Spank for England

Here is my interview with novelist James Hawes, published in 3:AM Magazine in April 2005:

3:AM: When you burst onto the literary scene in 96, you already seemed to be a fully-formed, fully-fledged novelist. Tell us about your writing apprenticeship.

JH: I wanted to be an actor and playwright, but I was useless at both and thus managed to end up totally lost, broke and CV-less at 27, living among smackheads, crims and slumming-it trustafarians just as the Loadsamoney late 80s were starting. I knew I couldn’t last in that world, so I went back and did a PhD, which meant I got a grant to live on (ah, lost days) and a name-tag for my life. For the next seven years I quietly close-read Kafka, Nietzsche, Mann, Musil, Hesse and suchlike. I did it seriously and straight: by 1993 I was quite a respected Young Academic, but I was also trying to write again, this time a novel. In hindsight I suppose it looks as though I half-consciously made myself a bubble where I could be paid to dissect serious writers and see how they did it. But then we all have PhDs in Hindsight.

3:AM: A White Merc with Fins was part of that whole finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-zeitgeist post-Trainspotting chemical generation/lad lit wave. Were you influenced, or at least inspired, by Irvine Welsh or any of those writers?

JH: I didn’t know anything about them. I was still working full-time as a teacher of German lit. I knew almost nothing about Eng. Lit in general (I had never read anything by Martin Amis except Money or by Ian McEwan except his first story-collection, and still haven’t). When my younger, cooler Manchester brother heard I was trying seriously to write, he sent me Trainspotting, but by the time I read it White Merc was finished and sent off to my agent. When I read it I loved it and was jealous as hell. You could tell straight away that unlike most so-called “young gunslinger” Brit writers (see next question(s)!) Welsh was not a posh North London day-school/olde grammar-school/Eton boy slumming it.

3:AM: The consensus at the moment is that Speak for England is your first truly serious work (Alfred Hickling wrote in The Guardian that you have “filled out into a comic novelist of considerable stature”) after starting off as a hip young gunslinger in the Bret Easton Ellis/Welsh mode. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that you’ve been sending up the zeitgeist all along à la Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh (who you recently described as the “only English writer” you “read and re-read for sheer pleasure”). Is the angry young man turning into a middle-aged fogy? Are you in the process of doing a John Osborne?

JH: I don’t think my writing was ever “angry” in that way. Or “young”, come to think of it. The hero of White Merc was quite explicitly a middle-class boy knocking on 30 who really only wanted “a flat with tall windows” but had gone adrift. The book took the piss out of “alternative” IRA groupies, smackheads, hippies and suchlike. I love Waugh for the LACK of foregrounded psychology in his writing — a satirical tactic which (bizarre though it probably sounds to Anglo-Saxon ears) he shares with Kafka. As for Waugh’s snobbery, see later answers…

3:AM: As Toby Clements points out in The Telegraph, the narrator’s allegiances seem to be divided in your new book, Speak for England. To what extent were you — the author — seduced by the reactionary lost world Brian Marley encounters? I mean, even if your intent is clearly satirical, it must have been quite intoxicating — liberating, even — to write the unwriteable by envisioning the Empire literally striking back, Britain withdrawing from the EU, the public humiliation of the PM’s “Best Friend” etc.

JH: Writing satire is a way of having your cake and eating it. For example, anyone who reads Brecht can hardly miss that the supposedly Bad Guys, the wicked capitalists and chancers, get all the best lines and laughs. And the more you know about Brecht himself the more clear it is that these characters are far closer to his (concealed) heart than the Good Persons. Then again (cf Waugh, too), as Nietzsche says: “What do we care about the ORIGIN of a work? The artist is only the soil and the earth — sometimes the dung and shit — from which the WORK grows!” (fx: insane cackling).

