New Novel, Old Master

“New Novel, Old Master.” Review of Robbe-Grillet: L’aventure du Nouveau Roman by Benoît Peeters and Réinventer le roman: Entretiens inédits by Alain Robe-Grillet and Benoît Peeters, Times Literary Supplement, 23-30 December 2022, pp. 24-25.

Alain Robbe-Grillet was born in 1922 — modernism’s annus mirabilis — as though the future nouveau romancier were destined to inherit the experimental spirit of the times, taking postwar literature (and cinema) into uncharted territory. Nabokov, who described La Jalousie (1957) as the greatest love story since Proust, regarded Robbe-Grillet as the foremost French writer of his generation, and for several decades his international reputation, particularly in the United States, would place him firmly in the Camus and Sartre super-league. Yet official commemorations of the centenary of his birth have been conspicuous by their absence in France, a country usually prompt to celebrate its great authors and artists.

In his new biography, Robbe-Grillet: L’aventure du Nouveau Roman, Benoît Peeters suspects that he was deemed too “sexually and politically incorrect” to make the grade. Peeters goes on to suggest that this snub may well have appealed to the novelist’s contrarian temperament, adducing his belated election to the Académie française in 2004. Despite having coveted this accolade since the late 1950s, Robbe-Grillet would never be officially inducted owing to his obstinate refusal to follow protocol — a form of self-sabotage that enabled him to be both an insider and an outsider simultaneously. The arch avant-gardiste was not averse to playing the game, but wanted to do so on his own terms. His agonistic approach to fiction — writing “against” readers rather than “for” them — was matched by his controversial polemics on the novel as a genre. This combative attitude earned him a great deal of enmity at a time when literary matters were still taken very seriously indeed. Peeters reminds us at the outset that if no contemporary writer was ever subjected to so much vitriol (even his funeral elicited a bad write-up in Le Monde), Robbe-Grillet revelled in being reviled. “I owe everything to my opponents”, he once said, reflecting that he had been lucky enough to have had “good enemies” throughout his career. The extreme reactions he regularly inspired seemed, in his eyes, to prove that he was right, spurring him on while also providing his often difficult work with a great deal of free publicity in the mainstream media.

Peeters is a dab hand at biographies, having already produced weighty tomes on Hergé, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Valéry. The challenge here was that Robbe-Grillet had partly pre-empted this exercise with his Romanesques trilogy, published between 1985 and 1994, which combined personal reminiscences (particularly in Le Miroir qui revient) with delirious sexual fantasies (notably in Angélique ou l’enchantement) and outright fiction (see the passages devoted to the shadowy figure of Henri de Corinthe, a putative family friend who may or may not have existed). In the course of these three volumes, the “autobiographical system”, as Robbe-Grillet put it, gradually breaks down.

Another challenge was the sheer volume of material to sift through. Robbe-Grillet’s archives are contained in 459 large boxes — an embarrassment of riches that may serve, as the biographer surmises, as a rampart behind which the author can hide. In 2001 Peeters conducted a series of filmed interviews with the novelist, then almost 80, which were released as a double DVD. They have now been transcribed and published in book form. Réinventer le roman: Entretiens inédits is the perfect companion piece to the biography, giving us direct access not only to the author’s own conversational voice, interpretations and erudition on matters philosophical, historical and even botanical, but also to his jovial good humour and general geniality — characteristics with which he is seldom associated. It often feels, uncannily, as though Robbe-Grillet were giving a running commentary on Peeters’ future biography.

The greatest pitfall would have been to turn Robbe-Grillet into the kind of all-conquering hero he so detested in the novels of Balzac, yet there are definite shades of Rastignac to his boundless ambition. There is also another, more puzzling resemblance. In his infamous 1958 essay, “Nature, humanisme, tragédie”, he claims that in order to appear as true to life as possible, “a good ‘character’ in a [realist] novel must above all be double”. By this token Robbe-Grillet would have made a very good character indeed. As a child he frequently encountered his doppelgänger: he would enter a room and see himself sitting in the armchair. Peeters implies that this was a lifelong occurrence. With this in mind it is striking to note how frequently the question of Robbe-Grillet’s duality (and his duplicity) recurs throughout his career. As a young novelist he scoffed at the notion of vatic inspiration: the creator as a mere conduit, incapable of intelligent reflection on their work. Many of his detractors never forgave him for having the audacity to write novels while producing a theoretical discourse on his practice. The fact that his works were sometimes at odds with his theories enraged them even further — whether this was deliberate, as he later claimed, is open to debate.

The prime example here is La Jalousie — by his own admission (and from the title onwards) a veritable “festival of metaphors” — released at a time when he strongly objected in public to anthropocentric analogies. In the Entretiens Robbe-Grillet claims that some of the more far-fetched theories that were attributed to him, in the early days, actually stemmed from Roland Barthes, who had celebrated his first published novel, Les Gommes (1953), as an instance of object-oriented literature. He further explains that Barthes lost interest in his work as soon as it became patent — with Dans le labyrinthe (1959) — that his interpretations were no longer tenable.

