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Annie Ernaux, The Years (translated by Alison L Strayer); Happening (translated by Tanya Leslie) – TLS


In 1982 the French structuralist critic, Gärard Genette, suggested that we think about texts as palimpsests, overlaying earlier writings from which they imitate and borrow. Annie Ernaux alludes to this in The Years, her outstanding new memoir of France since the Second World War, writing of the “palimpsest sensation” in which different moments of life “float on top of each other”. This sensation of inhabiting different times simultaneously has inspired her to write a book “base[d]…on real experience”, where the past is always present. Yet rather than any relationship to what has come before, English language reviewers, reading Alison L Strayer’s sensitive translation, have been struck by The Years’ startling originality, finding in Ernaux’s history of consciousness something radically new. Edmund White begins his New York Times review stating, “This is an autobiography unlike any you have ever read”, while John Banville makes an even larger claim, declaring: “The Years is a revolution, not only in the art of autobiography but in art itself.” The innovation they are pointing to derives not from Ernaux’s melée of styles and sources – we are accustomed to texts that mingle recollection, dreams and meditation with literary quotation and official histories – but from her reimagining of the memoir itself.

The Years dilates the genre from a record of the intimate and subjective to an account of collective experience. It is a masterly and audacious work that dares to speak for a generation, and to do so at a time when, as Ernaux observes, the glut of photographs and films on digital technology is supplanting human recollection, bringing “another form of past…into being…with little real memory content”. The questions of how to retrieve the past under these circumstances, and of how to conceive of our relation to what we call history, are discussed throughout Ernaux’s book. Her stated aim is to “reconstitute a common time”, and to “capture the lived dimension of history”. In search of this elusive dimension – something more accidental and scattered than the grand historical narratives of agency and progress suggest – she uses manifold techniques. A suspicion of causality in conventional histories leads to the “search for a self outside of History, the self of suspended moments”, and she imagines these as an “image of light and shadow streaming over faces”. But The Years is also notable for the weight of sociological data it contains, and for its passionate taxonomies, seizing upon each new realm of human ingenuity and productivity.

This dual emphasis on the transcendent and the material makes it hard to divine whether Ernaux, like many of the postmodern thinkers she cites in her memoir, takes the Althusserian view that history creates us (rather than the other way around). She describes the excitement and freedom generated by successive machines, from cars to computers. But as her chronology progresses, she also reveals a European people increasingly conditioned by capitalist advertising and consumerism, their memory and imagination annexed by technology, preoccupied more with the goods that they own than the good that they do. Perhaps, though, the Althusser question is the wrong one and Ernaux’s originality consists in her refusal to treat these categories as mutually exclusive, or at least in her attempt to convey a more ambiguous relationship between them. In her pursuit of the way “time courses through us”, Ernaux catches what’s in the air and then embodies it: she lists and glosses ideas, fashions and beliefs as they change with the times, in turn, reconfiguring our sense of who we are. After the war she describes how “We lived in a scarcity of everything, of objects, images, distractions, explanations of the self”. Forty years later, by contrast, she finds, “We were inundated with explanations of self”. Rather than Marx’s historical actors, destined in their behaviour, Ernaux shows people in flux (“thrown into history” as Heidegger put it): struggling to engage, often missing out on big events, only intermittently active in the public realm, as if history was something we could slip in and out of: “we entered history again, abortion rights demo”. At other times, though, people are caught up in the euphoric sweep of ideas and events, in the rush of the new – “another great story emerged” – leaving little sense of how human agency created these things and brought them into being. More often what The Years reminds us of is the frequency with which we are taken off-guard by history when the world suddenly catches alight.

Ernaux’s starting point is 1940, the year she was born. Beginning with the traditional society of post-war France she tracks the movements, ideas and inventions that splintered – and in some cases bolstered – the nation’s homogeneity: the movement of people into suburbs and cities, the progressive enthralment to consumer goods, the explosive radicalism and creative energy of 1968, the dawning awareness of gender inequality coupled with relaxing attitudes to sex and the declining influence of the Catholic Church. Perhaps most depressing – and this is one of the themes that casts doubt on the idea of historical progress – is the persistent ignorance of, and hostility to, migrants: “That they called themselves French, we privately found absurd.” Coupled with this is the degree to which the country, despite rapid global changes affecting it, has remained consistent in its habits and mindset. One of The Years’ central tropes is the family meal, giving the sense that whatever else happens in France there will always be a table laden with “hors d’oeuvres and fois gras”. In the immediate aftermath of war, Ernaux tells us, most French people “spent their lives within the same fifty kilometre radius”. For many the world beyond was gleaned only in the pages of Constellation (the French equivalent of Reader’s Digest), with its tagline: “the world seen in French”; while a postcard from a cousin doing military service in Tunisia would invoke “a state of dreamy stupor”. For the time, such attitudes are not unexpected, but what’s striking in Ernaux’s account, is how romantic and parochial the French worldview remains, how crude an understanding it has of its colonial past. As late as the 1990s she writes: “it was tacitly acknowledged that Africa lived in an earlier period of history, with barbarian customs…”

All this Ernaux relays without the testifying authority of a single voice. Instead, The Years is narrated with compelling force in generalisations and imperatives that gather ‘everyone’ up in the tide of history: “people said”, “everyone had started to believe”, “we berated ourselves for”. Within this collectivism, though, different perspectives emerge. The first, and perhaps most profound, is between generations. In relating the national and the family story from one generation to the next, Ernaux not only exposes the gulf of experience and understanding between “the old farts” and “the whatever generation”, she also makes us question the reliability of memory and the partisanship of story-telling. Those who lived through the war explain how they once thought and spoke about themselves: “From a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” The nature of that “common ground”, and the challenges posed to it as the years roll on is one of Ernaux’s central concerns. Implicit here is that her own use of the “‘we’ voice”, while encompassing the truth of a generation born of war, “hunger and fear”, is also one distinct from it, carrying critique: after all, not everyone was “equally affected by events”, there were collaborators as well as resisters. And later in her story, the “we” Ernaux presents, poses the question of who is not included in the collective: a “they” beginning to arrive in France’s larger cities. Refugees from Algeria and beyond, are noted, mostly for the hostility they provoke. In its failure to accept these newcomers and their diverse experiences, the shared French narrative starts to appear more exclusionary and coercive.

