“Metaphor is the lifeblood of fiction” Angela Carter once said, and in her late fiction, when she wrote more often about people who were at home in the world, she was fond of domesticating metaphors. In her first novel, Viola Di Grado’s shows a similar taste for the homely (“the river’s surface rippled and thickened like the skin that forms on milk when you warm it too much”), but it is Carter’s early novels about alienation in provincial bohemia that 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool most resembles. For Di Grado’s narrator, Camelia Mega, a young woman in Leeds on the verge of independence, the pull of home proves irresistible – even when it becomes uncanny. After the death of her father and his lover in a car crash, Camelia’s mother, Livia, stops speaking, washing, and soon, even dressing. She wanders like a revenant through her run-down house, which rots with “dust and spiders and castles of mold, participating gleefully in her death, like Bluebeard’s secret room.” The suggestion is that she’s being undone not just by grief, but by the house itself.
Camelia returns to this home where, in an eternal winter, time seems to have stopped: my Year Zero, she thinks. However, this is not to be a tale of wiping the slate clean, for though Camelia is the epitome of the modern heroine – economically independent, sexually free, technologically hip and multilingual – she is somehow not equipped to create her own story. For all her contemporary wit (“It’s so ugly, Christopher Road is, that it qualifies as proof of God’s nonexistence”) she is confined in a nineteenth-century parody, still trapped with that madwoman in the attic and a mocking parrot who looks at the windows “not like a bird but like a woman in a Victorian novel”. Attempting to coax her mother out of the front door, Camelia buys her a camera. Livia responds by taking photographs of holes in the floor, in the curtains, in her underwear. What they signify Camelia can only surmise. The ditch her father died in? Her mother’s wish to die, too? Livia’s focus on holes, she thinks, is “stupid…not doing you any good, obviously”.
As in all good Gothic writing, Di Grado invests what is ostensibly straightforward with uncertainty. Is Camelia’s impatience also generational, a frustration with mothers who seem trapped by their biology? Perhaps. Yet she frets over her own lack of beauty and is horrified by Livia’s decline from a feminine ideal (once “radiant and untouchable like utopia”) to coarse animality (“my mother ate her scaloppini the way tigers eat in documentaries”). Conversation of a kind resumes with Camelia interpreting Livia’s looks: “Don’t use that tone of gaze with me!”. But her mother is now so decomposed a figure that she’s become “a landing pad for every kind of bug”, too proud to flick them off, so these are dubious exchanges, full of Pirandellian ambiguity about who holds power. Soon the women are competitors in martyrdom as Camelia develops her own “verbal anorexia” and thinks about sleeping forever.
Di Grado has the proper anger of a young author – she was twenty-three when she penned this winner of the Campiello First Novel Prize – and her black comedy, pungent metaphors and controlled ambiguity announce the arrival of a considerable talent. Her self-consciousness is more than literary, however; it also reflects a quality now ingrained in the young, developed by Google, YouTube, chat, and all the other disseminating channels mentioned in 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool. Everyone narrates themselves, and Camelia, the child of Italian immigrants, a student of Chinese, living in an area full of ethnic takeaways and street kids pushing drugs, is peculiarly alert to language – its problems of translation and intelligibility. As a child, sensing in her parent’s marriage the affairs that threaten her world-view, she wonders – as only children and totalitarians do – why one story is not enough, and is horrified when her father insists, “stories are everywhere”. In adulthood she remains vulnerable: “All it takes is a passerby’s glance and next thing you know you’re imprisoned in somebody else’s story”.
Having grown up in a place where the sun was never brighter than the “colour of a raw chicken thigh”, built with “an eye to saving money on materials and aesthetics”, Camelia cultivates her estrangement by hanging out in cemeteries, decapitating flowers, and re-watching the same Icelandic movie. She thinks, precociously, “I am the erotic dream of windows in a former working class town”. When she finds a pile of defective garments in a “dumpster” she takes to wearing them. (Except for such occasional Americanisms, which stand out in a novel set in Leeds, Michael Reynolds’ translation sounds note-perfect.) These strange clothes, like a bread trail in a fairy story, lead her to Wen, who Camelia takes lessons from, becoming fascinated by Chinese ideograms. His reluctance to sleep with her leads to a fraught affair with his brother.
