David Winters by Andrew Gallix

This piece appeared in Bomb Magazine on 4 June 2015:

David Winters by Andrew Gallix

“It seems to me that style becomes a kind of crucible—an acid bath in which the self is broken down, producing something unique, something new.”

Robert Musil regretted publishing the first volumes of The Man Without Qualities due to “the fixity they imposed on his ever-evolving work.” Similar misgivings almost led David Winters to shelve his debut collection of essays, from which the above quote is lifted. In conversation, the young English critic is given to qualifying—and even disavowing—past pronouncements, always returning them, with academic precision, to their rightful contexts. He is loath to see his provisional reflections turned into eternal truths, and wary of being co-opted by some dogmatic school or other. Infinite Fictions (Zero Books, 2015) is thus a snapshot of the author’s state of thinking over the last couple of years: a work in progress frozen in time.

Spurning any fixed theoretical position, Winters strives to preserve in his own essays the indeterminacy that lies at the heart—but also on the smudged margins—of literature. Given that the novels he writes about resist summation or translation, he has developed a contrarian brand of criticism that gestures towards what radically escapes it.

The enigmatic title derives from a conversation with Gordon Lish, whose “complex and compelling philosophy of literary form” looms large in these pages. Put simply, it refers to the intuition that fiction may “open up worlds which briefly exceed the limitations of life.” However, the book as “bounded infinity” cannot be construed as “an object of absolute sanctity”: it is always more than the sum of its parts. In this spirit, Winters wonders if “the words on the page” are really “worth as much as we think” compared with the “constellation of images” evoked by Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla. Apropos of Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, he goes one step further, contending that “the content of a work exceeds whatever words are read or written.” This excess—what is read into by the reader, or indeed the author—“both is and is not ‘inside’ the work.” Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story perfectly illustrates this reconfiguration of the parameters of the book by retaining “an internal relation to an idealized, unwritten other.” Winters is finely attuned to the unheard melodies of that “unwritten other” and, more generally, to the occult—allusive, subtextual, gestural—dimensions of literature. He even argues that “language is ‘literary’ whenever it interacts with its implicature.” Works of fiction are never approached as though they were written in stone, but as liminal spaces “blurred on both sides” by the writing and reading processes. In an interview with Evan Lavender-Smith, he points out that “real reading” (and I think this can be extended to real writing) “is rife with the imperfections of living.” Here, he wonders if literature is not, precisely, “this drift, these errors and excesses that are engrained in our reading experience.” These are some of the reasons why David Winters is probably the most vital critic in the English language right now. There are many others.

Andrew Gallix: Walter Pater famously declared: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” And this is certainly the case of the works you seem most attracted to. The experience of reading Christine Schutt—whose prose encrypts meaning “in rhythms and melodies”—is compared with that of “listening to music.” While Schutt should be “read reverently aloud” because her “poetic sentences speak of the things they can’t say,” we learn, in another chapter of your book, that Dawn Raffel uses this very same method, à la Flaubert, to compose sentences which “sing of the things that speech alone can’t express.” Time and again, you observe this transmutation of speech into song, whereby style merges with substance; form becomes inseparable from content. This kind of fiction—to quote Beckett on Joyce—is no longer “about something; it is that something itself.” Such novels or stories are untranslatable. They exist on their own terms, like Lish’s Peru, whose “truth lies not in its correspondence to reality, but in its consistency with itself.” You begin your piece on Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous by conceding that it is “impossible to synopsize.” This critical impasse leads you to focus as much on your “reading experience” as on the books “under review”—which brings us back to Pater. The author of The Renaissance argued that experience—not “the fruit of experience”—was an end in itself, thus initiating a redefinition of art as the experience of life. Is there some kind of lineage here?

David Winters: I’ll start with “music.” Yes, for me, cadence is everything. I’ve always been drawn to writing written, as William Gass puts it, “by the mouth, for the ear”—writing in which every phoneme counts; where prosody and acoustical patterning constitute a kind of thinking, a kind of cognition. For Pater, music collapses the opposition between subject matter and form—and so, in a sense, do the writers I write about. I’m not an uncritical disciple of Pater, but I do think the phrase “art for art’s sake” retains some residual value, insofar as it serves, in George Steiner’s words, as “a tactical slogan, a necessary rebellion against philistine didacticism and political control.” For instance, an acquaintance of mine once attacked the art I admire as a “triumph of style over substance.” I’d side with Pater in seeing such triumphs as a desirable “obliteration” of the distinction between “form and matter.” I’d follow him, too, in wanting to view the aesthetic object as extra-moral, or at least anti-ideological; an alternate world in which, as he observes in his essay on Botticelli, “men take no side in great conflicts, and decide no great causes, and make great refusals.” For me, part of the power of art lies in precisely those refusals.

Of course, what’s interesting about the passage you quote is the way in which Pater’s own writing obliterates, at a phenomenological level, the distinction between the artwork and what he calls “the moment”—a collapse that, as you say, returns us to “the experience of life.” I don’t mind admitting that I care very little about ethics or politics when it comes to art, and that criticism, for me—considered as a way of thinking through, or working with, works of art—is largely an attempt to live within and learn from that collapse. You mentioned my attraction to novels and stories that seem to resist explication. It’s true I find those kinds of texts more conducive to this experience; strangely, I feel that their closure creates an opening. For me, those works that appear the most self-enclosed—which seem to speak to themselves, like Schwartz’s, in a private language—are paradoxically the most enriching, the most alive. In a way, I feel like they’re more alive than I am. They don’t merely reflect the life I already know; they live lives of their own, and they invite me to change mine.

AG: Silence is a corollary of the quasi-alchemical process through which the words of the tribe—to reprise Mallarmé’s famous phrase—are purified into song. Let me quote a few examples from your book. Miranda Mellis’s The Spokes is “a story submerged in its own situation, such that a silence washes over it.” Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous “speaks in a style that startles the surrounding world into silence.” Dylan Nice’s stories “stage a world before which we can only fall silent.” This silence—which drowns out the white noise of the world, allowing the music of language to be heard—emanates from the radical irreducibility of such works, the self-enclosure you have just mentioned. Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novels, like many of the books reviewed here, “could only have been written the way they are written,” and are thus resistant to criticism or any discourse “other than their own.” They illustrate the “flight from interpretation” that Susan Sontag had already observed in serious art, back in the late ’60s. Precluding hermeneutics, these fictions must be accepted on their own—alienating—terms. Schwartz’s is an art “that enfolds us in incomprehension.” The “very style” of Raffel’s stories “evokes an experience of unknowing.” You also praise Gabriel Josipovici, in Hotel Andromeda, for never attempting to encase Joseph Cornell’s art in “the amber of comprehension.”

Peter Markus recently told The Brooklyn Rail that what he looks for in a book is not meaning but that “state of awe which can leave us with its own kind of silence.” This put me in mind of what you once said in another interview: “Really, when I’m reading, all I want is to stand amazed in front of an unknown object at odds with the world.” Is the role of the critic to express this amazement in front of the mystery of literature?

