Reverse Striptease

This is the phantom foreword to H. P. Tinker’s short-story collection, The Swank Bisexual Wine Bar of Modernity (2007). It went through several incarnations, before the author finally decided he wanted the book to stand alone; forewordless. And this is me in La Baule, on 21 July 2006, writing the aforementioned piece whilst shamelessly flaunting my bald patch (picture taken through the open window by my now-phantom spouse, Emilie Gallix).

Reverse Striptease

…’Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,’ the Consul liked to say…
– Malcolm Lowry,
Under the Volcano

Privately Paul Gauguin considers himself an undiscovered genius. “But,” he tells Woody Allen over the phone, “What happens to an undiscovered genius when his genius is finally discovered? What is that all about? Where does he go then?”
– HP Tinker, “Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”

In one of the stories collected here, the mourners attending the funeral of an anonymous writer suddenly wonder: “So, what do we know of the author? Do we really know anything at all?” (“The Death of the Author” p. 105). The same question could be asked of HP Tinker himself. Despite the occasional circling Trewin or Prosser, he remains elusive; a cult figure on the literary fringes (1). This self-styled “Thomas Pynchon of Chorlton-cum-Hardy” claims that “writers should be read, not seen” and that “the work should speak for itself” (2). The work itself, however, is wilfully keeping shtum… (3)

…”Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”, for instance — which mimics the clapped-out conventions of celebrity documentaries — takes Joe Orton’s satire of tabloidese and vox pops to its illogical conclusion. A voiceover-style narrative is interspersed with the Post-Impressionist’s impressions and snippets of interviews: “Paul loves to laugh and to make other people laugh. He also loves to dance. He has been blessed with the gift of tap. Not a lot of people know that” (p. 7). These soundbites come courtesy of a gaggle of friends and acquaintances ranging from the plausible (Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec) to the risible (Edith Piaf, Carl Jung or Nico). Such glaring anachronisms serve to break down the barriers of rationality and conjure up a world of promiscuous commingling where the pleasure principle runs riot (4). The mockumentary format is ideally suited to the episodic nature of Tinker’s stories with their air-tight paragraphs à la Flaubert, their picaresque jumpcuts from one incident to the next, or their wild goose chases “via a chain of wholly convoluted plot developments” (“Kandahar!” p. 19).

Direction, or the lack thereof, is a leitmotif throughout this anthology and, indeed, the author’s entire corpus to date. Consider “Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker”, with its self-reflexive Jules Verne-meets-Todorov-on Sarah Records title and disconcerting final sentence: “…I decide to solicit legal advice on precisely which direction I should be proceeding in” (p. 117). “Where are we going?” (p. 17) wonders Paul Gauguin mirroring the reader’s bafflement as the opening story careers towards its unlikely close. The artist’s question echoes the paragraph composed solely of the word “lost” repeated (for some reason) 92 times (p. 14) which, in turn, reflects the labyrinthine “Morrissey Exhibition” with its disorienting carpet scheme: “You can certainly get lost in there. Totally lost. Completely lost. Utterly lost. Horribly, horribly, lost. So horribly lost that you fear you might never find yourself again” (p. 128). The narrator of the ironically-titled “You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” confesses, “I needed to find myself, or at least somebody similar” (5) only to find himself (or at least somebody similar) accidentally in Stockholm where “the streets thronged with lost sports commentators asking for directions”. The “oddly convoluted directions” (p. 27) he is himself offered give rise to a Proustian travelogue (6) which — as is common in Tinker’s fiction — reduces locale to bare toponymy: “I licked my wounds in Lisbon and Tangiers. Then ate surprisingly badly in Madrid. Next, the warm air of Dakar stang my lungs. (I ignored Istanbul completely.)” (p. 30). “Son of Sinbad” concludes with the very thought that the only uncharted territories are indeed those of the imagination: “‘There’s nothing out there,’ he says, ‘you understand that, don’t you?’ and you say, ‘Yes, oh yes,’ eyes swimming with disappointment, knee-deep in thoughts of yawning oceans, uncrossed beaches, man-made islands, wine-dark women, unfashionably family-orientated coastal resorts…” (p. 49).