3:AM: Your analysis of the psycho-sexual roots of power is fascinating. If we “are all forever small children”, as Carl Jung surmises in the epigraph to Chapter Three (Speak for England, 95), the past is “the only real home we shall have” (ibid 335) and, consequently, we all want to go back in order to go back home. In Speak for England, the past literally comes home. The protagonist Brian Marley — who is stranded in Papua New Guinea after taking part in a Survivor-type reality game show called Brit Pluck, Green Hell, Two Million — stumbles upon a corner of a foreign jungle that is forever England, created by the passengers of a plane crash which happened in 1958. The Colonists eventually return to Britain where they reintroduce no-nonsense Fifties values. Your academic work on Nietzsche must have had some bearing on this hankering after authority (“the ultimate perversion is repression,” 315) which drives the National Government’s counter-revolution.

JH: Yes, Nietzsche is fascinating on the psychology of power and I did a lot of work on Kafka/Nietszche in that light, so no doubt it filtered in. But even more so (and more importantly for Speak for England), he’s a master of insight about our crippling need for structures of belief and certainties — as he famously says “man would rather will nothingness than not will” — meaning that we tend to embrace (any old) system of thought that can deliver “Certainties”, at almost any price, rather than face the uncharted oceans of modernity. Today that insight is more serious than ever — it exactly explains the triumph of Muslim Fundamentalism in Iran, for example.

3:AM: You get a lot of mileage out of the past/present dichotomy. The scene in which the Prime Minister’s “Best Friend” is “seen live on TV, by about half a billion people, being caned thoroughly on his naked backside by an elderly gentleman while handsome, bronzed youths with ancient rifles and big shorts stood about and laughed at him” (254) could be innocent enough in a Boy’s Own story, but has strong S&M/homoerotic connations for us. Likewise the depiction of the PM’s Press Secretary being tossed, stark naked, in the Union Jack by sixth formers while a beautiful young lady looks on “holding her hips and shaking with laughter” (249). Could you tell us a bit about that?

JH: The bizarre thing about the 50’s was that in certain circles (i.e. ex-public school, theatrical, cinematic) people were openly gay in a way that has only become more generally possible in the last ten or fifteen years. To be honest, my conscious intentions in the above passages were simply Broad Comedy — but what do our intentions matter when it’s a question of subconcious enactments…

3:AM: If we are “all forever small children”, the childhood we long for only ever really existed in books — the kind of books which created our notion of childhood in the first place. Brian Marley (whose name advertises its own literary nature) has a Proustian moment when he rediscovers his 1965 Eagle Annual which strikes him as more real than reality itself. Speak for England often resembles one of those Disney films which mix flesh-and-blood actors with animated figures. The Colonists, for instance, seem to have stepped out of a typical Boy’s Own story: significantly, they use a toy Dan Dare radio station to make contact with the modern world. There are even two references to the Famous Five, one of which is made by a female character called George! So when people like Clemency Burton-Hill (whose name could come straight out of your book!) criticise the “dismal cliche” of the dialogue, they overlook the whole metatextual aspect, don’t they?

JH: Couldn’t out it better myself. How else would these characters talk? The whole point is that our Hero free-falls easily into that clipped, anti-emotional, impersonal, oh-so “English” mode — as a grateful escape from the pressures of Individuality.

3:AM: This childhood nostalgia can be likened to “a warm homecoming to something we have never truly known but yet missed all our lives” (28), first of all because it is fictitious, but also because the childhood depicted in most children’s books is an upper-class or at least very middle-class one. The same can be said about notions of Englishness which are also class-based. Do you think there is a link between these two notions of childhood and Englishness?

JH: Absolutely. There’s a striking difference between England and America here that goes all through cinema, especially U.S. depictions of “the golden times of youth” or whatever are always (right from Citizen Kane) small-town, close-to-the-soil, classless. Ours are Edwardian upper-middle. And in every U.S. film, the Hero has to prove his blue-collar cred (even if he’s a bigshot lawyer or the President himself) by e.g. smacking a baseball out of sight. Whereas in the UK we seem happy to accept Hugh Grant’s dithering shtick as “normal everyday Englishman”. Pinter marries into the nobility, Scruton goes hunting: to a middle-class Englishman there simply IS no other model of success than a mad sub-Austen Georgians At Home fairytale.