DW: That’s what I’ve found myself doing in some of my reviews. It’s not at all what I do in my academic work, but reviewing allows for a different form of engagement—a more instinctive response. That said, I wouldn’t want to make normative statements on the basis of my private “amazement.” I simply want to write about artworks that move me. I have little to say about the “role of the critic”—a phrase that makes me squirm with suspicion. Critics are parasites; let’s not inflate our importance. Other critics can talk about roles if they like, or try to impose them on each other. If you’re going to give yourself over to the object, a role is really the last thing you want.

You mention Peter Markus, a remarkable writer whose work I’ve been following for several years. In that interview, Markus presents us with the figure of the witch doctor—the shaman who draws a circle in the sand, and then puts his sacred objects into play. It doesn’t matter what those objects are—a feather, a stone, a skull—ultimately, all the witch doctor wants is to fixate your gaze, to captivate your attention. For some of us, that’s what art is. I’m not sure how this relates to what Mallarmé wrote, but my position would be that if art purifies the language of the tribe, it does not do so for the tribe. The kind of art I admire makes its own language. Inside that circle, all that matters is the object in motion. If you really know how to write, how to paint, how to play your instrument, what you are doing is using that motion to create a structure with an internal consistency. You’re articulating a counter-language, whose purpose is not to purify but to stupefy—something which points away from the tribe. Art is not a social act; it’s an anti-social act. To be honest, if I were an artist, my aim would be to lead the tribe off the edge of the cliff.

A more literal way of putting this would be to say that the artworks I admire—the only kind I want to write about—are not interrogatives but declaratives. This kind of artwork is not a puzzle to be solved, and its role is not to reflect your existing knowledge back at you. Incidentally, this might be why I have so little respect for writers who make a show of alluding to philosophers in their work. The work itself should form a locus of philosophical force. As Wittgenstein says, “philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition.” In that sense, there’s more philosophy in a single sentence of Jason Schwartz—in the poetry of his syntax—than there is in… Well, I won’t name names. Let’s just say that Schwartz isn’t out to make anyone feel clever. The pleasure of “getting the references” is pretty much incompatible with the experience I’ve tried to describe. I’m not interested in books that invite self-satisfied comprehension. Like any serious reader, I’m looking for the real thing. And, for my part, I only know that I’ve found it when it defeats me. In my experience, criticism is at its best when it begins from a position of defeat.

AG: A recurring theme in Infinite Fictions is the danger of conflating reading fiction with knowledge—the rejection of information in favor of the unresolved, indeterminate, and auratic. At one point, you quote Gordon Lish’s definition of the writer’s job: “not to know what you are going to find.” This, of course, is reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s famous 1987 essay, “Not-Knowing,” in which a writer is characterized as “one, who embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” Barthelme goes on to claim that the “not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made.” I wonder if this kind of negative capability is not also what permits your criticism to be made. And perhaps this not-knowing could be opposed to—or at least contrasted with—the knowledge that a work of fiction itself may harbor?

DW: You’re right. Lish and Barthelme do overlap on this issue, though Lish has something more precise in mind—an improvisatory poetics of the sentence, which proceeds by means of linguistic recursion. It’s a meticulous, syntactical version of negative capability, marked by profound epistemic uncertainty and insecurity. I’ve already written about that at length, as has one of Lish’s few really astute readers, Jason Lucarelli. Of course, Lish and Barthelme are both describing the creative act, not the critical act. The only “not-knowing” at work in my writing is of a much more familiar sort—the fact that putting thoughts into words brings forth new thoughts; Forster’s “how can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Writing reviews, I tend to feel that I know nothing, and that my object knows everything. Reviewing a book like Stasiuk’s Dukla, for instance, all I’m doing is trying to cling to the contours, or the outline, of the object’s knowledge. In the last five or six years, perhaps the two books of criticism I’ve returned to the most have been Michael Wood’s Literature and the Taste of Knowledge, and, in relation to that, Peter de Bolla’s Art Matters. De Bolla brilliantly describes how questions of intention and hermeneutics give way, within the aesthetic encounter, to a more primordial problem: “the insistent murmur of great art, the nagging thought that the work holds something to itself, contains something that in the final analysis remains untouchable, unknowable.”

If I can return to the misuse of philosophy in fiction—that is, to novelists who engage in overt philosophical posturing—I suppose my disappointment stems from my feeling that great works of art only murmur their knowledge, whereas the worst ones seem to want to parade it. Back in the ’70s, Lish observed of Stanley Crawford that, reading his work, “one senses the pressure of having read all that’s to be read without trying to give evidence of erudition.” That sense of pressure is what I’m after. That’s why Wittgenstein disliked Tolstoy’s more didactic works; as he wrote in a letter to Norman Malcolm, “when Tolstoy turns his back to the reader, then he seems to me most impressive. His philosophy is most true when it’s latent in the story.” Cora Diamond’s gloss on that letter stresses the sense in which, for Wittgenstein, philosophy should be “contained in the work, but not by being spoken of, not by being told.”

I’d say it’s the same with the question of art and knowledge. Take Gerhard Richter’s painting, Betty (1988). Or Velasquez’s Las Meninas. In each case, the composition is organized in such a way that the perspectival structure forces a deviation of the spectator’s attention. That’s what a lot of the artworks I work on are doing. That’s what, say, Schwartz is doing. Like Richter’s Betty, Schwartz’s work has its back turned. Like her, his language is looking at something I can’t see; it knows something I’ll never know. It’s incredible, as a critic, to encounter an artwork like that. A work that radically alters the parameters of critical practice. Confronted with this kind of object, the task is no longer to try to uncover art’s knowledge, but rather to follow its gaze.

AG: Just as Betty, in Richter’s painting, turns her back on us, writing, in your view, says “‘no’ to the world.” Asserting “its agon against all that is,” the novel is fundamentally “at odds with the world.” You have even claimed, quoting Michel Houellebecq, that literature is literary “insofar as it is, in itself, ‘against the world, against life.’” Could you talk about this?

DW: Seeing those quotes out of context, I feel like prefacing each one with “the kind of writing I like” or “the books that interest me,” or perhaps some longer prevarication: book x happens to move me insofar as I feel, subjectively, that it possesses quality y. Always, I’m writing about my experience of being with a particular artwork, and statements like these belong only to that experience.

You’re right, though. For me, being in the presence of works of art basically means not being in the world. I guess this stems from what I’ll reluctantly call my “religious” temperament—reluctantly since, as Salinger says in Franny and Zooey, any allusions to “God” will rightly be interpreted as “the worst kind of name-dropping, and a sure sign that I’m going straight to the dogs.” To indulge in some marginally less embarrassing name-dropping, maybe it matters that when I was younger, I was obsessed with the likes of Meister Eckhart, Pseudo-Dionysius, The Cloud of Unknowing. Plotinus was important to me. Hans Jonas’s work on Gnosticism was equally important. And Beckett, of course—especially Ill Seen Ill Said, which, back then, I read as John Calder does: he calls it “the last chapter of the bible”—a kind of creation myth in reverse. I don’t read Beckett in quite the same way today, and I doubt I understood Plotinus anyway. All the same, it’d be fair to say that my personal ontology has always been a kind of Gnostic acosmism. Some things are too deep-rooted to change.

