Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley

My interview with Simon Critchley appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 3 December 2014:

Writing Outside Philosophy: An Interview with Simon Critchley


3:AM: Do you agree that much of your back catalogue can now be read as a preemptive commentary on Memory Theatre, as though the latter had been written in the stars all along (which would be in keeping with the book’s uncanny astrological theme)?

SC: Sure. Why not? Look, what I really learned from Paul De Man years and years ago was that writers are structurally self-deceived about what they do, what they write and the intentions that might or might not lie behind their writing. Namely, to write is to be blind to one’s insight, if such insight exists. I understand this structurally: namely, that writing is an adventure in self-deception. I simply do not know what I am doing and you — as a reader, and a very good reader, moreover — can tell me what I am doing much more accurately than I can. Therefore, I should be interviewing you. In fact, let’s consider that we have reversed roles.

3:AM: The late Michel Haar, who haunts the book, is said to have been fascinated by the “poetic dimension” of Nietzsche’s style, which he saw as “that which might escape philosophy” — a fascination you also share. In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (1997), you argued that “Writing outside philosophy means ceasing to be fascinated with the circular figure of the Book, the en-cyclo-paedia of philosophical science, itself dominated by the figures of unity and totality, which would attempt to master death and complete meaning by letting nothing fall outside of its closure”. Did you need to exorcise your fascination with this totalising tradition — by dramatising its failure — in order to write “outside philosophy”?

SC: Wow, thanks for reminding me of that passage from Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, which was written in 1992 or 93, as I recall, right towards the beginning of what became that odd book. I have two contradictory reactions to your question: on the one hand, many of the authors I have been obsessed with over the years have endeavoured to take a step outside philosophy, by which is usually meant the circle and circuit of Hegel’s system or Heidegger’s understanding of history as the history of being. I respect and love that gesture, that can be found in Bataille, Levinas, Blanchot and others. But, on the other hand, what I learned from Derrida very early on — my master’s thesis was on the question of whether we could overcome metaphysics — is that the step outside philosophy always falls back within the orbit of that which it tries to exceed. Not to philosophize is still to philosophize. Similarly, any text or philosophy that simply asserts the value of metaphysics is internally dislocated against itself, undermining its own founding gesture. This leaves us writing on the margin between the inside and the ouside of philosophy, which is where I’d like to place Memory Theatre. Also note that although Michel Haar existed and was real, as it were, he didn’t say much or anything that I say that he said. He is a kind of vehicle that I try and drive and steer.


3:AM: At one time, you entertained the idea of writing a book entitled “Paraphilosophy”, devoted to philosophically-impossible objects. A memory theatre strikes me as an impossible object of a different kind: one that can be conceived of, yet never conceived. Is your work a critique of what you call elsewhere the “aestheticization of existence” — the avant-garde project of turning life into art?

SC: Another way of answering your previous question would be to say that I am committed to a form of paraphilosophy, organized around what I call ‘impossible objects’ (a version of the scraps of that abandomed project will be published next year, I think). On the question of the aestheticization of existence, I sometimes really don’t know where I stand. On the one hand, we have known since Benjamin, that fascism aestheticizes politics, but on the other hand, much of what I do is committed to the idea of the aesthetic particularly as art practice as it was embodied in various avant-garde groups. Does that make me a fascist? Lord, I hope not. I think at that point we need to make a distinction between aestheticization in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk and totality, the architecture of fascism, and that writing that unpicks, unravels and mocks that tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the name of another practice of art, what Blanchot called the infinite conversation. It is in the spirit of the latter than I have tried to work.