This did not prevent Barthes from accepting to preface Bruce Morrissette’s The Novels of Robbe-Grillet (1963) and giving voice to the idea that there were, in fact, two Robbe-Grillets: the early, anti-humanist one, who slid down the surface of things and a humanist “Robbe-Grillet n° 2”, more preoccupied with symbols and feelings. In his postface to the 1964 paperback edition of Dans le labyrinthe, the theorist Gérard Genette argued, similarly, that Robbe-Grillet was driven to constantly justify himself because he was torn between his “positivist intelligence” and “poetic imagination”. In 1988, when Angélique ou l’enchantement appeared, Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, writing in Le Monde, reprised this view, opposing “Robbe”, the novelist, to “Grillet”, the essayist and critic. This theory was finally borne out — or, rather, enacted — by Franklin J. Matthews, who penned the postface to the 1972 paperback edition of La Maison de rendez-vous: in 2001 a researcher discovered that the “Australian academic” Matthews was none other than Robbe-Grillet himself, who had thus authored both the novel and its critique. In the Entretiens we learn that the writer replicated this pattern by dividing his oeuvre into two discrete periods. In the first, encompassing Les Gommes, Le Voyeur (1955) and La Jalousie (three books whose composition was carefully premeditated), everything is filtered through a single consciousness. Unlike its predecessors, Dans le labyrinthe was no longer based on a pre-existing plot line: the figure of the soldier lost in the city mirrors that of the writer now astray in the meanders of his work. It inaugurated a new period in which the narrative coherence of his early novels disappears altogether, along with most ontological certainties, leaving the text as a battleground, where various consciousnesses are vying for control.

Born and raised in Brest, Robbe-Grillet was a successful young agronomist, studying banana-crop parasites and even producing a face cream containing bull sperm. When attempting to account for his sudden turn to literature in 1950, he invoked “our two gendarmes”, Marx and Freud, according to whom everything is either political or sexual. The political explanation is that he came from a fanatically far-right family who supported Marshal Pétain and the Nazi invaders to the bitter end. The lies on which their values rested led him to reject the “world of ideology, where everything always works; everything is ordered”, including the humanist tenets of literary realism that cover up the messiness of the real world. Despite signing the pro-Algerian Manifesto of the 121 in 1960, Robbe-Grillet would always be suspected, in some quarters, of being a right-winger, notably for his rejection of social realism. Art, for him, is never just a means of embellishing a message: it is the message. A novel is therefore self-sufficient — “expresses nothing but itself” — and its “necessity” has nothing to do with its “utility”, political or otherwise.

The second explanation for Robbe-Grillet opting for literature revolves around his predilection for sadistic sexual practices, which — along with his impotence — set him apart, creating a need for artistic expression. This “sexual difference” manifested itself at an early age, with the porcelain dolls he delighted in torturing or the pictures of women being executed that exerted such a hold over him. Peeters describes his highly unconventional, but very happy, marriage to Catherine Rstakian, which lasted fifty years. In 1955 she offered him a whip as a birthday present; two decades on she offered him a young female admirer who longed to be his slave. At one stage they even shared the same mistress. Not only did she go on to write successful sado-masochistic books, she became a dominatrix, organising lavish S&M soirées. Robbe-Grillet, who was, unsurprisingly, often accused of misogyny, always encouraged her, believing it was important for women to express their sexual fantasies. His own played an increasingly important part in his work, even though he knew they would put off many readers.

He often claimed that the greatest opportunity of his career was that his first novel had been rejected by Gallimard, the embodiment of the French publishing establishment. This paved the way for his close relationship with Jérôme Lindon, at the head of Les Éditions de Minuit (which, ironically, was purchased by Gallimard in 2021), where all his books would be published. He soon became a literary adviser, reading hundreds of manuscripts for Minuit, and recruiting like-minded writers such as Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Claude Simon and Robert Pinget (Samuel Beckett, an early admirer of Les Gommes, was already in-house). Lindon and Robbe-Grillet, who had a knack for publicity stunts, drew attention to this creative effervescence by capitalizing the phrase “nouveau roman” (new novel), which had been bandied about dismissively by a couple of critics. The Nouveau Roman was never a movement, like the surrealists, where you had to toe a certain line for fear of excommunication, but simply, as Robbe-Grillet put it, “a convenient label for writers seeking to express new relations between Man and the world”. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he published a series of provocative articles in L’Express, outlining some of these new relations. They were collected in Pour un nouveau roman (1963), his most commercially successful book, which constitutes a devastating critique not only of the ideology that underpins much of nineteenth-century literature, but also of the contemporary novel’s ossification in the Balzacian mould. The novelist’s present task, he argues, is to describe the material world, not to project herself onto it or colonize it by assigning it a meaning; to record the distance between human beings and things without interpreting this distance as a painful division. “Man looks at the world”, but “the world does not look back”. However, in looking at the world, it undergoes a transformation: Robbe-Grillet’s descriptions seem to create their own objects, their own hallucinatory reality.

