Zombie Art Form

Tom McCarthy, “Tom McCarthy by Frederic Tuten,” BOMB 131 (Spring 2015)

FT Every few years or days, we hear the cry that the novel is dead. But then something comes along to prove that it is not only alive, but that it manifests itself in full vitality and beauty. May I ask you what you think of this statement? I believe we share a common feeling that it is not the novel that is dead, but the lack of imagination that invests it.

TM No, I think the novel is and always has been dead, and this is the very precondition of its perpetual regeneration. Don Quixote is a novel about how novels don’t work (the hero tries to enact all these episodes from books, as though to test their propositions, and he, they, flunk each time); about a fundamental, systematic dysfunction written right into the medium’s core. And that’s more or less the first major novel! It’s a peculiarly zombie art form, with all the goriness, the cannibalism, and so forth that that term implies (it’s not as though you need to cut open Ulysses‘s stomach to see what it’s been eating: it’s got everything from Defoe to Sacher-Masoch dribbling down its chin!). The novel stumbles onwards, ineluctably, gorging and disgorging its own death, its own deadness. So the novel’s not just dead — it’s undead. The type that matters at least: the committed, engaged, self-aware novel that wrestles with the contradictions of its own condition. The middlebrow novel, by contrast, the type that doesn’t acknowledge or address this situation, but just ambles along happily believing that a naive, uncritical realism could ever work in the first place, let alone now — that would be undead too, but in a way that somehow doesn’t seem to really matter.

Tom McCarthy, “Tom McCarthy: A Kafka for the Google Age” by Tim Martin, The Telegraph 19 March 2015

“I don’t think we need to abandon the form of the book just because the internet has been invented,” he says. “Most other media formats work: you get an iPhone and it does something, and if it doesn’t do that thing, you take it back for a repair. But the book is deliberately set up not to perform a certain function, to systematically frustrate. It’s always been a dysfunctional medium, and since it never works, it never stops working.” He grins. “So I’m perfectly happy writing books.”

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 July 2012:

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

When the 3:AM website suddenly vanished last week, the might of social media helped track down the person who could switch the server back on. But what are the implications for online magazines?

[Turn it on again … server outages were undeniably on the rise, but this time there was no website to check. Photograph: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images]

I concluded my last contribution to this site with a quotation from Maurice Blanchot: “Literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Little did I know that 3:AM Magazine — the literary webzine I had edited with a group of friends for more than a decade — would shortly after vanish suddenly into cyberspace. Whether it was going toward its essence is a moot point, which falls outside of our present remit.

When I am not running late, I often check the website, along with my email, before setting off for work. The last time I performed this routine, I sat, for what seemed like ages, staring, bleary-eyed, at an empty page that obstinately refused to load. Blogger’s block, as I like to call it, is a less heroic, technological version of l’angoisse de la page blanche: the agony experienced by writers in front of a blank page. The only sign of activity came from the little dotted line going round and round in vicious circles like Sisyphus‘s boulder or — rather fittingly in this instance — nobody’s business. With hindsight, I realise it should have put me in mind of the proverbial dotted line on which dodgy contracts are carelessly signed. At this juncture, however, I wasn’t unduly worried — or at least I wasn’t yet aware that my relative (and frankly uncharacteristic) nonchalance may have been (was) inappropriate. After all, this sort of thing had been happening — not happening — on and off for several months, and each time normal service had resumed of its own accord, as if by magic.

Although rare, server outages were undeniably on the rise, and downtime had gone from a couple of hours to a couple of days. This, of course, should have prompted a reassessment of my non-interventionist attitude, but there was little I could do, short of moving the entire website to a new company and server, which is precisely the kind of drastic measure I was eager to postpone for as long as possible. Attempting to make contact with our host — whether by phone, email, carrier pigeon or Ouija board — was a fruitless exercise I had long given up in favour of more fulfilling pursuits such as staring at empty web pages failing to load. Besides, these outages afforded me a few guilty pleasures, not least a little breathing space from the frenzy of online activity: they reminded me of the carnivalesque atmosphere brought about, in my childhood household, by the power cuts of the 1970s. And there was the frisson of flirting with disaster without going all the way — until that fated morning when I tried to check the website only to discover that there was no website to check. There was still no website when I came home from work that evening, nor the following day, nor the day after that. When the expected resurrection had failed, Godot-like, to materialise for almost a week, we were forced to contemplate the nightmare scenario of having lost 12 years’ worth of archives.

The web is a Library of Babel that could go the way of the Library of Alexandria. It is the last word in the quest for a book in which everything would be said — a tradition that extends from epic poetry to Joyce’s Ulysses through the Bible, the Summa Theologica, Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum and the great encyclopedias, as well as Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre”. It is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — “the catalog of catalogs”, the “total” library conjured up by Borges — but it also marks the triumph of the ephemeral.

