Just over a century after Virginia Woolf declared that “On or about December 1910, human character changed”, the American novelist, Hanya Yanagihara, has announced a new shift in consciousness. Jude, the lead character in her novel, A Little Life, is known to his friends as The Postman, “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past”. The obscurity of his origins (left at birth in a garbage bin) and a childhood of horrific abuse mean he is determined to draw a veil over his past, making him the most mysterious of the four male New York friends at the heart of Yanagihara’s story. However his condition is only an extreme – and negative – version of the ambiguity that characterizes all the people around him, among whom identity is continually in flux and up for renegotiation. When one friend, Malcolm, declares that he is not black, and another, Willem, that he is not gay, it is not because they are ashamed of being either, but because they are insisting on a complexity these terms do not allow. The past still infects them (a third friend, JB, paints himself as Steppin Fetchit and ridicules Malcolm as an Uncle Tom), but in the main they have unparalleled liberty to create themselves as they wish, embodying a new kind of self, one with more freedom than ever before.
Some American critics have hailed A Little Life as a great gay novel, pointing to how its melodrama fits the tortured sensibility of much queer literature, and how its portrayal of isolation, fear and shame, but also of enduring friendship, reflects the experience of many gay men, particularly those who lived through the AIDS crisis. But gays are just the advance party for the culture that Yanagihara describes here, their networks of cooperation now the organizing principle of many urban lives in which traditional structures of support have collapsed or been jettisoned. Jude’s illness, a matter of non-specific painful “episodes” and a body riddled with sores, is deliberately not named as AIDS, in keeping with much else that is left vague or seeming implausible.
Like Karl Ové Knausgaard, who in equally vast novels has also tried to represent the new self, Yanagihara achieves great psychological realism through her reporting of the stifling repetitions of daily life, the sense of entrapment, in Jude’s case, exacerbated by his defensiveness and horror of intimacy. But at the same time, her story is so excessive it seems to levitate out of history, edging towards the mythic or incredible. As a child Jude meets cruelty everywhere; in adulthood, equally unlikely, nearly everyone shows him kindness and constant solicitousness, including the couple who materialise, as if in a fairy tale, wishing to adopt the thirty year old man. More than this, there are no dates or political events, women are almost entirely absent, and though in this enchanted place everyone becomes successful and travels the world, nothing external makes any impression upon their wealthy New York enclave.
As the novel proceeds the narrative becomes even narrower, focusing on Jude and his inability to thrive in this free world, to overcome his almost Victorian sense of being “ruined”. Soon he stops working in the District Attoney’s office and starts defending pharmaceutical and insurance companies. It is a move neither he nor his friends approve of, but the professional anonymity provides a safe-haven from his fear of exposure and temporary respite from the cutting he inflicts upon himself – the only control he can exert over his tortured body and emotions.
The interesting question about A Little Life is why Yanagihara makes the choice to so relentlessly pursue Jude, magnifying his pain and isolation, but also indulging the narcissism of his little life. One answer might be that it allows her to deepen an exploration of what adulthood means for this generation, largely unconstrained by spouse or children and vulnerable to accusations of immaturity. In the context of their radical individualism, Jude is a nightmare of unfreedom: a child who can’t grow up, sickened by his weakness and dependency. This condition is so shameful it transfers itself to everyone he comes into contact with, spreading guilt among the freedom-seekers like a contagion.
As her story unfolds, Yanagihara risks a good deal of vulgarity – relying on the secrecy of child abuse to create narrative tension, sensationalizing horror of the disabled body – but the payoff for her daring is that it yields complexity. If Jude is full of shame, it is induced by forces beyond his control. And he has resources of hope, continually trying again after every setback or failure. In this way, he epitomizes our struggle for autonomy, but also all the forces that militate against us. Ultimately Jude loses the battle, and Yanagihara’s greatest risk is that she suggests we see in his defeat an adult choice, a final act of sovereignty over his little life.
This article appeared in the Spectator as The Lonely Struggle of Jude the Obscure on 14.8.2015.
