In its Beginning is its End

“In its Beginning is its End.” The Guardian Weekly, 6 December 2013, p. 39.

What exactly is the problem with the realist novel and why does it persist, asks Andrew Gallix

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time.

American literary critic Fredric Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

It was a product of the tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As essayist Jorge Luis Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

In the new novel Robbe-Grillet called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken: something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel”, while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing…seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

Another Planet

Review of Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn. The Irish Times, 9 February 2019, p. 154.

Tracey Thorn: comes to recognise, in her 50s, that the suburb in which she was born and bred is part of her DNA. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The title of Tracey Thorn’s new memoir, Another Planet, takes on added resonance when, in the closing pages, the author reflects upon how mysterious we remain to our nearest and dearest. Even when she had become a middle-aged, middle-class, married mother of three, living in affluent north London, her father continued to think of her as hailing “from another planet”. The feeling, to be fair, was mutual, and in this book which, she claims, could never have been written while her parents were still alive, Thorn endeavours to understand the world they inhabited. We remain opaque to ourselves too, of course, and it is above all for this reason — in the great essayistic tradition — that she put pen to paper.

Behind this title one also hears feedback carried on the wind of time: echoes of The Only Ones’ 1978 punk pop classic, Another Girl, Another Planet, its ghostly former half shining through like a watermark. Having long considered that she had made a “clean break” with her suburban past, Thorn comes to recognise, in her 50s, that this milieu in which she was born and bred is part of her DNA; that she has “suburban bones”, as she puts it on two occasions. In a bid to “reconnect with the self [she] left behind,” she takes a short train ride “back to [her] childhood, as though it still exists, as tangible and revisitable” as the place she once fled to go to university — a move that transformed her into someone her parents, sadly, could no longer relate to. She would soon find fame and fortune as one half of Everything But the Girl and as a solo singer-songwriter.

Back in Brookmans Park — a garden village in Hertfordshire — Thorn feels haunted by this earlier iteration of herself. She observes four teenage girls, sitting on the bench in the village green, who “might have been there for 40 years. They seem like ghosts.” About a schoolgirl, glimpsed at on the platform as she awaits the train that will take her back to London, she writes: “I look up and the girl has vanished, perhaps I imagined her? Was she some ghost version of me?”

Thorn’s belief that there is “something inherently respectful about properly looking at a place” provides the moral and aesthetic underpinning of her project. The uncanniness of suburbia is revealed by attending to its sheer ordinariness, frequently overlooked through familiarity or contempt: “Brookmans Park was so picture perfect, it was unreal, like a Truman Show stage set.” Nothing is stranger than precision, as Alain Robbe-Grillet discovered while reading Kafka. Thorn’s razor-sharp descriptions have the dreamy quality of hyperreality: the bluebells of yesteryear that seemed “to pull the sky down into the woods”, the patch of garden she tended as a little girl “marked out with pebbles and sea shells, filled with marigolds and snapdragons”, or the Christmases past with the timely “arrival of Grandad in a three-piece suit, penknife poised and ready to take the peel off an apple in one single strip”.

For all the meticulousness with which she brings her childhood home back to life — the “low, crenellated brick wall, that little hint of the Englishman’s castle” in the front garden; the “whirligig clothes drier on a crazy-paving patio” in the back — the author finds that suburbia remains eerily elusive; semi-detached. Its very liminality demands that it be limned in an “equivocal way,” often “by subtraction”.

This ambivalence is reflected in the structure of the book, which alternates between chapters devoted to Thorn’s day trip to Brookmans Park in 2016 and a running commentary on extracts from her teenage diaries spanning the years 1976 (when she was 13 ) to 1981. The entries, punctuated by typical tut tuts and sob sobs, express a mounting sense of boredom, increasingly alleviated by drinking, punk gigs and “getting off” with boys at the local disco. The present travels back into the past and vice-versa, leading to all sorts of striking contrasts and revaluations.

At the heart of this beautiful book — which acts like a corrective to her previous memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen — lies a blank page in one of the diaries, which Thorn mentions, teasingly, several times, without ever disclosing what she was concealing from prying eyes. It is weaponised as an alienation effect to prevent the reader from being taken in by the confessional tenor of the diary format. Writing, the author reminds us — and no doubt herself too — is “always about knowing who’s in charge”.

