La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away

[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.

The Young Parisians

This appeared in the summer 2010 issue of Nude Magazine (issue 16, pp. 40-43):

The Young Parisians

Why don’t you come to Paris with me?
And see the young Parisians’
– “Young Parisians” by Adam and the Ants

‘There’s something very un-British about electronic music,’ says Daniel Miller — founder of Mute Records — in BBC Four’s excellent Synth Britannia documentary. By ‘very un-British’ he means très European — German, of course, but also French. Lest we forget, musique concrète composers like Pierre Schaeffer began their sonic experiments before Stockhausen. Most Continentals in the late 70s were first introduced to synthesizers via Jean-Michel Jarre not Kraftwerk. Métal Urbain — France’s answer to the Sex Pistols — produced their scuzzy rabble-rousing pogobeat on custom-made imitation Moogs at a time when electronic instruments were still usually associated with prog rock dinosaurs. The strong French presence on Angular Records’ recent Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics compilation was generally met with dismay by British music journalists who were blissfully unaware of the existence of a thriving post-punk scene across the Channel (Indochine, a synthpop outfit in the Depeche mode, even became France’s biggest band at one point). Whereas Gallic guitar combos have always been viewed — rightly or wrongly — as derivative vis-à-vis their Anglo-American counterparts, the synth-driven ‘French Touch’ sound was successfully exported ‘around the world’ at the turn of the century. The missing link between the early 80s and late 90s was Denis Quillard, better known as Jacno, who died in November last year at the age of 52 having cemented his country’s love affair with electronic minimalism.

There are times when the past, present and future seem to collide, and one such occasion occured on 9 February 1977 when Jacno’s band, the Stinky Toys, were invited to a music press junket aboard the eponymous Trans Europe Express coinciding with the release of Kraftwerk’s album. Having a reputation to maintain as the enfants terribles of the local punk scene, the Toys went off the rails, much to the amusement of their more sedate German hosts. Legend has it that singer Elli Medeiros was sick all over the boss of EMI France, who subsequently refused to sign the band to his label and even tried to get them blacklisted. Jacno, however, had caught a glimpse of his musical future. As fate would have it, the train was bound for the Champagne region where he was buried some thirty years later in the vicinity of his family’s impressive country pile.

With his angelic features and slicked-back hair, the young Jacno bore a striking resemblance to David Bowie circa 1976. Throughout his short life he felt like a man who had fallen to earth, often describing himself as a ‘Martian’. Significantly, one of his more recent solo efforts was entitled ‘Je viens d’ailleurs’: ‘I Come From Elsewhere’. There was something of the Byronic noble bandit about him, which — along with a deep-rooted anglophobia — was in fact very much part of his vieille France DNA. The Stinky Toys’ tipple of choice was famously one of the cheapest brands of lager on the French market (Valstar), but Jacno soon reverted to type after the band broke up, making a point of only ever getting rat-arsed on the finest of vintages. In the early days, he always sported a fleur-de-lis on the lapel of his leather jacket — a symbol of the French monarchy frequently associated with the far right. This gesture was interpreted at the time as a typically punk shock tactic, but it was really Jacno’s private homage to his eccentric royalist grandfather from whom he inherited an aristocratic disdain for work and a militant nonconformism which set him aside from the herd mentality of a movement he never really belonged to. His ancestry also included several artists whose works are exhibited in the Louvre as well as one of the four generals who organised the failed Algiers putsch of 1961 designed to overthrow President de Gaulle. When his record company refused to bring out his first solo record or release him from his contract, Jacno sent the CEO a picture of old Uncle Zeller with a caption warning him that his factory was going to be blown up. Job done.

This quintessentially Gallic mixture of rebellion and tradition explains why Jacno is so often lost in translation. He belongs to a long line of elegantly wasted rock dandies that includes the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Dutronc, Yves Adrien, Alain Pacadis, Patrick Eudeline and Daniel Darc (a book of interviews, published in 2006, was aptly entitled Itinerary of a Pop Dandy). Just as Jacno himself embodied early-80s ultra-modernity while whizzing around town on a vintage scooter looking like he had just stepped out of a Nouvelle Vague movie, his post-Stinky Toys compositions managed to capture the zeitgeist while harking back, in a knowing, postmodern way, to the saccharine yéyé pop of the early 60s. The repetitive, almost dirge-like minimalism of ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ (1979) — with its haunting, bittersweet Françoise Hardy-on-Prozac quality — perfectly illustrates this attempt to have your croissant and eat it. Whether in the past or the future, Jacno, it seems, was always elsewhere.

