The Joys of a Dusty Little Gem

“The Joys of a Dusty Little Gem.” Review of Fifty Forgotten Books by R. B. Russell. The Irish Times, 15 October 2022, p. 27.

Cultural theorists, such as the late Mark Fisher, have argued that loss itself is what we have lost in the digital age. I suspect this goes some way to explaining our fascination with vanished works of art and literature as exemplified by Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces (2004), Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost Books (2005), Christopher Fowler’s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared (2012) or Giorgio van Straten’s In Search of Lost Books (2016).

R. B. Russell’s Fifty Forgotten Books is a welcome addition to this list. The author displays a similar passion for unearthing literary curios, but comes at it from a different angle — that of the compulsive collector. He gives us a précis of each title but also, more importantly perhaps, the backstory of the precise copy he owns: which shop he found it in, who recommended it, its price, condition and smell, etc. His first edition of Thomas Tryon’s The Other, for instance, which he happened upon at a jumble sale in Sussex came all the way from a Zetland County library. He treasures the Blaenavon Workmen’s Institute stamps that disfigure David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman because “they are like ghosts from the book’s past life”.

Throughout this bibliomemoir, which opens in 1981 at the age of 14, Russell haunts — as he makes a point of putting it — second-hand bookshops in search of volumes that are themselves already haunted and will haunt him in turn. Significantly, he describes a “tale of the supernatural set in a bookshop” by Walter de la Mare as “perfect for a reader like [him]”.

The presiding influence over Russell’s bookish life is Arthur Machen (leading him to the work of his niece, Sylvia Townsend Warner), and some of the drug-fuelled antics of the society dedicated to the Welsh author are recounted here in hilarious detail.

The text is interspersed with black-and-white pictures of the book covers and stylish snapshots of Russell and Rosalie Parker, his partner, with whom he set up Tartarus Press. These images belong to an analogue culture that has all but disappeared, along with the “wonderful world of second-hand bookshops” celebrated here. I hope this little gem will be discovered on dusty shelves by future generations of bibliophiles.

This Year’s Cult Classic

“This Year’s Cult Classic.” Review of Bad Eminence by James Greer. The Irish Times, 16 July 2022, p. 16.


Bad Eminence, American author James Greer’s third novel, is the kind of book you open at your peril. The title alone (a reference to Milton’s Satan) should be warning aplenty, but it is my duty to report that a Latin phrase, planted in the opening pages, leads — once read — to instant possession by the devil. By the same token, I strongly advise you not to cut out and ingest the large dot containing a highly potent hallucinogenic, however much the narrator enjoins you to do so.

Things are already weird enough as it is with the regular intrusion of “sponsored content”, the small black-and-white photographs reminiscent of W.G. Sebald (who is name-checked several times), the recurrence of swans and characters called Temple, not to mention the growing sense of psychosis and gradual dissolution of all ontological certainty.

Vanessa Salomon — the wisecracking narratrix — is a young Franco-American translator, blessed with tremendous “genetic gifts” and a knack for nihilistic aphorisms. Thanks to her reputation for tackling works deemed untranslatable, she is hired by Not Michel Houellebecq to translate his new novel before it is even written. What France’s most famous author really covets, however, is another copy without an original: Vanessa’s celebrity “bitch twin sister”. Or is it?

The novel reaches a metatextual crescendo when the heroine parses a sentence she has just written: “I shut the lid of the laptop and headed back to bed”. She points out that this can only have been typed before or after the event, reflecting her dream of a book that would inhabit “the spaces between the binary code of our existence”. “Everything,” she declares, in what amounts to a manifesto, “is in the process either of becoming or unbecoming, and it is the task of the artist not to make something new but to make something present”.

Once the rollicking narrative has caught up with itself, the novel implodes in real-time. It becomes increasingly obvious that transgressive, S&M fantasies from the Robbe-Grillet book Vanessa was translating at the beginning have been contaminating the rest of her life, and that her world is now awash with simulacra and doppelgängers.

Hilarious, exhilarating and mind-blowing, Bad Eminence is this year’s cult classic.

Laboratory of Narrative

Here is my review of Michel Butor’s Selected Essays, Times Literary Supplement, 8 July 2022, p. 25.


Michel Butor has never received anywhere near the level of critical attention in the English-speaking world accorded to his fellow experimenters with the nouveau roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. His third novel, La Modification, is regarded as a modern classic in his native France, where it won the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 1957 and is regularly chosen as a set text at schools and universities. Even in France, however, few appreciate the full scope of Butor’s oeuvre, which encompasses countless poems, art and literary criticism, travel writing, translations and a libretto, not to mention more than a thousand artist’s books. It is to be hoped that the publication of his Selected Essays, carefully curated by Richard Skinner and elegantly translated by Mathilde Merouani, will kindle greater interest in the work of a true polymath, whose questing spirit — unlike that of some of his fellow nouveaux romanciers — never departed him.

Five of the eight essays compiled here, one of which is actually a 1962 interview with Tel Quel magazine, appear in English for the first time. They all deal with various aspects of the novel, which Butor regarded as the greatest of all literary forms. For him it was, at least initially, a way of overcoming a “personal problem”, enabling him to reconcile the poetry he was then writing at home with the philosophy he was studying at university.