Benoît Peeters chronicles the ever-shifting alliances of the Nouveau Roman, the rivalry with Michel Butor (who thought Robbe-Grillet was jealous of his success), the rise and fall of Jean Ricardou as the movement’s theoretician, the American conferences; the times when the novelist was more interested in making films (following his collaboration with Alain Resnais on L’Année dernière à Marienbad) or simply living the life of a gentleman farmer, gardening and curating his collection of rare cacti. The Nouveau Roman was indeed the “last great French literary movement”, and it was high time its figurehead had his own biography.


The Joys of a Dusty Little Gem

“The Joys of a Dusty Little Gem.” Review of Fifty Forgotten Books by R. B. Russell. The Irish Times, 15 October 2022, p. 27.

Cultural theorists, such as the late Mark Fisher, have argued that loss itself is what we have lost in the digital age. I suspect this goes some way to explaining our fascination with vanished works of art and literature as exemplified by Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces (2004), Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost Books (2005), Christopher Fowler’s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared (2012) or Giorgio van Straten’s In Search of Lost Books (2016).

R. B. Russell’s Fifty Forgotten Books is a welcome addition to this list. The author displays a similar passion for unearthing literary curios, but comes at it from a different angle — that of the compulsive collector. He gives us a précis of each title but also, more importantly perhaps, the backstory of the precise copy he owns: which shop he found it in, who recommended it, its price, condition and smell, etc. His first edition of Thomas Tryon’s The Other, for instance, which he happened upon at a jumble sale in Sussex came all the way from a Zetland County library. He treasures the Blaenavon Workmen’s Institute stamps that disfigure David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman because “they are like ghosts from the book’s past life”.

Throughout this bibliomemoir, which opens in 1981 at the age of 14, Russell haunts — as he makes a point of putting it — second-hand bookshops in search of volumes that are themselves already haunted and will haunt him in turn. Significantly, he describes a “tale of the supernatural set in a bookshop” by Walter de la Mare as “perfect for a reader like [him]”.

The presiding influence over Russell’s bookish life is Arthur Machen (leading him to the work of his niece, Sylvia Townsend Warner), and some of the drug-fuelled antics of the society dedicated to the Welsh author are recounted here in hilarious detail.

The text is interspersed with black-and-white pictures of the book covers and stylish snapshots of Russell and Rosalie Parker, his partner, with whom he set up Tartarus Press. These images belong to an analogue culture that has all but disappeared, along with the “wonderful world of second-hand bookshops” celebrated here. I hope this little gem will be discovered on dusty shelves by future generations of bibliophiles.

This Year’s Cult Classic

“This Year’s Cult Classic.” Review of Bad Eminence by James Greer. The Irish Times, 16 July 2022, p. 16.


Bad Eminence, American author James Greer’s third novel, is the kind of book you open at your peril. The title alone (a reference to Milton’s Satan) should be warning aplenty, but it is my duty to report that a Latin phrase, planted in the opening pages, leads — once read — to instant possession by the devil. By the same token, I strongly advise you not to cut out and ingest the large dot containing a highly potent hallucinogenic, however much the narrator enjoins you to do so.

Things are already weird enough as it is with the regular intrusion of “sponsored content”, the small black-and-white photographs reminiscent of W.G. Sebald (who is name-checked several times), the recurrence of swans and characters called Temple, not to mention the growing sense of psychosis and gradual dissolution of all ontological certainty.

Vanessa Salomon — the wisecracking narratrix — is a young Franco-American translator, blessed with tremendous “genetic gifts” and a knack for nihilistic aphorisms. Thanks to her reputation for tackling works deemed untranslatable, she is hired by Not Michel Houellebecq to translate his new novel before it is even written. What France’s most famous author really covets, however, is another copy without an original: Vanessa’s celebrity “bitch twin sister”. Or is it?

The novel reaches a metatextual crescendo when the heroine parses a sentence she has just written: “I shut the lid of the laptop and headed back to bed”. She points out that this can only have been typed before or after the event, reflecting her dream of a book that would inhabit “the spaces between the binary code of our existence”. “Everything,” she declares, in what amounts to a manifesto, “is in the process either of becoming or unbecoming, and it is the task of the artist not to make something new but to make something present”.

Once the rollicking narrative has caught up with itself, the novel implodes in real-time. It becomes increasingly obvious that transgressive, S&M fantasies from the Robbe-Grillet book Vanessa was translating at the beginning have been contaminating the rest of her life, and that her world is now awash with simulacra and doppelgängers.

Hilarious, exhilarating and mind-blowing, Bad Eminence is this year’s cult classic.

