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Maggie Gee, The White Family and The Red Children, Telegram Books – Literary Review


There’s a portrait of an author in The White Family (2002) – Maggie Gee’s novel about racism, written in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder – which is surely meant as a rebuke to the complacency of British fiction at the time. Thomas has written a minor novel and is now working on a “phony” book about postmodernism and the “death of meaning”. The irony of this is that he is embroiled in a story whose ample meanings pass unnoticed by him, just as they were overlooked by most British fiction then produced by white writers. The uncommoness of Gee’s tale is something Bernadine Evaristo notes in her Introduction to Telegram Books’ new edition of The White Family: “A rare white voice exploring race as a British novelist”.

Caught up in his books, Thomas doesn’t get out much, but when an attractive young teacher moves into a neighbouring flat, he finds himself agreeing to talk to a class of her students about his work. Wondering what it is that writers do exactly, he tries out a few clichéd phrases: “Writers don’t know where their stories come from. They come like magic, in the middle of the night”; then “writing is a way of bringing people together”, before coming up with an explanation that he thinks will seize the kids’ imaginations: “I’ll tell them, writers are time-travellers. Sending messages from six thousand years ago.”

Telegram Books have also just published Maggie Gee’s latest novel, The Red Children, and though set a few decades in the future, the messages Gee sends in it arrive from even further back in time than Thomas had estimated. They come in the form of a small band of naked children, washed up on the seafront in Ramsgate. For the people of Kent, Gee reminds us, this is not a particularly unusual sight as they have been used to migrants turning up on their beaches as far back as Julius Caesar’s landing. And just up the coast sits a large boat presented in commemoration of the Vikings’ arrival. More recently, climate change has brought refugees in smaller boasts, while viruses have seen people fleeing from the city’s “hot, germy cages” to Britain’s seaside towns.

But there are crucial differences with these new arrivals: the children’s red skin, prominent foreheads, indecipherable language, constant laughter, and the way they cling to one another, are all strange, and to some in Ramsgate, disconcerting. Are they quite human, a few residents wonder? Predictably, the more scaremongering reactions are whipped up by the town’s nationalist group, “Put Britain First”. Despite this, the good sense of the school’s headmaster prevails. The noisy, gangly children are welcomed into the town, proving against the expectations of many, to be mathematical geniuses who quickly pick up English and develop a fascination for history. When more red people arrive – one of whom, known as the Professor, is particularly erudite – it becomes apparent that the oddness of the newcomers stems from the fact that they are Neanderthals, driven by climate warming from the caves where they’ve been hiding in Gibraltar, just as 40,000 years ago their ancestors were driven south by climate cooling. 

Written twenty years apart, the two novels are companion pieces in the stories they tell about xenophobia, and both analyse how failure and disappointment propel those characters drawn farthest into bigotry. The White Family is essentially a tragedy in its unflinching depiction of how prejudice deforms all aspects of life, while The Red Children, despite its discussion of ecological destruction and species extinction, is more resilient, veering into comedy. This in part mirrors the times when the books were written, reflecting small advances in our understanding of racism and willingness to confront it. Minor characters from the earlier work reappear in the later, now older and with greater authority – so Winston, a child in The White Family, develops into the head teacher in The Red Children who proves instrumental in encouraging the town to welcome and incorporate the newcomers. The unlikely optimism of The Red Children may also derive from the stage it was written in Gee’s career: this is her seventeenth book and the playfulness of the red children, and their intense curiosity, are infectious, leading some of the more curmudgeonly townspeople to act, despite themselves, with generosity or even heroism. This enjoyment of life spreads out across the town and throughout Gee’s narrative in a way that is often a feature of late-stage work, together with gratitude for the planet’s beauty, and a profound sense that we are all connected: Bob Marley’s ‘One love’ is a constant refrain.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two novels, however, is in their treatment of what we might call ‘common ground’. The patriarch of The White Family is a park-keeper. His pride in the park and other communal spaces (many of which were fostered in the postwar years by the welfare state) give his family a sense of belonging: “We liked it here. It was our – El Dorado. Once upon a time, it had all we needed.”  The tragedy of The White Family is that as Britain changes and new kinds of people enter the park, hospital, church or shop, the Whites, steeped in myths of empire and racial superiority, feel threatened and diminished. The message that the red children bring, by contrast, is that new understandings of history and science, shorn of supremacist assumptions, can help set us free: there is no need to feel threatened by outsiders as we have always interbred with newcomers, and this newness has made us resilient. If fear was the terrible motivator for the White family, what the red children bring, for all their differences, is awareness of our “likeness” – “in five or six generations, who will know the difference, or notice?”

Graeme Macrae Burnet, Case Study. Saraband – TLS


“The tarmac of the path glistened like ink. I imagined stepping into it and slowly sinking up to my waist.” If you need any reminder that Graeme Macrae Burnet is a writer who revels in metafiction there is plenty of evidence in Case Study, his tortuous, cunning and highly self-conscious new novel, filled with doubles and dopplegangers. Readers who equate self-referentiality with literary integrity, or who simply enjoy being toyed with, are in for a treat.

