Who Would Have These Bookshelves?

Review of Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach. The Stinging Fly, 27 May 2019.

Lines, and more generally the notion of linearity, play an important part in Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision, which is hardly surprising given the title of this singular masterpiece. In one chapter the railway lines in a movie run parallel to lines of mephedrone snorted off the cover of a Susan Sontag, themselves echoed, in a later piece, set in Paris, by lines of coke on a carefully selected Henry Miller paperback. There are also the blurred lines between the two Goncourt brothers, whose voices merged in their journal to the point of being indistinguishable (until Jules started dying, that is). The most striking example is provided by the closing essay — the only one not to be primly justified — where the text erodes away, as though gradually swallowed up by negative space. Eventually a thin vertical line is all that remains in the middle of the last pages, mimicking the skyscraper the narrator has been observing and finally enacting the eponymous tunnel vision.

This bravura piece owes its name — ‘Cracking Up’ — not only to the breakdown of sorts Breathnach was experiencing, but also to a Mondrian that caught his attention, at the time, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia. What he focuses on in this painting is the ‘off-whiteness’ of the white, ‘shot through with cracks’ — the kind of palimpsestic blankness exemplified (although it would be too obvious to point out) by Erased de Kooning Drawing. Elsewhere in the book, an overexposed window in a photograph by Stephen Shore is described in terms reminiscent of a Rauschenberg monochrome: ‘Whatever went on outside in Idaho that day has been effaced by that white abstract panel of light with a claim on the spiritual’. ‘Closer Still’ features four reproductions of Elizabeth and I, a picture that André Kertész cropped in radically different ways. Or rather it does not: the actual portrait never appears owing to copyright issues. Instead, the four versions are illustrated by black squares of varying sizes, highlighting the cropping process, but also, inevitably, conjuring up Malevich. As Breathnach puts it in ‘Death Cycles’ (quoting without naming, thus simultaneously invoking and erasing, another writer) ‘erasure is never anything more than a particularly profound form of preservation’. This oscillation between inscription and effacement — permanence and flux, figuration and abstraction, totality and fragment, long take and montage, not to mention pedantry and profundity — lies at the heart of Tunnel Vision.

Horizontality and verticality too, with the text a battleground between the two. The lines I found most puzzling, causing me to retrace my steps on several occasions to check if they had not changed position, appear (conspicuously enough) at the beginning of the first essay. Breathnach is describing Berenice Abbott’s Self-portrait with a Large-format Camera (1926) in beautifully granular detail: ‘The geometry of her cardigan is echoed in the ridges of the open door behind her, while the busy horizontal lines of her skirt rhyme with the camera’s bellows, that accordion-like box between the lens and viewfinder, which enables the lens to be moved with respect to the focal plane — for focusing’. The emphasis on the latter word is ironic, however, as the busy horizontal pleats on Abbott’s skirt are very much vertical. The reader (and indeed author) need only refer back to the picture reproduced two pages prior (or any other pleated skirt for that matter) to see that this is patently so. I find it difficult to countenance that such a meticulous writer — who, of his own admission, was once given to underlining in red ink the ‘errors of grammar, judgement and tone’ perpetrated by ‘a particular Irish Times literary critic’ — could have overlooked this error, however insignificant it may be. Whether deliberate or not, Breathnach’s misreading of the skirt is a synecdoche of Man Ray’s misprision of Abbott herself (as a mere assistant and ‘fetish object’ despite her obvious talent and subversion of gender stereotypes). It also acts as a nice little estrangement effect, which I like to think was planted there quite on purpose.

