Nothing At All

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This review of Jean-Yves Jouannais’s Artistes sans oeuvres: I Would Prefer Not To appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 25 September 2009 (No 5556, p. 30):

Nothing At All

With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.

Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’s exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.

Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or iinflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

Jouannais never makes the absurd claim that creating nothing is better than creating something: like Emil Cioran, he has little time for what he calls the “failure fundamentalists”. He does not dwell on the Keatsian notion (also found in Rousseau and Goethe) that unheard melodies are sweeter, or wonder why the attempts at a merger between life and art have so often resulted in death. Jouannais’s “Artists without works” are essentially of a sunny disposition. They are dilettantes, driven solely by their own enjoyment; cultural skivers who never feel that they owe it to posterity, let alone their public, to be productive. They let time do its work and are often militantly lazy — like Albert Cossery, the francophone writer of Egyptian origin who, on a good day, would fashion a single carefully crafted sentence, or the American artist Albert M. Fine who is quoted as saying: “If I did anything less it would cease to be art”. It is this divine indolence which differentiates Artistes sans oeuvres from darker essays on the subject.

Some of the most interesting passages in the book concern those larger-than-life figures (Félix Fénéon, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Jacques Rigaut, Roberto Bazlen) who entered the literary pantheon as characters in other writers’ novels rather than through their own. Cravan, Vaché and Cassady — who embodied respectively the spirits of Dada, Surrealism and Beat — published virtually nothing during their lifetimes. Naturally, phantom works abound here, from Stendhal’s numerous unfinished novels to the unpublished manuscripts of the Brautigan Library (modelled on the library in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion) through to Roland Barthes’s criticism, which provided him with the perfect excuse not to write the novel he dreamed of. Jouannais also considers summarizers such as Fénéon, whose “elliptical novels” were no longer than haiku, or Borges, who compiled synopses of fictitious novels so that no one would have to waste time writing or reading them. In fact, the Argentinian’s entire oeuvre — haunted as it is by the possibility of its own silence — is reinterpreted as a paradoxical “pre-emptive production” designed to spare the already overcrowded bookshelves of the Library of Babel. Borges’s Pierre Ménard (along with Bouvard, Pécuchet and Bartleby) is, of course, one of the patron saints of the copiers, another category surveyed in these pages. The destroyers (Virgil, Kafka, Bruno Schulz et al.) who seek to cover their aesthetic tracks only get a brief look-in, Jouannais being more interested in the long line of erasers starting with Man Ray’s 1924 “Lautgedicht” (an obliterated poem) and including such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Yves Klein’s infamous empty exhibition or Walter Ruttmann’s “blind” film. The author argues convincingly — in a style both eloquent and elegant — that Cravan’s proto-Dadaist provocations, Rigaut’s suicide or Brautigan’s notorious kitchen shoot-outs should be construed as poetic gestures in their own right. Deliberately misquoting Flaubert, he concludes that the works of these so-called “Artists without works” are “present everywhere and visible nowhere”, which may explain why they are so often misunderstood.

Albert Cossery’s Last Siesta in Paris

This appeared in Dazed Digital on 16 July 2008:

Albert Cossery’s Last Siesta in Paris

The cult author, famous for his indolence and libido, closes his eyes for the last time

Albert Cossery was a lazy old sod — a relic from the past who looked, of late, as if he felt he had outstayed his welcome. Always dressed to the nines, this dandy anarchist could be observed sitting in the legendary Café de Flore, casting an Olympian eye over the aimless crowds outside, biding his time. His militant idleness coupled with a strange mummified existence blurred the boundary between life and death for so long that his passing away, last month, could almost have gone unnoticed — had he not been a living legend.

The cult author moved to Paris from his native Cairo in 1945 and soon became a fixture of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés boho scene. His friends included some of the most influential writers and artists of the last century: Sartre, Genet, Vian, Queneau, Tzara, Giacometti and others. Lawrence Durrell championed his first book — a brilliant collection of short stories entitled Men God Forgot (1940) — and Henry Miller ensured it got published Stateside. He even picked up girls — lots of them — with Albert Camus. According to legend (that word again), Durrell informed the American secret services that Cossery could not possibly be a spy, as they suspected, because he spent most of his time shagging. By the early 90s, he was claiming more than 3,000 female conquests.

