Blaise Cendrars, “The Art of Fiction N°38” by Michel Manoll, The Paris Review 37 (Spring 1966)
I’m not an extraordinary worker, I’m an extraordinary daydreamer. I exceed all my fantasies — even that of writing.
Blaise Cendrars, “The Art of Fiction N°38” by Michel Manoll, The Paris Review 37 (Spring 1966)
I’m not an extraordinary worker, I’m an extraordinary daydreamer. I exceed all my fantasies — even that of writing.
3:AM: It’s very rare, these days, to see a work of literary criticism being given such prominence. Do you agree that this is probably largely due to the fact that the main subject is not Balzac or Baudelaire — two key references here — but a comic-strip hero?
TMcC: First of all, I’m not sure I’d describe Tintin and the Secret of Literature as ‘criticism’. More as an essay. I like the idea of the essay as a primary literary form. You can trace it from David Foster Wallace through Blanchot all the way back to people like Hazlitt. But yes, the fact that it revolves around Tintin and not just Balzac and Baudelaire has certainly helped it get attention — although it wasn’t strategic to do this. I genuinely rate Hergé’s work, and wanted to read it alongside Balzac, Baudelaire, Bergson, Bachelard and all the rest, hopping from one to the other in a set of playful, serendipitous detours — which is exactly what the essay format allows.
3:AM: Your book is very much in the tradition of Barthes‘s Mythologies (an anthology which you fail to mention). I can’t remember if Barthes actually mentions Tintin anywhere, but he certainly could have done. In a way, the two figures go curiously well together: Tintin’s heyday corresponds roughly to that of Barthes and both, today, appear a little quaint. Was it Barthes who inspired this book? After all, your Tintin is primarily a semiologist who “can navigate [a key word in the McCarthy canon] the world of signs” (Tintin and the Secret of Literature p. 22), a deciphering cipher who embodies (along with Snowy?) the presence of absence — the Melvillian “whiteness of the whale” (p. 161) — but also, of course, Barthes’s “écriture blanche”.
TMcC: I do kind of mention Mythologies when I refer to wrestling and tomato tins early on in the book. I love Barthes: he’s a beautiful, generous writer. He never mentions Tintin directly as far as I know, although Derrida, another big presence (or present absence or whatever) in my book, does, glancingly, in The Post Card. Hergé read Barthes; you can see his influence very directly in the final book, Tintin and Alph-Art, in which language becomes a set of physical signs, giant letters which are held up and scrutinised by his characters.
3:AM: Are you the first to draw a parallel between Sarrasine and the Tintin corpus? I haven’t read Balzac’s novel, but, from what you write, La Zambinella seems to bear a resemblance to Proust’s Odette de Crécy. Am I mistaken?
TMcC: As far as I know I am the first to draw a parallel between Tintin and Sarrasine. I re-read Barthes’s S/Z, which turns around that particular novella, initially because I wanted to write about Hergé’s total mastery of plot: the way he misdirects, doubles, occludes, jams and so on, all these devices Barthes describes so well in his take on Balzac. But as I did I realised that there were loads of points of correspondence between Sarrasine and the Tintin books. Balzac’s eponymous artist becomes obsessed by the opera singer la Zambinella, like Captain Haddock does with Bianca Castafiore; he copies her, like the sculptor Balthazar does the fetish in The Broken Ear; he’s murdered, as is Balthazar; the copy is copied and these copies are themselves copied, in both. Fundamentally, it’s about entering the realm of denatured simulation that is art. La Zambinella’s voice draws Sarrasine backstage, into a world of artifice, just as la Castafiore’s voice draws Haddock backstage and on into a world of inauthenticity. And these worlds prove fatal: the castrato la Zambinella effectively kills Sarrasine, and ultimately the not-really-pubescent Tintin effectively kills Hergé.
With Proust, I’ve got to admit I’ve never got as far as the Odette bits in the Remembrance. There are passages I find completely compelling, like the bit about how you can construct a composite memory of a house from various other houses you’ve known or read about or seen in pictures (which is more or less what my hero does in Remainder, but other bits lose me, and I put it down again for two years, then re-read as far as the house bit, then same again: a kind of incomplete repetition loop. Perhaps that’s what Old Marcel would have wanted.
3:AM: Given that the literary status of the Tintin books is uncertain/debatable, isn’t it a little perverse to analyse them in order to uncover the “secret of literature”?
