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.



The Blanks Have All Been Filled

Joshua Cohen, “Four new Messages: Six Questions for Joshua Cohen” by Ramona Demme, Harper’s Magazine 31 August 2012

In “Emission,” I include that brief quote about Raskolnikov: “His face was pale and distorted, and a bitter, wrathful, and malignant smile was on his lips.” That’s the most notable physical description of him in all the hundreds of pages of Crime and Punishment. If you read through the history of literature, it’s difficult not to note this slow, but seemingly inevitable, seemingly even conscious, accretion of detail. Characters in the oldest literature — Sumerian lit and the Bible, fables and folklore — are almost never physically described, and, of course, God “Himself” is never physically described. But then as you approach Antiquity, you encounter characters described by epithets, where one quality, frequently not even a physical quality, distinguishes them, rendering them an archetype for same. As you read on and into “fiction,” you find increasing physical description — archetypes profaning into types, characters aware of their own bodies (which is to say, psychology: mental or emotional description) — and with that comes, seemingly inevitably, seemingly consciously intended, a perceptible decrease in the reader’s imaginative opportunities. There’s just less space, less of a place, for the reader to co-write the book by filling in the blanks — the blanks have all been filled.

Take one of my favorite describers, Nabokov — who hated Dostoevsky, and regarded him as incompetent. Lolita prevents you from imagining Humbert Humbert and Lolita, and compels you instead to just see/hear/synestheticize how Nabokov himself intends them to be seen/heard/synestheticized—not just that, but Nabokov gives you “his” Humbert, and “his” Lolita, alongside “Humbert’s” Lolita and even “Lolita’s” Humbert. The reader, then, is exiled if not from the book then from his or her own importance to the book. Forget becoming involved with characters; the reader’s better involved with the author: the true hero, and heroine, turns out to be Nabokov — naughty Volodya!

Reverse Striptease

This is the phantom foreword to H. P. Tinker’s short-story collection, The Swank Bisexual Wine Bar of Modernity (2007). It went through several incarnations, before the author finally decided he wanted the book to stand alone; forewordless. And this is me in La Baule, on 21 July 2006, writing the aforementioned piece whilst shamelessly flaunting my bald patch (picture taken through the open window by my now-phantom spouse, Emilie Gallix).

Reverse Striptease

…’Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,’ the Consul liked to say…
– Malcolm Lowry,
Under the Volcano

Privately Paul Gauguin considers himself an undiscovered genius. “But,” he tells Woody Allen over the phone, “What happens to an undiscovered genius when his genius is finally discovered? What is that all about? Where does he go then?”
– HP Tinker, “Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”

In one of the stories collected here, the mourners attending the funeral of an anonymous writer suddenly wonder: “So, what do we know of the author? Do we really know anything at all?” (“The Death of the Author” p. 105). The same question could be asked of HP Tinker himself. Despite the occasional circling Trewin or Prosser, he remains elusive; a cult figure on the literary fringes (1). This self-styled “Thomas Pynchon of Chorlton-cum-Hardy” claims that “writers should be read, not seen” and that “the work should speak for itself” (2). The work itself, however, is wilfully keeping shtum… (3)

…”Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”, for instance — which mimics the clapped-out conventions of celebrity documentaries — takes Joe Orton’s satire of tabloidese and vox pops to its illogical conclusion. A voiceover-style narrative is interspersed with the Post-Impressionist’s impressions and snippets of interviews: “Paul loves to laugh and to make other people laugh. He also loves to dance. He has been blessed with the gift of tap. Not a lot of people know that” (p. 7). These soundbites come courtesy of a gaggle of friends and acquaintances ranging from the plausible (Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec) to the risible (Edith Piaf, Carl Jung or Nico). Such glaring anachronisms serve to break down the barriers of rationality and conjure up a world of promiscuous commingling where the pleasure principle runs riot (4). The mockumentary format is ideally suited to the episodic nature of Tinker’s stories with their air-tight paragraphs à la Flaubert, their picaresque jumpcuts from one incident to the next, or their wild goose chases “via a chain of wholly convoluted plot developments” (“Kandahar!” p. 19).

