Expertly Seeking Susan

Review of Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser. The Irish Times, 5 October 2019, p. 22.

In 1965, Susan Sontag — fresh from publishing her landmark essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” — was whisked away in a limousine to a hip nightclub notorious for its strict door policy. A member of her party whispered something in the bouncer’s ear, whereupon they were ushered in ahead of the lengthy queue. “I said, ‘We’re with Susan Sontag,’” her friend later confided, when she asked how he had worked his magic.

The young woman, still only in her early 30s, was astonished to discover that her name had become an “open sesame” to high society. Despite being filmed by Andy Warhol and dining out with Jacqueline Kennedy, the budding intellectual superstar felt like a figment of her own imagination. This discrepancy between the “real me” and the “self-for-others” lies at the heart of Benjamin Moser’s fittingly monumental authorised biography. Running to more than 700 pages (excluding notes and index) and drawing on a wealth of hitherto inaccessible material, as well as scores of interviews, Sontag: Her Life has a strong claim to definitive status.

Sontag herself may well be the ideal candidate for a literary biography. She once observed that an author’s journal allows us to “read the writer in the first person” and “encounter the ego behind the masks of ego”, but what her own diaries reveal is essentially a lack of ego, or at best one so amorphous as to be a blank slate.

To say that Sontag was a divided self is not the half of it. “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” she confessed, despite coming across, in the 1960s, as the love child of Alcibiades and Socrates, or Monroe and Einstein. This accounts, inter alia, for her lifelong hygiene issues (she had to remind herself — in longhand — to take baths and clean her teeth), her punishing, speed-fuelled nocturnal writing routine (WH Auden was one of her dealers) and her failure to even mention she had cancer in Illness as Metaphor.

Moser chronicles Sontag’s regular attempts to resolve what she called the “agonised dichotomy between the body and the mind”, which she identified early on as the source of her “greatest unhappiness”. These could take a predictably theoretical shape, as in her work on Antonin Artaud, who had sought, she wrote, “to heal the split between language and flesh”, or her concomitant interest in Gnosticism, which held out the promise of reconciling “all dualisms”. At other times she would make a concerted effort to “emerge from her head into her body”, perhaps most successfully during her passionate affair with playwright María Irene Fornés, who introduced her to sexual pleasure. She described (in comically abstract terms) “[t]he coming of the orgasm” as “the birth of [her] ego”, going as far as to claim that she “didn’t exist in the sense that others and everything else did” prior to this most seminal of events.

Her busy, tempestuous, sentimental life failed, however, to provide any semblance of plenitude. Sontag always conceived of relationships as a struggle between master and slave (usually playing the former role with men and the latter with women, although her bullying of long-term partner Annie Leibovitz takes some beating). This power dynamic was even internalised, with “Miss Librarian” — as she called her geeky, gawky self — constantly berated and spurred on to better things by “that person who has been watching me as long as I can remember”.

At the tender age of 11, Sontag made the (as she put it) “conscious decision” to become popular, thus embarking on a lifelong “project of self-transformation” underpinned by a pressing need “to see more, to hear more, to feel more”. As a schoolgirl, she could be found studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, concealed behind a copy of the Reader’s Digest she was really meant to be focusing on. By the age of 16 she was studying at Chicago — then the US’s most intellectually rigorous university — having already spent a year at Berkley. And that was only the beginning.

As Moser points out, she often tried to find herself in works of art in which she could lose herself. Her quest for a heightened sense of reality doubtless culminated when she directed Waiting for Godot in a besieged Sarajevo: “This is not ‘symbolic’,” she declared, as though she had just brought down the Matrix, “This is real”.

Writing, for her, was not so much a means of self-expression — having little self to express in the first place — but one of self-creation. Convinced that all good writers are “roaring egotists”, she coveted the persona of the great author which would counteract her inclination “to hide, to be invisible”, itself compounded by her homosexuality: “I need the identity as a weapon,” she stated in 1959, “to match the weapon that society has against me”.