This slim volume hinges on the notion that no account of human behaviour is truly complete without the inclusion of the imaginative and oneiric. Much of reality is apprehended through narratives (such as newspapers or history books) that exist on the “ever unstable border between fact and fiction”. Butor’s grand claim — that the novel is “the laboratory of the narrative”, where the way the world is experienced can be explored and, ultimately, transformed — is argued here most persuasively.

Butor makes light work of heavy themes, eschewing dogma and jargon despite the essays’ phenomenological tenor, in stark contrast with many of his contemporaries. Whether he is analyzing how a fictive locale may reconfigure the space in which a book is read, contending that travelling is the dominant theme of all literature or excavating old objects in the work of Balzac, his often exhilarating insights continue to come across as though he were charting terra incognita.

Behind this ever-inquisitive mind, there is a sense of a growing impatience with the constraints of the novel, even in its experimental mode. In the book’s concluding interview Butor discusses his failure to bridge the gap between poetry and philosophy, which may explain why he did not publish any novels after 1960. (He died in 2016.) After 1960 his fascination with the intersection between writing and the arts would take him beyond the confines of fiction into experiments with hybrid works and the book as object.

The Making of Incarnation

Here is my review of The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy. The Irish Times, 2 October 2021, p. 15:

Tom McCarthy’s fifth and arguably most ambitious novel brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth”. The Making of Incarnation is about bodies in space — outer space in the case of the sci-fi blockbuster (Incarnation) that serves as both armature and mise en abyme. Here, the lie of being truth (which another character describes as “[n]aturalist bullshit”) must be perpetuated at all costs.

Ben Briar is flown in from the United States as part of a shadowy project called Degree Zero (a nod to Roland Barthes and his reality effect) to ensure that the film’s script, however fanciful, complies with the basic laws of physics. Herzberg, the art director, expends a great deal of energy convincing this “Realism Tsar” that the inclusion of mundane objects in the unlikeliest of set-ups can effectively “counteract the defamiliarisation”. Much is subsequently made of the CGI rendering of a fork (“your basic IKEA Livnära”) that recurs — comically as well as cosmically — throughout the climactic disintegration of the spacecraft.

Given that Briar works for a consultancy called Two Cultures (vide C. P. Snow), it is hardly surprising that he should view physics as a creative endeavour — “a plunge into the farthest-flung reaches of the imagination”. The unfolding of the plot, as the shoot progresses, is interspersed with complex descriptions of the wind tunnels and motion-capture techniques deployed behind the scenes. These are so meticulously detailed that they take on a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory, quality.

Kinesis moves in mysterious ways: at every corner, the scientific turns out to be underpinned by the poetic — or even the messianic. Pantaray Motion Systems is not only the slightly sinister corporate behemoth providing the cutting-edge technology without which there would be no movie; it also has “a heroic status tinged with traces of the mystical”.

Anthony Garnett, its founder, recalls once considering Norbert Wiener (the originator of cybernetics) as “prophet, messiah and apostle”. There was something in his vision that he thought “he’d left behind with Aeschylus, Catullus, Sappho: a condition best denoted by the old, unscientific label poetry”.

Garnett’s colleague Pilkington — referred to, behind his back, as the “Ancient Mariner” — senses that all machines are “stand-ins for some ultimate machine we’ll never build but nonetheless can’t stop ourselves from trying to”. Tasked with orchestrating an experimental plane crash, he goes looking for the “ur-disaster” — the “totality that hovers above every partial iteration”.

Monica Dean, who is conducting research into Lillian Gilbreth, discovers that the pioneer of factory-floor ergonomics had come to entertain “the possibility of some ‘higher’ or ‘absolute’ movement . . . derived from no source other than itself”. The novel is teeming with such intimations of preordained patterns or underlying algorithms.

In this quest for perfection, the human body is ultimately an obstacle. We are reminded that the French scientist Marey sought to infuse his compatriots with the “energy and dynamism of the locomotive” and that Taylorism was seen by some in the Soviet Union as an opportunity to liberate the worker from “the shackles of his very body”. This rejection of incarnation is (paradoxically) embodied by the film’s high romantic denouement: the two lovers, whose union is impossible, bow out in a blaze of glory, expecting to coincide with themselves — and everything — at the instant of their deaths.

The novel, however, does not end with the blinding light of revelation, but a “blackness neither rays nor traces penetrate”. Besides, there is an error in the code behind the film’s final frame — an invisible blemish only the technician is aware of. It recalls Pilkington’s secret that he alone was responsible for the failure of Project Albatross, a minute miscalculation having led the plane to vanish instead of crashing. He imagines the lost aircraft occupying “an aporia, blind alley, cubby-hole or nook”.

This instant of its disappearance, “cut out from the flow of time” — for ever suspended, deferred — is akin to the sense of dislocation that several characters experience: the feeling of being in two locations at once “without really being in either”; of experiencing the present and the past simultaneously while being at one remove from both.

Is not this liminality the very space of fiction, squatted by the two addicts, who reappear right at the end, lost in their pipe dreams and inevitably conjuring up Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon?