Sex aside, Cossery never believed in exerting himself. His very name evokes divine indolence: avoir la cosse is a colloquial expression meaning to be bone idle. True to his moniker, he spent his life resisting any work ethic that prevents people from enjoying “the Edenic simplicity of the world”. He often showed off his delicate hands, explaining, somewhat provocatively, that they had not toiled in 2,000 years. And when a journalist inevitably enquired why he wrote, he answered that he hoped his books would prompt readers to pack in their jobs.

For Cossery, idleness was more than a way of life. It afforded him the greatest luxury of all: the time to contemplate — to think or observe — and therefore the opportunity to be fully alive, “minute by minute”. This accounts for the constant connection he establishes between destitution and nobility, which is reflected, for instance, in the beautiful descriptions of glistening gobbets of spit, or light playing upon puddles of piss. The author claimed that he always felt like the son of a king, even when he was penniless — or rather, especially when he was penniless, just like the university professor in Proud Beggars (1955) who finally feels like a million dollars after electing to become a pauper. The lesson here is that those who reject (or are deprived of) material wealth gain access to a heightened state of consciousness. When Cossery died, the French Culture Minister described him as a “prince”, even though he owned little more than the clogs he had just popped.

All his works (for want of a more congenial word) focus on the members of this aristocratic underclass — the holy hooligans who wear their hashish-smoke halos raffishly askew and jump through the eyes of needles like so many biblical camels. Cossery was not just their poet laureate: he considered himself as a fully unpaid-up member of the idle poor and certainly put his lack of money where his mouth was. Long before downshifting became trendy among trustafarians, he checked into a small hotel room and lived off handouts and publishing rights. Not so much because property is theft but because it can rob you of your soul.

Cossery’s anti-work ethos and all-round laziness only partly account for his limited output (a mere eight books in sixty-five years). He was a typical Platonic author who saw his works as imperfect reflections of an unattainable ideal. As such, he despised hackwork, often only producing a single perfectly-honed sentence a week. No wonder his last novel — a slim volume called Les Couleurs de l’infamie (1999) — was fifteen years in the making.

This unattainable literary ideal is symbolised by his characters’ noble dreams. Cossery’s anti-heroes are for ever lost in sleep or reverie, as if they were hankering after some prelapsarian state of perfect vegetative bliss. In the aptly-titled The Lazy Ones (1948), a character remains bedridden, out of choice, for a whole year; another opts for celibacy in order to preserve his sacred sleep patterns. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood are prepared to kill off those who have the nerve to disturb their slumber before noon. Some characters are even afraid to move lest they should break the magic spell of their daydreams. The author himself revelled in the out-of-time experience afforded by sleep, which is hardly surprising given that what he called living “minute by minute” meant, in practice, living the same minute over and over again Groudhog Day-style.

Time stood still for Cossery as soon as he settled in Paris. In 1945, he checked in to a small room in a hotel called La Louisiane on Rue de Seine and remained there until his recent demise. Every day, he would get up at noon (like his characters), dress up in his habitual dandified fashion and make his way to the Brasserie Lipp for a spot of lunch. From there, he would usually repair to the Café de Flore or the Deux Magots before going home for his all-important siesta. Repeat ad infinitum. A similar case of arrested development can be found in the books, which are all, without exception, set in the Middle East, although Cossery, of course, spent most of his life in France. His French style even mimics the Arabic of his youth. One of the most haunting passages in Men God Forgot is the description of a crude fresco representing a motionless sailing boat on the Nile, frozen in time, refusing to move on.

Cossery described sleep as “death’s brother” and one can wonder if this refusal to turn his back on the glory days of Saint-Germain-des-Prés did not hide a desire for the big sleep: the eternal here and now. The author’s later years give a distinct impression of slow exhaustion. In 1998, he fell silent as a result of cancer and the following year he stopped writing, claiming that he no longer had anything to say.

For almost fifteen years (the time it took him to write his last book), I lived just up the road from Cossery. Whenever I got home in the small hours — usually a little worse for wear — my thoughts would turn to the “Voltaire of the Nile” sleeping in his diminutive mausoleum. It was a comforting thought, like a sailing boat that will never sail away.

The next time you walk down Rue de Seine, tread lightly: Albert Cossery sleeps on. Shh!

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All the Latest

“Albert Cossery’s Last Siesta” appeared on Dazed Digital on 16 July 2008. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Albert Cossery was a lazy old sod — a relic from the past who looked, of late, as if he felt he had outstayed his welcome. Always dressed to the nines, this dandy anarchist could be observed sitting in the legendary Café de Flore, casting an Olympian eye over the aimless crowds outside, biding his time. His militant idleness coupled with a strange mummified existence blurred the boundary between life and death for so long that his passing away, last month, could almost have gone unnoticed — had he not been a living legend.”