Along with New York and London, Paris was one of the three great centres of pre-punk activity, and France played an important part in shaping the punk template. Richard Hell’s spiky-haired wasted look was modelled on the fin-de-siècle poètes maudits. The ideological and aesthetic underpinnings of the Sex Pistols project came largely from the (chiefly French) Situationists. When the movement was still anonymous, the late Malcolm McLaren favoured calling it ‘New Wave’ in reference to the cinematic Nouvelle Vague — a monicker which ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers. As early as 1972, dandy rock critic Yves ‘Sweet Punk’ Adrien (as he already called himself) penned a proto-punk manifesto which was the journalistic equivalent of Lenny Kaye’s seminal Nuggets compilation, released the same year and available at L’Open Market, Marc Zermati’s legendary record shop where Jacno and all the future Parisian punks used to hang out. Zermati would go on to launch the very first punk label (Skydog Records) and festival (Mont-de-Marsan, 1976). Future Ze Records supremo Michel Esteban and his then partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux (who would also play a pivotal role in New York’s No Wave scene) launched a rival emporium (Harry Cover) within gobbing distance of L’Open Market, thus sealing Les Halles’ reputation as the epicentre of Parisian punk activity. It was there that Malcolm McLaren bumped into the Stinky Toys, was impressed by Elli’s creative use of safety pins, and invited the band to take part in the 100 Club punk festival where their presence gave an international dimension to the nascent movement.

Chain-smoking Jacno — whose soubriquet was a tribute to the designer of the Gauloises cigarettes logo — had met Uruguayan beauty Elli Medeiros during a student demonstration in 1973. With three schoolmates, they formed the Stinky Toys in early 76. The name was a reference to the Dinky Toys Jacno collected (he holds a model car on his first solo record) as well as to the New York Dolls. The 100 Club punk festival, where they played on the Clash’s equipment and were attacked by Sid Vicious, was their first real breakthrough. Elli subsequently made the cover of Melody Maker and record companies started showing interest. After signing to Polydor, they released a single in spring 1977 which received very mixed reviews. Their debut album, recorded in a mere five days in October, sold as many (or rather as few) copies as the Velvet Underground’s, as Jacno liked to point out. The band were dropped by their record company, releasing their second album — a colder, resolutely post-punk affair — on Vogue the following year. Torn between increasingly irreconcilable influences, the Toys disbanded shortly after an Altamont-style gig during which a fan was killed by rampaging Hell’s Angels.

So what had gone wrong with the local punk scene? Pretty much everything. The early bands suffered from the fact that rock’n’roll still wasn’t rooted in French culture. Rehearsal spaces were hard to come by and, apart from Le Gibus (where the Stinky Toys always refused to play), there were precious few gigging opportunities. As a result, the level of musicianship was often appalling, even by punk standards. Meanwhile, the provocative flirtation with Nazi imagery in some quarters didn’t go down well in a country which was still coming to terms with the Occupation. Punk’s anti-hippie stance also appeared a trifle superfluous given the enduring stigma attached to long hair. More crucially, the movement lacked any genuine social resonance. Singing about anarchy in front of a handful of junkies, socialites and fashionistas on loan from the local gay bars was unlikely to threaten the status quo. Essentially, this was a scene in search of an audience.

