Who Would Have These Bookshelves?

Review of Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach. The Stinging Fly, 27 May 2019.

Lines, and more generally the notion of linearity, play an important part in Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision, which is hardly surprising given the title of this singular masterpiece. In one chapter the railway lines in a movie run parallel to lines of mephedrone snorted off the cover of a Susan Sontag, themselves echoed, in a later piece, set in Paris, by lines of coke on a carefully selected Henry Miller paperback. There are also the blurred lines between the two Goncourt brothers, whose voices merged in their journal to the point of being indistinguishable (until Jules started dying, that is). The most striking example is provided by the closing essay — the only one not to be primly justified — where the text erodes away, as though gradually swallowed up by negative space. Eventually a thin vertical line is all that remains in the middle of the last pages, mimicking the skyscraper the narrator has been observing and finally enacting the eponymous tunnel vision.

This bravura piece owes its name — ‘Cracking Up’ — not only to the breakdown of sorts Breathnach was experiencing, but also to a Mondrian that caught his attention, at the time, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia. What he focuses on in this painting is the ‘off-whiteness’ of the white, ‘shot through with cracks’ — the kind of palimpsestic blankness exemplified (although it would be too obvious to point out) by Erased de Kooning Drawing. Elsewhere in the book, an overexposed window in a photograph by Stephen Shore is described in terms reminiscent of a Rauschenberg monochrome: ‘Whatever went on outside in Idaho that day has been effaced by that white abstract panel of light with a claim on the spiritual’. ‘Closer Still’ features four reproductions of Elizabeth and I, a picture that André Kertész cropped in radically different ways. Or rather it does not: the actual portrait never appears owing to copyright issues. Instead, the four versions are illustrated by black squares of varying sizes, highlighting the cropping process, but also, inevitably, conjuring up Malevich. As Breathnach puts it in ‘Death Cycles’ (quoting without naming, thus simultaneously invoking and erasing, another writer) ‘erasure is never anything more than a particularly profound form of preservation’. This oscillation between inscription and effacement — permanence and flux, figuration and abstraction, totality and fragment, long take and montage, not to mention pedantry and profundity — lies at the heart of Tunnel Vision.

Horizontality and verticality too, with the text a battleground between the two. The lines I found most puzzling, causing me to retrace my steps on several occasions to check if they had not changed position, appear (conspicuously enough) at the beginning of the first essay. Breathnach is describing Berenice Abbott’s Self-portrait with a Large-format Camera (1926) in beautifully granular detail: ‘The geometry of her cardigan is echoed in the ridges of the open door behind her, while the busy horizontal lines of her skirt rhyme with the camera’s bellows, that accordion-like box between the lens and viewfinder, which enables the lens to be moved with respect to the focal plane — for focusing’. The emphasis on the latter word is ironic, however, as the busy horizontal pleats on Abbott’s skirt are very much vertical. The reader (and indeed author) need only refer back to the picture reproduced two pages prior (or any other pleated skirt for that matter) to see that this is patently so. I find it difficult to countenance that such a meticulous writer — who, of his own admission, was once given to underlining in red ink the ‘errors of grammar, judgement and tone’ perpetrated by ‘a particular Irish Times literary critic’ — could have overlooked this error, however insignificant it may be. Whether deliberate or not, Breathnach’s misreading of the skirt is a synecdoche of Man Ray’s misprision of Abbott herself (as a mere assistant and ‘fetish object’ despite her obvious talent and subversion of gender stereotypes). It also acts as a nice little estrangement effect, which I like to think was planted there quite on purpose.

*

Tunnel Vision never coincides with itself: it is always somewhat distanced through reflexivity or dispersal (just as the narrative voice undermines itself through self-deprecation). Chapter titles, for instance, appear in fancy square brackets. The rationale behind this idiosyncratic presentation becomes clear in an essay called ‘[Square Brackets]’ (literally, a mise-en-abyme squared) where we learn that David Rieff used these symbols to embed his editorial notes within the text of Susan Sontag’s journal. Their presence, here, signals that Tunnel Vision comes ready equipped with editorial notes: it is a book and its own exegesis rolled into one. This is exemplified by the ‘editorialising effect’ Joan — one of several girlfriends — has on Breathnach, prompting him to redact from recurring anecdotes whatever elements did not meet with her approval on first airing: ‘I was never conscious of what I would not say until I heard myself not say it’. The entire work retains a similar air of provisionality due, in part, to its confessional tenor — its Augustinian quality. Assumptions are made, often as a result of cultural pretensions, which later turn out to be totally erroneous (the Telefonicà skyscraper bears no relation to art nouveau; the foundations of the Ehrentempel were never demolished; Shakespeare and Company’s well-furnished essay section contains no glaring omissions). All manner of sins are depicted in these pages, but they are redeemed by virtue of being confessed, so that two realities end up coexisting duckrabbit-fashion. Breathnach both is and is not a compulsive liar and pedant addicted to drugs and pornography, in the same way that Proust’s work can only be narrated by a reformed snob. The Breathnachian narrator is, crucially, an accomplished writer, whereas his younger iteration lies about being hard at work on a novel (‘I didn’t even have an idea for one’) and struggles to complete a simple email.

