The Unmapped Country

My review of The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin. The Guardian (Review), 13 January 2018, p. 10.

Reduced to an anomalous footnote in British literary history — a female, working-class, avant-garde author — Ann Quin is all too often taken as read. Yet her work is as open-ended as those sentences she regularly produced that trail off into silence, casting a spell instead of spelling out; floating away on their reserve of potentiality. As open-ended, indeed, as her life, which she took at the age of 37, swimming out to sea off Brighton’s Palace Pier in 1973. She left behind four novels — including her celebrated debut, Berg (1964) — along with scores of short-form pieces, some which now appear in a thrilling new collection of miscellanea.

Spanning the author’s entire career, The Unmapped Country, edited and introduced by Jennifer Hodgson, builds up a portrait of the artist as a restless spirit, forever adventuring into the unknown. In an autobiographical skit, Quin mocks her reputation as an experimental author, attributing the Arts Council’s rejection of her grant application to their having read her last book. The diversity on display is impressive, however, as she studiously avoids getting trapped in any one style or genre. “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, with its enchanting evocation of childhood and unflinching depiction of the decrepitude of old age, is a technically accomplished but surprisingly conventional short story.

“A Double Room” is kitchen sink drama set in Patrick Hamilton territory, while “Tripticks”, which developed into the novel of the same name, recalls Donald Barthelme at his quirkiest. “Living in the Present” (1968), a Burroughsian exercise in cut-ups conducted with the American poet Robert Sward (her then lover) seems to pave the way for JG Ballard’s media-saturated The Atrocity Exhibition.

Some pieces are straightforward memoir; others are clearly fiction, but there is a great deal of overlapping between the two (from this perspective, the author could be considered as a pioneer of autofiction). Quin frequently displays an ambivalent attitude towards mothers in general, and her own in particular, mirrored by a love-hate relationship with a dreary postwar England, where vegetables were still served up “as though chewed already”.

She resolved to become a writer after being “struck dumb” during her RADA audition, and her work always retained a strong theatrical quality. Several stories here are monologues. The two pieces written in the early 60s for pop artist Billy Apple (another lover) give voice to the ludic, transatlantic idiom of the emerging counterculture. Inevitably, considering her recurring bouts of depression and the electroconvulsive therapy she endured, mental illness looms large. The eponymous novella offers a devastating — albeit often hilarious — critique of psychiatry. Sudden shifts in perspective are common, as one character points out during a train journey: “Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” And then there is the encroachment of the sea. A girl envisions her bedridden grandmother’s legs as sticks with “barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging”. In “Nude and Seascape”, which channels the affectlessness of Camus, a woman’s corpse becomes an object in a gruesome still life composition: “Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time”.

This struggle between order and chaos runs through Quin’s work. The husband in “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails” wants to impose a tight schedule on his handyman to curtail the “impression he gives of unlimited time”. Sandra’s descent into madness, in “The Unmapped Country” (1973), takes the form of a hermeneutic disease, whereby everything — even birdsong or “the placing of twigs and leaves” in a park — is construed as a cosmic message. This is, of course, an eminently literary malady: “It takes me a long time to read now, a paragraph holds so much significance, and everything links up.” After being sectioned, she attempts in vain to piece together her hallucinatory journey: “Last events came first, the beginning at the end, or suddenly reversed, or slid into panels mid-way.” The grand narrative eludes her, leaving only “vague notes for the basis of a shape”. A subtle parallel is drawn between the signals Sandra picks up – the broadcasts she tunes into – at the height of her delirium, and the analyst’s Freudian worldview. In her journal, she scoffs at his “stupidity in listening and believing in the radio he switches on” at the beginning of each session.

Although the novella remains unfinished, an alternative to the absolutist, patriarchal vision of art depicted in “Nude and Seascape” seems to emerge when Sandra dismisses her boyfriend’s pursuit of posterity through painting: “How much better to create like the Navajo Indians, beginning at sunrise in the desert, a sand painting that would be rubbed out by sundown.” Having burned her latest contribution to the hospital’s weekly art session, she elects to make “paintings with her footprints in the snow”. The temptation to go beyond the confines of the canvas or page finds its natural expression in Quin’s penchant for juxtapositions and lists. This vagabond style is the perfect vehicle for the ecstatic urge to “go over” and “live beyond” oneself. To keep on walking through the snow, like Sandra, with unlimited time on your hands.



 

The Making of Meursault

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

The Making of Meursault

In July 1944 Albert Camus produced a counterfeit manuscript of his debut novel, The Outsider, published two years earlier. Josette Clotis, André Malraux’s partner, read the text aloud while Camus took it down in longhand, introducing the odd crossed-out variant to lend it the air of an early draft. In Looking for ‘The Outsider’, Alice Kaplan outlines this ingenious scam, born of wartime austerity, but does not say whether it proved successful or not. All the same, it speaks volumes about the book it sought to cash in on. The Outsider had already outgrown its title, acquiring the aura of a canonical work. Camus was now in a position to turn Bouvard and Pécuchet’s lowly profession — that of the copy clerk — into gold. All he had to do was replicate his near-indecipherable microscript, originally developed in response to an acute paper shortage.