That remark about art’s “agon against all that is” comes from my review of Lish’s novel about violence and memory, Peru. The point of that review was not to make hyperbolic claims about all works of art, but rather to try to describe the way in which a particular work secures for itself a kind of “truth.” On the surface, saying that art “says no to the world” simply sounds nihilistic. But Peru only says “no” in order to make a world of its own. To be more precise, I believe that the book brings about a kind of “world-making,” in the philosopher Nelson Goodman’s sense. And I believe that the stability of the world it creates is proportional to the force with which it negates the given world. Peru, like several of the books I’ve written about, is almost like a pocket of negative entropy—a bubble in which the arrow of time is reversed. A cosmos whose inner stability is not less than, nor continuous with, that of our own. This kind of artwork isn’t unlike Tarkovsky’s “Zone”—a magic circle, inside which objects obey their own laws of motion.

So, I see the artist as almost an alter deus; a bricoleur who builds a blasphemous world. What attracts me to certain of these worlds is their ability to exert a peculiar counter-pressure; an equal and opposite force to that of what we call “reality” (this is what Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory, calls art’s “opposition to mere being”). If you consider the physics of that, perhaps opposition is only part of the picture: some other requirements might include proportionality, self-similarity, self-sufficiency. Earlier, you quoted me saying that Peru’s “truth lies not in its correspondence with reality, but in its consistency with itself.” When I talk about art’s antinomian oddness or wrongness—its being “at odds with the world”—I’m describing its capacity to define its own “truth,” through cohesion, not correspondence. As Goodman puts it, “more venerable than either utility or credibility as definitive of truth is coherence, interpreted in various ways but always requiring consistency.”

AG: “The world, as Wittgenstein says, is everything that is the case. But writing is whatever is not.”

DW: I said that during a roundtable conversation on style in fiction, published in The Literarian the year before last. Rather than repeat my response to your last question, I’ll answer with another quote, drawn not from my writing, but (since we discussed Pater earlier) from Denis Donoghue’s landmark study, Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls. Donoghue is listing the family resemblances between different versions of aestheticism, of which Pater’s is one. These are the principles he extracts:

A work of art is an object added to the world. Its relation to the world is not that of an adjective to the noun it qualifies. The relation is more likely to be utopian than referential. Art is art because it is not nature. In an achieved work of art we find a certain light we should seek in vain upon anything real. The work does not take any civic responsibility; it does not accept the jurisdiction of metaphysics, religion, morality, politics, or any public institution.

Donoghue notes that these notions are nowadays “often derided,” but then maintains, “I don’t deride them.” Neither do I, and I would side with his desire for a critical stance that preserves the artwork from what he calls “the rough strife of ideologues.” As he puts it, “the world proceeds by force of its chiefly mundane interests; it is an exercise of power and of responding to the power of others. Meanwhile we have literature, and the best way of reading it is by putting in parentheses, for the duration of the reading, the claims the world makes upon us. There will be time for those to assert themselves.” To rephrase your quote: art makes its own time, inside those parentheses.

AG: I would like to return to the idea of absenting oneself in the presence of art—that experience of “ego-loss” you seek through reading, and once described in quasi-mystical terms as a “miraculous disappearance.” In the introduction to Infinite Fictions, you explain that reviewing allows you to explore “the space left by [your] subtraction”—a beautiful phrase I simply had to quote. Does literature provide us with an intimation of the world-in-itself, or at least the world-without-us?

DW: The question reminds me of a passage in Dukla, where Stasiuk depicts an “unpeopled” landscape, containing only inanimate objects. “This must have been what the world looked like before it was set in motion,” he writes; “like a stage set on which something was going to take place only later, or else already had.” Similar feelings are elicited by some of De Chirico’s landscapes. For me, though, the “subtraction” you mention is best captured by the art historian Joseph Koerner, describing one of Caspar David Friedrich’s rückenfiguren. Much as we discussed earlier, Friedrich’s figures stand with their backs turned to the spectator, gazing away from us, into the canvas. Confronted with one of these images, Koerner writes: “I do not stand at the threshold where the scene opens up, but at the point of exclusion, where the world stands complete without me.”

When I pick up a book, I’m in pursuit of that point of exclusion. I’m forever in flight from myself, and I find that books briefly allow me a form of forgetting. I’ve no idea whether fiction has any connection to the world “in itself.” What I mean by “subtraction” is more like a fleeting illusion of weightlessness; a sense of suspension which lasts as long as the artwork allows it. That’s the relief of reading, for me—although I think that it also applies to the act of writing. I do view creativity as a kind of vanishing act—an escape from ipseity. As an aside, perhaps this explains my distaste for personal essays, memoirs, and the like—not to mention my ambivalence about social media. In our current culture of narcissism, we might all benefit from a little ego-destruction.

AG: Absolutely! However, as you write at the outset of your book, “In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.” Please talk us through the apparent paradox of this “dual movement.”

DW: Like I said, the illusion lasts only as long as the artwork allows it. None of us ever really escape from ourselves, but we can hope for flashes of insight into what it might be like. Over the course of our lives, our fates are shaped by the choices we make; we create labyrinths in which we are cornered and caught. That’s the great intuition of Greek tragedy, of course: “Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own.” From day to day, we don’t feel ourselves falling, just as we don’t feel the gravity beneath our feet. But what we perceive as unimpeded motion is, in the end, a plummet towards an object whose pull we cannot evade. By now, you’ll have picked up on my unease at being confronted with quotes from my writing. Well, that’s the same; hearing my speech spoken back at me feels like being trapped, left looking into the eyes of my corpse. My sense of my published writing resembles my sense of my life: a dossier of evidence I’ve clumsily compiled against myself. By contrast, I take the view that what art can do is avert my eyes from where they would otherwise come to rest. Or, to put it another way, art enables a brief deviation from the earth’s gravitational pull. Clearly, aesthetic experience is as transitory as anything else: when we read or write, or watch a film, or listen to music, the clock is still ticking. The paradox, though, is that this type of attention seems to create a time of its own—a continuum which runs against the time of the clock. An image, or mirage, of infinitude can sometimes be found in those moments, although it is bounded, and always brought back to the finite. Simply put, the dream of art ends, and then we wake up.

AG: There seems to be a tension, in your work, between the impersonal (the aforementioned desire to “escape from ipseity” into self-sufficient fictive worlds, for instance) and the personal (your interest in the “psychic life” of writing, your conception of style as “the site of intersection with life,” or refusal to isolate theory from life). How do you account for this?

DW: The apparent tension is adequately accounted for by distinguishing the ego from the id; what we think we know of ourselves from what underlies and dismantles that knowledge. Adopting a more metaphysical tone, we might even want to distinguish the “self” from the “soul.” When I mention an “intersection” between style and life, I don’t mean to define style as an extension of the writer’s ego. I’m not remotely interested in style as an assertion of the self; I’m interested in style’s capacity to undermine the self, or to uncover a secret self that even the writer might be afraid of. I believe that the best writers are utterly unraveled by their style, crucified by their style.