Direction, or the lack thereof, is a leitmotif throughout this anthology and, indeed, the author’s entire corpus to date. Consider “Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker”, with its self-reflexive Jules Verne-meets-Todorov-on Sarah Records title and disconcerting final sentence: “…I decide to solicit legal advice on precisely which direction I should be proceeding in” (p. 117). “Where are we going?” (p. 17) wonders Paul Gauguin mirroring the reader’s bafflement as the opening story careers towards its unlikely close. The artist’s question echoes the paragraph composed solely of the word “lost” repeated (for some reason) 92 times (p. 14) which, in turn, reflects the labyrinthine “Morrissey Exhibition” with its disorienting carpet scheme: “You can certainly get lost in there. Totally lost. Completely lost. Utterly lost. Horribly, horribly, lost. So horribly lost that you fear you might never find yourself again” (p. 128). The narrator of the ironically-titled “You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” confesses, “I needed to find myself, or at least somebody similar” (5) only to find himself (or at least somebody similar) accidentally in Stockholm where “the streets thronged with lost sports commentators asking for directions”. The “oddly convoluted directions” (p. 27) he is himself offered give rise to a Proustian travelogue (6) which — as is common in Tinker’s fiction — reduces locale to bare toponymy: “I licked my wounds in Lisbon and Tangiers. Then ate surprisingly badly in Madrid. Next, the warm air of Dakar stang my lungs. (I ignored Istanbul completely.)” (p. 30). “Son of Sinbad” concludes with the very thought that the only uncharted territories are indeed those of the imagination: “‘There’s nothing out there,’ he says, ‘you understand that, don’t you?’ and you say, ‘Yes, oh yes,’ eyes swimming with disappointment, knee-deep in thoughts of yawning oceans, uncrossed beaches, man-made islands, wine-dark women, unfashionably family-orientated coastal resorts…” (p. 49).

Angst proving resistant to geography, the itinerary morphs into a “search for experience”, a “quest for something different” (“Kandahar!” p. 22); rerouted inwards it thus becomes a journey of “self-discovery”, as the peripatetic protagonist of “Vic Chews It Over” — Vic, presumably — puts it (p. 38). However, all this experimentation only leads to an aporetic cul-de-sac that is strangely reminiscent of the fate of post-Symbolist Western literature: “I fell into abstraction. I travelled through complex textures, however dense and demoralising they became. I dug down, deep into the langue and parole of the situation. Words that once meant an awful lot to me, now held little or no meaning in my current context” (p. 30). In a few deft sentences, HP Tinker charts the far-reaching (philosophical as well as literary) consequences of the (Mallarmean but also Barthelmean) disjunction between signifier and signified.

When the misguided anti-hero of “Kandahar!” follows the directions of a Firbankian monk he discovers in his hotel bathroom (eating gazpacho and listening to Limp Bizkit), we know that his odyssey is bound to come full circle: “…and following his directions, I set off on a journey, following and swimming his directions, swimming across an open sea from one island, and jumping from the top of a 120-foot waterfall, swimming his directions from one island to another, crawling past armed guards…but swimming back because it got late, so late the monk was already sleeping in my bed by the time I got back to my room…” (pp. 23-24). We have now reached the “literary pottage” of postmodernism (“Death of the Author” p. 108), the eternally-recycled primordial alphabet soup — and a very weird soup it is too.

Placing undecidability at the heart of his work, HP Tinker positively revels in the negativity of this impasse. “Nobody,” we are told, “is quite sure” what “exactly took place between the paper-thin walls of the Mexican sex hotel” (“Mexican Sex Hotel” p. 52). If Robert Rauschenberg transformed the erasure of a de Kooning drawing into a work of art, the author goes one step further by erasing a non-existent original. His short stories? Allegories pointing — most impolitely — to a subtext which is not really there (8). Rites of passage leading nowhere, except up their own ars rhetorica, like so many quests without grails. Hatfuls of hollow — without hats. The literary equivalent of losing something you never actually had in the first place, and then going looking for it again. At great length.

Most characters here are hankering after some ever-elusive — oft-illusive — goal. The General, for instance, inhabits “an intricate warren” of rooms which form “a mysterious labyrinth he can wander through, dusting and hoovering the narrow passageways as he goes about his business, as if in search of some unknown land” (p. 31). Entering the Mexican sex hotel is “like stepping into another world” of passages “shelving off into mysteriously-darkened chambers” (p. 51). The quest for an “unknown land”, “another world” — the “Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity” itself, if you will — leads one into a maze from which there is no escape, a “corridor of illusions” (“Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker” p. 114) built to baffle: “What level am I on? You may well ask, on occasion. Is that way up or down? What’s through that door? Where in the name of Jesus am I?” (“The Morrissey Exhibition” p. 128). Spatial topsy-turviness provides a perfect metaphor for the mock-heroic (8) reversal of high and low registers which so often contributes — mainly through incongruous juxtapositions — to the mind-boggling confusion of reader, character, narrator and author alike: “You are totally confused and understand nothing” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 80).

