The Abode of Fancy

This appeared in The Guardian (Guardian Review) on 24 December 2016: 10.

samcoll

We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoo-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to summarise: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected.

There are two main plot lines. The first revolves around Simeon Collins, a young student who shares his initials with the author, and the washed-up, world-weary older friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin. The book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit and snot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages.

Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5,000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. Simeon composes a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw.”

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers are here in name or spirit, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that the first character to appear has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than its fanciful cast come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue is often pitch-perfect and Coll (pictured) displays an emotional intelligence beyond his years: the unflinching, compassionate depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone, but the default mode is mock-heroic, with the quixotic cast out of place in a hastily delineated contemporary Ireland: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” and the 2008 recession.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Nearly all the characters are male and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse?

samcoll2

Here is a longer, slightly different version:

We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoe-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages of scatological high jinks and coruscating wit. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College — a mere 20 years old — when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to synopsize: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected. For what it is worth, there are two main plot lines. The first one revolves around a young student, Simeon Collins, his sentimental travails, and his father’s washed-up, world-weary friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin, and Elijah, who, like one of the author’s nested narratives, takes up abode in a deceased character’s body from which it emits gnomic utterances. But the book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares (most of the animals can speak) who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales. It even includes a donkey called Balthazar (as in Bresson’s classic) who — “or so he claimed” — was a film star in a previous life.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is quite apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit, snot and whatnot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages. Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique from the aforementioned wisecracking ass: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. A bookmark on page 390 in Arsene O’Colla’s copy of Swann in Love proves “how far he got” in Proust’s oeuvre and, crucially, “from whence he never proceeded”. Simeon Collins (whose initials are also the author’s) starts off composing a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw”.

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond, are here, in name or spirit. One thinks of Albert Potter’s dingy subterranean flat, in the novel, where books “copulate and fecundate, book begetting book”. Detailed descriptions of photographs open up new vistas; worlds within worlds. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that Martin Graves (the first character to appear) has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than the fanciful characters come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue — “You’re not, no, are you not, yeah” — is often pitch-perfect. Despite his youth, Sam Coll displays an emotional intelligence far beyond his years. His unflinching, albeit compassionate, depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone (as well as point of view) but the default mode is mock-heroic. When the Mad Monk asks for directions, bemused passersby fail to comprehend the “antique cast in which he couched his query”. The Irish-American Tadgh O’Mara spurns his “own accursed tongue” in favour of bookish Gaelic gibberish. As a result, the poetry he produces is “like reading a dictionary of the most obscure Irishness that had been spliced all out of order”. The implicit critique of the “impoverished idiom” of our age is part of the characters’ quixotic cast. For various reasons, they feel out of place in contemporary Ireland, which is hastily delineated: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” (that “can’t be beat”) and the 2008 recession.

Like most great works, The Abode of Fancy comes equipped with its own critical apparatus. The description of the Mad Monk’s doggerel as a “happy fusion of Sterne and Yeats, two names one would not have suspected of ever being conducive to successful welding” provides a fitting definition of the novel itself. A mock-Yeatsian mythology runs parallel to, and gradually merges with, the disenchanted world of piss artistry and unrequited love embodied by Simeon and his entourage.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Barring a couple of exceptions, the characters are all male to a man and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Sam Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse? And will he micturate against the wall whilst whistling a jaunty Celtic ditty?

Surrendering to the Unknown Route

Deborah Levy, “Deborah Levy: ‘I Have Grown to Love My Writing Shed in Every Season,” The Guardian (Guardian Review) 1 October 2016

When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.

My current writing mantra is a quote by EM Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” This applies to the life of a novel as well as any other kind of life. Come to think of it, the life that is waiting for us might be worse than the life we have planned.

Not Feeling At Home At Home

“I’m going to talk about the making of home,” she says. “Women put so much of their energy into creating a home: it’s something I respect deeply; I’ve made a few myself. But there comes a stage, it seems to me, where women don’t feel at home in their home; the very place they’ve created is the place they want to leave. That interests me.”
Deborah Levy, “A Life In…: Deborah Levy” by Sarah Crown, The Guardian 19 March 2016

With My Back to the World

Agnes Martin, “Agnes Martin: the Artist Mystic who Disappeared into the Desert” by Olivia Laing, The Guardian 22 May 2015

“I paint with my back to the world,” she declared, and what she wanted to catch in her rigorous nets was not material existence, the Earth and its myriad forms, but rather the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself. (…) Forget confessional art. This is withholding art, evading disclosure, declining to give itself away.

Roland Barthes’ Challenge to Biography

This appeared in Guardian Books on 14 August 2015:

Roland Barthes’ Challenge to Biography

The great critic’s life can certainly be seen in his work, but — as one would expect from the man who pronounced the Author dead — in more complicated ways than we are used to

 Life in writing ... Roland Barthes in 1978. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

Life in writing … Roland Barthes in 1978. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a piece on Roland Barthes shall be prefaced by a sarcastic reference to “The Death of the Author“. Especially when the centenary of his birth is commemorated with the publication of a third biography. Tiphaine Samoyault — who had access to a wealth of fresh material — is no ordinary biographer, however. Her premise is that a writer’s life is understood by what it lacks, as much as by the events it encompasses. She highlights the dangers of trying to explain the work through the life, or vice versa, as they are two “heterogeneous realities”. She also wastes no time in reminding us that the death of the writer (following an accident in 1980) is not The Death of the Author (1967).

