Gretchen Schultz, Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France – TLS
“For Lesbos chose me above any on earth to sing the secret of its flowering maidens”. Baudelaire’s claim of anointment was just one of many hints and explanations – often self-contradicting – given by male, nineteenth century French writers as to why they placed lesbianism so prominently in their work. Kraftt-Ebbing had noted the tendency: “it is a remarkable fact that in fiction, lesbic love is frequently used as a leading theme, viz Diderot…Balzac…Feydeau…Belot…Rachilde.” In Gretchen Schultz’s ambitious cultural history Sapphic Fathers, she shows just how broadly the preoccupation ran: novelists, poets and scientific writers were all fascinated by the secret world of lesbians, or “tribades”, as they were often called. Schultz examines the relationship of these discourses, showing from her readings of symbolist, decadent and naturalist writers, and of popular and pornographic fiction, how literary texts informed scientific understanding of homosexuality. In a concluding chapter she also traces their influence upon readers of twentieth century lesbian pulp fiction – an audience, Schultz supposes, that earlier male writers “could never have imagined”. As studies of influence can be, this is a rather scattered work, and the confusion about its focus isn’t helped by a title alluding only to nineteenth century France while the jacket features American pop art from the 1950s. But if the book fails to cohere in a single convincing narrative, in its separate strands, Schultz shows herself to be a fine close reader and energetic literary detective.
Schultz begins with a discussion of the poetics of identification, looking at the depiction of lesbians in the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine. She argues that despite Baudelaire’s infamous loathing of women – so abominable in their service of nature – he found in the “barren” lesbian a more sympathetic subject, one that intrigued and inspired him. The original title of Fleurs du Mal (1851) was ‘Les Lesbiennes’. Here, Baudelaire imagines the descendants of Sappho as largely ahistorical figures, living in erotic limbo. His “femmes damnées” are, as the poet imagines himself to be, noble in the face of social exile. Baudelaire considers them “grand spirits disdainful of reality”; and it is in “their repudiation of materiality”, Schultz thinks, that their greatness lies. Both poets deploy lesbian speakers as a way of exploring more fluid identities: in Baudelaire’s work this means he can “flirt with femininity” while avoiding having to portray a male love object; in Verlaine, it is often the opposite case: lesbian desire becomes a cover for expressions of love between men. This intersubjectivity in their work, Schutz argues, is an important part of what makes their poetry so revolutionary. Verlaine’s ‘Ballade Sappho’ (1889), for instance, has a slippery narrator, “prince or princess”, who identifies with both the figure of the poet and the female lover of women. It is a poem, Schultz says, “startling…for the sapphicization of its male speaking subject.”
If the symbolists discovered in gay women a potent image of the poet’s condition – at once alienated and alluring – male novelists in the latter half of the nineteenth century tended to represent lesbians as a bellwether for social and political ills. Among the naturalists, who claimed a scientific or objective basis for their fictions, fears about crime, prostitution, social instability and sexual contagion all coalesced in the figure of the lesbian. Among the decadent writers, she was often a vehicle for anti-clericalism (think of all those nuns corrupting their infatuated pupils). Lesbians also featured in much of the popular fiction of the time, and Schultz raises the question of the extent to which in portraying them, writers of the period were simply speculating on the public’s taste and out to make money. The success of Adolphe Belot’s wildly popular serial Mademoiselle Giraud, Ma Femme (1870) about a man who unwittingly marries a lesbian went through 45 editions in five years, infuriating Flaubert: “Public mentality seems to sink lower and lower. To what depths of stupidity will we descend?” Belot’s readership far outstripped even Zola’s – one of the few ‘serious’ writers of the time to achieve a large public for his work. Zola, however, was less hostile. His novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) had been inspired by an earlier Belot novel and in return he reviewed Mademoiselle Giraud, defending it against accusations of immorality. He claimed (as Baudelaire had of his own lesbian poems) that Belot was representing sapphism only to condemn it. When Zola came under attack for his novel Nana (1880), which depicted a sapphist courtesan laying waste to the men of Paris, he fended off accusations of sensationalism and depravity, arguing similarly that his purpose in writing was to shine a light on depravity.