3:AM: Memory Theatre includes a series of photographs — by British artist Liam Gillick — of a skyscraper in construction. Their appearance in reverse order (which reminded me of Robert Smithson’s notion of “ruins in reverse”) mirrors the deconstruction of the narrator’s attempt to build a real-life memory theatre. I wonder, however, if these pictures do not also refer to his surrogate grand narrative: a “perfect work of art” that would eventually “become life itself” by merging with it. One of the recurring themes in the book is that of the quest for a prelapsarian universal language which, although mocked by Swift, was once very fashionable: you write, for instance, of Leibniz’s “attempted recovery of the language of Adam against the Babel of the world”. Does Gillick’s dismantling of this Tower (block) of Babel gradually lead us towards an immanent conception of art that could express the world as it is in itself, free from human perception?

SC: Yes, but this is another fantasy: that of the artwork having an autonomy independent of its creator. A kind of machine or a puppet, or the fantasy of a non-human artwork, which is currently doing the rounds. All of this is in play in Memory Theatre for sure. What do Liam’s pictures suggest? To me, they exhibit a process of dismantling, or decomposition, that is ultimately the dismantling of philosophy and the decomposition of the heroic figure of the philosopher that has plagued us since Socrates. Memory Theatre is a critique of philosophy and, of course, a self-critique of my position as a ‘philosopher’. And yes Swift’s mocking of the science of his day, in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels has always been very important to me.

3:AM: Would you agree that the memory theatre and the “perfect work of art” envisioned at the end of the book correspond, respectively, to the two poles between which literature oscillates according to Maurice Blanchot? On the one hand, what you have called the “Hegelian-Sadistic” tradition, driven by the work of negation of human consciousness, and on the other, a striving after “that point of unconsciousness, where [literature] can somehow merge with the reality of things” (Very Little . . . Almost Nothing). Both poles, of course, are unattainable, but I suspect you have more sympathy for the latter, which is on the side of “The Plain Sense of Things” (Wallace Stevens) — “the near, the low, the common” (Thoreau) — and “lets us see particulars being various” (Memory Theatre) . . .

SC: That’s very interesting and I stole the “particulars being various” from Louis MacNiece, who is underrated and underread in my view. I remember reading Blanchot’s account of the two slopes of literature and it making a huge impact that continues to reverberate, particularly in relation to the INS [International Necronautical Society] work that I do with Tom McCarthy. On the one hand, literature is a conceptual machine that comprehends all that is, digests it and shits it out. That transforms matter into form. On the other hand, there is a kind of writing — poetry usually (Ponge, Stevens, late Hölderlin) — that attempts to let matter be matter witout controlling or comprehending it. I am more sympathetic to the second slope, but the attempt to let matter be matter without form is also an unachievable fantasy. We can say with Stevens, we don’t need ideas about the thing, but the thing itself. But we are still stuck with ideas about the thing itself, with the materiality of matter. Form, even the form of the formless, is irreducible.

3:AM: Reviewers have remarked on the hybrid nature of Memory Theatre — a mixture of essay, memoir, and fiction. Why did you choose to call the narrator ‘Simon Critchley” — who is both you and not you — instead of creating a fictive character based on yourself? I’m guessing that you relished the ambiguity of inhabiting that gap between you and yourself (to paraphrase Pessoa) . . .

SC: The figure ‘Simon Critchley’ is a quasi-heteronym in Pessoa’s sense. You are absolutely right. I did have a lot of fun working in the gap between myself and myself, trying to create a kind of crack in myself, a decomposition as I said just now. ‘Simon Critchley’ is not me, but is still more than a little bit me. As for the hybrid nature of the text, all I can say is that this is how it came out. I wrote the first draft really quickly in about three weeks, largely against my will. It just came pouring out like that after I’d finished writing The Hamlet Doctrine with Jamieson Webster. Then I looked at Memory Theatre when it was done and was perplexed. What is that thing? I didn’t want to publish it. But other people liked it and I am stupidly vain.