It’s an interesting enlargement in this traditional drama of confinement: Camelia’s struggle to understand the different rules that govern Chinese holds out the possibility she may learn to see herself in a new light. The novel closes, however, with a Hitchcockian twist, Camelia mocking readers who hoped for a sentimental ending. Yet behind her narrator’s bravado Di Grado leaves a window open to further questions. The most interesting of these are whether the house of ‘women’s fiction’ has itself become a prison – and, if so, whether young writers have the will and imagination to break out of it.
This review appeared as ‘Doing Time’ in the TLS on 29.3.2013.
“The war tried to kill us in the spring…While we slept the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer…While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation… It tried to kill us every day.” This semi-autobiographical first novel by Kevin Powers, about a soldier during the Iraq war, opens impressively, picturing the immense force that the Americans believe themselves to be up against, a force that is insatiable, irrational and utterly indifferent to them as individuals: “The war would take whatever it could get. It didn’t care about objectives or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all…the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on.”
With this rhetorical flourish Powers sets out his stall. He also establishes the novel’s battlefield between an impersonal war machine – connected metonymically to the enemy but largely abstracted from those on either side responsible for the war’s organization – and a lone soldier, John Bartle, who struggles with his personal “obligation to remember correctly”. Bartle’s recording duty is complicated by his need to challenge the bill of goods he’s been sold (“I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier…Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists”), by self-suspicion (“I felt like a self-caricature…falsely strong”), by the untrustworthiness of memory and language (“there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true”); and by his fear that finding patters, in war or in narrative, brings only false consolation (“It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our life”).
Bartle has joined the army for all the usual reasons: to get out of town, to find adventure, to test himself. His story is told retrospectively, as he looks back on a less articulate and more deceived self. The narrative is non-chronological, moving back and forth between his training in New Jersey in 2003; battle skirmishes in the Iraqi province of Nineveh in 2004; a moment when he goes AWOL the following year in Germany (in a cathedral among effigies of bloodied, martyred saints, and in a bar where the violence continues and a soldier beats a woman); and his release from the army and return home to a difficult reunion with his mother.
The final section, set in 2009, yields answers to the questions raised near the novel’s outset about Bartle’s responsibility for the death of his friend and fighting partner, Murphy. There is a further mystery about the role played by their gung-ho leader in the war, Sergeant Sterling, with whom Bartle has an ambivalent relationship: this is the man whose professional vigilance gives the young soldiers their best chance of staying alive, but he is also the one who rallies them to action and keeps them killing.
Traditionally, the novel has often viewed war through the eyes of a complicit individual, a pawn in the wider game. It is from this perspective that The Yellow Birds derives much of its emotional power and testimonial authenticity – qualities that have won laurels in the form of the Guardian First Book Prize and perhaps overexcited praise from writers as diverse as Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín and William Dalrymple. But it is also Bartle’s tunnelled vision, his admitted solipsism, which sets the novel’s limits.
Unlike, for instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1961), which reveals something of war’s extreme dehumanization through a science fiction foil – and whose catchphrase for quietism, “So it goes”, is quoted here – The Yellow Birds has no counterpoint. Death, mutilation, castration, body bombs and all the other brutalities Bartle witnesses or is party to, are contrasted with his lyrical and existential musings. But the individualism these signal seem as much a part of the problem as an answer to it. Bartle’s quest in the book, “to discover what it was I was guilty of”, and his scrupulous self-interrogation sits uneasily in a novel which so persistently evades the larger question of responsibility for the war.
A version of this review appeared in the TLS on 18.01.2013.