Self-dispersal often takes the shape of duplication. In Madrid, which is described as another Paris, the author is constantly mistaken for a British or American citizen when in fact he is, of course, Irish. The Spanish capital becomes the stage for a re-enactment of the most famous passage in Leaving the Atocha Station. At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s celebrated debut, the protagonist (whose mythomania and cultural posturing mark him out as a forerunner of Breathnach’s textual avatar) fails to experience the anticipated rapture in front of a painting in the Prado. Something very similar happens — or fails to happen — here in the selfsame museum, where Breathnach seeks out the work of Ribera precisely because it ‘seemed charged with the kind of dramatic intensity [he] usually had trouble identifying in Old Masters without first being directed to it’.

In ‘Death Cycles’, where he pays homage to his great-uncle — Liam Whelan, one of the eight Manchester United players who perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster — everything seems to be a simulacrum of something else. The German city is a ‘reproduction’ of its antebellum incarnation. There are two accidents, two memorials and even two footballers. Breathnach — who, I hasten to add, has the good taste to be a City supporter — was once groomed to follow in his late relative’s footsteps: ‘I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan’. It is almost as though the author were exploring the road not taken; visiting an alternative version of himself in some parallel universe.

There are many other instances where I is another. When reading out loud a message he has painstakingly drafted, Breathnach realises all of a sudden that he is channelling his ‘father’s reading voice’. At the cinema, he observes himself as though he were ‘some hypercritical version’ of Eleanor, who is sitting right next to him. In the last pages of ‘Veronica’, ‘you’ seems to refer to Colette and ‘I’ to the narrator until ‘I’ reminisces about ‘you’ being caught short on a coach trip, ending up ‘with the bottle-neck wrapped so tightly around your dick’ that ‘the piss just wouldn’t flow’. Either some hitherto undisclosed information about Colette has just been revealed in passing (and indeed pissing) or pronouns and identities have shifted along the way to the point of undecidability.

The author’s observation that the ‘first-person speaker grows increasingly unstable and fragmented’ is made apropos of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, but he could just as well be talking about his own work — which, no doubt, he is. The subjectivity on display in Tunnel Vision is so tentative and malleable that it always requires an audience. In Madrid, for instance, he wanders through sundry ‘major cultural institutions’ in a manner ‘somehow faintly suggestive of sex having already taken place’. He spends a great deal of time in Café Commercial ‘trying discreetly to be observed, reading books, large ones, held at such an angle as to place the title in clear view’. In church, he smiles ‘a private smile, intended to be seen’ before performing — for the sole benefit of a student of his he has spotted and is feigning to ignore — a hilarious ‘looped montage of strange facial tics and expressions’.

Roland Barthes’s theory, Breathnach reminds us, is that the writer’s journal fell out of fashion at the time of the nouveau roman ‘because the “I” no longer recognised itself as a stable and singular entity’. Paradoxically enough, it is probably for the very same reason that autofiction and essayism are flourishing today. As Rachel Cusk put it, ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts’ — a process that Barthes was actually instrumental in initiating. With its blend of memoir and criticism, Tunnel Vision is an attempt at producing a self-portrait through the study of self-portraiture, so that what we end up with is the portrait of a self-portrait. From this perspective it is reminiscent of the aforementioned Berenice Abbott picture, which turns out to be a portrait masquerading as a self-portrait. What it resembles most, however, is the glass skyscraper, described at the beginning of the book, which is ‘camouflaged by the surroundings reflected on its mirrored façade’. Part of Breathnach’s self-portrait is indeed hiding in plain sight; concealed by all the quotations that are an integral part of the work rather than mere adornments. This is particularly the case throughout ‘But I Did That to Myself’, where a lengthy excerpt from Malina on the verso is mirrored by the author’s own presentation of Bachmann’s novel on the recto. By curating this personal canon — which also includes the likes of Walter Benjamin, Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector, Stéphane Mallarmé, Robert Bresson, Claudia Rankine and Thomas Mann — Breathnach is placing himself within a lineage; constructing a ‘cultural identity’ for himself. Although he claims to be someone ‘whose sense of identity and self-worth has for years been grounded in the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture’, he is in fact rewriting these authors’ works within the text of his own life. What he is showing off is not so much that he has read all these books, but rather how they have read him.