3:AM: At one point your narrator believes he is about to discover his deathday, and feels “strangely exhilarated rather than afraid”: this episode echoes what Blanchot (or his protagonist) experiences, in The Instant of My Death, when he seems to be on the verge of being executed. The opposition between death and dying also derives from Blanchot (and Levinas), as does the example of suicide by hanging:

Even if I hanged myself I would not experience a nihilating leap into the abyss, but just the rope tying me tight, ever tighter, to the existence I wanted to leave (Memory Theatre).
Just as the man who is hanging himself, after kicking away the stool on which he stood, heading for the final shore, rather than feeling the leap which he is making into the void feels only the rope which holds him, held to the end, held more than ever, bound as he had never been before to the existence he would like to leave (Thomas the Obscure).

The image of the dredging machine is a clear reference to Derrida (referencing Genet). “The void has destroyed itself. Creation is its wound” is lifted verbatim from Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. “The blank, expressionless eyes of forty-nine papier mâché statues stared back at me” is possibly a nod to Hoffmannstahl’s “I felt like someone who had been locked into a garden full of eyeless statues” (The Lord Chandos Letter). I am sure that there are many other examples of references to, or quotations from, other people’s works that I missed or did not even recognise. Do you consider intertextuality — another aspect of the book’s hybrid nature — as a memory theatre?

SC: You are too good, Andrew, too good. Yes, I used all these quotations, usually from memory, in the text and there are many, many others. Memory Theatre is a kind of composite and composition drawn from everything that I have ever read and remembered. I then seek to decompose them, pull them apart, by setting them to work in some different way. Palimpsest-like. I have always been suspicious of ‘intertextuality’ as it sounds like a post-structuralist version of ‘tradition’. We are composed of networks of citations and references. At least I am. It’s the way I think about things most of the time.

3:AM: There are many instances of internal intertextuality (sorry!) in Memory Theatre, but most seem to come from your earlier works. Is this purely coincidental, or does a regressive theme run through the whole book? I’m thinking, for instance, of the narrator’s contention that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit “can only be read in reverse” or his tentative description of his youthful memory loss as “a kind of reverse dementia”, not to mention Gillick’s pictures . . .

SC: Yes, there is a kind of inhabitation of all my earlier work in Memory Theatre. That was deliberate. It felt like a taking stock, a settling of accounts with myself. A look back into the rear-view mirror as I press harder on the gas. Also, to make matters worse, my first idea for a PhD thesis in 1987 was on Hegel’s conception of memory in relation to the tradition of the art of memory. So, Memory Theatre is also an attempt to write (and unwrite or undo) that original dissertation plan.

Simon Critchley

3:AM: When the memory theatre is built, ‘Simon Critchley’ surveys his work: “Like crazy Crusoe in his island cave out of his mind for fear of cannibals, I would sit onstage and inspect my artificial kingdom, my realm, my shrunken reál”. This reminded me of what Barthes writes about Jules Verne’s “self-sufficient cosmogony” — symbolised by The Nautilus (“the most desirable of caves”) — that he likens to “children’s passion for huts and tents”:

The archetype of this dream is this almost perfect novel: L’Ile mystérieuse, in which the manchild re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain (Mythologies).

One might also think of Georges Perec, who often circumscribed a small fragment of the world and then set about exhausting it. This dream of a total artwork in which one might poetically dwell often ends up being a womb with a view, right?

SC: Absolutely right. It is a kind of male, maternal fantasy. Except the child is always stillborn. It is also a meditation on obsessional neurosis and the masculine sexual tendency to collect, to collate and to kill. Memory Theatre describes a solitary and dead world devoid of love. I do not want to live in that world, though I have often found myself oddly at home in it. I hate myself. That much should be obvious.

3:AM: There seems to be a crisis of fiction today, highlighted by authors like David Shields or Knausgaard. Is Memory Theatre’s genre-bending a reflection of this crisis? Have we — writers and readers alike — lost that capacity to lose ourselves, which fiction, I feel, is premised on? Can disbelief no longer be suspended?