This descent into nothingness (“The next morning, in the shaving mirror: an empty space,” “You Can Go Home Again” p. 120) is perhaps best illustrated by Tinker’s penchant for pulp pastiche. Take “The Investigation”, a story which brazenly advertises its mock-epistemological dimension: “It is an investigation into meaning…meaning, do you see?” (p. 79). Unlike your run-of-the-mill whodunnit — where the criminal is eventually brought to book — this (clearly ontological) investigation reveals nothing whatsoever. On the contrary, refusing to let in daylight upon magic, Tinker adds layer upon layer of opacity as if performing one of his characters’ customary reverse stripteases (9). Unsurprisingly, we learn in fine that “The investigation goes on”, a denouement as open-ended as Tinker’s fiction itself (p. 68)…

So what exactly will you find inside the Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity? Bawdy moustaches. The wildest of similes (10). Donald Barthelme rutting with a buxom Oulipian in the pale fire of a Nabokovian footnote. Morrisseyspotting aplenty. Devastating satire of Swiftian proportions (11). Lashings of hardcore gastroporn (12). Bewildering Lynchian filmic devices. Uncanny Orton pastiches (13). A recurrent association between artistic creation and immoderate masturbation. Relentless self-reflexivity; postmodernism gone mad (14). A very British brand of Surrealism that owes as much to the Goon Show, Monty Python or Glen Baxter as to the Continental heavyweights. At times, the feeling of Woody Allen stranded on a Carry On film set. Whereas his absurdist forebears could only gratify us with a sardonic grimace, Tinker does laugh-out-loud. Whereas much “experimental” fiction is deserving of study yet tiresome to sit down and read, he reconciles — seemingly effortlessly — the avant-garde with the plaisir du texte. His thrilling “A-level Surrealism” (“You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” p. 29) — as far removed from the cosy world of Amis or Barnes as it is possible to get (15) — manages the feat of being at once experimental and accessible. The book you are (probably) holding in your hands is what French critics would describe as un OVNI littéraire: nothing less than a literary UFO…

(1) Susan Tomaselli claimed in Dogmatika that “If HP Tinker didn’t exist, you’d have to make him up”.

(2) Quoted from a rare interview published in 3:AM Magazine in 2001.

(3) Significantly, an early abandoned Tinker novel was entitled “The Man Who Would Be Mute”.

(4) This Paul Gauguin (whose works include Jacob Wrestling Grandma Moses and Woman Chasing Bagel Down Fifth Avenue) designs Clarice Cliff’s corporate logo, ogles Russ Meyer’s Vixen! on TV (“The heroine has unfeasibly large breasts, Paul Gauguin notes, unable to take his eyes off the screen” p. 8), crashes on Willem de Kooning’s sofa bed (after attending Jackson Pollock’s housewarming party — with Man Ray), receives an erotic postcard from Yoko Ono and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from Vivien Leigh (“I was merely struggling with the baby shrimp” p. 11).

(5) After all, “I is another” in these post-Rimbaldian times.

(6) See also this characteristic extract from “The Countess of Monte Cristo”: “Heathrow. Rio. Lisbon. Brussels. Bruges. Rome. Venice. Barcelona. Madrid. Prague. Parma. St Petersburg. Moscow. Cape Town. Then Heathrow again” (p. 87).

(7) The subtext is either distanced and stylised into oblivion, or so obscure that it might as well not exist. “The General”, for instance, was inspired by a real person, but the story is obviously more than a private joke. So: is this objective correlation gone mad, or something else? Perhaps a clue can be found in “You Can Go Home Again” where Noël Coward reflects upon his work-in-progress which is “going nowhere”: “I wonder, he thinks to himself, is the subject too close to home?” (p. 118).

(8) The scuffle described like a Homeric epic in “[Just Like] Tom Paulin’s Blues” is a prime example of Tinker’s take on the mock-heroic (p. 96).

(9) “Every young Parisian girl wore woolly tights and thick overcoats, their pert, erect nipples completely hidden by several layers of obtrusive material” (“Vic Chews It Over” p. 39).

(10) Tinker is the master of weird similes: “…the plot thickening around you the way a good pasta should” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 78).

(11) 12 “Kandahar!” provides a scathing attack on the collateral damage of the so-called War on Terror: “Everywhere was bombed. My street was bombed. Then the street next to mine. Then the street next to the street next to mine. Night and day, they bombed all the wrong places….they were quite methodical about it” (p. 24). “(Just Like) Tom Paulin’s Blues” is one long, brilliant exercise in pricking an intellectual bubble of pomposity.

