Umbilical Words

Dear Mum,

I hope you have read my letter. The other one. The proper one. The one I could not write, because it cannot be written. Couched in an idiom only you and I understand. A mother tongue. Umbilical words that bind us for ever and ever. You alone can hear me mouth them.

Of the pain of being parted from you as a child, it says nothing, not least because that always went without saying. Being separated made us inseparable. In the other letter, this unspeakable pain speaks, though not in so many words. You alone can hear its mute howl.

For years, I could not sleep facing a wall. I had to face the door, through which I would be reunited with you. Returning for the holidays was always a homecoming. Even as an adult. I once spent my lunch break at Gare du Nord, simply to feel a little closer to you. Watching all those people boarding trains bound for my mother’s land.

You are my motherland. The only time I tried to tell you, on that warm summer night, you said I was drunk. That was by the potted olive tree.

As soon as I heard you were going, I caught the first train, but did not make it on time. I hope you sensed that I was on my way. That I was coming home to you.

You were already so cold when I kissed your forehead. Stone cold.

One always fails in speaking of what one loves. Someone else wrote that. You dwell in me, just as I once dwelt in you. Someone else wrote that too. Perhaps they were drunk.

Your son, who always loved you more than you could ever know,

Andrew

The Abode of Fancy

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

samcoll

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?

The Making of Meursault

This appeared in Literary Review November 2016: 30-31.
camus

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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literaryreview

A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

This appeared in The Irish Times (Weekend Review) 8 October 2016: 10.

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

Grand Hotel Abyss is a towering work of staggering scholarship. It is so comprehensive that even its own existence falls within its purview. Stuart Jeffries, a former Guardian arts editor, reflects, in the closing pages, on the “mini-boom in popularising critical theory books” — a “perverse consequence of the global capitalist crisis” — comprising “graphic guides, dictionaries, perhaps even this book”.

It is as if his magnum opus were enacting one of the Frankfurt School’s central tenets: the absence of any external perspective from which to critique the system. “There is,” lamented Theodor Adorno, “no exit from the entanglement” — a maxim that also applies to these thinkers’ pervasive influence and, dare I say, aura. Those whom Bertolt Brecht dismissed as the “Frankfurturists” are now an integral part of our theoretical make-up, whether we agree with them or not.

Jeffries should be applauded for sticking to a broadly chronological narrative rather than experimenting with Walter Benjamin’s rather baffling “dialectical image”. His engagement with these thinkers’ ideas is, contrarily, very much in keeping with the Frankfurt School ethos.

He counters Benjamin’s technological utopianism by stating that “one could also argue the opposite” and reminds Adorno, beyond the grave, that Germany was first defeated by “Soviet totalitarianism”, not by a “more advanced form of capitalism”.

Jeffries is unafraid of giving voice to common sense — “isn’t it ludicrous to compare the Third Reich to Hollywood?” — or being didactic when needs be: apropos of Adorno’s constellation theory of knowledge he writes, “This is all quite tough stuff and, even for adepts of critical theory, hard to swallow.”

Unexpected humour
Humour (“to get dialectical for a moment”) is one of the most unexpected facets of this book devoted to hard-core German intellectuals. Benjamin’s somewhat ludicrous resemblance to Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin is remarked on, and a quotation from his Neapolitan peregrinations elicits the following gloss: “It’s hard to tell in this passage whether Walter Benjamin is being given directions or being propositioned. Either way, he seems to like it.” And Herbert Marcuse’s meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre (above) at La Coupole is recounted in hilarious detail.

His “group biography” is an intellectual saga. Readers looking for upskirt pictures of Hannah Arendt will be sorely disappointed: titillation in these rarefied climes is of a purely cerebral nature. The infamous Busenaktion of 1969, when Adorno was surrounded by three female students who “bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him”, barely raises an eyebrow. A benign, possibly enviable form of protest to be faced with, in theory, but one that proved profoundly hurtful in praxis.

Commendably, Jeffries only ever adduces private matters to highlight glaring discrepancies between rhetoric and reality. A prime example is the highly conventional lifestyle led by Marcuse, despite publishing works “indicting bourgeois repression”.

The New Left darling’s fondness for a stuffed hippo is as close as we get to tittle-tattle. Yet even this cuddly-toy fetish proves significant, highlighting how some of the last century’s finest minds were also overgrown children. Incapable of making himself a cup of coffee, Benjamin was bankrolled by his parents until “well into his thirties”. Marcuse could neither cook nor drive. Adorno is described as a “child prodigy who never grew up (because he didn’t have to)”. Few of them did, given their wealthy backgrounds and the women — conspicuous by their absence at the Institute for Social Research, to give the Frankfurt School its proper name — who waited on them at home. Practice was never the school’s forte; nor, to be fair, was it ever meant to be.