Two final chapters consider the great extent to which early scientific and medical writing about lesbianism, absent of any actual data, was based on these literary representations. Schultz investigates particularly the work of Julian Chevalier, who wrote the first significant history of homosexuality in France, and who was alarmed about literature’s power to incite: “sapphism by literature”, he thought, was a contributing factor in the spread of “the vice”. It was precisely this idea of contagion and inexorable dissemination which Michel Foucault turned on its head in The History of Sexuality (1976) where he described “the shifts and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objects”, and which Schultz follows here in her closing argument about the lasting influence of French sapphic fathers on the readers of American pulp novels (Mademoiselle Lesbian, Appointment in Paris, The French Way). Even if the majority of nineteenth century representations of lesbians had “very little to do with the lives of the women they portrayed”, were voyeuristic, moralizing or abject, Schultz concludes, they still bequeathed to excluded minorities a heritage which placed them inside the culture, providing a store of knowledge, available, as Foucault noted, for their reuse.
Here’s a link to my notes for a panel talk about RAR on 4.11.2015 at Autograph Gallery.
“What on earth inspired you to write that?”, the parents of the eighteen-year-old Françoise Quoirez asked when she finally showed them the novel she had written the summer before. It was the Spring of 1954, and within weeks Bonjour Tristesse would be published by Julliard, becoming one of France’s greatest literary sensations. Quoirez changed her name, choosing the nom de plume Sagan (stealing it from Proust), and the novel in turn changed her life. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about her story is that despite the way in which others tried to fix her as a perpetual enfant terrible, Sagan remained true to herself. After she won the highly prestigious Prix des Critiques, François Mauriac declared, with the condescension shown to the young woman by many of France’s aged literary patriarchs, that she was a “charming little monster”. None of the above, Sagan replied, just an ordinary girl; and besides, she rebuked the critics trying to put her in her place, she wanted a life of “nightclubs, whisky and Ferraris…not cooking, knitting or making do”.
To mark the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan’s son asked the novelist and journalist Anne Berest to write something in commemoration. The work that resulted, Sagan, Paris 1954, is, as Berest confides, “neither a biography, nor a journal, nor a novel.” At times she calls it a “diary” of the few short months it took for Sagan’s book to be published and to take off so spectacularly. The confiding tone is present throughout, though whose confidences are on offer is ambiguous as Berest inserts her own life – a recent separation from her husband, her desire to break from “boxed in” thinking – into the life of the teenage Sagan, then on the verge of success and contemplating the contours of a writing life. This staged intimacy between the author and her subject conveys, in a very French way, the thrill, and the presumption, of biographical writing: “I slip into the mindset of Françoise Sagan as if I were slipping on a pair of silk stockings”. It also dramatizes the biographer as a figure of uncanny power, a Frankenstein animating her creation: “I can wake Françoise up, I can get her to rub her eyes like a child, as she does in a photograph taken in Saint-Tropez in which she is wearing a check nightgown.”
Berest conveys the postwar atmosphere in which Sagan grew up with many sharp aperçus and an eye for sartorial detail. There is the strange interim feel of the 1950s when war ghosts inhabited every building, and, against this, the desire of the young to break free, to live wrecklessly, happily, knowing, as children of war, that “the real God is Chance”. Sagan’s closest friend, Florence, was the daughter of the writer and resistance fighter André Malraux and the two girls were voracious readers, swopping books “as others swopped taffeta frocks”. Berest also describes the masculinity of French literary culture. The fifteen judges of the Prix des Critiques who did so much to advance Sagan’s career were, except for one woman, male, elderly and august. Berest suggests they may have given the prize to such a “budding author” because its protagonist – the gamine, precocious seventeen year old Cécile – not only expresses admiration for older men, but raises the spectre of sexual relations with them.
To help place her subject, Berest conjures other cultural figures of the time. So Sagan is watched from afar by Jean Cocteau, she passes Claude Lévi-Strauss on the street, spies Marguerite Duras asleep in a car, and runs into Pasolini in a restaurant. Some of this is imaginary and it leaves Berest worrying about the “strange form” her book is taking. But an interview with Florence Malraux lets her off the hook: literal truth is not important, what matters is she “write things that ring true”. There is a fine line here between deconstructing creative practice and constantly spotlighting oneself. Literary relationships and studies of influence are, of course, perfectly valid subjects, but the reciprocity Berest imagines between her and Sagan can seem both ersatz and self-justifying. By the end of her book she assures us “I have had the good fortune to become the object of a special affection on [Sagan’s] part…we spoke to each other almost every day.”