Angst proving resistant to geography, the itinerary morphs into a “search for experience”, a “quest for something different” (“Kandahar!” p. 22); rerouted inwards it thus becomes a journey of “self-discovery”, as the peripatetic protagonist of “Vic Chews It Over” — Vic, presumably — puts it (p. 38). However, all this experimentation only leads to an aporetic cul-de-sac that is strangely reminiscent of the fate of post-Symbolist Western literature: “I fell into abstraction. I travelled through complex textures, however dense and demoralising they became. I dug down, deep into the langue and parole of the situation. Words that once meant an awful lot to me, now held little or no meaning in my current context” (p. 30). In a few deft sentences, HP Tinker charts the far-reaching (philosophical as well as literary) consequences of the (Mallarmean but also Barthelmean) disjunction between signifier and signified.

When the misguided anti-hero of “Kandahar!” follows the directions of a Firbankian monk he discovers in his hotel bathroom (eating gazpacho and listening to Limp Bizkit), we know that his odyssey is bound to come full circle: “…and following his directions, I set off on a journey, following and swimming his directions, swimming across an open sea from one island, and jumping from the top of a 120-foot waterfall, swimming his directions from one island to another, crawling past armed guards…but swimming back because it got late, so late the monk was already sleeping in my bed by the time I got back to my room…” (pp. 23-24). We have now reached the “literary pottage” of postmodernism (“Death of the Author” p. 108), the eternally-recycled primordial alphabet soup — and a very weird soup it is too.

Placing undecidability at the heart of his work, HP Tinker positively revels in the negativity of this impasse. “Nobody,” we are told, “is quite sure” what “exactly took place between the paper-thin walls of the Mexican sex hotel” (“Mexican Sex Hotel” p. 52). If Robert Rauschenberg transformed the erasure of a de Kooning drawing into a work of art, the author goes one step further by erasing a non-existent original. His short stories? Allegories pointing — most impolitely — to a subtext which is not really there (8). Rites of passage leading nowhere, except up their own ars rhetorica, like so many quests without grails. Hatfuls of hollow — without hats. The literary equivalent of losing something you never actually had in the first place, and then going looking for it again. At great length.

Most characters here are hankering after some ever-elusive — oft-illusive — goal. The General, for instance, inhabits “an intricate warren” of rooms which form “a mysterious labyrinth he can wander through, dusting and hoovering the narrow passageways as he goes about his business, as if in search of some unknown land” (p. 31). Entering the Mexican sex hotel is “like stepping into another world” of passages “shelving off into mysteriously-darkened chambers” (p. 51). The quest for an “unknown land”, “another world” — the “Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity” itself, if you will — leads one into a maze from which there is no escape, a “corridor of illusions” (“Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker” p. 114) built to baffle: “What level am I on? You may well ask, on occasion. Is that way up or down? What’s through that door? Where in the name of Jesus am I?” (“The Morrissey Exhibition” p. 128). Spatial topsy-turviness provides a perfect metaphor for the mock-heroic (8) reversal of high and low registers which so often contributes — mainly through incongruous juxtapositions — to the mind-boggling confusion of reader, character, narrator and author alike: “You are totally confused and understand nothing” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 80).

This descent into nothingness (“The next morning, in the shaving mirror: an empty space,” “You Can Go Home Again” p. 120) is perhaps best illustrated by Tinker’s penchant for pulp pastiche. Take “The Investigation”, a story which brazenly advertises its mock-epistemological dimension: “It is an investigation into meaning…meaning, do you see?” (p. 79). Unlike your run-of-the-mill whodunnit — where the criminal is eventually brought to book — this (clearly ontological) investigation reveals nothing whatsoever. On the contrary, refusing to let in daylight upon magic, Tinker adds layer upon layer of opacity as if performing one of his characters’ customary reverse stripteases (9). Unsurprisingly, we learn in fine that “The investigation goes on”, a denouement as open-ended as Tinker’s fiction itself (p. 68)…

So what exactly will you find inside the Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity? Bawdy moustaches. The wildest of similes (10). Donald Barthelme rutting with a buxom Oulipian in the pale fire of a Nabokovian footnote. Morrisseyspotting aplenty. Devastating satire of Swiftian proportions (11). Lashings of hardcore gastroporn (12). Bewildering Lynchian filmic devices. Uncanny Orton pastiches (13). A recurrent association between artistic creation and immoderate masturbation. Relentless self-reflexivity; postmodernism gone mad (14). A very British brand of Surrealism that owes as much to the Goon Show, Monty Python or Glen Baxter as to the Continental heavyweights. At times, the feeling of Woody Allen stranded on a Carry On film set. Whereas his absurdist forebears could only gratify us with a sardonic grimace, Tinker does laugh-out-loud. Whereas much “experimental” fiction is deserving of study yet tiresome to sit down and read, he reconciles — seemingly effortlessly — the avant-garde with the plaisir du texte. His thrilling “A-level Surrealism” (“You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” p. 29) — as far removed from the cosy world of Amis or Barnes as it is possible to get (15) — manages the feat of being at once experimental and accessible. The book you are (probably) holding in your hands is what French critics would describe as un OVNI littéraire: nothing less than a literary UFO…

(1) Susan Tomaselli claimed in Dogmatika that “If HP Tinker didn’t exist, you’d have to make him up”.