Like any art, the novel has always been in the business of self-justification. But perhaps because of its dependence on the book – a small object easily burned or confiscated – it has been particularly concerned by threats to its existence. To these, the novel has responded by parading its own importance, with self-exploration, bragging narrators, and unshockable worldliness, or by stories about machines and political systems intent on the book’s eradication, such as 1984 (1949) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). In the twenty-first century, with the spread of smartphones and portable computers, and the rise of a small number of global corporations controlling them, a new literary genre is emerging. Still in its infancy, the internet novel is interesting as much for what it tells us about the precarious state of fiction in an era when, as Joshua Cohen observes, “they’re phasing out the ink stuff”, as for the myriad ways in which networked technology now permeates our lives. Recent examples include Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013), about a company surveilling the whole of humanity, Thomas Pynchon’s investigation of the Deep Web in Bleeding Edge (2013), and Isabelle Allende’s consideration of online gaming in Ripper (2014). Now there is Cohen’s Book of Numbers, the most comprehensive of its ilk to date, giving us the history of the internet through the story of the largest tech company in the world, Tetration, (the name means “exponentiated by itself”).
Like Yossarian in Catch 22, who interprets war as an attack on him individually, Cohen takes the internet personally: after all, viability is what’s at stake here, too. Demonstrating just how personally, he names his principal character, a failed novelist, after himself, following Philip Roth’s ‘Philip Roth’ and Paul Auster’s ‘Paul Auster’. To underline his point and outclass the competition, he calls a second character by the same name. This ‘Joshua Cohen’ is Tetration’s founder, an affectless geek born in the 1960s, marked by a mix of influences peculiar to his time and place. His family have gone from shtetl to Stanford in three generations, and to their Judaic tradition have been added the Californian ingredients of start-up capitalism, second wave feminism, macrobiotic diets and Buddhist philosophy. Two further characters complete Cohen’s quartet (four is the important number in Book of Numbers): Moe, the Hindu programming genius behind Tetration, an illegal migrant with a suitcase-full of pseudonyms, who wants to develop the net’s “reversible” potential for “freecommerce” and giving back, and the company president, Kor Dienerowitz, the money guy who thinks he can exploit the freely-given work and socially produced information upon which the net is built.
Cohen tracks the story from obscure beginnings, when early computer work was funded by universities and the military, to the development of machines, gadgets, programmes and apps, now so ubiquitous they “invent us”. This, of course, is the territory of the novel, which means that Book of Numbers is haunted by an ominous sense of exile and obsolescence, something magnified by Cohen’s claiming of the novel for Jewish culture, and by his hero’s preoccupation with the holocaust. At the same time, it is precisely this culture which enriches Book of Numbers, informing its scepticism about power (“never be a sucker”), tendency to digression and over-interpretation (“or else it’s vice versa”, “then again maybe not”), love of words, deployment of jokes, and most importantly, its sense of emanating from a long narrative tradition, being, at least in part, a story of the people of the book (“some of that is a Jew thing”). Specifically, Book of Numbers mimics the fourth book of the Torah, with its tale of the internet generation forever searching for “content that never contents”, in Cohen’s memorable phrase. Unlike the culture and heritage of the book, this content cannot be passed on because it is always provisional, never a final resting place.
By making the novel partisan in this way, Cohen sets up many serio-comic rivalries. His beleaguered novelist-hero is resentful not only of the net, but of the Muslim bombers who upstaged his novel the day after its publication on September 10, 2001; of a publishing industry now dealing in adaptations, properties, options, anything but books, which failed to support this epic work about his mother’s survival of the holocaust; and of all the bad writers in his life, including his Pulitzer-winning best friend, and his “x2b” wife, therapy-blogging their relationship. The most important rivalry, of course, lies between the two Cohens. Tetration’s CEO subjects his namesake to ignominy by employing him to ghostwrite his autobiography, meaning that although the novelist’s name will appear on the book no one will know he is the author. Furthermore, to underscore his authority, the tech boss demands that everyone call him Principal.