Perhaps this kind of fanciful communing (and Berest knows it is fanciful, constantly calling the legitimacy of her enterprise into question) can only be carried off when underpinned by strong insight. The problem is that for the most part she avoids giving a reading of Bonjour Tristesse, concentrating instead on the way in which Sagan has affected her life – a kind of enacted critical response which she translates into the self-reflecting prose of the book. But her actions cast doubt on the depth of her understanding. She visits a clairvoyant who declares that Sagan’s message to her is “Let yourself go”. So she makes a bid for freedom, taking a much younger man to a casino and having a one-night-stand with him. But when he refuses to visit Saint-Tropez with her, she feels the need to lecture him with life lessons (“At your age…”), just as in Bonjour Tristesse, the new lover of Cécile’s father uses her experience and moral certainty to belittle Cécile. Berest’s last book, How To Be a Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits (2014), displays a similar confusion: advertising itself as free-thinking, it is full of rules on “how to be a woman”.
In Sagan, Paris 1954, Berest provides a creditable introduction to the young writer and the milieu from which she emerged, but her attempts to use Sagan as a model for her own liberation are less successful. She tells the young man that Sagan’s ultimate “message” is: “seek what is important, don’t seek to be important”. Her own advice – “the most charming thing of all is to be attractive without trying” – belongs to the impossible rules of French etiquette for women which encourage self-absorption and limit freedom – the very thing Sagan is at pains to decipher in Bonjour Tristesse. Ultimately it is Berest’s inability to let go of herself, to move beyond her own narcissism, that prevents her from really inhabiting Sagan’s bohemian “mindset”.
Just over a century after Virginia Woolf declared that “On or about December 1910, human character changed”, the American novelist, Hanya Yanagihara, has announced a new shift in consciousness. Jude, the lead character in her novel, A Little Life, is known to his friends as The Postman, “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past”. The obscurity of his origins (left at birth in a garbage bin) and a childhood of horrific abuse mean he is determined to draw a veil over his past, making him the most mysterious of the four male New York friends at the heart of Yanagihara’s story. However his condition is only an extreme – and negative – version of the ambiguity that characterizes all the people around him, among whom identity is continually in flux and up for renegotiation. When one friend, Malcolm, declares that he is not black, and another, Willem, that he is not gay, it is not because they are ashamed of being either, but because they are insisting on a complexity these terms do not allow. The past still infects them (a third friend, JB, paints himself as Steppin Fetchit and ridicules Malcolm as an Uncle Tom), but in the main they have unparalleled liberty to create themselves as they wish, embodying a new kind of self, one with more freedom than ever before.
Some American critics have hailed A Little Life as a great gay novel, pointing to how its melodrama fits the tortured sensibility of much queer literature, and how its portrayal of isolation, fear and shame, but also of enduring friendship, reflects the experience of many gay men, particularly those who lived through the AIDS crisis. But gays are just the advance party for the culture that Yanagihara describes here, their networks of cooperation now the organizing principle of many urban lives in which traditional structures of support have collapsed or been jettisoned. Jude’s illness, a matter of non-specific painful “episodes” and a body riddled with sores, is deliberately not named as AIDS, in keeping with much else that is left vague or seeming implausible.
Like Karl Ové Knausgaard, who in equally vast novels has also tried to represent the new self, Yanagihara achieves great psychological realism through her reporting of the stifling repetitions of daily life, the sense of entrapment, in Jude’s case, exacerbated by his defensiveness and horror of intimacy. But at the same time, her story is so excessive it seems to levitate out of history, edging towards the mythic or incredible. As a child Jude meets cruelty everywhere; in adulthood, equally unlikely, nearly everyone shows him kindness and constant solicitousness, including the couple who materialise, as if in a fairy tale, wishing to adopt the thirty year old man. More than this, there are no dates or political events, women are almost entirely absent, and though in this enchanted place everyone becomes successful and travels the world, nothing external makes any impression upon their wealthy New York enclave.
As the novel proceeds the narrative becomes even narrower, focusing on Jude and his inability to thrive in this free world, to overcome his almost Victorian sense of being “ruined”. Soon he stops working in the District Attoney’s office and starts defending pharmaceutical and insurance companies. It is a move neither he nor his friends approve of, but the professional anonymity provides a safe-haven from his fear of exposure and temporary respite from the cutting he inflicts upon himself – the only control he can exert over his tortured body and emotions.
