The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.


The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

This appeared in Review 31 on 7 March 2018:

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

Neil Armstrong hoped that someone, some day, would erase the footprints he had left on the moon. It is in this spirit that American author Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition, covering the explorers’ tracks before loosing his characters into lostness. The Way of Florida, his outlandish debut, begins in medias res like an epic poem: ‘And waiting another day to enter port, a south wind took us and drove us away from land’. The colonial enterprise — blown off course after grinding to a halt — has already failed, and will keep on failing better as if The Odyssey had been redrafted by Beckett. Trapped in a ‘maze of unhaving’, increasingly ‘abundant in [their] lack’, the Spaniards soon want nothing more than ‘to not want’. For most of them, the voyage — ‘long for the things [they] do not come upon’ — will be a one-way ticket to ‘[h]igh nowhere of the utmost’. ‘I know there is no return,’ the narrator laments, ‘and I know there is no thing toward of which all of us sail’. Cut adrift from any destination, the journey loses its telos, becoming an end in itself. ‘I must be a man who walks,’ he acknowledges, likening life to an excursion we go on awhile until ‘the world moves on without us’.

With no backstory to speak of, or veritable narrative arc, The Way of Florida is a historical novel from which history has been all but excised. Were it not for the publisher’s blurb, I would have ignored that this quixotic attempt to establish Spanish settlements along the Gulf Coast was first chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors, or that his 1542 account had provided Persson with a general direction of travel. The erasure of most period markers (the first occurrence of the explorer’s name that I spotted was on page 175) allows a deep immersion in the here and now of lives conducted in extremis. A whole year elapses in the course of a four-line paragraph, while a single, unpunctuated sentence — reflecting the flow of real time — winds its way through an entire ten-page chapter. Significantly, the narrator comes to see his existence as a solitary long take, ‘the string of days entire from one until the end’: ‘Inside this now I live with my body underneath the sky’.

The beleaguered colonisers seek refuge in their corporeal abodes, envisioned with doors leading to closets where ‘olden acts’ are ‘ungone forever’. A counter-movement sees the self projected on to the hallucinatory landscape. The protagonist evokes ‘the lands inside [him] yet to fold out’ as though conjuring up the very ground on which he treads. This projection, imperialist as it may sound, inaugurates a fugue state; a desperate drive to leave oneself behind. Striding forth, he explains, is ‘our only path our only way toward some otherwhere some place we were not’. The narrative feeds off itself, like those stranded Christians who survive by partaking of the deceased — until there is only one cannibal left and nobody else ‘to enfooden him’.

It is through writing, however, that Cabeza de Vaca achieves an ecstatic, out-of-body experience. The true ‘otherwhere’ is the book in which he records his misadventures, ‘to bring me to the outside of this [situation] where I can look down to me and witness my own sentence’. Whether he is the author of his own sentence — his work, as well as his plight — remains a moot point. The narrator believes that he and his compatriots are doing penance for their sins, and that what appears like aimless drifting is all part of a grand design. He also claims to have been chosen as the recipient of divine messages, thereby establishing a direct link between ‘Our Lord our mapmaker’ and the figure of the writer.

The Way of Florida is thus a journey into fiction. The survivors — four unwitting horsemen of the Apocalypse — enter Indian lore as ‘holy men from the sky’. In the final part, there is a sudden switch from first to third-person narration, perhaps signalling that Cabeza de Vaca has absented himself through his work, reemerging as a godlike, omniscient voice. A subtle parallel is drawn between colonialism and the realist novel’s linguistic imperialism, exemplified by the narrator’s frustration at not being able to describe certain gestures or the sound the sun makes on the sand. The jarring notes provided by the regular intrusion of expletives — ‘the deep fuck we found ourselves in’ — advertises the underlying tension between contingency and necessity. The neat little blocks of text stranded in an ocean of blank space recall the breath clouds of the storytelling explorers (‘it is air in the shape of our sound in the shape of tales’) and the soothing blowing therapy of the faith healers. These typographical havens stand in stark contrast to the wildly poetic, often challenging, run-on sentences that compose them, stamping their hypnotic rhythm upon the reader. This is English, but not as we know it. The novelist seems to have taken it back to the dawn of language, producing a newly-minted idiom that feels both antiquated and timeless. It is this Adamic English that makes The Way of Florida sui generis, despite being based on a pre-existing text. As Maurice Blanchot put it, ‘What is important is not to tell, but to tell once again and, in this retelling, to tell again each time a first time’.

