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’.
“Susan is here – what a beauty she is! But I dislike so much about her, the way she sings girlish and off key, the way she dances, rhythmless and fake sexy…” In her 1957 diary, Harriet Sohmers recorded her ambivalence about the arrival of Susan Sontag in Paris. “She seems so naive. Is she honest?” They had met originally in 1949 in a San Francisco bookshop, beginning an affair while Sontag was still a teenager. Nearly a decade later, after Sontag had married and given birth to a son, the relationship resumed. Sontag was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne; Sohmers, the translator of Sade’s Justine, was working nights at the New York Herald Tribune. For Sontag, who spent much of her childhood living near the desert in Arizona, the international, bohemian scene she became part of in France was critical in the formation of her sensibility. Here she kept company with radicals, aesthetes and homosexuals, and spent her nights roaming from cafe to cafe, eager for the conversation this mix of people created. She was introduced to the revolutionary ideas of the nouveau roman and nouvelle vague and became a passionate cinema-goer, often seeing two or three films a day.
Sontag had studied in California, Chicago, Harvard and Oxford, but it was in Paris that she shook off her American parochialism, escaping the elitism of many of its postwar intellectuals. Giving free reign to her enthusiasm, she became a connoisseur of the kitsch, outré, obscure and avant-garde. At the same time she began to read experimental postwar French literature and, influenced by expatriate friends in Paris, those writers she took as her exemplars: Beckett, Borges, Kafka and Nabokov. In so doing she found the work of a lifetime: crusading against the distinctions that divide high from low culture, form from content, thought from feeling, ethics from aesthetics, or fantasy from judgement (distinctions she felt, which should only be employed “against themselves”); and making connections between literature, film, theatre, opera and art, in many of which she also practised. As she wrote in her diary in the first flush of her relationship with Sohmers, “everything matters” – a sentiment reinforced in the 1960s when her lover, Jasper Johns, told her the same thing.
Part of what drew her to Johns and his friend, John Cage, was that they shared not only her wide interests but also her feeling that in a time of capitalist excess these might be best expressed in an art of restraint, in what Sontag called an “aesthetic of silence”. Much as she admired this, though, her own writing grew from “restlessness and dissatisfaction”: she would not be quiet or sit still. Instead, she translated her lively curiosity into a very un-American devotion to the past (where she pointed out, so much of “everything” happened). She also championed those writers who grew outside capitalism’s domain: a relationship with Joseph Brodsky in the 1970s was influential in shaping her view of the romanticism of the American left when it came to communism, and in making her think more deeply about writing as part of global culture, leading to essays on ‘The Idea of Europe’ and ‘On Being Translated’, as well as eulogies to Marina Tsvetaeva, Danilo Kiš and Witold Gombrowicz. From this flowed a renewed concern for writers around the world battling against authoritarian regimes. In 1978-9, at the time Salman Rushdie was placed under a fatwa, she was chair of American PEN.
Now, a decade after her death in 2004, we have two new biographies. Daniel Schreiber’s presents a portrait of the intellectual-as-celebrity and is much concerned with image, reputation and Sontag’s response to fame (it was published first in 2009 under the title Geist und Glamour). Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s book is more centrally engaged with her work in the context of the life. While Schreiber regards Sontag with suspicion, is disposed to see any rethinking as evidence of dissembling, and claims to have “clarified… dishonesties”, Maunsell presents such changes of mind more judiciously as a facet of her intellectual mobility, a writer returning to and elaborating themes. Schreiber gives us a sense of how Sontag appeared to others, making use of interviews with friends and colleagues; Maunsell relies more on published material to inform his exegesis, including Leland Poague’s invaluable interview selection, 1995, and the two volumes of diaries edited by her son, David Rieff, 2009, 2013.