Looking for ‘The Outsider’ is the biography of a book rather than of its author. Kaplan chronicles the story of The Outsider from the germ of an idea in Camus’s notebooks to the novel’s re-evaluation in the light of gender and postcolonial studies, taking in, chemin faisant, its wider impact on popular culture. She even identifies the individual who inspired the anonymous Arab. Her research really comes into its own when she pieces together the strange circumstances in which the novel saw the light of day. Retracing the various manuscripts’ convoluted journey between Algiers and occupied Paris — charted on four different maps — is likened to ‘chasing several Minotaurs in a maze’. Even Raymond Queneau, at publishers Gallimard, was baffled, ending up with two different versions before going to press.

In 1937, with two collections of essays under his belt, Camus set about writing fiction. The provisional title of his work-in-progress, ‘A Happy Death’, clearly anticipated The Outsider (published as The Stranger in the United States), as did the protagonist’s name, Patrice Mersault. However, if Kaplan’s precis of this first attempt — ‘the story of a tubercular young man who commits murder for freedom’ — is anything to go by, it sounds more like an autobiographical take on André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures than a new departure. When he peered into his manuscript, Camus increasingly caught glimpses of a ‘completely different book’ within it. By the autumn of the following year, a ‘second novel’, which he went on to describe as ‘already completely traced within me’, stared back at him. Kaplan explains that the ‘ambitious writer who wanted to control every aspect of his craft found himself confronted with the unexpected’. Just as Meursault would realise, in extremis, that he had been ‘a stranger to his life’, Camus had to draw the conclusion that he was a stranger to his work. Having abandoned ‘A Happy Death’, he was ready to yield to something he did not fully comprehend: ‘Sometimes I need to write things that escape me in part, but which are proof of precisely what within me is stronger than I am.’

Eschewing belletristic ‘chit-chat’, he developed his trademark laconic style that gestures discreetly towards that which eludes language. ‘To write,’ he realised, ‘one must fall slightly short of the expression’, for the ‘true work of art … is the one that says the least’. Sartre greatly admired the way Camus deployed words ‘almost miraculously to produce a sensation of silence’, unaware that he had been brought up by a deaf mother and uncle. Estrangement was not only rooted in experience, however; it was also a literary device. Under the influence of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (translated into French in 1936), Camus switched his narrative from the third to the first person, a style that, as Kaplan remarks, ‘usually lets the reader inside the narrator’s head — but he did it so that there was no getting inside, no way to feel close to Meursault’. The novelist described this technical breakthrough, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a mere ‘trick’: ‘once I discovered the trick, all I had to do was write.’

If Camus discovered The Outsider ‘within himself’, he breathed life into the novel as a genre. His protagonist’s ‘lack of connection to people’, writes Kaplan, is offset by his ‘sensual connection to the world’. ‘He exists,’ Camus declared, ‘like a stone or the wind or the sea, under the sun.’ So far, so nouveau roman. Yet when Kaplan quotes the climactic passage in which Meursault opens himself to the ‘gentle indifference of the world’, finding it ‘so much like myself — so like a brother’, she fails to point out how much the world is anthropomorphised and recast in his image, and how even its indifference becomes benevolent. Is this really what Camus meant by living ‘without appeal’; cut adrift from religion or ideology? And, while we are on the subject, is a godless universe ipso facto absurd? As Alain Robbe-Grillet objected, the world is neither meaningful nor meaningless: ‘It is, that’s all’. A major flaw throughout this study is Kaplan’s promptness to take Camus’s ideas as read although, in all fairness, analysis does not fall within her remit.

Meursault fails to feel the gravitational pull of Paris, which, as Kaplan shrewdly observes, is a measure of his strangeness in a highly centralised country like France. Camus, however, had far more in common with Rastignac, Balzac’s arch-arriviste, than with Meursault. Despite going on to become the editor of an underground newspaper during the war, he ‘never questioned the idea of publishing his novel in occupied Paris’ and had no qualms about excising an essay on Kafka from The Myth of Sisyphus lest it attract the attention of the Germans. Within months of the appearance of The Outsider in bookshops, he was already ‘at the heart of things’, dining out with Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Café de Flore, an outsider no more.

At the outset, Alice Kaplan describes reading The Outsider as a ‘rite of passage’ that people throughout the world connect to ‘their coming of age’. Perhaps it is in the nature of such works to be outgrown, as The Outsider was, almost immediately, by Camus himself. Contrarily, our compulsion to reinterpret the book — in the light of the French Resistance, Algerian independence, the banlieues or the Arab Spring — may testify to its irreducible otherness and our inability to simply let it be, like a stone or the wind or the sea.
camus
literaryreview

Albert Camus’ Counterfeit Manuscript

My review of Alice Kaplan‘s Looking for ‘The Outsider’: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic appears in the November 2016 issue of the Literary Review.

literaryreview

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. …

Goal-Line Philosophy

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

Goal-Line Philosophy

football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ft

Here is an earlier, unpublished version:

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

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

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

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

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

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