Upon Reading “Celesteville’s Burning”

Tom Bradley on “Celesteville’s Burning” 5 October 2010:

“Celesteville’s Burning” is brilliant. It’s the best thing of yours I’ve read. Assuming I’m familiar with all or most of your fiction, I would call this a breakthrough.

As always, the Gallixian wit is everwhere: the “doppelgänger given half the chance”; the “Holy Grail of Franco-Swiss rock criticism”; the “wind in his combover,” and countless other instances that pour forth from every sentence and phrase. You’ve always exploded with linguistic brilliance, syntactic agility and erudition. What a mood enhancer it’s been, throughout your work, to meet with these qualities in an author who does us the honor of assuming the same capacities in his readers.

In “Celesteville’s Burning” you’re displaying further technical mastery. With apparent effortlessness you move in and out of settings objective, subjective, and everything in between. The first to hit me was the light-speed spatial transition of the journalist’s cunt onto Zanzibar’s face, effected right in the middle of a paragraph. All of a sudden we are treated to a blending of her vaginal sensations with the literary sensation caused by Zanzibar: an announcement that we are in the light hands of a master.

You have achieved narrational virtuosity, signaled by your supremely perverse confidence in supplying a plethora of sensory detail in scenes that seem to come from out of nowhere, dreams whose larger purpose you haven’t yet established in our minds — e.g., Grandmother’s house. You know full well that we will not only endure but enjoy the moment of disorientation, and will follow.

The insistent, perverse, yet unfailingly lucid use of French and Franglais — is this also a symptom of a breakthrough? Have you staked out your own territory and sunk roots in the borderland between your two native cultures?

Zanzibar’s ludicrous early success, his lugubrious decline and late failure, his preposterously self-indulged “quantum” writer’s block, and the diseased way in which the established press will exploit it — I sense a breakthrough here, too. You’ve long acknowledged and bewailed the contemptible state of Franco-English letters. But here, with an amazing vastness of detail that only an insider could generate (where did you learn so much about these effete movers and shakers?), you have finally masticated this hideous situation, peristalsed it and shat it out. The despair which “the mainstream” must engender in less hardy souls can’t come near you any more. You are free to laugh from high up, to heap the kind of scorn that will humiliate any member of the lit establishment who reads this.

I can feel a Gallix novel coming on — and not an invisible palimpsest. This artistic unfolding of yours is heartening and exciting to watch. Some saggy asses in London-Paris-New York that have long needed kicking are in for it now.

Indie Literary Sites Start Coming of Age

Katie Allen, “Indie Literary Sites Start Coming of Age,” The Bookseller 8 October 2010:

For the time being, print still rules. There is no denying the cachet of Granta, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, plus a number of smaller publications such as Litro and print-and-online publications such as Pen Pusher and Notes from the Underground.

Yet alongside Hamish Hamilton’s own project, Five Dials, the recent recruitment of publishing names including Scott Pack, Simon Trewin and Alma Books m.d. Alessandro Gallenzi as columnists for The View from Here is an example of how seriously the trade is taking independent literary websites.

Gallenzi became involved out of interest in “promoting new talent, new voices, new writers”. However, he is wary of the proliferation of online books content. “There is a certain hierarchy of critics and reviews. I respect the opinion of certain critics because of who he or she is and what they have done before . . . You have to take it on a blog-by-blog basis,” he said.

Sandra Taylor — Pan Mac publicity and digital communications manager — is a keen advocate of online literary magazines.“It’s hard to identify a spike in sales, as you can with a book being mentioned on Radio 4. But we definitely see it as part of a fully integrated campaign because if a reader wants to Google one of our authors, we want there to be richer content available. It’s interesting and important for Google rankings. It’s also important in terms of supporting new writers.”

Viola Fort, editor of untitledbooks.com, said: “Publishers are getting more web-savvy. From the beginning, they saw us as credible. We’ve got a much younger audience than traditional literary magazines. I wanted to do something on a par, but with a new way of access.”

Andrew Gallix, editor of 3:AM, said: “It’s easier today than [when we launched] in 2000, because online publications are taken far more seriously. Then again, it’s far more difficult for us as there are now hundreds of similar webzines.

“When we started out, webzines were looked down upon in Britain as being second-rate. [But] we’re now assiduously courted by publishers, big and small, especially since the credit crunch (which led them to look for cheaper ways to promote their books).

“The majors, in particular, know that we can give authors credibility, which is something that’s difficult to manufacture,” he added.

Jane Bradbury of For Books’ Sake said that publisher attention had been more noticeable since the site chose to focus exclusively on female writers five months ago.

“Independent and smaller presses have been so much more proactive and supportive,” she said, citing Serpent’s Tail and Pulp Press. “More mainstream publishing houses have mostly ignored us so far (with a couple of exceptions such as Virago).

She added: “Maybe that’s to do with them being much more rambling operations. With smaller publishers, they are usually much more on the ball in terms of monitoring online media, such as Twitter etc, and making mutually valuable connections.”

