Saving Lucia

My review of Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. The Irish Times, 9 May 2020, p. 57:

The pages of Saving Lucia are so joyous and full of life that they seem about to flap away. Reading Anna Vaught’s third novel is akin to catching your first glimpse of London’s parakeets. It produces a similar sense of wonderment and disorientation — a feral flash of exotic technicolour splashed across a monochrome canvas.

The seed for this “more-or-less true story” — as the narrator calls it — was planted when Vaught discovered that Violet Gibson and Lucia Joyce had both been inmates of St Andrew’s, a psychiatric hospital in Northampton. History does not say whether the two Irish women ever met, but then this is a book about awaking from its nightmare, not replicating it.

The date is 1956. Violet — daughter of Baron Ashbourne, a former lord chancellor of Ireland — has been locked away for 30 years, following her attempted assassination of Mussolini. Sensing that her time is almost up, this devout Catholic convert with a penchant for profanity (“go fack yourself doctors”) and killer one-liners (“Decorum is essential in a lunatic asylum”) enrols Lucia as her Boswell.

As the title indicates, writing this book will save Lucia — who was committed to St Andrew’s two years earlier — from being reduced to “hearsay and notes in hospital archives” by providing a sounding board for her silenced voice. In fact, the four voices she channels could be construed as different facets of her divided personality. The characters, after all, are often difficult to distinguish, forcing the author to punctuate the text with “I, Lucia” at regular intervals.

Observing Violet muttering to her beloved passerines in the courtyard, Dr Griffith remarks that she seems to be feeding them “with her words”. Little does he know that bird is the word.

Communication between the two female protagonists is pitched at a frequency that blurs the boundary between sound and silence. On one occasion Lucia is astonished when Violet responds to something she has just been thinking; on others, she catches herself speaking out loud instead of ruminating. The medical staff are unable to tune into this illicit wavelength. When Violet starts whispering to Lucia, at the beginning of their adventure, the nurse “hears it only as rustling and is not sure even if it is there”.

A network of associations running throughout the novel connects whispering to murmuration (a keyword) and rustling to both avian wings and writing. All these elements are brought together in the pivotal scene where the women fly away from St Andrew’s, setting off the hospital’s alarms in the process: “This was the bit the staff heard, but they’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil”.

In the beginning was the bird, and the bird was with Violet, and the bird was Violet. Through a process of transubstantiation or recirculation that James Joyce would have approved of, Lady Gibson feeds the birds “with her words” which themselves turn into birds, thus enacting the oft-repeated idea that confinement liberates the powers of the imagination.

“Come to us passerines,” she tells them, “Soon enough, we will come with you” — and so they do, accompanied by Blanche (the so-called Queen of Hysterics, whose antics under hypnosis attracted le tout Paris at the end of the 19th century) and Anna O. (the originator of the talking cure).

The four women travel through time and space, disrupting a seance by Madame Blavatsky or liberating the inmates of La Salpêtrière. These peregrinations climax when they catch up with Mussolini in an attempt to change the course of world history.

Saving Lucia highlights the role played by the patriarchy in defining and weaponising female madness. Is Violet more dangerous than a fascist dictator? Why is Lucia labelled insane whenever the associations she makes become “too lickety-split” while this is deemed a mark of genius in her father, the great author? (The Joycean pastiches are, incidentally, among the most accomplished passages.) And what of Charcot’s exploitative “theatre of neurology”?

“The novel I mentioned? You are reading it,” Lucia explains in the final pages, before adding, “Well I am sure you grasped that. You’re clever.” This is the novel’s major flaw. Despite its inclusive message and celebration of the imagination, everything is relentlessly spelt out. The narrator may well encourage us “to annotate the margins” of her book, but they have all been filled in.

Set against Anna Vaught’s tremendous achievements, however, this criticism is for the birds.

 

 

The Dominant Animal

My review of The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan. The Irish Times, 25 April 2020, p. 60:

A woman cuts her hand while chopping onions. Chilled to the marrow, she passes out, having caught a glimpse of bone: “I saw it, white, swimming in the brimming gash”. This gory incident, which occurs in the collection’s concluding tale, recalls an earlier piece, where an obsessive hunter polishes animal bones “into gleaming white abstractions”. Lean and mean — whittled down to their very viscera — the 40 stories assembled in The Dominant Animal are certainly close to the bone.