SC: Maybe we have lost the capacity to suspend disbelief because the world seems such a strange, malevolent fictional edifice. But I am against the heroic authenticity of memoir, the laying bare of oneself in what purports to be reality. I read a chunk of Knausgaard recently. It’s great, but it’s not for me. I’ve been to Norway too much for that. Memory Theatre is a kind of anti-memoir, perhaps even a kind of pastiche. I mean, someone wrote to me recently because they believed that everything I had said in Memory Theatre was true and they were truly worried about me. This was heartfelt and nice, but strange. I do not want to be the ‘Simon Critchley’ of Memory Theatre.

3:AM: Recently, Rachel Cusk claimed that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” — and she may well have a point. This put me in mind of what you wrote, quoting Blanchot, in Very Little: “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing, ‘when he is alive and real, and not dying and without truth'”. Does this account for the autobiographical turn in literature and the arts?

SC: I don’t know, in the sense that I don’t have an opinion. I am always suspicious of ‘turns’ to anything. Literature is always autobiographical and it always isn’t just that. It requires research and reading. We have to simply face up to that contradiction. Literature is one long song of myself even when that self is something I really don’t want to be. In fiction, we step out of our skin, but we still remain in our skin as we read it.

3:AM: Has psychogeography partly inherited this tradition of the memory theatre (as the narrator seems to imply at one stage)?

SC: Yes, that was definitely on my mind at an early stage of thinking about the project. The idea of psychogeography as the construction of alternative maps for cities and places is what is at stake in Memory Theatre. I got that from Stewart Home. When the narrator wakes from the dream/nightmare of the Gothic cathedral in the middle of Memory Theatre, the entire landscape is psychogeograpized, legible through some arcane, occult grid.

3:AM: I’m pretty sure you must also have been thinking about the web — today’s version of the memory theatre — while writing the book. We live in an age of total recall and rampant dementia. It would be absurd to establish a connection between the two phenomena, but are we not increasingly relying on Google or Wikipedia to remember facts we would have memorised ourselves in earlier times? In other words, are we not using the web in order to forget?

SC: Yes, absolutely. Today’s memory theatre is the internet. I deliberately avoid broaching the question of the internet in Memory Theatre, but it’s what the whole thing is about. The difference — and it is crucial — between the internet and the memory theatre is the difference between Gedächtnis and Erinnerung, between an external, mechanized memory and an internal, living recollection. What has happened — largely without anyone noticing it — is that we have outsourced memory onto the internet. Everything is there, googleable, but not in our heads. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. It is certainly an odd thing, given that for several thousand years all education has ever meant has been the cultivation of a trained memory. We have somehow abandoned that in the name of forgetfulness. So, yes, we have chosen to drink the waters of Lethe and enter our private Hades. Literature can at the least remind us of that choice.

3:AM: Even though we are constantly (unwittingly) rewriting our own pasts, isn’t the right to be forgotten — which has arisen in the face of total digital recall — a rather dangerous concept? Are we really the sole owners of our pasts?

SC: No, we are not sole owners of our pasts. The drama of Memory Theatre is showing how our existence can be pre-remembered, as it were, by someone else, pre-destined. The fantasy of total recall, which is one way of approaching Hegel, is often met by the fantasy of active forgetting, in Nietzsche’s sense. Both these fantasies are delusional. We are flayed alive by memory, but not in possession of it.

3:AM: I was thinking of Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, and how In Search of Lost Time could be construed as a memory theatre, but what of the unconscious?

SC: Like I said earlier, Memory Theatre can be read as a case study in obsessional neurosis, as an attempt to collate, collect, control, and kill all that is and all that is close to you. I see the ‘moral’ of Memory Theatre in negative terms: do not build your memory theatre! That means trying to access unconscious material in other ways, in relation to other forms of sexuality than masculine obsessionality, and in relation to a different range of affects and transferential relations. This is a project I tried to begin with Jamieson Webster in The Hamlet Doctrine, a book of which I am really proud, mostly because I only-co-wrote it.

3:AM: Did Giulio Camillo Delminio’s memory theatre remind you, like me, of a similar contraption in 60s TV series Joe 90?

