The Quiddity of Andrew Gallix

The multi-talented Sam Mills has done my portrait (as part of a series of writers’ portraits). The beauty of it is that she’s actually managed to make me look good! This is the second draft. Sam said, “I found it easier to draw your eyes when I realised you have similar eyes to Lucian Freud, who I’ve also been sketching (his ghost kindly sat for me…)”.

Sam Mills: “Evidence: if you compare this photo of Lucian Freud with you, I think you have a similar profile, with regard to long lashes/slant of lips? Something similar somewhere”.

Sam Mills: “It’s a colourful pic because you look very vital, with a lot of sun and shukra in your skin, but a close look suggests a jaded edge, as though you’ve not had much sleep or you’ve been imbibing or something (!). Anyway, I was struggling with another portrait & found myself drawing it; here is the half-finished sketch”.

The Hippest Man in Paris

I have written a piece in homage to the late Marc Zermati for the Guardian. Great photo by Catherine Faux of Zermati with Joe Strummer in Paris back in 1981.

Marc Zermati, who died of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 74, was a true underground legend: a national treasure France had never heard of and probably did not deserve. Rock Is My Life — the title of a 2008 exhibition celebrating his career on the radical fringes of the music business — would serve as a fitting epitaph. . . . [A]s one of the earliest champions of punk his importance in rock history cannot be overstated; if cut, he would have bled vinyl…

The Quarantine Hotline

Gallix, Andrew. The Quarantine Hotline, episode 6. Interview by Fernando Sdrigotti. Minor Literature[s], 2 June 2020.

Topics discussed: 3:AM Magazine, making something out of nothing, punk, money and literature, and the myth of Paris.

Listen to Fernando Sdrigotti‘s great questions! Listen to me repeating ‘you know’ over and over again!

(Picture by Grant Hutchinson.)

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.



We Were So Turned On

Hochreiter, Susanne. “‘We Were So Turned On’: Reflections on Queer(ing) Past and Memory.” Sexual Culture in Germany in the 1970s: A Golden Age for Queers?, edited by Janin Afken and Benedikt Wolf, Macmillan Palgrave, 2019, p. 48:

The ghosts that we hear represent what Jacques Derrida referred to as ‘hauntology’ in his Specters of Marx: The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by an absent or deferred non-origin, represented by ‘the the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive’, as Andrew Gallix puts it (Gallix, 2011). . . . Many or even ‘all forms of representation are ghostly’ as Andrew Gallix puts it in his article: ‘Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escpes representation’ (Gallix, 2011).

[PS I’m afraid the first quote is actually me quoting Colin Davis.]

Towards a Digital Poetics

O’Sullivan, James. Towards a Digital Poetics: Electronic Literature & Literary Games, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, pp. 11, 12, 25, 104:

“Perhaps e-lit is already dead?” Andrew Gallix once mused (2008). Central to Gallix’s succint and useful account of the field is the idea that electronic literature has been “subsumed into the art world or relegated to the academic margins”, a proposition that I found time to reject the best part of a decade later: in the works of practitioners like Mez Breeze, Andy Campbell, Dan Pinchbeck and his studio, The Chinese Room, we see that electronic literature is finally having its contemporary moment, and that it does have a measure of popular appeal (O’Sullivan 2017) [p.11].

But Gallix has a point, nonetheless, and the great divide has renewed significance [p. 12].

Responding to Andrew Gallix’s challenge that electronic literature sacrifices literary quality . . . [p. 104].

[PS My claim was not that literary quality was being compromised, but that the most interesting examples of digital literature — or so it seemed to me at the time — were morphing into something that was no longer literature at all. This was not a criticism on my part.]

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.