The Index to Julian Barnes’s new collection of essays strikes a playful note, a whimsy meant to undercut any danger of pomposity in his writing, by drawing attention to it. For instance, his repeated instruction about the many matters that “should serve as a warning to aspirant novelists”, becomes, in the Index, a knowing wink to his own pedantry (all five entries under “young writers” begin “should”). Similarly, there are judgements indexed in the manner of a teacher’s withering report: “Peter Ackroyd: fails to impress”, “Truman Capote: always promising”.
The job of a critic, however, as Barnes himself has said, is not to diminish but to explain and celebrate. And in the main that’s what he does, writing about people whose work he admires, making a case for the patronized, unfashionable or, to the English, possibly unknown (“our insular fault for not translating enough”).
Barnes’s Francophilia is well-advertised and, as one might expect, his criticism divides between England, France and America, with some canny interplays, so there is ‘Kipling’s France’ as well as ‘France’s Kipling’, (Ford Madox) ‘Ford on Provence’, an essay on English translations of Madame Bovary, and an Introduction to Edith Wharton’s The Reef, considering its Racinian qualities.
The essays on Chamfort, the “complicated, divided” moralist and maxim writer, Prosper Mérimée, taxonomist and preserver of buildings (necessitated by the Revolution’s annexing of them), the “aesthete-anarchist” Félix Fénéon and his fait divers newspaper columns, and Michel Houellebecq’s increasingly dubious “literary insolence”, together comprise a solid primer on modern French history, culture and taste.
Among English-language writers he extols Penelope Fitzgerald’s quietness in delivering complexity (against “male diminishment” and her own self-disguise as a “harmless jam-making grandmother”), the modernity of Arthur Hugh Clough in representing unpoetical times (against Matthew Arnold’s reading of his poetry as “not natural”), and late Updike (“undervalued, and at times insultingly reviewed”).
What he admires perhaps most in these “professional observers of human beings” is their penetration of the ordinary. And it is on the matter of professionalism or generic competency that his attacks turn: replaying the debate about Orwell’s fictionalizing of his journalism, questioning Houellebecq’s representation of Islam on the grounds of narrative credibility (“a clever man who is a less than clever novelist”), and finding against Joyce Carol Oates’s account of her bereavement for “breach of narrative promise”. Her deception is of an entirely different order to the “benign wrong-footingness” he so admires in Fitzgerald.
One of Barnes’s favourite coinages is “Frenchly”, but it is the Englishness of his interests and tone of which one is continually aware. His recurrent themes are summed up in that didactic Index : “cowardice: more interesting than courage”, “failure: more interesting than success”, “kindness: its paradoxicality”.
This review appeared in the TLS on 10.11.12.
“My writing desk is covered in open novels”, Zadie Smith tells us in her 2009 collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is the kind of writer who does not jealously guard her originality, understanding that central to what she puts out is what she notices and takes in. Like Christina Stead generating writing out of her Ocean of Story, or Salman Rushdie held afloat on his Sea of Story, Smith seeks out influence, “read[ing] lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigour when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight.” It’s a credo that places her in E.M. Forster’s convivial “echo chamber”, where writers freely associate, exchanging literary ways of being, even as it bears the trace of having come from somewhere, of having prior allegiance and inflection: that uptight tells us her writing is not placeless or ‘atopic’.
Complexity of this kind proliferates in Smith’s latest novel, NW, in which she returns to her roots in the London postcode where she grew up, and where her debut, White Teeth (2000), was set. Though by no means autobiographical, NW has the intensity of the personal, enacting Smith’s own journey from a council estate to university and ‘professional’ life, asking what happens to a person on such a journey, and to the people and community left behind? Half a century ago writers like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart considered the same question in terms of class, but ours has become a more elaborate culture since then and Smith reflects this intricacy in the mixed people she represents and in the way her novel is told.