The interesting question about A Little Life is why Yanagihara makes the choice to so relentlessly pursue Jude, magnifying his pain and isolation, but also indulging the narcissism of his little life. One answer might be that it allows her to deepen an exploration of what adulthood means for this generation, largely unconstrained by spouse or children and vulnerable to accusations of immaturity. In the context of their radical individualism, Jude is a nightmare of unfreedom: a child who can’t grow up, sickened by his weakness and dependency. This condition is so shameful it transfers itself to everyone he comes into contact with, spreading guilt among the freedom-seekers like a contagion.
As her story unfolds, Yanagihara risks a good deal of vulgarity – relying on the secrecy of child abuse to create narrative tension, sensationalizing horror of the disabled body – but the payoff for her daring is that it yields complexity. If Jude is full of shame, it is induced by forces beyond his control. And he has resources of hope, continually trying again after every setback or failure. In this way, he epitomizes our struggle for autonomy, but also all the forces that militate against us. Ultimately Jude loses the battle, and Yanagihara’s greatest risk is that she suggests we see in his defeat an adult choice, a final act of sovereignty over his little life.
This article appeared in the Spectator as The Lonely Struggle of Jude the Obscure on 14.8.2015.
Like any art, the novel has always been in the business of self-justification. But perhaps because of its dependence on the book – a small object easily burned or confiscated – it has been particularly concerned by threats to its existence. To these, the novel has responded by parading its own importance, with self-exploration, bragging narrators, and unshockable worldliness, or by stories about machines and political systems intent on the book’s eradication, such as 1984 (1949) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). In the twenty-first century, with the spread of smartphones and portable computers, and the rise of a small number of global corporations controlling them, a new literary genre is emerging. Still in its infancy, the internet novel is interesting as much for what it tells us about the precarious state of fiction in an era when, as Joshua Cohen observes, “they’re phasing out the ink stuff”, as for the myriad ways in which networked technology now permeates our lives. Recent examples include Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013), about a company surveilling the whole of humanity, Thomas Pynchon’s investigation of the Deep Web in Bleeding Edge (2013), and Isabelle Allende’s consideration of online gaming in Ripper (2014). Now there is Cohen’s Book of Numbers, the most comprehensive of its ilk to date, giving us the history of the internet through the story of the largest tech company in the world, Tetration, (the name means “exponentiated by itself”).
Like Yossarian in Catch 22, who interprets war as an attack on him individually, Cohen takes the internet personally: after all, viability is what’s at stake here, too. Demonstrating just how personally, he names his principal character, a failed novelist, after himself, following Philip Roth’s ‘Philip Roth’ and Paul Auster’s ‘Paul Auster’. To underline his point and outclass the competition, he calls a second character by the same name. This ‘Joshua Cohen’ is Tetration’s founder, an affectless geek born in the 1960s, marked by a mix of influences peculiar to his time and place. His family have gone from shtetl to Stanford in three generations, and to their Judaic tradition have been added the Californian ingredients of start-up capitalism, second wave feminism, macrobiotic diets and Buddhist philosophy. Two further characters complete Cohen’s quartet (four is the important number in Book of Numbers): Moe, the Hindu programming genius behind Tetration, an illegal migrant with a suitcase-full of pseudonyms, who wants to develop the net’s “reversible” potential for “freecommerce” and giving back, and the company president, Kor Dienerowitz, the money guy who thinks he can exploit the freely-given work and socially produced information upon which the net is built.
Cohen tracks the story from obscure beginnings, when early computer work was funded by universities and the military, to the development of machines, gadgets, programmes and apps, now so ubiquitous they “invent us”. This, of course, is the territory of the novel, which means that Book of Numbers is haunted by an ominous sense of exile and obsolescence, something magnified by Cohen’s claiming of the novel for Jewish culture, and by his hero’s preoccupation with the holocaust. At the same time, it is precisely this culture which enriches Book of Numbers, informing its scepticism about power (“never be a sucker”), tendency to digression and over-interpretation (“or else it’s vice versa”, “then again maybe not”), love of words, deployment of jokes, and most importantly, its sense of emanating from a long narrative tradition, being, at least in part, a story of the people of the book (“some of that is a Jew thing”). Specifically, Book of Numbers mimics the fourth book of the Torah, with its tale of the internet generation forever searching for “content that never contents”, in Cohen’s memorable phrase. Unlike the culture and heritage of the book, this content cannot be passed on because it is always provisional, never a final resting place.