At journey’s end, Tracey Thorn understands why her parents relocated to the suburbs. She also remembers how “very little happened” there “over and over again” — like Reginald Perrin rewritten by Samuel Beckett. I suspect she will not be going back in a hurry.

The Making of Meursault

This appeared in Literary Review November 2016: 30-31.
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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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The Writer Postponed

This appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books on 23 August 2015:

The Writer Postponed: Barthes at the BnF

roland-barthes

The BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France) exhibition is one of numerous events commemorating the centenary of the birth of the author of “The Death of the Author” (1967). The exhibition is a rather modest affair compared with the grand 2002–03 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou — one that is far more in keeping with its subject’s endearing reticence. Curated by Éric Marty (who edited the complete works) Les écritures de Roland Barthes, Panorama is divided into two distinct parts. The first one consists of a series of white canvas wall panels, like the Chinese posters called dazibao, teeming with quotations, reproduced manuscript pages, and outsize photographs — including an inevitable Paris Match cover shot of the iconic Citroën DS, which the author of Mythologies famously likened to a Gothic cathedral. These dazibao conjure up Barthes’s 1974 trip to China (Carnets du voyage en Chine, 2009), his Zen inclinations, and his fondness for a partly fantasized Japan — a country he visited three times and wrote about, most famously, in Empire of Signs (1970). The use of fabric in lieu of paper could be construed as a nod to The Fashion System (1967) and, beyond that, to the semiologist’s dapper drapery metaphors. Stage curtains also spring to mind, of course. Barthes was deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht in the 1950s, a period when his criticism revolved around drama: mostly avant-garde plays at first (until alternative theater was co-opted by Malraux and the Gaullist regime), but soon extending to canonical works. On Racine (1963) even became a cause célèbre, pitting the youngish bucks of la nouvelle critique against the academic establishment. Barthes would later reflect that theater — the personae of “life writing” and the performance of performativity — stood at the crossroads of his entire work. As a student, he dabbled in amateur dramatics, and he was always mesmerized by the manner in which the tragedian’s voice seceded into autonomous acting. Those who visited Barthes frequently fell under the spell of his voice. Chantal Thomas recalls that his speech rendered the silence it sprang from audible (Pour Roland Barthes, 2015). Philippe Roger mentions a sentence that still rings so distinctly in his ears that he could turn it into sheet music — despite having no recollection of what was actually said (Roland Barthes, roman, 1986). Barthes, who cherished “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) — “the body in the voice as it sings” — would no doubt have approved of his words time-lapsing into pure sound.

I walked the length of these gauzy panels, repeatedly, to ensure I had not missed the entrance to some occult gallery room. En route, I spotted several other mildly bemused visitors doing likewise, l’air de rien. Just as the art of striptease conceals nudity (Mythologies, 1957), everything here is hidden in plain sight. The author is ubiquitous, but atomized; splintered into myriad shards of text. In her monumental new biography, Tiphaine Samoyault demonstrates how his fragmentary, aphoristic, and self-referential style resists analysis, often leaving commentators no other option but to paraphrase or quote. This, she says, is how he inhabits his texts. Barthes himself goes back to the etymology of the word “text,” which, in Latin, refers — precisely — to tissue. This tissue, he avers, has traditionally been regarded as a “ready-made veil” concealing meaning (which can only be unveiled through interpretation). Instead of prêt-à-porter, he suggests we consider text as a piece of material that is constantly in the process of being woven — he compares Proust’s work to that of a seamstress. In this “making” of the text, “the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973). However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, albeit in disseminated form, “like the ashes we strew into the wind after death” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971).