When Barthes wrote his much-maligned essay, academic criticism in France had barely evolved since the days of Sainte-Beuve. The key to a work of literature was sought, ultimately, in the life — often the private life — of its author. Barthes argued that the latter’s authority was fundamentally undermined by modern fiction. As soon as writing becomes “intransitive” — as soon as language is no longer an instrument, but the very fabric of literature — “the voice loses its origin”: “to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality … that point where language alone acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘oneself’”. The “scriptor” — “born simultaneously with his text” and dismissed from it once it is finished — replaces the “Author-God”, whose death implies that a text no longer has an “ultimate meaning”. Every text is “eternally written here and now,” first by the scriptor, and then by the reader, whose creative power Barthes unleashes. (Ironically, this theory could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading, with the author standing in for the absent father.)

The death of the author is that of the Author-God. Barthes does not deny the very existence of the writer. Neither, to be fair, does he deny that biographical elements may come into play during the writing process. When he states that, from a linguistic standpoint, “the author is never more than a man who writes,” he clearly recognises that he or she is never anything less either. When he speaks of literature being an experience of identity loss “beginning with the very identity of the body that writes,” he clearly acknowledges that a body is doing the writing. It is, in fact, the presence of this body which he would increasingly strive to highlight in his intensely personal work.

During a lecture delivered a mere two months before he died, the French theorist disavowed his landmark essay. He shrugs it off as modish structuralist excess, and goes on to confess that he has “sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works”. Barthes protests too much. There was no “sudden about-face,” simply a shift of emphasis. If in Sade Fourier Loyola (1971) — published only four years after “The Death of the Author” — Barthes mentions an “amicable return of the author,” he hastens to add that this is not a resurrection of the Author-God. First of all, this is the author as he or she is experienced by the reader: “the author who leaves his text and comes into our life”. Secondly, this author has “no unity,” whether psychological or chronological. Finally, this author is primarily a physical presence: “he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body”.

The intersection of life and writing was always at the heart of Barthes’s project. Tiphaine Samoyault traces back his interest in self-portraiture to his sanatorium days, the diseased body being his original object of analysis. Susan Sontag shrewdly observes that he started his career by writing about Gide’s journal and ended up reflecting upon his own. He was fascinated by the moment when authors like Stendhal or Proust switched from diary to novel, and seemed to be about to follow suit. His work took a decidedly autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn with the publication of Empire of Signs (1970). This was followed by a memoir in fragments (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1975) and what Barthes described as an “almost novel” (A Lover’s Discourse, 1977). In the wake of the death of his beloved mother, he declared: “It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science”.

If Barthes presents biography with a problem, it is not because he is absent from his work, but on the contrary because he is inseparable from it. Etymologically, a text is a piece of cloth, one that, in Barthes’s view, is constantly in the process of being woven. In this making, “the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973). However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, in disseminated form, “like the ashes we strew into the wind after death” (Sade Fourier Loyola, 1971). These ashes are what he called “biographemes”. Barthes also came to identify “life writing” — whereby life becomes the text of the work, à la Proust — as a viable way of voicing the intimate. Beyond that, and even beyond meaning itself, he dreamed of a purely gestural writing that would inscribe “the hand as it writes” — his very desire for writing — into the body of his texts.

In literary biography, the life of an author is traditionally read as leading to the work. After Proust and Barthes, the biographer must treat life and work as two separate entities, which both converge and diverge. Samoyault does everything one expects a conventional biography to do, and more, bringing to life the changing intellectual climate of Barthes’ time, making — to take one iconic example — his silence after the events of May 1968 seem perfectly comprehensible. But with Barthes, it is the work that seems to lead to the life, or at least to biography. If our interest in Barthes’ work draws us to investigate the author, then it is not enough to consult the letters, diary entries and ticket stubs of traditional biography. In the end, our biographical investigations must lead us back to the work itself.

You Will Fail

Nicholas Wroe, “Frank Auerbach: ‘Painting is the Most Marvellous Activity Humans Have Invented,’ The Guardian 16 May 2015

He says the obligation to take account of the art that has gone before carries two demands: “first that you attempt to do something of a comparable scale and standard, which is impossible; second that you try and do something that has never been done before, that is also impossible. So in the face of this you can either just chuck it in, or you can spend all your energy and time and hopes in trying to cope with it. You will fail. But as Beckett very kindly said for all of us, ‘try again, fail better’, and painting just took me over.

We’re Late…

Clare Margetson, “The Hay Relay: The End-less Wait is Over,” The Guardian 4 July 2007

I blame Andrew Gallix’s slow writing movement. David Hockney, too. Sparked by his concerns about our non-visual age I’ve taken a leaf out of his book and taken to gazing out of the window a great deal recently. But all these fantastic clouds in the sky are a huge distraction. So, we’re late, we’re late in putting up this post.