3:AM: Speak for England — which is partly a robinsonnade — is often reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe. Like Robinson Crusoe, the Colonists have recreated the society they came from in the middle of nowhere. Like Robinson Crusoe, Brian Marley’s problems stem from his relationship with his father (Robinson disobeys his father; fatherless Brian is in thrall to the Führer-type Headmaster, the ultimate father figure). Robinson Crusoe’s inability to accept the “middle Station of Life” is mirrored by Brian’s desire to become a “real Englishman”, ie a member of the upper-classes. The difference between the two novels is that Robinson Crusoe marks the triumph of middle-class social climbing whereas in Speak For England there is a constant distinction between becoming and being.

When Brian Marley thinks he is dying in the jungle and wishes to record a last message for his son, he cannot find his own voice. As a member of the lower middle-classes, he has no voice, no identity: being lower middle-class is a transitional state. But as you show in several of your works, the upward-mobility associated with the post-war consensus has disappeared leaving only frustration in its wake. People like Brian Marley struggle through their mediocre, ersatz lives (fake mail-order Agas!) with the nagging feeling that they are “below their imagined station” (80) and are denied “the unreflective joy of unthinking union” (222) which is shared by the working and upper classes. Tell us more about this opposition between becoming (the aspirational lower middle-classes) and being (“A caveman, that would be real”, 21).

JH: I have honestly not seen this “being” vs “belonging” business before (as an ex-academic I think I have to almost consciously repress the awareness of intellectual substructures in order to preserve any life and freedom in my writing) but you are quite right. Hmm. Yes, the salient facts of the middle-class are its very MIDDLE-ness (i.e. its lack of any “authentic” aspects) and (as Marx pointed out) its dynamism. Its relations with the Working Classes are a mixture of disdain, fear and envy, while the Upper Classes are objects of secret outrage mixed with public fawning. To my Hero’s mother’s generation the vision of “oak trees growing out of the ruins of Buckingham Palace” still implied a sort of Good Old Uncle Joe All Them Cornfields And Ballet In the Evenings left-wing project: but that Lower-Middle Radicalism is, in the saloon-bars of today, more often part of something very different: “get rid of the Posh Wasters (the Queen herself alone excepted), dismantle social security, do-gooding and multiculturalism, smash the unions, kick out the asylum seekers…”. And never underestimate the dynamism Marx spotted: we are facing what Brecht said we should dread — interesting times.

3:AM: As befits any novel about Englishness, class plays a central part. Your characters often sleepwalk through life, forgetting that “this is not a rehearsal” (Rancid Aluminium, 29), prolonging the “long vacation of extended adolescence” (A White Merc with Fins, 19), in order to maintain “the helpful fantasy that their true lives still lay in the future” (Speak for England, 80) until they make a last-ditch attempt at saving themselves by doing “something radical” (A White Merc with Fins, 22): robbing a bank, say, or taking part in an extreme reality TV show. Before reaching the end of his tether, the protagonist of Speak for England, Brian Marley, teaches English as a foreign language and flees “to some new foreign country” whenever “things get too tough or too real” (Speak for England, 41) because “moving about lets you kid yourself you are moving on” (A White Merc with Fins, 70). Countless authors of your generation have depicted the nihilistic slackerdom of the idle rich or its lumpen variety, but nobody else has dissected the “pre-emptive strike on living” of the lower middle-classes with such deadly accuracy. Would you agree that this is your great theme, and do you see it as a particularly English phenomenon?