In order to mimic the instant gratification provided by the web, Argentinian publisher Eterna Cadencia recently published an anthology of short stories using disappearing ink. Once you open the volume, the ink begins to fade in contact with light and air, vanishing completely within two months. In recent years, I have received a growing number of requests from early contributors to 3:AM Magazine, asking me to delete a poem or story of theirs. These people are usually applying for a new job, and find themselves haunted online by youthful incarnations of themselves that may jeopardise their futures. Yet it only took an instant for someone to switch off 3:AM‘s server and solve this problem. The past does not pass on the web; it lingers or resurfaces — unless, of course, it is wiped away. In our case, most of the material was retrievable via the Internet Archive, but as Sam Jordison pointed out in a recent email, how can we be sure that this site, or a similar one, will always be around? At least, in the old days of dead trees, you could safeguard copies of your journal in libraries or universities. When 3:AM was launched, I used to print out every new article we posted, but stopped when the site started running to thousands of pages. I had never imagined that the company I was paying to host, and indeed back up, our webzine would vanish without a word of warning, like disappearing ink.

3:AM‘s servers (located in Dallas, Texas) were owned by a company (based in Saint Joseph, Missouri) whose website was down. Emails bounced back and the phone had been disconnected. We naturally assumed that the owner — whose main claim to fame was his contribution to the penis-enlargement business — had done a runner. But as soon as the word was out, we were inundated with heart-warming messages of support and offers of help via social media, and within a few hours, Twitter had located the owner’s whereabouts. 3:AM readers informed us that he was now the landlord of — or an employee in (there were conflicting reports) — a tattoo parlour. Someone even kindly mailed me an overexposed picture of the aforementioned establishment.

American novelist Steve Himmer spotted that he and the alleged fugitive had a friend in common on Facebook, who was able to send a direct message. London-based author Susana Medina friended him and striked up a conversation. His mobile phone number and personal email addresses were soon unearthed and passed on by amateur sleuths. Blogger Edward Champion conducted a phone interview with the errant entrepreneur in which the latter claimed that he had wound up his web hosting business in 2008 and had no idea that he was still hosting us. He mentioned a “server admin in Bucharest” — name of Florin — who had been handling the company’s “lingering details”. If this is all true, and it could well be, 3:AM had been running on some unattended phantom server. I also wonder whom I have been paying all these years.

Thanks to our readers’ support, and to Champion’s fine detective work, the server has been switched back on (possibly by Florin) … until we migrate elsewhere.

(Wo)men Without Qualities

Tim Parks, “The Chattering Mind,” The New York Review of Books (NYRblog), 29 June 2012.

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

[…] I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. […] But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.

There were plenty of forewarnings. Hamlet is the most notable. To take action would be to confirm his identity as his father’s son, his father’s avenger, but Hamlet thinks too precisely on the event, he’s too smart, and so fails to become anyone at all, either his father’s son or Ophelia’s husband. He suffers for that failure and spins out unhappy procrastination in fine poetry. In a comic vein, Tristram Shandy is another forerunner, too aware of his narrative performance to narrate anything coherent, let alone act. Both Hamlet and Tristram are characters who didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the twentieth century. We had become like them.

Prone to qualification, self-contradiction, interminable complication, this new kind of character finds his most sinister early manifestation in the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “I am a wicked man,” this nameless individual introduces himself, then reflects “but as a matter of fact, I was never able to become wicked. I never managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”

Again, the reason for this indeterminacy is an excess of intellectual activity; so the cause for failure is also a source of self-esteem: “An intelligent man of the nineteenth century,” Doestoevsky’s narrator tells us, with a mixture of complacency and despair, “must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure — primarily a limited being.”

Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.

Looking back, what surprises how enthusiastically the literary world welcomed this new hero. Prufrock’s mind might be trapped, inept and miserable, but it is wonderfully poetic. I’ll never forget how my high school teacher gushed. Bloom may be incapable of imposing any direction on his marriage, drifting between fantasy and frustration as his wife prepares to betray, and Stephen Dedalus may be marooned in an impossible relationship with his father and jobs that give him no satisfaction, yet Ulysses is a celebration of the inexhaustible fertility of their minds as they move through the commercial flotsam and jetsam of Dublin against the vast backdrop of world literature and myth. It’s all quite reassuring, even self-congratulatory. What wonderful minds we have, even though they don’t seem to get us anywhere, or make us happy.

Virginia Woolf sounds darker notes, warning us that the mind risks being submerged by the urgent blather of modern life, yet in the end even the crazy, shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith gives us paragraph after paragraph of poetic prose before he throws himself to his death from a high window, something that Clarissa Dalloway will think of as an act of impulsive generosity. It’s as if the stream of consciousness had been invented to allow the pain of a mind whose chatter is out of control to be transformed into a strange new beauty, which then encompasses the one action available to the stalled self: suicide.

The way this aesthetic consolation is constructed shifts constantly through the century. Faulkner has no time for the easy lyricism of the mind adrift on the ebb and flow of urban trivia. Now the unending voice revolves obsessively around the traumas that block any positive forward movement: past wrongs, sexual violence and betrayal, incest, the disgrace of institutionalized discrimination. Still, there is grandeur in the sheer scale and awfulness of the mind’s shipwreck, individual and collective. Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility. Our twentieth century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterwards.

Beckett resists and confirms the formula. He understands its perversity: pleasure taken in the performance of unhappiness: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he has the aptly named Hamm remark in the first moments of Endgame. Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

[…] I suspect our destiny is to pursue our literary sickness for years to come. It is hard not to congratulate oneself on the quality of one’s unhappiness. “Every word,” Beckett told us “is an unnecessary stain on silence”…

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 January 2011:

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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