The Pleasures of Unintelligibility

Marina Warner, “At the Gogol Centre,” London Review of Books (website), 16 January 2017

Unintelligibility has become interesting to me as a far more common state – with its own benefits – than has been recognised. Some of the most involving and passionate moments of a reading life can be baffling. In my first encounters with Rebecca, The Waste Land, Waiting for Godot, Dante’s Paradiso, I could grasp very little of what was being said, either at the level of the words or in the larger picture of narrative and thought. Yet these works absorbed me utterly, and their feel has remained vivid in memory; they felt intense and alive and their power is and was contagious – they made me feel intense and alive too. There’s something about attending to a work beyond lucidity that’s like learning a language when young, or finding your way around a neighbourhood.

The pleasures of unintelligibility have been wonderfully explored by nonsense poets and storytellers like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and some of the greatest makers of such literature have been Russian: Velimir Khlebnikov, for example. Khlebnikov revelled in the sound of words and in the feelings that the sheer noise of plosives, gutturals and fricatives could excite, when arranged in patterns and rhythms, without much design on semantic translucency:

Bo-beh-o-bi, sang the lips,
Veh-eh-o-mi, sang the glances,
Pi-eh-eh-o, sang the brows,
Li-eh-eh-ey, sang the visage,
Gzi-gzi-gzeh-o, sang the chain.

The effects can be joyous or bitter; but the energy of improvisation makes for another kind of sense, as the listener escapes from linguistic intelligibility into free-form verbal music.

The Abode of Fancy

This appeared in The Guardian (Guardian Review) on 24 December 2016: 10.

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We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoo-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to summarise: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected.

There are two main plot lines. The first revolves around Simeon Collins, a young student who shares his initials with the author, and the washed-up, world-weary older friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin. The book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit and snot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages.

Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5,000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. Simeon composes a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw.”

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers are here in name or spirit, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that the first character to appear has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than its fanciful cast come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue is often pitch-perfect and Coll (pictured) displays an emotional intelligence beyond his years: the unflinching, compassionate depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone, but the default mode is mock-heroic, with the quixotic cast out of place in a hastily delineated contemporary Ireland: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” and the 2008 recession.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Nearly all the characters are male and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse?

samcoll2

Here is a longer, slightly different version:

We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoe-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages of scatological high jinks and coruscating wit. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College — a mere 20 years old — when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to synopsize: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected. For what it is worth, there are two main plot lines. The first one revolves around a young student, Simeon Collins, his sentimental travails, and his father’s washed-up, world-weary friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin, and Elijah, who, like one of the author’s nested narratives, takes up abode in a deceased character’s body from which it emits gnomic utterances. But the book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares (most of the animals can speak) who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales. It even includes a donkey called Balthazar (as in Bresson’s classic) who — “or so he claimed” — was a film star in a previous life.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is quite apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit, snot and whatnot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages. Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique from the aforementioned wisecracking ass: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. A bookmark on page 390 in Arsene O’Colla’s copy of Swann in Love proves “how far he got” in Proust’s oeuvre and, crucially, “from whence he never proceeded”. Simeon Collins (whose initials are also the author’s) starts off composing a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw”.

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond, are here, in name or spirit. One thinks of Albert Potter’s dingy subterranean flat, in the novel, where books “copulate and fecundate, book begetting book”. Detailed descriptions of photographs open up new vistas; worlds within worlds. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that Martin Graves (the first character to appear) has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than the fanciful characters come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue — “You’re not, no, are you not, yeah” — is often pitch-perfect. Despite his youth, Sam Coll displays an emotional intelligence far beyond his years. His unflinching, albeit compassionate, depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone (as well as point of view) but the default mode is mock-heroic. When the Mad Monk asks for directions, bemused passersby fail to comprehend the “antique cast in which he couched his query”. The Irish-American Tadgh O’Mara spurns his “own accursed tongue” in favour of bookish Gaelic gibberish. As a result, the poetry he produces is “like reading a dictionary of the most obscure Irishness that had been spliced all out of order”. The implicit critique of the “impoverished idiom” of our age is part of the characters’ quixotic cast. For various reasons, they feel out of place in contemporary Ireland, which is hastily delineated: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” (that “can’t be beat”) and the 2008 recession.

