Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else

My review of Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else by C.D. Rose. The Irish Times, 1 September 2018, p. 32.

Is C.D. Rose an elaborate literary hoax? Some have harboured suspicions ever since he “edited” The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (2014) chronicling the fate of obscure scribes, who, on closer inspection, all turned out to be fictional. The provocative title of his debut novel, Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else, lets the (Cheshire) cat out of the bag.

A suspiciously anonymous protagonist doubles up — like so many other things in this tale of doppelgängers and mistaken identities — as a remarkably reliable narrator who conceals his storytelling talents behind apologetic asides to the reader (the storyline is far less digressive than he makes out). Following the “modest success” of a book he edited — yes, the aforementioned Biographical Dictionary — he is invited to deliver a series of 10 lectures on lost or forgotten works in an unspecified provincial city, somewhere in central Europe. The stage is set for a campus caper in Kafkaland that reads, at times, like a David Lodge revisited by Umberto Eco.

When he sets foot in his cramped hotel room — dominated by an oversized Narnia-like wardrobe — the narrator senses that he is “somewhere just not quite right”, signalling that he has stepped through the looking-glass into a recognisable, yet subtly defamiliarised, world. After all, what is this “cupboard within a cupboard” if not a mise en abyme — the space of fiction squared, which is that of literature itself?

The uncanniness of the hotel room spreads to the labyrinthine city, which seems expressly “designed to lose oneself in”, geometry being a “loose concept” in these Expressionistic climes. Roaming the streets, the narrator has the distinct feeling of being preceded (rather than followed) as though haunted by the anxiety of influence or trapped in someone else’s narrative. It transpires that the ever-elusive Professor, who (supposedly) invited him in the first place, is dead — having probably been eliminated as part of a sinister plot to eradicate literature. Unbeknown to him, the narrator has been enrolled in the resistance due to his faith in Maxim Guyavitch, a cult author who wrote very little and whose very existence is contested.

Who’s Who is a book lover’s book, as well as a comic gem. Its palimpsestic quality is obvious from the italicised opening paragraphs, which are meant to be an excerpt from a potboiler the narrator is trying (and failing) to read on the train. Later, the discovery of a volume — which may or may not be a lost Guyavitch — is savoured like a fine vintage: “It gave off an odour of ferns, of waxy newness with an undertow of body musk”. The lectures that interrupt the frame narrative at regular intervals (the last one is left blank in homage to Tristram Shandy) allow the author to produce pastiches of various genres ranging from magic realism to folk horror. Most of the authors on whose fake works he then offers a mock-academic excursus exist — insofar as they are figments of other writers’ imaginations. Enoch Soames, for instance, comes from Max Beerbohm, Vilém Vok from Enrique Vila-Matas, Silas Flannery from Italo Calvino, Maurice Bendrix from Graham Greene and Herbert Quain from Borges.

It is the latter, of course, who advocated summarising or critiquing books instead of going to all the trouble of composing them. Writing about fictitious or lost works (both in this case) is a means of holding literature in abeyance; of preserving its potentiality. This is as close as we can get to fiction’s “strange kind of utopia”.

As for the author? C.D. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

The Story of “The Face”

My review of The Story of “The Face”: The Magazine That Changed Culture by Paul Gorman. The Times Literary Supplement, 24 & 31 August 2018, p. 43.

Paul Gorman’s The Story of “The Face” charts the rise and fall of the original style magazine, from its launch, on a shoestring, in 1980, to 1999, when it was sold off by its founder to a publishing giant. Nick Logan’s monthly would only survive five more years in the brave new digital world it had foreshadowed with its kaleidoscopic cultural coverage. Right from the start, The Face proved a victim of its own success. Having identified style as the prism through which to observe the zeitgeist — thereby eliding the distinction between men and women’s magazines — it soon spawned a host of imitators, not least among the Sunday supplements. At one stage, art director Neville Brody was producing a brand new typeface for every issue, in a frenetic bid to remain one step beyond.

This coffee-table book, with its hundreds of lavishly reproduced covers and innovative page layouts, does full justice to the “world’s best-dressed magazine”. Flicking through it, one witnesses The Face’s visual identity gradually shifting away from radical graphic design towards slick era-defining photography. The Story of The Face is a paean to its founder who, the author contends, has been airbrushed out of history. Logan’s fascination with the intersection between pop music and street style was rooted in his days as a young mod in the 1960s, which the title of his prime publication would allude to (a face being a top mod). After working for the local press, he graduated to the New Musical Express where he became editor at the age of twenty-six, in 1973, presiding over what was arguably the paper’s most important period. He left, following a breakdown, subsequently launching the hugely successful Smash Hits aimed at the post-punk teenybopper market.