JH: I think it’s my great theme because I’m English. Nietzsche again: “We are all just organ-grinders with only one tune, but eternity itself turns the handle”. I went to Oxford in 1978 from a rural comp like some mad innocent with a straw in his mouth, four years behind the fashion and quite literally having never met a boarding-school boy in my life. I found that the world (Oxford was then still largely a men-only-colleges place) was full of incredibly sophisticated, shamingly cool and impossibly well-connected young chaps who were used to partying in publishers’ holiday homes, skiing every Xmas vac and using mummy’s debenture at the Royal Court. They seemed two or three years older than me, never mind infinitely richer. And they (step forward in particular a certain person whom I learned ten years ago was none other than Will Self) naturally got the Posh Birds I wanted but hadn’t the faintest notion how to approach. You may detect a chip on ye olde Hawes shoulder. A sack of spuds, more like, my dear. I shudder to remember, never mind relate, the wretched idiocies I got into. And all based on class.

3:AM: You seem to imply that the linguistic class war goes far beyond the “Garridge”/”garaaj” dichotomy (256), that it is not merely a question of pronunciation.

JH: My own theory is that this can be traced right back to the Conquest. Show me a name like Percy Beaufort in the phone-book and I will call someone posh for you. I invented an Irish archaeological book from which to supposedly lift an epigraph on this subject in order to avoid forcing my views into the mouth of some hapless “character”…

3:AM: I thought the controversial end of the book (which could be described as the ultimate cliffhanger) was really effective. Did you know how it would (or would not) end right from the start, or did you come up with this — hum — aporetic non-dénouement precisely because you had no idea?

JH: No, I really didn’t know what to do with the Hero at the end, and the last thing I wanted was to manufacture a ghastly film-syle “upbeat” ending. I wish I’d ended it like A Good Man in Africa in retrospect, but I’m glad you think it worked.

3:AM: Did the Comet IV accident really happen?

JH: No, that was made up. Delighted you even have to ask.

3:AM: Many novelists of your generation like Jonathan Coe (The Rotters’ Club) or Toby Litt (Deadkidsongs) seem to be writing about their childhood. Is this a generational thing? Were you in any way inspired by these books?

JH: I haven’t read either of these. As you get older you realise that what you thought, when you were 20, was pure freedom to create your own, new, form of living is in fact tugged at by hidden (apron-)strings that go back even beyond your birth. By 40 — or maybe with parenthood? — you see that you will never know who you really are and what you could really do until you know what you actually were, and were being formed for. If anyone under 25 is reading this, my motto to them would be: “No, you don’t believe this, of course you don’t, you’re not MEANT to. But you will”.

3:AM: So what’s next?

JH: I’m putting the final touches to my first original screenplay so a Producer can take it to Cannes. It’s a screwball rom-com called Dr Kafka’s Love-Letter. I adore it and it’s had great initial come-back. I’m thinking of a novel version, but the next one will be a black-comic story about a cheated lower-middle-class man (hey, what else?) who is digging his little South London garden while wishing he’d had the guts to completely desert his ex-wife and kids by buying a bar in Valparaiso for $15,000 instead of paying £300K for this shitheap, when he comes across a long-buried, perfectly oiled and preserved AK-47…

Literary Silences

Tom McCartan, “What Bolaño Read: The Literature of Silence,” MobyLives 7 December 2009:

Roberto Bolaño is famously the author of two very long novels. The English edition of 2666 is 912 pages, The Savage Detectives, 672 pages. And though Bolaño died prematurely at age fifty, he produced more than 25 published volumes. A stash of unpublished manuscripts was discovered earlier this year. He was, simply, prolific.

But Bolaño was deeply interested in writers who chose not to produce or publish, as well as writers who were prematurely silenced. In an interview from 2005 in the Spanish literary journal Turia, Bolaño declared that “There are literary silences.” And he connected a number of his favorite authors to this notion.