For instance, you and I are both longstanding readers of Gary Lutz. If you look closely at Lutz’s style—which is, by design, the only way one can look at it—maybe you’ll see the same thing I see. Lutz’s writing reflects very little of his biography; instead it exposes something of his soul. Many writers today seem intent upon putting as much of the “self” as they can into the content of their prose. Lutz, on the other hand, injects his soul into the syntax of his stories, the intervals between his syllables, the signature of his style. This kind of writing does not project or preserve the ego; it controverts and collapses the ego. With a writer of Lutz’s caliber, it seems to me that style becomes a kind of crucible—an acid bath in which the self is broken down, producing something unique, something new.

Speaking more broadly, my stance on style isn’t all that unlike Susan Sontag’s. I’d side with her in seeing art’s content as an occasion for form; “the lure which engages consciousness in formal processes of transformation.” Sontag’s mention of transformation also reminds me of Alain Badiou’s account of the golden age of French theory. For Badiou, the unifying feature of French philosophy in the 1960s was that its principal players were “bent upon finding a style of their own; a new way of creating prose.” Crucially though, their search for a style was far from simply stylistic. As Badiou says, “at stake, finally, in this invention of a new writing, is the enunciation of a new subject.” In fiction, as in philosophy, any invention of a new style enunciates a new subject-position—a particular way of being, potentially at odds with those which already exist. I wouldn’t attribute to style the political valence that Badiou might attribute to it, but I would say this: the kind of writing I admire doesn’t reproduce a person’s life; instead it suggests entirely new forms of life.

AG: You have described Diane Williams as “a writer I lack the skill to review.” What are those skills you allegedly lack?

DW: A less coy way of putting it would be to admit that I’m neurotically conscious of what the critic Cleanth Brooks called the “heresy of paraphrase”—the reduction of the experience of a poem to a statement about that experience, or an abstraction from it. Williams’s art seems to me the most accomplished, the most audacious, in its evasion of that type of explication. In a sense, it’s precisely the kind of art I’m looking for—but also, by that definition, the kind I’m most afraid to find. I’ve tried to write about it, of course, but it undoes me every time. Probably the best way to write about Williams would be to spend some time writing only about paintings, or only about music, and approach her compositions from that angle. I’m not sure the resources of literary criticism are quite adequate, in her case. That said, I believe she’ll have a new book out before too long—so, having dug myself into this hole, I hereby commit myself to writing a review.

You are now one of the foremost authorities on Gordon Lish, whose presence looms large in Infinite Fictions as well as this interview. How important is his own work compared with his impact as an editor or a creative-writing guru?

Alongside Max Perkins, Lish is one of the two most important American editors of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, I would argue that the historical significance of his teaching outweighs even that of his editing. The precise nature of that significance will take many years to become clear; half a century’s accumulated hype, rumor, and bullshit must first be washed away. My advice, on this score, would be to ignore anything that journalists, bandwagon-jumpers, or self-appointed biographers might say; the only people equipped with an accurate picture of Lish’s teaching are those who meaningfully studied with him. And by that, I don’t mean people who took a couple of classes, dropped out, and wrote magazine articles about their experience—I mean those who stayed the course and emerged to produce original work. Originality being the essential point: as I understand it, Lish intended his teaching as a ladder to be climbed and then cast aside. In the end, it’s really no different from Emerson’s dictum: “never imitate.”

As for Lish’s fiction, conventional wisdom would say that it’s less successful than that of the authors he’s influenced. I’ve read all of it now, from beginning to end and back again. Even so, I’m only just beginning to grasp it. Lish’s prose requires extraordinary attention and concentration. Actually, part of what he’s doing is revising the structure of attention—reconfiguring the reader’s gaze. I only understood that after I’d spent a great deal of time in his presence, on the page. One difficulty is that Lish is recklessly uncompromising in his struggle against conventional effects, against imitation. Certainly, there is a willful astringency to his style. Another problem is that he’s looking at his native language from a new angle—a perspective which appears to distort that language, but which paradoxically clarifies its creative capacity, its “grammar.” Above all, Lish isn’t writing with the market—or maybe even the present—in mind. In a way, his work enacts a kind of wager, a high-stakes bet that the value of art will be proportionate to its untimeliness. In fifty years’ time, will Peru finally be recognized as one of the masterpieces of modern American literature? Will Epigraph? Will Extravaganza? I don’t know, but I daresay they’ll prove more enduring than the facile efforts of Franzen and co.

AG: Significantly, your first publication was a review of Roland Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel—a series of lectures that the French critic conducted as if he were going to compose a work of fiction. It appears that reviewing allowed you, contrarily, to proceed as if you were not going to write a novel. In that seminal review, you observe that the novel “exists in the mind of its reader less as a literary object than a wish underwritten by other wishes.” Was it this realization that allowed you to embrace criticism without being—like so many other reviewers—a frustrated novelist? Do you envisage a return to fiction at some stage?

Writing a novel is almost a universal fantasy, isn’t it? Although, for most of us, the fantasy is not really of writing a novel, but only of having written one, and of it being read. In this respect, the fantasy of the novel is partly a fantasy of communication, or recognition (the dream of finally saying all of the things you desired, but failed, to say—and thereby revealing the “real” you) and partly one of immortality, or at least remembrance (the dream of your novel “living on” after you’ve gone). The truth is that when I wrote that piece about Barthes, I was writing a novel. I knew, though, that what I was writing came closer to fantasy than reality. So, I started writing reviews in order to free myself from that fantasy. I wouldn’t rule out a return to writing fiction some time in the future, but if I did, you wouldn’t know it was me. Pseudonymity always struck me as the only appropriate mode for creative writing. I’m on the side of Pessoa, hiding The Book of Disquiet away in a trunk—not that hack Knausgaard, passing off narcissism as art. Whenever I’ve dreamt of writing a novel, I’ve dreamt of writing it with a new name.

AG: In the introduction to Infinite Fictions, you acknowledge that “to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written.” Throwing humility overboard, could not we also argue that the aim of criticism is to see the object as it really is not—to see it as it could or should be, perhaps even as it sees itself? In fact, could not we even argue that literature is a by-product of criticism—that criticism uses fiction as its raw material to dream literature into existence?

DW: I’m rather reluctant to throw humility overboard; there’s not nearly enough of it among literary critics. This is tangential to your question, but I’d like to reiterate my opposition, which I’ve aired elsewhere, to what John Guillory has called the “fantasy of literary power.” Guillory’s phrase refers to the presupposition, revealingly common to critics, that “literary culture is the site at which the most socially important beliefs and attitudes are produced.” Just as I’m skeptical of critics who reduce texts to reflections of social conjunctures, I’m equally unconvinced by those who treat literature as a “site of resistance” to those conjunctures. As Mark McGurl has observed, such gestures tend to lend literature “a dignity of effective scale that it does not necessarily deserve.”