By making the novel partisan in this way, Cohen sets up many serio-comic rivalries. His beleaguered novelist-hero is resentful not only of the net, but of the Muslim bombers who upstaged his novel the day after its publication on September 10, 2001; of a publishing industry now dealing in adaptations, properties, options, anything but books, which failed to support this epic work about his mother’s survival of the holocaust; and of all the bad writers in his life, including his Pulitzer-winning best friend, and his “x2b” wife, therapy-blogging their relationship. The most important rivalry, of course, lies between the two Cohens. Tetration’s CEO subjects his namesake to ignominy by employing him to ghostwrite his autobiography, meaning that although the novelist’s name will appear on the book no one will know he is the author. Furthermore, to underscore his authority, the tech boss demands that everyone call him Principal.
Despite his insistence, Principal doesn’t get the last word, or even the first. The story we are reading is not his, but the New York writer’s, a sprawling dairy containing family memoirs, extracts from Jewish websites, his friend’s journalism, his wife’s blogs and her lover’s emails, together with accounts of his new world adventures on the trail of Principal (in Palo Alto, Dubai, Abu Dhabi), and then through the old world (Germany, Austria) in search of the “forbidden” young “Arabess” he has fallen for. Encased in the middle of this record of his life are taped interviews with Principal, drafts of the ‘autobiography’ with acerbic comments and interpolations, and even sections of deleted material, scored through but still legible, as work in progress appears on a computer screen. It’s written as Beta programming is, with everything included and open to revision – historically a mark of the novel’s intellectual integrity, its lack of parochialism, but, here, also a way of revealing how the net’s immediacy and lack of mediation puts pressure on the novel, making its unfolding narratives seem archaic and slow by comparison.
By early 1996, they were set – they had everything but a name.
THIS IS JUST POINTLESS FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK
Q=0138471E:A bv.ghhgty qp83ur j ;j “1aa0,2s9l38ddytvnm,.//
‘Cohen’ then, is implicated in the new technology and the businesses which deliver it (which writer today is not?) but these changes are still recent enough for him to feel cheated out of a literary legacy he believes himself heir to. He opens with an attention-grabbing salvo attacking the reader’s betrayal of the book with those sterile machines: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands”. In a monograph Cohen published in 2013, much indebted to Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Attention! A (short) history, he notes the etymology of “attention”: “to grip…to grasp…to take with the hands or hold/mold with the fingers”. This is suggestive of the compact between the grasping reader and shaping writer, a relationship endangered by the keystroke’s “wordprocessing, textgenerating”, and the net’s stream of information, all of it alterable or deletable. Hence ‘Cohen’s’ assertion that while books are made of organic stuff – “hair and plant fibres, glue from boiled horsehooves” – his laptop threatens to stem his creativity and make him infertile, its “waveparticles… reaching my genitals and frying my sperm”.
For all that Cohen demonstrates the threats now facing the novelist in Book of Numbers, he also responds triumphantly to these post-literate times, reiterating the novel’s capacity to absorb new technologies and counter the ways in which they externalize and alienate. In Attention, Cohen argues that the vastness of the net is almost “unwordable”, but in Book of Numbers he re-humanizes its language. He does this with a brilliant facility for voice, conveying all “the lexicon of the prevailing Esperanto”, but primarily with “the unshakeable Jew belief in continuity, narrative, plot”, shaping a history which reminds us the net is not some external force acting upon us, but a product of our work and imagination. If there are times when his record of this tradition, and its successive generations of technological innovation, threatens to overwhelm the story, in the main, Cohen’s writing finds the poetry and pity of our times, and the progress of his characters, self-aware about even their delusions, keeps the reader gripped.
Yet it is in its fidelity to tradition that Book of Numbers poses its greatest challenge. Cohen’s narrator, the egotistical and embattled writer, is as intelligent, witty and provocative as any of his literary predecessors. But something has happened to the worldliness that made this figure such a knowing – and by the reader, trusted – guide. Cohen’s lament is not just for the passing of the book, but for the Jews, once cultural vanguards whose deracination made them exemplary chaperones (think of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses), now finding themselves overtaken: “All pens at the very end of their ink begin to write in Arabic.” When “Cohen” finally tracks down the Yemeni woman he has been pursuing, he notices the names outside her building, all written “in a script resembling my testing this pen, licking its tip then testing again”. But the test she presents is one he walks away from, and she remains only a notional figure (“it wasn’t you…it was a dream”), gestured to in shorthand, like the politics underpinning these cultural shifts: “Also, Israel.”; “(Palestinian Territories)”. Back in America, in a taxi riding home to his mother, ‘Cohen’ muses on how “it used to be”: how he would engage an Arab driver with his habitual Jewish talkiness, wanting to show “that I held by what that Berber slave playwright once wrote, nothing human was alien to me, or rattling, wanting to show respect by talking politics domestic and foreign.” But his worldliness deserts him, and once again “this moment, this intersection” seems beyond him. Unable to acknowledge how this has come to pass, yet wanting to retain a belief in the conviviality of his twinned traditions – the novel’s and the Jew’s – the writer comforts himself with the fantasy that maybe he has said something after all.