Golden Age

Kraus, Chris. “Howl – Punk: the Twentieth Century’s Last Avant-Garde.” Times Literary Supplement, 12 January 2018 , p. 33

Composed of essays, interviews, memoirs and manifestos by veterans of London’s punk scene, Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix’s Punk is Dead is a nostalgic, intelligent homage to the brief, hazy era of “pure” London punk, before it was named, over-described and turned into another sub­cultural phenomenon. This golden age lasted somewhere between four and eighteen months, depending on who’s recollecting, although most agree that by 1978, it was over. Since punk began as a rebellion against boredom, the dead space of commercial music production and the empty hedonism born of the hippie era’s “great sexual revolution”, it was only a matter of time until it, too, would become corrupted. A yearning for its own prelapsarian state was built into punk’s ethos. As the punk musician-turned-philosopher Simon Critchley tells Gallix, “Because of the acute awareness of the fact that punk . . . would become a creature of the very music industry whose codes it subverted, we knew that it was going to be shortlived. And that was fine”. To Critchley, punk was most of all, lucid: a Protestant reformation without God: “We wanted to see reality for what it was in all its ugliness . . . and tear away the decadence and fallenness of the culture industry that surrounded us”.

. . . “Bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up”, Gallix writes in his essay “Unheard Melodies”. Punk is Dead shows the transmission of culture as a kind of lucid group dreaming. The accounts of its contributors capture the role that coincidence plays in history. Ideas can rarely be traced back to one person; they accrete and recur. . . .

Gallix is eloquent in his defence of nostalgia against the cult of an amnesiac future. Punk might be not only the last great subculture in the rock and roll mode, but the most analysed and documented. Nevertheless, art and cultural histories are always reductive, and, as he writes, “the past is subtly rewritten, every nuance gradually airbrushed out of the picture”. . . .

It Was Bound to Go Wrong

Walton, Stuart. “It Was Bound to Go Wrong.” Review 31, 24 January 2018:

… On the other hand, co-editor Andrew Gallix’s essay on the rootless Anglo-Swiss provocateur Arthur Cravan, a gifted self-mythologist who was ‘just too bad to be true’, is a pertinent contribution.

The same author’s ‘Unheard Melodies’, on bands who never got to record anything and, in some pristine cases, never even performed live, existing only as hypothetical propositions, but were nonetheless profoundly influential as such, is a fascinating study of cultural subversion all on its own.

The Doodles of Yesteryear

This appeared in the June 2017 issue of Literary Review.

Read All About It

At first blush, the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ may seem a somewhat paradoxical choice of subject for a biographer. Au contraire, argues Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes: A Biography, originally published in France in 2015. Just shy of five hundred pages long, excluding notes and index, it is, to date, the most comprehensive portrait of Barthes’s life and times. Calling it definitive — which in many respects it is — would be to miss the point, however. Memories being open to constant recomposition, Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. He hoped his own might be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ – ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ – which, ‘like Epicurean atoms’, would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’. The ideal biography would thus come in the form of a book in a box, like something by Marc Saporta or B S Johnson, the unbound pages of which could be shuffled around like the index cards Barthes wrote on. The stand-alone paragraphs of his own memoir, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), were arranged in alphabetical order so as to obviate narrative continuity and its attendant teleological bias. While cleaving to a traditional, broadly chronological format, Samoyault goes to great lengths to ensure that Barthes does not end up pickled in aspic. In a prologue, she retraces his last steps on the day in 1980 when he was knocked over by a van, an accident that led to his demise (from pulmonary complications) one month later. ‘The Death of Barthes’ is, in effect, cordoned off, lest his life be reduced, retrospectively, to a fixed, univocal reading, akin to the ‘“message” of the Author-God’ he had once lambasted.

Barthes regarded death as the only event that truly eludes language. All the rest is discourse, as he argued in Mythologies (1957), a book in which he took reading out of the library and into the world. Rather than drawing up a laundry list of the different hats he wore, we should probably regard Barthes, above all else, as a reader. In bringing literature to life (‘every text is eternally written here and now’), the act of reading rewrites ‘the text of the work within the text of our lives’. Textual pleasure climaxes, he contends, when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our own daily lives’ — when, in other words, it reads us. He even confessed to deriving more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ his distracted perusal imprinted upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself. It is through the prism of these abrasions — the interface between life and art — that Samoyault succeeds in getting a purchase on Barthes’s eclectic oeuvre.