(12) The anthology is awash with Fluxus caffs, Franco-Pakistani bistros, Zen-like seafood platters, “media-friendly virtual tapas bars” and “funky post-coital noodle eateries” (“Kandahar” p. 23). Food frequently stands for the victory of base instincts over lofty ideals — a staple of comedy: “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What are we doing here? What are we going to do next? How can we escape everything that is artificial and conventional? What can we have for lunch? Why is there no food in this house? Did I forget to visit the supermarket? Are these potato cakes stale? Where is the green curry I was freezing? Am I all out of seaweed fasoli? Is a Brie sandwich at all feasible in the circumstances?” (“Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor” p. 17).

(13) The recurrent Ortonesque mixture of American Psycho-style granguignol and laugh-out-loud comedy is perfectly illustrated by the opening scene of “The Investigation” which describes a detective contemplating a gruesome murder scene. A woman, hanging from a light fitting has been “expertly skinned”, one of her hands has been chopped off and her mouth is “full of shit”. The detective observes that this is the “sickest sight” he has seen “since he chanced upon the contents of David Niven’s fridge in 1972” (p. 59).

(14) There’s the guy in “Kandahar!”, for instance, who wants to produce a machine “to go back in time and kill the inventor of the funky bassline” thus giving rise to “a better world, one without the Red Hot Chili Peppers” (p. 20).

(15) Among his contemporaries the most obvious points of comparison are David Foster Wallace and, perhaps, William T Vollmann.

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 January 2011:

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

Special case: Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Every year, the French government publishes a list of cultural events and personalities to be commemorated over the next 12 months. Compiling it is a lengthy and carefully-considered process. A High Committee of National Celebrations draws up a provisional list, which is then submitted to the Culture Ministry and, once approved, published in book form. Some 10,000 copies of the Recueil des Célébrations nationales 2011 were printed last autumn ahead of last week’s launch. Frédéric Mitterrand — the culture minister lui-même — had even penned a foreword, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the project had received his imprimatur. However, when word got out that Louis-Ferdinand Céline was to feature alongside the likes of Blaise Cendrars, Théophile Gautier, Franz Liszt and Georges Pompidou, all hell broke loose.

Serge Klarsfeld, the country’s most famous Nazi hunter and Holocaust memorialist, expressed his indignation in the name of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France. The Republic, he argued, shouldn’t celebrate “the most antisemitic” Frenchman of his day — a time, lest we forget, when antisemitism was so rife that it led to state-sanctioned Jewish persecution under the Vichy regime. Mitterrand’s decision, two days later, to remove the novelist from the list was logical in light of this backlash, but also somewhat surprising since he must have known that his inclusion would prove controversial in the first place (was he protecting Sarkozy, whose favourite author happens to be Céline?)

Far more surprising, however, was the reaction of the French intelligentsia, who were almost unanimous in their defence of the author of Journey to the End of the Night. Literary heavyweight Philippe Sollers accused the Culture Ministry of “censorship”. Frédéric Vitoux, a member of the prestigious Académie française who wrote a biography of Céline, likened this decision to the airbrushing of history under Stalin. Pop philosopher Alain Finkielkraut feared that some people would draw the conclusion that a “Jewish lobby” was dictating policy to the French government. Bernard-Henri Lévy, another celebrity philosopher, claimed that the commemoration of Céline’s death should have been an opportunity to try to understand how a “truly great author” can also be an “absolute bastard”. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the fact that Serge Klarsfeld himself felt the need to declare that he rated Céline as a “great writer” before going on to describe him as a “despicable human being”.

France is a place where authors and artists are granted a special status — a kind of poetic licence or artistic immunity. In fact, the country continues to view itself, and sometimes to be regarded as, the natural second home of all artists. It is this very liberal attitude which attracted many members of the Lost and Beat generations after the second world war, and that still attracts outsider writers such as Dennis Cooper. Some of the greatest works of contemporary fiction in English — Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov’s Lolita or Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — were available in France when they were banned or considered unpublishable in Britain or the US. A telling culture shock occurred on live television, in 1990, when a journalist from Quebec told Gabriel Matzneff that only in Paris would he be feted for writing — however exquisitely — about his liaisons with underage partners (of both genders). Anywhere else, she stated, he would probably end up in prison. The journalist was subsequently depicted as a philistine, unable to appreciate the subtlety of Matzneff’s feelings or the beauty of his style. Baudelaire once wrote that “literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality” and, for better or worse, this has clearly become France’s official artistic credo.