*

Perhaps what Tunnel Vision really aspires to be is a self-portrait without a self. The second essay — ‘Tunnel Vision’ justement — hints at this latent desire for unselfing. It revolves around Train Ride Bergen to Oslo, a Norwegian movie consisting of ‘a single shot filmed on a camera inside the driver’s cabin of the no. 602 to Oslo, inhabiting a train’s-eye view for all seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirteen seconds of its running time’. Through this ‘train’s-eye view’ the spectator ‘is given to identify with a subjectless gaze’. Similarly, in a quote which closes the ‘Shape of Silence’ chapter, Lynne Tillman casts Peter Shore’s Uncommon Places as a visual memoir that dispenses with all traces of interiority: ‘That kind of journal is similar to displaying the contents of a refrigerator. The question occurs: who would have this refrigerator?’ Which, in turn, begs the question: who would have these bookshelves?

Colette, we learn, keeps an old Libertines poster on her bedroom door as a ‘token of nostalgia’ — which goes to show how much of a young person’s book Tunnel Vision is, with its sex, drugs, travelling and millennial nostalgia for the early noughties. Significantly, it is a young person’s book that refuses to come of age; a book that wants to begin and only begin, ‘like a painter’s eternally fresh canvas’ (a Robert Bresson quote used as an epigraph). When the narrator turbocharges his sex life with mephedrone, he confesses: ‘It was not an orgasm I was seeking, but the continued build-up to one’. Under the influence of this stimulant, he pleasures himself ‘in fragments’ — Colette having become largely surplus to requirements — watching, in succession, a virtually identical ‘titfucking’ scene from up to ten different films all opened in different tabs on his computer. The revelation that the beginning of one of the essays was deliberately misleading is followed by the following flippant remark: ‘So chalk up my introduction as a false start if you like’. Tunnel Vision — which is divided into three parts, each containing three chapters — is introduced by three prefaces entitled, somewhat provocatively, ‘Not I’, ‘Not II’ and ‘Not III’. These ‘false starts’ are akin to a musical overture containing themes that will be developed later. They are also reminiscent of Berenice Abbott’s ‘false exposures’: in order to put people at ease, the photographer would begin sessions by taking a few pictures without any plates in her camera. A self without a portrait; a portrait without a self: Breathnach’s work hesitates between the two.

Like Eleanor’s smile, Tunnel Vision always strives to look as though it means something else. It is a book without qualities that comes in flat-pack form, refuses to settle into a definite shape and shuns univocal meaning. It begins with the evocation of a gigantic bust of Karl Marx that was disassembled into ninety-five pieces, in 1971, and transported from the Soviet Union to East Germany, where it was put back together again. ‘Considered alone,’ the author muses, ‘how many of these parts were recognisable as Marx?’ This is precisely the question that hovers over his own text, in the making of which he unmakes himself, resurfacing in disseminated form (to paraphrase Barthes). This is what the author admires in the Mondrian and what the reader will admire in the author: ‘I liked the strict division of parts and the way these parts seemed to balance, without me knowing how or why’.

Towards Blankness

Thom Cuell, Rev. of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C. D. Rose, The Workshy Fop 10 November 2014

In his introduction, 3:AM Magazine editor-in-chief Andrew Gallix notes a tendency in modern art towards blankness, exemplified by ‘the white paintings of Malevich…as well as John Cage’s mute music piece’. The literary apotheosis of this trend is Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the scrivener who stopped, er, scrivening. If we accept this theory, then we must accept that the writers Rose commemorates have inadvertently achieved greatness, ‘through their work being censored, lost, shredded, pulped or eaten by pigs’.
The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure 300dpi

The Unread and the Unreadable

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” — as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age — the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.

Celesteville’s Burning

A slightly different version* of this story was published online by The White Review on 22 September 2011.

Celesteville’s Burning

Zut, zut, zut, zut
– Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu

Sostène Zanzibar was not feeling himself that day; someone else was. A journalist from an English paper. Name of Phyllidia. Or possibly Petronella. Something along those lines. The interview had gone remarkably well. Such probing questions. Very stimulating, very in-depth. There was no denying that Sienna — or possibly Serena — was thoroughly a young woman. Hang on, cross that out. Was a thorough young woman. Very thorough indeed.

In a bid to impress her host, she had taken up gesticulation with all the fervour of a new convert. It was a joy to behold. Her impeccably-manicured hands would suddenly flutter away from the warmth of her lap, describing graceful ellipses as if trying to conjure up words that could not possibly exist. Ever. In any language. Even French.

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

Allegra — or possibly Anushka — had struggled to fully comprehend the answers to some (if not most) of her questions. The fact that the former usually bore little (if any) relation to the latter did not help. Neither did Zanzibar’s scattergun delivery nor his baffling habit of peppering his sentences with arcane references to Heidegger and Blanchot. Whenever he switched to pigeon English, he sounded like Jacques Derrida dubbed by Inspector Clouseau, which proved an even greater source of confusion. Of course, now that she was grinding her crotch against his salient features, that his nose kept popping in and out of her prize orifices, Zanzibar’s discourse was largely inaudible anyway. This was as it should be. She wanted to move beyond surface meaning, to experience his words at a more physical — and yet more spiritual — level. That of muffled stubble-mumbles. Warm, moist exhalations. Visceral verbal vibrations. Epic poems licked on to her clitoris, one labial consonant at a time.