Roland Barthes was not averse to biography per se. In fact, he even toyed with the idea of writing one himself (on his beloved Schumann). Besides, the intersection between life and literature was arguably his central concern throughout his career. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to his sanatorium days, the diseased body being his first object of investigation. She goes on to claim that his main achievement was to take reading out of the book and into the world: to decipher, as it is now, post-Barthes, common to say, the world like a text. For Barthes, however, reading literature was a highly personal pursuit: it meant “rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives” (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1979). Textual pleasure reaches its climax when a book “transmigrates into our life, whenever another writing (the Other’s writing) succeeds in writing fragments of our daily lives” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola). As Susan Sontag shrewdly observed, Barthes started off discussing Gide’s journal (which, in his view, turned the life and work into “a creative whole”) and ended up reflecting upon his own. During one of his last lectures, he even confessed (citing Kafka’s Diaries and Tolstoy’s Notebooks) that he had “sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works” — an admission that would have been anathema in the days of high post-structuralism. Indeed, diaries are repositories of what he had previously described as the “fantasy” of the writer figure, that is to say “the writer minus his work”. Readers often suspect novels of being thinly disguised biographies; Barthes believed, contrarily, that biographies were novels that dare not speak their name. Put bluntly, a writer cannot dissociate him or herself from the act of writing, just as it is impossible to discuss language in nonlinguistic terms. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975) is thus prefaced with the following caveat, which, significantly, appears in the author’s own elegant script: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”. The fragmentary memoir that ensues is narrated in the first and third (he, R.B.) persons singular: Barthes, in effect, becomes a character — several characters — in what he describes as “almost a novel: a novel without proper names”. The subject (himself, his life) is real, but the narrative voice belongs (of necessity) to the realm of fiction. A clear line is drawn between the “unproductive” time of childhood — depicted in the first pages through a series of captioned snapshots — and the “productive” time of writing that endures in textual form, rather than as memory. Since the text dispossesses the writer of his “narrative continuity” — “it takes my body elsewhere” — only the “unproductive life” can be presented in chronological (albeit pictorial) fashion. Much of the author’s work, from Empire of Signs onward, can be read as a quest for a biography of the productive life.

Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. After all, the past never stands still: memories are always being reimagined and reshuffled; identity is open to constant recomposition. If someone were to write his life, Barthes remarked, anticipating his own memoir, he hoped it would be limited to a few “biographemes” — “a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections” — which, “like Epicurean atoms,” would perhaps touch “some future body, destined to the same dispersion” (Sade, Fourier, Loyola). As Paul Valéry put it, in a letter he quotes, “It is strange how the passage of time turns every work — and so every man — into fragments. Nothing whole survives — just as a recollection is never anything more than debris, and only becomes sharper through false memories”. In his lectures on The Preparation of the Novel (1978–1980; published in 2003), Barthes establishes a distinction between two literary Platonic ideals: the Book and the Album. The former is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — an instantiation of the Absolute in codex form. The latter (aphorisms, pensées, fragments, collages, journals, scrapbooks) stands at the other, resolutely immanent end of the spectrum. Given that nothing whole ever survives, Barthes draws the conclusion that “the future of the Book is the Album, just as the ruin is the future of the monument”: “What lives in us of the Book” — a quotation, for instance — “is the Album”. (Éric Marty recently edited a collection of the author’s miscellanea under that very title.) Similarly, what lives in us of the biography is the biographeme, that textual snapshot: “Photography has the same relation to History that the biographeme has to biography” (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1980). Barthes’s oeuvre is dotted — punctuated — with prefigurations or echoes of the biographeme, which attests to the centrality of this concept. There is the gaping garment, for instance, pinpointed in The Pleasure of the Text as the scintillating locus of eroticism. There is “the Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku” — presented as near synonyms — which Mao’s China famously failed to deliver (Travels in China). And then there is the punctum: the accidental detail in a photograph (as opposed to the studium, its ostensible subject), which moves the observer to the poignant point where his or her involvement becomes intensely personal. One thinks of that passage in Empire of Signs where the author recalls that he never took any pictures of Japan. Quite the contrary, he explains: it is Japan that constellated him with flashes, as though from a camera not loaded with film. In her biography, Samoyault insists that, even at its most theoretical, Barthes’s criticism is never solely (soullessly) analytical. We always perceive the flash of the author’s desiring gaze.