Trying to account for this “exception française” is no mean task, but I suspect it has something to do with the elevation of art to the status of surrogate religion during the second half of the 19th century. A similar phenomenon was taking place all over Europe, of course, but it probably had more resonance against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle between Republicanism and Catholicism. Both Flaubert and Baudelaire were prosecuted for public obscenity, but when French MPs called for the banning of Jean Genet‘s The Screens in 1966 (for political reasons, this time), the culture minister (and novelist) André Malraux immediately stepped in to defend the inviolability of artistic freedom. By then, artistic creation was largely considered as a value in itself, beyond morals and politics; even beyond good and evil.

The dominant French view on literature was probably best expressed by Oscar Wilde, who ended his life in exile in Paris: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Not quite, though, in this case. No one is denying Céline’s talent as one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century — probably the greatest, with Proust. Is it possible, however, to distinguish the author of antisemitic tracts from the genius novelist; the man from the artist?

C By Tom McCarthy

This appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2, issue 89, p. 196):

C by Tom McCarthy

Incest, spies and coke-fuelled adventures

Let’s not beat about the bush: Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C, is a masterpiece: a sprawling associative web that keeps generating new meanings as though of its own volition. “That’s the beautiful thing about what literature does to language,” says McCarthy. “You stick these slippery terms in and they start cross-fertilising in ways you never anticipated — incestuous ways.” C takes us from a fairytale English silk farm to spy-ridden Egypt by way of a central European spa town, aerial warfare and a coke-fuelled London filled with bright young Amazons. It is a comedy of errors, a gothic mystery, a boy’s own story; a traditional 19th-century novel seemingly rewritten by Burroughs or Ballard. You’ll find geometry, technology and trauma. Loops, repetitions and mutations. Incest, insects and radio bugs. And phantom words emanating from subterranean worlds half-glimpsed “at the dial’s far end”. Tune in…

DAZED & CONFUSED: C could be seen as a futurist novel. Serge, the protagonist, even seems to be partly modelled on Marinetti himself…
TOM MCCARTHY: I love Marinetti, and, yes, he’s part of Serge’s make-up, particularly in the war section. But Serge is equally a mixture of Freud’s Wolf Man, the beautifully fucked-up melancholic eternally grieving for his dead sister; and Alexander Bell, inventor of the phone (who also lost two siblings); and Howard Carter, the Egyptologist who disinterred the ur-family tomb; and a bunch of other people. I’m interested in the places where technology and mourning intersect.

There’s also a strong retro-futurist — even steampunk — element to C. Did you feel the need to revisit the early 20th century in order to reinvent the future of the novel?
Yes. Walter Benjamin says that the angel of history faces backwards. I think it’s the same for literature: you’ve got to look back in order to move forwards. It’s not just the foundations of contemporary technology that are being laid in the early 20th century (the code radio bugs used exactly anticipated text speak, just as lots of their output anticipated Twitter), but also literature’s period of high modernism that’s coming to a head. Not for nothing does the novel end in 1922: it’s the year that Ulysses and The Waste Land came out. The task for the contemporary writer (sadly, one which many writers of today are shirking) is to work through that period’s legacy — dynamically and radically, but attentively too.

All the major themes in C — from wireless technology to the discovery of Tutankhamun — come from your early experiments with the International Necronautical Society (INS), don’t they?
I had the idea for C while I was working on the INS project at the ICA. There, we had a radio station modelled on the illicit one in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (where the person transmitting is already dead), sending out all these coded poetic messages. I was looking at writing around encryption, and the concept of the ‘crypt’ that you get in psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Incest lies at the heart of C: this, for you, is the source code of western literature, right?
Yes. You go back from Nabokov through Faulkner through Racine right back to Sophocles, and incest is the central theme that keeps recurring. For Freud, the incest prohibition is what makes us civilised, socialised, even human, so that’s the taboo all tragic heroes, who are fundamentally doomed rebels, are most drawn towards transgressing.

Why do you think that all new means of telecommunication are linked to death, mourning and melancholia?
I don’t know if I can explain it. It’s just a pattern that keeps recurring. For every comm-tech invention, there seems to be a dead sibling somewhere. Bell even made a pact with his brother that, if one of them died like their other brother had, the surviving one would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the dead. Then the second brother dies, and Bell invents the telephone. He remained a rationalist, a sceptic — basically because his brothers never called. But the desire, the fantasy, is there in the technology: a ghost in the machine. It’s the same with radio. Seances in the 20s weren’t about spirit and ectoplasm any more: they were about “tuning in” to voices resonating on high frequencies, like radio waves. With the internet, it seems to be more about a presence than an absence: everything’s there, every click and keystroke ever made eternally retrievable, a giant archive. That’s a kind of haunting too, though.

Text and Photography



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.”