The answer, no doubt, is to be found in Lillian Gilbreth’s Box 808 — the one that allegedly “changes everything”, that may “chisel a Northwest Passage through a stretch of the hitherto theoretical-physically impossible”. The one that is missing, of course, and that everyone — from the protagonist, Pantaray’s Dr Mark Phocan, to the secret services — is looking for.

The truth is out there: Tom McCarthy has worked his magic once again.

Kitchen Sink Gothic

Here is my review of A Lonely Man by Chris Power and Ghosted: A Love Story by Jenn Ashworth. The London Magazine, 23 August 2021:


In Victorian Hauntings (2002), Julian Wolfreys observes that telling a story always opens up a space through which ‘something other returns’, thereby drawing the conclusion that ‘all stories are, more or less, ghost stories’. Can we infer from this that all writers are, more or less, ghostwriters? Possibly, if A Lonely Man — Chris Power’s thrilling debut novel — is anything to go by.

The implacable plot is set in motion by a seemingly chance encounter in the metafictional setting of an anglophone bookshop. Robert, an expat novelist, and Patrick, a ghostwriter on the run, both reach for the same slim volume at the same time: ‘”Sorry,” they said together, drawing back their arms’. The latter has been hiding out in Berlin, fearing for his life following the suspicious death of Vanyashin, the Russian oligarch, whose memoir he was working on. Robert has little compunction about stealing Patrick’s story to cure a bout of writer’s block and meet a deadline. This is what writers do, he rationalises, rehearsing a familiar line of argument deployed, in recent years, by Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kristen Roupenian. A Lonely Man is a portrait of the artist as a ghoul: ‘Stories are like coins, Robert thought, passed from one hand to another’.

The monetary simile he employs is itself second-hand, providing a pleasing instance of self-reflexivity as well as a strong dose of dramatic irony. It is lifted from ‘The Zahir’, Borges’s tale of obsession, which concludes with daytime reality in thrall to a disquieting dream world. Robert is likewise consumed by his fixation with Patrick’s story: a ‘shadow-self’ that his wife and children are blissfully unaware of grows inside him while he slowly slips through the looking-glass into some parallel dimension. Prior to the final coup de théâtre, he has the distinct feeling that he is ‘operating within a dream and that the door might open onto anything’ — which it does.

This reference to ‘The Zahir’ fuels the reader’s suspicion that the theft of the story may have incurred some kind of curse — a sentiment enhanced by the intrusion of straightforward Gothic imagery. At the funeral home, the novelist pictures his friend Liam rising from his open coffin. Back in his hotel room, that night, Robert has a drunken vision in which Liam appears in a wardrobe — the setting of his suicide. Declan blames his son’s untimely demise on his accursed bookishness, and particularly his immersion in fiction, which brings us back to Borges: ‘He had a brilliant mind, but it was haunted’. If reading is so dangerous, then what of writing?

Chris Power has a canny eye for the uncanny. A parallel between secret agents and ghosts is established when Robert dismisses Patrick’s fears as paranoid delusions. ‘Spooks and phantoms,’ he scoffs, inadvertently advertising the fact that the former have turned into the latter. Indeed, the spies all seem to have been spirited away from this spy story — back, no doubt, to the fiction from whence they largely sprang. At the very least, they have evanesced into ontological uncertainty, leaving behind two wannabe le Carrés re-enacting Cold War scenarios.

It is never clear who, if anyone, is spying on whom, and if we are in panopticon or peeping Tom territory. Ambiguous networks of gazes allegorise the struggle for narrative mastery at the heart of A Lonely Man (Power’s close third-person voice allowing Robert a semblance of control). In an early scene, the novelist is depicted smoking a cigarette on the balcony. He spots a woman on a treadmill in the building opposite, observing her intermittently and absent-mindedly in between drags, until he realises that she has been staring at him all along. The ‘eerie thrill of secret watching’ — shared by spooks and scribes alike — grows even more salient when he recalls sailing to an island and looking back at his spouse stepping out of their Swedish holiday home: ‘He had planned to tell her about it, but when he got back he found he didn’t want to. It was as if the secret wanted to be kept’. We later learn that Robert is in the habit of switching off the kitchen light, the better to observe his neighbours (‘Berliners rarely drew their curtains’), including the ‘vague phantoms’ that sometimes appear behind the opaque bathroom or toilet windows: ‘He liked to elaborate narratives from the scenes he saw’. On one such occasion, he eventually glances down only to discover a man looking up at his window.

This echo of the cigarette-break episode is just one of many unheimlich doublings, and even treblings, to take place in the book, as though the reproduction of Patrick’s story had unleashed a proliferation of simulacra: there are two hangings, for instance, as well as two homes and two titular lonely men (three, if you count Liam). One of Vanyashin’s anecdotes (which the ghostwriter relays to the novelist) turns out to have been pilfered from another oligarch’s memoir. Robert replicates many of his creator’s biographical characteristics (a Swedish wife and two daughters, a published short-story collection; Prowe — his surname — is even an anagram of Power). The most emblematic scene in this regard — doubling up as a critique of realism’s mimetic project (to which Power’s novel broadly conforms but in a sly, knowing way) — is the disorientating moment, in the funeral home, when Robert has a premonition of the world without him:

…Robert was confused to see, through an archway, another lobby apparently identical to the one he was standing in, as if he were looking into a mirror from which his reflection was impossibly absent. The difference, he realised, with a momentary relief, was that the floor of this duplicate version was covered with a dustsheet.