*

Tunnel Vision never coincides with itself: it is always somewhat distanced through reflexivity or dispersal (just as the narrative voice undermines itself through self-deprecation). Chapter titles, for instance, appear in fancy square brackets. The rationale behind this idiosyncratic presentation becomes clear in an essay called ‘[Square Brackets]’ (literally, a mise-en-abyme squared) where we learn that David Rieff used these symbols to embed his editorial notes within the text of Susan Sontag’s journal. Their presence, here, signals that Tunnel Vision comes ready equipped with editorial notes: it is a book and its own exegesis rolled into one. This is exemplified by the ‘editorialising effect’ Joan — one of several girlfriends — has on Breathnach, prompting him to redact from recurring anecdotes whatever elements did not meet with her approval on first airing: ‘I was never conscious of what I would not say until I heard myself not say it’. The entire work retains a similar air of provisionality due, in part, to its confessional tenor — its Augustinian quality. Assumptions are made, often as a result of cultural pretensions, which later turn out to be totally erroneous (the Telefonicà skyscraper bears no relation to art nouveau; the foundations of the Ehrentempel were never demolished; Shakespeare and Company’s well-furnished essay section contains no glaring omissions). All manner of sins are depicted in these pages, but they are redeemed by virtue of being confessed, so that two realities end up coexisting duckrabbit-fashion. Breathnach both is and is not a compulsive liar and pedant addicted to drugs and pornography, in the same way that Proust’s work can only be narrated by a reformed snob. The Breathnachian narrator is, crucially, an accomplished writer, whereas his younger iteration lies about being hard at work on a novel (‘I didn’t even have an idea for one’) and struggles to complete a simple email.

Self-dispersal often takes the shape of duplication. In Madrid, which is described as another Paris, the author is constantly mistaken for a British or American citizen when in fact he is, of course, Irish. The Spanish capital becomes the stage for a re-enactment of the most famous passage in Leaving the Atocha Station. At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s celebrated debut, the protagonist (whose mythomania and cultural posturing mark him out as a forerunner of Breathnach’s textual avatar) fails to experience the anticipated rapture in front of a painting in the Prado. Something very similar happens — or fails to happen — here in the selfsame museum, where Breathnach seeks out the work of Ribera precisely because it ‘seemed charged with the kind of dramatic intensity [he] usually had trouble identifying in Old Masters without first being directed to it’.

In ‘Death Cycles’, where he pays homage to his great-uncle — Liam Whelan, one of the eight Manchester United players who perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster — everything seems to be a simulacrum of something else. The German city is a ‘reproduction’ of its antebellum incarnation. There are two accidents, two memorials and even two footballers. Breathnach — who, I hasten to add, has the good taste to be a City supporter — was once groomed to follow in his late relative’s footsteps: ‘I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan’. It is almost as though the author were exploring the road not taken; visiting an alternative version of himself in some parallel universe.

There are many other instances where I is another. When reading out loud a message he has painstakingly drafted, Breathnach realises all of a sudden that he is channelling his ‘father’s reading voice’. At the cinema, he observes himself as though he were ‘some hypercritical version’ of Eleanor, who is sitting right next to him. In the last pages of ‘Veronica’, ‘you’ seems to refer to Colette and ‘I’ to the narrator until ‘I’ reminisces about ‘you’ being caught short on a coach trip, ending up ‘with the bottle-neck wrapped so tightly around your dick’ that ‘the piss just wouldn’t flow’. Either some hitherto undisclosed information about Colette has just been revealed in passing (and indeed pissing) or pronouns and identities have shifted along the way to the point of undecidability.

The author’s observation that the ‘first-person speaker grows increasingly unstable and fragmented’ is made apropos of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, but he could just as well be talking about his own work — which, no doubt, he is. The subjectivity on display in Tunnel Vision is so tentative and malleable that it always requires an audience. In Madrid, for instance, he wanders through sundry ‘major cultural institutions’ in a manner ‘somehow faintly suggestive of sex having already taken place’. He spends a great deal of time in Café Commercial ‘trying discreetly to be observed, reading books, large ones, held at such an angle as to place the title in clear view’. In church, he smiles ‘a private smile, intended to be seen’ before performing — for the sole benefit of a student of his he has spotted and is feigning to ignore — a hilarious ‘looped montage of strange facial tics and expressions’.