In NW’s “multiverse” self-suspicion is intense, irony inescapable, and interaction highly self-conscious (“Frank’s default mode with Leah is a sort of self-parody. Leah thwarts him by faking innocence”). Competitive claims leave the reader, along with the characters, working to ascertain: is this interesting, important, honest, true? Such indeterminacy makes similar demands of readers to those that the city itself makes, requiring flexibility, nuance and a willingness to experiment. Smith, now on her fourth novel and coming into maturity as a writer, is, as she announces on the first page, ready to “Take her liberty”, confident enough to be demanding (“Reader: keep up!”), and writing with a new, improvized looseness. There are signs everywhere of her learning and reading, but this time she has freed herself of the supports she hitherto relied on, most evidently in On Beauty, and is making her own way. This then, is a riskily open book, exhibiting all the novel’s defiant possibilities; a freedom that stands in instructive contrast to NW’s trapped inhabitants.
Smith’s five characters grew up on Caldwell, a Willesden council estate. As adults now in their mid-thirties none have strayed far, though the lives they lead are worlds apart. The novel, set principally in the present, pivoting on the Carnival weekend, also delves back over thirty years. It examines the respective fates of best friends Natalie and Leah, as well as Felix, and more peripherally Nathan and Shar, beginning when Shar unexpectedly turns up again in Leah’s life. Shar has become an addict, leading a rough street life, conning, begging and living in a squat. Hers is a world in which nothing and no one can be helped: about her beating and rape she is quietist, telling Leah, “Aint your fault. Is what it is.” The distance between the women’s lives is so great they puzzle one another. Shar is unfamiliar with Leah’s show of concern and she struggles to place it; to her, Leah seems “someone absurd…maybe a slacker, a lady of leisure”. In turn, Shar’s sudden re-emergence disconcerts Leah, making her reflect on her own existence, under-stretched in work with community groups and resisting the inexorable path to motherhood. When a young black man is stabbed close to her home, the question of who thrives in London and who is destroyed by it begins to plague her. Finally, she says to Natalie: “I just don’t understand…Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Though dealing in such inescapably political material – and unlike many recent London novelists at last waking up to the others in ‘our’ midst, characterizing newcomers by their cultural difference and economic function (all those Sikh shop keepers, Polish builders and Brazilian au pairs) – Smith writes from the inside, allowing her characters modernism’s full range of techniques to explore their interiority. Which is a relief – and the more so, because despite her profound pessimism about the emerging twenty-first century self (we are an uneasy, imperious and defended bunch) her ability to say this is who we are, without “prettification”, feels liberating and encouraging. “The effort to name” either the world or ourselves, however, is not straightforward: it all but defeats Natalie. For her, life brings no helpful epiphanies, only rare moments of “clarity” that are difficult to retain. She understands what she has had to overcome to become a barrister and good, conforming bourgeois, but is less comprehending of the rigidity such will to power has enforced in her. Nor does she recognize how it has divided her from family and old friends who regard her now either as a role model or a traitor. (“Can’t go home, can’t leave home: a subject close to my heart”, Smith wrote in an elegy to her own father.)
Leah’s climb has been less emphatic: she still lives in a council flat in sight of Caldwell and is married to Michel, a French-Algerian whose immigrant eyes tell him that “not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century”, so you’d better look out for yourself. The two women hold the novel’s centre of attention; indeed, NW is one of the strongest dissections of female friendship since Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a novel that broke ground in 1962, and with which NW bears comparison – in its determination to face the present without illusion, in its discussion of apostasy, and in the way it apportions a fragmenting world.
The novel is written in five segments. Leah’s, called ‘Visitation’ (after Shar’s disturbing appearance), is dealt out in chapters, reflecting Leah’s more ‘old-fashioned’ concerns: she disagrees with her husband’s self-help philosophy, and looks for an “objective” way of understanding herself, of reaching out to others, even as she resists the idea that women are inherently full of “empathy”. Smith reproduces this effort in the novel’s narrative perspective, shifting from subjectivity to objectivity, from calling her Leah to Leah Hanwell, to Mrs Hanwell, to “the woman”, in a manner reminiscent of the nouvelle vague, and with much the same purpose: to step outside the interiority so pleasurably conveyed in the novel’s fluid opening pages, and locate a cooler, more detached point of view.