The Face was ahead of its time, but also very much of it. The inaugural issue was even delayed by a printers’ strike. Although he knew that the Two Tone phenomenon had already peaked, Logan insisted on putting a picture of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers on the cover as the band typified the marriage of street style and popular music he intended to explore. In a landmark piece published a couple of years later, Robert Elms observed that youth culture now represented “not a rebellion but a tradition” — one, he may have sensed, that was drawing to a close. The days of the austerity dandies who, devoid of job or future, fashioned themselves into extravagant works of art, were numbered. Never again would style have so much substance. The Face chronicled the end of an era as much as it ushered in a new one, endowing its early strapline — “rock’s final frontier” — with a presciently valedictory tone.

 

The Story of “The Face” (excerpt)

My short review of Paul Gorman‘s excellent The Story of “The Face”: The Magazine That Changed Culture features in the latest issue of The Times Literary Supplement, 24 & 31 August 2018, p. 43.

Here’s an extract:

. . . The Face was ahead of its time, but also very much of it. The inaugural issue was even delayed by a printers’ strike. Although he knew that the Two Tone phenomenon had already peaked, Logan insisted on putting a picture of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers on the cover as the band typified the marriage of street style and popular music he intended to explore. In a landmark piece published a couple of years later, Robert Elms observed that youth culture now represented “not a rebellion but a tradition” — one, he may have sensed, that was drawing to a close. The days of the austerity dandies who, devoid of job or future, fashioned themselves into extravagant works of art, were numbered. Never again would style have so much substance. The Face chronicled the end of an era as much as it ushered in a new one, endowing its early strapline — “rock’s final frontier” — with a presciently valedictory tone.

The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.


The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

This appeared in Review 31 on 7 March 2018:

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

Neil Armstrong hoped that someone, some day, would erase the footprints he had left on the moon. It is in this spirit that American author Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition, covering the explorers’ tracks before loosing his characters into lostness. The Way of Florida, his outlandish debut, begins in medias res like an epic poem: ‘And waiting another day to enter port, a south wind took us and drove us away from land’. The colonial enterprise — blown off course after grinding to a halt — has already failed, and will keep on failing better as if The Odyssey had been redrafted by Beckett. Trapped in a ‘maze of unhaving’, increasingly ‘abundant in [their] lack’, the Spaniards soon want nothing more than ‘to not want’. For most of them, the voyage — ‘long for the things [they] do not come upon’ — will be a one-way ticket to ‘[h]igh nowhere of the utmost’. ‘I know there is no return,’ the narrator laments, ‘and I know there is no thing toward of which all of us sail’. Cut adrift from any destination, the journey loses its telos, becoming an end in itself. ‘I must be a man who walks,’ he acknowledges, likening life to an excursion we go on awhile until ‘the world moves on without us’.

With no backstory to speak of, or veritable narrative arc, The Way of Florida is a historical novel from which history has been all but excised. Were it not for the publisher’s blurb, I would have ignored that this quixotic attempt to establish Spanish settlements along the Gulf Coast was first chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors, or that his 1542 account had provided Persson with a general direction of travel. The erasure of most period markers (the first occurrence of the explorer’s name that I spotted was on page 175) allows a deep immersion in the here and now of lives conducted in extremis. A whole year elapses in the course of a four-line paragraph, while a single, unpunctuated sentence — reflecting the flow of real time — winds its way through an entire ten-page chapter. Significantly, the narrator comes to see his existence as a solitary long take, ‘the string of days entire from one until the end’: ‘Inside this now I live with my body underneath the sky’.

The beleaguered colonisers seek refuge in their corporeal abodes, envisioned with doors leading to closets where ‘olden acts’ are ‘ungone forever’. A counter-movement sees the self projected on to the hallucinatory landscape. The protagonist evokes ‘the lands inside [him] yet to fold out’ as though conjuring up the very ground on which he treads. This projection, imperialist as it may sound, inaugurates a fugue state; a desperate drive to leave oneself behind. Striding forth, he explains, is ‘our only path our only way toward some otherwhere some place we were not’. The narrative feeds off itself, like those stranded Christians who survive by partaking of the deceased — until there is only one cannibal left and nobody else ‘to enfooden him’.

It is through writing, however, that Cabeza de Vaca achieves an ecstatic, out-of-body experience. The true ‘otherwhere’ is the book in which he records his misadventures, ‘to bring me to the outside of this [situation] where I can look down to me and witness my own sentence’. Whether he is the author of his own sentence — his work, as well as his plight — remains a moot point. The narrator believes that he and his compatriots are doing penance for their sins, and that what appears like aimless drifting is all part of a grand design. He also claims to have been chosen as the recipient of divine messages, thereby establishing a direct link between ‘Our Lord our mapmaker’ and the figure of the writer.