Although ostensibly Marxist, the institute was founded, at Goethe University in 1924, not to promote revolution but to analyse its failure. Focus on the ill-fated Spartacist uprising soon shifted to understanding the triumph of Nazism — which led the scholars into exile — and Germany’s postwar “psychopathology of denial”.

Capitalism had moved on since Marx. It was no longer a mere mode of production but an entire superstructure, encompassing the mass media and show business, geared towards concealing its exploitative nature. As Marcuse astutely observed, anticipating today’s ludic work environment, “the pleasure principle had absorbed the reality principle”.

Under the aegis of Max Horkheimer, who became its director in 1931, the institute took a “multidisciplinary turn” so as to embrace all aspects of this complex system, thus giving birth to critical theory. Such hybrid studies conducted “at the trough of mass culture” would indicate, contra Marx, that the proletarian revolution was not inevitable. As a result the Frankfurt School became “modern-day monks working in retreat from a world they could not change”.

Adorno and Horkheimer jettisoned the Enlightenment’s legacy, arguing that reason had become an instrument of oppression rather than emancipation (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944). They did so, in brilliantly paradoxical style, by taking “the corpse of reason” and making it “speak of the circumstances of its own death”.

In Negative Dialectics (1966) Adorno went on, quite logically, to reject Hegel and Marx’s “conception of history as moving dialectically towards a happy ending”. If the Holocaust had produced a “new categorical imperative” — that is, ensuring it never repeated itself — revolution was perhaps no longer even desirable. He sought utopia through art that was at odds with the affirmative culture that had done “little more than supply a soundtrack to mass murder”: art that could express “the truth of suffering ‘in an age of indescribable horror'” by daring to be radically negative.

It is this embrace of negativity that is so bracing to some and frustrating to others, even within the school.

During the 1960s student protests, change was deemed possible by Marcuse, who embodied a sunnier, Californian take on critical theory. The institute’s “late ethos” is likewise predicated on the feasibility of “ameliorating the conditions of capitalism and liberal democracy”.

Yet Café Marx, as it used to be called derisively, remains tainted by Georg Lukács’s quip that these representatives of the chattering classes — branded traitors by Brecht — had holed themselves up in a beautiful hotel “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”.

There is a great deal of wisdom, however, in Adorno’s suspicion of revolutionary students’ “aversion to introspection”, which he had already observed in the dark days of Nazism. “I established a theoretical model of thought,” he told an interviewer in 1969. “How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails!”

There is also a great deal of hope in his belief that “whoever thinks offers resistance”.

At its best the Frankfurt School was always a think tank — in the armoured-fighting-vehicle sense of the word.

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grandhotelabyss

Goal-Line Philosophy

This appeared in the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times (FT Weekend) 14-15 May 2016: 9.

Goal-Line Philosophy

football

Andrew Gallix admires a novelist’s provocative and playful investigation into the beautiful game

Camus notwithstanding, le ballon rond has never acquired significant literary cachet in continental Europe. So it is small wonder that anxieties surrounding the worthiness of this subject should haunt Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football. Not only does football lack the gravitas to pass as a highbrow pursuit, but it also goes against the grain of family tradition. As a child in Belgium, Toussaint kept his passion for the game in check to blend in with his cerebral relatives. Now this middle-aged man of letters has decided to drop the act. This, he confesses at the outset, is a book he “had to write”.

Toussaint is an award-winning novelist, film-maker and photographer whose 13 books to date have all been published by the prestigious Éditions de Minuit, home to Beckett and the nouveau roman — two of his major influences, at least in the early days. Football, published here ahead of Euro 2016, is a series of fragmentary essays, of which the most famous, “Zidane’s Melancholy”, has already appeared separately, as a very slim volume, in 2006. Toussaint covers most of the World Cups since 1998 in idiosyncratic style, talking about everything but the games themselves. Instead, he recounts — sometimes in beautifully granular detail — what it feels like to attend them.

Football kicks off in playful mode, with a declaration of independence masquerading as provocative caveat: “This is a book that no one will like.” The author warns that his work will alienate intellectuals who despise the beautiful game, as well as football fans who despise intellectuals. In fact, he will attempt to reconcile both constituencies. He does so with his habitual lightness of touch and trademark deadpan humour, while also approaching his subject with a seriousness of intent.