Candida — or possibly Chlamydia — tried in vain to decipher the text that was presently being lapped on to her nether regions. She had long removed her horn-rimmed glasses (just before shaking her hair loose), squinting was unbecoming, the letters were upside down, Zanzibar’s tonguewriting — famously dismissed as ‘chicken-scratch squiggles’ by a one-night-stand graphologist — was indeed diabolical and, frankly, the spelling mistakes were doing her head in. It began to dawn on her that, although patently the recipient of this work in progress, she may not be its target audience. In fact, she was now convinced that she was not. Oh no. She was a mouthpiece. A conduit. An instrument. A sounding-board. A relay point. A mediator between the General Reading Public (GRP) and some obscure creative power within Zanzibar that was now being channelled through her. She felt frightfully oracular — a proper little Pythia — and more than a little empowered by the impulses her firm, nubile body was adding in to the mix. These impulses were barely perceptible, but they were definitely there amid all the crosstalk, crackle, static, dribble and thermal noise distorting the transmitted data. She closed her eyes and pictured dozens of snails leaving letter-shaped trails — crinkly slivers of silver — all over her cunt, like so many miniature calligraphers. Now the snails were topsy-turvy, à la bourguignonne, a bubbling mixture of parsley and breadcrumbs oozing from their exposed buttery apertures. Now the snails had morphed into winkles, clustered around her labia minora, in homage to Zanzibar’s controversial debut.

Published in late 1986, Je suis la Femme Bigorneau was a succès de scandale which took the literary establishment by storm; a cause célèbre that turned Zanzibar overnight into the enfant terrible of French letters. Like Leos Carax’s film Mauvais sang, also released at the end of that year, it seemed to capture the zeitgeist and polarise opinion along a generational fault line. Louis Pauwels, editor of Le Figaro Magazine, claimed the novella was a perfect illustration of the ‘mental AIDS’ afflicting the nation’s youth. ‘Makes Schopenhauer sound positively chipper,’ wrote Josyanne Savigneau in her full-page rave review for Le Monde. ‘The kind of book that exists on the slippery cusp between pure genius and utter rubbish,’ wrote a critic at Le Matin de Paris. ‘Bof!’ Philippe Sollers is reported to have said, when sounded on the subject, mid-pied de porc farci grillé, at Brasserie Lipp. Zanzibar was all over the gossip columns too. He dated Béatrice Dalle (who had recently starred in Betty Blue), wrote a song for Etienne Daho, appeared in a video with Les Rita Mitsouko (playing the glockenspiel), spent his nights at the ultra chic Bains Douches nightclub and was headbutted by Jean d’Ormesson during Apostrophes, the highly influential TV show. His parents — René and Monique — told Actuel that they had always known, deep down, that Sostène was special. ‘On sentait bien qu’il allait devenir artiste ou écrivain,’ said his mum. ‘C’était vraiment un chieur,’ his father concurred. They confided that they had done their level best to make him as miserable as possible throughout his childhood so as to provide him with a lifetime of neuroses that would feed his future creative endeavours. ‘N’empêche qu’on a drôlement bien réussi notre coup,’ said René, beaming with paternal pride: it was the gift that keeps giving. Zanzibar, however, was overwhelmed by his new-found notoriety. Béatrice Dalle soon left him and he started dabbling in too many drugs. Rumour has it that he could drink the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Antoine Blondin or Alain Pacadis under the table — literally in the latter’s case. His next three books were minor bestsellers, and one of them was even turned into a film with Juliette Binoche (La Bonniche, 1991), but Zanzibar was never able to replicate the impact of Bigorneau, which he always likened to his seminal first orgasm (1979). Each new novel resembled an increasingly faded photocopy of the original blueprint, giving rise to what Sam Jordison recently described in The Guardian as ‘a sense of perpetual déjà vu on a dimmer switch’. Bref, his work seemed condemned to a gradual, but irreversible, running down; a depletion of vital energy that implied a dismal future of erectile dysfunction, hair loss and growing inertia.

Angela — or possibly Nigella — glanced at the twit beneath her twat. She recalled how her heart had sunk upon entering the spacious study where the interview would take place. The fabled author was standing at the far end of the room admiring a framed photomontage of a lady with a Morphy Richards iron in lieu of a head. His cat — Erwin — was rubbing himself against his calves in the most wanton fashion. A rebours, Zanzibar’s rampant alopecia made him look like Kojak with a beard growing on the wrong side of his face. To be honest, she would have been hard pressed to say which of these visions was most unsettling. It was as if she had been shown the gates of Paradise only to be denied entrance by some burly bouncer with a gold medallion, a Brummie accent, a bad case of halitosis and a mullet. Covered in dandruff.