(2) Quoted from a rare interview published in 3:AM Magazine in 2001.

(3) Significantly, an early abandoned Tinker novel was entitled “The Man Who Would Be Mute”.

(4) This Paul Gauguin (whose works include Jacob Wrestling Grandma Moses and Woman Chasing Bagel Down Fifth Avenue) designs Clarice Cliff’s corporate logo, ogles Russ Meyer’s Vixen! on TV (“The heroine has unfeasibly large breasts, Paul Gauguin notes, unable to take his eyes off the screen” p. 8), crashes on Willem de Kooning’s sofa bed (after attending Jackson Pollock’s housewarming party — with Man Ray), receives an erotic postcard from Yoko Ono and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from Vivien Leigh (“I was merely struggling with the baby shrimp” p. 11).

(5) After all, “I is another” in these post-Rimbaldian times.

(6) See also this characteristic extract from “The Countess of Monte Cristo”: “Heathrow. Rio. Lisbon. Brussels. Bruges. Rome. Venice. Barcelona. Madrid. Prague. Parma. St Petersburg. Moscow. Cape Town. Then Heathrow again” (p. 87).

(7) The subtext is either distanced and stylised into oblivion, or so obscure that it might as well not exist. “The General”, for instance, was inspired by a real person, but the story is obviously more than a private joke. So: is this objective correlation gone mad, or something else? Perhaps a clue can be found in “You Can Go Home Again” where Noël Coward reflects upon his work-in-progress which is “going nowhere”: “I wonder, he thinks to himself, is the subject too close to home?” (p. 118).

(8) The scuffle described like a Homeric epic in “[Just Like] Tom Paulin’s Blues” is a prime example of Tinker’s take on the mock-heroic (p. 96).

(9) “Every young Parisian girl wore woolly tights and thick overcoats, their pert, erect nipples completely hidden by several layers of obtrusive material” (“Vic Chews It Over” p. 39).

(10) Tinker is the master of weird similes: “…the plot thickening around you the way a good pasta should” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 78).

(11) 12 “Kandahar!” provides a scathing attack on the collateral damage of the so-called War on Terror: “Everywhere was bombed. My street was bombed. Then the street next to mine. Then the street next to the street next to mine. Night and day, they bombed all the wrong places….they were quite methodical about it” (p. 24). “(Just Like) Tom Paulin’s Blues” is one long, brilliant exercise in pricking an intellectual bubble of pomposity.

(12) The anthology is awash with Fluxus caffs, Franco-Pakistani bistros, Zen-like seafood platters, “media-friendly virtual tapas bars” and “funky post-coital noodle eateries” (“Kandahar” p. 23). Food frequently stands for the victory of base instincts over lofty ideals — a staple of comedy: “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What are we doing here? What are we going to do next? How can we escape everything that is artificial and conventional? What can we have for lunch? Why is there no food in this house? Did I forget to visit the supermarket? Are these potato cakes stale? Where is the green curry I was freezing? Am I all out of seaweed fasoli? Is a Brie sandwich at all feasible in the circumstances?” (“Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor” p. 17).

(13) The recurrent Ortonesque mixture of American Psycho-style granguignol and laugh-out-loud comedy is perfectly illustrated by the opening scene of “The Investigation” which describes a detective contemplating a gruesome murder scene. A woman, hanging from a light fitting has been “expertly skinned”, one of her hands has been chopped off and her mouth is “full of shit”. The detective observes that this is the “sickest sight” he has seen “since he chanced upon the contents of David Niven’s fridge in 1972” (p. 59).

(14) There’s the guy in “Kandahar!”, for instance, who wants to produce a machine “to go back in time and kill the inventor of the funky bassline” thus giving rise to “a better world, one without the Red Hot Chili Peppers” (p. 20).

(15) Among his contemporaries the most obvious points of comparison are David Foster Wallace and, perhaps, William T Vollmann.

