Dissociated Press algorithm were employed to randomly generate new, essentially meaningless texts or text collages (“word salads”) so that each message would seem unique. Lee Ranaldo has compared the outcome to a “dictionary exploded”. Another early aficionado, Ben Myers, observed that “it was as if the text had somehow been remixed and shat out down the wires of modernity”. “Spam Lit”, as Jesse Glass dubbed it in 2002, uncannily mirrored bona fide literary experiments that were taking place simultaneously: Jeff Noon‘s exploration — through textual sampling and remixing — of “metamorphiction” in Cobralingus; Jeff Harrison‘s aleatoric poems based on Markov chains; or even Kenji Siratori‘s baffling cyber-gibberish”.

More here.