Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

This appeared in the Irish Times, 16 September 2017, p. 10:

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

Joanna Walsh is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s sister. Not literally, of course, but in Worlds From the Word’s End — the story that lends its name to her new collection — she channels Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), giving it a fierce feminist twist. A woman comes to realise that she and her partner have always been “words apart”. Given that he is “only interested in the sound of [his] own voice” and prefers his “women quiet”, she makes a virtue of necessity by spearheading a mute mutiny that reverberates throughout society. Female hipsters — “seeking something retro as usual” — start modelling themselves on the “silent women in cardigans” of yore. The “new silence” goes mainstream. Newspapers become blank. Talk shows ditch the talk. Social media users post “photos of silent activities”. Signage is removed and libraries burned down as couples everywhere tire of “explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words”. In her struggle against mansplaining, Eve rolls back Adam’s enterprise of linguistic imperialism, returning all things to their (nameless) sui generis nature.

“I’m writing to you so you’ll understand why I can’t write to you any more” — this paradoxical mission statement delineates the liminal space Walsh explores, charting a middle course between inscription and erasure.

The Story of Our Nation lies at one end of the spectrum. With great fanfare, we are informed that the eponymous story will differ from all past chronicles, criticised for being “parallel but not the real thing”. “What was missing,” the character explains, “was bare fact.” The national epic she is working on will log everything, from “gaps between doors and doorsills” to the “light that arcs night ceilings through the slits between curtains”. It brings to mind the legend (found in Lewis Carroll and Borges) of a map on the exact same scale as the territory it charts. This gesamtkunstwerk should likewise coincide with its object: “once we input all the figures you will be able to see everything in a flash.” The snag is that it can only be achieved by freezing the nation in its current state, lest the quest become “uncompletable”. The “real thing” is turned into a dead thing.

This is also the case in Two, which revolves around a pair of statuettes petrified in their verisimilitude: “So poised to move, yet so immobile, so lifelike and at the same time something that only looks like life.” Their owner fears the fixity of writing as well as that of art; the death of the author, whereby a text escapes its progenitor: “I must be careful describing the seasons as they may also be mistaken for metaphor, and I would not like to lay down some kind of mood setting I didn’t at all mean”.

Everything else is in a state of flux, and it it is this indeterminacy Walsh’s fragmentary prose taps into. Domestic settings grow uncanny: in one case, everyday objects migrate around the house as a daily routine goes awry. The characters are almost all anonymous or identified by a letter à la Kafka (this is even turned into a deftly executed extended joke in Reading Habits). More often than not, their gender remains unspecified. Femme Maison is one of several stories told in the second person singular, where you is I and I is another: “You wanted to be someone else, someone neither of you knew”. Hauptbahnhof is a monologue in disguise, the narrator addressing herself to the absent man who stood her up at Berlin Central Station, where she now resides: “Sometimes a demonstrator [in a shop] makes me over to look like someone new.” The longed-for metamorphosis fails spectacularly to materialise in Simple Hans, where a woman’s head is cut off at her behest: “This is the moment the good things happen in stories, but this is real life. She was meant to change into something else.”

The author’s fourth collection is made up of skittish vignettes and longer, more surreal pieces. There is a great deal of wordplay, but it is never gratuitous. “I’m not aloud”, for instance, speaks volumes about the silencing of women. Puns burrow rabbit-holes into the unconscious of language, where the text seems to become self-generative.

In Bookselves, Walsh conjures up a creature who emerges from someone’s bookshelf, having devoured all their unread books: “It will be the opposite of you, your inverse.” Her prose orbits a black hole whose presence it reveals but cannot express. Postcards from Two Hotels ends on a characteristically ambiguous note: “Tomorrow I return to the first hotel. It is in the second hotel that I did all my writing.” Walsh’s style finds its perfect expression in the troubled housewife who, having cut but not pasted, realises that her words “hover in vacant space”.

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Fleeting

The wonderful Deborah Levy was kind enough to mention me in an interview with Matt Shoard for Fleeting Magazine (“8 Questions for Deborah Levy”) published on 22 December 2012. Here’s the relevant extract:

Are you comforted by the assertion that there are yet People on Earth who know what they are doing? Or, like me, do you subscribe to the notion that people who knew what they were doing began to die off about 1945 and are now on the brink of extinction?

Yes, Benjamin Eastham and Jacques Testard, editors of the stunning new Art Literature and Politics journal The White Review know what they are doing and they also know who they do not want to do business with. Andrew Gallix, writer and editor of 3:AM Magazine knows what he’s doing and I am so pleased he’s doing it. Uber publisher and translator Stefan Tobler at And Other Stories is a man of vision and steel; he knows what he’s doing in any number of languages. So does Matt Shoard of Fleeting and so does John Self, an incredibly astute reader and critic. Every generation throws up its new thinkers and they tend to make a cultural revolution. They have energy and purpose and sometimes wear really nice shoes. They make everyone else look exhausted and clapped out. That is how it should be.

The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

This appeared in The Guardian (Comment is Free section) on 28 July 2012:

The Booker Steps Away From Being its Own Genre

The inclusion on the Man Booker longlist of four debuts and three novels from excellent indie publishers is a welcome sign

[Science Fiction novelist China Miéville has criticised the Booker Prize for becoming its own genre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian]

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in ancient Greece. Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century. The Nobel prize in literature (1901) was followed by the Prix Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer prizes in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black memorial prizes in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forebears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”.

The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant.

Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool, a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau.

The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated.

Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zip-along page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt).

The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole.

