Theorems Estranged Into Pure Poetry

An extract from my review of Agustín Fernández Mallo‘s Nocilla Dream appears on the back cover of Nocilla Experience (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016).

nocillaexperience

By juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction … the author has created a hybrid genre that mirrors our networked lives, allowing us to inhabit its interstitial spaces. A physician as well as an artist, Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry.

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Goal-Line Philosophy

This appeared in the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times (FT Weekend) 14-15 May 2016: 9.

Goal-Line Philosophy

football

Andrew Gallix admires a novelist’s provocative and playful investigation into the beautiful game

Camus notwithstanding, le ballon rond has never acquired significant literary cachet in continental Europe. So it is small wonder that anxieties surrounding the worthiness of this subject should haunt Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football. Not only does football lack the gravitas to pass as a highbrow pursuit, but it also goes against the grain of family tradition. As a child in Belgium, Toussaint kept his passion for the game in check to blend in with his cerebral relatives. Now this middle-aged man of letters has decided to drop the act. This, he confesses at the outset, is a book he “had to write”.

Toussaint is an award-winning novelist, film-maker and photographer whose 13 books to date have all been published by the prestigious Éditions de Minuit, home to Beckett and the nouveau roman — two of his major influences, at least in the early days. Football, published here ahead of Euro 2016, is a series of fragmentary essays, of which the most famous, “Zidane’s Melancholy”, has already appeared separately, as a very slim volume, in 2006. Toussaint covers most of the World Cups since 1998 in idiosyncratic style, talking about everything but the games themselves. Instead, he recounts — sometimes in beautifully granular detail — what it feels like to attend them.

Football kicks off in playful mode, with a declaration of independence masquerading as provocative caveat: “This is a book that no one will like.” The author warns that his work will alienate intellectuals who despise the beautiful game, as well as football fans who despise intellectuals. In fact, he will attempt to reconcile both constituencies. He does so with his habitual lightness of touch and trademark deadpan humour, while also approaching his subject with a seriousness of intent.

Football, for Toussaint, is a prelapsarian Neverland. It is bound up with his childhood in Brussels, which came to an end, at the age of 13, when his parents moved to Paris — an event he experienced as an expulsion from paradise. “The football of adults” — that of politics, big money, and Fifa scandals — “leaves me cold”, he acknowledges in a revealing passage, and when a sea breeze gently ripples the corner flags during a match in Kobe, his eyes suddenly become those of a “marvelling child” once more.

For Toussaint, football produces a wide-eyed re-enchantment of the world, allowing the adult writer a “temporarily acceptable intellectual regression”. When he contemplates the “absolute green” of the pitch and the “timeless colours” of the national strips, he writes, “Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again.”

The gist of the book is contained in the closing line of the opening essay: “I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time.” During a game, Toussaint argues, the future remains “fundamentally open” until the very last second, and the degree of absorption this requires “holds us radically at a distance from death”, which in turn produces “a kind of metaphysical wellbeing”.

As soon as the final result is known, however, “nothing remains but the materiality of the players, the emergence of the prosaic and the violence of the real”. Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final is reinterpreted as the player’s refusal to complete his final match and break the “invisible thread connecting football to the passage of time”.

At times, football is seen by the author as a distraction from writing. At others, writing becomes a ruse to watch football games: in 2002, for instance, Toussaint organised a series of talks and readings coinciding with the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Throughout, however, there is an almost subterranean quest for words that would “have the power to reactivate the magic of football”: “words of poetry, or literature, which come to brush against football, grasp its movement”. Football by other means.

ft

Here is an earlier, unpublished version:

Camus notwithstanding, le ballon rond has never acquired the literary cachet afforded to cycling in the heyday of Le Tour. Small wonder that anxieties surrounding the worthiness of this subject should haunt Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football. Not only does it lack the necessary gravitas to pass muster as a highbrow pursuit, but it also goes against the grain of family tradition. He describes his four-year-old likeness as “anticipating, by more than fifty years, the austere and taciturn appearance bestowed on writers” in solidarity with his Lithuanian grandfather, pictured standing next to him, who failed to take him to a single match. Now that he is no longer simply bald at heart, the middle-aged man of letters may have decided that it was high time to drop the act in solidarity with his younger self. This, he confesses at the outset, is a book he “had to write” lest he “break the fine thread that still connects [him] to the world”. The world of childhood and the seriousness of its games, no doubt, that he opposes to the trivial childishness of adults at play: “I can’t dissociate football from dreams and childhood”. The few sentences from his first novel he has lovingly woven into the text testify to the importance of this endeavour, which could be construed as a summation of his entire work.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is an award-winning novelist, filmmaker and photographer, whose fifteen books to date have all been published by the iconic Editions de Minuit, home to Beckett and the nouveau roman — two of his major influences, at least in the early days. Football, released here ahead of Euro 2016, is a series of fragmentary essays (the most famous one — “Zidane’s Melancholy” — had already appeared separately, as a very slim volume, in 2006). Toussaint covers most of the World Cups since 1998 in his idiosyncratic style, which consists in talking about everything but the games themselves. Instead, he recounts — sometimes in beautifully granular detail — what it feels like to attend them.

Football kicks off in playful mode with a declaration of independence masquerading as provocative caveat: “This is a book no one will like”. The author warns that his work will alienate intellectuals who despise the beautiful game, as well as football fans who despise intellectuals. In fact, he will attempt to reconcile both constituencies which reflect Descartes’ mind-body dichotomy as well as the two facets of his divided self. Toussaint — whose name is French for All Saints’ Day — seemed predestined to tackle such a weighty issue, and does so with his habitual lightness of touch and trademark deadpan humour. Religious imagery runs through these essays like Gareth Bale across a pitch. Early on, he recalls how the two teams in his primary school were picked with “biblical simplicity” according to whether pupils attended civic education or religious classes: “we played Moral versus Religion football matches”. The children run after the ball “amidst a halo of dust” that, with time, morphs into a “halo of memory”. Toussaint was on the side of Religion, but he is torn between mind, soul, and body. He describes himself watching the 1970 World Cup through a shop window and smiling at the way players left their “physical envelope” behind — “like a halo of themselves” — due to imperfect colour technology. Holed up in his Corsican retreat, hell-bent on writing another novel, he chronicles, several decades later, the intrusion of “sacrilegious”, “profane images” — “images of football” — upon his sacred work. Soon he is glued to a live stream of the 2014 World Cup, having raised his laptop “like an offering on a profane little altar consisting of two or three volumes of the Encyclopédie Universalis (a paradoxical homage of virtue to vice)”.

Football, for Toussaint, is a prelapsarian Neverland. It is bound up with his childhood in Brussels, which came to an end, at the age of thirteen, when his parents moved to Paris — an event he experienced as an expulsion from Paradise. “The football of adults” (that of politics, big money, and FIFA scandals) “leaves me cold,” he acknowledges in a revealing passage, and when a sea breeze gently ripples the corner flags during a match in Kobe, his eyes suddenly become those of a “marvelling child” once more. Football produces a wide-eyed re-enchantment of the world. It allows the adult writer a “temporarily acceptable intellectual regression”: “Everything returns to a state of order, nature becomes immutable and reassuring again” when he contemplates the “absolute green” of the pitch or the “timeless colours” of the national strips.

The gist of the book is contained in the closing line of the opening essay: “I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time”. During a game, Toussaint argues, the future remains “fundamentally open” until the very last second, and the degree of absorption this requires “holds us radically at a distance from death”, which in turn produces “a kind of metaphysical wellbeing”. When the “invisible thread connecting football to the passage of time is broken” — as soon as the final result is known —“nothing remains but the materiality of the players, the emergence of the prosaic and the violence of the real”. The infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final is reinterpreted as Zidane’s refusal to complete his final match and break this “invisible thread”.