Natalie’s more contemporary character (anxiety-ridden, self-deluding) is delineated in modern style with briefer notes. These have allusive titles suggesting a mind-map of our disseminated consciousness: Buñuel and Godard jostle with Amy Winehouse and Nirvana; Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push it” follows on from the Nabokovian “Speak, radio”; a section about a vibrator takes its name from an Updike novel. Natalie herself is an inveterate note-taker and reader of signs, treating the world “anthropologically”, a form of objectivity different to Leah’s because it is self-absolving, denying her own bias in the equation. She shares this myopia with her privileged husband: in an argument each believe “their own interpretation to be objectively considered and in no way the product of their contrasting upbringings.”
For Smith, an inability to recognize one’s own contingency is one of the great modern sins. A lecture on Barack Obama (2008) saw her admiring the novelistic facility on display in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, and evident in his ability to speak to America’s different constituencies, without betraying himself. It is a gift she sees deriving from the President’s mixed-race, “double-voice” inheritance, one she hopes will enable him to tell various truths, devoid of contradiction but with “proper human harmony”.
In NW, Natalie’s apostasy echoes Lessing’s mid-century abandonment of the (communist) dream of human harmony in favour of the “small personal voice”; now, hers is the abandonment of the jostling place she came from in favour of a self-preserving one-sidedness. Though not, of course, forsaking that hard-won personal voice, Smith questions the solipsism into which its elevation has led us. The novel opens in didactic tableau: Leah, lying in a hammock, is attracted by a line she hears on the radio and thinks she should make a note of it: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”. But as Leah’s fist unfurls and her pencil drops, the spell of these incantatory, self-enclosing words is broken, and the idea of a private language jettisoned (Smith’s essays show her reading Wittgenstein); she “Takes her liberty”, never having written the sentence down.
The narrative perspective shifts again: in segments divided by place, rather than the women’s numerical depth, two male characters move geographically across the city. Felix, pulling his life together after a druggy period, visits Caldwell, where his jobless father still lives. A gift of a book of photographs of 1970s estate life, prompts the older man to reminisce about how rebellious and intrepid his generation of West Indians were in their youth (“style without money, without any means whatsoever”). For Felix there is the realisation that Black Power was not just “self-serving exaggeration”, there was once real community here. But the memories also bring pain, because something in the anarchic looseness of his parents’ life (“This was the heatwave. We just took off the door!”) and in the growing freedom of women, led his mother to abandon the family. She has become a perpetual absconder, prey to the superstition and paranoia often bred in exclusion, while his stay-at-home father now lives enveloped in weed fumes. Throughout the novel, Smith makes a point of refusing nostalgia, but she shows with great subtlety how his history feeds into the man Felix has become, suggesting that the desire for a more disciplined and orthodox life comes in reaction to the failed hopes of a previous generation.
It is a passage that also casts light on the emotional attachment to home ground of all Smith’s characters, their defensive allegiance to a particular manor (an important difference here between John Lanchester’s overview in Capital and Smith’s slicing through NW). This loyalty has the remnants of solidarity in it, but now exerts almost totalitarian power, where claims of territorial authenticity (“You can’t really chat to me. I’m Hackney, so.”) and a distorted code of ethics about who has the right to speak (“Why you tryna make it your business? Who you calling blud?”) rapidly decline into violence.