Note that the relief is only momentary. Robert does indeed undergo a process of erasure that seems to originate in the spectral qualities he projects on to the ghostwriter. Patrick’s spiel about being hounded by hitmen is mere self-aggrandisement, in his view: nobody cares enough about him to want to bump him off. In fact, the novelist becomes convinced that ‘he was the only person who knew Patrick, not just in Berlin but anywhere. That he was someone the world had forgotten’, as though the ghostwriter were a mere figment of his imagination or a Mr Hyde ‘shadow-self’ to his Dr Jekyll. Not to put too fine a point on it, Robert is being haunted by a spectre, whose ghostliness is catching. In a crowded pub he feels, at times, ‘a strange certainty that he couldn’t be seen’. Shortly thereafter, rowdy revellers — laughing and swigging from bottles — just flow past him ‘as if he wasn’t there’:

For an instant he was amid them all. In that moment, and as he stood on the street watching them move away, their voices fading, he felt for the second time that day as if he were a ghost.

Has Robert become an anonymous man of the crowd? Is he fading away — unmaking himself in the making of his work, from which he will be dismissed once completed? Perhaps, but the more pressing question is whether he will ever be allowed to complete it. And has anyone seen Chris Power of late?

Christina Stead’s notion that every love story is a ghost story is particularly pertinent in the case of Jenn Ashworth’s stunning fifth novel. Ghosted: A Love Story is narrated by Laurie Wright, a young woman whose husband disappears — out of the blue, or so it seems — leaving his phone and all his other possessions behind. A campus novel subplot, seen from the perspective of the unseen, proceeds from Laurie’s job as a cleaner at the local university: ‘we called the students “Wankers” and the academics “Staff Wankers”, just to distinguish them from each other, though in practice, there really wasn’t much difference at all’. With (and without) her husband Mark, a night guard at the power station, she lives in a high-rise block located in a ‘slightly down-at-heel area’ of a northern English coastal town — a setting congenial to the conjuring of a kitchen sink Gothic aesthetic. After watching a horror film on television, the couple ponders why ghosts are so often depicted in ‘historical fancy dress’. When Mark remarks that they are also invariably posh (‘You never get them in high-rises either’), Laurie counters: ‘Maybe the place is full of ghosts and we can’t tell because they don’t look any different from us’. T. S. Eliot’s cruel line about the undead swarming across London Bridge springs to mind and, although we are on the other side of the barricades here, Olena — the Polish carer — is as invisible to Laurie as the latter is to her own employers. Perhaps we are all someone else’s ghost.

Specific references to spectres are so numerous as to be almost suspicious. On the very first page, Laurie describes herself as pale complexioned ‘like a ghost’. She soon fantasises about throwing Mark’s clothes out of the window and ‘seeing his jumpers rain downwards like the ghosts of men, jumping’. She acknowledges that living with Mark had frequently felt ‘like living with a ghost’. She describes the time they first met, at a wedding reception: Mark, deep in conversation with a clairvoyant, whose services she will call upon sixteen years later to try to locate him (‘How about PayPal, if that makes things easier? Then we can keep talking’). She recalls the occasion when she mock-vowed to haunt her reluctant Heathcliff should she pass away before him: ‘I wanted Mark to say that he’d haunt me too, and for us to devise some kind of sign or code or system of knocks and bangings that each of us would use to let the one left behind know that the other was still there’. She pictures herself ‘throwing things about like a poltergeist’. She even reads Rebecca in bed and listens to a radio adaptation of Blithe Spirit in the bath (complaining that it was difficult to tell ‘which were the ghosts and which were the real people’). On a far more sinister note, the then unresolved case of a murdered schoolgirl, Connie Fallon, weaves itself into the very fabric of their courtship: ‘one of our earliest private jokes was my pretending to be convinced that he himself was the murderer the police was looking for’. When Mark vanishes, however, Laurie associates him with Connie — whose terrible fate thus haunts their entire relationship — and when she tracks him down, following his second absconsion, it is she who is cast in the role of the revenant: ‘He looked — sorry about this, but I can think of no other phrase — as if he’d seen a ghost, and the colour went right out of him’.

Yet, despite all this, the narrator is loath to mention phantoms when referring to the strange phenomena occurring within her home: ‘you know the word I am attempting not to bring into play here: I would like to be taken seriously’. Lights flicker — a bulb even shatters while she is on the phone to the psychic. A microclimate of ‘persistent coldness’ haunts certain corners of the flat, however warm the weather may be. Water ripples in the bath or toilet bowl. Household items go missing, sometimes reappearing in unlikely locations. An amorphous presence is frequently felt. And then, there is the ‘small room’ with the door that opens of its own accord, which is out of bounds — ‘No-space. Un-space. Behind that door: deleted territory’ — as it is seen as the locus of all the other paranormal activity. Or perhaps for a totally different, but even more harrowing, reason.