Disappear Here


Here is Darran Anderson‘s recent article about writers’ disappearing acts:

Darran Anderson, “The Indian Rope Trick,” 3:AM Magazine 9 August 2009

October 1849. A dishevelled and incoherent bedlamite was found in some distress outside Ryan’s Tavern, a Baltimore drinking hole popular with corrupt canvassers and men of idle personage. He was wearing a variety of clothes seemingly assembled with scant regard to fitting or style; a palm leaf hat, a soiled silk coat and a battered pair of shoes. His hair was standing on end and his face smeared with dirt. Though presumed half-demented with drink, no traces of alcohol could be smelt or discerned on his person. This was no standard vagabond or panhandler. Instead, he was soon identified as no less than Edgar Allan Poe, poet, essayist and master of the macabre. His previous whereabouts were unknown. He’d simply vanished and reappeared, mysteriously afflicted and wearing the clothes of a stranger.

Whisked away to a sanatorium by friends, the writer’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Though he had been depressed and had taken to the drink following the death of his young wife (and cousin) Virginia Clemm, he had since cleaned himself up, joined an abstinence society and was working extensively on plans to launch his own periodical. The week previous, he had routinely left Virginia to travel back to New York City. What happened in those intervening days has never been revealed. In the hospital, the bedridden writer ranted and raved, slipping in and out of consciousness. He called out to his dead wife and an unknown “Reynolds” and begged those by his bedside to let him die. Finally in the early hours of the morning, without revealing what had happened to him, he gasped, “Lord, help my poor soul” and passed away. Faced with a vacuum that no rational explanation could fill, his close associates turned to fiction. His last panic-stricken words were altered to something more suitably lofty and erudite, in this case the following abomination; “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being and upon demons incarnate.” His death certificate was soon mislaid leading to speculation as to his cause of death, running the full spectrum of diseases and syndromes; epilepsy, diabetes, stroke, cholera, syphilis. When they ran out of genuine medical maladies, the gossip-mongers invented some of their own (“brain congestion” being chief among them). Soon speculation took a darker turn with tales of poisoning, laudanum overdose (Poe was a known opiate user) and the DTs vying with reports he’d been kidnapped, robbed and drugged (two shadowy figures had been spotted following him in the vicinity of a train station). Given the ghoulish nature of his writing, there’s the constant hint of something diabolical at work. Poe had stared into the abyss for too long perhaps and one day the abyss had noticed him.

Disappearing is an act with its own bewildering history (or anti-history considering it is a litany of what we do not know and perhaps never will). In 1587, the New World pilgrims of the Roanoke Colony (over 100 souls in all), in what would later be named North Carolina, vanished into thin air leaving only the word “Croatoan” carved onto a tree. In 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered drifting in the Atlantic, a month after the brigantine had set off from New York for Genoa. Below decks, the ship’s cargo and cabins were relatively undisturbed but for the absence of her crew who were never seen again. In 1971, the bourbon-drinking hijacker D. B. Cooper leapt out of a Boeing 727 and into infamy with a parachute and a briefcase with $200,000 in ransom money. Entire regions of the planet have become feared for the prevalence of disappearances, as if some devilry were involved. Collectively known as the Vile Vortices, the Bermuda triangle in the Caribbean and the Devil’s Sea near Japan are the most notorious examples of the phenomenon. Some fates are more decipherable than others; the sailor Donald Crowhurst forging a circumnavigation around the planet descended into madness, writing hundreds of pages about time travel, God and the nature of being before stepping off his boat and into the sea whilst Amelia Earhart’s Electra vanished in the South Pacific with a final radio communication to their Howland Island destination, “We must be on you, but cannot see you — but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

Whilst it’s an occupational hazard for explorers to go missing, it’s surprising how many writers have gone forth to the great unknown. These days we’re largely used to writers as bourgeois academics writing stories about English teachers having affairs with students or the existential crisis of marriages set in second homes in Tuscany with deceptively enigmatic titles (The Bible of Forgetting, The Ironsmith’s Daughter ad nauseum). But what of the fuck-ups, those who struck out and never returned or simply had enough? The destructive impulse is passé, the stuff of adolescent folly and voyeurism goes the supposed consensus. And yet the literary past is littered with them, these missing in action. It’s not to gloat over nor celebrate nor condemn such lives in freefall rather it’s crucial to haul back their works and lives from the void. And while the mythology of self-destruction may seem old hat, it still exerts its magnetism; there is still always a voice in your head that cannot resist wondering where they went and why and maybe there by the grace of god…

At the heart of every writer lies a paradox. Whereas the other art-forms (music, theatre and film in particular) have a natural communal element, writing necessitates a monkish solitude but also a desperate clawing desire for recognition. The turbulence between these two states is the stuff that can make or break a person. Added to this are life’s natural disasters and the neuroses/bohemianism of creative types which have blazed a trail of glory and destruction from John Clare through Sylvia Plath and d.a. levy to David Foster Wallace. Whereas every successful writer’s path is more or less the same, every doomed one has a unique tale to tell.