If their designs upon her life differ, for both biographers the bones of her story are the same. What Sontag called her “desert childhood”, lonely, isolated, and fatherless, left her with a world-hunger she was determined to satisfy. As she observed, something about her “eccentricity or the oddness of [her] upbringing” served her well: it meant she escaped the pressure other girls felt to limit their desire. As an adolescent, discovering a bunch of Modern Library paperbacks in a Hallmark card store, she read them voraciously. When the family moved to California she engineered a meeting with Thomas Mann. Still only sixteen, she enrolled on Chicago’s Great Books of the Western World course, the following year marrying Philip Rieff, a sociology lecturer – a hastily-begun relationship that unravelled slowly and painfully: “I lost a decade”, she said later. Once she made her way to Europe though, as well as living in England and France, she journeyed across Italy, Spain, Germany and Greece. “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list”, she quipped. Places she could eventually cross off included Morocco, where she paid court to the Bowleses; Cuba, Vietnam, China and Poland (later decried, Schreiber notes, as trips to the “Disneyland of revolution”); Israel, to film a documentary about the 1973 Arab-Israeli War; Bosnia, where she staged a production of Waiting for Godot during the siege of Sarejevo; and Japan, to which late in life she kept returning. As a young woman Sontag vowed: “I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere…I shall involve myself wholly”. But later diaries reveal she was not immune to the problem of female appetite. She was suspicious of her avidity, concerned her collecting and discarding of people was vampiric: “Gathering my treasure, I learn what they know…then take off.” Love affairs with men and women were not uncomplicated. The relationship with Sohmers was certainly turbulent, and Sontag was crushed when she read her diary. At the end of 1958 she moved back to America, divorced Rieff, and took her young son to New York to begin the life she had always envisaged for herself: that of freelance intellectual.
Sohmers’ assessment was to have a profound effect, leaving Sontag with an insecurity she found hard to dispel. Perhaps she sensed something in the casually devastating remarks that went beyond sexual gaucherie or a perceived failure to be hip, reflecting more broadly on her viability as a writer and thinker. In America, as if to repudiate Sohmer’s slur, Sontag challenged the old-guard intelligentsia by publishing provocative, epigrammatic criticism not only in Commentary and Partisan Review but, more fashionably and democratically, in Vogue and Mademoiselle. Sontag’s readers admired her intellectual rigour but also thrilled to the cutting-edge critique in her work, much of it concerned with desensitizing and cultural over-production. There were seminal essays and monographs on underground gay sensibility (‘Notes on Camp’, 1964), “the intellect’s revenge upon art” (‘Against Interpretation’, 1964), voyeurism, surveillance and the spread of imagery (On Photography, 1977; Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003), and the unthinking use of metaphor (‘On Style’, 1965; Illness as Metaphor, 1978; AIDS and its Metaphors, 1989). She soon became one of the country’s most fêted and public intellectuals, photographed by Cartier-Bresson, filmed by Andy Warhol, the subject of devotional artwork by Joseph Cornell. Yet the suggestion that she was “off key”, “naive”, not quite credible, lingered, if only in the conditional praise that habitually came her way. Typical of this genre was Jonathan Miller’s designation of Sontag as “the most intelligent woman in America”.
The American critic Vivian Gornick has argued that what she made of such ‘praise’, and her experience of the dubious distinction conferred upon her as a “remarkable exception”, should provide the organizing principle of any biography, helping us to better understand the position of the female intellectual in the twentieth century. Certainly the authoritative style of Sontag’s early writing, her lofty public manner and her reluctance to discuss her sexuality, all seem like strategies to deflect from her gender and help her assume the mantle of universality and exemplariness routinely accorded to great male writers. But, as Schreiber reports, it was a stance that left some feminists angered by her apparent lack of partisanship. In 1975 Adrienne Rich demanded in a letter to the New York Review of Books that she make clear her position on feminism. Sontag’s furious response was that of course she was a feminist, but this did not mean she would succumb to intellectual banality or bow to “infantile leftism”. The criticism continued, however: in 1994 Camille Paglia argued that Sontag’s “cool exile was a disaster for the American women’s movement.”
Her aloof style also reflected a distaste for the confessional. Any biographer has to labour under the particular difficulty Sontag presents as a subject, one with a deep-set antipathy to the idea of biography or to searching for underlying meaning – something that had its roots in her earliest intellectual discoveries. Her marriage was not entirely “lost”: she spent much of it co-writing a book with her husband on Freud (though in their divorce settlement she agreed not to be credited). Maunsell points out that an early chapter, ‘The Tactics of Interpretation’, anticipates Sontag’s later themes: “for Freud, nothing is ever allowed to just be what it is. ‘Slips of the tongue, pen, memory; mislaying of objects; fiddling or doodling…the most ordinary trivialities may become symptomatic, meaningful.’ One thing is always substituted for another by Freud…yet with how much accuracy?” Though Sontag played down the influence of the nouveau roman on her early experimental novels (The Benefactor, 1963; Death Kit, 1967) – and Maunsell, following this, places them rather intriguingly as works of American surrealism – it’s hard to imagine that her thinking about Freudian displacement was not consolidated when she read the French postwar writers, with their dislike of metaphor and its insinuation of ultimate meaning. She writes in ‘On Style’ that “metaphors mislead”, an idea that surfaces again and again. In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone she observes, “what was perishable in a lot of writing was precisely its adornment…the style for eternity was an unadorned one.” Indeed, much of Sontag’s work forms a commentary on the tendency in modernity to excess, to critical duplication or recycling. “We live in a world of copies”, she protests, “the work is not allowed to remain itself”.