This review appeared as ‘The content that never contents” in the TLS on 17.7.2015.
“If only you could have understood, just once, how everything joined up.” Time and again, Per Olov Enquist addresses himself with this lament in the pages of his autobiographical novel, The Wandering Pine. The desire to make narrative sense out of the haphazard or mysterious is a common enough motive for life-writing. In Enquist’s case, the wish to understand “how could it turn out so badly?”, is charged with the suggestion that the “it” in question, is not only his life, but that of Swedish social democracy. Enquist is one of his country’s most eminent writers and as an award-winning novelist, playwright and journalist he has often been at the heart of its political and cultural debates. The Wandering Pine, rather like Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, is a fascinating portrait of intellectual life in the twentieth century. But whereas Miller portrayed himself with the monumentality of a Mount Rushmore carving, Enquist is ironic and self-condemning. (It’s hard to imagine the American writing of himself, “He experiences it all and understands nothing.”) Crucially, Enquist’s book advertises itself not as memoir but fiction, with the subtitle, “Life as a Novel”, and it plays out in the third, not the first person, dividing “Enquist” between the judging narrator and the hapless creature being written about. It’s a division that underscores the impossibility of things ever being “joined up”, and the novel’s stoicism in the face of this.
The idea that life should have order and coherence was embedded deep in Enquist’s childhood. Growing up in a small village, without father or siblings, he had an intense relationship with his mother, a protestant schoolteacher who taught the native values of honesty, fairness and cooperation with an iron rod. One painfully funny passage has the innocent boy inventing a crime he can admit to at the weekly confession she demands he perform. This fabrication is something like Enquist’s original sin, suggesting a connection between creativity and madness, an idea he pursues in stories about relatives locked up in attics for their inclination to writing or wandering. It suggests, too, how the dogmatic imposition of reason results in lies, guilt and absurdity, leading to a sense of hypocrisy from which Enquist – and Scandinavian social democracy – can never quite escape. “He finds it natural that he is good”, Enquist writes of his young self, but the constant emphasis on goodness causes him to daydream about how it would be if he were not. Corporal punishment is forbidden, yet he “hankers after a taste of it”. It is this paradox Enquist identifies between goodness and its discontents, which fuels so much contemporary Scandinavian literature, from Steig Larsson’s indictments of racism, misogyny and corporate greed, to Karl Ové Knausgaard’s complaints about homogeneity and infantilization.
The toughness of village life through long snowbound winters turns Enquist into an athlete, but when he arrives at university in Uppsala he discovers that intellectuals “are silent on the subject of sport” and his interest makes him seem an oddball in cultural circles. His sense of being an outsider persists, even as he advances to the heart of Swedish life – working as a cultural commissioner for the government, debating with Olof Palme – yet it is just this feeling of being peripheral that makes him such an exemplary Scandinavian. For a while, in the relaxed climate of the 1960s, his isolation and awkwardness fall away and he takes part in heady experiments in sex, drugs, politics and art. He writes a non-fiction book about the Baltic soldiers who were handed over to the Soviets by the Swedish authorities at the end of the war, which proves to be an unexpected, if controversial, success: in a country that prides itself on its reputation for decency, probing the murky past, he is told, is “inappropriate”.
Enquist’s work also gains a reputation – for iconoclasm and obliquity, making him ever more determined to get to the centre of things. Moving to Berlin, he is caught up in the Baader-Meinhof story. Yet even here, in the heat of history, he feels the “cancer” of his goodness makes it hard for him to “understand the grime of life” or the youthful disobedience he witnesses all around. Working at the Munich Olympics as a sports reporter, he stumbles into the event which marks a fundamental shift in global politics, though he fails to grasp this at the time. (No one does.) Then at home, the mood turns darker. The happy, open, permissive Swedes are troubled to find even they are not immune to the prevailing mood of conservativism: political debates no longer focus on the different futures proposed by communists, syndicalists or social democrats, but on crime and immigration, as people look for someone to blame for threats to the Swedish way of life.