SC: Oh Lord, I used to love that show. I’d forgotten about it, as it were.

3:AM: The memory theatre tradition and dream of total recall find an echo in ‘Simon Critchley’ because (like you) he lost much of his memory following an accident (“My self felt like a theatre with no memory”). Accident-induced memory loss also happens to be the premise of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. The quest for the “now of nows” — that moment of “absolute coincidence” with oneself and one’s fate at the point of extinction — is precisely what McCarthy’s anti-hero strives to achieve through his increasingly elaborate reenactments. As for the following sentence, it could come straight out of C: “My body is a buzzing antenna into which radio waves flooded from the entire cosmos. I was the living switchboard of the universe” . . . In Very Little . . . Almost Nothing, you pointed out that there is so much overlapping between Blanchot and Levinas that it is sometimes difficult to tell if an idea originated with the former or the latter. The very same comment could be made about you and McCarthy. Are you — especially through the International Necronautical Society — trying to escape the confines of the self by merging your two voices in a collaborative, polyphonic project? Is it two people, one artist, like Gilbert & George?

SC: Matters become even worse when you think of the first sentence of Remainder, which refers to Very Little . . . Almost Nothing. My relation with Tom is very precious to me and I have loved working together with him so much over the years. There is no doubt that meeting and working with Tom loosened my tongue and enabled me to say things I would never have previously imagined. We have a disinhibiting effect on each other, where the usual super-ego bullshit gets shut down and we are able to just burn it up and let it rip. As Levinas was fond of saying, on est mieux à deux. Writing with four hands is better than two. It is fair to say that Memory Theatre wouldn’t have existed without Remainder and elements of C are all over it.

3:AM: Memory Theatre opens with the following three sentences: “I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction” — well, is it?

SC: Yes, it is. Oh, there is tinnitus too.

The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:

The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

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.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.


Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

Full Stop

Full Stop magazine interviewed me as part of their “Pathos” series, examining “the consequences of pursuing writing as a vocation”.


“Pathos: Andrew Gallix,” Full Stop 16 January 2013

Last winter, Full Stop introduced “The Situation in American Writing,” a questionnaire adapted from The Partisan Review that asked questions about literature’s responsibility to address seismic changes in culture, the publishing industry, and the political and geopolitical landscape. That questionnaire, which featured responses from Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Victor LaValle, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, and dozens of other writers was illustrative of the concerns and preoccupations that writers carry with them when practicing their craft.

This year we are interested in the situation of writers, rather than writing, in the subjective experience of writing fiction (or in this case, memoir), rather than fiction’s responsibilities to respond to a rapidly changing world. To this end we are interested in examining the trying intellectual, creative, and emotional labor that is often unacknowledged or effaced in the public presentation of writing. What we’re interested in, to put it another way, is pathos.

This year, we’ve crafted a questionnaire asking writers about the effect writing has had on their physical, emotional, and economic health; on the idea of poverty being a precondition for writing well; on what makes writing truthful to one’s self and to readers. Ultimately, we are interested in the consequences of pursuing writing as a vocation.

Andrew Gallix is the Editor-in-Chief of the consistently great 3:AM Magazine which features a motto that is the envy of Full Stop: ”Whatever it is, we’re against it.” He also teaches at the Sorbonne, writes for The Guardian, and is currently working on a novel, as well as a collection of reviews of impossible books in collaboration with David Winters.

How has your decision to write affected your health? Has it had negative effects on your personal life?

The great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz said, “One cannot be nothingness all week and then suddenly expect to exist on Sunday.” It’s equally difficult to have a day job and be “nothingness” in the evening — especially if you’re trying to juggle a family life at the same time. Things must be much easier when you can write for a living. I’m pretty sure writing contributed to my divorce, for instance!

There is long tradition that links the craft of writing with poverty. Do you think that’s appropriate? Does poverty feel like the most appropriate condition for your practice as a writer?