Laurie is an unreliable narrator, given to withholding information (from the police, Mark’s mother, the reader, herself), so that one comes to wonder if all this hocus-pocus is not some kind of elaborate displacement activity. When Mark first goes missing, she has the feeling that he has remained close by and is spying on her — very much like Wakefield in Hawthorne’s story — to see how she reacts to his ‘nasty little vanishing trick’. As we have already intimated, it transpires that the trauma of being ghosted only serves to occult a far more traumatic absence — one which Mark’s return can never make up for; indeed one which may make all return impossible. Her husband is both present when absent (‘the flat was still choked with the sense of his absence, the fact of that, and I wanted it gone’) and absent when present (‘I still want you to come back. …You’re on the settee, in my bed, but you’re not here‘).

There is an obvious contradiction between the character’s attempt to control her own story and her consciousness of not being in control of the ‘team of shimmering selves who fought and swirled around inside her’. She seems dimly aware, on occasion, that the haunting may be a by-product of her alcohol abuse and ‘mentally unsettled state’; that her ‘loneliness itself was a hostile presence’ in the flat. Apropos of her father, who suffers from vascular dementia, she tells Olena that it is difficult to ascertain ‘where the illness starts and his personality begins’ — an observation that perfectly applies to her own experience of the paranormal.

In the ‘small room’, which is supposedly haunted and out of bounds, there is a child’s drawing on the wall that reappears however many times it is painted over. Laurie is unsure whether it depicts suicides jumping from a block of flats or angels flying. She spends many a night staring at it, attempting to resolve the enigmatic figures’ indeterminacy ‘into the fact of a story — a story with an ending’ while her husband is engrossed in online conspiracy theories — both seeking solace in grand narratives. This is exactly how she proceeds when Mark disappears. Since the story remains open-ended, she goes looking for the end in the beginning, which is recast as the beginning of the end. In so doing, she becomes fully aware that they had been living apart together, some trauma (unnamed for most of the book) having torn them asunder. This is best exemplified by the times Laurie feigns to be reading in bed, monitoring her husband’s internet activity on her phone by means of a keylogger installed on his computer. On one such occasion, she tries to initiate some intimacy when he finally retires for the night: ‘He wasn’t able or interested and it was as if the man of enthusiasm and passion I had watched post on the forum had remained there in the ether, his lively double, while only the pale shade of that presence had made it back to our bed’. Mark, for his part, was overheard lamenting that Laurie had ‘disappeared on him’ shortly before he disappeared himself, thus making it quite clear that the alienation was reciprocal — that they had both become ghosts to each other.

The novel contains several striking images of the haunting presence of absence. There is the private joke that has become so tired that it is now merely a vague echo of itself, ‘the way the fossil trace of an ammonite pressed into a rock is not ammonite, but only a reminder of one’. At the wedding reception, traces of Laurie’s make-up end up on Mark’s lapel — ‘a little pale impression of my cheek and nose impressed on the material, like the Turin Shroud’. Most importantly, there is the ‘ghostly impression’ of the angels or suicides that keeps resurfacing, like some repetition compulsion, ‘whatever colour we tried and however many coats we applied’. Trauma is akin to the ghostly ‘not-quite shape’ that suddenly materialises on the page-like bedsheet — ‘an outline without an edge’ — making Laurie jump. It is the palimpsest that keeps shining through, disrupting the linear narrative and its quest for meaning and closure.

‘Hi, this is Mark. I’m afraid I’m not here, and this isn’t really me, but a recording of my voice I like to call No-Mark’: one of the most poignant scenes in the novel is when Laurie listens to her missing husband’s voicemail message over and over again until she can hear other sounds behind his words, ‘static or interference on the line, the impressions of the background radiation, relics from the big bang’. She leaves him countless messages until his inbox is full, whereupon she continues to call his number, now leaving unrecorded messages she describes as gaps or absences and refers to as ‘black sound’. She says black sound feels like praying.

According to Freud, writing was ‘in its origin the voice of an absent person’: it is this origin — this original absence — that Jenn Ashworth makes contact with here. Ghosted is a seance disguised as a novel.

The Netanyahus

Here is my review of The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen. The Irish Times, 5 June 2021, p. 17.

In a postface to his sixth novel, The Netanyahus, Joshua Cohen relates how he befriended Harold Bloom (to whom this book is dedicated) towards the close of his life. The venerable critic regaled Cohen with countless anecdotes — playing chess with Nabokov, skinny-dipping with Derrida — but the one that made the greatest impression was the time he supervised the campus visit of an “obscure Israeli historian” called Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who rocked up with his feral family, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Netanyahu’s second-born child went on to become the longest-serving, and most controversial, prime minister in Israeli history, thus endowing this farcical fait divers with a retrospective patina of world-historical importance: “An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family”.