Kafka’s, for example, which is a silence that cannot be. When he asks that his papers be burned, Kafka is opting for silence, opting for a literary silence, all in a literary era. That is to say, he was completely moral. Kafka’s literature, aside from being the best work, the highest literary work of the 20th century, is of an extreme morality and of an extreme gentility, things that usually do not go together either.”

Another figure that Bolaño raised was Juan Rulfo, whose two books are among the most influential works of 20th century Mexican literature. After publishing the short story collection The Burning Plain (1953) and the novel Pedro Párama (1955), Rulfo (who lived from 1917 to 1986) stopped publishing narrative fiction, despite the enormous critical success of the books. Both Faulkner and García Márquez admitted to having been influenced by his prose.

Rulfo’s silence, according to Bolaño, “is obedient to something so quotidian that explaining it is a waste of time. There are several versions: One told by Monterroso is that Rulfo had an uncle so-and-so who told him stories and when Rulfo was asked why he didn’t write anymore, his answer was that his uncle so-and-so had died. And I believe it too…Rulfo stopped writing because he had already written everything he wanted to write and because he sees himself incapable of writing anything better, he simply stops… After dessert, what the hell are you going to eat?”

In the Turia interview, Bolaño also touched on Rimbaud, who famously gave up poetry at 20 for a life of gun-running, saying “Rimbaud would probably have been able to write something much better, which is to say bringing his words up even higher, but his is a silence that raises questions for Westerners.”

And, finally, the silence of passing… perhaps the only kind to which Bolaño succumbed: “There [also] stands the silence of Georg Büchner for example. He died at 25 or 24 years of age, he leaves behind three or four stage plays, masterworks. One of them is Woyzeck, an absolute masterwork…What might have happened had Büchner not died; what kind of writer might he have been?”

Obliterate

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Robert McCrum, “The Final Twist in Nabokov’s Untold Tale,” The Observer 25 October 2009 (Features section, p.4)

“…As his condition deteriorated, he worked obsessively to finish the new novel that was so synaesthetically vivid in his imagination. In the end, he had to acknowledge his fate. If the manuscript could never be finished to its perfectionist author’s satisfaction, it must never see the light of day. Now the spell he had nurtured would become an old man’s malediction. He instructed Vera that, after his death, it should be destroyed forthwith.

Nabokov died from bronchitis on 2 July 1977, in the presence of his family and, according to his son, Dmitri, “with a triple moan of descending pitch”. The writer’s departure seems like just another piece of wizardry. “The echo is so strong,” his son writes, “that I imagine that it is indeed all staged, that he will soon speak again.”

It could not be and the spell became a curse. The 138 index cards of “Tool” were placed in a safe deposit box in the vault of a Swiss bank while Vera wrestled with her late husband’s injunction. From time to time, she enlisted sympathetic outsiders for advice. Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s distinguished biographer, was given a taste of the manuscript amid conditions of great secrecy during the mid-80s and advised against publication, an opinion he later rescinded. “People shouldn’t expect to be swept away,” he has said, tactfully. “It’s the kind of writing that induces admiration and awe but not engagement.”

Those for whom Nabokov is, in the words of Martin Amis, “the laureate of cruelty”, see his deathbed decree as peculiarly vexing. But it was not unique. Virgil instructed his heirs to destroy The Aeneid, and was defied by the emperor Augustus. Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his papers, which included the novels we know as The Trial and The Castle. “Fortunately,” said Nabokov in his own lecture on Kafka, “Brod did not comply with his friend’s wishes.” This remark has been used by the Nabokov estate as a prescient approval of its failure to destroy The Original of Laura.

… In November 2005, [Ron] Rosenbaum, who enjoys a reputation as a literary gadfly, wrote a column, “Dear Dmitri, Don’t burn Laura!” in the New York Observer.

Having rehearsed the history of “Tool”, Rosenbaum reported an email exchange with Dmitri Nabokov about the manuscript (“He will probably destroy it before he dies!”) and closed with a passionate plea: “Won’t some university library step forward with a detailed plan for funding the preservation of The Original of Laura, this irreplaceable literary treasure ?”