The Making of Incarnation

Here is my review of The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy. The Irish Times, 2 October 2021, p. 15:

Tom McCarthy’s fifth and arguably most ambitious novel brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth”. The Making of Incarnation is about bodies in space — outer space in the case of the sci-fi blockbuster (Incarnation) that serves as both armature and mise en abyme. Here, the lie of being truth (which another character describes as “[n]aturalist bullshit”) must be perpetuated at all costs.

Ben Briar is flown in from the United States as part of a shadowy project called Degree Zero (a nod to Roland Barthes and his reality effect) to ensure that the film’s script, however fanciful, complies with the basic laws of physics. Herzberg, the art director, expends a great deal of energy convincing this “Realism Tsar” that the inclusion of mundane objects in the unlikeliest of set-ups can effectively “counteract the defamiliarisation”. Much is subsequently made of the CGI rendering of a fork (“your basic IKEA Livnära”) that recurs — comically as well as cosmically — throughout the climactic disintegration of the spacecraft.

Given that Briar works for a consultancy called Two Cultures (vide C. P. Snow), it is hardly surprising that he should view physics as a creative endeavour — “a plunge into the farthest-flung reaches of the imagination”. The unfolding of the plot, as the shoot progresses, is interspersed with complex descriptions of the wind tunnels and motion-capture techniques deployed behind the scenes. These are so meticulously detailed that they take on a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory, quality.

Kinesis moves in mysterious ways: at every corner, the scientific turns out to be underpinned by the poetic — or even the messianic. Pantaray Motion Systems is not only the slightly sinister corporate behemoth providing the cutting-edge technology without which there would be no movie; it also has “a heroic status tinged with traces of the mystical”.

Anthony Garnett, its founder, recalls once considering Norbert Wiener (the originator of cybernetics) as “prophet, messiah and apostle”. There was something in his vision that he thought “he’d left behind with Aeschylus, Catullus, Sappho: a condition best denoted by the old, unscientific label poetry”.

Garnett’s colleague Pilkington — referred to, behind his back, as the “Ancient Mariner” — senses that all machines are “stand-ins for some ultimate machine we’ll never build but nonetheless can’t stop ourselves from trying to”. Tasked with orchestrating an experimental plane crash, he goes looking for the “ur-disaster” — the “totality that hovers above every partial iteration”.

Monica Dean, who is conducting research into Lillian Gilbreth, discovers that the pioneer of factory-floor ergonomics had come to entertain “the possibility of some ‘higher’ or ‘absolute’ movement . . . derived from no source other than itself”. The novel is teeming with such intimations of preordained patterns or underlying algorithms.

In this quest for perfection, the human body is ultimately an obstacle. We are reminded that the French scientist Marey sought to infuse his compatriots with the “energy and dynamism of the locomotive” and that Taylorism was seen by some in the Soviet Union as an opportunity to liberate the worker from “the shackles of his very body”. This rejection of incarnation is (paradoxically) embodied by the film’s high romantic denouement: the two lovers, whose union is impossible, bow out in a blaze of glory, expecting to coincide with themselves — and everything — at the instant of their deaths.

The novel, however, does not end with the blinding light of revelation, but a “blackness neither rays nor traces penetrate”. Besides, there is an error in the code behind the film’s final frame — an invisible blemish only the technician is aware of. It recalls Pilkington’s secret that he alone was responsible for the failure of Project Albatross, a minute miscalculation having led the plane to vanish instead of crashing. He imagines the lost aircraft occupying “an aporia, blind alley, cubby-hole or nook”.

This instant of its disappearance, “cut out from the flow of time” — for ever suspended, deferred — is akin to the sense of dislocation that several characters experience: the feeling of being in two locations at once “without really being in either”; of experiencing the present and the past simultaneously while being at one remove from both.

Is not this liminality the very space of fiction, squatted by the two addicts, who reappear right at the end, lost in their pipe dreams and inevitably conjuring up Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon?

The answer, no doubt, is to be found in Lillian Gilbreth’s Box 808 — the one that allegedly “changes everything”, that may “chisel a Northwest Passage through a stretch of the hitherto theoretical-physically impossible”. The one that is missing, of course, and that everyone — from the protagonist, Pantaray’s Dr Mark Phocan, to the secret services — is looking for.

The truth is out there: Tom McCarthy has worked his magic once again.

The Netanyahus

Here is my review of The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen. The Irish Times, 5 June 2021, p. 17.

In a postface to his sixth novel, The Netanyahus, Joshua Cohen relates how he befriended Harold Bloom (to whom this book is dedicated) towards the close of his life. The venerable critic regaled Cohen with countless anecdotes — playing chess with Nabokov, skinny-dipping with Derrida — but the one that made the greatest impression was the time he supervised the campus visit of an “obscure Israeli historian” called Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who rocked up with his feral family, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Netanyahu’s second-born child went on to become the longest-serving, and most controversial, prime minister in Israeli history, thus endowing this farcical fait divers with a retrospective patina of world-historical importance: “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family”.

