The Abode of Fancy

This appeared in The Guardian (Guardian Review) on 24 December 2016: 10.

samcoll

We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoo-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to summarise: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected.

There are two main plot lines. The first revolves around Simeon Collins, a young student who shares his initials with the author, and the washed-up, world-weary older friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin. The book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit and snot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages.

Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5,000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. Simeon composes a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw.”

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers are here in name or spirit, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that the first character to appear has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than its fanciful cast come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue is often pitch-perfect and Coll (pictured) displays an emotional intelligence beyond his years: the unflinching, compassionate depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone, but the default mode is mock-heroic, with the quixotic cast out of place in a hastily delineated contemporary Ireland: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” and the 2008 recession.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Nearly all the characters are male and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse?

samcoll2

Here is a longer, slightly different version:

We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoe-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages of scatological high jinks and coruscating wit. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College — a mere 20 years old — when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to synopsize: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected. For what it is worth, there are two main plot lines. The first one revolves around a young student, Simeon Collins, his sentimental travails, and his father’s washed-up, world-weary friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin, and Elijah, who, like one of the author’s nested narratives, takes up abode in a deceased character’s body from which it emits gnomic utterances. But the book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares (most of the animals can speak) who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales. It even includes a donkey called Balthazar (as in Bresson’s classic) who — “or so he claimed” — was a film star in a previous life.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is quite apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit, snot and whatnot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages. Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique from the aforementioned wisecracking ass: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. A bookmark on page 390 in Arsene O’Colla’s copy of Swann in Love proves “how far he got” in Proust’s oeuvre and, crucially, “from whence he never proceeded”. Simeon Collins (whose initials are also the author’s) starts off composing a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw”.

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond, are here, in name or spirit. One thinks of Albert Potter’s dingy subterranean flat, in the novel, where books “copulate and fecundate, book begetting book”. Detailed descriptions of photographs open up new vistas; worlds within worlds. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that Martin Graves (the first character to appear) has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than the fanciful characters come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue — “You’re not, no, are you not, yeah” — is often pitch-perfect. Despite his youth, Sam Coll displays an emotional intelligence far beyond his years. His unflinching, albeit compassionate, depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone (as well as point of view) but the default mode is mock-heroic. When the Mad Monk asks for directions, bemused passersby fail to comprehend the “antique cast in which he couched his query”. The Irish-American Tadgh O’Mara spurns his “own accursed tongue” in favour of bookish Gaelic gibberish. As a result, the poetry he produces is “like reading a dictionary of the most obscure Irishness that had been spliced all out of order”. The implicit critique of the “impoverished idiom” of our age is part of the characters’ quixotic cast. For various reasons, they feel out of place in contemporary Ireland, which is hastily delineated: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” (that “can’t be beat”) and the 2008 recession.

Like most great works, The Abode of Fancy comes equipped with its own critical apparatus. The description of the Mad Monk’s doggerel as a “happy fusion of Sterne and Yeats, two names one would not have suspected of ever being conducive to successful welding” provides a fitting definition of the novel itself. A mock-Yeatsian mythology runs parallel to, and gradually merges with, the disenchanted world of piss artistry and unrequited love embodied by Simeon and his entourage.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Barring a couple of exceptions, the characters are all male to a man and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Sam Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse? And will he micturate against the wall whilst whistling a jaunty Celtic ditty?

A Quest for the Quotidian

An extract from my review of Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond was quoted in Guardian Australia‘s “December literary picks” published on 10 December 2016:

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Picador)

Guardian reviewer Andrew Gallix wrote of this collection of 20 stories:

Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the “savage swarming magic” the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her “mind in motion” … One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator — whose brain and body we inhabit — yet how little we know about her. We don’t even learn her name …

What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world. Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous, quality through the examination of what Emerson called “the low, the common, the near” or the exploration of Georges Perec’s “infra-ordinary” — a quest for the quotidian.”
pondaustralia

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 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

A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

This appeared in The Irish Times (Weekend Review) 8 October 2016: 10.

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

Grand Hotel Abyss is a towering work of staggering scholarship. It is so comprehensive that even its own existence falls within its purview. Stuart Jeffries, a former Guardian arts editor, reflects, in the closing pages, on the “mini-boom in popularising critical theory books” — a “perverse consequence of the global capitalist crisis” — comprising “graphic guides, dictionaries, perhaps even this book”.

It is as if his magnum opus were enacting one of the Frankfurt School’s central tenets: the absence of any external perspective from which to critique the system. “There is,” lamented Theodor Adorno, “no exit from the entanglement” — a maxim that also applies to these thinkers’ pervasive influence and, dare I say, aura. Those whom Bertolt Brecht dismissed as the “Frankfurturists” are now an integral part of our theoretical make-up, whether we agree with them or not.

Jeffries should be applauded for sticking to a broadly chronological narrative rather than experimenting with Walter Benjamin’s rather baffling “dialectical image”. His engagement with these thinkers’ ideas is, contrarily, very much in keeping with the Frankfurt School ethos.