As in her novel Aug 9—Fog (2019) — carved out of a found text — Kathryn Scanlan seems to proceed not by addition but subtraction, like a sculptor chipping away at a slab of marble. “Ta-da!” (as its title advertises) turns this process into something of a joke. It closes — just as dusk darkens the neighbourhood “from the ground up, like dye climbing a cloth” — with an Old Testament-style bush giving birth to a figure. An arm, leg and foot gradually emerge, while the female narrator looks on, entranced. “I’ve always been a sucker for origin stories,” she comments, “so I held my breath and waited to see how this one might begin.”

Ending with a beginning (this is the last sentence) is a way of neither beginning nor ending, just like newborns in these pages never seem fully alive while the recently deceased never seem quite dead. It is a ruse to tap into the primal darkness while holding it at bay. The book itself ends on a similar, albeit more sinister, note: a shadow springing forth from a dark corner in the protagonist’s backyard, “like a vision of God, gnashing his great white teeth”. Scanlan’s fiction never strays far from this point of origin that always threatens to reclaim it, as in this mystifying coup de théâtre: “For a while she could be seen in her white nightgown, but then the dark — it swallowed her”. Has the character really vanished, or is she simply obscured from view? The young American author’s audacious deployment of lacunae is a measure of her singular artistry.

Although the setting is usually suburban, a “frontier kind of aroma” hangs over the manicured lawns. The nearby woodlands act as a kind of annexe of the id for the local menfolk: “It drew their blood. It drank their piss. It ate their shit. It hid the light of day. It hid the stars at night. It hid the path to town”. Scanlan’s unsentimental approach to the animal kingdom is exemplified by the vet who gelds a horse and tosses away “what he’d cut” to a pack of hounds.

In the eponymous story, the female narrator notices a sculpture outside a church: two baby boys suckling at a she-wolf’s pendulous teats. This passing reference to Romulus and Remus is a reminder of civilisation’s pagan, animalistic roots. Animals and men are in fact so united in their bestiality that the slippage from the one to the other is almost imperceptible at times. Women suffer terrible abuse, but they give as good as they get, and some of the best stories are morality tales with a sting in their tails showcasing the author’s wicked sense of humour.

Scanlan claims that she either writes from the point of view of an alien or as though addressing one. The latter is achieved by shunning all forms of shorthand and cliche: the wealthy father in “The Candidate” is thus introduced as a “professional manipulator of spinal bones”. The wayward narrator of “The First Whiffs of Spring” — seemingly an alcoholic — embodies the former option. She attends a party but only understands why when a “swaddled body” (note the characteristic obliquity) lands in her arms. Having described her elaborate outfit, highlighting the belt “upon which I’d set my hopes of pulling everything together”, she goes outside, where the wind reverses the process, dissolving her social persona: “It undid my hair and lifted my skirt. It scattered me just like I liked”.

The author’s focus on this scattered self and life stripped back to its essence does not result in a defamiliarisation of the world but, on the contrary, in its refamiliarisation — as though we were emerging from a coma. It also lends these tales a timeless quality, enhanced by a style that tends to the irrefutable. These are sentences written in stone — to be read out loud or learned by heart.

The Evil of Banality

My review of Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer. The Stinging Fly, 9 April 2020:

According to one school of thought, authors — whether consciously or not — always write the same book. As they never get it right, they feel compelled to start over again. Some give up the pretence, spending most of their careers toiling away at a single magnum opus. Others, cursed with beginner’s luck, are henceforth condemned to produce inferior iterations of their debuts. Lars Iyer — an enthusiastic exponent of Mark E. Smith’s ‘three Rs’ (‘Repetition repetition repetition’) — both proves and disproves this theory. To say that his first four novels are much of a muchness is an understatement, but their cumulative effect has led to a glorious breakthrough. Imagine the Spurious trilogy (2011-2012) and Wittgenstein Jr (2014) as two identical loops, running at slightly different speeds, falling in and out of sync, and you get a good idea of Nietzsche and the Burbs, which manages to be different from (and superior to) its predecessors, while remaining essentially the same. It may well be the first instance of verbal phase music.