The result: uproar. The eccentric, worldwide fraternity of Nabokov scholars had a field day. Dmitri, apparently maddened by the controversy, now adopted his father’s teasing stance. He declared himself to be “torn” between his obligations to posterity and to his father’s shade. Asked if he would burn or shred the manuscript, he replied, mischievously: “Perhaps I already have and prefer not to reveal the method.”

The teasing went both ways. In 1991, an American librarian published a literary critical essay, apparently by a Swiss professor, entitled “A first look at Nabokov’s last novel”, which was quickly exposed as a brilliant spoof. Others became entangled in the debate. “It’s perfectly straightforward,” said Tom Stoppard. “Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it.” Novelist Edmund White, whose early work had been championed by Nabokov, was equally blunt. “If a writer really wants something destroyed,” he told the Times, “he burns it.” John Banville said that this situation was “a difficult and painful one”. Conceding that The Original of Laura may turn out to be inferior, Banville decided that it should be saved from the flames. “A great writer is always worth reading,” he said, “even at his worst.” …

…Designed by Chip Kidd, The Original of Laura will appear in a highly collectible edition: Nabokov’s handwritten index cards are reproduced in facsimile to display his neat handwriting, his furious crossings-out and his fascinating inserts. There’s one valedictory wink from the great magician, a final card containing a list of synonyms for “efface” – expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out and… obliterate.”

Nothing At All

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This review of Jean-Yves Jouannais’s Artistes sans oeuvres: I Would Prefer Not To appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 25 September 2009 (No 5556, p. 30):

Nothing At All

With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.

Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’s exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.

Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or iinflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

Jouannais never makes the absurd claim that creating nothing is better than creating something: like Emil Cioran, he has little time for what he calls the “failure fundamentalists”. He does not dwell on the Keatsian notion (also found in Rousseau and Goethe) that unheard melodies are sweeter, or wonder why the attempts at a merger between life and art have so often resulted in death. Jouannais’s “Artists without works” are essentially of a sunny disposition. They are dilettantes, driven solely by their own enjoyment; cultural skivers who never feel that they owe it to posterity, let alone their public, to be productive. They let time do its work and are often militantly lazy — like Albert Cossery, the francophone writer of Egyptian origin who, on a good day, would fashion a single carefully crafted sentence, or the American artist Albert M. Fine who is quoted as saying: “If I did anything less it would cease to be art”. It is this divine indolence which differentiates Artistes sans oeuvres from darker essays on the subject.

Some of the most interesting passages in the book concern those larger-than-life figures (Félix Fénéon, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Jacques Rigaut, Roberto Bazlen) who entered the literary pantheon as characters in other writers’ novels rather than through their own. Cravan, Vaché and Cassady — who embodied respectively the spirits of Dada, Surrealism and Beat — published virtually nothing during their lifetimes. Naturally, phantom works abound here, from Stendhal’s numerous unfinished novels to the unpublished manuscripts of the Brautigan Library (modelled on the library in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion) through to Roland Barthes’s criticism, which provided him with the perfect excuse not to write the novel he dreamed of. Jouannais also considers summarizers such as Fénéon, whose “elliptical novels” were no longer than haiku, or Borges, who compiled synopses of fictitious novels so that no one would have to waste time writing or reading them. In fact, the Argentinian’s entire oeuvre — haunted as it is by the possibility of its own silence — is reinterpreted as a paradoxical “pre-emptive production” designed to spare the already overcrowded bookshelves of the Library of Babel. Borges’s Pierre Ménard (along with Bouvard, Pécuchet and Bartleby) is, of course, one of the patron saints of the copiers, another category surveyed in these pages. The destroyers (Virgil, Kafka, Bruno Schulz et al.) who seek to cover their aesthetic tracks only get a brief look-in, Jouannais being more interested in the long line of erasers starting with Man Ray’s 1924 “Lautgedicht” (an obliterated poem) and including such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Yves Klein’s infamous empty exhibition or Walter Ruttmann’s “blind” film. The author argues convincingly — in a style both eloquent and elegant — that Cravan’s proto-Dadaist provocations, Rigaut’s suicide or Brautigan’s notorious kitchen shoot-outs should be construed as poetic gestures in their own right. Deliberately misquoting Flaubert, he concludes that the works of these so-called “Artists without works” are “present everywhere and visible nowhere”, which may explain why they are so often misunderstood.