France’s pre-punk promise was only really fulfilled during the post-punk years. This is when Jacno finally came into his own. He had, of course, already achieved minor cult status as a member of the Stinky Toys. He had been courted by Andy Warhol, who famously painted his portrait on a restaurant tablecloth using a make-up kit, and there were persistent rumours that the French lyrics added to Blondie’s version of ‘Denis’ (Jacno’s real name) were in fact addressed to him. In 1980, he became the figurehead of the Jeunes Gens Modernes (‘Modern Young Things’), a label invented by Actuel magazine to refer to the rather elitist, very fashion-conscious post-punk scene revolving around clubs like Le Rose Bonbon (where Joy Division played). That year, Jacno recorded several electronic instrumentals with titles like ‘Rectangle,’ ‘Triangle’ and ‘Circle’ that seemed to conjure up unfamiliar Structuralist soundscapes. All the major record companies declared that releasing the 12-inch would be commercial suicide, so it eventually came out on a tiny indie label. Contrary to all expectations, the title track (‘Rectangle’) became an overnight success all over Europe, topping the French charts and ending up on a TV commercial for Nesquick. The music provided the soundtrack to Olivier Assayas’s first short film (Copyright) in which Elli Medeiros made her debut performance as an actress. Assayas also shot a video for ‘Rectangle’ which shows Jacno playing against the suitably angular, brutalist background of the La Défense area of Paris. The only track on the record that wasn’t an instrumental — the aforementioned ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ — was sung by Elli. It marked the beginning of Elli & Jacno who provided a blueprint for countless other synth-based duos like Soft Cell and Yazoo, and sold millions of records until they split up in 1984 having written the soundtrack to Eric Rohmer’s Les Nuits de la pleine lune.

Elli would go on to have a couple of massive solo hits in 86-87 before concentrating on her acting career and family life. She made a musical comeback in 2006. Jacno, meanwhile, released six solo albums and produced work by some of France’s greatest stars like Jacques Higelin or Etienne Daho, an early fan of the Stinky Toys. He will always be remembered, however, as the New Wave Erik Satie whose elegant electronic minuets (as Rohmer once described them) seemed to capture the essence of our adolescence. ‘True life,’ as Rimbaud once put it, ‘is elsewhere.’ That is, as ever, where Jacno is to be found.

****

Ten of the best first wave punk bands from over the Channel

Métal Urbain
Think Sex Pistols crossed with Suicide or Throbbing Gristle — or both. Hardcore political lyrics. Their second single was Rough Trade’s first release. Best track: ‘Panik’.

Asphalt Jungle
Fronted by dandy rock critic-cum-novelist Patrick Eudeline. Talked the talk but seldom walked the walk except on their third single, ‘Polly Magoo,’ which sounds like a gang of inebriated football hooligans rutting with Phil Spector. In a good way.

Starshooter
They hailed from Lyon, played a mean live set, had a sense of humour and were solidly working class unlike most of their bourgeois contemporaries. Good mates with the Damned. Listen to: ‘Macho’.

Marie et les Garçons
Also from Lyon. Heavily influenced by the NYC scene at first, then experimented with a disco crossover thang. Second single produced by John Cale. They had a female drummer (the eponymous Marie) who died in the 90s. Top track: ‘Re-Bop’.

Guilty Razors
Famous for singing in pigeon English (‘Provocate,’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’!). Two of their members were of Spanish origin. They were very close to the Slits. Check out: ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’.

Gazoline
Having been a failed teenybop heartthrob in the 60s, a failed glam rock star in the early 70s and a successful gay cabaret artist, Alain Kan reinvented himself as a punk rocker. His band was named after a group of militant drag queens from the early gay liberation days. Kan disappeared in 1990; no one has seen or heard from him since. Gazoline’s second single is arguably one of the most convincing punk records to ever come out of France. Best track: ‘Radio flic’.

Les Olivensteins
Started later than most of the others and paved the way for the hardcore of the early 80s (Oberkampf, Bérurier Noir et al.). One of their most provocative lyrics described the Vichy regime as the good old days. Their name came from a psychiatrist famous for his anti-drugs crusade. Like Sham 69, they ended up attracting the wrong element and split up. Top track: ‘Fier de ne rien faire’.

1984
On paper, a kind of dystopian Clash but never fulfilled their promise. Listen to: ‘Salted City’.

Les Lou’s
All-girl band managed at one stage by Bernie Rhodes. Highlight: ‘Back on the Street’.

Electric Callas
A flamboyant Bowie/Iggy fanatic from Lyon backed by a dizzying array of line-up changes. Check out: ‘Kill Me Two Times’.

Disappear Here

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Here is Darran Anderson‘s recent article about writers’ disappearing acts:

Darran Anderson, “The Indian Rope Trick,” 3:AM Magazine 9 August 2009

October 1849. A dishevelled and incoherent bedlamite was found in some distress outside Ryan’s Tavern, a Baltimore drinking hole popular with corrupt canvassers and men of idle personage. He was wearing a variety of clothes seemingly assembled with scant regard to fitting or style; a palm leaf hat, a soiled silk coat and a battered pair of shoes. His hair was standing on end and his face smeared with dirt. Though presumed half-demented with drink, no traces of alcohol could be smelt or discerned on his person. This was no standard vagabond or panhandler. Instead, he was soon identified as no less than Edgar Allan Poe, poet, essayist and master of the macabre. His previous whereabouts were unknown. He’d simply vanished and reappeared, mysteriously afflicted and wearing the clothes of a stranger.