This hilarious but also bittersweet coming-of-age tale chronicles the last ten school weeks of a group of disaffected sixth-formers — Paula, Art, Merv, and Chandra — in a bog-standard English comprehensive. United by their ‘rogue intelligence’ and outsider status among their peers — the beasts, trendies, and hordes of drudges for ever snacking and checking their phones — these self-styled ‘black holes’ form a ‘gang that hates everyone’ (or purports to do so) save for the new boy with the word ‘NIHILISM’ on his notebook. The latter is soon adopted as their intellectual guru and nicknamed Nietzsche, owing, in part, to a vague, but disputed, resemblance to the German philosopher:

Who? Merv asks.
Friedrich Nietzsche — the philosopher, Paula says. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Nietzsche.
Merv, investigating on his phone. Showing us a photo. The new boy doesn’t look anything like him!
You have to look beyond the moustache, Paula says.
How? Merv says. All I can see is moustache.

The resemblance (if there is one) is not merely physical. Nietzsche’s life closely mirrors that of his namesake: he suffers from mental health issues, has a meddling, supercilious sister; falls in love with Lou (Lou Andreas-Salomé) who leaves him for Paula (Paul Rée), etc. Although we do hear his voice in conversation with the other smart-alecs, as well as through his intense blog entries — couched in grandiose, incendiary rhetoric — Nietzsche’s presence always seems distanced, almost spectral, as though he were hovering on the verge of erasure; never quite all there. His real name, significantly, is not disclosed at any stage. He is, above all, a talismanic figure: a figment of the gang’s collective imagination and constant subject of their choric speculation, gossip, and myth-making. ‘Pessimism,’ as Eugene Thacker observes, ‘is the last refuge of hope’ and this is what the new boy seems to offer from the outset: ‘The feeling that Nietzsche is the key to something. But what door will he unlock? The feeling that something’s going to happen. That something important is about to happen’. This feeling even outlasts his presence (he ends up in a mental hospital while the novel plays out without him). In fact, one could argue that he better embodies this feeling once he is no longer there and the gap between fantasy and reality — never more perceptible than when he is spotted behind the deli counter at Asda — is closed:

Nietzsche, in a hair net, taking orders from customers. Slicing meats. Cutting into wheels of brie. Scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs.
How can this be? The best mind of our generation, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs? The great philosopher of our time, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs?

During a heated exchange, Paula tells Nietzsche that he sounds ‘like some self-help guru’: ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and all that,’ she adds by way of explanation. The irony, of course, is that she ignores that this last pearl of wisdom actually comes from the real Nietzsche. God, it seems, is not so much dead as endlessly dying, the desecration of the highest values having now reached the German philosopher himself. This may also account for the rather odd choice of epigraph: ‘You must have chaos in yourself to give birth to a dancing star’ has become such a cliché that appending it to this novel is akin to slapping a picture of the Mona Lisa on the cover of a book about Leonardo da Vinci. Iyer, a former philosophy lecturer, was obviously fully aware of this. The quotation — which, incidentally, Marc Almond references in the title of his latest album (Chaos and a Dancing Star) — is even turned into an upbeat disco song (‘Dancin’ Star. No “g”, Merv says’) towards the end of the book: ‘Don’t want your apo-cal-ypse / Just want your lips to kiss’! The true explanation, I feel, is to be found in an earlier passage, where Chandra argues that ‘All adolescents are philosophers. And all philosophers are adolescents at heart’. The author is trying to recapture the detonation that occurs when such aphorisms collide with bright young minds for the very first time, but hindsight allows him to register the attendant po-faced zealotry and accidental comedy, as well as the impossibly beautiful dreams thus conjured up.

Term time provides the novel’s armature, or straitjacket, with almost every chapter subdivided into seven-day entries. Chandra — the narrator, who is of Indian descent (as is the author) and wants to study creative writing (which Iyer teaches at Newcastle University) — comes across like a nihilistic Adrian Mole as a result of this quasi-diary format. The same activities and locales are revisited time and again: school lessons, inevitably, but also band practice (‘The guitar’s not a lead instrument in our band. It’s a texture. It’s part of the mesh’), snippets from Nietzsche’s blog (‘The tagline’s The Uselessness of Everything, Art says’), psychogeographical forays into Thames Valley suburbia (‘Asda — is this where we’ve come? Asda — is this our destination?’), experiments with recreational drugs (‘We’re searching for a North-West Passage of the mind’), nights out at The Ship (‘Why do we come here? Why do we do it to ourselves?’) and The Idiot book club (‘Maybe only an idiot can understand The Idiot, Paula says. You’re our last best hope, Merv’). Plot is almost entirely subsumed into these loops of weekly routine — suburbia’s brand of eternal recurrence. This, then, is a novel in which nothing happens, unless (as Nietzsche conjectures in his blog) ‘the nothing-is-happening is itself an event’.