Felix’s subsequent journey from NW into the West End has its title in brackets, “(W1)”, as if Soho were a place of more dubious reality. It’s a joke of course, because to Felix, the well-to-do people he meets there – Tom, a rich kid in “brand consolidation”, and Annie, junkie descendant of an earl – do live in a kind of fairyland, protected from the life and death reality that awaits him on his return to NW. Growing weary of Annie’s privileged bohemianism, her lofty denial of the constraints in his life, Felix asks her, “Why you always going on about shit that ain’t even real?” His section is titled ‘Guest’ and, like Natalie, he feels humiliated at being addressed on other people’s terms, at finding himself always on other people’s turf.
In Lessing’s novel, a breakdown of the old order leads to a newly unified reality (the Golden Notebook itself), but in NW there can be no decomposing of the world through the text. Natalie’s break out – she seeks sex with strangers via the internet, then takes a drug-fuelled walk with Nathan round the old Caldwell haunts – is a temporary affair; she quickly returns to business as usual. If there is a unifying idea in Smith’s compendious novel it is that of ‘the gift’, a notion emerging from anthropology, which the Situationists championed, about things (goods, ideas, talents) we have and give to one another freely, without commodification. In another essay from Changing My Mind, Smith discusses the gift’s importance in art, and particularly to David Foster Wallace, a writer she greatly admired: she shares the idea in NW, making it the bedrock of Natalie’s conflicted ‘personality’.
At a young age Natalie finds her intelligence and drive praised in a way that troubles her. These are accidents, unearned gifts, she thinks, and this discrepant account by others leads her into a reflexive trap. In the mirror she sees only a charlatan, someone “making it up as she goes along”. By adulthood, her autodidact reading in headstrong outcasts (James Baldwin, Jane Eyre and Jesus Christ), leaves her feeling put together wrongly, a kind of intellectual patchwork doll. What she seeks is tradition, a place where she can be learned without the stigma of eccentricity. But when she finally achieves success – when she is no longer a ‘Guest’ in life but takes her place as ‘Host’ (the name of her segment) – she finds that with entitlement she is locked into stifling conformity.
It is a characterization which at first seems highly specific to Natalie. But through these ideas the novel also reflects on Leah’s problem about who succeeds and who fails, proposing that talent, intelligence and aptitude have a lot to do with it, but that these are reward in themselves, not markers of moral probity making the possessor a more deserving person. In NW’s recursive world there is no easy way out from the defended self, and Natalie’s eventual reply to Leah – a politician’s sanctimony about just deserts – is in the worst bad faith. But Smith’s great gift for seeing people in their entirety means she will not simply consign Natalie to self-betrayal. The novel closes with another visitation, this one in the guise of an idea: in some ingenious manner that depends on Natalie’s gifts of detection and her double-voice she improvizes a way forward, “making it up as she goes along”. In this moment she becomes, however fleetingly, the person her strength makes her capable of being – not a host, presiding over others, but a potential saviour. Even in this solution, though, Smith’s book remains open, with enough ambiguity and mystery to leave room for doubt. To the end she demands of her reader (as Foster Wallace did in a short story of his own): “So, decide.”
This is an extended version of a review that appeared in the TLS, as ‘No Easy Way Out’, on 14.9.2012.
That the surrealists in their unbridling of the imagination and the subconscious challenged conventional ways of thinking – or preferably not thinking – about sex, will come as no surprise. Less well known is that with the subversions of their art, poetry, drama and fiction, they also undertook scientific research. Their unique method, combining investigation with collective experience, was derided as unscientific, but as they weren’t aiming to impress the establishment this didn’t trouble them. What they wanted was to produce a body of counter-knowledge about neglected aspects of everyday life, and to create an archive of the kinds of human experience usually obscured by propriety, censorship or fear.
With this in mind, in October 1924, André Breton, the movement’s founder and principle theorist, together with a group of friends, set up the Bureau of Surrealist Research on the Rue de Grenelle in Paris, inviting the public to drop by with stories of chance and coincidence or ideas about how life might be different. From here they also produced their journal, La Révolution Surréaliste, publishing in 1928 the first of twelve inquiries into the meaning and practice of sex – a subject then so taboo it could land a speaker or writer in jail. Their recherches took the form of group discussions which proceeded by means of testimony, disagreement and interrogation (Breton was a trained psychoanalyst). As JoAnn Wypijewski notes in her Introduction to Investigating Sex, there was “no unity of desire” among the participants, “even on the small matters.”