The imperious diva of later years — with her trademark Cruella de Vil hairdo — may have lorded it over Manhattan’s intelligentsia, but still felt, whenever she was alone, like the little girl she had tried so hard to outgrow. The part of herself she had spent a lifetime attempting to leave behind was, paradoxically enough, the only one that felt truly authentic, no doubt because it was born of deep trauma (a dead father and an alcoholic mother). Moser shows how fame inevitably widened this gap “between the simulacrum, the metaphor, the mask, the persona and the self found in silence”.

Sontag’s adoption of the larger-than-life persona of the Great American Novelist was also at odds with the negative capability that informs some her best works, which may well have reinforced her feeling of inauthenticity.

Sontag’s greatest creation was, ultimately, Susan Sontag herself, and the two were “neither completely distinct nor completely identical”, just like an image and the object it represents. As her biographer puts it, twice — but it is worth repeating — she “created the mould, then broke it”.

In its Beginning is its End

“In its Beginning is its End.” The Guardian Weekly, 6 December 2013, p. 39.

What exactly is the problem with the realist novel and why does it persist, asks Andrew Gallix

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

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

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

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time.

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

It was a product of the tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

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

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

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

In the new novel Robbe-Grillet called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken: something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

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

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

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

A Moveable Feast For the 21st Century

Repeater Books‘ Josh Turner holding an advance copy of We’ll Never Have Paris, which comes out on 21 May.

ARCs of We’ll Never Have Paris hit Chicago (photo: Jonathan Maunder)

And here’s the info from the publisher’s website:

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris”, wrote the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in 1894.

The French capital has always radiated an unmatched cultural, political and intellectual brilliance in the anglophone imagination, maintaining its status as the modern cosmopolitan city par excellence through the twentieth century to today.

We’ll Never Have Paris explores this enduring fascination with this myth of a bohemian and literary Paris (that of the Lost Generation, Joyce, Beckett and Shakespeare and Company) which also happens to be a largely anglophone construct — one which the Eurostar and Brexit only seem to have exacerbated in recent years.

Edited by Andrew Gallix, this collection brings together many of the most talented and adventurous writers from the UK, Ireland, USA, Australia and New Zealand to explore this theme through short stories, essays and poetry, in order to build up a captivating portrait of Paris as viewed by English speakers today — A Moveable Feast for the twenty-first century.

We’ll Never Have Paris has contributions from seventy-nine authors, including Tom McCarthy, Will Self, Brian Dillon, Joanna Walsh, Eley Williams, Max Porter, Sophie Mackintosh and Lauren Elkin.

Another Planet

Review of Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn. The Irish Times, 9 February 2019, p. 154.

Tracey Thorn: comes to recognise, in her 50s, that the suburb in which she was born and bred is part of her DNA. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The title of Tracey Thorn’s new memoir, Another Planet, takes on added resonance when, in the closing pages, the author reflects upon how mysterious we remain to our nearest and dearest. Even when she had become a middle-aged, middle-class, married mother of three, living in affluent north London, her father continued to think of her as hailing “from another planet”. The feeling, to be fair, was mutual, and in this book which, she claims, could never have been written while her parents were still alive, Thorn endeavours to understand the world they inhabited. We remain opaque to ourselves too, of course, and it is above all for this reason — in the great essayistic tradition — that she put pen to paper.

Behind this title one also hears feedback carried on the wind of time: echoes of The Only Ones’ 1978 punk pop classic, Another Girl, Another Planet, its ghostly former half shining through like a watermark. Having long considered that she had made a “clean break” with her suburban past, Thorn comes to recognise, in her 50s, that this milieu in which she was born and bred is part of her DNA; that she has “suburban bones”, as she puts it on two occasions. In a bid to “reconnect with the self [she] left behind,” she takes a short train ride “back to [her] childhood, as though it still exists, as tangible and revisitable” as the place she once fled to go to university — a move that transformed her into someone her parents, sadly, could no longer relate to. She would soon find fame and fortune as one half of Everything But the Girl and as a solo singer-songwriter.