Roland Barthes’s theory, Breathnach reminds us, is that the writer’s journal fell out of fashion at the time of the nouveau roman ‘because the “I” no longer recognised itself as a stable and singular entity’. Paradoxically enough, it is probably for the very same reason that autofiction and essayism are flourishing today. As Rachel Cusk put it, ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts’ — a process that Barthes was actually instrumental in initiating. With its blend of memoir and criticism, Tunnel Vision is an attempt at producing a self-portrait through the study of self-portraiture, so that what we end up with is the portrait of a self-portrait. From this perspective it is reminiscent of the aforementioned Berenice Abbott picture, which turns out to be a portrait masquerading as a self-portrait. What it resembles most, however, is the glass skyscraper, described at the beginning of the book, which is ‘camouflaged by the surroundings reflected on its mirrored façade’. Part of Breathnach’s self-portrait is indeed hiding in plain sight; concealed by all the quotations that are an integral part of the work rather than mere adornments. This is particularly the case throughout ‘But I Did That to Myself’, where a lengthy excerpt from Malina on the verso is mirrored by the author’s own presentation of Bachmann’s novel on the recto. By curating this personal canon — which also includes the likes of Walter Benjamin, Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector, Stéphane Mallarmé, Robert Bresson, Claudia Rankine and Thomas Mann — Breathnach is placing himself within a lineage; constructing a ‘cultural identity’ for himself. Although he claims to be someone ‘whose sense of identity and self-worth has for years been grounded in the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture’, he is in fact rewriting these authors’ works within the text of his own life. What he is showing off is not so much that he has read all these books, but rather how they have read him.

*

Perhaps what Tunnel Vision really aspires to be is a self-portrait without a self. The second essay — ‘Tunnel Vision’ justement — hints at this latent desire for unselfing. It revolves around Train Ride Bergen to Oslo, a Norwegian movie consisting of ‘a single shot filmed on a camera inside the driver’s cabin of the no. 602 to Oslo, inhabiting a train’s-eye view for all seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirteen seconds of its running time’. Through this ‘train’s-eye view’ the spectator ‘is given to identify with a subjectless gaze’. Similarly, in a quote which closes the ‘Shape of Silence’ chapter, Lynne Tillman casts Peter Shore’s Uncommon Places as a visual memoir that dispenses with all traces of interiority: ‘That kind of journal is similar to displaying the contents of a refrigerator. The question occurs: who would have this refrigerator?’ Which, in turn, begs the question: who would have these bookshelves?

Colette, we learn, keeps an old Libertines poster on her bedroom door as a ‘token of nostalgia’ — which goes to show how much of a young person’s book Tunnel Vision is, with its sex, drugs, travelling and millennial nostalgia for the early noughties. Significantly, it is a young person’s book that refuses to come of age; a book that wants to begin and only begin, ‘like a painter’s eternally fresh canvas’ (a Robert Bresson quote used as an epigraph). When the narrator turbocharges his sex life with mephedrone, he confesses: ‘It was not an orgasm I was seeking, but the continued build-up to one’. Under the influence of this stimulant, he pleasures himself ‘in fragments’ — Colette having become largely surplus to requirements — watching, in succession, a virtually identical ‘titfucking’ scene from up to ten different films all opened in different tabs on his computer. The revelation that the beginning of one of the essays was deliberately misleading is followed by the following flippant remark: ‘So chalk up my introduction as a false start if you like’. Tunnel Vision — which is divided into three parts, each containing three chapters — is introduced by three prefaces entitled, somewhat provocatively, ‘Not I’, ‘Not II’ and ‘Not III’. These ‘false starts’ are akin to a musical overture containing themes that will be developed later. They are also reminiscent of Berenice Abbott’s ‘false exposures’: in order to put people at ease, the photographer would begin sessions by taking a few pictures without any plates in her camera. A self without a portrait; a portrait without a self: Breathnach’s work hesitates between the two.

Like Eleanor’s smile, Tunnel Vision always strives to look as though it means something else. It is a book without qualities that comes in flat-pack form, refuses to settle into a definite shape and shuns univocal meaning. It begins with the evocation of a gigantic bust of Karl Marx that was disassembled into ninety-five pieces, in 1971, and transported from the Soviet Union to East Germany, where it was put back together again. ‘Considered alone,’ the author muses, ‘how many of these parts were recognisable as Marx?’ This is precisely the question that hovers over his own text, in the making of which he unmakes himself, resurfacing in disseminated form (to paraphrase Barthes). This is what the author admires in the Mondrian and what the reader will admire in the author: ‘I liked the strict division of parts and the way these parts seemed to balance, without me knowing how or why’.