Take Hart Crane for example; an American poet still ludicrously underrated, who in hindsight stands as a kind of bridge between Walt Whitman’s world and that of the Beats, who rhapsodised about the fledgling New York cityscape the way the Romantics had about the Lake District, a man who for all his troubles (and there were few more troubled than Crane, wracked by drink and sexual guilt) was perhaps the very first to decipher the magic in the streets and skyscrapers and technology of the new age of modernity and describe it in a unique veiled even arcane language all of his own (elevators that “drop us from our day,” cinemas that were “panoramic sleights,” traffic lights “that skim thy swift / unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,” a city with its “fiery parcels all undone, Already snow submerges an iron year”). Yet none of these factors were to save him when, wearing his pyjamas, he clambered over the railings of the SS Orizaba, midway between Cuba and Florida, having been spurned in his amorous drink-sodden advances to the sailors below decks and then robbed for his troubles, and leapt into the ocean. He was last seen swimming for the horizon.

Whereas Crane’s end, for all its sadness, had an anger and near-defiance to it (after all he swam away rather than sank), the last act of Lew Welch was a more resigned even contemplative affair. A member of the Beat Generation, the Arizona-born poet was enraptured with nature, in contrast to Crane, viewing the city as a monstrous thing. Embracing rural life, he gave up his advertising career, after spells travelling with Jack Kerouac (appearing in Big Sur as the hard-drinking Dave Wain) and working as a taxi driver in San Francisco. He sought to make a living as a fisherman, spent time on communes and wrote elegiac Thoreau-influenced naturalist verse (Ring of Bone being the most definitive collection). On the 23rd of May 1971, struggling with alcoholism and despondent over a failed relationship (he had had several nervous breakdowns in the preceding decades), he took his rifle, walked into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and out of existence, leaving a note to his friend the poet Gary Snyder that reads in part, “I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying my friends. I can’t make anything out of it — never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone… I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.” Today, when he is remembered it’s as the most mysterious of all the Beats, giving his works the vital resonance of a rare and cherished relic in contrast to the over-exposed works of his comrades.

Similarly neglected but just as gifted, the poet Weldon Kees parked his car by the mist-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 1955 and exited history. The dapper Nebraskan had wowed New York’s literary circles with his gentile poetry of the suburbs (his Robinson series of poems being his most acclaimed) in which devastating everyday encounters tap into the dark undercurrents of life; murder victims, decaying animals, moral corruption, all fuelled by the sense that no matter how respectable and refined a life, death still casts its inescapable shadow. A sense that the American Dream was but a delusion, the achievement of its goals a Pyrrhic victory. Gradually like some self-fulfilling prophecy, his life fell apart. He split up from his wife after she descended into drink-fuelled paranoid delusions and he struggled to find willing publishers. He disappeared with a sleeping bag, a watch and his wallet. Rumour has it, he resurfaced in Mexico. Given the Golden Gate Bridge’s notorious history as a suicide spot, reports of his reappearance seem like wishful thinking.

One character who did make it to Mexico was the writer Ambrose Bierce, creator of the glorious Devil’s Dictionary. A Civil War veteran, journalist and scourge of big business, Bierce chose at the sprightly age of 71 to enjoy his retirement not by gardening or playing bowls but by crossing the border, gun in hand, and joining the rebel army of Pancho Villa. He sent one final letter to his niece which read in part, “Goodbye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a gringo in Mexico ah, that is euthanasia… I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios, Ambrose.” Bierce’s life and subsequent vanishing in the tumult of the Mexican revolution makes a fantastic story in the true sense of the word yet it also points out the danger in romanticising the fates of those who disappear. In absence of facts and explanations, their fates become infinite, subject to limitless speculation which may seem irresistible for the fan or casual observer but is unimaginably horrifying for the loved ones they leave behind. Whilst we envisage all manner of fantastical stories, they are left with untold horrors.