Sontag’s public manner may have been provocatively cool, but her style in criticism tended, as Maunsell notes, “to revelatory explication and ardent admiration”. Often referred to as the High Priestess or Dark Lady of American Letters, her ardour made her seem to some, girlish – another epithet frequently applied to her (Daniel Mendelsohn reviewing her Diaries, spoke of her “girlish effusions”; Stephen Koch interviewed in the New York Observer, thought her “very girlish”; Philip Lopate in Notes on Sontag (2005), describes her “great girlish squeal”); she herself worried that ardour could overwhelm its object. In an essay on Elias Canetti, she wrote that for “talented admirers…it is necessary to go beyond avidity to identify with something beyond achievement, beyond the gathering of power.” Her declared aim in writing, after all, was self-transcendence, and while “ardent admiration” could arouse the energies necessary for criticism, there was a danger that bold identification with a person or work might result in attention being directed back to the admirer’s taste or talent in admiring.
Perhaps all this accounts for Sontag’s fascination with the figure of the collector, someone who transforms admiration and appetite into discrimination and connoisseurship, yet remains caught – in Maunsell’s phrase – in “the pathos of avidity”. He is present in her first novel as the self-absorbed Hippolyte, collecting his dreams in order to better understand himself; and in her penultimate novel, The Volcano Lover, 1992, in the character based on William Hamilton. “Does he seem cold? Is he simply managing, managing brilliantly…He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms. He is interested in everything.” Women, Sontag suggests are not able to move past their own abjection in quite the same way. In the novel, Hamilton recalls a fable about a statue of a woman. A man ‘collects’ her, granting her a limited consciousness with the sense of smell. (“Impossible to imagine the fable with a woman scientist and…a statue of the beautiful Hippolytus”, Sontag observes.) For her, every odour is good, because every odour is better than none. All her pleasures, then, are tinged with loss: she cannot make the “luxurious distinction” between good and bad. “She wants, if only she knew how, to become a collector.”
Schreiber’s concentration on Sontag’s public persona goes some way to describing how the desert girl was able to translate her passionate will to knowledge into one of the most vital canons in America’s recent cultural history. He pays particular attention to her polemical interventions: her contention at the time of the Vietnam War that the white race had created nothing which could compensate for its violence; her chastising of the American left at a 1982 Solidarity rally for not realising that “communism was fascism with a human face”; and, in the aftermath of 9/11, her “bemoaning the absence of discussion worthy of a democracy”. This is balanced by a good deal of gossipy detail, such as Sontag, amused at the role-reversal, when Warren Beatty keeps her waiting for a date while he primps himself in the bathroom. Schreiber’s treatment of her work, though, gives too much leeway to its reception, quoting without challenge many barbed and negative reviews. And his suggestion that Sontag not only succumbed to her image, but was so self-deceived as to be incapable of distinguishing between the bad and the good in herself, seems particularly self-serving, justifying the role he too often falls into as biographer for the prosecution.
Maunsell, by contrast, presents a nuanced account of Sontag’s intellectual development. He traces her ever-present subjects, above all the duty of the writer to direct attention, while seeing that her books arose “out of self-correction” and self-contestation, the result of a continuing “readiness to immerse herself in contemporariness”. Indeed, the achievement of Maunsell’s biography is how intelligently he makes sense of Sontag’s responsiveness to the contemporary, and the currency this gave her work for over half a century – a period long enough for her to repeatedly modify arguments or reason on the contrary. She was an oppositional writer, and the opposition was frequently wielded against herself. Understanding this, Maunsell champions her “crucially misunderstood” early novels, judged as failures in realism rather than on their own terms as Duchamp-like “endlessly reconstructable puzzles”, designed to resist analysis. But he also writes persuasively about a lecture delivered not long before her death when she defended the novel form precisely for its “artful sense of completion”. “Now”, Maunsell observes, “it was not interpretation that was the main danger for her”, but “the untrammelled flow of information.”
In learning how to become a collector – one with the freedom to make new distinctions and then change her mind about them – Sontag had to develop a style of her own. As a young woman she relished the freedom and authority of impersonality in her writing, but over time it suited her less, the “freedom”, unable to accommodate what she wanted to say. It took her thirty years to find a way of speaking more directly, with “warmth and candour”, as Maunsell puts it, “to learn” as Sontag herself said in interview, “how to write a book I really like: The Volcano Lover”. The book she liked was the one in which finally she reflects on just what that earlier style suppressed: “I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book.”
