Colossal Youth

This appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 70, pp. 54-57):

Colossal Youth

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.

One Thousand Cranes Can’t Be Wrong

This appeared in the winter 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 71, p. 14):

One Thousand Cranes Can’t Be Wrong

An introduction to Matthew Coleman’s “action painting of the heart”

Matthew Coleman had always been an artist — even when he saw himself as a writer or a filmmaker — but it took the mother of all depressions to open up his eyes. “The intensity, the violence of what I went through completely changed me,” he explains. Coleman’s work is the product of “heightened states of feelings”: the canvas is a “battleground” on which the artist squares up to his demons, wielding the palette knife like “a sword”.

The (noble) savage beauty of the Hand Bursts series — which culminates in a bloody mess that could incarnadine the multitudinous seas — conjures up the fleeting patterns Coleman creates on sundry beaches and then captures on camera. The Lines You Should Not Cross are vicious red pencil renditions of the artist’s bouts of self-harming, but they are also reminiscent of those lines literally drawn in the sand that will be, as it were, littorally washed away. The vibrancy of Coleman’s works often comes from this tension between the compulsion to freeze moments in time and the desire to dissolve into an eternal here and now.

The Cry of a Thousand Cranes — red, blue and yellow origami birds hanging in the Saatchi Gallery or from a tree in the artist’s back garden — was inspired by the old Japanese legend according to which whoever folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. When I ask him if he believes in this legend, Matthew Coleman just smiles. Then he says, “I want yellows and blues and reds, I want to see them everywhere I walk, all exploding like fireworks”. We both stare in silence at the cranes gently swaying in the breeze.

All the Latest

I’m doing a series of blogs on literary criticism (called “In Theory”) for the Guardian‘s website. The first one, about “The Death of the Author,” was published today.

A short piece on Matthew Coleman‘s artwork appears in the Winter issue of the excellent Flux magazine.

On 30 December 2009, Susan Tomaselli devoted her first 3:AM Cult Hero feature to a piece I’d written about Arthur Cravan for the Guardian Books Blog. You’ll find the full text here.

Only Disconnect

This was published on the Flux magazine website on 13 November 2009:

Only Disconnect

Andrew Gallix on this year’s new literary model

“All of this intellect stuff is fine as a consolation (which is how it developed in the first place: Socrates not being Alcibiades),” claims the narrator of an early Toby Litt story. He has a point, of course. Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, famously confided that he had become a philosopher in order to make up for his ugliness and attract women. Conversely, ghostwriters keep churning out books for celebrity airheads in search of intellectual credibility. And then there’s Gavin James Bower. The author of Dazed & Aroused is the stuff publishers’ wet dreams are made of: a model turned writer; Socrates and Alcibiades rolled into one. “I’m too pretty to be a serious novelist but not pretty enough to be a top model,” he aphorises, “I have no consolation.” Call me jealous, but I have no sympathy.

Bower is far more than just another clothes horse who can string a few sentences together. He started putting pen to paper when he was still reading history at university. Among his influences, he cites Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Ellis, Marx, Sartre and Camus, but also Flux magazine editor Lee Taylor, who gave him his first break: “He was one of the first people who got me excited about being a writer myself”. An internship at Dazed & Confused took an unexpected turn when he was encouraged to go into modelling rather than journalism. After a year or so, his career went the way of the “skinny-jeans-and-winklepickers look,” but not before it had provided him with enough material for a stunning debut novel.

Having walked the (cat)walk, Gavin James Bower can talk authentically about inauthenticity. Alex, the narrator and anti-hero of Dazed & Aroused, slides down the surface of things, barely batting an eyelid when he is fellated by his father’s gorgeous girlfriend. In a rare moment of insight, he realises that the “nauseating truth” about a world in which anything is possible is that nothing is also a distinct possibility. The key to the book probably lies in this oscillation between surfeit and emptiness. Instead of leading to objectivity, Alex’s psychopathological detachment conjures up nightmarish dreamscapes — unreal cities — in which glamorous models are for ever tripping over the vagrants who litter the streets. From the ranters whose messages are always incomprehensible to the news bulletins invariably watched on mute, information overload leads to communication breakdown. The protagonist is bombarded by messages — via leaflets, billboards, freesheets, bumper stickers, graffiti or even fridge magnets — but they remain mere juxtapositions. On Oxford Street, for instance, he passes two men holding placards: “One sells Jesus to passers-by while the other advertises a buffet lunch deal”. The only point, if there is one, is that everything has been commodified. Gavin James Bower describes his character as a “personification of the capitalist social relation — an estranged individual who exploits others and refuses to connect to anything”. Yet, in spite of all that, he remains strangely alluring. Even when it comes to coke, the devil has all the best lines.

Dazed & Aroused is published by Quartet Books.

Colossal Youth (Abridged Version)

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An abridged version of “Colossal Youth,” my piece on Arthur Cravan, was posted on the Flux magazine website on Friday 13 November 2009:

Colossal Youth

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.

The Future is Going to Be Boring

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This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, p. 77):

The Future is Going to Be Boring

Despite his bohemian hairdo and stripy tops, Lee Rourke is a creature of habit. Every single story in Everyday, his 2007 debut, was composed of a Saturday afternoon in the very same east London pub. And each one of these stories (or “fragments” as he prefers to call them) bears more than a passing resemblance to all the others. Time and again, the author retreads well-worn ground like a criminal constantly returning to the scene of his crime. Photocopying machines abound — underscoring this repetition compulsion — and the figure of Sisyphus looms large, from the hypnotic sway of a lady’s derrière in “Cruel Work” to the Groundhog Day pattern of “Footfalls”. If there is nothing new under the sun, all that remains is an eternity of repetition, recycling and re-enactment. That’s the gist of it.

“Our future is already boring, and we’ve not even reached it yet,” laments one of the scientists (echoing J. G. Ballard) in the piece you are about to read. Lee Rourke is rapidly becoming the poet laureate of tedium. One of his early “fragments” is called “Being Lee Rourke is Boring” — a title that exemplifies the author’s curious oscillation between self-aggrandisement and self-effacement. Should his dedication be in any doubt, Rourke is preparing a critical study in which he analyses how ennui has been “a central creative force” in literary history. He has also just completed a poetry collection that delves into the mind-numbing, soul-destroying monotony of office life: its eponymous emblem is Varroa destuctor, a bee-killing mite. “Most of my characters are either ergophobic or have major philosophical problems with the nature of work,” the author says.

Lee Rourke, a 37-year-old London-based Mancunian, is already one of the leading lights of the Offbeats and a respected reviewer. His first novel (published next year by American indie Melville House) is bound to further raise his profile. The Canal revolves around the Ballardian triumvirate of boredom, violence and technology. Set against the backdrop of Regent’s Canal — “one of the myriad arteries that flood a city like London with activity” — it is a book about dwelling “in the Heidegerrian sense,” about “the toing and froing of human interaction within a mechanised society” as well as the tale of “one man’s search for understanding and companionship”.

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