TMcC: Yes — and that’s why I wanted to do it. It would be easy to identify literary motifs in Faulkner or Dickens or someone. But what does it tell us when a corpus that makes no claims to being ‘literature’ displays a symbolic register as developed as Faulkner’s and characters as deep and rich as Dickens’s, not to mention themes and plots more or less identical to Sophocles’s and Shakespeare’s: the fall of the noble house, family secrets coming out into the open, the relation between host and guest gone disastrously wrong and so on? So much of the very best literature opens up illicit frequencies so that meaning can travel along channels other than the obvious or rational. The Tintin books are full of these frequencies, these channels; they even dramatise their setting up, hunting down, rumbling and relocating. And then it struck me that literature as a whole might hide its most intimate secrets in the most illicit of all zones, one tucked away ‘off-stage’, ‘aside’, below the radar of literature proper, which is of course the kind of zone that cartoons lurk in.
3:AM: Could you tell us about the cover of the book and Tintin’s absence from the illustrations inside?
TMcC: The cover is by Jochen Gerner, a French artist. I saw a book he’d done called TNT en Amérique, in which he buried the whole of Tintin in America under black ink but left a few symbols, mainly of money, divinity and violence (i.e. dollar signs, crosses and guns, all done in cartoony style) as markers for what he’d erased — all on the correct pages, corresponding to frames in the original book. So I contacted him and asked him to do the cover, and he was really into it. We looked at the main motifs in The Castafiore Emerald — the window, the piano, the cameras and spotlights that, ultimately, occlude more than they reveal — and he applied his technique (which, after Bataille, he calls ‘déformation’) to these. And in the foreground, as on Hergé’s, the tufted figure with his finger to his lips, saying ‘Shhhh!’ — what in the book I call “the condition of the secret become visible”.
To answer the second part of your question: I didn’t want images directly from the Tintin books inside my book. I was more interested in showing how these images (which I’m assuming most people who read my book will be at least slightly familiar with) mutate into and out of other ones: eighteenth-century portraits of castrato singers, stills from Buster Keaton films and, not least, ‘detourned’ versions of the Tintin books themselves. These last images break down into political activist ones, pornographic ones and ‘art’ ones: an interesting triangle.
THE BOY HAIRDRESSER
3:AM: Given your chapter devoted to “Castafiore’s Clit” (if you ever form a band, promise me that you’ll use that name) and your comments about Tintin’s androgyny, I was surprised you didn’t devote at least a few lines to the once-ubiquitous gay Tintin haircut…
TMcC: A band called Castafiore’s Clit is a great idea. Kind of Jane’s Addiction meets The Thompson Twins. Yes, it’s funny that Tintin has lent his haircut to gay culture. I found out recently that the Rocker quiff of the Fifties was taken directly from Jean Marais’s haircut in Cocteau’s Orphée, another big presence in my book.
THE SINS OF THE FATHER
3:AM: During the Second World War, Hergé had no qualms about publishing his comic strips in Le Soir, a newspaper that was under Nazi control and had clear Nazi sympathies. Interestingly enough, as you point out, Paul de Man also wrote for Le Soir. However, I was surprised that you did not make more of this coincidence. Paul de Man’s undermining of meaning and values having been reinterpreted (and partly discredited) in the light of the posthumous discovery of his youthful far-right views, should not we also be somewhat wary of Hergé’s “retroactive wiping-out of history” (p. 41), the erosion of Rastapopoulos’s “Semitic status” (pp. 44-45) or his reinvention as a “liberal leftist” (p. 46)? After all, anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism which, in your view, testify to the author’s “right-to-left trajectory” (p. 47) are common tenets on the far right as well as the far left…
TMcC: I never went with the argument that Paul de Man’s shameful youthful secret undermines all of deconstruction (is Derrida, a Jew, a secret anti-Semite too?), not least because when I was at university one of this argument’s main advocates serially harassed his female students while simultaneously espousing feminism, which for me kind of discredited anything he had to say. Yes, the anti-consumerist thing can serve a right-wing position as much as a left-wing one, and I point out in the book that Hergé kept the same villains in place throughout his career (secret cabals, men in hoods). But I think his right-to-left trajectory was a genuine one, as was Paul de Man’s. Things are connected. Fascism is a moment that the twentieth century goes through, in the arts as much as anywhere else. Think of Yeats, Spengler, Hamsun, Pound, Céline — brilliant and hugely influential writers who were fascists. Do we discount anything that’s come after them? Of course not: you trace the fallout of the disaster, how it mutates and develops. Think of Heidegger, a one-time Nazi out of whose thought the incredibly compelling ethical vision of Levinas (another Jew) has emerged. Anyway, it would be naive and liberal to want all our artists to be nice Guardian readers. Some people are arseholes. And another thing: Paul de Man doesn’t undermine meaning and value — just certain tired and reactionary notions of both.