The budding Übermenschen of Wokingham (Berkshire) have internalised all the anti-suburban tropes peddled by intellectuals — chief among them, the real Nietzsche — since the late 19th century. According to them, suburbia is an experiment in ‘low-meaning living’ that embodies the sheer ‘impossibility of philosophy’ today, the death of God, and the end of history: ‘History ended in the plastic lip of double-glazed doors. It ended in QPVC gutters. It ended in the mock-Georgian division in QPVC windows. In the fake grout between the fake brick of poured driveways…’. Chandra, here, is singing from Zarathustra’s hymn sheet: ‘What do these houses mean? Truly, no great soul put them up in its image! Did a silly child perhaps take them out of its toy-box?’ When he and Art relish the prospect of Wokingham’s annihilation — as a result of terrorism or flooding — one inevitably hears an echo of John Betjeman’s ‘friendly bombs’ raining down on Slough. The gang’s main stumbling block, however, is the ‘sheer positivity’ of the leafy English suburbs, how benign and ‘perfectly pleasant’ they are; the way Wokingham ‘smiles back at your despair’, ‘hopes that you’ll have a nice day in your despair’. Tana (one of the two posh girls they regularly smoke spliffs with) points out that, according to the Telegraph, Wokingham is actually the best place to live in England. Chandra attempts to argue, counter-intuitively, that this may be the very reason why a fellow student committed suicide the previous year. Naturally, no one is really convinced. As Noelle (the other posh girl) puts it, ‘most people live in Hell compared to this’. Henley, which the gang visit during a revision break, turns out to be ‘so lovely’ that Paula, Merv, and even Chandra, start dreaming of living there happily ever after, despite Art’s righteous protestations: ‘These are islands of prettiness amidst the horror. But that only makes the horror worse’. Even Reading — rebranded the ‘anti-Paris’ after they discover, much to their disgust, that the Beckett archives are kept at the local university (‘probably the first post-thinking uni’) — has its charm on a sunny day.

What Nietzsche sees, however, is far more sinister: a Ballardian nightmare of ‘infinite sprawl’; endless ‘suburbs without ‘urbs, without a city, without a centre’ orbiting the void. The suburbs — so easily overlooked owing to the evil of banality — grow dangerously uncanny as soon as one pays them close attention. Like his philosophical forebear, Nietzsche resolves to relinquish negative nihilism (the lament that life is meaningless or an aberration) in favour of positive nihilism (the affirmation of the world as it is). His mission becomes ‘to truly enter the suburbs’ by embracing their very nothingness — the eternal recurrence of the same. The closest we get to such an affirmation is through the eponymous band, Nietzsche and the Burbs, whose Dionysian music aspires to a radical transformation of life.

In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey analysed how suburbia came to embody everything that was wrong with modernity in the eyes of (mostly) upper-class authors and thinkers. There is, however, an alternative, more recent, more working-class (or lower-middle-class) history of the English suburbs, written by young suburbanites themselves — the Bowies and Siouxsie Sues. In this version, suburbia is the blank space of boredom and conformity from which subversive and flamboyant pop culture springs. The non-place that tells you, once you reach a certain age, that life is elsewhere. In 1991 Jon Savage could still note that ‘The dreamscape of suburbia has a powerful and unrecognized place in England’s pop culture’ (England’s Dreaming). Thankfully, this terrain has been charted by countless writers and artists in the intervening years, most recently by Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) in her memoir, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia (2019). Lars Iyer’s anti-heroes recognise that they come too late to be truly part of this tradition — they even reference Simon Reynolds’ Retromania (2011) — but it does not stop them from taking their music very seriously indeed. For Art — whom Paula describes as the band’s Brian Eno — the solution is to embrace their belatedness — ‘to go posthumous’ — and produce ‘the music that comes after music’ (a strategy which recalls the author’s own 2011 post-literary manifesto). Such music cannot just be about music, however; it must be ‘about everything’:

The band’s got to be our whole life, Art says. We should live the band, do nothing else, just write and practice and play. It’s got to be all we think about, day and night. We can’t separate the music from our lives — not anymore. Living — that’s the art. We’ve got to start a new society. That’s what a band has to be: a clue to a new way of life.