****

Here is a longer — uncut and unedited — version of the above text. A draft, if you will:

The announcement of this year’s Booker longlist, just a few days before the opening of the Olympics, reminds us that literary jousting originated in Ancient Greece. These early competitions, however, were more akin to poetry slams or the itinerant Literary Death Match, than to the sedate book prizes we are accustomed to. Dithyrambic contests were collective, all-singing-and-dancing renditions of poetic works. The name of the victorious chorus would often go down in history, while that of the poet himself would be forgotten. It was, above all, the performance that was being assessed.

Modern literary competitions appeared shortly after the revival of the Olympic Games at the end of the nineteenth century. The Nobel Prize in Literature (1901) was followed by the Goncourt in France (1903), the Pulitzer in the States (1917) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Britain (1919). Compared with their Greekish forbears, they are far trickier affairs. Australian author Richard Flanagan is clearly no friend of contemporary book contests: in his view, they are often barometers “of bad taste” that only serve “to give dog shows a good name”. Whether or not most prizes “get it mostly wrong,” he clearly has a point when it comes to the Nobel: “No one I know hails Sigrid Undset or Frans Eemil Sillanpaa or Par Lagerkvist — Nobel laureates in 1928 and 1939 and 1951, respectively — as globally significant writers, important as they are to their own national literatures, perhaps because no one I know has ever read them. Yet Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Cortazar, Nabokov, Borges, Kundera, Roth and Bolano have all been passed over for the gong of gongs”.

According to Lars Iyer (whose novel Spurious was shortlisted for last year’s Not the Booker), “the prestige of authorship” — producing great works — has given way to “the prestige of an ephemeral kind of literary careerism,” which is sanctioned by book clubs and prizes: “With pomp and circumstance, the award ceremonies vainly bestow medals of greatness on novels that vaguely mime our fading memory of masterpiece. The prestige, the debris, the body of Literature remains even as the spirit has fled”. The aristocratic authors of an earlier period often felt that there was something a little common, even humiliating, about wanting to be read by others, possibly of an inferior station. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard describes some of the excuses they came up with to give the impression that their works had got into print without their knowledge. La Rochefoucauld (to whom I am vaguely related through one of his descendants’ bastard offspring) claimed, for instance, that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. Thomas Bernhard had similar issues with literary prizes. In the autobiographical Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), he describes a cursory acceptance speech as “a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty”. My Prizes: An Accounting, published posthumously, is a series of diatribes against the nine eponymous prizes he received up until 1980 and the “assholes” who bestowed them upon him — which brings us back to the Booker.

In François Ozon’s film Swimming Pool (2003), a bestselling author (played by Charlotte Rampling) pays a visit to her publisher, where she bumps into an up-and-coming novelist who has just won a minor literary prize. After the latter’s departure, the publisher tries — and fails — to clear the air by describing the award as “hardly the Booker Prize!” Charlotte Rampling’s character reminds him of what he always used to say at the beginning of his career: “Awards are like haemorrhoids: sooner or later, every arsehole gets one”. This scene epitomises the Booker effect: the petty rivalries and insidious corrupting influence.

Launched in 1969, the Booker was always conceived of as a publicity stunt designed to shift units. I think it is fair to say that no other literary prize in the world has ever received so much media attention. By 1990, when Gilbert Adair included a chapter entitled “Le Booker nouveau est arrivé” in his Barthes-inspired Myths and Memories, the prize had already become an institution, thanks to a marketing strategy not dissimilar to that of Beaujolais nouveau. The Booker has always worn its commercialism on its sleeve: its official name — the Man Booker Prize — derives from its original (Booker-McConnell) and current (the Man Group) sponsors. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Trying to sell more books is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, and the Booker has two big advantages over the Gallic Goncourt: it is not controlled by the publishing industry and the judging panel changes every year. However, financial considerations do, regrettably, play a part in the selection process: a publisher must “contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist” and “a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize”. Indies may find it difficult to stump up this sort of money.

The Nobel is awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Aimed at “the intelligent general audience,” the Booker never entertained such lofty ambitions. It was always resolutely middlebrow as last year’s controversy over “readable books” that “zip along” amply illustrated. Since its inception, the prize has championed a type of well-made mainstream novel that reflects the liberal humanist world view of the Home Counties (sometimes with decorative postmodern knobs on). When a thriller found its way on to the longlist, many people thought that the judges had lost the plot, and were no longer able to recognise a Booker novel. This reaction only confirmed China Miéville‘s argument that despite traditionally shunning genre fiction, the Booker had itself become a genre. This, I feel, has been the prize’s most pernicious influence. The Novel — which was meant to be the genre to end all genres in which philosophy and poetry would be reunited — has been reduced to innocuous literary fiction narratives written as though Modernism had never happened.

This year, there has been no populist talk of jolly good reads or zipalong page-turners. On the contrary, chairman Peter Stothard signalled the judges’ intention to focus on “texts not reputations“: books “that you can make a sustained critical argument about”. The kind that “you don’t leave on the beach” and want to “read again and again”. Hence, perhaps, the presence of four debuts and three novels released by excellent indie publishers (And Other Stories, Myrmidon Books and Salt). The inclusion of Deborah Levy‘s Swimming Home, one of the finest new novels I have read (and already reread) in a long time, seems like a very good omen indeed. It radiates the sensual languor of sun-drenched afternoons in the south of France and the disquieting, uncanny beauty only perceived by a true daytime insomniac. At times, it reminded me of Ozon’s film. Let us hope this year’s Booker will not be awarded to an arsehole!