At some point in all this Enquist starts drinking. His decline is intermittent and though he suffers from writer’s block, there are still periods of productivity, including a new career in the theatre which takes him to Broadway. Despite such successes, he senses he is increasingly in the grip of something destructive, even if he is unable to identify precisely what it is or “how it all went wrong”. Friends check him into rehab but, rationalist that he is, he finds it hard to accept the religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous. On his second incarceration, this time in a clinic in Iceland, he bolts, fleeing shoeless into the glacial night. Finally, he finds more sympathetic treatment in Copenhagen, and begins an autobiographical novel, his own secular tale of “resurrection”. Enquist never drinks again. Why he started and why he has stopped are questions he cannot answer, but his recovery has something to do with finding his way back to the stories of his early life, to his mother’s powerful belief in goodness, and to his laptop’s “funny brownish-red light like a lamp in the darkness”.
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations is the third in a loose trilogy of state-of-the-nation novels. Rather like David Hare who in a trio of plays in the early 1990s, examined labour politics, the Church and the law, O’Hagan has explored the decline of the Left in Our Fathers (1999); religion, sexuality and nationality in Be Near Me (2006); and now in The Illuminations, the military, specifically Britain’s involvement in the so-called “humanitarian wars”. Unlike Hare, however, O’Hagan is not a polemical writer, and he shares the viewpoint of the those on the ground rather than the top brass. Each novel in this trilogy depicts inter-generational relationships, allowing him to scrutinize the present not simply on its own terms but in the often indicting light of the past. His fiction hovers between then and now, between lives understood through class and community, and the atomized selves we currently inhabit – but the animating morality of his work derives from a time before anyone suggested society might not exist. Older people inhabit his novels in their own right, but their presence also directs attention to lives routinely discounted or abandoned, pricking the conscience of the reader and making us reflect on our complicity in Britain’s “new-style social anomie”, in the “vast carelessness” O’Hagan once identified, which facilitated Fred and Rosemary West.
If the backward-looking portion of O’Hagan’s work is fuelled by his Scottish, working class origins, his reading of the present seems influenced by his second writing life, as a journalist. Joining the London Review of Books at a young age, (he was a protegé of Karl Miller, to whom The Illuminations is dedicated), and perhaps wishing to offset the sway of the past, he has specialized in exemplary subjects of the technology and celebrity age, writing about video games, fake internet personas, child Jihadis, surveillance and paedophillia. This fascination with the contemporary and voguish is also evident in his remaining books: The Missing (1995), written in the wake of the West murders; Personality (2003), about an anorexic child star, and The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and his Friend Marilyn Monroe (2010), a sidelong view of America’s most famous woman, narrated by the pet Frank Sinatra once gave her.
Now, in The Illuminations, O’Hagan examines the bond between an old woman struggling with the mysteries of her past, and a young man, harrowed by war in the fracturing present. Despite their different predicaments they recognize themselves in one another, and this recognition between them is a sustaining secret.
Living in sheltered accommodation in Scotland, Anne Quirk is declining into dementia even as the memories of her carefully guarded life flood back. Her grandson, Luke, is on the other side of the world in Afghanistan, leading a platoon of video-gaming, drug-fuelled young soldiers in a delivery of equipment to an electricity plant – a symbol of the war’s ostensibly civilizing purpose. At first their stories are held apart, told in chapters so different in character they seem not to have come from the same novel. But when Luke’s troupe is ambushed and in the mayhem a village decimated – “young boys lay in heaps”, women wailing – he returns home to Scotland. Here he finds consolation in the grandmother who taught him as a boy that the world’s chaos might be captured and illuminated through “artistic ordering”.
Anne was once a photographer, though her work has long since fallen from notice. Her way of lighting up ordinary moments taught Luke about the transcendent possibilities of art and offered him escape from a humdrum existence: “Anne had given him the world not as it was but as it might be.” That he gets to university only to choose an army life rather than an artist’s, seems perverse, but enlisting is his way of emulating a soldier father, killed in Northern Ireland, and the books he’s read have filled him with ideas of honourable service. Moreover, there is something of Anne’s creative instinct in his desire to “order the future”. Once in Afghanistan, though, this is revealed as a deformation of the artistic impulse, and Luke merely an “agent of fantasy”, ordering the world by policing it.