Despite his insistence, Principal doesn’t get the last word, or even the first. The story we are reading is not his, but the New York writer’s, a sprawling dairy containing family memoirs, extracts from Jewish websites, his friend’s journalism, his wife’s blogs and her lover’s emails, together with accounts of his new world adventures on the trail of Principal (in Palo Alto, Dubai, Abu Dhabi), and then through the old world (Germany, Austria) in search of the “forbidden” young “Arabess” he has fallen for. Encased in the middle of this record of his life are taped interviews with Principal, drafts of the ‘autobiography’ with acerbic comments and interpolations, and even sections of deleted material, scored through but still legible, as work in progress appears on a computer screen. It’s written as Beta programming is, with everything included and open to revision – historically a mark of the novel’s intellectual integrity, its lack of parochialism, but, here, also a way of revealing how the net’s immediacy and lack of mediation puts pressure on the novel, making its unfolding narratives seem archaic and slow by comparison.
By early 1996, they were set – they had everything but a name.
THIS IS JUST POINTLESS FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK
Q=0138471E:A bv.ghhgty qp83ur j ;j “1aa0,2s9l38ddytvnm,.//
‘Cohen’ then, is implicated in the new technology and the businesses which deliver it (which writer today is not?) but these changes are still recent enough for him to feel cheated out of a literary legacy he believes himself heir to. He opens with an attention-grabbing salvo attacking the reader’s betrayal of the book with those sterile machines: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands”. In a monograph Cohen published in 2013, much indebted to Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Attention! A (short) history, he notes the etymology of “attention”: “to grip…to grasp…to take with the hands or hold/mold with the fingers”. This is suggestive of the compact between the grasping reader and shaping writer, a relationship endangered by the keystroke’s “wordprocessing, textgenerating”, and the net’s stream of information, all of it alterable or deletable. Hence ‘Cohen’s’ assertion that while books are made of organic stuff – “hair and plant fibres, glue from boiled horsehooves” – his laptop threatens to stem his creativity and make him infertile, its “waveparticles… reaching my genitals and frying my sperm”.
For all that Cohen demonstrates the threats now facing the novelist in Book of Numbers, he also responds triumphantly to these post-literate times, reiterating the novel’s capacity to absorb new technologies and counter the ways in which they externalize and alienate. In Attention, Cohen argues that the vastness of the net is almost “unwordable”, but in Book of Numbers he re-humanizes its language. He does this with a brilliant facility for voice, conveying all “the lexicon of the prevailing Esperanto”, but primarily with “the unshakeable Jew belief in continuity, narrative, plot”, shaping a history which reminds us the net is not some external force acting upon us, but a product of our work and imagination. If there are times when his record of this tradition, and its successive generations of technological innovation, threatens to overwhelm the story, in the main, Cohen’s writing finds the poetry and pity of our times, and the progress of his characters, self-aware about even their delusions, keeps the reader gripped.
Yet it is in its fidelity to tradition that Book of Numbers poses its greatest challenge. Cohen’s narrator, the egotistical and embattled writer, is as intelligent, witty and provocative as any of his literary predecessors. But something has happened to the worldliness that made this figure such a knowing – and by the reader, trusted – guide. Cohen’s lament is not just for the passing of the book, but for the Jews, once cultural vanguards whose deracination made them exemplary chaperones (think of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses), now finding themselves overtaken: “All pens at the very end of their ink begin to write in Arabic.” When “Cohen” finally tracks down the Yemeni woman he has been pursuing, he notices the names outside her building, all written “in a script resembling my testing this pen, licking its tip then testing again”. But the test she presents is one he walks away from, and she remains only a notional figure (“it wasn’t you…it was a dream”), gestured to in shorthand, like the politics underpinning these cultural shifts: “Also, Israel.”; “(Palestinian Territories)”. Back in America, in a taxi riding home to his mother, ‘Cohen’ muses on how “it used to be”: how he would engage an Arab driver with his habitual Jewish talkiness, wanting to show “that I held by what that Berber slave playwright once wrote, nothing human was alien to me, or rattling, wanting to show respect by talking politics domestic and foreign.” But his worldliness deserts him, and once again “this moment, this intersection” seems beyond him. Unable to acknowledge how this has come to pass, yet wanting to retain a belief in the conviviality of his twinned traditions – the novel’s and the Jew’s – the writer comforts himself with the fantasy that maybe he has said something after all.
This review appeared as ‘The content that never contents” in the TLS on 17.7.2015.