Like most great works, The Abode of Fancy comes equipped with its own critical apparatus. The description of the Mad Monk’s doggerel as a “happy fusion of Sterne and Yeats, two names one would not have suspected of ever being conducive to successful welding” provides a fitting definition of the novel itself. A mock-Yeatsian mythology runs parallel to, and gradually merges with, the disenchanted world of piss artistry and unrequited love embodied by Simeon and his entourage.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Barring a couple of exceptions, the characters are all male to a man and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Sam Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse? And will he micturate against the wall whilst whistling a jaunty Celtic ditty?

A Quest for the Quotidian

An extract from my review of Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond was quoted in Guardian Australia‘s “December literary picks” published on 10 December 2016:

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Picador)

Guardian reviewer Andrew Gallix wrote of this collection of 20 stories:

Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the “savage swarming magic” the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her “mind in motion” … One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator — whose brain and body we inhabit — yet how little we know about her. We don’t even learn her name …

What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world. Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous, quality through the examination of what Emerson called “the low, the common, the near” or the exploration of Georges Perec’s “infra-ordinary” — a quest for the quotidian.”
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Illuminated Squares

“Through tree-lined streets, past the terraced houses, I float, catching glimpses of those other, happier, families through the illuminated squares of their little brick boxes.”
Viv Albertine, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys (2014)

This Is Where We Would Have Done It

“Next to my primary and junior schools, in the small town where I grew up (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire) was a large recreation park. During term time we played there at lunchtimes; in the summer holidays, we spent whole afternoons playing football. At one corner of the rec was something we called the Hump: a hump of complicated dirt with trees growing on it — all that was left, presumably, of the land that had been cleared and flattened to form the rec; either that or — unlikely given the size of the trees — a place where some of the detritus from this process had been heaped up. The Hump was the focal point of all games except football and cricket. It was the first place in my personal landscape that had special significance. It was the place we made for during all sorts of games: the fortress to be stormed, the beachhead to be established (all games, back then, were war games). It was more than what it was, more than what it was called. If we had decided to take peyote or set fire to one of our schoolmates, this is where we would have done it.”
Geoff Dyer, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (2016)

The Making of Meursault

This appeared in Literary Review November 2016: 30-31.
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The Making of Meursault

In July 1944 Albert Camus produced a counterfeit manuscript of his debut novel, The Outsider, published two years earlier. Josette Clotis, André Malraux’s partner, read the text aloud while Camus took it down in longhand, introducing the odd crossed-out variant to lend it the air of an early draft. In Looking for ‘The Outsider’, Alice Kaplan outlines this ingenious scam, born of wartime austerity, but does not say whether it proved successful or not. All the same, it speaks volumes about the book it sought to cash in on. The Outsider had already outgrown its title, acquiring the aura of a canonical work. Camus was now in a position to turn Bouvard and Pécuchet’s lowly profession — that of the copy clerk — into gold. All he had to do was replicate his near-indecipherable microscript, originally developed in response to an acute paper shortage.

Looking for ‘The Outsider’ is the biography of a book rather than of its author. Kaplan chronicles the story of The Outsider from the germ of an idea in Camus’s notebooks to the novel’s re-evaluation in the light of gender and postcolonial studies, taking in, chemin faisant, its wider impact on popular culture. She even identifies the individual who inspired the anonymous Arab. Her research really comes into its own when she pieces together the strange circumstances in which the novel saw the light of day. Retracing the various manuscripts’ convoluted journey between Algiers and occupied Paris — charted on four different maps — is likened to ‘chasing several Minotaurs in a maze’. Even Raymond Queneau, at publishers Gallimard, was baffled, ending up with two different versions before going to press.