Whisked away to a sanatorium by friends, the writer’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Though he had been depressed and had taken to the drink following the death of his young wife (and cousin) Virginia Clemm, he had since cleaned himself up, joined an abstinence society and was working extensively on plans to launch his own periodical. The week previous, he had routinely left Virginia to travel back to New York City. What happened in those intervening days has never been revealed. In the hospital, the bedridden writer ranted and raved, slipping in and out of consciousness. He called out to his dead wife and an unknown “Reynolds” and begged those by his bedside to let him die. Finally in the early hours of the morning, without revealing what had happened to him, he gasped, “Lord, help my poor soul” and passed away. Faced with a vacuum that no rational explanation could fill, his close associates turned to fiction. His last panic-stricken words were altered to something more suitably lofty and erudite, in this case the following abomination; “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being and upon demons incarnate.” His death certificate was soon mislaid leading to speculation as to his cause of death, running the full spectrum of diseases and syndromes; epilepsy, diabetes, stroke, cholera, syphilis. When they ran out of genuine medical maladies, the gossip-mongers invented some of their own (“brain congestion” being chief among them). Soon speculation took a darker turn with tales of poisoning, laudanum overdose (Poe was a known opiate user) and the DTs vying with reports he’d been kidnapped, robbed and drugged (two shadowy figures had been spotted following him in the vicinity of a train station). Given the ghoulish nature of his writing, there’s the constant hint of something diabolical at work. Poe had stared into the abyss for too long perhaps and one day the abyss had noticed him.

Disappearing is an act with its own bewildering history (or anti-history considering it is a litany of what we do not know and perhaps never will). In 1587, the New World pilgrims of the Roanoke Colony (over 100 souls in all), in what would later be named North Carolina, vanished into thin air leaving only the word “Croatoan” carved onto a tree. In 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered drifting in the Atlantic, a month after the brigantine had set off from New York for Genoa. Below decks, the ship’s cargo and cabins were relatively undisturbed but for the absence of her crew who were never seen again. In 1971, the bourbon-drinking hijacker D. B. Cooper leapt out of a Boeing 727 and into infamy with a parachute and a briefcase with $200,000 in ransom money. Entire regions of the planet have become feared for the prevalence of disappearances, as if some devilry were involved. Collectively known as the Vile Vortices, the Bermuda triangle in the Caribbean and the Devil’s Sea near Japan are the most notorious examples of the phenomenon. Some fates are more decipherable than others; the sailor Donald Crowhurst forging a circumnavigation around the planet descended into madness, writing hundreds of pages about time travel, God and the nature of being before stepping off his boat and into the sea whilst Amelia Earhart’s Electra vanished in the South Pacific with a final radio communication to their Howland Island destination, “We must be on you, but cannot see you — but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

Whilst it’s an occupational hazard for explorers to go missing, it’s surprising how many writers have gone forth to the great unknown. These days we’re largely used to writers as bourgeois academics writing stories about English teachers having affairs with students or the existential crisis of marriages set in second homes in Tuscany with deceptively enigmatic titles (The Bible of Forgetting, The Ironsmith’s Daughter ad nauseum). But what of the fuck-ups, those who struck out and never returned or simply had enough? The destructive impulse is passé, the stuff of adolescent folly and voyeurism goes the supposed consensus. And yet the literary past is littered with them, these missing in action. It’s not to gloat over nor celebrate nor condemn such lives in freefall rather it’s crucial to haul back their works and lives from the void. And while the mythology of self-destruction may seem old hat, it still exerts its magnetism; there is still always a voice in your head that cannot resist wondering where they went and why and maybe there by the grace of god…

At the heart of every writer lies a paradox. Whereas the other art-forms (music, theatre and film in particular) have a natural communal element, writing necessitates a monkish solitude but also a desperate clawing desire for recognition. The turbulence between these two states is the stuff that can make or break a person. Added to this are life’s natural disasters and the neuroses/bohemianism of creative types which have blazed a trail of glory and destruction from John Clare through Sylvia Plath and d.a. levy to David Foster Wallace. Whereas every successful writer’s path is more or less the same, every doomed one has a unique tale to tell.