“If only you could have understood, just once, how everything joined up.” Time and again, Per Olov Enquist addresses himself with this lament in the pages of his autobiographical novel, The Wandering Pine. The desire to make narrative sense out of the haphazard or mysterious is a common enough motive for life-writing. In Enquist’s case, the wish to understand “how could it turn out so badly?”, is charged with the suggestion that the “it” in question, is not only his life, but that of Swedish social democracy. Enquist is one of his country’s most eminent writers and as an award-winning novelist, playwright and journalist he has often been at the heart of its political and cultural debates. The Wandering Pine, rather like Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, is a fascinating portrait of intellectual life in the twentieth century. But whereas Miller portrayed himself with the monumentality of a Mount Rushmore carving, Enquist is ironic and self-condemning. (It’s hard to imagine the American writing of himself, “He experiences it all and understands nothing.”) Crucially, Enquist’s book advertises itself not as memoir but fiction, with the subtitle, “Life as a Novel”, and it plays out in the third, not the first person, dividing “Enquist” between the judging narrator and the hapless creature being written about. It’s a division that underscores the impossibility of things ever being “joined up”, and the novel’s stoicism in the face of this.
The idea that life should have order and coherence was embedded deep in Enquist’s childhood. Growing up in a small village, without father or siblings, he had an intense relationship with his mother, a protestant schoolteacher who taught the native values of honesty, fairness and cooperation with an iron rod. One painfully funny passage has the innocent boy inventing a crime he can admit to at the weekly confession she demands he perform. This fabrication is something like Enquist’s original sin, suggesting a connection between creativity and madness, an idea he pursues in stories about relatives locked up in attics for their inclination to writing or wandering. It suggests, too, how the dogmatic imposition of reason results in lies, guilt and absurdity, leading to a sense of hypocrisy from which Enquist – and Scandinavian social democracy – can never quite escape. “He finds it natural that he is good”, Enquist writes of his young self, but the constant emphasis on goodness causes him to daydream about how it would be if he were not. Corporal punishment is forbidden, yet he “hankers after a taste of it”. It is this paradox Enquist identifies between goodness and its discontents, which fuels so much contemporary Scandinavian literature, from Steig Larsson’s indictments of racism, misogyny and corporate greed, to Karl Ové Knausgaard’s complaints about homogeneity and infantilization.
The toughness of village life through long snowbound winters turns Enquist into an athlete, but when he arrives at university in Uppsala he discovers that intellectuals “are silent on the subject of sport” and his interest makes him seem an oddball in cultural circles. His sense of being an outsider persists, even as he advances to the heart of Swedish life – working as a cultural commissioner for the government, debating with Olof Palme – yet it is just this feeling of being peripheral that makes him such an exemplary Scandinavian. For a while, in the relaxed climate of the 1960s, his isolation and awkwardness fall away and he takes part in heady experiments in sex, drugs, politics and art. He writes a non-fiction book about the Baltic soldiers who were handed over to the Soviets by the Swedish authorities at the end of the war, which proves to be an unexpected, if controversial, success: in a country that prides itself on its reputation for decency, probing the murky past, he is told, is “inappropriate”.
Enquist’s work also gains a reputation – for iconoclasm and obliquity, making him ever more determined to get to the centre of things. Moving to Berlin, he is caught up in the Baader-Meinhof story. Yet even here, in the heat of history, he feels the “cancer” of his goodness makes it hard for him to “understand the grime of life” or the youthful disobedience he witnesses all around. Working at the Munich Olympics as a sports reporter, he stumbles into the event which marks a fundamental shift in global politics, though he fails to grasp this at the time. (No one does.) Then at home, the mood turns darker. The happy, open, permissive Swedes are troubled to find even they are not immune to the prevailing mood of conservativism: political debates no longer focus on the different futures proposed by communists, syndicalists or social democrats, but on crime and immigration, as people look for someone to blame for threats to the Swedish way of life.