The antique cast of this comically prolix, self-deprecating subtitle is redolent of early novels, which frequently masqueraded as authentic documents. The Netanyahus purports to be composed by a retired academic who, sensing the nighness of the end, is prompted to put pen to paper, as established in the opening sentences: “My name is Ruben Blum and I’m, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical”. This transmutation of subject into subject matter is posited as a “more natural, rational incarnation” than the Christian version: “Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word”. It could also be construed as the mission statement of an author at the top of his game who, like Flaubert, has alchemised a rather insignificant real-life incident into fictive gold. Cohen exploits his character’s professional rigour to sport with the conventions of memoir. Quotation marks are “holy to historians”, Ruben explains, vowing “to express only what was expressed to [him], as verbatim as [his] memory is able” — which is ironic given that both he and the dialogue are made up. Beyond his aversion to today’s “culture of grievance”, the character bears no resemblance to Harold Bloom. There is his surname, of course, but Ruben’s year of birth — 1922 — connects him to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, and hence the world of fiction, rather than the waking nightmare of his discipline.

The struggle between history and myth provides the novel with its dialectical armature. History is associated with the onward march of progress, which would go on unimpeded “so long as every country kept trying to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself”. Even the revisionist zealot Ben-Zion is depicted, “lotused” on the floor in front of his hosts’ new colour television set, watching Bonanza with rapt attention. Significantly, when events spiral out of control, the tohubohu unleashed by the “Yahus” (as Ruben and his wife, Edith, call them) is likened to technological failure: “the snow was hissing down like static from a world signed-off, ash from the end of broadcast days”.

Ruben opted for “pagan” academia in a bid to flee his “Jewish past” (which returns in the shape of the Yahus), but remains torn between “the American condition of being able to choose and the Jewish condition of being chosen”. His teenage daughter Judy — whose agonistic relation to her elders provides a great deal of mirth — chooses rhinoplasty, which may be her own way of leaving behind the stereotypes affixed to her origins. Corbindale, where the Blums relocated from New York City, is so nondescript that their relatives keep calling it “Corbinton” or “Corbinville”. It is also a hotbed of petty anti-Semitism. The mechanic at the local garage pats Ruben’s head to feel his horns and, as the first Jew to be hired by Corbin College, he is expected to don a Santa Claus outfit at Christmas. It is for this very reason too that he is tasked, in 1960, with vetting Mr Netanyahu’s application and preparing his visit. Ben-Zion, whose idiosyncratic interpretation of the Iberian Inquisition I shall not disclose, argues that the Jewish people have been able to endure by abiding in myth, from whence he himself seems to have sprung. When he howls, it is “in the wind’s language, Hebrew” that he does so.

The Netanyahus demonstrates what can still be done within the relatively conventional yet capacious parameters of literary fiction. It veers from mid-century comedy of manners to campus caper by way of social, political and religious satire. Bravura displays — such as the hilarious scene where Edith’s mother harangues Ruben while her husband unburdens himself, most indiscreetly, in the adjoining toilet — are legion. Dialogue is deftly handled throughout: the banter between Ruben and Edith, in particular, is pitch perfect. Cohen’s style — inventive but elegantly understated — is a class act that few of his contemporaries can follow.

All in all, this is a veritable triumph.


Chauvo-Feminism

Here is my review of Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo by Sam Mills. The Irish Times, 27 February 2021, p. 14:

A performative espousal of feminist principles may be a fig leaf for plain old misogyny. Many of the abusers exposed by the #MeToo movement — including Harvey Weinstein himself — were men of a woke persuasion. Sam Mills calls them chauvo-feminists, among other things. She even dated one, which gave rise to a textbook case of gaslighting. This provides the armature for a coruscating disquisition on the mind games of Jekylls who Hyde in plain sight. Mills corrals a vast array of material, blending poignant memoir and meticulous research to great effect. Bristling with righteous indignation, yet commendably nuanced, her essay is never less than entertaining, as when she remarks that map-reading is not a task she has to ‘strain against [her] vagina to accomplish’.

The Death of Francis Bacon

Here is my review of The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter. The Irish Times, 9 January 2021, p. 13:

Porter’s Portrait of the Artist is a Masterpiece in Miniature

Max Porter explores the inner workings of Francis Bacon’s mind as the artist deliriously recalls his life

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what of painting? As Francis Bacon once said, “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” Indeed. In his third novel, Max Porter explores what happens when you contemplate canvases to the point of being contemplated by them.

Rather than talk about Bacon’s paintings, he lets them speak — or mutely howl — and what they express is not what they represent, but how they feel: the sensation of their own brute facticity. “I can still feel it, right through me, like a shock,” Bacon says here, remembering the time when he “bit down on shot” while dining out on pheasant stew: “Metal drill in my fillings right down through my urethra. Buzzing in my underbladder.”