All the Latest

I’m quoted in an article by Katie Allen (“Indie Literary Sites Start Coming of Age”) that appeared in The Bookseller on 8 October 2010.

On 13 August 2010, Slow Travel Berlin republished a piece I wrote on “The Virtues of Slow Writing“.

On 5 August 2010, IKE published an article on the Offbeat Generation in which they quote Jim Ruland saying this about me, back in 2007: “Andrew Gallix writes as if he invented Warhol on Monday, punk rock on Tuesday and then took the rest of the week off after declaring the project a sodding mess. In this day and age when laundry detergent is bold and automobiles are innovative, Gallix’s prose is like a fresh breath of mercurochrome: sharp and acrid with truths that are hideous to behold even though it’s good for us. Never mind Gallix? Bollocks!”

On 3 August 2010, Susan Tomaselli devoted her “3:AM Cult Hero” column in 3:AM Magazine to a piece I’d written for the Guardian about fictitious non-author Félicien Marboeuf, “the greatest writer never to have written”.

It’s All Greek

Here is a short, unpublished review of Tom McCarthy‘s C:

It’s All Greek

How do we recombine the debris of literary history?

Inspired By: Cocteau’s Orphée in which dead poet broadcasts coded messages on living poet’s car radio, hence the author as listener-repeater; Background: Concept of the crypt (site of an encoded primal scene) linking Cocteau, Freud’s Wolf Man, invention of telephone, discovery of Tutankhamun and Nabokov’s Ada; Protagonist Modelled On: Alexander Bell, Maurice Blanchot, Howard Carter, Marinetti, Orpheus, Sergei Pankejeff, Georg Trakl; Obligatory Plot Summary: Born, fails to mourn dead teenage sister, treated for melancholia in central Europe, airborne radio operator during WWI, student in drug-fuelled 20s London, civil servant in spy-ridden Egypt, dies; Representative Sentence: “What he sees is darkness, but he sees it.”

The history of Tom McCarthy’s debut, Remainder, has almost achieved legendary status. It was first released on a tiny Parisian art press, having been spurned by all the major publishing houses in Britain, yet ended up making the cover of the New York Times, receiving the 2008 Believer Book Award and being lauded by Zadie Smith as “one of the great English novels of the past ten years”. Where do you go from there? Backwards, of course, like Dr. Learmont’s face that seems to multiply “down a telescoping corridor of memories” [77] or the archaeologists in Egypt — not to mention Serge with his predilection for coitus a tergo. McCarthy’s second novel, Men in Space, was mostly written before his first. His third — which is being touted as his big breakthrough — stems from Calling All Agents (2003), a fascinating essay that already contained all the keys to his book to come. Imagine a Bible concordance predating The Bible itself. In fact, C is CAA re-encrypted: a space in which the event that is true literature can take place.

With his first period piece, McCarthy goes back to the future (and Futurism) in order to rescue fiction from its current impasse. The timeline of this Bildungsroman is highly significant. It begins in 1898 — when Serge Carrefax is born to the “mechanical buzz” [10] of his father’s wireless radio experiments — and ends in 1922 — the year of The Waste Land and Ulysses — when he dies. The association between modern communications technology and modernism provides the backdrop to a redefinition of literature as transmission rather than self-expression.

Unsurprisingly for a novel revolving around incest — both literal and metaphorical — C contains numerous mises en abyme. There’s the tapestry of a staircase hanging above a staircase, or the school pageant (a nod to The Mousetrap in Hamlet) that dramatizes the Orphic theme underlying the entire work. The most apposite is Sophie’s “strange associative web” [71] that proliferates like a tumor and seems to harbor some dark secret within its intricate ramifications. McCarthy’s text also keeps generating new meanings, sometimes of its own volition, as words and ideas cross-fertilize in incestuous ways. Language, says Heidegger, speaks. Thus Sophie mutters beautiful schizophrenic gibberish as though she had “turned herself into a receiver” [75]. The Morse code clicks sometimes seem to be “speaking on their own” [67]. The deaf children are spoken through, their voices “ventriloquised” as if “piped in from somewhere else;” [4] their utterances resembling “a mispronounced version of something else, other sentences that are trying to worm their way up to the surface, make themselves heard” [79]. The headlong rush into modernity, away from the parodic pastoral setting, is paralleled by a return to the primitive magic of the oral tradition. The idea that something may even be lurking behind mere hearing is often hinted at. “[M]uffled signals” [83] are half-heard through wireless static (itself likened to “the sound of thought” [64]). Serge is haunted by “vague impressions of bodies hovering just beyond the threshold of the visible” [68] when riding “the dial’s far end” [83].

The protagonist teeters on the brink of some revelation that eludes him until he receives the ultimate, hallucinatory “call”. The reader can also break the code: incest is the encrypted primal scene of literature — the scene of our failed mourning for the works of the past. It’s all Greek, in the end.

[Picture: Tom McCarthy and Daniel Defoe, Bunhill Fields, London, August 2010. By Andrew Gallix.]