At some point in all this Enquist starts drinking. His decline is intermittent and though he suffers from writer’s block, there are still periods of productivity, including a new career in the theatre which takes him to Broadway. Despite such successes, he senses he is increasingly in the grip of something destructive, even if he is unable to identify precisely what it is or “how it all went wrong”. Friends check him into rehab but, rationalist that he is, he finds it hard to accept the religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous. On his second incarceration, this time in a clinic in Iceland, he bolts, fleeing shoeless into the glacial night. Finally, he finds more sympathetic treatment in Copenhagen, and begins an autobiographical novel, his own secular tale of “resurrection”. Enquist never drinks again. Why he started and why he has stopped are questions he cannot answer, but his recovery has something to do with finding his way back to the stories of his early life, to his mother’s powerful belief in goodness, and to his laptop’s “funny brownish-red light like a lamp in the darkness”.
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations is the third in a loose trilogy of state-of-the-nation novels. Rather like David Hare who in a trio of plays in the early 1990s, examined labour politics, the Church and the law, O’Hagan has explored the decline of the Left in Our Fathers (1999); religion, sexuality and nationality in Be Near Me (2006); and now in The Illuminations, the military, specifically Britain’s involvement in the so-called “humanitarian wars”. Unlike Hare, however, O’Hagan is not a polemical writer, and he shares the viewpoint of the those on the ground rather than the top brass. Each novel in this trilogy depicts inter-generational relationships, allowing him to scrutinize the present not simply on its own terms but in the often indicting light of the past. His fiction hovers between then and now, between lives understood through class and community, and the atomized selves we currently inhabit – but the animating morality of his work derives from a time before anyone suggested society might not exist. Older people inhabit his novels in their own right, but their presence also directs attention to lives routinely discounted or abandoned, pricking the conscience of the reader and making us reflect on our complicity in Britain’s “new-style social anomie”, in the “vast carelessness” O’Hagan once identified, which facilitated Fred and Rosemary West.
If the backward-looking portion of O’Hagan’s work is fuelled by his Scottish, working class origins, his reading of the present seems influenced by his second writing life, as a journalist. Joining the London Review of Books at a young age, (he was a protegé of Karl Miller, to whom The Illuminations is dedicated), and perhaps wishing to offset the sway of the past, he has specialized in exemplary subjects of the technology and celebrity age, writing about video games, fake internet personas, child Jihadis, surveillance and paedophillia. This fascination with the contemporary and voguish is also evident in his remaining books: The Missing (1995), written in the wake of the West murders; Personality (2003), about an anorexic child star, and The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and his Friend Marilyn Monroe (2010), a sidelong view of America’s most famous woman, narrated by the pet Frank Sinatra once gave her.
Now, in The Illuminations, O’Hagan examines the bond between an old woman struggling with the mysteries of her past, and a young man, harrowed by war in the fracturing present. Despite their different predicaments they recognize themselves in one another, and this recognition between them is a sustaining secret.
Living in sheltered accommodation in Scotland, Anne Quirk is declining into dementia even as the memories of her carefully guarded life flood back. Her grandson, Luke, is on the other side of the world in Afghanistan, leading a platoon of video-gaming, drug-fuelled young soldiers in a delivery of equipment to an electricity plant – a symbol of the war’s ostensibly civilizing purpose. At first their stories are held apart, told in chapters so different in character they seem not to have come from the same novel. But when Luke’s troupe is ambushed and in the mayhem a village decimated – “young boys lay in heaps”, women wailing – he returns home to Scotland. Here he finds consolation in the grandmother who taught him as a boy that the world’s chaos might be captured and illuminated through “artistic ordering”.
Anne was once a photographer, though her work has long since fallen from notice. Her way of lighting up ordinary moments taught Luke about the transcendent possibilities of art and offered him escape from a humdrum existence: “Anne had given him the world not as it was but as it might be.” That he gets to university only to choose an army life rather than an artist’s, seems perverse, but enlisting is his way of emulating a soldier father, killed in Northern Ireland, and the books he’s read have filled him with ideas of honourable service. Moreover, there is something of Anne’s creative instinct in his desire to “order the future”. Once in Afghanistan, though, this is revealed as a deformation of the artistic impulse, and Luke merely an “agent of fantasy”, ordering the world by policing it.