Taking part in these extraordinary conversations were many of France’s intellectual and artistic elite: Breton, Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Paul Éluard, Yves Tanguy, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, as well as migrants drawn to the modern scene in Paris such as Man Ray and Max Ernst. Over the four years between 1928 and 1932 the “small matters” they discussed, placing them on record, included undressing, masturbation, fetishism, homosexuality, voyeurism, prostitution, bestiality, procreation, sodomy, fantasy, shame, first time, third parties, cunnilingus, fellatio, coquetry, libertinism, masochism, sadism, mutualism (or lack of it), orgasm (detecting and faking), revulsion, joy and etiquette, as well as more esoteric activities such as coming in a woman’s ear or licking her eyeballs. Seven sessions took place before anyone thought to ask a woman for her side of the story.
Despite Breton’s best and sometimes bullying efforts to keep the sessions on track, the discussions continually unravelled, collapsing under the weight of prejudice and illogic or veering off into the absurd. It is the dramatist Artaud who observes that the effort to speak openly about sex inevitably involves ostentation – and, he might also have added, in the effort to classify something so unruly and inexhaustible, hilarity. Yet the surrealists’ unlikely inquiries point the way to the twentieth century’s major social science projects on sexuality: both Kinsey and Hite shared their question and answer methodology, though they attempted to structure their research and make it professionally neutral, stripped of the bias and embarrassment so evident here. The surrealists, by contrast, had no covering context of credibility: they revealed themselves to one another out in the open and through interaction, and it is this that makes these records so fascinating, so three-dimensionally human.
If the surrealist contribution to science has often been neglected in favour of their aesthetic, so, too, Freud’s influence on the movement is more often proclaimed than that of Marx. But more than a quarter of the forty participants in these discussions were at one time or another members of the PCF, the French communist party, and the larger matter the surrealists were investigating, about love’s potential to abate alienation, however temporarily, was informed as much by ideas about human liberation that were coursing through Europe in the decade after the Russian Revolution, as by the new Viennese science.
Not that the relationship was untroubled: in her Afterword, Dawn Ades writes that the PCF regarded the surrealists’ courting of the erotic as “indistinguishable from pornography”. Breton’s aim was to keep a balance between Marx and Freud while defending the surrealists’ right to extend the dialectic to the exploration of consciousness (“How can one accept…that the dialectical method can only be validly applied to the solution of social problems?” he demands of more “narrow-minded revolutionaries”). Certainly Marx’s influence can be felt in the surrealists’ disagreements over whether desire must be reciprocal, and whether love can yield to some kind of materialist proof or is better considered as incarnate mystery.
For all the vanity and prejudice on display in these conversations, what remains most striking is the courage of the participants, their fearless desire to uncover and destigmatise. Despite our openness today – from feminism’s abstract theorising to the internet’s graphic revelations – it’s inconceivable that a comparable bunch of writers, artists and journalists, without the veil of anonymity, would sit down and talk so frankly together about sexual inclination. As a later surrealist Inquiry into Erotic Representation noted, people are increasingly willing to discuss the “position of partners’ bodies during the act of love”, but are still largely “silent over the positions of their minds”.
This review appeared in the Camden New Journal, Islington Tribune and West End Extra on 13.09.2012.
At twenty-two Gwendoline Riley published her debut novel, Cold Water: it earned her a Betty Trask Award, the admiration of many critics, and a devoted following among the hip. Hers was a knowing voice, catching the glamour of unmoored youth while also mapping the disaffections her generation laid claim to. Born in 1979, she was one of the first to show us something of how Thatcher’s children viewed the world – and to suggest what positions they might adopt in the face of it.