No. The authors I know who insist upon writing for a living, although their work is resolutely uncommercial, end up, paradoxically, being obsessed with financial matters. Every single word they write must be counted, and accounted for; turned into money to pay the bills. Don’t get me wrong: writers should be paid, but you can’t force people to buy books, let alone read them. Those lucky, or cunning enough, to find a wide audience don’t usually stop writing, all of a sudden, because they’re raking it in. Some of the most interesting writers today come from very privileged backgrounds. Others don’t, and if their books fail to sell in sufficient quantities, they usually have to supplement their incomes through grants, teaching, journalism, or jobs in publishing. The creative writing industry is, in part, a means of subsidising writers’ careers.

The question of the cost of letters (to refer to the title of a book on this subject published by Waterstone’s in 1998) is an important one, because it reflects the evolution of literature itself. When literature was essentially an aristocratic pursuit — for people who had both time and money — this question was immaterial. It only really arises with the spread of literacy and the emergence of writers who didn’t hail from the ranks of the idle rich. The Waterstone’s book I mentioned — How Much Do You Think a Writer Needs to Live on?: The Cost of Letters (edited by Andrew Holgate and Honor Wilson-Fletcher) — was inspired by a survey of literary living standards carried out by Cyril Connolly fifty years earlier. When it was published by Horizon, in 1948, British society was being radically transformed through mass education and the Welfare State. Connolly’s survey contained the following questions:

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?
If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?
Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?
Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?
Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?

The main question (which wasn’t addressed because it went without saying at the time) is, of course, that of the definition of a “serious writer” — one who may be worthy of being subsidised in the absence of commercial success. Who decides who is a “serious writer” in the first place? Is it the writer him/herself? His/her peers? Academia? The media? The reading public? The state? I’ve always been a little dubious about the romantic image of the impoverished, tortured genius scribbling away in his, or indeed her, dingy garret, but it does reflect a very real process of privatisation of the writing profession.

Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who, unlike the writers of antiquity, could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of religion or society. The writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens (Kafka) — a disenchanted world (Schiller) which is still ours — becomes highly arbitrary.

Personally, financial difficulties have always diverted me away from my writing. Having said that, the necessity to write often stems (at least in part) from a feeling of dissatisfaction — a sense that something is missing — so, from that point of view, not being rich and contented is probably an asset.

In a rare 1983 interview the enigmatic and often dour Romanian writer Emil Cioran speaks about only reading Nietzsche’s letters because he became concerned with how untruthful Nietzsche’s published works seemed when read against the miserable condition of his day to day existence (isolated, weak, sickly, certainly not characterized by any sense of vigor). Is there any sense in which the truth of one’s condition should be related to the truth of one’s writing, even if in an oblique sense?

In an oblique sense, yes; otherwise, not necessarily. As I was saying, literature is often a compensatory activity; an elaborate form of wish-fulfilment. I am absolutely fascinated by the impact that someone’s physical and psychological life can have on his/her thinking and writing — how apparently rational choices are due, for instance, to a tiny todger, short stature, child abuse, or the absence of a parent. Sartre claimed that he began writing to make up for his ugliness and impress women. We all want to be loved, and writing is always a love letter of sorts. As Richard Brautigan put it, “Just because people love your mind, doesn’t mean they have to have your body” — but one lives in hope, of course.

Perhaps Cioran’s remark makes more sense in the context of philosophy, but literature is the space of contradiction and ambiguity, and that’s what interests me.

Incidentally, I once lived in the same street as Cioran, in Paris.

Are you envious of other people’s success? If so, are you more envious of people’s success in your field or outside of it? Why?

I am, especially if I think they don’t deserve it. I’m more envious of people in my own field, of course, because I feel closer to them. It’s a phenomenon that René Girard skillfully analyses in Deceit, Desire & the Novel.

Give one example in which you had high hopes for success (artistic, commercial, or otherwise) but had those hopes dashed.