The Way of Florida is thus a journey into fiction. The survivors — four unwitting horsemen of the Apocalypse — enter Indian lore as ‘holy men from the sky’. In the final part, there is a sudden switch from first to third-person narration, perhaps signalling that Cabeza de Vaca has absented himself through his work, reemerging as a godlike, omniscient voice. A subtle parallel is drawn between colonialism and the realist novel’s linguistic imperialism, exemplified by the narrator’s frustration at not being able to describe certain gestures or the sound the sun makes on the sand. The jarring notes provided by the regular intrusion of expletives — ‘the deep fuck we found ourselves in’ — advertises the underlying tension between contingency and necessity. The neat little blocks of text stranded in an ocean of blank space recall the breath clouds of the storytelling explorers (‘it is air in the shape of our sound in the shape of tales’) and the soothing blowing therapy of the faith healers. These typographical havens stand in stark contrast to the wildly poetic, often challenging, run-on sentences that compose them, stamping their hypnotic rhythm upon the reader. This is English, but not as we know it. The novelist seems to have taken it back to the dawn of language, producing a newly-minted idiom that feels both antiquated and timeless. It is this Adamic English that makes The Way of Florida sui generis, despite being based on a pre-existing text. As Maurice Blanchot put it, ‘What is important is not to tell, but to tell once again and, in this retelling, to tell again each time a first time’.

The Unmapped Country

My review of The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin. The Guardian (Review), 13 January 2018, p. 10.

Reduced to an anomalous footnote in British literary history — a female, working-class, avant-garde author — Ann Quin is all too often taken as read. Yet her work is as open-ended as those sentences she regularly produced that trail off into silence, casting a spell instead of spelling out; floating away on their reserve of potentiality. As open-ended, indeed, as her life, which she took at the age of 37, swimming out to sea off Brighton’s Palace Pier in 1973. She left behind four novels — including her celebrated debut, Berg (1964) — along with scores of short-form pieces, some which now appear in a thrilling new collection of miscellanea.

Spanning the author’s entire career, The Unmapped Country, edited and introduced by Jennifer Hodgson, builds up a portrait of the artist as a restless spirit, forever adventuring into the unknown. In an autobiographical skit, Quin mocks her reputation as an experimental author, attributing the Arts Council’s rejection of her grant application to their having read her last book. The diversity on display is impressive, however, as she studiously avoids getting trapped in any one style or genre. “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, with its enchanting evocation of childhood and unflinching depiction of the decrepitude of old age, is a technically accomplished but surprisingly conventional short story.

“A Double Room” is kitchen sink drama set in Patrick Hamilton territory, while “Tripticks”, which developed into the novel of the same name, recalls Donald Barthelme at his quirkiest. “Living in the Present” (1968), a Burroughsian exercise in cut-ups conducted with the American poet Robert Sward (her then lover) seems to pave the way for JG Ballard’s media-saturated The Atrocity Exhibition.

Some pieces are straightforward memoir; others are clearly fiction, but there is a great deal of overlapping between the two (from this perspective, the author could be considered as a pioneer of autofiction). Quin frequently displays an ambivalent attitude towards mothers in general, and her own in particular, mirrored by a love-hate relationship with a dreary postwar England, where vegetables were still served up “as though chewed already”.

She resolved to become a writer after being “struck dumb” during her RADA audition, and her work always retained a strong theatrical quality. Several stories here are monologues. The two pieces written in the early 60s for pop artist Billy Apple (another lover) give voice to the ludic, transatlantic idiom of the emerging counterculture. Inevitably, considering her recurring bouts of depression and the electroconvulsive therapy she endured, mental illness looms large. The eponymous novella offers a devastating – albeit often hilarious – critique of psychiatry. Sudden shifts in perspective are common, as one character points out during a train journey: “Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” And then there is the encroachment of the sea. A girl envisions her bedridden grandmother’s legs as sticks with “barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging”. In “Nude and Seascape”, which channels the affectlessness of Camus, a woman’s corpse becomes an object in a gruesome still life composition: “Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time”.

This struggle between order and chaos runs through Quin’s work. The husband in “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails” wants to impose a tight schedule on his handyman to curtail the “impression he gives of unlimited time”. Sandra’s descent into madness, in “The Unmapped Country” (1973), takes the form of a hermeneutic disease, whereby everything – even birdsong or “the placing of twigs and leaves” in a park – is construed as a cosmic message. This is, of course, an eminently literary malady: “It takes me a long time to read now, a paragraph holds so much significance, and everything links up.” After being sectioned, she attempts in vain to piece together her hallucinatory journey: “Last events came first, the beginning at the end, or suddenly reversed, or slid into panels mid-way.” The grand narrative eludes her, leaving only “vague notes for the basis of a shape”. A subtle parallel is drawn between the signals Sandra picks up – the broadcasts she tunes into – at the height of her delirium, and the analyst’s Freudian worldview. In her journal, she scoffs at his “stupidity in listening and believing in the radio he switches on” at the beginning of each session.