Secondhand Avant Garde

Geoff Dyer, “‘Based On a True Story’: The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction,” The Observer 6 December 2015

The dizziness occasioned by WG Sebald lay in the way that we really didn’t know quite what we were reading. To adapt a line of Clint Eastwood’s from Coogan’s Bluff, we didn’t know what was happening — even as it was happening to us. That mesmeric uncertainty has diminished slightly since the Sebald software has, as it were, been made available for free download by numerous acolytes, but a similar categorical refusal informs Ben Lerner’s 10.04, “a work,” as his narrator puts it, “that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”. The flicker is sustained on an epic scale — in a thoroughly domestic sort of way — by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. A side-effect or aftershock of Knausgaard’s seismic shakeup was to make us realise how thoroughly bored we had become by plot. Rachel Cusk addressed and exploited this in her wonderfully plotless novel Outline, which was shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize.

Seeking to reward innovation and experimentation, this prize is a good and timely thing — but it’s unfortunate that it’s limited to fiction. While last year’s Samuel Johnson prize went to Helen Macdonald for her beautifully novel H Is for Hawk, much so-called experimental fiction comes in the tried-and-tested form of the sub-species of historical novel known as modernist. Had they been LPs rather than books, several contenders for last year’s Goldsmiths prize could have joined Will Self’s Shark in that oxymoronic section of Ray’s Jazz Shop: “secondhand avant garde”.

My Virtual Novel Was Worth More Than My Actual Novel

Ben Lerner, 10:04, 2014

“Well, your first book was unconventional but really well received. What they’re buying when they buy the proposal is in part the idea that your next book is going to be a little more … mainstream. I’m not saying they’ll reject what you submit, although that’s always possible; I’m saying it may have been easier to auction the idea of your next book whatever you actually draft.”

I loved this idea: my virtual novel was worth more than my actual novel.

Writing as a Form of Displacement

Ben Lerner, Interview by Max Liu, frieze 16 March 2015

I always have to claim not to be doing something in order to do it. . . . You don’t always write what you set out to write, so writing can be a form of displacement.

. . . As a poet, I also ask myself how silence informs words. How is silence felt? How is negative space activated in a poem? So, in both my fiction and my poetry, I’m exploring the ways in which an absence can be felt as a presence.

Impossible to Describe

Parul Sehgal, “Drawing Words From the Well of Art,” The New York Times 22 August 2014

. . . The painting Mr. Lerner, 35, had come to see is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Joan of Arc,” which depicts Joan swooning as she hears the call to battle. It’s something of a famous failure, but Mr. Lerner loves its flaws: “I like paintings that depict what paintings can’t depict, like hearing voices.” He said that the “glitches in the pictorial matrix” in this otherwise naturalistic painting — the cartoonish angels, the way Joan’s left hand dissolves into the paint — inspired his new novel’s questions about how artists render phenomena that seem impossible to describe: the passage of time, the texture of consciousness.

“What interests me about fiction,” he said, “is, in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”

A Fictional Farewell to Literature

Ben Lerner, “Each Cornflake,” London Review of Books 22 May 2014 (pp. 21-22)

My Struggle positions itself as an anti-literary project: it’s what Knausgaard writes instead of novels and it describes his increasing revulsion from fiction (broadly construed). If he were to write another novel, he says in Volume 2, ‘it would just be literature, just fiction, and worthless … just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.’ My Struggle is sometimes categorised as a novel — by its publishers, for one — but nobody expects us to believe that it’s fiction in any conventional sense, given the verifiability of the biographical details and the huge scandal caused in Norway by its exposure of his real relationships. My Struggle is the chronicle of Knausgaard turning his back on the genre of the novel, a six-volume Lord Chandos Letter intended to exhaust and extinguish all of Knausgaard’s literary ambitions. He has described the writing of My Struggle as an act of ‘literary suicide’: ‘There is nothing left; I can never again write something from the heart without repeating myself, but I wanted it that way. In Volume 6 I even wrote a couple of lines about future novels, stories I’d thought of, just to kill them off. The last sentence in that book is: “And I’m so happy that I’m no longer an author.”‘

‘Literary suicide’ — a death both in and of literature. He’ll empty himself into a vessel, shattering that vessel: ‘I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?’ Knausgaard presents his suicide attempt as anti-literary — I’m going to break the well-wrought urn of aesthetic form by filling it with more description than it can hold — but it’s also an attempt to take the problem of closure into one’s own hands. Suicide is, after all, one way ‘to bring order into the sum of experience’.

