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.


Over Before It Began

Hoskins, Zachary. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. Spectrum Culture, 9 January 2018

. . . Punk may be, as co-editor Andrew Gallix admits, “probably the most analyzed youth cult ever,” but its resonances with the contemporary zeitgeist make it ripe for such analysis — even if, he is also quick to add, it continues to resist tidy theses. Gallix, the founder of literary webzine 3:AM, and his fellow editor, music journalist turned playwright Richard Cabut, are wise enough not to attempt any grand summations. Instead, they curate and contribute to an eclectic, dialectic collection of 28 short essays, juxtaposing historical testimonies from the eye of punk’s hurricane with more critically distanced analyses of its aftermath.

As its title implies, the ultimate failure of this revolution in the head is the closest thing the book has to a running theme. Virtually every contributor avers that punk, in its most exciting form, was over before it ostensibly began. As Gallix writes in his essay “The Boy Looked at Euridyce,” the movement died “as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name… Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation… was the potentiality of punk.” By enshrining these six months or so of ferment, before the cult became a commodity, Punk Is Dead embraces what is, on its surface, a decidedly un-punk emotion: nostalgia. But this is not the ineffectual, ideologically empty nostalgia of events like 2016’s “Punk London” celebration, presided over by the city’s then-mayor, Conservative politician and chief Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson. Cabut, Gallix and the other contributors use their critically productive nostalgia to correct decades’ worth of the former variety: to prevent punk from being, as Judy Nylon puts it in her foreword, “reduced to a coffee-table book of white English boys spitting.”

. . . It’s impossible to read Punk Is Dead without realizing on some level that the likes of punk will never happen again: The contemporary cultural landscape is at once too diffuse and too adept at absorbing insurgent trends and attitudes; the current youth cultures are both too diverse and, frankly, not naïve enough to view mere aesthetic affront as a viable revolutionary tool. It’s almost quaint to read about Siouxsie Sioux’s affectless appropriation of the swastika in the wake of rallies by punk-age white nationalists who, to quote Rotten et al., “mean it, man.” But if reading these essays in early 2018 brings any solace, it’s the knowledge that punk has retained its vitality as an ideal, even if it has long since failed as a movement. “Once we were part of punk,” Gallix writes. “Now punk is part of us.”

The Last Great Youth Subculture

Edwards, Dickon. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. The Wire, January 2018, p. 90

. . . The only concern is that these later echoes might encourage a misconception of the original scene to spit its hard little noun across the cultural radar, the one Andrew Gallix calls in this book “the last great youth subculture”.

In his introduction Gallix admits that punk is not only “probably the most analysed youth culture ever”, but that it’s also one of the most resistant to analysis, a problem that his book “has not quite solved”. Indeed, any attempt at a definitive examination of a movement risks a killing, like an animal categorised through vivisection. Accordingly, he and Richard Cabut have instead chosen the theme of punk as a transformative force, a becoming, not just in terms of the music and the culture around it, but in terms of the humans involved, fans included. Cabut and Gallix are just about old enough to be first-hand witnesses to punk: among these pieces are their own memoirs of the time. Accordingly, the book is as much testimony as it is criticism. . . .

Punk’s Formative Prelapsarian Moment

Coulter, Colin. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. The Irish Times, 6 January 2018

[…] Among the books that have emerged to mark the moment is Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, an anthology of no fewer than 28 essays and interviews collated by the author and musician Richard Cabut and the academic and founder of 3:AM Magazine Andrew Gallix. Despite its funereal title, the editors of the collection make it clear that they are here not to bury punk but rather to praise it. In their bifurcated introduction, Cabut and Gallix retrace their own steps to a time in which they evidently remain heavily invested personally. The specific purpose of the book is to celebrate that original evanescent wellspring of creativity when punk emerged as a “stylish boho response to the modern world of inertia and consumption” and retained the “innocence characteristic of childhood” of a movement yet to be frozen by being named or sullied by exposure to popular vitriol and acclaim alike.

In their framing of this uneven but valuable collection of paeans to punk’s formative prelapsarian moment, the editors claim that there exists at present a widespread prohibition against nostalgia. Cabut and Gallix cast their book as an attempt to break this embargo, specifically to make the case that “punk’s cultural importance should . . . be officially recognised in museums and galleries.” . . .