The first part of the BnF exhibition illustrates Barthes’s definition of the “Album”. As its title indicates, it provides us with a panoramic view of the polymath’s multifaceted career. This dizzying, kaleidoscopic portrait of Roland Barthes — dissolved in the constructive secretions of his web — highlights his engagement with the world. The second part, tucked away in a room at the far end of the busy wall panels, is far more intimate. The dimmed lights instantly instill a quasi-religious ambience. The only audible sound comes, muffled, from headphones resting on black seats at the back. Enshrined in glass display cases, the manuscript of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977) and related relics (letters, index cards, artworks) take center stage. “So it is a lover who speaks and says:” — the magic Open Sesame formula — is inscribed on a blue wall, reminiscent of an Yves Klein monochrome or a manuscript illumination by the Limbourg brothers. Everything here represents the autobiographical, and indeed literary, turn in Barthes’s career: “It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science” (“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure …,” 1978).

One of the major lessons of Mythologies is that the world is always already written. Language — as Barthes put it, somewhat provocatively, during his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977 — is “fascist”. It speaks us, compels us to think and talk along certain lines. The task of literature is thus “to unexpress the expressible,” to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion by relinquishing meaning altogether: “For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible” (Critical Essays, 1964). In his memoir, Barthes writes that “he dreams of a world which would be exempt from meaning“. On several occasions, he praises the haiku for managing to “achieve exemption from meaning” whilst remaining perfectly intelligible. The arch-interpreter dreamt, paradoxically, of signifiers without signifieds. What attracted him to Japanese calligraphy was the interface between writing and painting. He was fascinated by the artistic tradition of “illegible writing” (linked to Chinese characters in the case of André Masson’s semiograms) that he studied in essays devoted to the likes of Bernard Réquichot or Cy Twombly. He even produced some elegant doodles of his own: an instance of what we would now call asemic writing is reproduced on one of the wall panels. The BnF exhibition also showcases several artworks (although that is perhaps too grand a word). The most interesting are multicolored squiggles that resemble a preliterate child’s impression of writing: writing as ludic abstraction.

Barthes never considered himself as a visual artist, and rightly so, but he derived a great deal of pleasure — “a kind of innocence” — from the sheer physicality of drawing or painting. The care with which he fashioned the file boxes for his famous index cards indicates that he also considered writing as a handicraft, as do the corrected proofs of A Lover’s Discourse, with their neatly redacted lines in blue felt-tip that look like erasure poetry. The author’s beautiful handwriting is as distinctive as the grain of the voice, where sound and meaning merge. Barthes, it is often said, wrote from the body. He sought to inscribe “the hand as it writes” — his very desire for writing, rather than his psychological subjectivity — into the body of his texts, thus substituting an erotics for hermeneutics. There is indeed a “return of the author” in Barthes’s work, but the author who returns is not the “Author-God” of realist fiction: “The author who leaves his text and comes into our life has no unity […] he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body”. It is through the body that the intimate makes its cry heard on the page.

Writing as pure gesture was, of course, only a fantasy. On this side of “the Utopia of language,” Barthes came to identify what he called “life writing” as a viable way of voicing the intimate. Simply put, life writing is writing as a way of life, whereby life becomes the text of the work — a text to be produced, not deciphered. In “The Death of the Author,” of all places, Barthes had already highlighted the “radical reversal” operated by Proust: “instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model”. Despite disavowing that polemical essay in The Preparation of the Novel — as though he could hear time’s winged laundry van hurrying near — he reprised his assessment of Proust, going as far as to claim that: “the positioning of the life as work is now slowly emerging as a veritable historical shift in values”. In Search of Lost Time is “entirely woven out of him [Proust], out of his places, his friends, his family; that’s literally all there is in his novel” — and yet it is not an autobiography.

Whether Barthes would have written a novel — had he not been knocked over by that van in 1980, dying a month later at the age of 64 — remains a moot point. In an interview, given in 1977, he announced his intention to write a “real novel”. However, he then went on to explain that he was looking for a form that would enable him to detach the “novelistic” (le romanesque) from the novel — which no longer really sounds like a “real novel”. The following year, in his conference on Proust, he mentioned his “fantasized and probably impossible” book. The lectures on The Preparation of the Novel did nothing to clear up the ambiguity; au contraire: “Will I really write a Novel? I’ll answer this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one”. Samoyault argues, in her biography, that he probably would have done so. Although he only left an eight-page outline for his projected “Vita Nova,” she believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously (Incidents, Mourning Diary, et cetera) along with vast swaths of the unpublished archives, would eventually have been integrated into some grand magnum opus.