… It might seem that I’ve moved abruptly from childishness to death, but at every point in My Struggle, particularly in Boyhood Island, we think of the young Knausgaard as a person who will ‘die’ at the end of Volume 6. We know (at least from Volume 2 on) that the end of My Struggle won’t merely be the end of a novel for Knausgaard, but the end of literature altogether. (This is part of why Boyhood Island — although childhood memories are also crucial in the volumes that precede it — must come after the promise of literary suicide; his earliest memories are saturated with what we know about his future.) My Struggle is a portrait of an artist who will turn his back on art, a Künstlerroman that is also a suicide note, and the method of suicide is in part to put everything down: a suicide by overdose.

I mean to emphasise the way the childishness of Knausgaard — the radical inclusiveness, the style-less style, the apparently equal fascination with everything — places a tremendous pressure on the end of the book, on closure as a moment when form is achieved and retrospectively organises the work. Because the book makes a bid to be radically co-extensive with a life – ‘there is nothing left,’ everything gets put down — closure has to present itself as a kind of death (unless the book is simply to break off, surrendering to formlessness, to unreadability). The problem of how My Struggle will end is both evoked and deferred across volumes — an effect amplified by the fact that English readers have to wait for each new translation — and that drama of the deferral of form is part of what keeps us reading. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the more inclusive, digressive — even boring — the book is, the more absorbing it becomes (‘Even when I was bored, I was interested,’ James Wood writes). This is because the felt problem of My Struggle’s ultimate form intensifies in relation to Knausgaard’s effort to ‘crack’ the novel by overfilling it with detail. How far will he go?

Breaking of the vessel of art, the renunciation of fiction, literary suicide – these are fictions, and they’re the devices on which the power of My Struggle depends. It’s obvious, for instance, that Knausgaard couldn’t remember his past in the degree of detail the books provide (Boyhood Island opens with an account of how much fiction is necessarily involved in Knausgaard’s acts of memory, especially of his childhood). But the cumulative effect of his descriptions is to suggest the possibility of total recall, a past citable in all its moments: each cornflake, each snowflake. … Perhaps it’s less that we identify with the particular experiences Knausgaard recounts than that his writing makes us feel we might be able to recall our own past, near or distant, with all the texture and urgency of an inhabited present. This is why the extreme inclusiveness of Knausgaard’s attention — and the flatness of the language in which it’s conveyed — is so important: it feels universal, less interested in the exceptional life than in the way any life can feel exceptional to its subject (even if it sometimes feels exceptionally boring). Much of My Struggle isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment.

Of course Knausgaard does leave things out (why, I wonder, is sex described in less detail than cornflakes?), selects among scenes and sentences, but we are caught up in the fiction that he doesn’t. Yet that childish sense of open-endedness, in which everything is equally interesting, is countered by another fiction: that the meaning of My Struggle will be revealed at its end, secured by the author’s death (at least his death qua author). The former fiction is a fiction of formlessness, the undifferentiated, an infinite verticality outside time; and the latter is a fiction that gives form, the imposition of shape on experience, a syntax of events. The constitutive tension of Knausgaard’s work, its internal struggle, is the push and pull between these two fictions. The former is the promise of an artless infinity purchased at the cost of structure; the latter is the promise of a unity purchased at the cost of death. Maybe it’s significant that My Struggle has six volumes while A la recherche du temps perdu has seven. Knausgaard doesn’t offer a strategy for ‘regaining’ time through the power of art; instead he attempts to achieve closure by sacrificing art itself.

The claim to be giving up literature has a long tradition within literature. It’s everywhere in poetry, for instance. As Aaron Kunin has written: ‘The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional — Spenser got the idea from Virgil.’ Actual Rimbauds are rare. And the claim to be destroying art has been a staple of avant-garde art since at least the First World War: the role of the painter is to abolish painting, and so on. But such assertions tend to be part of an artistic performance, not its overcoming, and there’s already anecdotal evidence that Knausgaard’s ‘suicide’ is theatre. . . .

But what could be less ‘unexpected’? The prizefighter comes out of retirement again and again. … Knausgaard’s renunciation of literature, whatever his conscious intentions, is ultimately a trope, a dramatic attempt to bring order to the mass of text that precedes it.