The journalist’s black Moleskin notebook lay open, face down, on the coffee table. After an hour or so, weighty topics had been dropped in favour of increasingly flirtatious small talk. Zanzibar got up to refill her glass and, instinctively, she got up too and now they were kissing, deep and slow, their tongues going round and round like the ground bass number in the background, and he gently lifted up her summer frock as the melody soared over the looping bassline, and their bodies were grinding, their tongues intertwining, her head spinning and she found herself reclining — à la bourguignonne — in a Le Corbusier-style chaise longue. ‘J’aime quand ça s’incarne,’ she whispered, drawing him into her buttery aperture with her long legs that he wore over his shoulders in the manner of a sweater casually knotted around a Continental neck. Leaning on her forearms, she tilted her head back, closed her eyes and bit her lip. A slow intake of breath — like a deep drag on a cigarette — subsided into a faint, low-pitched moan, not dissimilar to the sound a puppy makes when kicked.

Suddenly, Zanzibar was all at sea in an endless desert of snow. The ghostly whiteness of her teeth — which he instantly interpreted as Melvillian with Malevichian overtones — sent shivers down his spine, as though the absence it seemed to materialise mirrored his own. Her whole body, he now sensed with each new caress, was designed to frame the void, which, otherwise, would remain invisible — white on white.

His heart was pounding; he was perspiring profusely and his penis had shrivelled up like a salted snail. In order to get his bearings, he endeavoured to recall the journalist’s bloody name once and for all. It could have been Gemma. Or even Emma, for all he knew. Unless, of course, it was Linda. Or Belinda — he would not have put it past her, the little minx. Luella rang a bell — as did Annabella. Not to mention Tamsin and Tamara; Imogen and Iphgenia. It was on the tip of his tongue… Got it! Tippi. Ah, Tippi, Tippi, Tippi. Ze tip of ze tongue taking a trip of two steps down ze palate… Or was it Trixie? Calliope? Suki, Sadie — Parthenope?…

When he was toing, her face appeared blank and featureless: totally inscrutable. When he was froing, it seemed to run the emotional gamut from mild surprise to utter boredom in quick succession. There was either too little or too much information to process. Worlds, he felt, were splitting. Splitting all the time.

All you could hear now was a serving spoon squelching its way through a bowl of pasta. Whatsherface had long stopped biting her lip and her body had grown so limp that he began wondering if she was not asleep, in a coma, or even dead. The thought did cross his mind. Then, she started convulsing and screaming as though she were being torn asunder: ‘Sostène, where are you? Where are you, Sostène? Reviens! Reviens, Sostène! Sostène, reviens! SOSTEEEENE! SOSTEEEEEEEENE!’

‘Thanks,’ she said, upon leaving. Zanzibar stared at the outstretched hand last seen clasping his erect penis. ‘For having me?’ she added by way of explanation, but the high-rising terminal transformed her statement into a question. A final probing question that she left dangling like one of Fat Pat’s earrings as she departed with a toss of hair and a rustle of chiffon. She was marching past the cat who, curled up on a beanbag, did not even bother to look up. She was making her way down the transparent spiral staircase that seemed — like her — to be wound around nothing. Zanzibar just stood there, in the doorway, buffeted by the fragrant breeze she had generated. With closed eyes, he breathed in a lungful of her absence and just stood there. He just stood there, caught in her slipstream. Winded, he just stood there. He just stood there. ‘Putain!’ he muttered and finally closed the door.

****

Bearing a striking resemblance to Ursula Andress (had she been immortalised by Botticelli), the presidential candidate emerged from the sea to spontaneous cries of ‘Vive la République!’. She was naked save for a tricolor sash — ‘Un rien m’habille’ — that bisected the perkiest pair of Delacrucian tits to have ever stalked Le Touquet Plage. ‘Tu vois, là,’ said a young father to his son, ‘ce sont les deux mammelles de la France.’ As he pointed, tears welled up in his grateful eyes. Everything would be all right now. Everything. The crowd parted and Mme Royal glided by. Majestically. Regally. Eponymously… Photographers had a field day, fireworks were let off, babies were brandished, a brass band struck up the national anthem and, just when he was about to get an eyeful, Zanzibar found himself back home in his bathroom. He was standing in front of the mirror, trying to remove his contact lenses, which (as he would discover after plucking out an eyeball) he had forgotten to put in. The eye he was now staring at, and that stared back at him intermittently as he rolled it around in the palm of his hand, resembled a large white egg with a black dot inside — or rather the drawing of a white egg. The black dot alone contained more atoms than all the penceuls in the world.

****

Zanzibar was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe. He had opted for the last row, furthest away from the road, with the steps leading up to the theatre right behind him. He was the only one there now, a couple of German tourists having just departed. The sun was shining; birds were chirping in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens: summer was in the air. A waiter — as stylish as he was young — brought over an espresso and a glass of water, which he placed gingerly beside Zanzibar’s copy of Le Monde. They had devoted a whole page to ‘l’affaire Zanzibar’. It was all over the papers, the blogs, the social networks, the news bulletins — both radio and television, local and national. There was no escaping it, and that was precisely why he was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe.