Although the novella remains unfinished, an alternative to the absolutist, patriarchal vision of art depicted in “Nude and Seascape” seems to emerge when Sandra dismisses her boyfriend’s pursuit of posterity through painting: “How much better to create like the Navajo Indians, beginning at sunrise in the desert, a sand painting that would be rubbed out by sundown.” Having burned her latest contribution to the hospital’s weekly art session, she elects to make “paintings with her footprints in the snow”. The temptation to go beyond the confines of the canvas or page finds its natural expression in Quin’s penchant for juxtapositions and lists. This vagabond style is the perfect vehicle for the ecstatic urge to “go over” and “live beyond” oneself. To keep on walking through the snow, like Sandra, with unlimited time on your hands.



Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

This appeared in the Irish Times on 30 December 2017, p. 24:

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

The vintage fingerprints and splashes of egg yolk adorning my Ladybird edition of The Three Little Pigs. The wild flowers pressed between the pages of a Danilo Kiš. We measure out our lives with books as well as coffee spoons. Those we have read, those we have not; above all, those that have read us. “To my right is a small stained pine bookcase,” writes Damon Young at the beginning of The Art of Reading. “It contains, among other things, my childhood.”

On the latter subject, and his subsequent development, he remains rather tight-lipped. Reading, we learn, was initially “a prop in [his] performance of superiority” and, crucially, a “liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence”. At the age of 11, he sought refuge from his father’s “morning screams” in ninja books and make-believe. As a teenager he was “Prufrock avoiding Prufrock”. Finally he alludes to his wife’s “grave illness” which rendered him incapable of finishing AS Byatt’s Still Life. There ends the confessional: this is a portrait of the author as a reader.

In the expository chapter Young navigates his way round the labyrinthine shelves of his own Library of Babel, travelling back and forth in time, both personal and historical. His early passion for Sherlock Holmes was shared by William Gibson, whose evocation leads — “[t]wo shelves under” him — to Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on childhood perusal and then on to Edith Wharton’s — “[t]wo rooms behind and one century before him” — and from thence to Rousseau, Sartre, de Beauvoir (close to the former “in [his] library as in life”) and so on. Taking in Batman as well as Heidegger, the breadth of reference is impressive, but never overbearing, thanks to the Australian philosopher’s lightness of touch, self-deprecating humour and endearing deployment of the word “bunkum”. Having traced a desire path through a lifetime of books, Young reflects upon six Aristotelian virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice) that reading requires, exhibits or promotes.

The Art of Reading is not just another bibliomemoir; it is also a manifesto of sorts. The author shuns a utilitarian approach to his subject — regarded as “an end in itself” — summarily listing its ancillary benefits with a commendable degree of scepticism. After all, “bastards enjoy fiction too” and, as he cheekily points out, some of them are authors. His ambitious goal is to re-enchant an activity which, “cosmically speaking”, is very much “against the odds”. Reading, he laments, is grossly undervalued, its wonders all too soon forgotten.

It tends to be thought of as a rudimentary skill, acquired in early childhood, rather than a lifelong project to be honed from Miffy to Proust. It has the added disadvantage of being a largely invisible pursuit, incapable of competing with the social cachet conferred by authorship, or rather the “fantasy of publication”. A text, however, is “only ever half finished by the writer”; it is the reader who brings it to life. Should the human race be wiped out, books would be “lived in, eaten, buried, climbed upon, oxidised, but not read”.

Young contends that the reader’s demiurgic power is not only forgotten, but also repressed, because of the anxiety it generates in highlighting the contingency of our books and lives: “Giddiness arises as I become aware of my responsibility for affirming one world and not another, and the fragility of whatever is chosen. Every string of letters can be an existential challenge”. What Michel Foucault called the “author function” is thus “a way of making reading safe”. Words become “someone else’s job”: the book “just means this, end of story”.

If Young explores how Rousseau or Sartre became fully aware of their existence through reading, he also considers how fiction may provide an escape from the confines of the self — Dickens’s “hope of something beyond that place and time” — and the increasing encroachment of the actual upon the possible.

In order to truly appreciate a text we must also “overcome our egocentrism”, which Virginia Woolf signally failed to do vis-à-vis Joyce, whom she initially read through the prism of class snobbery and rivalry. The philosopher concedes, however, that Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing” has its limits. We are “partial beings” whose “incompleteness varies” with age, so that some novels — Henry James’s in the case of Evelyn Waugh — need to be grown into.

Most importantly, perhaps, literature enables us “to stifle the little oligarch” within. Villains — in fiction as well as fact — “see all things as a means to an end”, which is always “some vision of perfection”. Reading teaches us to accept that things simply are, and that they may end without concluding: “Only the Library of Babel continues. It makes sense to restlessly move between artworks, never believing that any one is perfect.”