He counters Benjamin’s technological utopianism by stating that “one could also argue the opposite” and reminds Adorno, beyond the grave, that Germany was first defeated by “Soviet totalitarianism”, not by a “more advanced form of capitalism”.

Jeffries is unafraid of giving voice to common sense — “isn’t it ludicrous to compare the Third Reich to Hollywood?” — or being didactic when needs be: apropos of Adorno’s constellation theory of knowledge he writes, “This is all quite tough stuff and, even for adepts of critical theory, hard to swallow.”

Unexpected humour
Humour (“to get dialectical for a moment”) is one of the most unexpected facets of this book devoted to hard-core German intellectuals. Benjamin’s somewhat ludicrous resemblance to Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin is remarked on, and a quotation from his Neapolitan peregrinations elicits the following gloss: “It’s hard to tell in this passage whether Walter Benjamin is being given directions or being propositioned. Either way, he seems to like it.” And Herbert Marcuse’s meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre (above) at La Coupole is recounted in hilarious detail.

His “group biography” is an intellectual saga. Readers looking for upskirt pictures of Hannah Arendt will be sorely disappointed: titillation in these rarefied climes is of a purely cerebral nature. The infamous Busenaktion of 1969, when Adorno was surrounded by three female students who “bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him”, barely raises an eyebrow. A benign, possibly enviable form of protest to be faced with, in theory, but one that proved profoundly hurtful in praxis.

Commendably, Jeffries only ever adduces private matters to highlight glaring discrepancies between rhetoric and reality. A prime example is the highly conventional lifestyle led by Marcuse, despite publishing works “indicting bourgeois repression”.

The New Left darling’s fondness for a stuffed hippo is as close as we get to tittle-tattle. Yet even this cuddly-toy fetish proves significant, highlighting how some of the last century’s finest minds were also overgrown children. Incapable of making himself a cup of coffee, Benjamin was bankrolled by his parents until “well into his thirties”. Marcuse could neither cook nor drive. Adorno is described as a “child prodigy who never grew up (because he didn’t have to)”. Few of them did, given their wealthy backgrounds and the women — conspicuous by their absence at the Institute for Social Research, to give the Frankfurt School its proper name — who waited on them at home. Practice was never the school’s forte; nor, to be fair, was it ever meant to be.

Although ostensibly Marxist, the institute was founded, at Goethe University in 1924, not to promote revolution but to analyse its failure. Focus on the ill-fated Spartacist uprising soon shifted to understanding the triumph of Nazism — which led the scholars into exile — and Germany’s postwar “psychopathology of denial”.

Capitalism had moved on since Marx. It was no longer a mere mode of production but an entire superstructure, encompassing the mass media and show business, geared towards concealing its exploitative nature. As Marcuse astutely observed, anticipating today’s ludic work environment, “the pleasure principle had absorbed the reality principle”.

Under the aegis of Max Horkheimer, who became its director in 1931, the institute took a “multidisciplinary turn” so as to embrace all aspects of this complex system, thus giving birth to critical theory. Such hybrid studies conducted “at the trough of mass culture” would indicate, contra Marx, that the proletarian revolution was not inevitable. As a result the Frankfurt School became “modern-day monks working in retreat from a world they could not change”.

Adorno and Horkheimer jettisoned the Enlightenment’s legacy, arguing that reason had become an instrument of oppression rather than emancipation (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944). They did so, in brilliantly paradoxical style, by taking “the corpse of reason” and making it “speak of the circumstances of its own death”.

In Negative Dialectics (1966) Adorno went on, quite logically, to reject Hegel and Marx’s “conception of history as moving dialectically towards a happy ending”. If the Holocaust had produced a “new categorical imperative” — that is, ensuring it never repeated itself — revolution was perhaps no longer even desirable. He sought utopia through art that was at odds with the affirmative culture that had done “little more than supply a soundtrack to mass murder”: art that could express “the truth of suffering ‘in an age of indescribable horror'” by daring to be radically negative.

It is this embrace of negativity that is so bracing to some and frustrating to others, even within the school.

During the 1960s student protests, change was deemed possible by Marcuse, who embodied a sunnier, Californian take on critical theory. The institute’s “late ethos” is likewise predicated on the feasibility of “ameliorating the conditions of capitalism and liberal democracy”.

Yet Café Marx, as it used to be called derisively, remains tainted by Georg Lukács’s quip that these representatives of the chattering classes — branded traitors by Brecht — had holed themselves up in a beautiful hotel “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”.

There is a great deal of wisdom, however, in Adorno’s suspicion of revolutionary students’ “aversion to introspection”, which he had already observed in the dark days of Nazism. “I established a theoretical model of thought,” he told an interviewer in 1969. “How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails!”

There is also a great deal of hope in his belief that “whoever thinks offers resistance”.

At its best the Frankfurt School was always a think tank — in the armoured-fighting-vehicle sense of the word.

irishtimes
grandhotelabyss

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. …