At times, football is seen by the author as a distraction from writing, or even its very antithesis. At others, writing becomes a ruse to watch football games: in 2002, for instance, he organised a series of talks, readings, and journalistic assignments coinciding with the World Cup in Korea and Japan. Throughout, however, there is an almost subterranean quest for words which would “have the power to reactivate the magic of football” once the “invisible thread” is broken — “words of poetry, or literature, which come to brush against football, grasp its movement”. Football by other means.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

This appeared in the New Statesman 4-10 March 2016: 16.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

danfoxpretentiousness

Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title. Taking his cue from Brian Eno (whose career he describes as “a successful experiment in pretension”), Fox, an art critic, sets about reclaiming the P-word. Indeed, the whole book is a gloss on Eno’s contention that “pretending is the most important thing we do” because it enables us to discover “what it would be like to be otherwise”. It is a self-help manual for those, brought up on David Bowie, who doubt that there is a self to help.

More often than not, the accusation of pretentiousness is levelled at people who get ideas above their station. It cuts them down to size. Fox turns this on its head by celebrating the aspiration to a life less ordinary. In the current cultural climate, it is downright subversive.

The author’s subject is the slippage from pretending — what is done at the kids’ table – to pretension, which “goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups”. How does an activity that is considered crucial to the healthy development of children become contemptible in adults? In a “back-of-an-envelope history of acting”, Fox asks where this stigma originates, exploring Plato’s mistrust of actors but also the adoption of classical rhetoric by politicians and lawyers, whereby the “history of pretence” became bound up with the “history of power”. Finally, the evolution towards a naturalistic style of acting accompanied the rise of individualism and the Romantic quest for “the truth of one’s inner self”. Pretending was now beyond the pale.

Authenticity raises the issue of authentication – the “legitimacy we confer, or not, on a performance”. It is “a matter of authority, of who gets to pass judgement on whether or not you are ‘being yourself'”. Fox notes that the modern artist’s mission is to seek “creative freedom” but fails to point out that this autonomy can also be the source of his or her lack of legitimacy. He describes the “gap between expectation and actuality” – which derives from this creative freedom – as “a productive necessity rather than a flaw”. Failure is the process “by which the arts move forward”. This is Beckett with a smiley face.

The rest of Fox’s argument covers class: accents, politics, gentrification and inverted snobbery. Unlike pretending, pretension “carries with it the sting of class betrayal, especially in the UK, where class is a neurosis as much as a set of social conditions”. The accusation of pretentiousness is “a form of social control”, designed to keep people in their place and protect the status quo.

Pretentiousness achieves a pleasing congruence between style and substance. After all, the essay – experimental by definition, not content with being itself – is arguably the most pretentious genre still in currency. Dan Fox’s shape-shifting work displays many of its hallmarks. It opens with a few etymological considerations and then unfolds organically, one idea leading to another, exemplifying Brian Dillon’s description of the essay as “a way of writing oneself into the unknown”.

There are downsides to this narrative drift. The author’s ruminations lead him, on occasion, to retread ground. In certain passages, the book feels freighted with too many examples. On the other hand, discussing the notion of authenticity without mentioning Kierkegaard or Heidegger seems remiss (although that probably says more about my pedantry than any shortcomings on the author’s part).

Nonetheless, the breadth of reference is staggering – taking in history, cinema, drama, politics, literature, sociology and music. It reflects the “magpie cultural education” that “pop’s intellectual permissiveness” once provided. Without giving in to nostalgia, Fox harks back to more progressive times when culture was not the preserve of the privileged. From this vantage point, his essay ties in with the writings of Mark Fisher (whom he quotes), Owen Hatherley and Simon Reynolds.