Burnet has always wanted his readers to think about who is speaking in his fiction, and to separate his own life from those of his characters. For this reason, his books are framed in elaborate ruses involving manufactured versions of himself, which remind us that, in fiction at least, charlatanism often points the way to truth. In the two published volumes of his Detective Gorki trilogy (The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, 2014, and The Accident on the A35, 2017)  Burnet presents his texts as “translations”, while in his Booker prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, (2015), a certain “G.M.B.” alleges he “came across” the documents that comprise the bulk of the novel in an archive. Now, in a preface to Case Study, “G.M.B.” returns to tell us that the diaries on which this work rests were sent to him in response to a “blog post”. And sure enough, you can find a blog by Burnet on Goodreads, where he claims to have “unearthed” works by one A. C. Braithwaite, a 1960s “enfant terrible” and the author of “Kill Your Self” and “Untherapy”.

Braithwaite is one of two adversaries in Case Study, a psychotherapist described in the press as “Britain’s most dangerous man”. The other, doing battle with this charismatic philanderer in the time-honoured manner, is a young, isolated and unworldly woman. She adopts the pseudonym “Rebecca Smyth”, the first name after Daphne du Maurier’s heroine, the second an affectation to make her seem more plausible when she first arrives at Braithwaite’s shabby office, disguised as a “nutter” and asking for treatment. It is she who imagines herself “sinking [in] ink”, and her diaries record her posing as a patient to discover if Braithwaite’s menace extends to murder, or at least if his therapy is responsible for her sister’s death. “Suicide makes Miss Marples of us all”, she observes after the sister kills herself following a session with Braithwaite. “One cannot help looking for clues.”

The clues come thick and fast, though many are concealed in an updated “Strange Case of” story, which reimagines the traditional game of cat-and-mouse between detective and criminal as one between a therapist and patient. This allows Burnet to deliver a riveting psychological plot, rooted in the therapeutic counterculture of the 1960s, that keeps overturning ideas about madness, identity and culpability. The air of indeterminacy is deepened by Braithwaite’s encounters with two of the Sixties most charismatic iconoclasts: the radical ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R. D. Laing, and Colin Wilson, who reframed existentialism for British readers with his work of literary criticism, The Outsider (1956). Braithwaite’s egotism, though, overwhelms his admiration for the men, making him boorish and violent. Eventually, he is ejected even from this camp of intellectual outcasts.

Braithwaite certainly thinks of himself as an outsider, hailing from a Northern, puritanical family who fail to understand his unorthodox thinking. But unlike “Rebecca”, whose waywardness is met with criticism and chastisement, once he arrives at Oxford, his nonconformity is understood as a sign of genius. By the time he reaches bohemian London, his iconoclasm fits right in. Here he mingles with Joan Bakewell, Princess Margaret and the closeted actor Dirk Bogarde, who announces that it’s “fine to be your own doppelganger”. This sums up Braithwaite’s philosophy: there is no such thing as authentic identity, he argues, everything is manufactured by “family, decorum and responsibility”, so why not play around with different personae?

What is so smart about Burnet’s novel, and the source of much of its humour, is the introduction into this permissive environment of “Rebecca”, the mousey homebody who ends up outwitting the so-called genius. In a text that runs parallel to her diaries, “G.M.B.” presents Braithwaite’s biography, supplying ample evidence of the therapist’s fraudulence, conceit and misogyny. And yet nothing is straightforward: contradictory accounts defy easy judgement, as do the abundant clues, hinting, crucially, at what is missing from Braithwaite’s solipsistic analysis – the social and cultural forces that shape behaviour.

As time passes, the macho guru figure falls from fashion, while Rebecca’s strident individualism – promising a path to female emancipation – looks increasingly prescient. But in the 1960s, when suicide by women reached its peak, the problem of finding a feasible female identity was immense. As if to indicate that something is wrong with the model of freedom “Rebecca” tries to enact, and the more dominant the proto-Thatcherite side of her becomes, the more she behaves like a split personality. Soon her strange conduct pushes us to question her sanity. Sitting in Braithwaite’s waiting room she obsesses over a tear in the wallpaper, and during one session with him she pulls a mouse wrapped in tissue from her handbag. She thinks of ending her life by walking into water with “stones in her pocket”. And, of course, the place where this all happens is Primrose Hill.

“I have rather been toying with you”, “Rebecca” announces in a postscript, and these literary allusions (to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Roland Barthes’s “tissue of quotations”, the suicides of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, the “Mad Woman in the Attic” stories of du Maurier, Woolf, Charlotte Brontë and Charlotte Perkins Gilman) all add to that sensation. But Case Study is more than a work of power play. For all the author’s distancing techniques he still pulls the reader into his tale, leaving us with ink on our hands, too. This is a sign not only of our immersion, or “sinking”, in literature, but of the way Graeme Macrae Burnet’s crafty text demands that each reader confront the madness in us all.