There are numerous counterarguments. Even though he had his ear to the ground and finger on the pulse — championing some of the most cutting-edge artists of his day — Barthes considered himself as a man of the 19th century: the rearguard of the avant-garde, as he once put it. Samoyault highlights the fact that he felt far more at home with Schumann or Chateaubriand than Messiaen or Robbe-Grillet, hence his deep-rooted fear of being an impostor. Proust — whose innovative work also retained a strong traditional Human Comedy dimension — probably represented his beau idéal of literary modernity. For Barthes, however, being modern also meant knowing “what cannot be started over again,” and that kind of monumental novel belonged to the past. At the beginning of The Preparation of the Novel, he suggests that “The Impossible Novel” could have been a good alternative title for these lectures, echoing one of the central themes of Writing Degree Zero: “Modernism begins with the search for a Literature which is no longer possible”. This general cultural crisis was echoed by his own abandonment of novel-writing as a teenager. In a letter to a friend, explaining why he had given up his bildungsroman — a satire of social conventions in provincial France — he described the novel as an “anti-artistic genre” in which aesthetics is stifled by psychology, and form a mere accessory. He then spoke of his conception of an “artistic form of literature,” which he would go on to seek out through his criticism in later years. When he died, he was preparing a conference on Stendhal’s switch from diary to fiction, which had finally allowed him to express his love of Italy. Evidently, Barthes was hoping that “Vita Nova” would likewise enable him to express his love of his mother, with whom he had lived almost all his life, and whose death in 1977 had left him devastated. The title — a quote — was “One Always Fails to Speak of What One Loves”. He may have sensed that his novel would never get as close to the “impossible science of the unique being” as he wished.

In fact, Barthes had already written a fitting, at times heart-rending, tribute to his late mother in the shape of the second part of Camera Lucida. He was too modest and racked by doubts — “I am not fully a writer” — to gauge the importance of his own work. As Philippe Sollers noted, his reading of Balzac’s “Sarrasine” in S/Z (1970) had rewritten a competent story into a veritable masterpiece. Michel Foucault pointed out that his criticism had a prophetic quality: it actually shaped the course of contemporary literature, rather than merely reflecting it. Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom Barthes had championed in his early days, claimed that A Lover’s Discourse may come to be regarded as the nouveau nouveau roman. He believed that the future of the novel lay in the hands of someone, like Barthes, who was not a professional novelist. A Lover’s Discourse was published in 1977, the year Serge Doubrovsky coined the term “autofiction”: it is now obvious that Barthes was one of the originators of this genre. It is equally obvious that most of his books, starting with Empire of Signs (when he began speaking in his own name), could now be labeled novels. Unknowingly, he had redefined what fiction could be.

In his Critical Essays, Barthes describes the critic as a writer, “but a writer postponed,” whose goal — to write a novel — remains tantalizingly on the horizon, like abstract squiggles: “the critic is the man who is going to write and who, like the Proustian narrator, satisfies this expectation with a supplementary work, who creates himself by seeking himself and whose function is to accomplish his project of writing even while eluding it”. While dreaming of the Book, Barthes produced the Album.

The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

The Realistic Illusion

“All writers believe they are realists. … The discovery of reality will continue only if we abandon outworn forms. … Academic criticism in the West, as in the Communist countries, employs ‘realism’ as if reality were already entirely constituted (whether for good and all, or not) when the writer comes on the scene. Thus it supposes that the latter’s role is limited to ‘explaining’ and to ‘expressing’ the reality of his period. … The style of the novel does not seek to inform, as does the chronicle, the testimony offered in evidence, or the scientific report, it constitutes reality. It never knows what it is seeking, it is ignorant of what it has to say; it is invention, invention of the world and man, constant invention and perpetual interrogation. … I do not translate, I construct. This had been even the old ambition of Flaubert: to make something out of nothing, something that would stand alone, without having to lean on anything external to the work; today this is the ambition of the novel as a whole. …”
Alain Robbe-Grillet, “From Realism to Reality,” Towards a New Novel