Football, for Toussaint, is a prelapsarian Neverland. It is bound up with his childhood in Brussels, which came to an end, at the age of 13, when his parents moved to Paris — an event he experienced as an expulsion from paradise. “The football of adults” — that of politics, big money, and Fifa scandals — “leaves me cold”, he acknowledges in a revealing passage, and when a sea breeze gently ripples the corner flags during a match in Kobe, his eyes suddenly become those of a “marvelling child” once more.

For Toussaint, football produces a wide-eyed re-enchantment of the world, allowing the adult writer a “temporarily acceptable intellectual regression”. When he contemplates the “absolute green” of the pitch and the “timeless colours” of the national strips, he writes, “Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again.”

The gist of the book is contained in the closing line of the opening essay: “I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time.” During a game, Toussaint argues, the future remains “fundamentally open” until the very last second, and the degree of absorption this requires “holds us radically at a distance from death”, which in turn produces “a kind of metaphysical wellbeing”.

As soon as the final result is known, however, “nothing remains but the materiality of the players, the emergence of the prosaic and the violence of the real”. Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final is reinterpreted as the player’s refusal to complete his final match and break the “invisible thread connecting football to the passage of time”.

At times, football is seen by the author as a distraction from writing. At others, writing becomes a ruse to watch football games: in 2002, for instance, Toussaint organised a series of talks and readings coinciding with the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Throughout, however, there is an almost subterranean quest for words that would “have the power to reactivate the magic of football”: “words of poetry, or literature, which come to brush against football, grasp its movement”. Football by other means.

ft

Here is an earlier, unpublished version:

Camus notwithstanding, le ballon rond has never acquired the literary cachet afforded to cycling in the heyday of Le Tour. Small wonder that anxieties surrounding the worthiness of this subject should haunt Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football. Not only does it lack the necessary gravitas to pass muster as a highbrow pursuit, but it also goes against the grain of family tradition. He describes his four-year-old likeness as “anticipating, by more than fifty years, the austere and taciturn appearance bestowed on writers” in solidarity with his Lithuanian grandfather, pictured standing next to him, who failed to take him to a single match. Now that he is no longer simply bald at heart, the middle-aged man of letters may have decided that it was high time to drop the act in solidarity with his younger self. This, he confesses at the outset, is a book he “had to write” lest he “break the fine thread that still connects [him] to the world”. The world of childhood and the seriousness of its games, no doubt, that he opposes to the trivial childishness of adults at play: “I can’t dissociate football from dreams and childhood”. The few sentences from his first novel he has lovingly woven into the text testify to the importance of this endeavour, which could be construed as a summation of his entire work.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is an award-winning novelist, filmmaker and photographer, whose fifteen books to date have all been published by the iconic Editions de Minuit, home to Beckett and the nouveau roman — two of his major influences, at least in the early days. Football, released here ahead of Euro 2016, is a series of fragmentary essays (the most famous one — “Zidane’s Melancholy” — had already appeared separately, as a very slim volume, in 2006). Toussaint covers most of the World Cups since 1998 in his idiosyncratic style, which consists in talking about everything but the games themselves. Instead, he recounts — sometimes in beautifully granular detail — what it feels like to attend them.

Football kicks off in playful mode with a declaration of independence masquerading as provocative caveat: “This is a book no one will like”. The author warns that his work will alienate intellectuals who despise the beautiful game, as well as football fans who despise intellectuals. In fact, he will attempt to reconcile both constituencies which reflect Descartes’ mind-body dichotomy as well as the two facets of his divided self. Toussaint — whose name is French for All Saints’ Day — seemed predestined to tackle such a weighty issue, and does so with his habitual lightness of touch and trademark deadpan humour. Religious imagery runs through these essays like Gareth Bale across a pitch. Early on, he recalls how the two teams in his primary school were picked with “biblical simplicity” according to whether pupils attended civic education or religious classes: “we played Moral versus Religion football matches”. The children run after the ball “amidst a halo of dust” that, with time, morphs into a “halo of memory”. Toussaint was on the side of Religion, but he is torn between mind, soul, and body. He describes himself watching the 1970 World Cup through a shop window and smiling at the way players left their “physical envelope” behind — “like a halo of themselves” — due to imperfect colour technology. Holed up in his Corsican retreat, hell-bent on writing another novel, he chronicles, several decades later, the intrusion of “sacrilegious”, “profane images” — “images of football” — upon his sacred work. Soon he is glued to a live stream of the 2014 World Cup, having raised his laptop “like an offering on a profane little altar consisting of two or three volumes of the Encyclopédie Universalis (a paradoxical homage of virtue to vice)”.