Take Hart Crane for example; an American poet still ludicrously underrated, who in hindsight stands as a kind of bridge between Walt Whitman’s world and that of the Beats, who rhapsodised about the fledgling New York cityscape the way the Romantics had about the Lake District, a man who for all his troubles (and there were few more troubled than Crane, wracked by drink and sexual guilt) was perhaps the very first to decipher the magic in the streets and skyscrapers and technology of the new age of modernity and describe it in a unique veiled even arcane language all of his own (elevators that “drop us from our day,” cinemas that were “panoramic sleights,” traffic lights “that skim thy swift / unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,” a city with its “fiery parcels all undone, Already snow submerges an iron year”). Yet none of these factors were to save him when, wearing his pyjamas, he clambered over the railings of the SS Orizaba, midway between Cuba and Florida, having been spurned in his amorous drink-sodden advances to the sailors below decks and then robbed for his troubles, and leapt into the ocean. He was last seen swimming for the horizon.

Whereas Crane’s end, for all its sadness, had an anger and near-defiance to it (after all he swam away rather than sank), the last act of Lew Welch was a more resigned even contemplative affair. A member of the Beat Generation, the Arizona-born poet was enraptured with nature, in contrast to Crane, viewing the city as a monstrous thing. Embracing rural life, he gave up his advertising career, after spells travelling with Jack Kerouac (appearing in Big Sur as the hard-drinking Dave Wain) and working as a taxi driver in San Francisco. He sought to make a living as a fisherman, spent time on communes and wrote elegiac Thoreau-influenced naturalist verse (Ring of Bone being the most definitive collection). On the 23rd of May 1971, struggling with alcoholism and despondent over a failed relationship (he had had several nervous breakdowns in the preceding decades), he took his rifle, walked into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and out of existence, leaving a note to his friend the poet Gary Snyder that reads in part, “I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying my friends. I can’t make anything out of it — never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone… I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.” Today, when he is remembered it’s as the most mysterious of all the Beats, giving his works the vital resonance of a rare and cherished relic in contrast to the over-exposed works of his comrades.

Similarly neglected but just as gifted, the poet Weldon Kees parked his car by the mist-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 1955 and exited history. The dapper Nebraskan had wowed New York’s literary circles with his gentile poetry of the suburbs (his Robinson series of poems being his most acclaimed) in which devastating everyday encounters tap into the dark undercurrents of life; murder victims, decaying animals, moral corruption, all fuelled by the sense that no matter how respectable and refined a life, death still casts its inescapable shadow. A sense that the American Dream was but a delusion, the achievement of its goals a Pyrrhic victory. Gradually like some self-fulfilling prophecy, his life fell apart. He split up from his wife after she descended into drink-fuelled paranoid delusions and he struggled to find willing publishers. He disappeared with a sleeping bag, a watch and his wallet. Rumour has it, he resurfaced in Mexico. Given the Golden Gate Bridge’s notorious history as a suicide spot, reports of his reappearance seem like wishful thinking.

One character who did make it to Mexico was the writer Ambrose Bierce, creator of the glorious Devil’s Dictionary. A Civil War veteran, journalist and scourge of big business, Bierce chose at the sprightly age of 71 to enjoy his retirement not by gardening or playing bowls but by crossing the border, gun in hand, and joining the rebel army of Pancho Villa. He sent one final letter to his niece which read in part, “Goodbye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a gringo in Mexico ah, that is euthanasia… I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios, Ambrose.” Bierce’s life and subsequent vanishing in the tumult of the Mexican revolution makes a fantastic story in the true sense of the word yet it also points out the danger in romanticising the fates of those who disappear. In absence of facts and explanations, their fates become infinite, subject to limitless speculation which may seem irresistible for the fan or casual observer but is unimaginably horrifying for the loved ones they leave behind. Whilst we envisage all manner of fantastical stories, they are left with untold horrors.

Sometimes the riddle of disappearance is solved. When her husband abruptly left her for his mistress in the winter of 1926, Agatha Christie went AWOL, provoking a nationwide twitching of curtains amongst Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple fans across Middle England. She was discovered 11 days later, lodging at a hotel in Harrogate, under an assumed South African identity, suffering from amnesia and a suspected nervous breakdown (an episode she hastened to discuss).