The antique cast of this comically prolix, self-deprecating subtitle is redolent of early novels, which frequently masqueraded as authentic documents. The Netanyahus purports to be composed by a retired academic who, sensing the nighness of the end, is prompted to put pen to paper, as established in the opening sentences: “My name is Ruben Blum and I’m, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical”. This transmutation of subject into subject matter is posited as a “more natural, rational incarnation” than the Christian version: “Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word”. It could also be construed as the mission statement of an author at the top of his game who, like Flaubert, has alchemised a rather insignificant real-life incident into fictive gold. Cohen exploits his character’s professional rigour to sport with the conventions of memoir. Quotation marks are “holy to historians”, Ruben explains, vowing “to express only what was expressed to [him], as verbatim as [his] memory is able” — which is ironic given that both he and the dialogue are made up. Beyond his aversion to today’s “culture of grievance”, the character bears no resemblance to Harold Bloom. There is his surname, of course, but Ruben’s year of birth — 1922 — connects him to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, and hence the world of fiction, rather than the waking nightmare of his discipline.

The struggle between history and myth provides the novel with its dialectical armature. History is associated with the onward march of progress, which would go on unimpeded “so long as every country kept trying to be more like America and America kept trying to be more like itself”. Even the revisionist zealot Ben-Zion is depicted, “lotused” on the floor in front of his hosts’ new colour television set, watching Bonanza with rapt attention. Significantly, when events spiral out of control, the tohubohu unleashed by the “Yahus” (as Ruben and his wife, Edith, call them) is likened to technological failure: “the snow was hissing down like static from a world signed-off, ash from the end of broadcast days”.

Ruben opted for “pagan” academia in a bid to flee his “Jewish past” (which returns in the shape of the Yahus), but remains torn between “the American condition of being able to choose and the Jewish condition of being chosen”. His teenage daughter Judy — whose agonistic relation to her elders provides a great deal of mirth — chooses rhinoplasty, which may be her own way of leaving behind the stereotypes affixed to her origins. Corbindale, where the Blums relocated from New York City, is so nondescript that their relatives keep calling it “Corbinton” or “Corbinville”. It is also a hotbed of petty anti-Semitism. The mechanic at the local garage pats Ruben’s head to feel his horns and, as the first Jew to be hired by Corbin College, he is expected to don a Santa Claus outfit at Christmas. It is for this very reason too that he is tasked, in 1960, with vetting Mr Netanyahu’s application and preparing his visit. Ben-Zion, whose idiosyncratic interpretation of the Iberian Inquisition I shall not disclose, argues that the Jewish people have been able to endure by abiding in myth, from whence he himself seems to have sprung. When he howls, it is “in the wind’s language, Hebrew” that he does so.

The Netanyahus demonstrates what can still be done within the relatively conventional yet capacious parameters of literary fiction. It veers from mid-century comedy of manners to campus caper by way of social, political and religious satire. Bravura displays — such as the hilarious scene where Edith’s mother harangues Ruben while her husband unburdens himself, most indiscreetly, in the adjoining toilet — are legion. Dialogue is deftly handled throughout: the banter between Ruben and Edith, in particular, is pitch perfect. Cohen’s style — inventive but elegantly understated — is a class act that few of his contemporaries can follow.

All in all, this is a veritable triumph.


Chauvo-Feminism

Here is my review of Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo by Sam Mills. The Irish Times, 27 February 2021, p. 14:

A performative espousal of feminist principles may be a fig leaf for plain old misogyny. Many of the abusers exposed by the #MeToo movement — including Harvey Weinstein himself — were men of a woke persuasion. Sam Mills calls them chauvo-feminists, among other things. She even dated one, which gave rise to a textbook case of gaslighting. This provides the armature for a coruscating disquisition on the mind games of Jekylls who Hyde in plain sight. Mills corrals a vast array of material, blending poignant memoir and meticulous research to great effect. Bristling with righteous indignation, yet commendably nuanced, her essay is never less than entertaining, as when she remarks that map-reading is not a task she has to ‘strain against [her] vagina to accomplish’.

The Death of Francis Bacon

Here is my review of The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter. The Irish Times, 9 January 2021, p. 13:

Porter’s Portrait of the Artist is a Masterpiece in Miniature

Max Porter explores the inner workings of Francis Bacon’s mind as the artist deliriously recalls his life

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what of painting? As Francis Bacon once said, “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” Indeed. In his third novel, Max Porter explores what happens when you contemplate canvases to the point of being contemplated by them.

Rather than talk about Bacon’s paintings, he lets them speak — or mutely howl — and what they express is not what they represent, but how they feel: the sensation of their own brute facticity. “I can still feel it, right through me, like a shock,” Bacon says here, remembering the time when he “bit down on shot” while dining out on pheasant stew: “Metal drill in my fillings right down through my urethra. Buzzing in my underbladder.”

Possibly moonlighting as the critic David Sylvester, the author plants a sneaky mission statement at the beginning of the fourth chapter, where he confesses his longstanding “unfashionable fixation” with the painter as well as his aim “to get art history out of the way”. (Porter once obtained an MA in this very subject at London’s Courtauld.)

Bacon is lying on his deathbed in a Madrid clinic, where he is attended to by a sister whom he addresses as Hermana or Mercedes (she calls him “piggy”) and regularly mistakes for figures from his past, such as his lover and muse Peter Lacy or photographer and Soho habitué John Deakin. Through a series of delirious dreams, his life is depicted in the visceral style of his work.