Albert Cossery Loved Men God Forgot

This appeared in Guardian Books on 8 July 2008:

Albert Cossery Loved Men God Forgot

The Egyptian lived radically lazily on the Left Bank, challenging social norms with books devoid of materialism and ambition

Albert Cossery was a living legend — until he died a few weeks ago. The Egyptian author was one of the last links to the glory days when Paris was the capital of world culture, with Saint-Germain-des-Prés its swinging epicentre.

Having already sampled the louche pleasures of interbellum Montparnasse, Cossery left Cairo in 1945 and relocated to the Left Bank where he hung out on a nightly basis with Genet, Giacometti, Gréco, Queneau, Sartre, Tzara, Vian et al. His first book, Men God Forgot, was published in the States courtesy of Henry Miller, one of his biggest fans. Accompanied by Camus, he cruised the streets of the Latin Quarter, soon acquiring something of a reputation as a Levantine lover. Indeed, by the early 90s he was boasting that he had bedded more than 3,000 women which, if true, would put him right up there in Simenon’s priapic super league. When the American secret services suspected him of being a spy, Lawrence Durrell — another close friend — pointed out that he was far too busy shagging.

The secret services had good reason to be wary of this dapper anarchist, often dubbed the “Voltaire of the Nile”. His caustic satire burned like the desert sun, undermining all forms of authority. In La Violence et la Dérision (unfortunately not translated into English) freedom fighters use mockery and contempt, not violence, as political weapons against state tyranny.

All his life, Cossery sided with those he felt God had forgotten: petty thieves, pretty prostitutes, exploited workers and hungry vagrants. He despised materialism and eschewed the rat race. In Proud Beggars (1955), usually considered his masterpiece, a university professor finds peace of mind by becoming a bum, proving that beggars can be choosers. In The Lazy Ones (1948), a character stays in bed, out of choice, for a whole year. Another decides, on reflection, not to take a wife for fear she might disrupt his precious sleep patterns. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood even take up arms against all those who prevent them from snoozing in peace until midday.

For the author and his lovable rogue’s gallery, sleep, daydreams and hashish-induced reverie are endowed with mystical qualities. Idleness is more than a way of life. It offers the greatest luxury of all: time to think and therefore the chance to be fully alive, “minute by minute”. The overt message of these people whom God has forgotten (but who themselves have not forgotten God) is that paradise is not lost, but most of us are too busy to bask in “the Edenic simplicity of the world”.

There is, however, a darker covert message. In practice, living “minute by minute” meant living the same minute over and over again. Time seems to have stood still for Cossery as soon as he settled in Paris. In 1945, he checked into a small room in a hotel called La Louisiane on Rue de Seine and remained there until his death. Every day, he got up at noon (like his characters), dressed up in his habitual dandified fashion and made his way to the Brasserie Lipp for a spot of lunch. From there, he usually repaired to the Flore or the Deux Magots where he would cast an Olympian eye over the drones passing by. Then it was time for his all-important siesta. Repeat ad infinitum. Cossery, who once described sleep as “death’s brother”, lived a strange, mummified existence, reminiscent of Beckett’s “sleep till death/ healeth/ come ease/ this life disease”.

All the Latest

My blog on the late Albert Cossery appeared on Guardian Unlimited today:

“Albert Cossery was a living legend — until he died a few weeks ago. The Egyptian author was one of the last links to the glory days when Paris was the capital of world culture, with Saint-Germain-des-Prés its swinging epicentre.

Having already sampled the louche pleasures of interbellum Montparnasse, Cossery left Cairo in 1945 and relocated to the Left Bank where he hung out on a nightly basis with Genet, Giacometti, Gréco, Queneau, Sartre, Tzara, Vian et al. His first book, Men God Forgot, was published in the States courtesy of Henry Miller, one of his biggest fans. Accompanied by Camus, he cruised the streets of the Latin Quarter, soon acquiring something of a reputation as a Levantine lover. Indeed, by the early 90s he was boasting that he had bedded more than 3,000 women which, if true, would put him right up there in Simenon’s priapic super league. When the American secret services suspected him of being a spy, Lawrence Durrell — another close friend — pointed out that he was far too busy shagging.”

More here.