If we discard those fantasies, then “seeing the object” must obviously be our aim. In that case, though, the question becomes: what kind of seeing? Your own question alludes to Matthew Arnold’s call for critical objectivity in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” and to Wilde’s parodic inversion of Arnold in “The Critic as Artist.” Wilde has one of his characters claim that “to the critic, the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes.” Against Arnold’s order to “see the object as it really is,” Wilde’s character asks us to “see the object as it really is not.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I would probably agree with Pater’s more subtle modification, according to which the aim of critical appreciation is “to see one’s impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realize it distinctly.”

Of course, no one ever sees the object as it really is. That’s true of critics and artists alike, insofar as artistic practice is also an effort to render an object. As you know, I take the view that art’s objects are infinite. To my mind, an accomplished work of art is one that attempts to see its object from every angle—apprehending every aspect, every stratum, every extension. In their own ways, that’s what Gertrude Stein does, what Thomas Bernhard does, what Gordon Lish does. The object, however, can never be mastered, and failure is always the outcome. Critics and artists are the same, in that sense: all we can really control is the scope, the shape, the originality of our acts of failure. Like the artist, the critic confronts an impossible object—one which, as certain philosophers say, withdraws from the world around it. We look at our objects, as long as we can, but no way of looking will fix them in a final form. So, like the artist, the critic must endlessly circle the object, looking for new ways of seeing. This, by the way, is why dogmas and doctrines are the death of critical practice—to see the object from a single position isn’t to see it at all. So, for me, the goal—or perhaps the obligation—of criticism closely resembles that of art: the continuous cultivation of perception, the invention and re-invention of the gaze, and the search for new modes of attention. Earlier, you asked me about the “role of the critic.” I think this is all I’m able to say: the critic must always keep looking, and never stand still.


The Boy Looked at Eurydice

This piece appeared in Berfrois on 17 July 2014.

The Boy Looked at Eurydice

Retro-futurism, as we now call it, came out of the closet in the late ’70s due to the widespread feeling that there was indeed ‘no future’ any more. Whilst Johnny Rotten waxed apocalyptical, Howard Devoto screeched existentially about his future no longer being what it was. Time seemed topsy-turvy, out of joint; the future not something to look forward to, but to look back on. “About the future I can only reminisce,” sang Pete Shelley on a dotty ditty dedicated to “nostalgia for an age yet to come”. (Significantly enough, it was almost immediately covered — recycled — by Penetration.) This trend was knowing and ‘ironic’ in typical postmodern mode (à la Rezillos or B-52’s), but also imbued with a genuine longing for a time — mainly the 50s and 60s — when the march of progress (in the shape of the space age and consumer society) seemed unstoppable. A time, crucially, when the future punks were still children, or twinkles in their parents’ eyes. Twinkling little stars.

When we were young, we were very young. You had to be. After witnessing the Sex Pistols for the first time, Richard Strange (Doctors of Madness) suddenly sensed that his time was up: “I’m two years too old,” he lamented. Joe Strummer could have drawn the very same conclusion. Upon joining The Clash, he was deemed “a bit old” by Glen Matlock (himself only four years younger). Concealing his real age would be an essential part of the public schoolboy-cum-pub rocker’s reinvention as a bona fide punk. A year on from the Pistols’ acrimonious demise, Steve Jones confided in Sounds, “I feel a bit old. I walk down the street and see these little punk rockers, about 13, and they don’t even recognise me”. Already in his mid-thirties by 1980, Charlie Harper (UK Subs) screamed his desire to be “teenage” as though it were a state of mind, or perhaps even the only way to be: “Teenage / I wanna be teenage / I wanna be teenage / I wanna be”.

When we were young, we were impossibly young. Sid Vicious boasted that he “didn’t even know the Summer of Love was happening” because he was “too busy playing with [his] Action Men”. “See my face, not a trace / No reality,” sang the Sex Pistols on “Seventeen,” the closest they ever got to a generational manifesto. Buzzcocks, who had barely reached adulthood, penned a paean to “feeling almost sixteen again”. In a cheeky act of lèse-majesté — given that this was the single John Lydon had mimed to during his fabled King’s Road audition — Eater wound back Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” to “Fifteen,” thus reflecting the group’s average age. The Lurkers, and countless others, glamorised the growing pains of being “Just Thirteen”…

“It’s funny,” says Nicky in The Vortex, “how mother’s generation always longed to be old when they were young, and we strain every nerve to keep young.” Was The Vortex club named after Noël Coward’s 1924 play, or was it a nod to Ezra Pound’s 1914 essay? All we can say for sure is that, more than any other subculture before or since, punk was afflicted with Peter Pan syndrome. Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism — “To be premature is to be perfect” — had found its ideal embodiment. Early gigs frequently resembled a St Trinian’s prom night gatecrashed by the Bash Street Kids. The ubiquitous school uniforms — all wonky ties and peekaboo stockings — were designed to rub punks’ youthfulness in the face of the rock dinosaurs and other Boring Old Farts. One could also flag up the recurring theme of onanism (“Orgasm Addict” and “Teenage Kicks” being the prime examples) as well as McLaren’s dodgy flirtation with paedophilia (from the early nude boy T-shirt through Bow Wow Wow) to argue that the Blank Generation was more clockwork satsuma than orange. Bliss was it in that dawn to be young. But to be a punk rocker was very heaven!

Punk was carpe diem recollected in cacophony — living out your “teenage dreams,” and sensing, almost simultaneously, that they would be “so hard to beat” (The Undertones). The movement generated an instant nostalgia for itself, so that it was for ever borne back to the nebulous primal scene of its own creation. Its forward momentum was backward-looking, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. To quote the Cockney Rejects on their debut album:

I wanna go back to where it all began / And I wanna do a gig in my back garden / Wanna have a laugh before the press get in / If you give ’em half a chance / They’ll kill the fucking thing (“Join the Rejects”).

By 1980, when that record was released, going back to “where it all began” meant totally different — and even contradictory — things to totally different — and indeed contradictory — people. Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (goth, oi!, the Mod revival, 2-Tone, No Wave, cold wave, post-punk, early New Romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore, etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, “People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement”. When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were “the reality of punk mythology” — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar The Clash. (Even within The Clash, only Joe ‘Citizen Smith’ Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement.

Expressing a desire to “go back to where it all began” is all well and good, but where did it all begin, and how far back do you have to go to get there?

Where is a bit of a red herring. New York City had a head start, but it is obvious that punk would have remained a drug-drenched late flowering of the beatnik scene without Britain’s contribution. If punk came from the United States, the United Kingdom was its destination; its manifest destiny. When former New York Doll Syl Sylvain failed to join the fledgling Sex Pistols, in London, Malcolm McLaren gave his white Les Paul to Steve Jones. This symbolic passing of the baton was echoed by the recruitment of Johnny Rotten in lieu of Richard Hell, who also remained stranded on the other side of the Pond. Rotten looked a hell of a lot like Hell — which is why he was auditioned in the first place — but he certainly was no lookalike. The fact that he had developed a similar style (spiky hair and ripped clothes) was purely coincidental, proving that something must have been in the air.