A 58 bus turned into Rue de l’Odéon. Zanzibar followed its slow progress past the clothes shop where the original Shakespeare and Company used to stand. It stopped outside the pharmacy at the other end, on the other side, where an attractive woman he vaguely recognised — but could not quite place — alighted and started walking back in his general direction. As she crossed the road, he identified her as a celebrity graphologist who had publicly pooh-poohed his legendary lovemaking technique a few months back. Name of Amélie. Or possibly Emilie. Something along those lines. It was she too, he now realised, who had played the part of the presidential candidate in that strange dream that was still haunting him. Thankfully, she had not noticed Zanzibar and picked a table in the second row, next to an olive tree in a square metal pot. With an uncanny sense of apropos, she ordered a kir royal. No sooner had the waiter scuttled away than she proceeded to hitch up her maxi dress until vast swathes of toned thigh were exposed to the warm rays. She completed this pre-prandial routine by crossing her legs and lowering, visor-style, the designer sunglasses that had been sitting pretty on her head, like a tiara. Zanzibar’s beady eyes darted from the rear view of the graphologist to the restaurant facing him on the left, back to the graphologist’s signature legs, and on to the Flammarion building facing him on the right. He repeated this circuit many times with meticulous, almost obsessive, care until the person he was waiting for finally emerged from the building.

Théodule Meuniaire was a thirtysomething publishing whizz-kid with rock star good looks, who — it was an open secret — was largely responsible for reviving Zanzibar’s flagging career. He lingered for a few minutes outside Flammarion, talking to someone on his mobile, apparently in a foreign language (probably English), then walked over to his car (a grey Porsche) that was parked only a few metres away. He opened the door, removed his jacket and hung it on a hook inside. Before closing the door, he hooted twice in brief succession while looking over at the pavement café. He waved. Zanzibar quickly unfolded his paper and hid behind it. Peering over his crumpled copy of Le Monde, he saw the graphologist lift up her sunglasses with one hand and wave back with the other. A broad smile had now lit up her face. She sprinkled a few coins on the table and skipped across the road to join her date. They kissed like models in a Doisneau picture and walked, hand in hand, to La Méditerranée, the plush restaurant with its blue exterior and Cocteau decorations. Once they had disappeared from view, Zanzibar called the waiter and whispered something in his ear. ‘Bien sûr, Monsieur, au-cun problème,’ he said. Zanzibar got up and ran over to examine the grey Porsche. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses taunted him from the leather dashboard where they had been conspicuously displayed. With closed eyes, he breathed in a lungful of absence and just stood there. He just stood there, in front of the grey Porsche with the horn-rimmed glasses on the leather dashboard. For a minute or so, he just stood there. He just stood there. ‘Putain!’ he muttered, before making his way back.

The waiter smiled at him and Zanzibar felt obliged to order another espresso. He checked his emails on his iPhone, then glanced at the latest tweets, most of which revolved around ‘l’Affaire’. He ordered yet another smile-induced coffee and started reading again. After a brief recap, the article focused on the prime-time television show, to be broadcast live that very evening, during which a confrontation between Meuniaire and himself was to take place. Whether it would or not was a moot point, not least because the programme consisted of a series of announcements for nominally forthcoming — but, in reality, constantly deferred — features, followed by lengthy commercial breaks, themselves followed by further announcements, and so on until the closing credits. Although quite taken with the concept of a show that was for ever in the process of becoming, Zanzibar had no intention whatsoever of being party to this masquerade. He was equally determined to ensure his rival did not make it to the studio either, and that was — more precisely — why he was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe.

He looked up, squinting into the sun as the waiter returned, just in time to see Meuniaire and the graphologist glide past in the grey Porsche with the horn-rimmed glasses on the leather dashboard.

Putain!

****

In 1992, having finally acknowledged that there was little lead in his penceul left, Sostène Zanzibar embarked on an ill-fated prequel to Genesis. Although this grandiose project would occupy him for the best part of two decades, we have precious little to show for it. A few meagre excerpts appeared at irregular intervals in obscure style magazines whose prohibitive cover prices were inversely proportional to their confidential circulations. The rest of this ‘work in regress,’ as he liked to describe it, was destroyed. One night, in November 2008, the author deleted the computer files containing the typescript and burned all the print-outs he had archived over the years. According to legend, he then took a taxi to Denfert-Rochereau, uncovered a manhole and disappeared down the catacombs where he spent the following fortnight listening to the same album over and over again on a battered old ghetto blaster believed to have once belonged to Don Letts.

Franco-Swiss all-girl band Les Péronelles (think Shangri-Las meet Slits) always maintained that they had rounded off their first (and last) album (Trois fois rien, 1983) with a hidden track. ‘L’Arlésienne’ was so well hidden, however, that no one had ever found it. With time, it became the Holy Grail of Franco-Swiss rock criticism. An early issue of Les Inrockuptibles contained a six-page feature (‘A l’écoute de l’inouï’) devoted to this unheard melody. It included interviews with the producer and sound engineer as well as cultural luminaries such as Gérard Genette, Jean Baudrillard, John Cage and assorted roadies.