Football, for Toussaint, is a prelapsarian Neverland. It is bound up with his childhood in Brussels, which came to an end, at the age of thirteen, when his parents moved to Paris — an event he experienced as an expulsion from Paradise. “The football of adults” (that of politics, big money, and FIFA scandals) “leaves me cold,” he acknowledges in a revealing passage, and when a sea breeze gently ripples the corner flags during a match in Kobe, his eyes suddenly become those of a “marvelling child” once more. Football produces a wide-eyed re-enchantment of the world. It allows the adult writer a “temporarily acceptable intellectual regression”: “Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again” when he contemplates the “absolute green” of the pitch or the “timeless colours” of the national strips.

The gist of the book is contained in the closing line of the opening essay: “I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time”. During a game, Toussaint argues, the future remains “fundamentally open” until the very last second, and the degree of absorption this requires “holds us radically at a distance from death”, which in turn produces “a kind of metaphysical wellbeing”. When the “invisible thread connecting football to the passage of time is broken” — as soon as the final result is known —“nothing remains but the materiality of the players, the emergence of the prosaic and the violence of the real”. The infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final is reinterpreted as Zidane’s refusal to complete his final match and break this “invisible thread”.

At times, football is seen by the author as a distraction from writing, or even its very antithesis. At others, writing becomes a ruse to watch football games: in 2002, for instance, he organised a series of talks, readings, and journalistic assignments coinciding with the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Throughout, however, there is an almost subterranean quest for words which would “have the power to reactivate the magic of football” once the “invisible thread” is broken — “words of poetry, or literature, which come to brush against football, grasp its movement”. Football by other means.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

This appeared in the New Statesman 4-10 March 2016: 16.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

danfoxpretentiousness

Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title. Taking his cue from Brian Eno (whose career he describes as “a successful experiment in pretension”), Fox, an art critic, sets about reclaiming the P-word. Indeed, the whole book is a gloss on Eno’s contention that “pretending is the most important thing we do” because it enables us to discover “what it would be like to be otherwise”. It is a self-help manual for those, brought up on David Bowie, who doubt that there is a self to help.

More often than not, the accusation of pretentiousness is levelled at people who get ideas above their station. It cuts them down to size. Fox turns this on its head by celebrating the aspiration to a life less ordinary. In the current cultural climate, it is downright subversive.

The author’s subject is the slippage from pretending — what is done at the kids’ table – to pretension, which “goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups”. How does an activity that is considered crucial to the healthy development of children become contemptible in adults? In a “back-of-an-envelope history of acting”, Fox asks where this stigma originates, exploring Plato’s mistrust of actors but also the adoption of classical rhetoric by politicians and lawyers, whereby the “history of pretence” became bound up with the “history of power”. Finally, the evolution towards a naturalistic style of acting accompanied the rise of individualism and the Romantic quest for “the truth of one’s inner self”. Pretending was now beyond the pale.

Authenticity raises the issue of authentication – the “legitimacy we confer, or not, on a performance”. It is “a matter of authority, of who gets to pass judgement on whether or not you are ‘being yourself'”. Fox notes that the modern artist’s mission is to seek “creative freedom” but fails to point out that this autonomy can also be the source of his or her lack of legitimacy. He describes the “gap between expectation and actuality” – which derives from this creative freedom – as “a productive necessity rather than a flaw”. Failure is the process “by which the arts move forward”. This is Beckett with a smiley face.

The rest of Fox’s argument covers class: accents, politics, gentrification and inverted snobbery. Unlike pretending, pretension “carries with it the sting of class betrayal, especially in the UK, where class is a neurosis as much as a set of social conditions”. The accusation of pretentiousness is “a form of social control”, designed to keep people in their place and protect the status quo.

Pretentiousness achieves a pleasing congruence between style and substance. After all, the essay – experimental by definition, not content with being itself – is arguably the most pretentious genre still in currency. Dan Fox’s shape-shifting work displays many of its hallmarks. It opens with a few etymological considerations and then unfolds organically, one idea leading to another, exemplifying Brian Dillon’s description of the essay as “a way of writing oneself into the unknown”.