Attempting to pinpoint when that something first appeared is also a non-starter. Do you go back to Television’s early gigs at CBGB, or to the New York Dolls, or the Stooges, or right back to Dada by way of Situationism? The point of origin recedes as one approaches it.

Locating the end point of the first — authentic — stage of punk proves equally problematic. Was it when Sid Vicious lobbed a pint glass during The Damned’s set, on the second night of the 100 Club Punk Festival (September 1976)? Or when the Pistols, goaded by Bill Grundy, swore on prime-time television (December 1976)? When The Clash signed to CBS (January 1977)? The chaotic Silver Jubilee boat party (June 1977)?…

The history of punk is, above all, the story of the traumatic loss of its elusive essence: that brief moment in time when a new sensibility was beginning to coalesce — sufficiently well defined to be recognised by the cognoscenti; sufficiently amorphous to accommodate a wealth of conflicting impulses. A brief moment which may have ended, symbolically, with Jonh Ingham’s “Welcome to the (?) Rock Special” piece, published on 9 October 1976. Significantly, the article opens with a few crucial considerations on onomastics:

I was hoping to avoid mentioning the bloody word at all, but since Sounds has so adamantly advertised this shebang as a Punk Rock special, I guess there’s no avoiding it. In the context of the band [the Sex Pistols] and people mentioned in the following pages, I hate the word as much as they do.

The debate surrounding the new movement’s christening is often glossed over nowadays. McLaren, for instance, favoured ‘new wave’ in homage to the French nouvelle vague — a monicker that ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers and other bandwagon-jumpers. The fact that the noun that finally stuck (courtesy of Melody Maker journalist Caroline Coon) was second-hand — ‘historically inaccurate,’ as Ingham points out — made it all the easier to reject. To get a purchase on the new phenomenon it was necessary to name it, but the transaction could only be a rip-off: the word gave you punk by taking it away, replacing it with a grotesque caricature.

My contention is that punk died as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name (or with several possible names, which comes to the same thing). Linder Sterling recently recalled how, upon witnessing the Pistols for the first time, she did not “even have the language to describe what it [was]” — which is doubtless why the impact it made on her was so profound. In the beginning was the unword, when the unnamed cult remained a question mark to outsiders and insiders alike. Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation, when the blank in Blank Generation had not yet been filled in by that “bloody word” — was the potentiality of punk. It escaped definition, could never be pinned down, as it was constantly in the process of becoming. Punk was a movement towards itself, made up of people who disliked movements and kept pulling in opposite directions. Devoto’s brilliant parting shot, when he sabotaged the first stage of his career, springs to mind: “I don’t like music. I don’t like movements”.

Michael Bracewell claims that “one of punk’s very first roles was to debate its own definition — to make internal dissent an integral part of its own identity”. Such self-reflexivity ensured that the nascent movement never quite coincided with itself. If the original spirit of punk is anywhere to be found, it is in this gap, this disjuncture — this grey area. One could even argue that punk was “a thinking against itself”, to hijack Adorno’s famous phrase: internal dissent was its identity. Take Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” (on the Spiral Scratch EP, released in January 1977) which was so presciently contrary that it performed the feat of debunking punk clichés before they had even had time to become clichés.

A mere four years after the launch of Dada, Tristan Tzara declared that “the real dadas” were now “against DADA”. The real punks were also against punk, or at least the label. Being a true punk was something that could only go without saying; it implied never describing oneself as such. Insiders would often claim that they listened to heavy dub reggae, krautrock, or just about anything but punk rock itself. Like Eurydice, punk could only be approached by turning away.

Punk’s year zero mentality (like all other attempts to start again from scratch) was haunted by a yearning to return to some original, prelapsarian state — back in the garage, when the cult still had no name, before they killed the fucking thing. Being born again is just that: being born again. Being borne back.

Punk fashion reflected this doomed quest for authenticity. The playful, postmodern plundering of rock history’s wardrobe, the deconstruction and reassembly, collage and bricolage; the ambiguous semiotics and DIY aesthetics, gave way to a drab, off-the-peg uniform. The look was radicalised and codified until it finally ossified into mohicaned cliché — a process which mainly took place between 1979 and 1981. By increasingly becoming itself, punk, paradoxically enough, lost its soul — that sense of feeling “almost” sixteen again; of being on the cusp of an awfully big adventure.

The Man Who Stopped Writing

This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 11 July 2011:


L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, Marc-Edouard Nabe, 2010

Marc-Edouard Nabe has always relished playing with fire, but never more so than when he burned what would have been the fifth volume of his journal. His main motivation was to avoid being trapped in a Shandyesque race with time, ending up pigeonholed as a diarist. Nevertheless, he went on to describe this event in Alain Zannini (2002), a novel so blatantly autobiographical that it even bore his real name as its title (Nabe, short for “nabot” — midget — is a nom de plume). The implication was clear: having lived his life in order to narrate it, Zannini had gradually become Nabe’s creation. What, then, would happen if the writer were to stop writing?

This ontological question is raised in L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire (“The Man Who Stopped Writing”), which begins with the author-narrator’s paradoxical assertion — given the length of the book, let alone its very existence — that he has forsaken literature after being dropped by his publisher. “A publisher paying me to write books nobody reads,” he deadpans, “I thought this would go on for ever.”

For the best part of two decades, the real-life Nabe had received a monthly wage from Les Editions du Rocher, but this stipend was suddenly withdrawn when they were bought out in 2005. The novelist responded by taking legal action. Throughout the lengthy lawsuit, he expressed himself by means of posters, which his hardcore supporters pasted all over the walls of France’s major cities. He also maintained the fiction that his authorial days were over, so as to remain in character while secretly writing his novel about writing no more.

The appearance of L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire thus came as quite a surprise, not least because Nabe chose to go down the self-publishing, or rather “anti-publishing”, route. The minimalist jet-black cover has a whiff of piracy about it: no barcode, no ISBN, no publisher’s name or logo; the spine remains bare. On the front, the author’s name is reduced to “Nabe” as if it had become a brand, and on the back you only find a number, indicating that it is the author’s twenty-eighth published work (and seventh novel). The book is only available through an official website and a handful of highly unlikely retailers (a butcher’s, a florist’s, a hairdresser’s and three restaurants at the last count). By cutting out the middleman, Nabe claims to be able to make a 70% profit, instead of the usual 10%, on each copy sold. The initial print run — funded by the sale of paintings (Nabe is also an artist and jazz guitarist) — sold out within a month; there have been three more since. Last year, the novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Renaudot prize — a first for a self-published volume in France — and last month, the online platform morphed into a full-blown company.