Back in Brookmans Park — a garden village in Hertfordshire — Thorn feels haunted by this earlier iteration of herself. She observes four teenage girls, sitting on the bench in the village green, who “might have been there for 40 years. They seem like ghosts.” About a schoolgirl, glimpsed at on the platform as she awaits the train that will take her back to London, she writes: “I look up and the girl has vanished, perhaps I imagined her? Was she some ghost version of me?”

Thorn’s belief that there is “something inherently respectful about properly looking at a place” provides the moral and aesthetic underpinning of her project. The uncanniness of suburbia is revealed by attending to its sheer ordinariness, frequently overlooked through familiarity or contempt: “Brookmans Park was so picture perfect, it was unreal, like a Truman Show stage set.” Nothing is stranger than precision, as Alain Robbe-Grillet discovered while reading Kafka. Thorn’s razor-sharp descriptions have the dreamy quality of hyperreality: the bluebells of yesteryear that seemed “to pull the sky down into the woods”, the patch of garden she tended as a little girl “marked out with pebbles and sea shells, filled with marigolds and snapdragons”, or the Christmases past with the timely “arrival of Grandad in a three-piece suit, penknife poised and ready to take the peel off an apple in one single strip”.

For all the meticulousness with which she brings her childhood home back to life — the “low, crenellated brick wall, that little hint of the Englishman’s castle” in the front garden; the “whirligig clothes drier on a crazy-paving patio” in the back — the author finds that suburbia remains eerily elusive; semi-detached. Its very liminality demands that it be limned in an “equivocal way,” often “by subtraction”.

This ambivalence is reflected in the structure of the book, which alternates between chapters devoted to Thorn’s day trip to Brookmans Park in 2016 and a running commentary on extracts from her teenage diaries spanning the years 1976 (when she was 13 ) to 1981. The entries, punctuated by typical tut tuts and sob sobs, express a mounting sense of boredom, increasingly alleviated by drinking, punk gigs and “getting off” with boys at the local disco. The present travels back into the past and vice-versa, leading to all sorts of striking contrasts and revaluations.

At the heart of this beautiful book — which acts like a corrective to her previous memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen — lies a blank page in one of the diaries, which Thorn mentions, teasingly, several times, without ever disclosing what she was concealing from prying eyes. It is weaponised as an alienation effect to prevent the reader from being taken in by the confessional tenor of the diary format. Writing, the author reminds us — and no doubt herself too — is “always about knowing who’s in charge”.

At journey’s end, Tracey Thorn understands why her parents relocated to the suburbs. She also remembers how “very little happened” there “over and over again” — like Reginald Perrin rewritten by Samuel Beckett. I suspect she will not be going back in a hurry.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

This appeared in the New Statesman 4-10 March 2016: 16.

Beckett with a Smiley Face

danfoxpretentiousness

Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is as provocative and witty as its title. Taking his cue from Brian Eno (whose career he describes as “a successful experiment in pretension”), Fox, an art critic, sets about reclaiming the P-word. Indeed, the whole book is a gloss on Eno’s contention that “pretending is the most important thing we do” because it enables us to discover “what it would be like to be otherwise”. It is a self-help manual for those, brought up on David Bowie, who doubt that there is a self to help.

More often than not, the accusation of pretentiousness is levelled at people who get ideas above their station. It cuts them down to size. Fox turns this on its head by celebrating the aspiration to a life less ordinary. In the current cultural climate, it is downright subversive.