The band is construed as an ‘escape-pod’ that will allow its members — should they succeed in crafting a great album — to redeem their suburban lives by making ‘retrospective sense of it all’: ‘There was a direction all along, we could say — our direction. We’ve become masters of time — our time’. Time — reclaimed, regained — is very much of the essence. The entire novel is steeped in impending end-of-school melancholia, which finds an echo in Nietzsche and the Burbs’ approach to music. On one occasion, at the beginning of band practice, the sound of the amplifiers turned up loud — ‘The feeling of forces gathering. Of something about to begin’ — prompts Chandra to reflect that they are only ‘going to ruin it by actually playing something’. Ahead of their first (and possibly last) gig, he wishes time could be frozen just before they cease to be a bedroom band for ever. ‘I like beginnings,’ he explains, ‘When it’s all potential.’ Art wants the band to play that potential without ever actualising it. In other words, he wants them, as he puts it (sounding like a deranged Martin Hannett-style genius producer) to ‘not play’ – to play without ever playing out. To play what they ‘could play, rather than anything [they] actually play’: music in which the songs are merely implied. To play ‘becoming without end’ or resolution: ’It’s like being on the verge of coming but never actually coming,’ he raves, during one particularly joyous rehearsal. This music is also Chandra’s (and hence Iyer’s). His waves of elliptical sentences, shorn of articles. Like jottings. Like language coming to life. In motion. Always provisional.

Above all, Art wants the band to play truant by absconding through the gap it has opened up between potentiality and actuality — that rent in the fabric of time. Nietzsche and the Burbs is a paean to those languorous summer afternoons, on the cusp of adulthood, when time stretches to eternity, allowing us to pull ‘moments out of moments like conjuror’s scarves’:

We learned real things by not paying attention. We heard true things by not listening, by letting our gazes wander. Time was our teacher: time between tests, between lessons.

 

The Novel Without Qualities

Chitarroni, Luis. “The Novel Without Qualities.” Interview by Andrew Gallix. Gorse, N° 4, 2015, pp. 185-206.

Luis Chitarroni is a prominent Argentine critic, editor, and novelist, whose staggering erudition is only matched by his warmth, humour, and kindness. Over several months—as I edited the following interview — he patiently responded to all my queries. Here is an extract from a message he sent me yesterday, which gives a good idea of the number of references he can cram, quite naturally, into a short paragraph:

The Distant Star is an allusion, almost a reference, to Roberto Bolaño’s title (Estrella distante). The man from Madrid is Javier Marías (an autor [sic] who declared ‘War’ to Jorge Herralde, his previous editor and publisher). The final sentence pretends to enhance Giordano Bruno’s observation on explosions and Shakespeare title’s play.

In the end, I cut the paragraph referred to above, because it still remained too obscure to me. There are other instances where I chose to leave in some rather cryptic sentences, due to their hypnotic rhythm or sheer beauty. After all, as Roland Barthes declared, ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible.’ Tidying up Chitarroni’s answers felt, at times, like translating from English into English, which is slightly disquieting, but also ironic. Indeed, Susana Medina — a London-based Spanish novelist — had kindly translated my convoluted questions into her mother tongue, as I wanted Chitarroni to be able to express himself as freely as possible. When the answers came in, however, they were in English. So the questions were in Spanish, the answers in English, and the interview is the gap between the two. Whenever Chitarroni opens his mouth or puts pen to paper, it is the entire history of Western literature that seems to speak, and yet the voice is always unmistakably his. Whatever the language.

Read the interview here.

Endland

My review of Endland by Tim Etchells. The Irish Times, 28 December 2019, p. 15.

A little boy contemplates a picture hanging on the wall in a hotel room — where his father will soon shoot his mother and sister before turning the gun on himself. The narrator waxes poetic about this “masterpiece of luminescent highlighter pens” illustrating “one of those allegories popular in former times, Service Stations of the Cross”. Christ is depicted crucified on a random forecourt with Posh Spice weeping at his feet. Two “winged pump attendants” hover in the air holding a banner (advertising Mobil) “in typical period style”. The whole scene, complete with gay centurions, is surveyed — for purposes of confusing onomastics — by Peter, Paul and Mary, the American folk trio. With its mock-heroic conflation of high and low, surreal collision between the archaic and contemporary, not to mention the shameless schoolboy punning, this piece of kitsch iconoclasm encapsulates the very essence of Endland.

