A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten


This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 26 February 2008:

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

Modernism’s strong, silent types not only redefined the purpose of literature – they saved on paper, too


“Neither am I,” quipped Peter Cook, when a fellow partygoer boasted that he was working on a novel. There is far more to this bon mot than meets the eye, as George Steiner‘s My Unwritten Books illustrates. In fact, the “non genre” lies at the very heart of literary modernity. Blaise Cendrars, for instance, toyed with the idea of a bibliography of unwritten works. Marcel Bénabou went one step further by publishing a provocative volume entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. In this manifesto of sorts, the anti-author argues that the books he has failed to write are not “pure nothingness”: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian library of phantom fictions. This is precisely what Steiner means when he states that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” But what prompts writers to withhold themselves at the conception?

Some say that everything has already been said (La Bruyère et al); others have spoken of the futility of writing in the shadow of Joyce (Sollers) or in the wake of the Holocaust (Adorno) and 9/11 (McInerney). At a more fundamental level, as Tom McCarthy recently reasserted, literature is “always premised on its own impossibility”. Kafka even went as far as to state that the “essential impossibility of writing” is the “only thing one can write about”. Or not. Taking their cue from Rousseau (“There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist”) the proponents of the “literature of the No” (or “workless artists” as Jean-Yves Jouannais calls them) prefer to abstain rather than run the risk of compromising their perfect vision. Written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter.

This sense of creative impotence stems in part from a dual historical process which deified authors while defying the very authority of their authorship. In Europe, writers and artists were called upon to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the growing secularisation of society. For a while, the alter deus stood above his handiwork, paring his fingernails, but then “I” — the “onlie begetter” — became another, the signifier dumped the signified, and it all went pear-shaped. To compound matters, the gradual relaxation of censorship laws proved that the unsayable remained as elusive as ever when everything could be said.

The realisation that, at best, writers could only hope to dress old words new and recreate what was already there led to a spate of literary eclipses. Hofmannstahl’s Lord Chandos, who renounces literature because language cannot “penetrate the innermost core of things”, epitomises this mute mutiny instigated (in real life) by Rimbaud. Wittgenstein would later insist that the most important part of his work was the one he had not written, presumably because it lay beyond his coda to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Keeping stum and tuning in to the roar on the other side of silence was a soft option. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov — who attempts to defeat God by desiring his own humanity and therefore his own mortality and death — heralded a wave of phantom scribes. Forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, writers such as Marcel Schwob came to the conclusion that the urge to destroy was also a creative urge — and perhaps the only truly human one.

Authors, of course, have always been tempted to destroy works which failed to meet their impossibly high standards (vide Virgil), but never before had auto-da-fé been so closely related to felo-de-se. The Baron of Teive (one of Pessoa‘s numerous heteronyms) destroys himself after destroying most of his manuscripts because of the impossibility of producing “superior art”. In Dadaist circles, suicide even came to be seen as a form of inverted transcendence, a rejection of the reality principle, an antidote to literary mystification as well as a fashion. “You’re just a bunch of poets and I’m on the side of death,” was Jacques Rigaut‘s parting shot to the Surrealists. Like him, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Danilo Kupus, Boris Poplavsky, Julien Torma and René Crevel all chose to make the ultimate artistic statement. The rest, of course, is silence.

Living Poetry


This appeared in the Guardian Books Blog on 25 September 2007:

Living Poetry

If you thought writing was a prerequisite for being a literary hero, think again.

Flaubert famously decreed that the successful author should “live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god”. The enduring appeal of the Beats lies, to a great extent, in the possibility they seemed to offer of living, as well as thinking, like demi-gods. On those grounds one could argue that Neal Cassady — who embodied the mad-to-live “essence of Beat” — was actually the most important creative force in the group, although he never published a single book during his lifetime. Along with Jacques Vaché and Arthur Cravan, he belongs to an unholy trinity of self-destructive, protean pranksters who burned like fabulous yellow roman candles as they turned their existence into poetry.

Vaché (1895-1919) was not simply a dandified anglophile who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. His actual military career, serving with the French army in the first world war, was rather less outwardly distinguished. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life by (as he put it) deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side.

It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform and threatening to shoot at random that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire‘s Les Mamelles de Tirésias on account of its arty-farty production. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose which may have been an accident, but is commonly interpreted as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. His stroke of genius, he maintained, was “to have produced nothing”.

Fabian Lloyd aka Arthur Cravan (1887-1918) put all his genius into his short life; he put only his talent (and a limited one at that) into his works. As David Lalé writes in the recently-published Last Stop Salina Cruz: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form”. Almost too bad to be true, he inspired Gide‘s Lafcadio — the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will — and kick-started the Dada insurrection when he crossed paths with Picabia in Spain.

After being expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher, Lloyd relocated to bohemian Paris where he adopted his pseudonym, partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and managed to become France’s heavyweight champion without fighting a single match. Never one to shy away from self-promotion, Cravan ruthlessly exploited his reputation as a pugilist poet (although his boxing was on a par with his writing skills) and got a lot of mileage out of being Oscar Wilde‘s nephew. His antics — including giving lectures during which he insulted, mooned and fired gunshots at the audience — led to rough justice at the hands of an angry mob of avant-garde painters as well as a duel challenge courtesy of poor old Apollinaire. Significantly enough, he printed his literary journal on wrapping paper from a butcher’s shop.

The onset of the war marked the beginning of a convoluted vanishing act that led him — in various guises — from Paris to Mexico where he disappeared at sea on a drunken boat of his own making. His body was never found. Cravan, the eponymous colossus of Mina Loy‘s novel, had always been larger than life; now, he had taken elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. For decades, he would continue to be spotted in different parts of the world. He is still at large.