Tales of turpentine and turpitude, fisting and feasting commingle with children’s stories and striking imagery, while the artist ponders his legacy: “Oh naff off you skag,” he says apropos of one famous critic. Dying itself is leavened with dark levity: “I wonder if I might have no pain. If you’d be so kind.”

The opening section — one page long, text laid out like a poem, copious amounts of blank space — is devoted to a “[N]on-existent” sketch, from which we may infer that all the other works conjured up thereafter are authentic and still extant. Every subsequent chapter proceeds from a different oil on canvas — seven in all — of varying dimensions (the smallest being 14 x 12 inches).

Of little import at first blush, these measurements highlight the art’s materiality, enabling us to track down, with a fair degree of accuracy, most of the pieces Porter has purposely left untitled. They also allow us to ascertain that the sequence in which the paintings are summoned is strictly chronological down to the penultimate chapter, which is in keeping with the narrative’s biographical tenor.

Porter spares us the tiresome ekphrases. Save for the aforementioned sketch, none of the artworks is described. The emphasis is placed firmly on the creative process and how the works “work”. The revelation of the models’ convulsive beauty, for instance, as soon as they twist and turn — a recurrent gesture that echoes Bacon’s retrospection. When the sister turns sitter she suddenly becomes a “handsome prospect”, her “crowded mouth” making the artist yearn to see her snarl: “that’s why she has to sit like that, as if sitting for me, lest those rows of teeth burp out”.

In one instance Bacon juxtaposes the boyish features of Don Carlos, seen on one painting, with Julius Caesar’s punctured body from another: “I folded the head over at the eyes and laid it on the injury.” This is portraiture as vivisection: “Yes, peeling a scab. Lifting the whole clotty lot of it and seeing the root. Verruca stippled. These are a few of my favourite things.”

The non-existent preparatory sketch, which Bacon cannot recall drafting, represents his own deathbed scene. It soon becomes apparent that with each new chapter and canvas, the sketch is being fleshed out. This impression is reinforced by the numerous repetitions: the sister’s incessant “Intenta descansar”, on which the book closes, produces a sort of litany; every chapter beginning with “Take a seat why don’t you” and containing questions pitting the painter against other figures (Edward the Martyr, Caesar, Mussolini, Caravaggio).

All the while, Bacon is painting his own departure until he absents himself through his work, resurfacing in canvases hanging in museums and galleries from whence he can spend an eternity mocking his critical foes. Self-portraiture as auto-autopsy.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a little masterpiece; a slim volume that packs a mean Peter Lacy-style punch. It is as though Porter had bit down on shot, taking the most adventurous passages from his two previous novels and letting rip — painting in words the “deeply ordered chaos” Bacon saw all about him.

The Sound Mirror

My review of The Sound Mirror by Heidi James. The Irish Times, 4 September 2020, p. 13:

The Sound Mirror starts on such a high note that one wonders how the author will ever manage to sustain it. After an opening sentence such as “She is going to kill her mother today” — with its nod to Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Ann Quin’s Berg — the only way is down, surely. Against all the odds, Heidi James rises to the challenge, parlaying this expository gambit into an exhilarating, heart-rending work that is full of surprises. The main motif, crudely put, is the past in the present; the collective in the individual. It is introduced in the first chapter and reprised in the last, but what may have come across as theoretical is now so emotionally charged that the words resonate in the pit of your stomach, bringing tears — of joy as well as sorrow — to this reader’s eyes. Quite an achievement.

The pre-emptive incipit notwithstanding, James is a mistress of suspense. Chapters alternate between the three women — Claire, Tamara, and Ada — whose destinies are limned from the second World War to the present day. It is not giving too much away to reveal that Claire and Tamara are related, although this is only established at a late stage — a few pages, in fact, after we finally discover how Ada’s life intersects with the other narrative strands. The first clue that Claire and Ada’s paths are about to cross — a dead horse blocking the road (possibly evocative of Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin) — is so unobtrusive that it could easily be overlooked.

Time is out of joint in this hauntological saga, and not only because of the parallel lives and abrupt flashbacks. Tamara’s mission — as the last female in her family line — is to erase the past after cancelling the future. The chapters devoted to this character are narrated by a Greek-style chorus composed of all her female ancestors. “What we are,” they declaim, referring to a long history of hurt, both endured and inflicted, “is the story she is made of”. Tamara’s tinnitus, like the trauma encoded in her DNA, is but a manifestation of this collective voice: “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not”.

James’s fourth novel is dotted with references to mythology and tragedy: it is the chronicle of a death foretold, free will is locked in battle with fate; Persephone crops up twice, not to mention matricide and incest (already contained in the Nabokovian name Ada). The most striking feature, however, is the figure of Tamara as conduit: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through”. This condition is usually associated with oracles, rhapsodes, or Aeolian harps, not the head of communications for a high-street bank, hence the giddy feeling that one is reading a contemporary feminist novel composed by Sophocles’ sister.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the realm of poetry can only be accessed through the madness of the Muses. The “family sickness” Tamara has inherited “like a tarnished heirloom” is also a form of madness — that of generations of women “trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts”, their horizons “snipped small”. One of her ancestors describes it as just a kind of “second sight” but the boundaries between past, present and future are now “leaking and mixing and contaminating” at an alarming rate (mimicking the convergence between the three plot lines). The disease turns out to be degenerative: “She is a translation. A bad one. The code has been perverted. It will, having been replicated too many times”.