Even if Knausgaard’s ‘literary suicide’ is an enabling fiction, the association of death (particularly violent death) with the end of My Struggle is troubling. Here we must reckon with the long shadow cast across the volumes by the title. Are we supposed to think of Knausgaard as a failed artist whose violent will-to-order is somehow analogous to Hitler’s? … To put it reductively, Hitler and Breivik are two men — or perhaps two man-children, albeit in a much more sinister sense than Baudelaire’s — who responded to the value vacuum, the bad infinity, opened up by modernity with murder and murderous ideologies; they reacted to the terror of formlessness with the ‘false totality’ of fascism (though this might be overstating the coherence of Breivik’s worldview). . . .

The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

Keatsian Music

Ben Lerner, “The Actual World,” Frieze 156 (June-August 2013)

… Instead of talking myself out of this (largely indefensible) distinction between the actuality of visual art and the virtuality of the literary, I’ve come to embrace it; I’ve come to think that one of the powers of literature is precisely how it can describe and stage encounters with works of art that can’t or don’t exist, or how it can resituate actual works of art in virtual conditions. Literature can function as a laboratory in which we test responses to unrealized or unrealizable art works, or in which we embed real works in imagined conditions in order to track their effects.

The traditional literary response to a nonverbal work of art is the ekphrastic poem — a poem that uses verbal art to engage a visual one. While the ekphrastic poem is in part judged by its powers of description, the thing it describes can be fiction. The classic example of ekphrasis, for instance — the description of Achilles’s shield in Homer’s The Iliad — is so elaborate as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail. (This makes sense, since the shield was made by a god.) The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even paint. (Just don’t take a shield made out of words into battle.) Or consider another canonical example of ekphrasis, John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1820), wherein we encounter a description of an impossible music prompted by a meditation on a plastic form: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on: / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.’ My point is that ekphrastic literature is often a virtual form: it describes something that can’t be made given the limitations of the actual world.

For me, at least at the moment, the novel, not the poem, is the privileged form for the kind of virtuality I’m describing. I think of the novel as a fundamentally curatorial form, as a genre that assimilates and arranges and dramatizes encounters with other genres: poetry, criticism and so on….

[T. J.] Clark is rigorously involved with two real canvases, of course, but the novel is a space wherein such an experiment in art writing can take place before the existence of the art itself, where an encounter can be staged between individuals and/or art works that are not or cannot be made actual. Fiction that describes encounters with artificial objects that don’t yet or can’t yet exist is usually called ‘science fiction’ — a prose that attempts to make discernable the shape of an unrealizable technological culture. But we could also organize a genre of ‘speculative fiction’ around virtual arts: Keatsian music; a painting that never dries. Writing is particularly suited to figuring what we can desire or fear but can’t (now) make, especially relative to those arts that depend on seeing.

Banishing the ‘literary’ — the temporal, the representational — from visual art was a major (if unsuccessful) 20th-century critical project. And those artists — like Judd — who moved away from traditional media altogether to real objects and real space further made the kind of virtuality I’m describing the domain of the literary. We’re often told that the figure within the work was replaced with the viewer standing before it. Ejecting the virtual from the object increased the former’s power: now it could reabsorb the object along with is viewer. Literary virtuality became the ghost of the actual, driving certain artists crazy, driving them conceptual. Perhaps we can think of contemporary artists’ increasing interest in literary techniques in part as a desire to reincorporate the power of the virtual back into their work.

So what is the power of the virtual? Michael Clune, a brilliant young literary critic, argues in his book, Writing Against Time (2013), that certain writers ‘invent virtual techniques, imaginary forms for arresting neurobiological time by overcoming the brain’s stubborn boundaries’. This isn’t something literary form can actually accomplish — Keats’s imaginary music can’t be played. Instead, Clune writes, ‘the mode is ekphrastic. These writers create images of more powerful images; they fashion techniques for imagining better techniques.’ ‘Like an airplane designer examining a bird’s wing’, the writer of the virtual ‘studies life to overcome its limits’. Clune is particularly focused on representations of works that defeat time, but we can say more generally that the virtuality of literature allows it to produce images of impracticable techniques — to open a space where the visual artist can desire and think beyond the stubborn boundaries of her materials. Instead of grounding the (often competitive) relationship of verbal and visual art in their similarity — Ut pictura poesis — I think the relationship is most fecund when writers concede the actual to artists.