Within the last ten years, the fate of the masterful French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince and Wind, Sand and Stars), who vanished flying a reconnaissance mission for the Free French airforce over the Mediterranean, has become slightly clearer with a fisherman discovering his ID bracelet and a diver locating his P-38 Lightning plane off the coast of Marseilles. Just last year, a former Luftwaffe fighter (and fan of the writer) Horst Rippert claimed he’d inadvertently shot down his hero in a dog-fight during the Second World War.

Rather than the traditional binary view of existence and identity, it’s clear there are vast shifting grey areas. Consider Arthur Rimbaud, “the savage of the Latin Quarter” and poetry’s great enfant terrible, who famously disappeared at least from Western eyes but in doing so appeared to African ones and whose later life became the stuff of rumour and myth (slavetrading, gunrunning, going Kurtz) to the extent it’s almost impossible to decipher the truth from the fiction. Or B Traven (of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre renown) who didn’t disappear but didn’t ever fully appear, remaining a curious cipher of a man whose true identity has never been established. Or M. Ageyev the Istanbul-based Russian emigre whose Novel with Cocaine became a literary sensation before he chose (or was forced) to disappear into obscurity (over sixty years later, his book was found in the abandoned hotel room of Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards after he’d gone missing). Or Oscar Acosta, the drug-crazed “300-pound Samoan” Dr Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas who was last seen boarding a coke-filled Mexican yacht with a number of extremely shady undesirables. Or Franz Kafka who on his deathbed instructed his friend Max Brod to incinerate his papers in an attempt to posthumously fade away (an instruction that thankfully Brod ignored, barely escaping Prague and the Nazi invasion with a suitcase filled with the writer’s then-unpublished works). J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon have so far successfully evaded the cynical all seeing eye of the modern world and it could be said that they just wish to be known (and unknown) on their own terms. It’s ironic that dodging the spotlight can make such writers all the more intriguing, the curious double bluff of fame; the more you hide, the more they (or we) want to uncover.

Of course the writers mentioned so far chose to disappear. There were many who had no choice in the matter. In totalitarian regimes, the first to go are nearly always the writers, being the conscience/trouble-makers of society (Lenin prophesised this murderous philistinism in a missive to the writer and Bolshevik Maxim Gorky when he castigated “the educated classes… who consider themselves the brains of the nation. In fact they are not its brains but its shit” and eerily warned him not to “waste yourself on the whining of decaying intellectuals”). It’s such a customary factor to dictatorships, this terrible need to silence, to make those who question disappear, that it becomes a noun: Zhen Fan in Maoist China, the Yezhovschina (“Yezhov’s Era”) in Stalinist Russia, the Nacht under Nebel (Night and Fog) of Nazi Germany, los desaparecidos under the right-wing juntas of South America. Some of the greatest cultural figures of theirs or any time (Osip Mandelstam, Robert Desnos, Bruno Schulz, Victor Jara, Sarah Powell, Jakob van Hoddis and on and on) were simply made to evaporate. “No man, no problem” in the words of Uncle Joe.

These are merely a few examples from the ones that we know. Then there are the writers whose names and works have been so deftly excised from history by their killers that we know nothing of them or their work. They die the first physical death but also a second death; that of forgetting which causes them to never have existed in the first place. The act of remembering thus becomes a revolutionary act, an act of defiance against the forces of death.

There is another more mundane but just as perilous a route to oblivion; that of sheer disinterest. Whether due to public taste (or lack of) or the woeful lack of vision of mainstream publishing houses, many writer’s legacies fall into disrepair or ebb away completely. Some are rescued by the admirable work of far-sighted publishers (Rebel Inc’s resurrection of Richard Brautigan and Sadegh Hedayat in the nineties for example or the recent Richard Yates revival) or by near acts of God (Janet Frame the great New Zealand novelist was only saved from a lobotomy by winning a literary prize). The question arises, who’s to save long neglected writers (say Delmore Schwartz, Chester Himes, Clarence Cooper Junior, Lola Ridge, Nathaniel West) from the death that is amnesia if not us? And to paraphrase that great architect of remembering the writer Primo Levi, if not now, when?