Possibly moonlighting as the critic David Sylvester, the author plants a sneaky mission statement at the beginning of the fourth chapter, where he confesses his longstanding “unfashionable fixation” with the painter as well as his aim “to get art history out of the way”. (Porter once obtained an MA in this very subject at London’s Courtauld.)

Bacon is lying on his deathbed in a Madrid clinic, where he is attended to by a sister whom he addresses as Hermana or Mercedes (she calls him “piggy”) and regularly mistakes for figures from his past, such as his lover and muse Peter Lacy or photographer and Soho habitué John Deakin. Through a series of delirious dreams, his life is depicted in the visceral style of his work.

Tales of turpentine and turpitude, fisting and feasting commingle with children’s stories and striking imagery, while the artist ponders his legacy: “Oh naff off you skag,” he says apropos of one famous critic. Dying itself is leavened with dark levity: “I wonder if I might have no pain. If you’d be so kind.”

The opening section — one page long, text laid out like a poem, copious amounts of blank space — is devoted to a “[N]on-existent” sketch, from which we may infer that all the other works conjured up thereafter are authentic and still extant. Every subsequent chapter proceeds from a different oil on canvas — seven in all — of varying dimensions (the smallest being 14 x 12 inches).

Of little import at first blush, these measurements highlight the art’s materiality, enabling us to track down, with a fair degree of accuracy, most of the pieces Porter has purposely left untitled. They also allow us to ascertain that the sequence in which the paintings are summoned is strictly chronological down to the penultimate chapter, which is in keeping with the narrative’s biographical tenor.

Porter spares us the tiresome ekphrases. Save for the aforementioned sketch, none of the artworks is described. The emphasis is placed firmly on the creative process and how the works “work”. The revelation of the models’ convulsive beauty, for instance, as soon as they twist and turn — a recurrent gesture that echoes Bacon’s retrospection. When the sister turns sitter she suddenly becomes a “handsome prospect”, her “crowded mouth” making the artist yearn to see her snarl: “that’s why she has to sit like that, as if sitting for me, lest those rows of teeth burp out”.

In one instance Bacon juxtaposes the boyish features of Don Carlos, seen on one painting, with Julius Caesar’s punctured body from another: “I folded the head over at the eyes and laid it on the injury.” This is portraiture as vivisection: “Yes, peeling a scab. Lifting the whole clotty lot of it and seeing the root. Verruca stippled. These are a few of my favourite things.”

The non-existent preparatory sketch, which Bacon cannot recall drafting, represents his own deathbed scene. It soon becomes apparent that with each new chapter and canvas, the sketch is being fleshed out. This impression is reinforced by the numerous repetitions: the sister’s incessant “Intenta descansar”, on which the book closes, produces a sort of litany; every chapter beginning with “Take a seat why don’t you” and containing questions pitting the painter against other figures (Edward the Martyr, Caesar, Mussolini, Caravaggio).

All the while, Bacon is painting his own departure until he absents himself through his work, resurfacing in canvases hanging in museums and galleries from whence he can spend an eternity mocking his critical foes. Self-portraiture as auto-autopsy.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a little masterpiece; a slim volume that packs a mean Peter Lacy-style punch. It is as though Porter had bit down on shot, taking the most adventurous passages from his two previous novels and letting rip — painting in words the “deeply ordered chaos” Bacon saw all about him.

The Sound Mirror

My review of The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. The Irish Times, 4 September 2020, p. 13:

The Sound Mirror starts on such a high note that one wonders how the author will ever manage to sustain it. After an opening sentence such as “She is going to kill her mother today” — with its nod to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Ann Quin’s Berg — the only way is down, surely. Against all the odds, Heidi James rises to the challenge, parlaying this expository gambit into an exhilarating, heart-rending work that is full of surprises. The main motif, crudely put, is the past in the present; the collective in the individual. It is introduced in the first chapter and reprised in the last, but what may have come across as theoretical is now so emotionally charged that the words resonate in the pit of your stomach, bringing tears — of joy as well as sorrow — to this reader’s eyes. Quite an achievement.

The pre-emptive incipit notwithstanding, James is a mistress of suspense. Chapters alternate between the three women — Claire, Tamara, and Ada — whose destinies are limned from the second World War to the present day. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Claire and Tamara are related, although this is only established at a late stage — a few pages, in fact, after we finally discover how Ada’s life intersects with the other narrative strands. The first clue that Claire and Ada’s paths are about to cross — a dead horse blocking the road (possibly evocative of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin) — is so unobtrusive that it could easily be overlooked.

Time is out of joint in this hauntological saga, and not only because of the parallel lives and abrupt flashbacks. Tamara’s mission — as the last female in her family line — is to erase the past after cancelling the future. The chapters devoted to this character are narrated by a Greek-style chorus composed of all her female ancestors. “What we are,” they declaim, referring to a long history of hurt, both endured and inflicted, “is the story she is made of”. Tamara’s tinnitus, like the trauma encoded in her DNA, is but a manifestation of this collective voice: “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not”.