The revelation that art can be a passport out of a poor life recurs in O’Hagan’s work. Of the Scottish filmmaker, Bill Douglas’s journey from penury to artistry, he once wrote, “He must have realised that self-enlargement and self-invention were everything a boy from Newcraighall could hope for,” and his founding act as a novelist, in the first few pages of Our Fathers, was to pay tribute to a woman who marks out a boy, giving him books to help expand his life, rather than succumb to the mean one he is allotted: “My books kept me living, I was in love with what they knew.” In The Illuminations Luke is similarly anointed by Anne (“she made him unusual”), the distinction of art separating them from others, making them, as Anne’s surname suggests, quirky. As if to emphasize this difference, both characters have relationships with people trapped by the conformity grandmother and grandson evade. Anne’s next door neighbour, Maureen, is all bitter complaint at being left behind by her family, at having lived only a confined woman’s life; while Luke’s commander, Scullion, who, like him, has romantic ideas about the heroism of soldiering, cracks under the hypocrisy of too many wars which despite their humanitarian label, belie any notion of the good.
Some of The Illuminations’s strongest effects are achieved with the simple use of contrast. O’Hagan deploys it – as Anne does photographic contrast – to “not only…get at life, but to enhance it”. So Anne and Maureen, living in sheltered accommodation, talk in an equally sheltering language, in homely phrases (“a scarf’s like a friend, isn’t it?”) and familiar sayings (“everybody has their problems”, “you give them the best years of your life”); while the soldiers, actors on a global stage, “had their own language and said whatever they wanted” (“cocknoshers”, “drill-pig”, “fuck-o-nometry”). But this inventive talk is all diversion and bluff, the freedom it implies, an illusion. Their lives, too, are horribly inevitable: in both places people are stricken and die, the only difference is the suddenness with which it happens.
These contrasts also reveal some of the novel’s weaknesses. While Anne’s life is illustrative of the way in which women are often hidden from history – there is the clandestine affair with a married man, the interrupted and forgotten career – it is also plausibly idiosyncratic. Anne’s secret past sheds light on her guardedness, her feeling for mystery in art and for the special knowledge of “how to read a person” which she passes on to her grandson. By contrast, Luke’s familiar story of disillusionment with war and the difficulty of returning home, strains to achieve broader resonance. There are several voices in the novel lambasting the soldiers’ insularity (“You want to burn away the enemy and scorch their minds, without knowing what their mind is”), but O’Hagan is equally unilluminating about the Afghans, presenting only the blinkered view of Luke and his men. As a consequence, many passages fall into cliché: the single Afghan portrayed is a caricature ‘baddie’, one-eyed, “unadult” and treacherous, and the violence of the ambush scene aestheticized, as it might be in one of the video games the soldiers are continually hooked up to (“shattered pomegranates”, almonds “that seem to explode”, “rose petals on the road, “blood running into dust”).
Once home, now believing the war to be predicated on a senseless idea (to “obliterate ignorance with firepower”), Luke argues with those Scots advocating independence, judging them also to be “agents of fantasy”, caught up in a regressive nationalism. Life is now technological and global, he proclaims, everyone has their dreams and no one has a monopoly on decency: “There’s no nation, Mum. There’s only people surfing the Net.” This new Google globalism, though, is as valueless to Luke as the flags and drums of the old nationalism. In the war he has suffered “a loss of make-believe” and once again it is to Anne that he turns to try and recover this, taking her on a journey back into history, to Blackpool where she had her affair, and to see the town’s illuminations.
Luke’s creative power revives as he makes believe Anne’s dementia is not a tragic decline, but a new journey they are embarking on together. In this way, he keeps faith with her and the transporting imagination she revealed to him as a boy. Yet there is something cramping in the way O’Hagan’s story turns back and in upon itself, looking for its resources in the already known (“A feeling of optimism fell from the deep past”); a limitation, too, in Luke’s private code of art which fails when confronted by the other or the new. It’s as if the larger questions are beyond the novel’s purview, and against a war, “dirty as fuck”, or a nation dismantling itself, art can only offer the reinstatement of humane behavior, of small, good, but quite intangible things, and of “artistic ordering”. That scarf – the reassuring friend – mentioned at the beginning of The Illuminations, reappears at the end. Luke takes Anne and a friend down to the beach, Anne’s scarf blows up into the air, “the girls laughing as it stretched up and a hand reached out for the sun.”
This review appeared in the TLS on 27.3.2015, titled ‘Order and Light’.