The revelation that art can be a passport out of a poor life recurs in O’Hagan’s work. Of the Scottish filmmaker, Bill Douglas’s journey from penury to artistry, he once wrote, “He must have realised that self-enlargement and self-invention were everything a boy from Newcraighall could hope for,” and his founding act as a novelist, in the first few pages of Our Fathers, was to pay tribute to a woman who marks out a boy, giving him books to help expand his life, rather than succumb to the mean one he is allotted: “My books kept me living, I was in love with what they knew.” In The Illuminations Luke is similarly anointed by Anne (“she made him unusual”), the distinction of art separating them from others, making them, as Anne’s surname suggests, quirky. As if to emphasize this difference, both characters have relationships with people trapped by the conformity grandmother and grandson evade. Anne’s next door neighbour, Maureen, is all bitter complaint at being left behind by her family, at having lived only a confined woman’s life; while Luke’s commander, Scullion, who, like him, has romantic ideas about the heroism of soldiering, cracks under the hypocrisy of too many wars which despite their humanitarian label, belie any notion of the good.
Some of The Illuminations’s strongest effects are achieved with the simple use of contrast. O’Hagan deploys it – as Anne does photographic contrast – to “not only…get at life, but to enhance it”. So Anne and Maureen, living in sheltered accommodation, talk in an equally sheltering language, in homely phrases (“a scarf’s like a friend, isn’t it?”) and familiar sayings (“everybody has their problems”, “you give them the best years of your life”); while the soldiers, actors on a global stage, “had their own language and said whatever they wanted” (“cocknoshers”, “drill-pig”, “fuck-o-nometry”). But this inventive talk is all diversion and bluff, the freedom it implies, an illusion. Their lives, too, are horribly inevitable: in both places people are stricken and die, the only difference is the suddenness with which it happens.
These contrasts also reveal some of the novel’s weaknesses. While Anne’s life is illustrative of the way in which women are often hidden from history – there is the clandestine affair with a married man, the interrupted and forgotten career – it is also plausibly idiosyncratic. Anne’s secret past sheds light on her guardedness, her feeling for mystery in art and for the special knowledge of “how to read a person” which she passes on to her grandson. By contrast, Luke’s familiar story of disillusionment with war and the difficulty of returning home, strains to achieve broader resonance. There are several voices in the novel lambasting the soldiers’ insularity (“You want to burn away the enemy and scorch their minds, without knowing what their mind is”), but O’Hagan is equally unilluminating about the Afghans, presenting only the blinkered view of Luke and his men. As a consequence, many passages fall into cliché: the single Afghan portrayed is a caricature ‘baddie’, one-eyed, “unadult” and treacherous, and the violence of the ambush scene aestheticized, as it might be in one of the video games the soldiers are continually hooked up to (“shattered pomegranates”, almonds “that seem to explode”, “rose petals on the road, “blood running into dust”).
Once home, now believing the war to be predicated on a senseless idea (to “obliterate ignorance with firepower”), Luke argues with those Scots advocating independence, judging them also to be “agents of fantasy”, caught up in a regressive nationalism. Life is now technological and global, he proclaims, everyone has their dreams and no one has a monopoly on decency: “There’s no nation, Mum. There’s only people surfing the Net.” This new Google globalism, though, is as valueless to Luke as the flags and drums of the old nationalism. In the war he has suffered “a loss of make-believe” and once again it is to Anne that he turns to try and recover this, taking her on a journey back into history, to Blackpool where she had her affair, and to see the town’s illuminations.
Luke’s creative power revives as he makes believe Anne’s dementia is not a tragic decline, but a new journey they are embarking on together. In this way, he keeps faith with her and the transporting imagination she revealed to him as a boy. Yet there is something cramping in the way O’Hagan’s story turns back and in upon itself, looking for its resources in the already known (“A feeling of optimism fell from the deep past”); a limitation, too, in Luke’s private code of art which fails when confronted by the other or the new. It’s as if the larger questions are beyond the novel’s purview, and against a war, “dirty as fuck”, or a nation dismantling itself, art can only offer the reinstatement of humane behavior, of small, good, but quite intangible things, and of “artistic ordering”. That scarf – the reassuring friend – mentioned at the beginning of The Illuminations, reappears at the end. Luke takes Anne and a friend down to the beach, Anne’s scarf blows up into the air, “the girls laughing as it stretched up and a hand reached out for the sun.”
This review appeared in the TLS on 27.3.2015, titled ‘Order and Light’.
“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.