The first 18 tales in this collection (including the aforementioned one) were initially published together in 1999, while the 21 ensuing stories were composed — often as a result of commissions — in the interim. The book can be dipped into at will, both series segueing seamlessly into each other. Passing references to Arthur Scargill, the Toxteth riots or Care in the Community give way, almost imperceptibly, to Mark Zuckerberg T-shirts, vaping, re-enactments of “Cameron’s pig fucking youth”, zero-hours contracts and “Brexit-themed titty bars”.

Tim Etchells’ characters navigate a hostile environment that remains remarkably unchanged — uniformly bleak — from first to last. This is a society that is haunted by its past. The ghosts of “colonial-era ships” suddenly reappear, full of sailors “calling from their ambiguous Limbo in antique slang”. The “cuntry” is visited by disasters, like the Bhopal gas leak, that originally occurred in its former empire. The owner of an amusement park decides to turn the clock back to 1974, so that all laws passed after that date become “null and also void”. Those who are not mindless thugs lead small lives, “like that of a child bent double under some stairs”. Loneliness prompts a woman to devise contraptions mimicking the presence of absent neighbours. It is the public sculpture of Margaret Thatcher (made of “heavily vandalised steel”), in the penultimate piece, that stands as a monument to Endland, where hospitals are “slowly asset stripped of all and everything but the bed and the curtains”, and a man sees his benefits cut after saving another’s life, his rescue operation recast as “a kind of undeclared and hence illegal work”. Everything, including language, has been taken over by corporations: formulaic expressions are thus always accompanied by the copyright symbol. One character even dreams that somebody is trying “to bar-code scan his eyes”. I would not put it past them.

“Oh fuck,” complains a “bloke at the bar” midway through the book, “it’s really starting to stink of realism in here.” There is little danger of that. Alienation effects abound. The spelling of some characters’ names keeps morphing. A figure like Lazarus can show up in a Rotherham nightclub, playing “slow beats slower than the devil himself”. Endland — always followed by “(sic)” — is England viewed through the looking glass: an “error message from history”. A sink estate of a nation that refuses nevertheless to give in to disenchantment. All manner of horrors may be going on in the background — bombings, executions, Bosnian Serbs on the rampage, a Third World War, even a “brief atomic djihad” — but this never prevents the author’s imagination from running riot. Take Shane, who stops ageing after losing his birthday as a result of the decimalisation of time, or the father and son who build Schrödinger boxes for themselves, causing the entire population of Doncaster to live alongside their own ghosts. People from real life often gatecrash the stories, but in the most unlikely guises: Fred and Rosemary West, for instance, as TV show hosts. And then there are the omnipresent gods, with their “winged messenger” (Dumbo) and improbable names (Herpes, Centrifuge, Scalectrix, Vulva…). When her twins (Porridge and Spatula) fall in love with the same Earthling (Naomi Campbell), Helen organises a competition to determine which one will “have to fuck right off out of the way and keep his bloody oar out”.

The orality of these morality tales is absolutely thrilling: the conversational tone (“Anyway”), the textspeak-style abbreviations and liberal use of expletives; the poetic malapropisms (“flesh of lightning”, “of curse”) and frequent phonetic spelling conjure up up a dialect that seems to be in the process of becoming — one that is close to the “morning of language”, to quote Anne Carson. Our dystopian times are estranged through the childlike innocence of this narrative voice — with its flashes of tender whimsy that recall Richard Brautigan — as though the chronicles of Endland were being told by the BFG.

timetchells2

Expertly Seeking Susan

Review of Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser. The Irish Times, 5 October 2019, p. 22.

In 1965, Susan Sontag — fresh from publishing her landmark essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” — was whisked away in a limousine to a hip nightclub notorious for its strict door policy. A member of her party whispered something in the bouncer’s ear, whereupon they were ushered in ahead of the lengthy queue. “I said, ‘We’re with Susan Sontag,’” her friend later confided, when she asked how he had worked his magic.