[Just for the record: I didn’t mean to imply that Hergé’s, Céline’s or Yeats’s works should be rejected because of their political views, although I clearly gave that impression. Like Tom, I subscribe to a resolutely politically-incorrect conception of literature. My point simply concerned anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism (which the far left certainly has no monopoly over) along with the fact that certain thinkers’ seemingly-rational ideas are so obviously linked to individual history (Maurras’s deafness or Foucault’s masochism, for instance) that one should sometimes approach them with a little caution. Another issue we could have raised here is the Arendt-Heidegger relationship, but that would probably have been one serendipitous detour — to quote McCarthy — too many!]
FOUND IN TRANSLATION
3:AM: Remainder — the best novel of 2005 which, due to its republication by Alma Books, looks set to be the novel of 2006 (ironically enough, given the theme of the book) — could be described as the best French novel ever written in English by an Englishman. With Tintin and the Secret of Literature, your approach is once again resolutely French. Almost all of your major references are French (Balzac, Baudelaire, Barthes, Derrida…), and even the vocabulary you use is Gallicized (“fictive,” for instance, which is far closer to the French “fictif” than “fictional”). Where does your familiarity with French culture and the French language come from? Was it deliberate on your part to largely avoid references to British or American literature? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to give a more English perspective on Tintin since Tintinologists have a habit of being Belgian or French?
TMcC: First of all, thanks for your kind words about Remainder, and I’ll try to persuade my French publisher, Hachette Littératures, to use your “best French novel in English” line as a blurb for their edition that’s coming out next September — I couldn’t think of better praise! Yes, most of the points of reference in Tintin and the Secret of Literature are French, although Defoe, Bunyan, Behn and other Anglo early novelists get a look in — plus there’s a big digression through Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I guess I just really like French literature. The English were going really well from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, producing poets like Donne and Marvell and novels like Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, but it all went horribly wrong somewhere in the late nineteenth/early twentieth and, while the French (and Americans) embarked on the wildest adventures with thought and form — Mallarmé, Breton, Cendrars, Faulkner etc etc — we got Thomas fucking Hardy and DH fucking Lawrence. The only top-class twentieth century English writers are the ones we claim spuriously: Americans like Eliot and James, Poles like Conrad, Irishmen like Joyce and Beckett…
3:AM: At the same time, there is a sense of humour and earthiness which are very un-French, as it were. After the publication of a strange review in The Economist which presented your book as a send-up of French theory, you spoke to me of the astounding “idiocy of English empirical culture”: do you think Tintin and the Secret of Literature is going to reignite the critical Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes of the 80s and 90s?
TMcC: I think to ignite any thought at The Economist you’d need to stick a ton of semtex up their arses. That review was quite funny, though: it perfectly captured the red-faced, vein-popping fury of Little England once the values on which it bases its entire identity are ever-so-slightly “solicited”, as Derrida would say. English takes on Tintin always present Hergé as a ’satirist’ and only that: a self-sufficient, rational subject who uses words and images as tools to tell us something he knows because he’s worked it out, rationally, you see. That’s the empirical line on literature tout court: the rational expression of a self-sufficient subject — as though we weren’t constantly made and unmade within language, desire, history, symbolic networks and so on. It’s as moronic as crediting a surfer with creating the wave which carries him and allows him to ply his craft — and back into which he’s eventually going to sink.
3:AM: You say that you were introduced to Tintin by your mother at the age of seven. That, in itself, probably says a lot about your social background — that and your early encounter with Hugo Williams (mentioned by the poet in an article he wrote in the TLS about your International Necronautical Society). In France, in the 70s, Le Journal de Tintin tended to be read in Catholic and conservative circles whereas kids from Communist families usually read a comic called Pif. What sort of social and cultural milieu were you raised in, Tom?
TMcC: I come from a liberal arts-steeped middle-class family. My mum would tell us the stories of The Odyssey and The Merchant of Venice on car journeys. My parents were left-ish but not radical. They voted Labour but I went to a private day-school from the age of twelve.
3:AM: You write that “Everybody wants to be Tintin,” but I get the feeling that that everybody applies, first and foremost, to you. You even bear a slight physical resemblance to Hergé’s hero…
TMcC: I went to a fancy dress party dressed as Tintin once…
3:AM: Susan Tomaselli rounds off her review with the claim that Tintin and the Secret of Literature made her feel like re-reading Remainder (your debut novel) rather than the Tintin books themselves. Do you see this as a success or a failure?
TMcC: Success — although she should read the Tintin books too. In a way, I used Tintin and the Secret of Literature to work through some of the themes in Remainder in a more conscious way: the relationship between trauma and repetition, for example, or the idea of inauthenticity which emerged from the de Man essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality”, which I hadn’t read when I wrote Remainder even though it could almost be describing that book. It’s great to be able to switch modes, and come at the same territory from a different angle.
WE WANTED TO BLOW UP TIME ITSELF
3:AM: Your whole oeuvre seems to be contained within this critical essay: Tintin and the Secret of Literature could thus be read as a work of internal intertextuality. First of all, there’s the importance of meridians which points to Greenwich Degree Zero, your recent artistic collaboration with Rod Dickinson…
TMcC: …when we blew up the Greenwich Observatory, or at least produced the documentation of having blown up the Observatory, completing the task of Martial Bourdin, model for Conrad’s Stevie in The Secret Agent. We wanted to blow up time itself. Funnily enough, there’s a scene in The Broken Ear where a secret agent like Stevie carries a time-bomb around and gets blown up by it because he doesn’t realise the town clocks have broken. I love the sequence in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin carries a broken clock around and rides trams in different directions in a sub-Einsteinian attempt to escape time — then dies…
WE WANTED TO BLOW UP BRIDGES
3:AM: Then you’ve got the references to Cocteau’s Orphée and, more generally, your fascination with the “transmission-reception figure” (as you put it elsewhere): “[Tintin] will also be aware, as a radio operator, that the waves which carry his transmissions will travel outwards endlessly through space. Who knows where the signals will end up, or what they will end up meaning?” (p. 91).
TMcC: If I had to select five things to put in a space capsule to show aliens what we were capable of, Orphée would be one of them. It’s the most perfect piece of art, which lays out our existence as being in relation to death, technology, transmission-reception and desire — not to mention repetition. Death, a beautiful princess (and arts patron) falls in love with Orphée so she has another poet snatched to the underworld so he can send illicit, looping radio messages to Orphée which draw him towards her, through a mirror. Cocteau based his radio messages on the ones sent to occupied France during World War Two: these short lines of poetry. Most of them meant nothing, but one in every two hundred meant — only to those who knew — ‘blow up the bridge’. A man or woman in London reads a line of poetry into a microphone and in France a bridge blows up — or not. Poetry — real poetry — should harbour that potentiality somehow.
3:AM: You talk about Alph-Art, the eponymous avant-garde movement of Hergé’s posthumous book, which is “a cover for a giant forgery operation” (p. 158). Couldn’t this also be a fitting definition of your own “semi-fictitious” avant-garde movement, the International Necronautical Society?
TMcC: The INS had its own radio transmission network, operating out of the ICA two years ago, generating messages like Cocteau’s and actually transmitting them over the radio London-wide (and, via collaborating radio stations, world-wide). It looked like a giant factory floor, with workers running everywhere carrying lines of text — lines which, having been plucked from other media sources, were kind of second-hand if not fake. The INS is itself semi-fake, as you point out. Although the fake can hide the real.
3:AM: On page 84, you explain that, according to Freud, trauma produces “a desire for repetition mixed with a need to disguise the scene being repeated”. Could you comment on this sentence with reference to your novel Remainder?
TMcC: It’s not just Freud who says this: even his most positivist counterparts concur. Under ultra-extreme stress, the part of the mind that processes raw data into the narrative thread we call ‘memory’ simply goes on strike and refuses to process. It’s called ‘dissociation’. So the data’s present, but not dealt with, and therefore keeps bobbing up and demanding to be incorporated somehow. As it can’t form part of normal memory, it plays itself out in weird ways — ones that contain elements of the original event but are also scrambled, disguised. And it will keep repeating, albeit in modulated form, until it is accommodated properly. Well, in Remainder the hero has undergone a traumatic event which he hasn’t retained as straight memory but rather as fragments of data: the sense of being about to be hit, blue lights, railings, being held above a tray or bed and so on. These induce a propensity to repeat stuff in him. Another interesting thing about post-trauma is that (to return to a motif we touched on a moment ago) it makes people feel inauthentic, fake, because everything is of a lesser magnitude of experience than the trauma-moment itself, the only ‘real’ thing. And then the subject back-projects for himself a time when he wasn’t fake, and longs for that time. That’s what my guy is doing with his re-enactments: repeating backwards to an imagined era of authenticity — but repeating, more accurately, towards the trauma-moment itself, the true, unnameable moment, the moment of truth and unnameability itself.
THE CHINK ON THE CARPET
3:AM: The re-enactments in Remainder or in your artistic work: mimesis or simulacrum?
TMcC: Aha: very good question, bang on the money. In Remainder, he wants the authentic, so he sets up a zone of mimesis, paying architects and designers to recreate his ‘remembered’ building and re-enactors to ‘be’ the lady he remembers frying liver on the floor below him, the pianist he remembers practising Rachmaninoff and so on. He wants to accede through these re-enactments to a mode of authenticity, of simply ‘being’ rather than simulating. But of course it doesn’t work: the re-enactments tend more towards the status of simulacra, what Plato defines as ‘a copy without an original’. But then, paradoxically, the most jarring and obviously inconsistent things, the ‘extra’ bits, the ones with no originals of any type at all, are what catapult him into ultra-authenticity — which, not coincidentally, is also pure violence. It’s the little chink on the carpet of his re-enacted bank heist that flips the whole re-enactment over into all-too-real-ness, when the re-enactor trips on it, or rather on its absence, and his gun goes off…
THE CRACK IN THE WALL
3:AM: Barthes writes that “…the ‘realistic’ artist never places reality at the origin of his discourse, but only and always, as far back as can be traced, an already written real, a prospective code, along which we discern, as far as the eye can see, only a succession of copies” (quoted on p. 55): this is also, unwittingly, what the protagonist of Remainder does, right?
TMcC: Remainder has been read by some critics as an allegory of realism and of the realist mode of art, and this isn’t an entirely wrong reading — although if the hero had actually been an artist rather than an Everyman, some bloke, it would have been an entirely different, and inferior, book. But yes, it definitely turns around his copying, and even (as he sets about getting his re-enactors to re-enact the moments when they prepared for the previous re-enactment) his copying his moments of copying, endlessly regressive. We can try to work it out together, but ultimately I can’t give the definitive schematic meta-reading of the book any more than you — perhaps less. It was intuitive: I was looking at a crack in a wall and had a moment of dejà-vu and wished I had loads of money to re-enact this moment and there was the novel.
EVERYTHING LITERATURE SHOULD BE
3:AM: When discussing tobacco throughout the Tintin books, you explain (following Derrida) that it “goes up in smoke” but “also leaves remains, ashes, which maintain symbolic links to memory, death and inheritance. Baudelaire’s story takes off from the change left over from the two friends’ luxury expenditure: like the coin itself, it proceeds from the remainder” (p. 135). Why are remnants so important in your work?
TMcC: It’s what’s left. After the disaster, after thought, interpretation, writing itself. It’s like when Wallace Stevens says “The plum survives its poems”. Writing has to deal with this remainder, and good writing has to deal with the fact that it can never fully deal with it. Francis Ponge knows this. He writes brilliant prose poems about, for example, oranges: the texture of their cells, the way they leave goop on your hands so that even when you’ve ‘expressed’ them there’s a residue that’s not contained. If Susan Tomaselli or anyone else really want to do themselves a favour, they should re-read neither Remainder nor the Tintin books but rather Ponge’s Le Parti pris des choses (you can get it in dual text). It’s everything writing should be.
[This interview was initially posted here.]
This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 January 2011:
Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’
Special case: Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Every year, the French government publishes a list of cultural events and personalities to be commemorated over the next 12 months. Compiling it is a lengthy and carefully-considered process. A High Committee of National Celebrations draws up a provisional list, which is then submitted to the Culture Ministry and, once approved, published in book form. Some 10,000 copies of the Recueil des Célébrations nationales 2011 were printed last autumn ahead of last week’s launch. Frédéric Mitterrand — the culture minister lui-même — had even penned a foreword, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the project had received his imprimatur. However, when word got out that Louis-Ferdinand Céline was to feature alongside the likes of Blaise Cendrars, Théophile Gautier, Franz Liszt and Georges Pompidou, all hell broke loose.
Serge Klarsfeld, the country’s most famous Nazi hunter and Holocaust memorialist, expressed his indignation in the name of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France. The Republic, he argued, shouldn’t celebrate “the most antisemitic” Frenchman of his day — a time, lest we forget, when antisemitism was so rife that it led to state-sanctioned Jewish persecution under the Vichy regime. Mitterrand’s decision, two days later, to remove the novelist from the list was logical in light of this backlash, but also somewhat surprising since he must have known that his inclusion would prove controversial in the first place (was he protecting Sarkozy, whose favourite author happens to be Céline?)
Far more surprising, however, was the reaction of the French intelligentsia, who were almost unanimous in their defence of the author of Journey to the End of the Night. Literary heavyweight Philippe Sollers accused the Culture Ministry of “censorship”. Frédéric Vitoux, a member of the prestigious Académie française who wrote a biography of Céline, likened this decision to the airbrushing of history under Stalin. Pop philosopher Alain Finkielkraut feared that some people would draw the conclusion that a “Jewish lobby” was dictating policy to the French government. Bernard-Henri Lévy, another celebrity philosopher, claimed that the commemoration of Céline’s death should have been an opportunity to try to understand how a “truly great author” can also be an “absolute bastard”. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the fact that Serge Klarsfeld himself felt the need to declare that he rated Céline as a “great writer” before going on to describe him as a “despicable human being”.
France is a place where authors and artists are granted a special status — a kind of poetic licence or artistic immunity. In fact, the country continues to view itself, and sometimes to be regarded as, the natural second home of all artists. It is this very liberal attitude which attracted many members of the Lost and Beat generations after the second world war, and that still attracts outsider writers such as Dennis Cooper. Some of the greatest works of contemporary fiction in English — Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov’s Lolita or Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — were available in France when they were banned or considered unpublishable in Britain or the US. A telling culture shock occurred on live television, in 1990, when a journalist from Quebec told Gabriel Matzneff that only in Paris would he be feted for writing — however exquisitely — about his liaisons with underage partners (of both genders). Anywhere else, she stated, he would probably end up in prison. The journalist was subsequently depicted as a philistine, unable to appreciate the subtlety of Matzneff’s feelings or the beauty of his style. Baudelaire once wrote that “literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality” and, for better or worse, this has clearly become France’s official artistic credo.
Trying to account for this “exception française” is no mean task, but I suspect it has something to do with the elevation of art to the status of surrogate religion during the second half of the 19th century. A similar phenomenon was taking place all over Europe, of course, but it probably had more resonance against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle between Republicanism and Catholicism. Both Flaubert and Baudelaire were prosecuted for public obscenity, but when French MPs called for the banning of Jean Genet‘s The Screens in 1966 (for political reasons, this time), the culture minister (and novelist) André Malraux immediately stepped in to defend the inviolability of artistic freedom. By then, artistic creation was largely considered as a value in itself, beyond morals and politics; even beyond good and evil.
The dominant French view on literature was probably best expressed by Oscar Wilde, who ended his life in exile in Paris: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Not quite, though, in this case. No one is denying Céline’s talent as one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century — probably the greatest, with Proust. Is it possible, however, to distinguish the author of antisemitic tracts from the genius novelist; the man from the artist?
This appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 70, pp. 54-57):
Arthur Cravan — artist, poet, boxer
You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. The world’s shortest-haired poet, as he often described himself, put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man. Next to him, the YBAs in their shark-pickling heyday were about as controversial as a mug of Horlicks. David Lalé put it in a nutshell: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form” (Last Stop Salina Cruz).
Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. His first brush with authority occurred early on when he was expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher. Having relocated to bohemian Paris — where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and Kees van Dongen — Cravan planned to fake his own death so that he could publish his first book “posthumously,” in a blaze of publicity. For some reason this stunt was shelved, but he pulled off the more remarkable feat of becoming France’s Heavyweight Champion in 1910 without throwing a single punch. One of his opponents got the jitters and called it quits before the match had even started. A couple of others were directed to the wrong venue thus failing to show up. The last one sprained his ankle as he jumped a trifle too eagerly into the ring.
A big bruiser of a man, Cravan certainly looked the part — Mina Loy, his future wife, would write a book about him entitled Colossus — but his boxing was on a par with his poetry: spirited, at best. Comically enough, he was caught up by his reputation in Barcelona where he was unable to wriggle out of a rumble with former World Champion Jack Jones, an episode which left him reeling, punch-drunk. The fact that he was drink-drunk to start with probably did not help.
None of this prevented Arthur Cravan from flogging his “poet and boxer” image for all it was worth. Although he was a fraud, he inspired a long line of literary pugilists, and even came to be seen by some as the ultimate adventurer-scribe: literature made flesh. Paradoxically, for one whose existence exerts such fascination, he was a self-publicist who had no self to publicise. “I am all things, all men and animals!” he wrote in one of his better-known poems (“Hie!”), before wondering if he would ever manage to “leave behind” his “fatal plurality”. Reflecting on his hyper-protean nature — his dizzying array of disguises, pseudonyms and personae — Mina Loy claimed that Cravan “worked to maintain his reality by presenting an unreality to the world — to occupy itself with — while he made his spiritual getaway”. His whole life, at least from the time he first set foot in Paris, was indeed one long, convoluted disappearing act.
Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. It was partly a vanity outlet for his poems and essays, but primarily a means of courting controversy. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. In the first issue, he ran a fake interview with Oscar Wilde — his late uncle — claiming that he was still alive. Cravan’s Bill Grundy moment occurred when he devoted an entire issue to gratuitous insults aimed at almost all the painters taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. He opined, for instance, that only a good seeing-to would enable Marie Laurencin to fully grasp the true meaning of Art. As a result, her lover — the poet Guillaume Apollinaire — challenged Cravan to a duel which he narrowly avoided by apologising half-heartedly. He was also taken to court and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters while selling copies of his journal from a wheelbarrow outside the exhibition room.
Maintenant proved that writing, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as did the infamous series of conferences he gave in Paris. During these happenings, he would take swigs from a bottle of absinthe (in lieu of the habitual bottle of water), shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. On one occasion, he wore nothing but a butcher’s apron and concluded proceedings by mooning the audience instead of bowing in the traditional fashion. On another, he sold rotten fruit and vegetables at the entrance so that people could pelt him during the performance should they feel so inclined (which they did). His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised — a riot that forestalled his drunken inauguration of the 1917 Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp (whose legendary urinal was part of the show) had plied him with gallons of booze beforehand in the hope that his antics would put Dada on the map in the United States. Cravan rose to the occasion: he stumbled on stage looking the worse for wear and started to strip — knocking over a painting in the process — only to be pounced upon and carted away by security. Job done.
Arthur Cravan took Romantic hysteria to its logical conclusion: he was by turns histrionic, attention-seeking, uncontrollable, excessive, hilarious and, most importantly, the author of himself (hustera is Greek for womb). He was also a con artist with a cause. “The world has always exploited the Artist,” he once declared, “it is time for the Artist to exploit the world!” It was his fake-painting trafficking, rather than the First World War, that initially forced him to go on the run. He roamed the Continent, using several fake IDs, looking for “that something the poet always seems to have mislaid,” as Mina Loy elegantly put it. In Barcelona he became something of a living legend among Dadaists. When the war seemed about to catch up with him again, he relocated to New York (travelling aboard the same ship as Trotsky) and fled once more as soon as the Americans entered the conflict. Cravan stole the passport of an artist friend (who had conveniently conked out following a night on the razz) before crossing the Mexican border dressed — paradoxically enough — as a soldier. He was last seen in 1918, sailing away on a drunken boat of his own making (probably bound for neutral Argentina), leaving behind his “fatal plurality” for ever. “Whatever is said and done or even thought,” he had declared, “we are prisoners of this senseless world”. Perhaps he was trying to prove himself wrong.
Cravan was always larger than life and, in many ways, he was just too bad to be true. He was a self-unmade man whose biggest conjuring trick was to spirit himself away by taking elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. “You must dream your life with great care,” wrote this outrageous six-footer who managed to cross frontiers as if he were the Invisible Man. In the years following his disappearance, he would be sighted all over the world in a variety of guises. Several people, for instance, were convinced that he was the shadowy Dorian Hope who passed himself off as André Gide’s personal secretary and sold forged Wilde manuscripts to English and Irish booksellers from his Paris base. There is even a theory according to which he was none other than B. Traven, the mysterious author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He inspired Gide’s Lafcadio, the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will, and became a symbol of ultimate transgression for the likes of Guy Debord. Dead or alive, Arthur Cravan is still at large.
An abridged version of “Colossal Youth,” my piece on Arthur Cravan, was posted on the Flux magazine website on Friday 13 November 2009:
You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. Oscar Wilde’s nephew put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man.
Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. After being expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher, he relocated to bohemian Paris where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and managed to become France’s Heavyweight Champion without throwing a single punch.
Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. He filled an entire issue with gratuitous insults aimed at the artists taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. As a result, he was challenged to a duel by the poet Apollinaire and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters. Result.
Art, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as proved by the infamous conferences he gave in Paris and New York. During these happenings, he would knock back absinthe, perform drunken stripteases, shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised.
The onset of the First World War marked the beginning of a convoluted vanishing act that led him — in various guises — from Paris to Mexico where he disappeared at sea on a drunken boat of his own making. His body was never found. For years to come, he would continue to be spotted throughout the world. Arthur Cravan is still at large.
This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 26 February 2008:
A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten
Modernism’s strong, silent types not only redefined the purpose of literature – they saved on paper, too
“Neither am I,” quipped Peter Cook, when a fellow partygoer boasted that he was working on a novel. There is far more to this bon mot than meets the eye, as George Steiner‘s My Unwritten Books illustrates. In fact, the “non genre” lies at the very heart of literary modernity. Blaise Cendrars, for instance, toyed with the idea of a bibliography of unwritten works. Marcel Bénabou went one step further by publishing a provocative volume entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. In this manifesto of sorts, the anti-author argues that the books he has failed to write are not “pure nothingness”: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian library of phantom fictions. This is precisely what Steiner means when he states that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” But what prompts writers to withhold themselves at the conception?
Some say that everything has already been said (La Bruyère et al); others have spoken of the futility of writing in the shadow of Joyce (Sollers) or in the wake of the Holocaust (Adorno) and 9/11 (McInerney). At a more fundamental level, as Tom McCarthy recently reasserted, literature is “always premised on its own impossibility”. Kafka even went as far as to state that the “essential impossibility of writing” is the “only thing one can write about”. Or not. Taking their cue from Rousseau (“There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist”) the proponents of the “literature of the No” (or “workless artists” as Jean-Yves Jouannais calls them) prefer to abstain rather than run the risk of compromising their perfect vision. Written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter.
This sense of creative impotence stems in part from a dual historical process which deified authors while defying the very authority of their authorship. In Europe, writers and artists were called upon to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the growing secularisation of society. For a while, the alter deus stood above his handiwork, paring his fingernails, but then “I” — the “onlie begetter” — became another, the signifier dumped the signified, and it all went pear-shaped. To compound matters, the gradual relaxation of censorship laws proved that the unsayable remained as elusive as ever when everything could be said.
The realisation that, at best, writers could only hope to dress old words new and recreate what was already there led to a spate of literary eclipses. Hofmannstahl’s Lord Chandos, who renounces literature because language cannot “penetrate the innermost core of things”, epitomises this mute mutiny instigated (in real life) by Rimbaud. Wittgenstein would later insist that the most important part of his work was the one he had not written, presumably because it lay beyond his coda to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Keeping stum and tuning in to the roar on the other side of silence was a soft option. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov — who attempts to defeat God by desiring his own humanity and therefore his own mortality and death — heralded a wave of phantom scribes. Forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, writers such as Marcel Schwob came to the conclusion that the urge to destroy was also a creative urge — and perhaps the only truly human one.
Authors, of course, have always been tempted to destroy works which failed to meet their impossibly high standards (vide Virgil), but never before had auto-da-fé been so closely related to felo-de-se. The Baron of Teive (one of Pessoa‘s numerous heteronyms) destroys himself after destroying most of his manuscripts because of the impossibility of producing “superior art”. In Dadaist circles, suicide even came to be seen as a form of inverted transcendence, a rejection of the reality principle, an antidote to literary mystification as well as a fashion. “You’re just a bunch of poets and I’m on the side of death,” was Jacques Rigaut‘s parting shot to the Surrealists. Like him, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Danilo Kupus, Boris Poplavsky, Julien Torma and René Crevel all chose to make the ultimate artistic statement. The rest, of course, is silence.