James’s fourth novel is dotted with references to mythology and tragedy: it is the chronicle of a death foretold, free will is locked in battle with fate; Persephone crops up twice, not to mention matricide and incest (already contained in the Nabokovian name Ada). The most striking feature, however, is the figure of Tamara as conduit: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through”. This condition is usually associated with oracles, rhapsodes, or Aeolian harps, not the head of communications for a high-street bank, hence the giddy feeling that one is reading a contemporary feminist novel composed by Sophocles’ sister.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the realm of poetry can only be accessed through the madness of the Muses. The “family sickness” Tamara has inherited “like a tarnished heirloom” is also a form of madness — that of generations of women “trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts”, their horizons “snipped small”. One of her ancestors describes it as just a kind of “second sight” but the boundaries between past, present and future are now “leaking and mixing and contaminating” at an alarming rate (mimicking the convergence between the three plot lines). The disease turns out to be degenerative: “She is a translation. A bad one. The code has been perverted. It will, having been replicated too many times”.

Language — at the heart of the tension between atavism and “unbelonging” — is another code that has been corrupted by overuse. Claire, who justifies her venomous tongue by claiming to speak as she finds, only happens upon hackneyed phrases as clapped out as her husband’s nag. Like Tamara, she is ventriloquised. Her cockney patois (that remains just on the right side of Dick Van Dyke) will prompt her daughter to belittle her own offspring for dropping her aitches. Racist shopkeepers pretend that they cannot understand Ada because she was born in Calcutta, recalling Claire’s father’s attempts to eradicate all traces of their “eyetie” origins.

Language is also a means of reinvention. A posh word like “marvellous” fills Claire’s mouth “like a sweet heavy cream”. Throughout their lives, all three women try out different versions of themselves, but are borne back ceaselessly into the traumas of the past. James should be commended for not writing the pain away. The pathetic fallacy Tamara expects, following the climactic event, fails to materialise: “There’s no magical sign from the universe. No portent, no natural phenomenon she can misread”.

This defamiliarised family saga ends with a ray of sunshine: in spite of everything, love can be found between “what was and what will be”. We are “stories in transmission” — and the saga goes on.

 

 

Saving Lucia

My review of Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. The Irish Times, 9 May 2020, p. 57:

The pages of Saving Lucia are so joyous and full of life that they seem about to flap away. Reading Anna Vaught’s third novel is akin to catching your first glimpse of London’s parakeets. It produces a similar sense of wonderment and disorientation — a feral flash of exotic technicolour splashed across a monochrome canvas.

The seed for this “more-or-less true story” — as the narrator calls it — was planted when Vaught discovered that Violet Gibson and Lucia Joyce had both been inmates of St Andrew’s, a psychiatric hospital in Northampton. History does not say whether the two Irish women ever met, but then this is a book about awaking from its nightmare, not replicating it.

The date is 1956. Violet — daughter of Baron Ashbourne, a former lord chancellor of Ireland — has been locked away for 30 years, following her attempted assassination of Mussolini. Sensing that her time is almost up, this devout Catholic convert with a penchant for profanity (“go fack yourself doctors”) and killer one-liners (“Decorum is essential in a lunatic asylum”) enrols Lucia as her Boswell.

As the title indicates, writing this book will save Lucia — who was committed to St Andrew’s two years earlier — from being reduced to “hearsay and notes in hospital archives” by providing a sounding board for her silenced voice. In fact, the four voices she channels could be construed as different facets of her divided personality. The characters, after all, are often difficult to distinguish, forcing the author to punctuate the text with “I, Lucia” at regular intervals.

Observing Violet muttering to her beloved passerines in the courtyard, Dr Griffith remarks that she seems to be feeding them “with her words”. Little does he know that bird is the word.

Communication between the two female protagonists is pitched at a frequency that blurs the boundary between sound and silence. On one occasion Lucia is astonished when Violet responds to something she has just been thinking; on others, she catches herself speaking out loud instead of ruminating. The medical staff are unable to tune into this illicit wavelength. When Violet starts whispering to Lucia, at the beginning of their adventure, the nurse “hears it only as rustling and is not sure even if it is there”.

A network of associations running throughout the novel connects whispering to murmuration (a keyword) and rustling to both avian wings and writing. All these elements are brought together in the pivotal scene where the women fly away from St Andrew’s, setting off the hospital’s alarms in the process: “This was the bit the staff heard, but they’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil”.

In the beginning was the bird, and the bird was with Violet, and the bird was Violet. Through a process of transubstantiation or recirculation that James Joyce would have approved of, Lady Gibson feeds the birds “with her words” which themselves turn into birds, thus enacting the oft-repeated idea that confinement liberates the powers of the imagination.