The young woman, still only in her early 30s, was astonished to discover that her name had become an “open sesame” to high society. Despite being filmed by Andy Warhol and dining out with Jacqueline Kennedy, the budding intellectual superstar felt like a figment of her own imagination. This discrepancy between the “real me” and the “self-for-others” lies at the heart of Benjamin Moser’s fittingly monumental authorised biography. Running to more than 700 pages (excluding notes and index) and drawing on a wealth of hitherto inaccessible material, as well as scores of interviews, Sontag: Her Life has a strong claim to definitive status.

Sontag herself may well be the ideal candidate for a literary biography. She once observed that an author’s journal allows us to “read the writer in the first person” and “encounter the ego behind the masks of ego”, but what her own diaries reveal is essentially a lack of ego, or at best one so amorphous as to be a blank slate.

To say that Sontag was a divided self is not the half of it. “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” she confessed, despite coming across, in the 1960s, as the love child of Alcibiades and Socrates, or Monroe and Einstein. This accounts, inter alia, for her lifelong hygiene issues (she had to remind herself — in longhand — to take baths and clean her teeth), her punishing, speed-fuelled nocturnal writing routine (WH Auden was one of her dealers) and her failure to even mention she had cancer in Illness as Metaphor.

Moser chronicles Sontag’s regular attempts to resolve what she called the “agonised dichotomy between the body and the mind”, which she identified early on as the source of her “greatest unhappiness”. These could take a predictably theoretical shape, as in her work on Antonin Artaud, who had sought, she wrote, “to heal the split between language and flesh”, or her concomitant interest in Gnosticism, which held out the promise of reconciling “all dualisms”. At other times she would make a concerted effort to “emerge from her head into her body”, perhaps most successfully during her passionate affair with playwright María Irene Fornés, who introduced her to sexual pleasure. She described (in comically abstract terms) “[t]he coming of the orgasm” as “the birth of [her] ego”, going as far as to claim that she “didn’t exist in the sense that others and everything else did” prior to this most seminal of events.

Her busy, tempestuous, sentimental life failed, however, to provide any semblance of plenitude. Sontag always conceived of relationships as a struggle between master and slave (usually playing the former role with men and the latter with women, although her bullying of long-term partner Annie Leibovitz takes some beating). This power dynamic was even internalised, with “Miss Librarian” — as she called her geeky, gawky self — constantly berated and spurred on to better things by “that person who has been watching me as long as I can remember”.

At the tender age of 11, Sontag made the (as she put it) “conscious decision” to become popular, thus embarking on a lifelong “project of self-transformation” underpinned by a pressing need “to see more, to hear more, to feel more”. As a schoolgirl, she could be found studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, concealed behind a copy of the Reader’s Digest she was really meant to be focusing on. By the age of 16 she was studying at Chicago — then the US’s most intellectually rigorous university — having already spent a year at Berkley. And that was only the beginning.

As Moser points out, she often tried to find herself in works of art in which she could lose herself. Her quest for a heightened sense of reality doubtless culminated when she directed Waiting for Godot in a besieged Sarajevo: “This is not ‘symbolic’,” she declared, as though she had just brought down the Matrix, “This is real”.

Writing, for her, was not so much a means of self-expression — having little self to express in the first place — but one of self-creation. Convinced that all good writers are “roaring egotists”, she coveted the persona of the great author which would counteract her inclination “to hide, to be invisible”, itself compounded by her homosexuality: “I need the identity as a weapon,” she stated in 1959, “to match the weapon that society has against me”.

The imperious diva of later years — with her trademark Cruella de Vil hairdo — may have lorded it over Manhattan’s intelligentsia, but still felt, whenever she was alone, like the little girl she had tried so hard to outgrow. The part of herself she had spent a lifetime attempting to leave behind was, paradoxically enough, the only one that felt truly authentic, no doubt because it was born of deep trauma (a dead father and an alcoholic mother). Moser shows how fame inevitably widened this gap “between the simulacrum, the metaphor, the mask, the persona and the self found in silence”.

Sontag’s adoption of the larger-than-life persona of the Great American Novelist was also at odds with the negative capability that informs some her best works, which may well have reinforced her feeling of inauthenticity.

Sontag’s greatest creation was, ultimately, Susan Sontag herself, and the two were “neither completely distinct nor completely identical”, just like an image and the object it represents. As her biographer puts it, twice — but it is worth repeating — she “created the mould, then broke it”.