There are downsides to this narrative drift. The author’s ruminations lead him, on occasion, to retread ground. In certain passages, the book feels freighted with too many examples. On the other hand, discussing the notion of authenticity without mentioning Kierkegaard or Heidegger seems remiss (although that probably says more about my pedantry than any shortcomings on the author’s part).

Nonetheless, the breadth of reference is staggering – taking in history, cinema, drama, politics, literature, sociology and music. It reflects the “magpie cultural education” that “pop’s intellectual permissiveness” once provided. Without giving in to nostalgia, Fox harks back to more progressive times when culture was not the preserve of the privileged. From this vantage point, his essay ties in with the writings of Mark Fisher (whom he quotes), Owen Hatherley and Simon Reynolds.

The final, autobiographical chapter is the strongest and most moving. It charts the author’s journey from Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire where he grew up in the late 1980s, to New York City, where he now co-edits the contemporary art magazine frieze. It is a celebration of overreaching ambition; a paean to “dreaming big in small cities” at a point when pop music (which “never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious”) acted as a gateway to a wider world of culture. Music connects the young author to Manhattan and Berlin, even though he has “barely been an hour down the motorway to London”. On day trips to Oxford, he feels the presence of Andy Warhol in a student’s striped T-shirt or Nico in a local branch of Chelsea Girl.

Fox ends by fast-forwarding to his present life in New York. Near his apartment, there is “an Essex Street, a Ludlow Street, a Norfolk Street, and a Suffolk Street”. He wonders what these British toponyms would have conjured up, had he grown up “on the Lower East Side rather than in the English countryside”. Having read this book in Paris, I find myself longing for Wheatley. Life, as Rimbaud never quite said, is elsewhere.

In Fox’s interpretation, pretentiousness is culturally – rather than socially – aspirational. It is “permission for the imagination”, allowing us to transfigure our mundane surroundings and soar above what Keats called “busy common-sense”.
danfox

On 8 March 2016, this review was posted on the New Statesman‘s website under the title “When Did Pretentiousness Become Such a Dirty Word?”

It was prefaced thus: Dan Fox’s new book sets out to reclaim the P-word with an impressively broad-ranging study of art, literature and culture.

Strange Beauty of the Nada in Nevada

This appeared in The Independent on 21 December 2015 (Section 2, page 38):

Strange Beauty of the Nada in Nevada

Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry

nocilladream

Modernism’s last stand, according to the great art critic Robert Hughes, was a retreat to the American desert. This is the terrain Agustín Fernández Mallo explores in his debut novel, Nocilla Dream, set against the barren backdrop of the “loneliest highway in North America”. Bookended by two forlorn brothels, US Route 50 is the non-place — the nada in Nevada — where “precisely nothing” can be found, if you look hard enough.

The horizon, here, is an event; a vanishing point, reminiscent of one of the characters’ de Chirico-style paintings, rather than the magnet that fuels narrative drive. No longer manifest, destiny can only be glimpsed obliquely, as illustrated by the haunting, Fitzgeraldian image of “the last casino glimmering on the horizon in the rearview mirror”. This retrospective vision soon infects the reading process itself.

First published in Spain in 2006, Nocilla Dream is the opening gambit in a trilogy that spawned a generation of like-minded writers. It is composed of 113 brief chapters — one of them is less than two lines long — which appear like shards of a shattered globe, or fragments of an unfinishable whole. Jorge Rodolfo Fernández is obsessed with Borges’s tale of an empire where cartography becomes so sophisticated that a map as large as the territory it represents is produced. He comes to believe that he inhabits the ruins of this mythical map, which seems to hark back to a time when a work of art could coincide with life itself. In another vignette, a Mexican stowaway who suffocates in a truck trying to cross the border, leaves a “broken map” of himself on the black beans serving as his deathbed.

Linear narrative is ill-equipped to respond to globalisation, hence Mallo’s picaresque twist on the road trip trope. Objects and characters migrate from one chapter to another, prompting the reader to constantly flick backwards to check if the biscuit tin produced in a Danish factory had already appeared in a supermarket in Carson City.

Nocilla Dream is a world seen in a grain of Nevada sand. Its arborescent structure stems from a solitary poplar tree, decorated with hundreds of pairs of shoes, growing alongside US Route 50. By juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction — more than 20 chapters are lifted verbatim from extraneous works — the author has created a hybrid genre that mirrors our networked lives, allowing us to inhabit its interstitial spaces. A physician as well as an artist, Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry.