Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else

My review of Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else by C.D. Rose. The Irish Times, 1 September 2018, p. 32.

Is C.D. Rose an elaborate literary hoax? Some have harboured suspicions ever since he “edited” The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (2014) chronicling the fate of obscure scribes, who, on closer inspection, all turned out to be fictional. The provocative title of his debut novel, Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else, lets the (Cheshire) cat out of the bag.

A suspiciously anonymous protagonist doubles up — like so many other things in this tale of doppelgängers and mistaken identities — as a remarkably reliable narrator who conceals his storytelling talents behind apologetic asides to the reader (the storyline is far less digressive than he makes out). Following the “modest success” of a book he edited — yes, the aforementioned Biographical Dictionary — he is invited to deliver a series of 10 lectures on lost or forgotten works in an unspecified provincial city, somewhere in central Europe. The stage is set for a campus caper in Kafkaland that reads, at times, like a David Lodge revisited by Umberto Eco.

When he sets foot in his cramped hotel room — dominated by an oversized Narnia-like wardrobe — the narrator senses that he is “somewhere just not quite right”, signalling that he has stepped through the looking-glass into a recognisable, yet subtly defamiliarised, world. After all, what is this “cupboard within a cupboard” if not a mise en abyme — the space of fiction squared, which is that of literature itself?

The uncanniness of the hotel room spreads to the labyrinthine city, which seems expressly “designed to lose oneself in”, geometry being a “loose concept” in these Expressionistic climes. Roaming the streets, the narrator has the distinct feeling of being preceded (rather than followed) as though haunted by the anxiety of influence or trapped in someone else’s narrative. It transpires that the ever-elusive Professor, who (supposedly) invited him in the first place, is dead — having probably been eliminated as part of a sinister plot to eradicate literature. Unbeknown to him, the narrator has been enrolled in the resistance due to his faith in Maxim Guyavitch, a cult author who wrote very little and whose very existence is contested.

Who’s Who is a book lover’s book, as well as a comic gem. Its palimpsestic quality is obvious from the italicised opening paragraphs, which are meant to be an excerpt from a potboiler the narrator is trying (and failing) to read on the train. Later, the discovery of a volume — which may or may not be a lost Guyavitch — is savoured like a fine vintage: “It gave off an odour of ferns, of waxy newness with an undertow of body musk”. The lectures that interrupt the frame narrative at regular intervals (the last one is left blank in homage to Tristram Shandy) allow the author to produce pastiches of various genres ranging from magic realism to folk horror. Most of the authors on whose fake works he then offers a mock-academic excursus exist — insofar as they are figments of other writers’ imaginations. Enoch Soames, for instance, comes from Max Beerbohm, Vilém Vok from Enrique Vila-Matas, Silas Flannery from Italo Calvino, Maurice Bendrix from Graham Greene and Herbert Quain from Borges.

It is the latter, of course, who advocated summarising or critiquing books instead of going to all the trouble of composing them. Writing about fictitious or lost works (both in this case) is a means of holding literature in abeyance; of preserving its potentiality. This is as close as we can get to fiction’s “strange kind of utopia”.

As for the author? C.D. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

Wrapped Around Kebabs

Alexander Oliver, Review of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, by C.D. Rose, The Literary Review 5 March 2015:

As Andrew Gallix writes in his introduction, “Manuscripts and books remain blank to us through being censored, lost, drowned, shredded, pulped, burned, used as cigarette paper or wrapped around kebabs, fed to pigs or even ingested by their own authors… Marta Kupka produces a blank memoir, not of her own volition, but due to a potent combination of failing eyesight and dried-up typewriter ribbon”.

Bias, She Wrote

Clara Chow, “Bias, She Wrote,” The Strait Times 13 October 2015

I have no answer to those questions, nor am I sure if this comparison is fair. But the controversy has convinced me of one thing at least: that we never read innocently — that is, without consuming the writer’s identity in some way. As Andrew Gallix wrote in his introduction to the satirical Biographical Dictionary Of Literary Failure: “Literary biography is a by-product of literature: the writer’s life is read, à rebours, in the light of her works.”

Conversely, one might read a writer’s work differently, after finding out something particularly intriguing or unsavoury about her life. We are always reading with or against the grain of who we think the writer is. In submitting my own fiction to international journals, I always state in the first line of my cover letter that I am a writer from Singapore. The off-chance that an overseas editor might find my nationality interesting, I admit, factors in that decision.

Misreadings

Jamie Fisher, “A Patron Saint for Sadsacks: What Snark Says About Failure — and What Literature Says Back,” Los Angeles Review of Books 10 June 2015

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… In his introduction to the BDLF, Andrew Gallix suspects “that there is indeed a touch of Schadenfreude about the pleasure derived from reading these anecdotes of writerly woe.” There’s a name for this pleasure, and this narrative tradition: It’s snark. …

… Gallix’s introduction suggests that in writing the BDLF, Rose “may have been exorcising some demons of his own.” …

… Gallix places Rose’s work alongside any number of famous literary silences in the face of imperfection: “Rimbaud’s renunciation of poetry …, the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein’s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich or Rauschenberg, Yves Klein’s vacant exhibitions, as well (of course) as John Cage’s mute music piece.” Gallix describes the appeal of “absolute whiteness,” untrammeled potential.

This is true enough, in its way; any artist has coped with those moments of paralyzing uncertainty, when silence or irony seem better than wreckage. But Gallix’s misreading of Cage is, I think, telling. Cage intended the vacancy of the work to supply a stage for the ambient environment. His point wasn’t that art is incapable of speech, or that the artist has, finally, nothing to say. His intention was to draw a circle around a small section of public life and say, All that is inside this circle is art. It’s a circle of reception, an announcement that he is willing to listen. When Gallix calls Cage’s piece “mute,” he fails to understand that it is a stage for the people, and the experiences, we don’t usually choose to hear. …

Those Who Never Achieved Greatness

Stuart Kelly, “Stuart Kelly: Diversity Rules in Non-Fiction,” The Scotsman 13 December 2014

But my personal favourite in this genre [literary biography] has to be The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, by CD Rose and Andrew Gallix, a glorious alphabetical compendium of those who never achieved greatness.

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Beautiful Losers

Julian Hanna, “Beautiful Losers,” Rev. of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C. D. Rose, 3:AM Magazine 11 December 2014

The introduction, a brilliant extended meditation on ‘real’ failure by 3:AM’s own co-editor-in-chief Andrew Gallix, complements the fictional failures that follow.
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