Listening to this ten-minute stretch of silence over and over again was a Zen-like experience at first. Soon, though, Zanzibar was able to recognise, and even anticipate, every hum, hiss and crackle on the track: its teeny tiny tinny tinnitus quality. The song had to be concealed behind, or perhaps even within, this silence that was not quite silence. It had to. He even thought he could sense its presence in the same, almost physical, way one is always aware of being observed. It was just out of earshot; a mere whisper away.

By the middle of the second week, a melody had emerged from the static and wormed itself into his eardrums. It was the sound of music leaking from a commuter’s headphones on public transport. It was the sound of a distant party carried on the wind of time, ebbing and flowing. It was the sound of mythical monsters plumbing the murky depths of ancient oceans. It was the sound of half a dozen rashers sizzling away like nobody’s business in a big fuck-off frying pan. Above all, it was the sound of a wannabe troglodyte slowly going out of his mind.

By the end of the second week, the melody had disappeared. It had never been there in the first place; not really. Zanzibar, now at his wit’s end, had a rare eureka moment. The ghost track was not concealed behind, or even within, the silence — it was that silence itself. He had been listening to it all along, or rather he had not: all along, he had been listening into it for something else. There was, however, nothing else: no behind or within; no depth or beyond. Zanzibar had finally acceded to a heightened sense of hearing. He was now firmly convinced that this recording of real silence — silence that was not quite silence — constituted, en soi, some kind of irreducible message. Communication stripped back to its bare essentials; atomised — degré zéro.

The author’s discovery could not but chime with his long-standing interest in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Whenever he wrestled with the blank page and the blank page won, Zanzibar would shrug it off as being of little import since it meant, ipso facto, that another version of himself was scribbling away in some parallel universe. Although this explanation was offered in jest, the author started thinking of his alter ego — hard at work on the Great Novel (GN) he was not working on — with increasing regularity. Some would say that these thoughts even blossomed into a beautiful, full-blown obsession.

In the early days, Zanzibar had tried his hand at creatio ex nihilo. Did not work. He then had a go at recreating the world within a whopping great Gesammtkuntswerk. This proved equally unfruitful. The words he used to conjure things up simply recorded their absence, instead of preserving them for all eternity: Evanescence, ou la naissance d’Eva (1992) expressed nothing but itself — if that. Writing something, as opposed to writing about something, seemed to be the way forward — or rather backward, as it implied rediscovering some prelapsarian language that merged with the reality of things. Chemin faisant, as he strived to bridge the gap between signifier and signified, Zanzibar also hoped to recapture some of that old magic which had inspired Bigorneau back in the day: a soupçon of oomph; un peu de welly. In the event, he did neither. Every single volume he ever published had thus been an approximate translation — and ultimately a failed instantiation — of the ideal book in his head. Were his novels, then, simply intimations or imitations of his other self’s works: dim echoes, pale copies? Were they inferior versions of the masterpieces his doppelgänger could come up with given half the chance? Zanzibar thought long and hard about all this, finally electing to stop writing in order to let his more talented likeness — whom he pictured as slightly better-endowed and -looking than himself — get on with it.