When I was really young, and still a student, I got a contract with an American publisher for a short work of criticism. I’d sent them the manuscript, on the off-chance, and it turns out that they wanted to publish it as it was. I was really proud: I didn’t know anyone my age who had published a book — but, of course, I wasn’t satisfied. The manuscript, in my eyes, wasn’t good enough. I asked the publisher to give me a little time to work on it. They granted me a one-year deadline, on the understanding that I’d send in the revised manuscript after six months. Six months, that’s all you need, they said, six months. Almost five years later, I was still working away on the manuscript, wracked by guilt, and I had to draw the conclusion, eventually, that the project I’d embarked upon was unfinishable. As Blanchot said of Joubert, I preferred failure to “the compromise of success” — or at least, that’s my excuse.

Do you feel like the world owes you a chance to make a living as a writer?

Absolutely not, but I hate the world for it!

What is the strongest emotional reaction you have ever elicited from a reader, either in your written work or during a reading? What is the strongest emotional reaction you have ever elicited from yourself during the writing process?

When people I respect have told me that they wished they’d written a story of mine.

When I’ve managed to write something so painful that I thought I’d never see it through.

When, on the rare occasion and in the distant past, women have wanted my body, just because they loved my mind.

When are you at your most truthful as a writer?

When I’m not writing.

The Uncontainable

Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much,” The Brooklyn Rail July-August 2012

[W]e might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.

But what might art be when it exceeds the relative comfort of the almost-too-much of the sublime or the fearful and moves toward the absolutely-too-much of the monstrous? What happens when the uncontainable can’t be contained? When art bears at its core something unbearable? At this point, art becomes anti-art and we experience discomfort—the Naumanian blow to the back of the neck. I would argue that this is what has been happening for the past century or so in various arts and media as a way of dealing with our presentiment of the unbearable pressure of reality, however we want to capture that experience — the shocking trauma of the First World War, poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, or whatever — has been the experimentation with what we might call an art of the monstrous. Examples proliferate here, from Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, to Bataille’s holy disgust, to Hermann Nitsch’s blood orgies and the theatre of Heiner Müller, even through to that most jaded and overworked of academic tropes: the abject.

It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.

Here is my modest proposal: beyond endless video montages and the cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world, the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect, namely disgust. Disgust here can be thought of as the visceral register of a monstrosity that can no longer be excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, as it was for Aristotle and Kant, but should be its arrhythmic heart, its hot and volatile core. It is important to keep in mind the link to aesthetic judgments of taste or gustus, which gives us the “gust” in dis-gust, the ill wind in the soft-flapping sails of revulsion. Dis-gust is an aesthetic judgement of dis-taste.

What I am calling for, then, is a new art of monstrosity which is able to occupy a certain semi-autonomous distance from the circuits of capture and commodification. Art now must fix its stare unblinkingly at the monstrous, the unbearable, the unreconciled, and the insanely troubling. The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.

It is a question of how we think through and deploy the essential violence of art, and perhaps understand art as violence against the violence of reality, a violence that presses back against the violence of reality, which is perhaps the artistic task, thinking of Hamlet, in a state that is rotten and in a time that is out of joint.

[…] The problem here is that art, which is meant to enable or produce some kind of experience of the real in our pushing back against it, might finally be a protection against that experience and end up as a kind of decoration. Perhaps, then, art has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here anti-art becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s critical potential into the lethean waters of the contemporary.

A Grin Without a Cat

Brian Dillon, “At the Hayward,” London Review of Books 2 August 2012

[‘Magic Ink’ by Gianni Motti, 1989]

Stare long enough into the void, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, and the void stares back at you. The trouble with nothing, no matter an artist or writer’s aspiration to the zero degree, is that it tends to reveal a residual something: whether a sensory trace of the effort at evacuation or a framing narrative about the very gesture of laconic refusal. In the case of the Hayward’s survey of half a century and more of invisible art (until 5 August), the void was filled in advance by a lot of tabloid mock-horror at the thought that a publicly funded gallery was about to charge £8 so that one could turn one’s gaze upon that vacancy, the air. The BBC ran a sneery piece on the Six O’Clock News. Actually, they phoned to ask if I’d comment, but my take on the show (which fittingly I hadn’t yet seen) must have sounded drearily accepting of its premise, because they never called back. The silence seemed right.