In 1937, with two collections of essays under his belt, Camus set about writing fiction. The provisional title of his work-in-progress, ‘A Happy Death’, clearly anticipated The Outsider (published as The Stranger in the United States), as did the protagonist’s name, Patrice Mersault. However, if Kaplan’s precis of this first attempt — ‘the story of a tubercular young man who commits murder for freedom’ — is anything to go by, it sounds more like an autobiographical take on André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures than a new departure. When he peered into his manuscript, Camus increasingly caught glimpses of a ‘completely different book’ within it. By the autumn of the following year, a ‘second novel’, which he went on to describe as ‘already completely traced within me’, stared back at him. Kaplan explains that the ‘ambitious writer who wanted to control every aspect of his craft found himself confronted with the unexpected’. Just as Meursault would realise, in extremis, that he had been ‘a stranger to his life’, Camus had to draw the conclusion that he was a stranger to his work. Having abandoned ‘A Happy Death’, he was ready to yield to something he did not fully comprehend: ‘Sometimes I need to write things that escape me in part, but which are proof of precisely what within me is stronger than I am.’

Eschewing belletristic ‘chit-chat’, he developed his trademark laconic style that gestures discreetly towards that which eludes language. ‘To write,’ he realised, ‘one must fall slightly short of the expression’, for the ‘true work of art … is the one that says the least’. Sartre greatly admired the way Camus deployed words ‘almost miraculously to produce a sensation of silence’, unaware that he had been brought up by a deaf mother and uncle. Estrangement was not only rooted in experience, however; it was also a literary device. Under the influence of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (translated into French in 1936), Camus switched his narrative from the third to the first person, a style that, as Kaplan remarks, ‘usually lets the reader inside the narrator’s head — but he did it so that there was no getting inside, no way to feel close to Meursault’. The novelist described this technical breakthrough, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a mere ‘trick’: ‘once I discovered the trick, all I had to do was write.’

If Camus discovered The Outsider ‘within himself’, he breathed life into the novel as a genre. His protagonist’s ‘lack of connection to people’, writes Kaplan, is offset by his ‘sensual connection to the world’. ‘He exists,’ Camus declared, ‘like a stone or the wind or the sea, under the sun.’ So far, so nouveau roman. Yet when Kaplan quotes the climactic passage in which Meursault opens himself to the ‘gentle indifference of the world’, finding it ‘so much like myself — so like a brother’, she fails to point out how much the world is anthropomorphised and recast in his image, and how even its indifference becomes benevolent. Is this really what Camus meant by living ‘without appeal’; cut adrift from religion or ideology? And, while we are on the subject, is a godless universe ipso facto absurd? As Alain Robbe-Grillet objected, the world is neither meaningful nor meaningless: ‘It is, that’s all’. A major flaw throughout this study is Kaplan’s promptness to take Camus’s ideas as read although, in all fairness, analysis does not fall within her remit.

Meursault fails to feel the gravitational pull of Paris, which, as Kaplan shrewdly observes, is a measure of his strangeness in a highly centralised country like France. Camus, however, had far more in common with Rastignac, Balzac’s arch-arriviste, than with Meursault. Despite going on to become the editor of an underground newspaper during the war, he ‘never questioned the idea of publishing his novel in occupied Paris’ and had no qualms about excising an essay on Kafka from The Myth of Sisyphus lest it attract the attention of the Germans. Within months of the appearance of The Outsider in bookshops, he was already ‘at the heart of things’, dining out with Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Café de Flore, an outsider no more.

At the outset, Alice Kaplan describes reading The Outsider as a ‘rite of passage’ that people throughout the world connect to ‘their coming of age’. Perhaps it is in the nature of such works to be outgrown, as The Outsider was, almost immediately, by Camus himself. Contrarily, our compulsion to reinterpret the book — in the light of the French Resistance, Algerian independence, the banlieues or the Arab Spring — may testify to its irreducible otherness and our inability to simply let it be, like a stone or the wind or the sea.
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