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

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This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 26 February 2008:

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

Modernism’s strong, silent types not only redefined the purpose of literature – they saved on paper, too

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“Neither am I,” quipped Peter Cook, when a fellow partygoer boasted that he was working on a novel. There is far more to this bon mot than meets the eye, as George Steiner‘s My Unwritten Books illustrates. In fact, the “non genre” lies at the very heart of literary modernity. Blaise Cendrars, for instance, toyed with the idea of a bibliography of unwritten works. Marcel Bénabou went one step further by publishing a provocative volume entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. In this manifesto of sorts, the anti-author argues that the books he has failed to write are not “pure nothingness”: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian library of phantom fictions. This is precisely what Steiner means when he states that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” But what prompts writers to withhold themselves at the conception?

Some say that everything has already been said (La Bruyère et al); others have spoken of the futility of writing in the shadow of Joyce (Sollers) or in the wake of the Holocaust (Adorno) and 9/11 (McInerney). At a more fundamental level, as Tom McCarthy recently reasserted, literature is “always premised on its own impossibility”. Kafka even went as far as to state that the “essential impossibility of writing” is the “only thing one can write about”. Or not. Taking their cue from Rousseau (“There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist”) the proponents of the “literature of the No” (or “workless artists” as Jean-Yves Jouannais calls them) prefer to abstain rather than run the risk of compromising their perfect vision. Written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter.

This sense of creative impotence stems in part from a dual historical process which deified authors while defying the very authority of their authorship. In Europe, writers and artists were called upon to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the growing secularisation of society. For a while, the alter deus stood above his handiwork, paring his fingernails, but then “I” — the “onlie begetter” — became another, the signifier dumped the signified, and it all went pear-shaped. To compound matters, the gradual relaxation of censorship laws proved that the unsayable remained as elusive as ever when everything could be said.

The realisation that, at best, writers could only hope to dress old words new and recreate what was already there led to a spate of literary eclipses. Hofmannstahl’s Lord Chandos, who renounces literature because language cannot “penetrate the innermost core of things”, epitomises this mute mutiny instigated (in real life) by Rimbaud. Wittgenstein would later insist that the most important part of his work was the one he had not written, presumably because it lay beyond his coda to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Keeping stum and tuning in to the roar on the other side of silence was a soft option. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov — who attempts to defeat God by desiring his own humanity and therefore his own mortality and death — heralded a wave of phantom scribes. Forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, writers such as Marcel Schwob came to the conclusion that the urge to destroy was also a creative urge — and perhaps the only truly human one.

Authors, of course, have always been tempted to destroy works which failed to meet their impossibly high standards (vide Virgil), but never before had auto-da-fé been so closely related to felo-de-se. The Baron of Teive (one of Pessoa‘s numerous heteronyms) destroys himself after destroying most of his manuscripts because of the impossibility of producing “superior art”. In Dadaist circles, suicide even came to be seen as a form of inverted transcendence, a rejection of the reality principle, an antidote to literary mystification as well as a fashion. “You’re just a bunch of poets and I’m on the side of death,” was Jacques Rigaut‘s parting shot to the Surrealists. Like him, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Danilo Kupus, Boris Poplavsky, Julien Torma and René Crevel all chose to make the ultimate artistic statement. The rest, of course, is silence.