Flammarion ruthlessly exploited Zanzibar’s disappearance by encouraging the hypothesis of a suicide. Meuniaire claimed on television that this, après tout, would only be in keeping with his ‘fundamentally nihilistic outlook’. Arthur Cravan and Jacques Rigaut were frequently invoked by literary journalists in support of this argument. As a result, Zanzibar’s back catalogue flew off the shelves, with Bigorneau topping the bestseller lists once again. Of course, the second stage of this cunning marketing strategy — i.e. cashing in on Zanzibar’s miraculous reappearance by bringing out a new book asap — was jeopardised by the author’s decision to down penceuls. Meuniaire was promptly dispatched to resolve this delicate problem. As expected, Zanzibar adopted a hardline position (‘C’est une question de principe, un point c’est tout!’) but proved far more amenable as soon as Flammarion threatened to sue his sorry ass. A compromise was finally thrashed out between the two parties, down at Les Deux Magots, where many a bottle of Perrier-Jouët was downed almost cul sec. Zanzibar, who had always tried and failed to convey the inadequacy of words with words, came up with the concept of a novel printed with disappearing ink. Once read, each word would vanish for ever, the full text living on in people’s minds — retold, reinterpreted, reinvented… ‘There’s no such thing as original fiction,’ he said, a little worse for wear, ‘Novels can’t be set in stone.’ He climbed on the table and began chanting, ‘Li-bé-rez le texte! Li-bé-rez le texte!’ After a few phone calls, Meuniaire put a damper on proceedings: the project was too complex to pull off from a technical point of view, and would be far too expensive anyway. So it was back to the drawing board: ‘Une autre bouteille, s’il vous plaît!’ They finally decided that Zanzibar would write an entire novel in longhand, using disappearing ink, and that Flammarion would publish a facsimile of the manuscript — blank page after blank page: ‘Garçon, une autre bouteille!’ What better way to say something without saying it? ‘Allez hop, on fête ça, une autre bouteille!’ What better way to express the idea that the writer has nothing to express? ‘Vous nous remettrez la même chose.’ In between hiccups, Zanzibar explained that his blank book would bear no relation whatsoever to any of the blank books that had ever been published in the past. It would not be a gimmick, a joke, a provocation, a protest or even an artistic gesture — although there would be an element of all those things. His ‘post-literary’ blank pages would not be identical to your ‘non- or pre-literary’ common-or-garden, run-of-the-mill blank pages of the bog-standard variety: they would somehow retain traces of the novel that had once graced them. He then spoke confusedly of palimpsests and the tradition of erasure in contemporary poetry; the word biffure was used thrice. When he started claiming that the absent text would be a kind of manifestation, en creux, of the Great Novel (GN) his other self was composing in a parallel universe, Meuniaire decided to call it a day. It was probably that night, as he was walking home to clear his head that he resolved to publish Le Roman invisible under his own name. Two grown men — intellectuals! French ones, at that! — claiming rights to a blank book was bound to make the front pages. It also made Meuniaire shitloads of money as Le Roman invisible became the must-have accessory of that rentrée littéraire. Suddenly, it was incontournable and, paradoxically, everywhere to be seen. The fact that it doubled up as a handy memo pad turned it into a top seller in the run-up to Christmas too. With the royalties, Meuniaire treated himself to a luxury yacht worthy of a Russian oligarch. He called it Authorship (en anglais dans le texte).

****

A laundry van stopped outside the Michelet Odéon hotel. The words Maison Binger were painted on the side in quaint curlicue letters. A young man in a crisp beige uniform jumped out, leaving the door wide open. Zanzibar made a wild dash for it. The keys were in the ignition; the driver was talking to a pretty receptionist: the race was on.

The van picked up speed, crushing the asphalt beneath its burning wheels, like a shirt-collar under a Morphy Richards. Meuniaire’s grey Porsche was still only a dot in the distance, but it was growing bigger by the second. It contained more atoms than all the penceuls in the world. Soon, those atoms would be spilled all over the leather dashboard and horn-rimmed glasses like chicken-scratch squiggles. Zanzibar was already living in the future. He could see it all, now, with blinding clarity. The shattered glass. The chromium twisted into the shape of Byzantine rings. The gory action painting on the tarmac. The charred corpses in their chariot of fire. He was hunched over the steering wheel, headbutting the windshield, laughing manically, whooping and hollering, with the wind in his combover and imaginary music blaring away in his ears. Four cars now separated him from his prey. He was closing in.

Just as he was about to go for the kill, the grey Porsche lurched into the outside lane. A sudden but steady — and, indeed, uninterrupted — flow of traffic prevented Zanzibar from giving chase. This being Paris, no one saw fit to let him go: steaming ahead was a woman’s prerogative and a man’s virility test. To make matters worse, the cars in his lane had now ground to a halt in what seemed like the mother of all tailbacks. Those on the left-hand side, however, continued to race past as if taking part in a dry run for Le Mans. Watching them whizz by made him a little drowsy after a while. Feeling his eyes glaze over, he stretched, and noticed two large white eggs with black dots inside. The eyes belonged to the Michelin Man who was towering above him benignly from a billboard. Zanzibar fell asleep and was transported back to the tiny village in Bourgogne where he spent his summer holidays as a child. His grandparents’ house with the dark-green shutters and, across the road, the plot of land where his grandfather grew tomatoes and carrots and beans. Halfway up the hill, there was a water pump that looked like an obscene squat robot with a chunky, phallic-looking spout. It said POMPES LEMAIRE and TOURNEZ LENTEMENT (although there was no water in it) and it was green, but a lighter shade than the shutters. On the same side, further up, when you had almost reached the top, there was a little convenience store — the only one for miles. People used to go there to give and receive telephone calls. At the other end of the village, there was a big barn, and on the door of this barn there was an advertisement with the Michelin Man. It was already old and faded by the early 70s. Going back there, he thought, now waking up and rubbing his eyes, would be a little like visiting the setting of his past following the detonation of a neutron bomb. Zanzibar looked up at the billboard again, and it was at this juncture that he realised that there was no driver in the car in front. And none in the one in front of that. And so on. All along, he had been stuck behind a line of fucking parked cars.

Night was beginning to fall. He wondered how long it would take to drive back to the past, and if the Michelin Man would still be waiting for him there.

[*Zanzibar’s cat was called Schrödinger (instead of Erwin) in the White Review version and Pat Evans has become Fat Pat]

Illustration by Max McLaughlin.