Interrogating the meaning of “common ground” more directly, Ernaux uses her own life as the spine of this communal tale. In a way that is still unusual, the unnamed woman at the heart of The Years is an exemplary figure: (as far as anyone is capable of) she stands for the whole. This has an interesting effect on the narrative, opening up possible new meanings. One is the suggestion that those traits once taken to be feminine – demonstrated in the woman’s uncertainty and confliction– are understood now as more expressive of the universal condition. Similarly, it is perhaps the woman’s marginalisation that best conveys the writer’s sense of how history is experienced. Just as Ernaux tells us repeatedly that this “she” (never an “I”) holds back at the family dinners which punctuate the book, while men take centre stage, determining the conversation, so her engagement with historical events is sporadic, mediated, accidental (she is fractionally too old to feel the full rapture of youth during May ’68, having already settled into the life of a mother and housewife), or it is associative (what she recalls of the miners’ strike is how clammy the weather was).

As a girl she develops a sense of who she is from the stories told to her: “family history is social history”. But at the same time, there arises a suspicion of what these heroic tales omit (French collaboration), and their subsuming of her experience into the adults’. Worst of all is the dispossession she experiences when shown photographs of herself as a baby and is unable to recognise herself in them. This is perhaps a reference to Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase, just as later one can detect Sausserian ideas about language, and nods to other structuralist thinkers who were so influential in shaping the mind of Ernaux’s generation, teaching them to look behind received meanings and habits of thinking, but also foretelling a future “depleted of reality”. During the steel workers strike while the men are burning tyres Ernaux’s woman passes by on a train reading Foucault’s The Order of Things. In a way that speaks volumes about French culture, it is not thought worthy of comment that a schoolteacher should be reading Foucault, nor that this collective portrait should pay so much attention to the country’s intellectuals, its secular saints. The deaths of Sartre, De Beauvoir, Barthes, Genet and Camus are one of the constants that toll through the book – defining events that mark the passage of time, but also, under pressure from the “commercial imagination” co-opting all spheres of thought, the decline of the public intellectual.

Another recurring trope in The Years is Ernaux’s use of photographs (and later home-movies and videos). These are presented in a dispassionate manner, describing from posterity the woman posing for the camera and speculating on her thoughts, or sometimes lack of them. As a teenager, The Years describes the collision of bodies and ideas: “We were overcome by nausea and the absurd. The sticky body of adolescence met the superfluous being of existentialism.” Later there is the thrill of Foucault’s proposition of a life without sin: “Adults suspected us of being corrupted by modern writers and of having no respect for anything.” But as her life proceeds there is an increasingly Woolfian sense of the traps of time. Ernaux counts down the woman’s biological clock, noting the redundancy she experiences after a certain age. Her residual pleasure in “having once again ‘been a good hostess’”, “mindful to play the role of moderator”, also seems like a Woolfian compensation, of the kind afforded to Mrs Dalloway. The woman’s feelings about biology and time connect the concerns of postwar French theorists such as Kristeva, Cixous and Irigary to the earlier English writer. But Ernaux’s representation of a C21st French woman still imprisoned by her body feels oddly anachronistic, as if she was living out of time, her biology a truer determiner of self than the ideas that emancipated her in youth, or the laws, Ernaux records, slowly advancing women’s control of their bodies.

The woman works outside the home, but it is her interior sense of self that Ernaux concentrates on. Over the years, her role of hostess is a constant one, while her job away from the family is only cursorily alighted on, as if it were a less real part of her existence. Underscoring this, there is just one photograph of her as a teacher together with a group of mixed-race students. Rather than an actor in the world, Ernaux focusses more on her habits as a bourgeois figure, consuming goods, which feeds into another central, and increasingly dispiriting, theme of The Years: that of commodity fetishism. Because Ernaux’s emblematic figure is a woman, she comes at times into troubling alliance with the mindless consumer whose attachments to things make her appear homogenized and superficial. And yet it is this opacity which also gives her a spectral presence in the text, just as humans have in history. Reading this way, the woman’s enigma is suggestive not only of a notion of femininity still widespread in France, but of the difficulty of apprehending humans in time.

Ernaux’s elegant solution to these problems – of how to know ourselves and how to unravel the mystery of what animates us – is, of course, to write. In The Years the desire for a literature of her own builds in the woman’s life to the point where its pressure finally disintegrates the text. The Years comes to an end fragmenting into snatches of memory, both collective and individual, small radiant moments suffused with “a light from before”. The book the woman will write is the book Ernaux has written, and in it she has discovered a way for the woman, in all her obscurity and doubt, to epitomize us: “She will go within herself only to retrieve the world”. It is a defiant and triumphant assertion of the humanist idea that anyone can speak for everyone, and in each of us we can find something of us all.

Several years before writing her collective epic, Ernaux published a slim volume of memoir, Happening, now translated into English by Tanya Leslie. This is a more conventional autobiography being a personal story about an abortion the author had as a young woman. But it foreshadows The Years in several ways, not least in its final epiphany that an experience which was once confined to the margins – regarded as private and shameful – might become, through writing, legible and even liberating. “Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.” At a time of increasing separation between nations and individuals, Ernaux reminds us of our shared humanity and the importance of extolling – however various we become – the common ground we all inhabit.

This review appeared in the TLS on 26.7.2019 as Time’s Arrow.

Nawal El Saadawi, Writing and Fighting – TLS


“If I find pen and paper, that is more dangerous than finding a gun”, an officer announced when Nawal El Saadawi was imprisoned in Al-Qanater jail in 1981 for “crimes against the state” (she had been running a feminist magazine). Despite this warning, in Walking Through Fire, the second volume of her autobiography, following Daughter of Isis (1999), El Saadawi describes how she managed to hide writing implements under the floor of the cell that she shared with twelve other women – an assortment of Marxists and prostitutes who had also fallen foul of Anwar Sadat’s regime. Her smuggled notes were published a few years later as Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, part of an extraordinary body of work from Egypt’s most prominent and longstanding dissident which includes memoirs, travelogues, novels, stories, plays and polemic. For El Saadawi, keeping pen and paper close to hand has been a lifelong habit. As a child she hid them under her pillow at night, and as writing was always associated in her mind with death, she asked a teacher if she would find them waiting for her in Paradise – a question that led to her expulsion. As an adult she keeps them next to her bed, ready to dash down whatever ideas surface from her sleeping mind. To deprive her of these vital tools, or to ban the writing that ensues from them – as politicians and clerics have tried throughout her life – has only roused her to action. “It was pen and paper that made me divorce two husbands”, she writes defiantly in one of many sentences that jump off the pages of this memoir like a raised fist.

From the outset El Saadawi understood, as the Australian novelist, Christina Stead, once put it, that “to write is to fight”, and for women in a highly patriarchal society, this is doubly so. “She spoke the unspeakable”, Margaret Atwood thought. In her writing she has been a pioneer, exposing truths about her own life and the lives of other women that few before her had dared to utter in public. These memoirs continue this tradition, counting out her life in a series of trials and betrayals. At the age of six she underwent FGM, an operation sanctioned and watched over by her mother. At nine she experienced terror when her periods began, as she did again, later in life, when they ended. And in her early twenties she qualified as a doctor without any training in the operations she would have to perform (“how could a virgin girl push her body through the bodies of these males” to volunteer?) Then there were the husbands: the revolutionary idealism of her first soured into nihilism and jealousy of her work; the conservativism of her second led him to beat her, till she aborted their child and repeatedly attempted suicide.

When – against such treachery – she did succeed in writing, successive governments and political opponents menaced and spied on her, closed down the organisations or magazines she established, censored and banned her books, put her in jail, called for her beheading and then put her on a death list, forcing her into exile. Walking Through Fire takes us up to the millennium, but her troubles have not ended with age. In 2001 she was taken to court and threatened with a forced divorce from her third husband – Sherif Hatata, who is the translator of these memoirs – this time for the “crime of apostasy”. The lawsuit failed but El Saadawi divorced him anyway for “violating her rights” when after 43 years of marriage he began an affair with a woman fifty years his junior.   

The accumulated facts of El Saadawi’s life sound grim but this is not the experience of reading her memoir, which is stormy and vivid, characterised by great intellectual and emotional restlessness. In Walking Through Fire even weaknesses (platitudes, political jargon, unnecessary repetition, and a rather chaotic chronology) retain the authenticity of lived experience – because sometimes this is how we speak and think: in shorthand, in a hurry, obsessively and associatively. Allowing this messiness to show gives her story a pungency and intimacy that more varnished memoirs sometimes lack. And what shines through it all is her indomitability and self-belief. The book takes its title from something her mother once said about her: that Nawal could be thrown into fire and come out unscathed: “No one in the world is cleverer than she is.”

Nawal El Saadawi, 2018

El Saadawi says repeatedly that she dislikes adornment or “gloss”, and writes proudly of her plain-dressing and plain-speaking, often quoting her peasant grandmother who talked with the pithiness of the illiterate. Asceticism or plainness, of course, is as much a style as the veneer she mistrusts, but it has political ballast here, chosen as it is in reaction to the signifiers of the powerful men she has had to contend with. These she describes sitting at large desks in front of gilt-framed portraits of their leaders, wearing the same moustaches and shiny shoes, copycat generalissimos right down to their verbal tics. After graduating from medical school in Cairo, alone, divorced and with a small child, El Saadawi establishes a rural clinic in the village where she grew up, Kafr Tahla. Quickly aligning herself with the local people, she watches warily as the names of politicians who rule over the the villagers change, but never their behaviour – a living demonstration of the old anarchist slogan, “whoever you vote for, the government wins”.

Her scepticism about authority leads to an understanding of how language re-entrenches the powerful, not just through tub-thumping demagoguery, or the men in smoke-filled rooms, always talking over one another as they repeat the same lines, but in the inherent sexism and hypocrisy of language itself. “The Arabic language was not made for me, does not speak to me”, she writes, mirroring the alienation of women writers across the globe who have struggled to express themselves when the language they were born into does not seem to fit: “It was not made for me, uses divine words and expressions that deny my existence.” She interrogates phrases such as “man of the street” and “free man”, comparing them to their (derogatory) female equivalents. And she notes that when men speak of revolution it is taken as a matter of belief, while when women do the same, it is regarded as a sign of loose morals.

Such linguistic offences are not technical, however: they give cover to what men do to women. Some of the most affecting tales here are not those El Saadawi tells about herself, but the multiple stories of prepubescent girls married off by their families to men old enough to be their grandfathers. At the clinic she hears of a girl, Masouda, married at twelve and hounded by demons. She attends a zar (exorcism) held by local women to rid the girl of this curse. The exorcism fails and El Saadawi takes Masouda under her wing, figuring out that behind the demons and fainting fits lies the trauma of repeated assault by her geriatric husband with a chair leg. Despite this, the police come to return the girl to her husband/owner (as a wife she is considered by law to be property) before she has had time to heal. Masouda runs away again and is eventually found drowned in the Nile. Seeing her childish, emaciated body El Saadawi recalls the myth of Osiris, the ancient insatiable river god who people tried to appease by throwing virgin girls into the water.

Egypt’s rich mythology, though, is also a source of reinforcement for El Saadawi, as she identifies with the talents and predicaments of different deities, claiming their god-like mantle for her own. At times, the sense of her exceptionalism veers from pride into something approaching uncharitableness. Three of El Saadawi’s closest female friends accompany her throughout this period, acting like a chorus who comment on politics and patriarchy. While there is comic effect in this (one friend appears as a po-faced communist, another is cheerfully out for what she can get) their compromises do not always seem to be matched by complete transparency about her own negotiations with authority. Whether this is a question of egotism or perhaps merely the effect of writing her autobiography around the many other memoirs she has already published, is hard to divine. But given what she has had to face, and her outstanding bravery in standing up to bullies and naysayers, it seems certain that without powerful self-belief and faith in her own instincts, she would not have survived.

More importantly El Saadawi writes about the experience of failure and loss: there are chapters titled “Love and Despair”, “The Defeat”, and “An Aborted Revolution”.  Among writers of the left it is often women who – rather than adhering to heroic and falsifying romances – have produced the most honest, and therefore useful, accounts of lives spent battling to redress the harm of vastly unequal societies. As with Christina Stead and Christa Wolf, for instance, for Nawal El Saadawi this does not mean abandoning her belief in the necessity for change, but it does entail the kind of truth-telling that exposes her to pillory and danger. “I write what I live”, she said recently in interview, and this life has borne out her childhood intimation that the act of writing might threaten her with death. But she keeps on because writing also has the potential to bring joy, endowing a different kind of transcendence or liberation. Illustrating this, El Saadawi deploys the image of flight – unsurprisingly, a rhetorical device that crops up repeatedly in women’s writing. At the beginning of her story, on her journey away from Egypt, “spreading my wings”, she is flying into exile. After giving her account of all that led up to this moment she ends Walking Through Fire with the journey home. On this flight she eats greedily, drinks lustily and flirts outrageously with a handsome stranger, overcoming her fear of death and her “fear of flying”. They talk about cinema, censorship and the failure to free Palestine. He tells her she looks like Sophia Loren, she thinks he looks like Gregory Peck. Finally he asks what she does for a living, and when El Saadawi answers that she’s a writer, his reply is a vindication of her life: “That’s wonderful”, he says, “Then you’re a free woman.”

This article appeared in the TLS as ‘Writing and Fighting‘ on 8.1.2019.

Female Human Animal – TLS


“I was born in the wrong century”, the  London-based Mexican novelist, Chloe Aridjis declares near the beginning of Female Human Animal, Josh Appignanesi’s new low budget film, a knowing blend of the assured and the amateurish which understands its place in cinema history and consequently has a lot of fun playing around in it. The times are soulless she declares, quoting her idol, Leonora Carrington, who felt the same way. But Aridjis is a romantic nevertheless, a would-be adventurer searching for love, so she adds: “You have to keep giving the century a chance. See what happens.” It’s a sentiment that also reflects the film’s defiant stance: the times may be bad but you still have to roll the dice, play the game, put on a show.

The show being put on here is an exhibition of Carrington’s work at Tate Liverpool which Aridjis was asked to curate because of her friendship with the English-born artist who had once hung out with the surrealists in France before running off to live in Mexico. But just what kind of a show are we watching? Appignanesi begins by presenting a staged documentary with Aridjis – a magnetic presence – playing some version of herself. The camera follows as she unpacks Carrington’s plastic-wrapped paintings, gives nervous press interviews, presents an excruciatingly awkward bookshop event, and talks to friends about the lack of suitable men in her life. At home we see her writing by the light of a laptop, her cat beside her, two eyes glinting in the dark. Appignanesi’s noirish shots of the woman and her snarling animal recall Jacques Tourneur’s psycho-sexual thriller, Cat People (1942). Intercut with this are images of Carrington’s haunting, anthropomorphic paintings and footage of interviews with her. She also loved cats, hated the idea of female confinement, and defied male logic in her art: in one interview she observes that intellectualising is a waste of time.

As if to demonstrate this belief in the arational, a man materializes out of the blue before Aridjis, and the unlikely couple embark on a game of cat and mouse. From here the film coils into more surreal territory, and the version of herself that Aridjis plays slips seamlessly from something approximating the real, into the imaginary. But just as the genre of the film remains in doubt, so, too, the question of how much of the action takes place in Aridjis’s mind is left unresolved. This aesthetic of uncertainty perfectly underscores the suspense of the film’s action, and as in the underground and queer cinema that Female Human Animal is indebted to, Appignanesi finds a poetry and politics in trashy and ephemeral production values: here, it’s the heterosexual mainstream that is depicted as perverse. Shot on VHS, Female Human Animal resembles the polaroid photography and early video of the 1980s – enthusiastically trying out slow motion, blurry images, colour saturation, and parodies of horror conventions. The retro look and nods to predecessors (Hitchcock, Chabrol, Warhol, Morrissey, Akerman and Gorris all come to mind) demonstrate that Appignanesi knows precisely where his film is “coming from”, both cinematically and in terms of its feminist discourse. At one point Aridjis tells a friend she is looking for men to molest, “men with hair”; another time she is fascinated by a man devouring a meal of meat; ultimately, she transforms herself from hunted to hunter – all of which suggests the director has learnt a thing or two from his mother, the feminist Freud critic, Lisa Appignanesi, and from Angela Carter whom she interviewed in 1985.

Chloe Aridjis in Female Human Animal, 2018

There’s another display of the unity of aesthetic and story in a superbly excruciating scene between Aridjis and the strange man, where the film’s amateurishness matches and amplifies the characters’. Marc Hosemann plays Aridjis’s would-be lover with an antic mix of the sexual, dangerous and comic, raising the prospect that he is a projection of her unconscious desire. As in The Big Sleep (1946), the two interview one another as prospective lovers. But unlike Bacall’s and Bogart’s flirtatious ingenuity, every question Aridjis asks is banally mirrored back or answered in statements flagrantly designed to tell her only what she wants to hear. “Do you have money?”, she asks, “Yeah”, he answers, quick as a flash, “I’m super-rich”. In a buffoonish parody of the desirable heterosexual male, he tells her: “I love…meat, sex, art in that order.” Rather than Hollywood stars exuding sexual chemistry and verbal wit, Appignanesi gives us a nightmare of embarrassment and ineptitude. Yet in this mis-matched comedy there is a contemporary version of Hollywood’s wisecracking romances, one that is both painfully recognisable and oddly sexy.

Since the war years when cinema started showing women in positions of authority, Hollywood has delighted in cutting them down to size, depicting them as incompetent and implying that they are not cut out for the role of professional. As a result, many actresses have made a career out of dramatizing female neurosis. Appignanesi’s film is a powerful antidote to this, framing Aridjis’s lack of confidence in a way that exposes the conditions women operate under. Meeting misogyny everywhere (creepy, presumptuous and humiliating men, a father who chips away at her confidence, a lover who tries to choke her to death), Aridjis’s insecurity and bemusement is not only unsurprising but redefines what is logical: in contrast to the arrogant and affectless males she encounters, her uncertainty seems fully human.

At the end of his film Appignanesi returns to the plastic motif, expertly bringing us back from the metaphorical into the material world. The tired old stories of victim and predator are still clogging up our imaginations, he suggests, just as rubbish continues to resurface, lethally choking the environment. And what can we do with this knowledge? Perhaps, as Carrington proposes, we can “re-enchant the world”, turning detritus into art. So Appignanesi recycles the dancing plastic bag scene from American Beauty (1990), only this time around the aesthetic pleasure we receive is undercut by an awareness of the disseminating and deadly nature of what we so thoughtlessly trash. Finally, as in all the best thrillers, he concludes with a warning that our problems are only just beginning, revealing the nightmare laying in wait: in this case, reams of plastic coursing off a production line.

“What have you learned, Chloe?”, Aridjis’s father asks repeatedly down a crackling telephone line. Quite a lot, Female Human Animal suggests, coming, as it does, at the end of a long line of film and feminist explorations of the politics of desire.

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Material Desire’ on 11.10.2018.

Kate Atkinson, Transcription – Spectator


Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s eleventh novel, sees her returning to the detective fiction she honed in her series about Jackson Brodie, the haunted private eye who, after the murder of his young sister, chased the killers of girls. It also pursues some of the themes of her more recent fictions, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, which explored the ambiguities of war, and questions of chance and fate, with lives played out in multiple permutations. There is, however, no professional detective in Transcription. Instead it falls  to an ordinary young woman to fathom the meaning of her life and, by extension, what it means to be caught in the net of history.

This time around it’s not so much life after life, but aftermath and afterlife that Atkinson is concerned with, making the point that our lives are not tidily parcelled but extend beyond moments of drama into periods of consequence and reckoning. Bookended by two brief scenes in 1981, Transcription jumps between 1940 when a newly-orphaned, 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited as a typist into MI5, and a decade later when she’s working as a producer of children’s radio programmes for the BBC. In the later period she finds people long thought dead, abroad, in prison or simply gone from her life returning to haunt her. Is this her imagination running away with her – the thing Perry, her boss at MI5 repeatedly warned against. Or should the threatening notes she’s been receiving be taken seriously?

Contained in this predicament is the question Atkinson wants us to consider: what does it mean to be a good reader – of her book, of course, but also of the world? The transcriptions Juliet makes are of secretly recorded conversations between English fifth columnists – disaffected aristocrats, “frustrated housewives” – and Godfrey Toby, someone they believe to be a Gestapo agent, but who in fact works for MI5. These transcripts run throughout the book alerting the reader to the details we often miss and the information we misconstrue. Juliet is held to be proficient at her job precisely because she has an active imagination (despite his warnings, she casts Perry in the role of her romantic lead) and compared to other transcribers is good at filling in the gaps. But how accurate is her version of events, and indeed how accurately do we read Juliet? The job is made harder by the fact that at both MI5 and the BBC (organisations, Juliet notes, which swap personnel with remarkable ease), everyone seems to be a copy, whether playing versions of themselves, performing in the Great Game as a spy, or acting in the children’s radio histories she keeps re-writing, trying to enliven and ennoble them.

Juliet’s name suggests a predetermined role in life but – not wanting to end up like one of Brodie’s doomed girls – she tries to avoid the fate it predicts. Understanding how the game works is the first step to self-preservation so, refusing to be hunted, Juliet chooses the role of hunter. This, though, is not easy. Perry’s rules (“it’s in the details”, “don’t give too much away”) are useful in her apprentice as a spy and as a woman, yet even to him she rarely says what she means. Her undisclosed thoughts are bracketed like ghosts in the text, indicating an unspoken opposite that seems like English irony, but which also has a touch of a more continental dialectic.

The endless role-playing, however, makes it hard to detect which “side” anyone is on, and, therefore, who they are opposed to. Often the signs are ambiguous: M15’s rationale for killing people in the name of a “greater good” looks like fascist instrumentalism; the BBC’s pretence that there are no sides in history, broadcasting programmes with “Serfs galore (quite happy – most unlikely)”, resembles authoritarian propaganda. Even the record of fifth columnists that Juliet tries to recover is confusingly called The Red Book, and while the vileness of anti-Semitism is a given, it is not at all clear that the much vaunted “This England” – at least as an idea – is worth fighting for.

Amid all this Atkinson creates a contemporary version of a ripping good yarn (nudging us to the realisation with references to John Buchan and Erskine Childers). Her trick is to combine propulsive plot with a high degree of self-consciousness, and in Transcription the fiction comes with a skin so thin it is almost transparent. What she reveals of its inner working is a novel full of smoke and mirrors, of artifice and redirection in which all that is solid melts into air – quite literally in the case of Godfrey Toby: “the mist closed around him once more and he disappeared.” Toby, perhaps a double or even triple agent, turns out to be, like “This England”, an enigmatic construct. And Juliet lives long enough to understand that the red books of either side have more in common than we once imagined. As she lays dying she hopes her son will understand, “Nothing mattered, and this was a freedom, not a burden.” What matters are not the red books, strong-arming us into preordained plots, Atkinson seems to be suggesting, but how sceptically we read.

Nobody Knows My Name: Flann O’Brien’s Collected Letters – TLS


In September 1952 Brian O’Nolan wrote to the Secretary of Ireland’s Department of Local Government. “I PROTEST TO YOU IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS AGAINST THE EXCLUSION OF MY NAME”, he fulminated in a long and detailed letter concerning his omission from a list of people recommended for promotion. It was an early shot in a battle which would eventually see him scuppering his career as a high-ranking civil servant. The question of names exercised O’Nolan all his life, as we can see in this new volume of Collected Letters, edited by Maebh Long. Now famed in his homeland as the last of Ireland’s literary trinity – the antic holy ghost, coming in third after James Joyce, the father of modernism, and Samuel Beckett, the son – elsewhere in the world O’Nolan’s reputation is more uncertain. Is It About a Bicycle? is the title of a recent collections of essays on Flann O’Brien, the pen name which he used primarily for fiction but which makes its first appearance here as the signatory of a series of mischief-making letters to the Irish Times, and is given to the volume as a whole. Other than the image of a bicycle, and the character of a policeman, which crop up repeatedly in his work, it is O’Nolan’s multiple names – their meaning and proliferation – for which he is perhaps best known.

Born Brian Ó Nualláin in 1911, to a Catholic, Gaelic-speaking family in Strabane, schooled at home with his siblings to avoid contamination by what his father considered an imperialist language and education, it was not until he was eleven years old, when he began attending school, that he spoke English on a regular basis. A brilliant student, he read German at University College Dublin and then, like his father, went on to the civil service. But the urban Gaelic he heard in Dublin was different from that which was spoken at home, and the English he learnt at his Christian Brotherhood school was different again from the “official” English spoken in the halls of government. The difficulty O’Nolan consequently had in finding a secure home in language, and his scepticism about its capacity to generate meaning or facilitate communication, are ever-present and alive in his writing, constituting a strong source of its ingenuity, as well as, at times, some obscurity.

O’Nolan’s noms de plume – or noms de guerre as he calls them in these spiky letters – were not merely, as many supposed, a means of separating his daily conforming work life from his dissident life as a writer. They were also an expression of this uncertainty as to where he stood in relation to language, and the problem, therefore, of identifying himself simply or singly. The refusal to limit himself, or to be put in his place, is apparent in his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), in which the narrator, a literature student, famously announces: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with”. The many beginnings and endings of a book, he goes on, may be entirely dissimilar, “inter-related only in the prescience of the author”. It is a telling phrase, raising the idea of gamesmanship, a kind of cat-and-mouse the reader must play in order to detect those ideas O’Nolan has in mind, which hold together multiplying narrative threads. That some meanings might remain ambiguous did not bother O’Nolan. In a letter to a publisher, worried about how comprehensible his work would be for an American audience, he rebukes him: “a measure of bewilderment is part of the job of literature”. This undermining of reality, and the doubt it builds in the reader, was not without purpose: in his writing O’Nolan is an exuberant iconoclast, ridiculing received ideas of Art (“misterpiece”, not masterpiece), pieties concerning the Irish language, and the tricks or lies perpetrated by powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church. Graham Greene, in the jacket blurb for to At Swim-Two-Birds, wrote that it incites in the reader “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on stage”. Formally, too, O’Nolan parodied and toyed with many genres, in the process exposing the power plays at work in them. These are some of the reasons why he has been called the godfather of postmodernism, why his work has proved so elusive, and why it has engendered a cult following of dedicated cognoscenti, John Banville, Jonathan Coe and the actor Brendan Gleeson among them.

In letters to colleagues in the civil service O’Nolan uses both the Gaelic Ó Nualláin and the anglicized version of his name (though at one point he denies that this is the case). These, together with Flann O’Brien, and the one he adopted for his journalism, Myles na cGopaleen (later, just na Gopaleen), make up his own (un)holy trinity of names. But there are many other denominations in his pantheon, among them: Brother Barnabas, Count O’Blather, An Broc, Lir O’Connor, the Sligo of Southpaw and George Knowall. In his second novel, The Third Policeman, written in 1939–40 but rejected by publishers, only coming into print posthumously in 1966, the protagonist has forgotten his name, leaving other characters to try and affix one to him so that he can be hanged for murder. A name will damn you, hang you, far better to have none or many. In his letters he is always on the alert for other people’s name changes, particularly where they indicate pretension or the wish to smuggle in covert meaning. One letter to the Irish Times takes the form of a poem in which he mocks contemporaries who have changed their names after falling victim to the “Celtic twilight”, outing Seán Ó Faoláin as “plain John Whelan”.

This is part of a batch of letters from the late 1930s in which O’Nolan, deploying a series of aliases, mocked with increasing brilliance and comic cunning the pretensions of O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor and others, by generating evidently bogus personas with anachronistic biographies and false memories. These farcical “characters” betray themselves at every turn, exposing their humbug while displaying O’Nolan’s considerable skewering skills. In one, he writes “‘Flann O’Brien’ – who is this hooligan skulking behind a pseudonym? Who Is Sylvia?”, then slyly alludes to O’Connor’s own modified appellation: “Mr. O’C.nnr . . . (who can rest easy that his name is safe with me)”; repeats to the point of redundancy the phrase “One more word and I have done”; and is “reminded of” a French walking tour with Yeats in the 1890s, the poet loftily and absurdly claiming that his address was simply “Dublin”, before signing off with his own address as Tintern Abbey. The Irish Times’s editor finally called a halt to this malarkey, but not before recruiting O’Nolan to write “Cruiskeen Lawn”, one of the most extraordinary and long-lived columns in newspaper history, in which O’Nolan continued to parade fake erudition, deflate grandiosity, decry cliché and comment on neologisms and street talk.

The year before his death, the matter of names was still exercising O’Nolan. In two scathing missives to the poet John Jordan, he attacked his drinking companion for violently contradicting him on the matter of George Bernard Shaw’s pen name: Corno di Bassetto. The reply from Jordan accusing him of libel elicits a withering request: “I beg you to stop using words you do not understand”, then lectures him on etymology: “LIBELIUS (dem of L., Liber) ‘A little book’”, and the clue it gives that libel must be published. He can send by closed post, O’Nolan adds threateningly, the “most derogatory appraisal of yourself and your behaviour, and there is no libel”. As with his Irish Times letters, O’Nolan is still intent on taking down a peg or two those he deems to have offended, but the boasting and excess, once deployed in the spirit of mockery and fun, of a game that gave pleasure to readers and which others joined in, now seems reduced to a nasty put-down. There was, however, perhaps a point to his pedantry: O’Nolan was an expert provocateur (“to be offensive . . . takes skill and practice”), and knew precisely the limits of his art.

Or so he imagined. Reading the letters today, the humour still burns brightly but among many laugh-out-loud moments and fascinating subversions there is one case of provocation that sticks in the craw. In The Dalkey Archive (1964), the last novel O’Nolan published in his lifetime, rehashing portions from the then unpublished The Third Policeman, there are two “feature” characters. One is James Joyce, who has faked his death and is living incognito as a barman in Skerries; the other is Saint Augustine. In letter after letter to friends and acquaintances, O’Nolan asks – and it is nearly always in capital letters – “WAS AUGUSTINE A NIGGER?” The only one of his correspondents who seems to have challenged him about this was the dramatist John Keyes Burn, who went by the name of Hugh Leonard, and who adaptedThe Dalkey Archive for the stage in 1965 as The Saints Go Cycling In. In a draft of the play, Leonard uses the word “black” to describe Augustine, but is overruled on the basis that this is a “neutral humbug term”.

O’Nolan’s delight in the frisson of the word and his “dead-set” insistence on using it, even against Leonard’s reminders of its “contemptuous meaning”, is deeply offensive, and it won’t do to excuse this as a matter of the times in which O’Nolan was living. As the letters show, like all serious journalists he was a voracious reader, often commenting on world events such as Kennedy’s assassination or the Cold War nuclear stand-off. He was aware, too, of the Civil Rights movement, making reference to Martin Luther King’s knowledge of the American Constitution, and calling the all-white South African rugby team who were visiting Ireland, cowardly “penny-boys of a fascist regime”. But his provocative impulse went further than bandying around an odious word: what the letters also suggest is that in his research on Augustine O’Nolan believed he had uncovered a little-known fact about the saint but was frustrated in his attempts to confirm it. “Don’t tell me in reply what you THINK”, he says to his recipients, “I know more about that man than does anybody on this earth but I still don’t know the colour of his skin.” In Augustine he felt that he had found a stick with which to “chide the church” (“not to jeer at God or religion”), and to expose its hypocrisy about who Augustine was. He brags in a letter to W. L. Webb (my father), then literary editor of the Guardian, that The Dalkey Archive is a book “so new, so bombastic and so disrespectful it will create holy murder”. It seems O’Nolan believed he was on the same track that later a very dif­ferent kind of iconoclast would take: in Black Athena (1987, 1991, 2006), Martin Bernal, too, argued that powerful institutions, in this case, universities, had denied the African roots of Western civilization.