The final, autobiographical chapter is the strongest and most moving. It charts the author’s journey from Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire where he grew up in the late 1980s, to New York City, where he now co-edits the contemporary art magazine frieze. It is a celebration of overreaching ambition; a paean to “dreaming big in small cities” at a point when pop music (which “never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious”) acted as a gateway to a wider world of culture. Music connects the young author to Manhattan and Berlin, even though he has “barely been an hour down the motorway to London”. On day trips to Oxford, he feels the presence of Andy Warhol in a student’s striped T-shirt or Nico in a local branch of Chelsea Girl.

Fox ends by fast-forwarding to his present life in New York. Near his apartment, there is “an Essex Street, a Ludlow Street, a Norfolk Street, and a Suffolk Street”. He wonders what these British toponyms would have conjured up, had he grown up “on the Lower East Side rather than in the English countryside”. Having read this book in Paris, I find myself longing for Wheatley. Life, as Rimbaud never quite said, is elsewhere.

In Fox’s interpretation, pretentiousness is culturally – rather than socially – aspirational. It is “permission for the imagination”, allowing us to transfigure our mundane surroundings and soar above what Keats called “busy common-sense”.
danfox

On 8 March 2016, this review was posted on the New Statesman‘s website under the title “When Did Pretentiousness Become Such a Dirty Word?”

It was prefaced thus: Dan Fox’s new book sets out to reclaim the P-word with an impressively broad-ranging study of art, literature and culture.

Strange Beauty of the Nada in Nevada

This appeared in The Independent on 21 December 2015 (Section 2, page 38):

Strange Beauty of the Nada in Nevada

Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry

nocilladream

Modernism’s last stand, according to the great art critic Robert Hughes, was a retreat to the American desert. This is the terrain Agustín Fernández Mallo explores in his debut novel, Nocilla Dream, set against the barren backdrop of the “loneliest highway in North America”. Bookended by two forlorn brothels, US Route 50 is the non-place — the nada in Nevada — where “precisely nothing” can be found, if you look hard enough.

The horizon, here, is an event; a vanishing point, reminiscent of one of the characters’ de Chirico-style paintings, rather than the magnet that fuels narrative drive. No longer manifest, destiny can only be glimpsed obliquely, as illustrated by the haunting, Fitzgeraldian image of “the last casino glimmering on the horizon in the rearview mirror”. This retrospective vision soon infects the reading process itself.

First published in Spain in 2006, Nocilla Dream is the opening gambit in a trilogy that spawned a generation of like-minded writers. It is composed of 113 brief chapters — one of them is less than two lines long — which appear like shards of a shattered globe, or fragments of an unfinishable whole. Jorge Rodolfo Fernández is obsessed with Borges’s tale of an empire where cartography becomes so sophisticated that a map as large as the territory it represents is produced. He comes to believe that he inhabits the ruins of this mythical map, which seems to hark back to a time when a work of art could coincide with life itself. In another vignette, a Mexican stowaway who suffocates in a truck trying to cross the border, leaves a “broken map” of himself on the black beans serving as his deathbed.

Linear narrative is ill-equipped to respond to globalisation, hence Mallo’s picaresque twist on the road trip trope. Objects and characters migrate from one chapter to another, prompting the reader to constantly flick backwards to check if the biscuit tin produced in a Danish factory had already appeared in a supermarket in Carson City.

Nocilla Dream is a world seen in a grain of Nevada sand. Its arborescent structure stems from a solitary poplar tree, decorated with hundreds of pairs of shoes, growing alongside US Route 50. By juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction — more than 20 chapters are lifted verbatim from extraneous works — the author has created a hybrid genre that mirrors our networked lives, allowing us to inhabit its interstitial spaces. A physician as well as an artist, Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond

This appeared in Guardian Review on 21 November 2015 (Page 10). It was posted on the Guardian‘s website on 18 November 2015:

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

A woman meditates on her rural seclusion in a stunning debut that ‘re-enchants the world’

‘Bennett aims at nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world.’ Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

‘Bennett aims at nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world.’ Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Claire-Louise Bennett’s highly acclaimed debut, initially published in Ireland earlier this year, is a collection of 20 stories — the shortest of which runs to a couple of sentences. They are all told, it seems, by the same female character, whose semi-reclusive existence the tales revolve around. Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the “savage swarming magic” the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her “mind in motion” (the only exception being the final story, told in the third person). For all this propinquity, we would be hard-pressed to recognise her, should she suddenly emerge from her rural retreat. One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator — whose brain and body we inhabit — yet how little we know about her. We don’t even learn her name.