Sometimes the riddle of disappearance is solved. When her husband abruptly left her for his mistress in the winter of 1926, Agatha Christie went AWOL, provoking a nationwide twitching of curtains amongst Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple fans across Middle England. She was discovered 11 days later, lodging at a hotel in Harrogate, under an assumed South African identity, suffering from amnesia and a suspected nervous breakdown (an episode she hastened to discuss).

Within the last ten years, the fate of the masterful French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince and Wind, Sand and Stars), who vanished flying a reconnaissance mission for the Free French airforce over the Mediterranean, has become slightly clearer with a fisherman discovering his ID bracelet and a diver locating his P-38 Lightning plane off the coast of Marseilles. Just last year, a former Luftwaffe fighter (and fan of the writer) Horst Rippert claimed he’d inadvertently shot down his hero in a dog-fight during the Second World War.

Rather than the traditional binary view of existence and identity, it’s clear there are vast shifting grey areas. Consider Arthur Rimbaud, “the savage of the Latin Quarter” and poetry’s great enfant terrible, who famously disappeared at least from Western eyes but in doing so appeared to African ones and whose later life became the stuff of rumour and myth (slavetrading, gunrunning, going Kurtz) to the extent it’s almost impossible to decipher the truth from the fiction. Or B Traven (of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre renown) who didn’t disappear but didn’t ever fully appear, remaining a curious cipher of a man whose true identity has never been established. Or M. Ageyev the Istanbul-based Russian emigre whose Novel with Cocaine became a literary sensation before he chose (or was forced) to disappear into obscurity (over sixty years later, his book was found in the abandoned hotel room of Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards after he’d gone missing). Or Oscar Acosta, the drug-crazed “300-pound Samoan” Dr Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas who was last seen boarding a coke-filled Mexican yacht with a number of extremely shady undesirables. Or Franz Kafka who on his deathbed instructed his friend Max Brod to incinerate his papers in an attempt to posthumously fade away (an instruction that thankfully Brod ignored, barely escaping Prague and the Nazi invasion with a suitcase filled with the writer’s then-unpublished works). J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon have so far successfully evaded the cynical all seeing eye of the modern world and it could be said that they just wish to be known (and unknown) on their own terms. It’s ironic that dodging the spotlight can make such writers all the more intriguing, the curious double bluff of fame; the more you hide, the more they (or we) want to uncover.

Of course the writers mentioned so far chose to disappear. There were many who had no choice in the matter. In totalitarian regimes, the first to go are nearly always the writers, being the conscience/trouble-makers of society (Lenin prophesised this murderous philistinism in a missive to the writer and Bolshevik Maxim Gorky when he castigated “the educated classes… who consider themselves the brains of the nation. In fact they are not its brains but its shit” and eerily warned him not to “waste yourself on the whining of decaying intellectuals”). It’s such a customary factor to dictatorships, this terrible need to silence, to make those who question disappear, that it becomes a noun: Zhen Fan in Maoist China, the Yezhovschina (“Yezhov’s Era”) in Stalinist Russia, the Nacht under Nebel (Night and Fog) of Nazi Germany, los desaparecidos under the right-wing juntas of South America. Some of the greatest cultural figures of theirs or any time (Osip Mandelstam, Robert Desnos, Bruno Schulz, Victor Jara, Sarah Powell, Jakob van Hoddis and on and on) were simply made to evaporate. “No man, no problem” in the words of Uncle Joe.

These are merely a few examples from the ones that we know. Then there are the writers whose names and works have been so deftly excised from history by their killers that we know nothing of them or their work. They die the first physical death but also a second death; that of forgetting which causes them to never have existed in the first place. The act of remembering thus becomes a revolutionary act, an act of defiance against the forces of death.

There is another more mundane but just as perilous a route to oblivion; that of sheer disinterest. Whether due to public taste (or lack of) or the woeful lack of vision of mainstream publishing houses, many writer’s legacies fall into disrepair or ebb away completely. Some are rescued by the admirable work of far-sighted publishers (Rebel Inc’s resurrection of Richard Brautigan and Sadegh Hedayat in the nineties for example or the recent Richard Yates revival) or by near acts of God (Janet Frame the great New Zealand novelist was only saved from a lobotomy by winning a literary prize). The question arises, who’s to save long neglected writers (say Delmore Schwartz, Chester Himes, Clarence Cooper Junior, Lola Ridge, Nathaniel West) from the death that is amnesia if not us? And to paraphrase that great architect of remembering the writer Primo Levi, if not now, when?