This declaration of war on the publishing industry is in keeping with Nabe’s image as an écrivain maudit. “Great artists,” says the protagonist, as Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil manuscript is auctioned off at Sotheby’s, “have but one purpose: to become moral alibis for the bastards of posterity”. Initially accused of being a crypto-fascist (partly because of his predilection for Céline and Lucien Rebatet), Nabe is now frequently depicted as a pro-Palestinian leftist (whose anti-Americanism, it must be said, borders on the pathological). His first television appearance, in 1985, proved so incendiary that he was beaten up by a leading anti-racist campaigner. Every day, he declared — looking every inch the provocative young fogey, complete with centre parting, bow tie and retro spectacles — I shoot up with a Montblanc pen full of “utter hatred of humanity”. A great admirer of Jacques Mesrine, Nabe famously befriended the flamboyant bankrobber Albert Spaggiari as well as the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Following 9/11, he produced a pamphlet entitled Une Lueur d’espoir (“A Glimmer of Hope”) and argued repeatedly that bin Laden was only acting in self-defence. In 2003, he even travelled to Baghdad, where he protested against the invasion of Iraq in typically Gallic fashion: by writing a novel. These antics may have earned him a large cult following, but Mazarine Pingeot summed up the views of many when she declared that Nabe was “unfortunately” a great writer.

Despite running to almost 700 pages, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire has no chapters or even paragraphs, as though it were shot in real time, like 24, the American TV series the narrator watches. If the dialogue is a little didactic — even Socratic — at times, there are far fewer purple passages than usual. This is the affectless, almost pedestrian, prose of someone who will not even allow himself to sign an autograph or compose a letter any more. The novel is meant to read as if it were unwritten. This tonal blankness (often reminiscent of Houellebecq’s) is marred on occasion by poor punning, but it can also be shot through with flashes of sheer poetry: a vintage sewing machine is likened to a “giant bee in mourning”; a brunette’s hair looks like it has been “soaked in liquid night”.

Structurally, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire is a 21st-century reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy, taking us all the way from Inferno to Paradiso via Purgatorio. The picaresque plot begins when the protagonist abandons his calling, and spans seven days during which events that really took place over several years are skilfully conflated. At a loose end, the “post-writer” wanders around town and meets Jean-Phi, a young celebrity blogger who acts as his Virgil, guiding him through his post-literary vita nuova. Nabe’s mouthpiece dreams of a “literary lobotomy” that would rid him of all the bookish references preventing him from living fully in the here and now. Try as he may, Jean-Phi is unable to wean him off his old ways, and each new stroll through the streets of Paris gives rise to a digression about Raymond Roussel‘s birthplace or Proust‘s childhood haunts. However, as the days go by, and his life becomes increasingly bound up with Jean-Phi’s youthful entourage, the narrator rediscovers the pleasure of living gratuitously, without having to worry about transmuting his experiences into words. In the final pages, Mallarmé‘s famous dictum that “The world was made in order to result in a beautiful book” appears on a poster but, crucially, it has been misquoted, so that it is now the book which results in a beautiful world.

The protagonist inhabits this inverted world. Early on, he wonders if his new condition does not necessarily imply that he has himself become a character, as if a writer and his creation were but two sides of the same coin. The names of all the famous living people who appear in the novel have been slightly doctored (Depardieu, for instance, becomes Depardieux). This is no doubt to avoid lawsuits, but it also seems to indicate that they too have stepped through the looking-glass, on the other side of which they are exposed as grotesque parodies of themselves. As one of Jean-Phi’s friends remarks, a mere typo can suddenly plunge you into another universe.

One of the key scenes is a chance meeting with Alain Delons (Delon), on the seventh day. The narrator explains that he is his favourite actor because in all his major films Delon/s goes on a quest for a doppelgänger he could replace or who could replace him. The same, of course, can be said about the novelist’s entire oeuvre, which is haunted by the figure of the double. Narrator and author are as indistinguishable as ever, here, although the former is clearly an anti-Nabe, inhabiting a parallel universe where he has been defeated by his detractors. L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, proof of the real-life author’s triumph, is an affirmation of the truth of fiction, as well as of the virtues of unmediated life: after all, he wrote his novel by pretending not to. Give Nabe a mask, and he will tell you the truth. Just don’t ask him — or me, for that matter — who the doppelgänger is.

Zannini/Nabe once quipped that Alain Zannini — in which Zannini meets Nabe — was told in the “double person singular”. Sometimes, however, I really is another, rather than just the other half of a divided self. Although no oil painting, Michel Houellebecq is Dorian Gray to Nabe’s picture — the acceptable face of controversy. Or at least this is Nabe’s spin on events. In the early 90s, both men lived at the same address (103 Rue de la Convention in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris) facing each other, like bookends, across a cobbled courtyard. Both belong to the same generation, come from similar lower middle-class backgrounds, had domineering Corsican mothers they rebelled against, established their reputations by courting controversy and chronicled the demise of French joie de vivre. Nabe was, in fact, the senior partner in this relationship, up until the success of Atomised in 1998.

In The Map and the Territory, which finally earned him the Goncourt prize last year, Houellebecq depicted his own murder. Nabe immediately outed himself as the culprit in the course of an interview. What he really meant is that Houellebecq had committed literary suicide, by selling out and writing a Goncourt novel. Losing the Renaudot prize, on the other hand, reaffirmed Nabe’s outsider status. Like his master, Céline, he remains untainted by recognition, alone against the world; beyond the pale. With an eye on posterity, Marc-Edouard Nabe is biding his time.

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 January 2011:

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossal Youth

This appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 70, pp. 54-57):

Colossal Youth

Arthur Cravan — artist, poet, boxer

You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. The world’s shortest-haired poet, as he often described himself, put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man. Next to him, the YBAs in their shark-pickling heyday were about as controversial as a mug of Horlicks. David Lalé put it in a nutshell: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form” (Last Stop Salina Cruz).

Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. His first brush with authority occurred early on when he was expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher. Having relocated to bohemian Paris — where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and Kees van Dongen — Cravan planned to fake his own death so that he could publish his first book “posthumously,” in a blaze of publicity. For some reason this stunt was shelved, but he pulled off the more remarkable feat of becoming France’s Heavyweight Champion in 1910 without throwing a single punch. One of his opponents got the jitters and called it quits before the match had even started. A couple of others were directed to the wrong venue thus failing to show up. The last one sprained his ankle as he jumped a trifle too eagerly into the ring.

A big bruiser of a man, Cravan certainly looked the part — Mina Loy, his future wife, would write a book about him entitled Colossus — but his boxing was on a par with his poetry: spirited, at best. Comically enough, he was caught up by his reputation in Barcelona where he was unable to wriggle out of a rumble with former World Champion Jack Jones, an episode which left him reeling, punch-drunk. The fact that he was drink-drunk to start with probably did not help.

None of this prevented Arthur Cravan from flogging his “poet and boxer” image for all it was worth. Although he was a fraud, he inspired a long line of literary pugilists, and even came to be seen by some as the ultimate adventurer-scribe: literature made flesh. Paradoxically, for one whose existence exerts such fascination, he was a self-publicist who had no self to publicise. “I am all things, all men and animals!” he wrote in one of his better-known poems (“Hie!”), before wondering if he would ever manage to “leave behind” his “fatal plurality”. Reflecting on his hyper-protean nature — his dizzying array of disguises, pseudonyms and personae — Mina Loy claimed that Cravan “worked to maintain his reality by presenting an unreality to the world — to occupy itself with — while he made his spiritual getaway”. His whole life, at least from the time he first set foot in Paris, was indeed one long, convoluted disappearing act.

Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. It was partly a vanity outlet for his poems and essays, but primarily a means of courting controversy. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. In the first issue, he ran a fake interview with Oscar Wilde — his late uncle — claiming that he was still alive. Cravan’s Bill Grundy moment occurred when he devoted an entire issue to gratuitous insults aimed at almost all the painters taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. He opined, for instance, that only a good seeing-to would enable Marie Laurencin to fully grasp the true meaning of Art. As a result, her lover — the poet Guillaume Apollinaire — challenged Cravan to a duel which he narrowly avoided by apologising half-heartedly. He was also taken to court and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters while selling copies of his journal from a wheelbarrow outside the exhibition room.

Maintenant proved that writing, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as did the infamous series of conferences he gave in Paris. During these happenings, he would take swigs from a bottle of absinthe (in lieu of the habitual bottle of water), shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. On one occasion, he wore nothing but a butcher’s apron and concluded proceedings by mooning the audience instead of bowing in the traditional fashion. On another, he sold rotten fruit and vegetables at the entrance so that people could pelt him during the performance should they feel so inclined (which they did). His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised — a riot that forestalled his drunken inauguration of the 1917 Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp (whose legendary urinal was part of the show) had plied him with gallons of booze beforehand in the hope that his antics would put Dada on the map in the United States. Cravan rose to the occasion: he stumbled on stage looking the worse for wear and started to strip — knocking over a painting in the process — only to be pounced upon and carted away by security. Job done.

Arthur Cravan took Romantic hysteria to its logical conclusion: he was by turns histrionic, attention-seeking, uncontrollable, excessive, hilarious and, most importantly, the author of himself (hustera is Greek for womb). He was also a con artist with a cause. “The world has always exploited the Artist,” he once declared, “it is time for the Artist to exploit the world!” It was his fake-painting trafficking, rather than the First World War, that initially forced him to go on the run. He roamed the Continent, using several fake IDs, looking for “that something the poet always seems to have mislaid,” as Mina Loy elegantly put it. In Barcelona he became something of a living legend among Dadaists. When the war seemed about to catch up with him again, he relocated to New York (travelling aboard the same ship as Trotsky) and fled once more as soon as the Americans entered the conflict. Cravan stole the passport of an artist friend (who had conveniently conked out following a night on the razz) before crossing the Mexican border dressed — paradoxically enough — as a soldier. He was last seen in 1918, sailing away on a drunken boat of his own making (probably bound for neutral Argentina), leaving behind his “fatal plurality” for ever. “Whatever is said and done or even thought,” he had declared, “we are prisoners of this senseless world”. Perhaps he was trying to prove himself wrong.

Cravan was always larger than life and, in many ways, he was just too bad to be true. He was a self-unmade man whose biggest conjuring trick was to spirit himself away by taking elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. “You must dream your life with great care,” wrote this outrageous six-footer who managed to cross frontiers as if he were the Invisible Man. In the years following his disappearance, he would be sighted all over the world in a variety of guises. Several people, for instance, were convinced that he was the shadowy Dorian Hope who passed himself off as André Gide’s personal secretary and sold forged Wilde manuscripts to English and Irish booksellers from his Paris base. There is even a theory according to which he was none other than B. Traven, the mysterious author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He inspired Gide’s Lafcadio, the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will, and became a symbol of ultimate transgression for the likes of Guy Debord. Dead or alive, Arthur Cravan is still at large.


An excerpt from Tillie Olsen‘s Silences (1962):

Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences — what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony) — that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature. The great in achievement have known such silences — Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins. They tell us little as to why or how the creative working atrophied and died in them — if ever it did. Kin to these years-long silences are the hidden silences; work aborted, deferred, denied — hidden by the work which does come to fruition. Hopkins rightfully belongs here; almost certainly William Blake; Jane Austen, Olive Schreiner, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter, many other contemporary writers. Censorship silences. Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium (as with Hardy); paralyzing of capacity (as Dreiser’s ten-year stasis on Jennie Gerhardt after the storm against Sister Carrie). Publishers’ censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as “not suitable” or “no market for.” Self-censorship. Religious, political censorship — sometimes spurring inventiveness — most often (read Dostoyevsky’s letters) a wearing attrition. The extreme of this: those writers physically silenced by governments. Isaac Babel, the years of imprisonment, what took place in him with what wanted to be written? Or in Oscar Wilde, who was not permitted even a pencil until the last months of his imprisonment? Other silences. The truly memorable poem, story, or book, then the writer ceasing to be published (As Jean Toomer, Cane; Henry Roth, Call It Sleep; Edith Summers Kelley, Weeds). Was one work all the writers had in them (life too thin for pressure of material, renewal) and the respect for literature too great to repeat themselves? Was it “the knife of the perfectionist attitude in art and life” at their throat? Were the conditions not present for establishing the habits of creativity (a young Colette who lacked a Willy to lock her in her room each day)? Or — as instanced over and over — other claims, other responsibilities so writing could not be first? (The writer of a class, sex, color still marginal in literature, and whose coming to written voice at all against complex odds is exhausting achievement.) It is an eloquent commentary that this one-book silence has been true of most black writers, only eleven in the hundred years since 1850 have published novels more than twice. There is a prevalent silence I pass by quickly, the absence of creativity where it once had been; the ceasing to create literature, though the books may keep coming out year after year. That suicide of the creative process Hemingway describes so accurately in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” He had destroyed his talent himself — by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, by snobbery, by hook and by crook, selling vitality, trading it for security, for comfort. Almost unnoted are the foreground silences, before the achievement. George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A. E. Coppard, Angus Wilson, Joyce Caryl. All close to, or in their forties before they came published writers; Lampedusa, Maria Dermout (The Ten Thousand Things). Laura Ingalls Wilder, the “children’s writer,” in their sixties. Very close to this last grouping are the silences where the lives never came to writing. Among these, the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.

Colossal Youth (Abridged Version)


An abridged version of “Colossal Youth,” my piece on Arthur Cravan, was posted on the Flux magazine website on Friday 13 November 2009:

Colossal Youth

You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. Oscar Wilde’s nephew put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man.

Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. After being expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher, he relocated to bohemian Paris where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and managed to become France’s Heavyweight Champion without throwing a single punch.

Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. He filled an entire issue with gratuitous insults aimed at the artists taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. As a result, he was challenged to a duel by the poet Apollinaire and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters. Result.

Art, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as proved by the infamous conferences he gave in Paris and New York. During these happenings, he would knock back absinthe, perform drunken stripteases, shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised.

The onset of the First World War marked the beginning of a convoluted vanishing act that led him — in various guises — from Paris to Mexico where he disappeared at sea on a drunken boat of his own making. His body was never found. For years to come, he would continue to be spotted throughout the world. Arthur Cravan is still at large.