Over the years O’Nolan’s two principal correspondents were his friend from uni­versity, the architectural writer and Joyce scholar Neil Montgomery; and, later, Timothy O’Keefe, the publisher to whom he owed the resurrection of his career when he brought At Swim-Two-Birds back into print in 1960. (There is surely a book to be written on literature’s saints of rescue – O’Keefe, Francis Wyndham, Diana Athill, Randall Jarrell, John Calder et al – who revived the careers of forgotten writers.) Montgomery was a lifelong supporter, apart from a brief moment in 1964 when, after starting his own newspaper column, he trod on Cruiskeen Lawn territory, and O’Nolan accused him of plagiarism. Montgomery withdrew the column and the men continued their habit of co-operative letter-writing in which they often annotated one another’s epistles before returning them. In one of these annotations, Long tells us, Montgomery identified O’Nolan’s use of “massive incomprehension” as part of his intellectual armament. And in other letters, O’Nolan displays a keen ear for the Irish propensity for refusal following centuries of domination by the British state and the Catholic Church. In one to O’Keefe, it is not the refusal to acknowledge but the refusal to believe that amuses him. At a party given by the crew filming Of Human Bondage, Brendan Behan’s father – “Stephan Behan (the da)” – is sceptical about the story of Christ on the cross. “But the nails, Myles, the NAILS!” “What nails Stephen?” “Sure there were no nails at all in them days. Dya folly me? Yer man was TIED to the cross!”

Many of O’Nolan’s letters concern money. There are fierce but fastidious compositions directed at banks, insurance companies, the police, the passport office, and the paymaster general, usually arguing that he has been left out of pocket, and challenging unyielding bureaucracy with his own equal intractability. The letters are reminders to any aspiring writer about the financial precariousness of most literary lives, as well as the amount of business that has to be contended with. A stream of documents detail his painstaking relations with editors, publishers, agents, book designers, adapters of his work, and translators from many countries. Frustrated by a system in which so many parties take a cut, reducing his income to pennies, O’Nolan mounts a successful campaign to force the Irish government into a tax agreement with West Germany. “Publishers tend to treat their authors as pimps their whores”, he protests. He had a reputation as a boozer, but O’Nolan was also extremely hard-working and resourceful: besides novels in English and Gaelic, a variety of newspaper columns, reviews and translations, he wrote plays (Faustus Kelly, for the Abbey Theatre) and a television series (O’Dea’s Your Man for RTE).

And he was a great getter-up of schemes, proposing elaborate ideas, often while touting for work, about how to promote or improve, for instance, Guinness, the Irish Hospital Sweepstake, or the Irish Tourist Board, as well as a host of literary magazines. Even towards the end of his life, he was still on the look-out for new avenues for his writing. When my father reviewed the newly republished At Swim-Two Birds, praising it, as Long observes in a footnote, as “one of the few experimental works of twentieth-century fiction which seem not to be sick at heart”, O’Nolan wrote to him. He said that after publication ofThe Dalkey Archive he might have to decamp to Mexico, though some snags had arisen in attempts to rent Trotsky’s former villa, but meanwhile might he make a “modest proposal” for a weekly news and advice column on Ireland: “I guarantee not to send you any rubbish”. He signed off with the legendary line: “I await your view on this proposal that I should have my agony in the GUARDIAN”.

In the next two years O’Nolan’s health deteriorated, following multiple (often alcohol-induced) accidents. Subjected to endless blood transfusions, he lay in his hospital bed suffering “sheer day and night pain”, without entirely understanding what ailed him: “some complicated glandular disorder insofar as anybody can say . . .”. But in his final letter he is still thinking of new ruses, hoping to be back “on active service again” and planning a lecture tour in Germany. Writing about his latest idea for a television series, he describes the character of one Policeman Pluck: “In addition to being the dumbest cluck imaginable, he is an amalgam of Frankenstein, Groucho Marx, the Little Flower and President Johnson . . . he transcends all his situations”. But for all his creative copiousness, death had his name and this was one “situation” he could not invent his way out of. Brian O’Nolan died a fortnight later, on April Fool’s Day in 1966.

This review of The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, edited by Maebh Long, appeared in the TLS on 3.8.2018 as “A Measure of Bewilderment”.

Nell Dunn podcast – TLS


A discussion with Thea Lenarduzzi and Lucy Dallas about Nell Dunn and her book of interviews from 1965, Talking to Women, now reissued by the Silver Press.

Nell Dunn, Talking to Women – TLS


Interviews are the least praised, and least appraised, of literary forms, particularly those devoid of commentary. Perhaps this is because their intimate relationship with speech is thought to decrease their value as writing. In Talking to Women, however (originally published in 1965, and now re­issued by the Silver Press), the novelist and playwright Nell Dunn shows how stimulating the form can be, expertly steering her conversations to appear uninhibited and freewheeling. Consisting of nine interviews conducted in 1964 with female friends who range from society heiresses to factory workers (Dunn herself was both), the book provides a rare portrait of what happens when women get together to talk.

Nell Dunn by Snowden, 1982

You can read the rest of this review at the TLS website where it was posted on 17.7.2018 as “Something to Say For Herself”. The print version appeared in the 20.7.2018 issue.

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