A slightly different version of this review appeared as ‘From desert girl to Dark Lady’ in the TLS on 23.12015.
It is the Spring of 1880 and a man walks through the countryside of southern Belgium, making his way to the French border. Shabbily dressed, with a knapsack on his back, he tramps long hours, stopping only to sleep at night among the haystacks, or sometimes, when his eye is caught by a light in the trees, to take out pencil and paper from his bag so that he might catch its impression. The drawings and a bundle of unsent letters to his brother are his only possessions, and as the rain falls he worries even these might wash away. When he calls at a bar for a cup of coffee, the owners are so concerned by the sight of his swollen feet they give him clean socks and patch his boots with cardboard. He repays them with the only thing he has to offer, one of his sketches; but being a keen student of art (in another life, he worked as a dealer in The Hague and London), he is ashamed of the rough marks he makes on paper.
As he walks on, an accusation keeps ringing in his ear: is he a changed man, as his brother suggested at their last meeting? The letters he carries, like the drawings, are attempts to overcome his eccentric appearance and show “all that is in my head, all that I have seen”. They contain descriptions of life in a small mining village in Borinage, where in the last nine months he has gone from evangelical missionary to unemployed idler, living in an abandoned hut. For his bourgeois family this decline into poverty and obscurity is a source of alarm, signaling their son’s failure to find a path in life, but for him, it represents something truer and more sacred than all the sermons he once preached: a communion with fellow humans condemned to live beneath “thick, dark coal smoke that covered the light of the sky”. From boyhood he has felt the need to draw. Now among people whose hardship is unwitnessed, suffering unknown, his evangelism finds new expression: he is compelled to portray what he sees in their sooty faces, their bent backs, and their miserable dwellings, so that the world might know it, too.
The Season of Migration, Nellie Hermann’s novel about a pivotal moment in Vincent Van Gogh’s life, takes advantage of a gap in his correspondence to imagine what happened in Borinage, suggesting how his struggle there might have led to his decision to become an artist. She alternates chapters written in the third person describing the long walk to see his brother in Paris, with ones made up of letters spanning his time among the miners, which also reflect on the many failures of his earlier life. This double approach is like a narrative safe bet, yielding the authority of the omniscient narrator and the authenticity of the first person (it is only through an Author’s Note at the end of the book that we learn Van Gogh’s “I” is invented). The story is written in a straight-forward, realist manner, as if innocent of the rest of Van Gogh’s life. Hermann borrows a lot from his letters, going so far as to begin and end her book with versions of the letters he wrote before and after his period of silence. She is also indebted to many biographies and earlier fictional accounts: Irving Stone’s 1934 novel, Lust for Life is cited among the sources. But unlike much recent historical fiction, there are no nods to the reader about the fictitiousness of such an enterprise, and no acknowledgement of her pastiche. Rather, with a good deal of skillful technique, she sustains the illusion of being sunk in a life.
With Van Gogh for one’s subject the temptation of directness, of appearing to cut through the myth-making to help the reader experience him anew, must be particularly powerful. Yet despite Hermann’s wish to present him vividly alive and in formation as an artist, without the undertow of fate, there are elements in the story that hint at later paintings (those boots, for example). For the main, however, the valuable contribution made by The Season of Migration is to reimagine Van Gogh not as an isolated genius but as a social and historical man, horrified by the poverty of the Borinage miners and his impotency in the face of the death, maiming and disease the mine inflicts upon them. Inspired by his reading of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ (1418-27), he gives away his belongings and ventures into a solidarity of suffering. But during meetings at night, sketching a young women miner who has never been out of the village, he understands that what she wants from him is worldliness not asceticism. She craves his talk of foreign cities, of books and paintings, most of all she wants him to give her portraits of the many different people he has met.
So while Van Gogh is represented here as the man of legend – religious, visionary, tormented – these characteristics are rooted in his experience, and it is primarily as a witness that he emerges from these pages, an artist forged in rage at what is done to people and the callous unknowing of those who refuse to see: “How do you represent horror?…In the aftermath of the mine explosion I saw a man’s face drip off him, his skin a kind of liquid that pulled from his eye, which stared up at me, unblinking and dead, like the eye of a fish. Have you ever seen anything like that Theo?…Has mother or father or Anna or Lies? Do you think the men of the evangelism committee have seen such things? God sees such things, Theo, God sets them in motion and then lets them live, those moments, those images – they live on the inside of those who see them. What have you seen? What lives in you?”
This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Walking to Paris’ on 28.1.2015.
Virago may not be the pioneering publishing house it once was, but it seems fitting that, today, Sarah Waters is one of the brightest stars in its firmament. Her career has been spent revisiting earlier moments in history to recover stories of women who have languished in obscurity or fallen into rumour, just as in the 1970s and 1980s Virago resurrected the careers of so many overlooked and under appreciated women writers. Her latest novel, The Paying Guests, owes a particular debt to one of their iconic green-spine paperbacks: F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, originally published in 1934 and revived by Virago nearly half a century later. Jesse’s novel was itself an act of rescue, based on the life of Edith Thompson, unjustly hanged in 1928 after her young lover murdered her husband. (Letters she wrote, imagining her husband dead and out of the way, provided the only ‘evidence’ against her.) Waters has acknowledged A Pin to See the Peepshow as the inspiration for her new book, but in its immaculate period recreation one can feel the influence of many of the other writers Virago reclaimed from this time such as Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen and Rebecca West, all of whom wrote novels about ambitious yet thwarted women, still living in the gloom of Edwardian respectability and struggling to find the freedom glimpsed in the suffragette movement, in new opportunities for women during the war, or in varying shades of bohemia.
Following Waters’s last novel, The Little Stranger, a country house ghost story in which the dead of the Second World War continue to haunt those who survived, The Paying Guests is also about living in aftermath, about people imprisoned in a world the past will not relinquish. Set four years after the end of the Great War, this time in a middle class villa in South East London, it tells the story of the declassé Wrays, spinsterish Frances and her easily dismayed mother. Left alone and without wherewithal after the men in the family have died in the war or in its wake, the women are forced to let lodgers into their home. Much of the novel takes place in the Wrays’ faded house in Camberwell, a small oasis of gentility surrounded by London’s seedier territories, and disturbed from time to time by one of the indigent – battle-scarred men roaming the capital in search of work. Equally disturbing, and now inhabiting the Wrays home, are the paying guests, Lilian and Leonard Barber: she a working class, Langtryesque beauty, a creature of ostrich feathers and kimonos; he an ambitious clerk, a man, like Forster’s Leonard Bast, unable to contain his desires. More subversive than Bast’s yearning for the poetic, though, this Leonard wants material and sexual freedom and an end to the old order that holds him back.
Beyond the encroachment into her home, the indignities of sharing toilet and bath, of being caught in the hallway less than adequately dressed, of strange noises keeping her from sleep, it is a larger existential threat posed by her lodgers (“invaders”) that Frances feels so keenly, an assault on the edifice of respectability she has struggled to maintain. For as Waters slowly and expertly reveals, Frances is a fraud. Outwardly dutiful and unremarkable, her interior life veers between fantasies of rebellion and the dread of exposure, forever wondering “Will mother hear?”.
The dramatic turn of events for which Waters is known, contributing so much to her popularity, is meted out in more gradual revelations in The Paying Guests. The first ripple of shock comes when Frances declares she can take care of herself, and we realize she’s talking about masturbation. Then there’s something wrong with the way she attacks the skirting boards. The Wrays can no longer afford servants, but as Frances’s mother observes, the zeal with which her daughter takes to skivvying throws doubt upon her whole character. Her relationship with a friend, flat-sharing at the edge of Bloomsbury with another woman, is also dubious, seeming oddly charged and infused with envy. During late-night chats with Leonard, too, she finds it hard to conceal her irritated jealousy. The clerk’s aspiration galls her, the temerity of his longing for things others possess. And while Frances’s feelings carry the veneer of snobbery, the belief that people shouldn’t get above themselves, lurking beneath is the appalled recognition that she is just like him. Because it is Lilian, of course, that Frances is secretly courting, and who is the exhilarating object of her desire.
In Waters’s early Victorian novels, she found a way of placing lesbian underworlds at the heart of gothic and romance fiction, making palpable ideas that were only hinted at in the nineteenth century. Now, with her third work set in the twentieth century, she has demonstrated that this approach proves just as effective in war or crime stories. In The Paying Guests, the ‘crime’ of homosexuality is mirrored in the crime of murder, the suspicion of one feeds directly into the other, ratcheting up the suspense and compromising all judgment – just as the peace itself is compromised, being “the kind of safety that came after war…got by doing harm”. In such tainted circumstances, Waters asks, can happiness only be gained at the expense of others? The affair between Lilian and Frances is exacted at a terrible cost to those around them.
Perhaps the greatest revelation, though, of this, Waters’s sixth novel, is not how well the secrecy and paranoia of gay illegitimacy fits the enclosed world of genre fiction, but how sharply it brings into focus the struggle of everyday life: the effort to make oneself plausible battling the search for authenticity, the dread of being found out against the courage to pursue one’s desire – these are the things which Frances feels acutely, but they are also the experience of many others around her, trapped by class, beaten down by war. The hard lesson, then, of The Paying Guests is that Frances’s melodramatic sense of her predicament, her Nietzschean defiance which continually threatens to pierce the norm, is not unique or even particular to her kind of love. When put to the test, she is revealed not as special, but lacking the courage some others display. At the novel’s close, finally understanding this, Frances thinks now that she and Lilian must dare to love not because it is a thrilling, secret, distinguishing thing (the compensations of obscurity) but because it is a matter of “duty” to their fellow strugglers: because of them, they must “make [this] one small brave thing happen”.
This review appeared as ‘One Small Brave Thing’ in the TLS on 24.10.14.
If you look at any bestseller list today, you’re liable to find a How To… title. No longer just technical guidance books, these now proliferate in the fields of economics (John Lanchester, How To Speak Money), politics (Roger Scruton, How To Be a Conservative), feminism (Caitlin Moran, How To Build a Girl) and even literature (John Sutherland, How To Be Well Read) – all published in 2014 and aimed at audiences wanting to acquire know-how quickly. Ali Smith’s new novel, How To Be Both, is an odd addition to this collection, being anything but a quick fix: it’s a slow work in two parts that like oil and vinegar needs time to marinate in the mind. But it does attempt to do what its title suggests. In a career always concerned with writerly self-scrutiny, How To Be Both, is, to date, Smith’s most thorough exploration of the art of fiction, concerned particularly with the novel’s resilient dialectic: its capacity to inhabit opposites and create conversation between them. What others describe as the novel’s dialogism, Smith, in her informal style, calls its “friendliness”. Her breezy manner and bantering asides (“just saying”) might trick a reader into mistaking this for a lightweight work, but lightness turns out to be one side of many paradoxes examined here. Its twin is an intellectual seriousness that shows Smith has designs on her readers as profound in its implications as those held by Laurence Sterne or Italo Calvino.
Smith makes her approach through a story about art and artists that allows her – as in her earlier work, Girl Meets Boy (2007) – to reflect upon stories and writers. She gives us two artists: one long dead, the other so recently that the smell of her is still on her clothes, and while they are both dead they are also both alive, equipped with what Smith once called a book’s “present tense ability”. One is Francesco, a ghost now but previously an Italian Renaissance painter who, coming from so long ago and far away, has to struggle to break through, emerging in a stream of words, “twisting”, “falling upwards”, till she lands somehow (“ouch”, “ow”, “mercy”) in an art gallery in contemporary England. In front of her is the kind of perspectival mystery that she enjoys: the back of a boy’s head as he stands before a painting (“I like a good back”). Trying to collect herself, to work out who she has been and what she now is, Francesco feels uncontrollably drawn to the boy – George – and follows him home. He is too busy with his own life to notice, being haunted in a more prosaic way by the recent death of his mother, a modern-day renaissance figure who worked as a writer and Guerilla Girl-type artist inserting politics into art websites and art into political ones. Like the image of the painter looking at the boy looking at the painting, much of How To Be Both proceeds by mise-en-abyme: it is a great carry-on of characters, ideas and actions. George is not only haunted, but himself following a woman who, in turn, once tracked his mother.
As often transpires in Smith’s coiling fictions, even these various things are not all they seem: the boy George is otherwise known as Georgia, a handsome, androgynous girl; and Francesco is not only a ghost, but a woman whose life was spent masquerading as a man, the only way in the fifteenth century she could be apprenticed into the world of art. George, too, is an apprentice of sorts: having learned by her mother’s practise of questioning (“Does it matter?”). Now pursuing her mother’s stalker, George wonders what matters about her. Was her mother under surveillance by a government spy, as she claimed? Or was this paranoia, as her father thought? Perhaps the woman was an ardent fan? George listens to “Let’s Twist Again”, the song her mother liked so much, and wonders if, possibly, she was both.
It is George who is Francesco’s primary twin. Each of their stories begins as if in argument about the nature of the novel: Francesco’s in a cascade of acrobatic, poetic language; George’s with questions about the “moral conundrum” of art. When her mother asks George to imagine she is an artist trying to evaluate the worth of her work, the two stories come together and, like Alice, seem to pass through either side of the looking glass, their relation now a proliferating mystery for the reader to puzzle over. At least, this is how it will seem to half of Smith’s readers. For the book is being published in two versions, one with Francesco’s story first, one with George’s. The reader’s perception will vary depending upon which version the reader happens upon, which side of the story they enter first. It’s just one of the many ways in which Smith dramatizes how a book works: readings differ, comprehension varies (later George compares the amount her mother sees when looking at a painting with her own limited understanding). Another might be that there is freedom in a book: you can take or leave whatever you want from it. As George’s mother drily observes – in contrast to her own pedagogic art – “People like things not to be too meaningful”.
The ardent reader however, the one compelled to track down meanings, might uncover after further twists, how Smith plays upon literary erotics, enacting the way writers introduce something unfamiliar and unpredictable to their readers. When Francesco happens upon a foreign worker on the road and the two of them make love in a copse of trees, their hands, tongues, entering one another, he tells her his “infidel word” for her means “you who exceed expectations”. Or they may see that Francesco is more fictional than George – an imaginative proposition conjured from our scant information about the (male) artist Francesco del Cossa (1430-1477), whose frescoes George and her mother visit in Italy; and, for the same reason, more realistic, having this connection to a worldly figure beyond the text.
Smith encourages such noticing, inviting readers to peel back the layers in her story as art restorers once peeled back plaster to reveal Dell Cossa’s frescoes. She is scrupulous in her undertaking to present several possibilities at any given moment, signifying a desire to be open and democratic. And like everything in her mutable world, this recasts the initial proposition or the first impression. So: How To Be both is approachable, “friendly” to the reader in its convivial tone, in the way it embraces diversity and describes the manner of its staging. Yet precisely because of this demythologizing, Smith’s novel also holds itself aloft, drawing attention to its artfulness and the authority in its making.
Artful (2006) was the title of one of Smith’s earlier book, a work operating in the borderlands between fiction and non-fiction. Like How To Be Both, it has a ghost story and, through a series of lecture notes left by a dead lover, it meditates on how stories are always haunted and so, to a degree, paranoid; how they are indebted to the dead, even as they are written in death’s defiance. The linearity of narrative, its tolling of time, is what gives the novel its deathly cast, explaining why novelists from Sterne to Calvino tried to kick against the inevitable end and affirm life. Smith notes contemporary writers like José Saramago raging against the dead-hand of linearity, because it denies the rich experience of life, where multiple things happen simultaneously. And yet, she reminds us, “the novel is bound to be linear…even when it seems to or attempts to deny linearity.” Moreover, she points out in one ‘lecture’ (“You Must Remember This: why we have time and why time has us”), we should think twice about the abolition of time for this is what lends meaning to stories: sequence leads to consequence and therein lies morality. “Time means. Time will tell”, she writes, “It’s consequence, suspense, mortality. Morality.”
Knowing all this, Smith now takes the novel forward with a kind of categorical dodge or twist (in Artful she remarks how pleasing it is that, ultimately, the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist seems to give both story and writer, the slip). Her novel’s alternative versions deny any absolute conclusion, shifting the balance of meaning from the end to the interplay between Francesco’s and George’s story (the way they enter one another). Each becomes more porous as ideas flow between them. In Francesco’s story, when her father dies she feels that the roof of her head might blow off, while in George’s, the psychological impact of her mother’s death seems to infect the family home, causing water to leak through the roof and mould to sprout on the wall. How To Be Both is full of images of decomposition, of walls and words breaking apart. For Smith, though, decay and death are not signs of literary exhaustion but the precondition for creation, like the damp surfaces needed to paint a fresco. One of the book’s epigraphs from Hannah Arendt reflects on this state: “what was once alive…‘suffers a sea-change’ and survives in new crystallized forms and shapes…as though they waited only for the pearl diver who will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.”
There are many pearls seeding Smith’s novel: ideas about originality (“what practice is really all about”), about taste and pleasure (constant references to the things her characters “like”), about how we value art (taking up the debate begun by David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith on writing as a “gift”), about the fascination and barrenness of formalism (the woman tracking George’s mother seduces her with a book sealed in a glass box, which might or might not contain any words), and about the sacred or shamanistic properties of art: the element of magic or trickery that only a great artist in full control of her medium can perform, which results in transformation. However, the biggest sea-change for the novel is that the two equal parts of How To Be Both create continuity, (never-ending, they, too, carry on), allowing Smith to shrug off the irrevocable conclusion and slip morality back into the ongoing story. Here it becomes less a final judgment and more a matter of dialectics – made in the joyful, erotic back and forth of questioning and discovery. Like the saints in Francesco del Cossa’s paintings, Smith opens our eyes to many points of view and lifts us “twisting upwards”, spinning through the air with everything in play.
A version of this review appeared as ‘Everything in Play’ in the TLS on 19.9.2014.
Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole’s novella about a trainee psychiatrist and would-be writer returning to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007. Subsequently, his novel, Open City, about a psychiatrist and would-be writer who has travelled in the other direction, was published in the US and UK in 2011. Now Cole has extended his early novella into a novel and published it for the first time outside Nigeria. The back-and-forthness of this sequence is not untypical of Cole’s work which occupies a new ground of uncertainty opening up in twenty-first century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture. Every Day is for the Thief is presented as fiction but is interleaved with Cole’s photographs of Nigeria, heightening the sense of actuality, and pays homage to Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family, about his own journey home to Sri Lanka. As Ondaatje’s book opened with him leaving a snow-bound Toronto for a steamy Jaffna, so Cole’s closes with his narrator returning from the heat of Lagos to a New York where “snow is total.”
More tellingly, Cole steals an image conjured by Ondaatje of acrobats in formation walking through the stately doorways of his family home. For both writers, this is a figure of dislocation and disorientation – on return the houses seem not to have grown smaller, as one might expect with the passage of time, but bigger. The playfulness of the image is also in keeping with Ondaatje’s account of the charmed world his Sri Lankan family inhabited. For Cole’s narrator however – while Ondaatje remains talismanic (spotting another Ondaatje reader on a bus he is overjoyed with a sense of fellowship) – his own feelings about coming home veer more towards frustration and disillusionment. Even before reaching Nigeria he is embroiled in corruption, bribing the consulate to acquire his visa. Once in Lagos, at every turn, he is blocked by people demanding kickbacks, pay-offs and hand-outs. Everyone is involved from the police to the local street gangs (“area boys”), and paying up leaves him humiliated and complicit. Without recourse to external authority or law to make rational sense of life, the narrator finds many Nigerians succumbing to magic thinking – the remnants of ancient shamanism mixed with the revelations of a new Pentecostalism – inventing bizarre explanations for even the most commonplace event.
This is the quagmire that Cole explores in Every Day is for the Thief. Just as the narrator’s movement is continually hampered, so the country as a whole is stagnating, unable to progress in any meaningful fashion or to become part of international culture, the “civilization” through which nations and people communicate and share ideas. Equally, Nigeria seems incapable of evaluating its own past. On a visit to the National Museum, hoping to discover more about the Benin figures he has seen in New York, London and Berlin, he finds a lamentable state of affairs: the country’s dictatorships lauded as “achievements”, many works of art plundered, and a recent museum director afraid to handle those still in his keeping, spooked by their fetishistic power.
All of this leaves the narrator bemoaning Nigeria’s lack of “order” and clinging ever more tightly to the values he has acquired in the west. Indeed, at times, he seems perilously close to a parody of the “oyinbo”, or white man as foreigners are called in Yoruba, claiming, ludicrously, that there is no music in Nigeria, by which he means there is very little Bach. Yet there is more at stake here. Cole’s narrator is dismayed by Nigeria’s endemic corruption for its own sake, but takes it so personally because it thwarts the kind of writer he is striving to become: one at liberty to saunter, observe and reflect upon the city, just as he is intellectually able to freely associate with the writers of the world whose ideas he would bring to bear upon Lagos. In this light, “civilization” is more than just a colonialist trope, it is an indication of freedom and modernity, a precondition for the literary detachment and cool rationality the narrator prizes. What’s impressive about Every Day is for the Thief is that Cole makes no attempt to abstract such sentiments from the narrator’s position of relative advantage (he, at least, is free to leave), nor from the way Nigeria – so replete with story yet so “hostile to the life of the mind” – exposes the tendentiousness of his humanism and the callousness of his aestheticism. Seeing a young thief set on fire in the market place, the narrator’s horror quickly gives way to a sideswipe at those American writers, such as Updike, condemned to eternal suburbia, while he, by comparison, has the drama of Lagos “where life hangs out”.
After the narrator has returned to New York, there is a coda. He recalls a stroll through Lagos when he came closest to being the unrestricted flâneur: “People are hard at their work and I alone wander with no particular aim.” Losing his bearings, he finds the heart of the city: at its “meaningful centre”, an alley of coffin-makers. The place, he feels, has “a comforting sense that there is an order to things”, making him reluctant to return to the city’s normal bustle. So the novel closes in what seems like a dead-end: this street of coffins is everyone’s destination, rich and poor, beggar man, thief, and there can be no other magically revealed meaning. Except for this: having learned from Ondaatje, a master depicter of all forms of labour, Cole rounds off Every Day is for the Thief by showing that even in the most intractable circumstances there is pleasure in how things are made, dignity and order in work; just as the carpenters have “borne witness” to the city in all its grief, so, too, has the writer.
This article appeared in the TLS on 23.7.2014 as “Humiliated and Complicit”.