In truth, Invisible is both a bracing provocation — there really are empty rooms here, and notionally circumscribed gobbets of air to be wondered at — and a modestly meticulous story about the ways artists have found to approach, but perhaps never really achieve, complete invisibility. As Marina Warner wrote in the 5 July issue of the LRB, while reviewing Damien Hirst along the river at Tate Modern, the Hayward’s is an exhibition that courts attention above all else: attention to surfaces and atmospheres as much as, maybe more than, the works’ conceptual content. This last is all that such art’s detractors like to claim is going on, or not going on: the mere idea of emptiness left hovering, a grin without a cat.

The exhibition shuttles between the sublime idea of absolute nothing and the engaging reality of almost nothing. This oscillation has a prehistory, broached as much in certain artists’ attempts to articulate it verbally as in their near absconded works. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is the record of a month’s careful rubbing out and therefore not exactly a pure void, more a palimpsest in reverse — in Jasper Johns’s words, an ‘additive subtraction’. Such a work has also, of course, to live in a world that may fill it with meaning or form; John Cage had already observed of some white paintings of Rauschenberg’s that they were ‘landing strips’ for light and shadow. Cage, whose 4’33” is just the most notorious instance of an apparently silent work filled with inadvertent sound, liked to tell the story of visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, and in the absence of all other noise hearing the roar of his bloodstream and the electric whine of his nervous system. It’s more likely that he was experiencing mild tinnitus, but his insight holds: ‘What silence requires is that I go on talking.’

At the Hayward, this notion of a full or replete invisible art is introduced via Yves Klein, whose empty exhibition known as The Void seems uncompromisingly committed to vacancy, but also reveals how much aesthetic, even occult or spiritual content could be projected into a pallid abyss. Klein mounted four exhibitions deserving of that title, though he only attached the word ‘void’ to the third. For the first, at Galerie Colette Allendy in May 1957, he painted the whole interior white so as to create ‘an ambience, a genuine pictorial climate and, therefore, an invisible one’. In a brief snatch of film, Klein hams up the suggestion that paintings have fled, leaving only their aura. He frames with his hands the spaces they might have occupied, then sits on a radiator, looks around quizzically at the white walls and an empty vitrine, and walks off. The second version, staged the following year at Galerie Iris Clert on rue des Beaux-Arts, was a more provocative affair. Thousands thronged the street, and Klein happened on a young man playfully drawing on the freshly painted gallery wall; he called security and demanded: ‘Seize this man and throw him out, violently.’

The third void was installed, if that’s the word, at the Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany, where Klein’s small empty room may still be viewed by appointment. The fourth version returned to the conceit of disappearing artworks: the artist and friends removed all the paintings from one room for the Salon Comparaisons at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1962. Klein had by this stage devised an elaborate and alchemically inflected theory regarding ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’; he was willing to sell these zones, though he only accepted gold as payment. If the buyer — not quite a collector — agreed to burn the receipt, Klein would throw half the gold in the Seine. An art that seems at first all about nothing was as much concerned with value, exchange, material and transmutation.

As the Hayward’s director (and the curator of Invisible) Ralph Rugoff points out in a suitably svelte catalogue (Hayward, £5), later artists have responded less to the mystical urges latent in Klein’s voids than to the institution-baiting gesture of stripping the gallery or museum of actual artworks. […]

There and not there, giving away very little but not quite nothing, such works seem like examples of Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infra-thin’, like mist on glass, or the warmth of a seat just vacated. […]

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…