A decade and three novels later not a lot has changed for the latest in Riley’s line of semi-autobiographical heroines. Aislinn is another Lancashire lass with an American get-out clause (winding up this time in Indianapolis), but now, reaching thirty, there’s an after-the-party feel, and a sense that this inveterate reader and hard-up writer is beginning to grapple with the problem of adult viability. Rather than learning how to settle down and act naturally, though, she begins to see that the literary persona she has assembled – so provocative to her parents – puts her beyond the pale. Her lofty ideas and drifting life offend the common-sense world; conceding to it, Aislinn thinks, would “illegitimatise” her.
So she lights out for America, to the bland un-confronting middle of it, where away from the maelstrom of family life (a menacing father, a thwarted mother) she can be “Peaceful again. Able to think”. Here, in nice transatlantic irony, Aislinn learns that the American she’s been hankering after for the last decade, never quite managing to pin him down, is now in Manchester. During their last encounter she was enraged by his gamesmanship (pathetically easy to “read”), by his failure to recognise her hard-won authority (“I’m a writer. I am. You’re insulting me”). Her gall and fury, her stubborn refusal to present the right face, sabotage her of course, and the boy walks away. In the next passage, she and a bar drunk swap stories about their mothers’ lost loves, who also fail to connect, then meet terrible ends. What Riley suggests in these scenes is the risk in being unaligned, of living unconventionally without fixing relationships and ready-made opinions.
That habitual world is the one Aislinn has forged herself in opposition to. It’s one in which male solidarity and power (her father is from a tribal band of brothers; a revered uncle once sat on Sheffield Trades Council) creates men who think themselves entitled to control women and children, to hit and humiliate them, and sons who grow up in their father’s image, perpetuating “the line”.
Among her gallery of friends, all living somehow by the book (the playwright, the poet, the bookshop assistant), the only lines are literary. They gloss life with everyone from Shakespeare to Philip Roth, under-scoring their sense of doubt. Without loyalty or ideology, their relationships take on the hue of power plays – everyone starts to look like a camp follower or a cast-off. Aislinn jettisons friends who become credulous or show bad form, yet admits to her own “heroic fixations” (northern escape artist Morrissey is a predictable choice).
For all their schooled antipathy, however, these aren’t committed bohemians: that would require belief in an alternative. Indeed, Riley is as sceptical about bohemia as the writers she’s been compared to (Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Smart, Marguerite Duras), sharing their awareness that, for women at least, demi-monde living – even a suburban affectation of it – can be just as lonely and diminishing: owning a poster of Baudelaire and quoting Beerbohn doesn’t stop her mother’s second husband from being, like the more traditional first one, a self-obsessed bully.
Other critics have called Riley an existentialist (“Camus in hotpants”, HP Tinker quipped) and there is a strong sense in Opposed Positions of the world-as-trap – for the mother who cannot escape a life of boredom and put-downs, consoling herself with the idea she is “indomitable”, and for the daughter who, refusing such delusion, can make a life only in draft, gestural and disconnected. Being so trapped produces a certain eeriness, which explains Riley’s toying with the gothic. Aislinn imagines herself a “savage ghost” and fears the bitterness of earlier generations will inhabit her; she cannot “outpace these shadows”. She is also suspicious of self-mythology, of attempts at drawing herself out and into narrative. Thinking of the boy who got away, she essays, “We were like children, maybe. (Were we?) Two children fallen in love. Or – I don’t know what to call it.”
It is a scrupulous performance, but in her vigilance (an ingrained sense she must not, as Aislinn’s father keeps taunting, pose or get above herself) Riley is in danger of self-entrapment. Perhaps she has gone as far as she can in this setting and needs to encounter a wider world. She may find there is more room for manoeuvre out there, and a greater range of positions that can be struck.
This review appeared as ‘Life in Draft’ in the TLS on 01.05.2012.