Her soliloquies are peppered with asides to an implied reader — “if you want to know” — cheekily drawing attention to the amount of information being withheld. The young woman discloses, in typically obfuscating fashion, that “it wouldn’t be entirely unwarranted to suggest that she might, overall, have the appearance and occasionally emanate the demeanour of someone who grows things”, despite having actually “propagated very little”. So much for what she looks like. We learn that she expended “many thousands of words” on an aborted doctoral thesis before relocating to the countryside, whence she chronicles the minutiae of her reduced circumstances with professorial pedantry and a mock-heroic style. Ireland, where the stories are set, is never even mentioned: “I live on the most westerly point of Europe, right next to the Atlantic ocean” is as close as we get and as much as we need.

The narrator’s largely solitary lifestyle enables her to eschew what Bennett (pictured) has called “anthropocentric parochialism”. “In solitude you don’t need to make an impression on the world,” the author explained to the Irish Times, “so the world has some opportunity to make an impression on you.” When that impression fails to materialise, in “A Little Before Seven”, the protagonist presses down on the worktop to give herself “a little more density”. In “Morning, Noon & Night” she lies in bed next to her boyfriend, thinking of the vegetables “out there in the dark”: “I’d splay my fingers towards the ceiling and feel such yearning!”

A rich seam of nostalgie de la boue runs through the collection, from the primeval earth that smells “as if it had never before been opened up” in the aforementioned story, to the mud — “feudal and rich, almost igneous” — in “The Big Day”, and the Dostoevskian close of “Words Escape Me”: “I was beneath the ground.” In “Control Knobs”, the narrator seems to envy a character in a novel she is reading, who becomes “more like an element” than a human being, “in the same way that rocks and trees are physiological manifestations. Material. Matter. Stuff.” Having recently moved into her cottage, she reclines on the lawn, and lets nature take her over: “I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead. I would listen to a spider coming through the grass towards the blanket.”

In the opening story, the narrator is still a little girl, and she climbs over a wall into an ornamental garden and falls asleep on the “unfeasible lawn”, clutching a lilac seashell. This could imply that the rest of the book is an Alice-style dream, or series of daydreams. As she puts it in “The Deepest Sea”, “daydreams return me to my original sense of things” — one thinks here of Wallace Stevens’s “plain sense of things” — “and I luxuriate in these fervid primary visions until I am entirely my unalloyed self again”. The cottage, first glimpsed through a thick hedgerow, and the inaccessible secret garden that she stumbles upon in the process of chasing away a cat, are echoes of this paradise lost.

What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world. Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous, quality through the examination of what Emerson called “the low, the common, the near” or the exploration of Georges Perec’s “infra-ordinary” — a quest for the quotidian. Unlike Perec, however, the narrator does not set out to exhaust circumscribed fragments of reality; quite the contrary. “I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things”, which only ends up “making the world smaller”.

Besides being a nod to Walden Pond, where Thoreau went to “live deliberately”, Bennett’s title refers to a sign next to a pond “saying pond” — the kind of literal message that breaks the spell of place, preventing us from “moving about in deep and direct accordance with things”. On brief occasions, the narrator starts speaking in tongues, drawing on a private inner language that can never be “written down at all”. A language beyond meaning, conversant with “the earth’s embedded logos”, it remains “simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt our flickering organs”. This is a truly stunning debut, beautifully written and profoundly witty.