“Come to us passerines,” she tells them, “Soon enough, we will come with you” — and so they do, accompanied by Blanche (the so-called Queen of Hysterics, whose antics under hypnosis attracted le tout Paris at the end of the 19th century) and Anna O. (the originator of the talking cure).

The four women travel through time and space, disrupting a seance by Madame Blavatsky or liberating the inmates of La Salpêtrière. These peregrinations climax when they catch up with Mussolini in an attempt to change the course of world history.

Saving Lucia highlights the role played by the patriarchy in defining and weaponising female madness. Is Violet more dangerous than a fascist dictator? Why is Lucia labelled insane whenever the associations she makes become “too lickety-split” while this is deemed a mark of genius in her father, the great author? (The Joycean pastiches are, incidentally, among the most accomplished passages.) And what of Charcot’s exploitative “theatre of neurology”?

“The novel I mentioned? You are reading it,” Lucia explains in the final pages, before adding, “Well I am sure you grasped that. You’re clever.” This is the novel’s major flaw. Despite its inclusive message and celebration of the imagination, everything is relentlessly spelt out. The narrator may well encourage us “to annotate the margins” of her book, but they have all been filled in.

Set against Anna Vaught’s tremendous achievements, however, this criticism is for the birds.

 

 

The Dominant Animal

My review of The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan. The Irish Times, 25 April 2020, p. 60:

A woman cuts her hand while chopping onions. Chilled to the marrow, she passes out, having caught a glimpse of bone: “I saw it, white, swimming in the brimming gash”. This gory incident, which occurs in the collection’s concluding tale, recalls an earlier piece, where an obsessive hunter polishes animal bones “into gleaming white abstractions”. Lean and mean — whittled down to their very viscera — the 40 stories assembled in The Dominant Animal are certainly close to the bone.

As in her novel Aug 9—Fog (2019) — carved out of a found text — Kathryn Scanlan seems to proceed not by addition but subtraction, like a sculptor chipping away at a slab of marble. “Ta-da!” (as its title advertises) turns this process into something of a joke. It closes — just as dusk darkens the neighbourhood “from the ground up, like dye climbing a cloth” — with an Old Testament-style bush giving birth to a figure. An arm, leg and foot gradually emerge, while the female narrator looks on, entranced. “I’ve always been a sucker for origin stories,” she comments, “so I held my breath and waited to see how this one might begin.”

Ending with a beginning (this is the last sentence) is a way of neither beginning nor ending, just like newborns in these pages never seem fully alive while the recently deceased never seem quite dead. It is a ruse to tap into the primal darkness while holding it at bay. The book itself ends on a similar, albeit more sinister, note: a shadow springing forth from a dark corner in the protagonist’s backyard, “like a vision of God, gnashing his great white teeth”. Scanlan’s fiction never strays far from this point of origin that always threatens to reclaim it, as in this mystifying coup de théâtre: “For a while she could be seen in her white nightgown, but then the dark — it swallowed her”. Has the character really vanished, or is she simply obscured from view? The young American author’s audacious deployment of lacunae is a measure of her singular artistry.

Although the setting is usually suburban, a “frontier kind of aroma” hangs over the manicured lawns. The nearby woodlands act as a kind of annexe of the id for the local menfolk: “It drew their blood. It drank their piss. It ate their shit. It hid the light of day. It hid the stars at night. It hid the path to town”. Scanlan’s unsentimental approach to the animal kingdom is exemplified by the vet who gelds a horse and tosses away “what he’d cut” to a pack of hounds.

In the eponymous story, the female narrator notices a sculpture outside a church: two baby boys suckling at a she-wolf’s pendulous teats. This passing reference to Romulus and Remus is a reminder of civilisation’s pagan, animalistic roots. Animals and men are in fact so united in their bestiality that the slippage from the one to the other is almost imperceptible at times. Women suffer terrible abuse, but they give as good as they get, and some of the best stories are morality tales with a sting in their tails showcasing the author’s wicked sense of humour.

Scanlan claims that she either writes from the point of view of an alien or as though addressing one. The latter is achieved by shunning all forms of shorthand and cliche: the wealthy father in “The Candidate” is thus introduced as a “professional manipulator of spinal bones”. The wayward narrator of “The First Whiffs of Spring” — seemingly an alcoholic — embodies the former option. She attends a party but only understands why when a “swaddled body” (note the characteristic obliquity) lands in her arms. Having described her elaborate outfit, highlighting the belt “upon which I’d set my hopes of pulling everything together”, she goes outside, where the wind reverses the process, dissolving her social persona: “It undid my hair and lifted my skirt. It scattered me just like I liked”.

The author’s focus on this scattered self and life stripped back to its essence does not result in a defamiliarisation of the world but, on the contrary, in its refamiliarisation — as though we were emerging from a coma. It also lends these tales a timeless quality, enhanced by a style that tends to the irrefutable. These are sentences written in stone — to be read out loud or learned by heart.