The Momus Questionnaire

Gallix, Andrew. “The Momus Questionnaire.” Minor Literature[s], 3 November 2017

Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabutt and Andrew Gallix, is an academic investigation into the legacy of punk, featuring contributions from Penny Rimbaud of Crass, Tom Vague, Mark Fisher and many more. Investigating the philosophical lineage of punk, and the matrix which it provided for its adherents to explore fashion, politics and art, Punk is Dead brings together some of the most astute and insightful critical thinkers on punk in one volume. Andrew Gallix is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of 3:AM Magazine, and lectures at the Sorbonne.

The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.

Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?

My own, rather than someone else’s (then again, je est un autre). I promptly crush such occasional bouts of rebellion by expecting the unexpected, thus defeating the object.

What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?

Or, more fittingly in this instance, like Sid! Pointing is rude, but a recent ill-judged collaboration with a soi-disant friend does spring to mind. This dispiriting experience was an eye-opener worthy of Un Chien andalou, if you see what I mean. After all, vitreous humour is no laughing matter. As Flannery O’Connor observed — through her sizeable spectacles — some people ‘are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what’. Let them eat deadlines; I prefer mine alive!

What creative achievements are you most proud of?

My son, William.

If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?

Being separated from my mother as a child was terribly traumatic. The pain was unspeakable, and it left me with a pervasive feeling of unreality. Being sent to France, when I did not speak a word of French, also left me with a lifelong sense of exile. Punk, which came along when I was 11, provided a refuge from all that. It was a home for the homeless. In his recent Asperger’s and Me documentary, Chris Packham talks about how punk allowed him to materialise his difference and flaunt it in the face of the world. I can really relate to that. I think that partly explains why the phenomenon was more important to some people who were involved than others.

If you had to make a rap song boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?

As a filthy liar.

Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?

How long have you got?

Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.

I can’t think of two public figures who would really fit the bill offhand, but I can relate an odd anecdote that occurred, if memory serves, in the early 90s. I was walking in a local park, in South London, when I came upon a guy who was the spitting image of me. We walked past each other, then both stopped in our tracks and turned round at the same time. We faced each other — I myself and he himself — in shocked silence for a few seconds, then turned round and walked on again. I sometimes wonder if my doppelgänger (the word means double walker in German) is living the life I would have led had I remained in England. Has he stolen my life? In Johan Grimonprez‘s film Double Take, written by Tom McCarthy and based on a short story by Borges, we are told that ‘If you meet your double, you should kill him’. Is he still out there somewhere — and does he want to kill me?

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

My collection of music papers and magazines that I began in 1977. When my mother moved into a smaller house, in 2012, I had to get rid of quite a few of them, but I managed to hold on to all those spanning the glory years of 77-81 and took pictures of all those that I disposed of. I know exactly where I was when I read a specific issue or article and, for some reason, they have always been of considerable importance to me. A tangible link to my past, no doubt. It’s also the interface between writing and punk that makes them so special. I was fascinated by people like Mark Perry, or Patrick Eudeline in France, who navigated from the page to the stage. I wanted to be a fanzine writer more than a musician. When my mother died, earlier this year, I had to bring the papers back to my place. I am surrounded by them now, and the realisation that they will never have the same significance to anyone else once I’m gone is rather disquieting. You keep all these things that mean the world to you, fret over losing them, and then you die.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

Quotations. ‘”Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,” the Consul liked to say’ (from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano). ‘Awesome is the God who is not’ (from George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books).

Proverb. Never trust a punk with a property portfolio (from experience).

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

My favourite portrait hangs in London’s Courtauld Gallery, sort of. On one occasion, I seemed to be the only visitor in the museum. Each new room I entered was empty, except one. At the far end stood a very elegant lady, probably in her late thirties, wearing an outsize New Look-style hat. She was gazing intently at a small golden frame in which one might expect to discover a little gem by one of the lesser masters. She looked round towards me, before departing, and I was able to see that she was also stunningly beautiful. I rushed towards the picture that had caught her attention for so long only to discover that it was a mirror.

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.”