Language — at the heart of the tension between atavism and “unbelonging” — is another code that has been corrupted by overuse. Claire, who justifies her venomous tongue by claiming to speak as she finds, only happens upon hackneyed phrases as clapped out as her husband’s nag. Like Tamara, she is ventriloquised. Her cockney patois (that remains just on the right side of Dick Van Dyke) will prompt her daughter to belittle her own offspring for dropping her aitches. Racist shopkeepers pretend that they cannot understand Ada because she was born in Calcutta, recalling Claire’s father’s attempts to eradicate all traces of their “eyetie” origins.

Language is also a means of reinvention. A posh word like “marvellous” fills Claire’s mouth “like a sweet heavy cream”. Throughout their lives, all three women try out different versions of themselves, but are borne back ceaselessly into the traumas of the past. James should be commended for not writing the pain away. The pathetic fallacy Tamara expects, following the climactic event, fails to materialise: “There’s no magical sign from the universe. No portent, no natural phenomenon she can misread”.

This defamiliarised family saga ends with a ray of sunshine: in spite of everything, love can be found between “what was and what will be”. We are “stories in transmission” — and the saga goes on.

 

 

Saving Lucia

My review of Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. The Irish Times, 9 May 2020, p. 57:

The pages of Saving Lucia are so joyous and full of life that they seem about to flap away. Reading Anna Vaught’s third novel is akin to catching your first glimpse of London’s parakeets. It produces a similar sense of wonderment and disorientation — a feral flash of exotic technicolour splashed across a monochrome canvas.

The seed for this “more-or-less true story” — as the narrator calls it — was planted when Vaught discovered that Violet Gibson and Lucia Joyce had both been inmates of St Andrew’s, a psychiatric hospital in Northampton. History does not say whether the two Irish women ever met, but then this is a book about awaking from its nightmare, not replicating it.

The date is 1956. Violet — daughter of Baron Ashbourne, a former lord chancellor of Ireland — has been locked away for 30 years, following her attempted assassination of Mussolini. Sensing that her time is almost up, this devout Catholic convert with a penchant for profanity (“go fack yourself doctors”) and killer one-liners (“Decorum is essential in a lunatic asylum”) enrols Lucia as her Boswell.

As the title indicates, writing this book will save Lucia — who was committed to St Andrew’s two years earlier — from being reduced to “hearsay and notes in hospital archives” by providing a sounding board for her silenced voice. In fact, the four voices she channels could be construed as different facets of her divided personality. The characters, after all, are often difficult to distinguish, forcing the author to punctuate the text with “I, Lucia” at regular intervals.

Observing Violet muttering to her beloved passerines in the courtyard, Dr Griffith remarks that she seems to be feeding them “with her words”. Little does he know that bird is the word.

Communication between the two female protagonists is pitched at a frequency that blurs the boundary between sound and silence. On one occasion Lucia is astonished when Violet responds to something she has just been thinking; on others, she catches herself speaking out loud instead of ruminating. The medical staff are unable to tune into this illicit wavelength. When Violet starts whispering to Lucia, at the beginning of their adventure, the nurse “hears it only as rustling and is not sure even if it is there”.

A network of associations running throughout the novel connects whispering to murmuration (a keyword) and rustling to both avian wings and writing. All these elements are brought together in the pivotal scene where the women fly away from St Andrew’s, setting off the hospital’s alarms in the process: “This was the bit the staff heard, but they’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil”.

In the beginning was the bird, and the bird was with Violet, and the bird was Violet. Through a process of transubstantiation or recirculation that James Joyce would have approved of, Lady Gibson feeds the birds “with her words” which themselves turn into birds, thus enacting the oft-repeated idea that confinement liberates the powers of the imagination.

“Come to us passerines,” she tells them, “Soon enough, we will come with you” — and so they do, accompanied by Blanche (the so-called Queen of Hysterics, whose antics under hypnosis attracted le tout Paris at the end of the 19th century) and Anna O. (the originator of the talking cure).

The four women travel through time and space, disrupting a seance by Madame Blavatsky or liberating the inmates of La Salpêtrière. These peregrinations climax when they catch up with Mussolini in an attempt to change the course of world history.

Saving Lucia highlights the role played by the patriarchy in defining and weaponising female madness. Is Violet more dangerous than a fascist dictator? Why is Lucia labelled insane whenever the associations she makes become “too lickety-split” while this is deemed a mark of genius in her father, the great author? (The Joycean pastiches are, incidentally, among the most accomplished passages.) And what of Charcot’s exploitative “theatre of neurology”?

“The novel I mentioned? You are reading it,” Lucia explains in the final pages, before adding, “Well I am sure you grasped that. You’re clever.” This is the novel’s major flaw. Despite its inclusive message and celebration of the imagination, everything is relentlessly spelt out. The narrator may well encourage us “to annotate the margins” of her book, but they have all been filled in.

Set against Anna Vaught’s tremendous achievements, however, this criticism is for the birds.