Having famously described literature as the space ‘where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’, Barthes increasingly sought out the inscription of this physical presence, ‘the hand as it writes’. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to the time he spent in sanatoria and the repeated diets he went on, turning his body ‘into an object for analysis’, which he read ‘like a text’. She avers that ‘going back to the body’ implied ‘viewing writing as a material production of signs that placed it on the same level as any other artistic practice’. Between 1971 and 1975, Barthes painted every day, inspired by the ‘absolute corporeal gesture’ of calligraphy he had discovered in Japan, a partly fantasised land that seemed to herald ‘a civilisation of the signifier’. Samoyault insists that this activity was ‘inseparable from his thoughts about writing’. In several essays and reviews, Barthes reflects upon the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists such as Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly or Bernard Réquichot, going as far as to claim that André Masson’s semiography achieved the ‘utopia of the Text’. His own graphic productions — he was reluctant to speak of artworks, preferring to see them as a form of handicraft — were, according to Samoyault, neither words nor paintings, but the ‘union of the two’. Describing them (there are 380 paintings and drawings by Barthes in the Bibliothèque Nationale’s archive), she observes that they ‘can be very close to writing when it forgets to make sense, when it turns into a trace, remembers the productions of childhood, the scribbling’. If they are indeed reminiscent of the doodles of yesteryear, they are also — perhaps more importantly — post-verbal. She explains that they allow us to enter a world free from ‘any formed language, any preconstructed thought’ – a world ‘exempt from meaning’, to use Barthes’s recurring phrase. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, he described language as ‘fascist’ because it compels us to think and talk in a given manner. The world is therefore always already written; the ultimate purpose of literature, in his eyes, is ‘to unexpress the expressible’, to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’.

Samoyault suggests that Barthes’s life can be partly explained by what it lacked. Together with his homosexuality and Protestant roots, tuberculosis (‘incontestably the major event of his life’) led to missed opportunities, contributing to a lifelong sense of marginalisation. Barthes spoke about the ‘great Oedipal frustration’ of having no father figure to slay. His mother’s death, in 1977, accelerated the autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn that began with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me,’ Barthes declared, though whether this urge would have taken the shape of a novel remains a moot point. Although Barthes left only an eight-page outline for his projected ‘Vita Nova’, Samoyault believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously, as well as large chunks of the unpublished writings in archives she was given access to, would eventually have found their way into some magnum opus.

Barring a few approximations — inevitable given the Herculean task — Andrew Brown’s translation is excellent. Chris Turner has also done a sterling job with Seagull Books’ beautifully presented five-volume series of essays by Barthes and interviews with him (£14.50 each), which is the perfect companion piece to the biography. Organised thematically, these occasional articles, reviews and texts are all briefly but expertly introduced, and in the process are made available to an anglophone audience for the first time. Some, like those where Barthes agonises over the definition of left-wing literature, are very much of their time, but they provide snapshots of his mind at work and confirm Samoyault’s premise that the unity of his life and oeuvre is to be found in the ‘desire to write’.

A Deterritorialised Voice

My review of Zygmunt Bauman‘s Retrotopia appears in today’s Irish Times. Here is an extract:

Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January at the age of 91, was one of the last intellectual heavyweights of the 20th century. He belonged to a generation that derived its aura and wisdom from the second World War, even winning a medal for gallantry in combat. He was a Polish Jew, and so his life and work were shaped by both Nazi and communist persecution, the latter forcing him to relinquish his citizenship as a prerequisite for exile.

Although he became professor of sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971 – residing in England, with his family, for the rest of his life – he always retained a strong accent, not dissimilar to a comedy impression of Sigmund Freud. You can hear it in his numerous books, ostensibly written in English but frequently reading like literal translations from sundry continental tongues. This deterritorialised voice, poised somewhere between Yorkshire and Mitteleuropa, never tries to conceal its cosmopolitan origins. It speaks the language of liquid modernity, the era-defining concept that will doubtless serve as his epitaph.

Composed in the shadow of Brexit and Trump, Retrotopia — Bauman’s last, posthumously published work — revisits this rapidly evolving phenomenon. The sociologist had long argued that a loss of faith in society’s perfectibility was one of the main distinctions between the “solid” and “liquid” phases of modernity, a theme that he reprises and expands on here.

His argument hinges on the “emancipation of power from territory”, as a result of which nation states, with increasingly “porous” borders, are no longer able to fulfil their traditional functions. This political impotence, compounded by the stupefying pace of change, has redirected the utopian impulse towards the “space of collective memory”. We take refuge in the past because it can be “remodelled at will”, thus providing the “blissful omnipotence lost in the present”.

The future is now associated not with progress but with stasis or regression. At best it seems to offer more of the same; at worst it holds out the prospect of “social degradation” and “impending catastrophe”. Hence the privatisation of happiness, sought no longer through collective endeavours but through self-improvement and personal “wellness”….

Phantom Plot

My review of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language will appear in the FT tomorrow. It was posted on their website today. Here is an extract:

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.