The author’s subject is the slippage from pretending — what is done at the kids’ table – to pretension, which “goes on over the wine and cheese course with the grown-ups”. How does an activity that is considered crucial to the healthy development of children become contemptible in adults? In a “back-of-an-envelope history of acting”, Fox asks where this stigma originates, exploring Plato’s mistrust of actors but also the adoption of classical rhetoric by politicians and lawyers, whereby the “history of pretence” became bound up with the “history of power”. Finally, the evolution towards a naturalistic style of acting accompanied the rise of individualism and the Romantic quest for “the truth of one’s inner self”. Pretending was now beyond the pale.

Authenticity raises the issue of authentication — the “legitimacy we confer, or not, on a performance”. It is “a matter of authority, of who gets to pass judgement on whether or not you are ‘being yourself'”. Fox notes that the modern artist’s mission is to seek “creative freedom” but fails to point out that this autonomy can also be the source of his or her lack of legitimacy. He describes the “gap between expectation and actuality” – which derives from this creative freedom — as “a productive necessity rather than a flaw”. Failure is the process “by which the arts move forward”. This is Beckett with a smiley face.

The rest of Fox’s argument covers class: accents, politics, gentrification and inverted snobbery. Unlike pretending, pretension “carries with it the sting of class betrayal, especially in the UK, where class is a neurosis as much as a set of social conditions”. The accusation of pretentiousness is “a form of social control”, designed to keep people in their place and protect the status quo.

Pretentiousness achieves a pleasing congruence between style and substance. After all, the essay – experimental by definition, not content with being itself – is arguably the most pretentious genre still in currency. Dan Fox’s shape-shifting work displays many of its hallmarks. It opens with a few etymological considerations and then unfolds organically, one idea leading to another, exemplifying Brian Dillon’s description of the essay as “a way of writing oneself into the unknown”.

There are downsides to this narrative drift. The author’s ruminations lead him, on occasion, to retread ground. In certain passages, the book feels freighted with too many examples. On the other hand, discussing the notion of authenticity without mentioning Kierkegaard or Heidegger seems remiss (although that probably says more about my pedantry than any shortcomings on the author’s part).

Nonetheless, the breadth of reference is staggering — taking in history, cinema, drama, politics, literature, sociology and music. It reflects the “magpie cultural education” that “pop’s intellectual permissiveness” once provided. Without giving in to nostalgia, Fox harks back to more progressive times when culture was not the preserve of the privileged. From this vantage point, his essay ties in with the writings of Mark Fisher (whom he quotes), Owen Hatherley and Simon Reynolds.

The final, autobiographical chapter is the strongest and most moving. It charts the author’s journey from Wheatley, a village in Oxfordshire where he grew up in the late 1980s, to New York City, where he now co-edits the contemporary art magazine frieze. It is a celebration of overreaching ambition; a paean to “dreaming big in small cities” at a point when pop music (which “never asked anyone for permission to be pretentious”) acted as a gateway to a wider world of culture. Music connects the young author to Manhattan and Berlin, even though he has “barely been an hour down the motorway to London”. On day trips to Oxford, he feels the presence of Andy Warhol in a student’s striped T-shirt or Nico in a local branch of Chelsea Girl.

Fox ends by fast-forwarding to his present life in New York. Near his apartment, there is “an Essex Street, a Ludlow Street, a Norfolk Street, and a Suffolk Street”. He wonders what these British toponyms would have conjured up, had he grown up “on the Lower East Side rather than in the English countryside”. Having read this book in Paris, I find myself longing for Wheatley. Life, as Rimbaud never quite said, is elsewhere.

In Fox’s interpretation, pretentiousness is culturally — rather than socially — aspirational. It is “permission for the imagination”, allowing us to transfigure our mundane surroundings and soar above what Keats called “busy common-sense”.
danfox

On 8 March 2016, this review was posted on the New Statesman‘s website under the title “When Did Pretentiousness Become Such a Dirty Word?”

It was prefaced thus: Dan Fox’s new book sets out to reclaim the P-word with an impressively broad-ranging study of art, literature and culture.