This review was published in the TLS on 8.10.21 as ‘When Charlatans Lead to Truth’.

Noémi Lefebvre, Poetics of Work (translated by Sophie Lewis). Les Fugitives – TLS


“Make it big!”, is how Sophie Lewis, the English translator of Poetics of Work, recently explained her choice of title for Noémi Lefebvre’s slim fourth novel, aware that the modesty of its offering (coming in at just 112 pages), might lead to this brilliant, witty, utterly contemporary novel being overlooked or underestimated. This is precisely the fate of its ungendered narrator, who spends the book in a Socratic battle with their father, mostly about the disciplinary uses of work, but also about the absence of poetry in modern life, the racism of France’s increasingly militarized state (“Are we at war?” is a constant refrain), and the totalitarian power of western democracies in the twenty-first century. This power comes together, here, in the figure of the father-as-myth, a tyrannical daddy who embodies not only the state’s neoliberalism, patriarchy and colonialism but also its liberal critiques, making his authority of such a magnitude as to seem unassailable, and inculcating in his child a deep sense of futility. Finding him everywhere and doing everything, the narrator at first finds themselves nowhere, fitting into none of what Lefebvre calls “the categories that civilised humanity expects”.

The first of these controlling categories is gender. Although it is hard to read Poetics of Work without assuming Lefebvre’s narrator is female (the way the father dismisses and humiliates them particularly makes it seems so), no indication of this is given in the novel. Such elusiveness is just one of many ways in which the narrator fights back, allowing them to speak as the voice of a generation that has found itself locked out of employment and housing, questioning the values of a society that no longer works for it: “who is this we, Papa”? Liberally educated, and pursuing, idiosyncratically, ideas that help them to understand the strange new world they inhabit (reading Klemperer for his analysis of fascism, and Kafka for his understanding of father-fear and the difficulty of dissent, as well as internet memes and pieces of pop culture), our narrator chips away at the father’s granite logic and sense of entitlement, as if knocking a statue from its pedestal. Slowly his monolithic qualities are unmasked as a fraud: Papa hasn’t actually read many of the thinkers that he uses to bolster his oblique yet emphatic pronouncements. And the child knows the father better than his public image: for much of the time he is either mysteriously absent or feasting on junk food while watching daytime soaps in his underpants.

Through the process of questioning and unpicking the logic of authority something starts to shift. The narrator finds “solidarity” and agency in city crowds as “someone among everyone…loiterers against the law”, and we sense that, finally, we are approaching the autumn of the patriarch, or maybe even their final winter.

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Knocking a Statue’ on 13.8.2021.

Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men. Viking – TLS


While it may appear that British fiction is now an encompassing, multicultural affair, Nadifa Mohamed’s novels challenge this idea, rendering physical and psychological landscapes that are largely absent from the canon of a country yet to come to terms with its colonial past. Her previous books were set in Yemen in the 1930s and Somalia in the 1980s. Her latest, The Fortune Men, takes us to a multiracial community in 1950s Wales. Once again Mohamed is intent on expanding her world, listing its teeming varieties and presenting a wealth of character and language: Somali, Welsh, Arabic, Yiddish, Hindi and German all jostle together on her pages. But this proliferation contrasts with the constricted minds of many people in postwar Britain.

The Fortune Men is predicated on the real life of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali man who was hanged for murdering a Jewish woman in Cardiff in 1952. Mattan always maintained his innocence and decades later, after a long campaign by his family, the conviction was finally quashed. In Mohamed’s novel – as he was in life – Mattan is nicknamed “the ghost”, without fixed work or address he haunts the fringes of society. But Mattan is also a globally connected figure: speaking five languages he is more worldly than the people who dismiss him as an illiterate alien. It is this tension between the perception of Mattan as a shadowy figure, someone who can be easily fitted up for murder, and his struggle to make sense of his wide-ranging life which fires up The Fortune Men, illuminating something the wandering Somali half-grasps: he is ahead of his time, a passenger on “the ship of a world to come”.

As a writer, Mohamed shares with her protagonist the loneliness of the pioneer, which is perhaps why she tips her hat to a handful of novels which have lit the path to this “world to come”. (Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, 2003. and Andrea Levy’s Small Island, 2004, all make incidental appearances). What distinguishes The Fortune Men from these earlier works about immigrant experience is the level of (controlled) rage on display. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that although seventy years separate the story and its telling, Mohamed’s descriptions of racist violence are still shamefully relevant. Perhaps it is a mark of the growing confidence of a new generation of black writers at work in Britain, among whom Mohamed is one of the outstanding figures. Or it may have to do with the fact that this is the first of Mohamed’s novels to be set in the heart of the empire.

The Fortune Men begins as the new queen takes to the throne, a change of regime that will have little impact on Mattan, a sailor who has abandoned the ocean for life as a gambler, roué, and petty thief in the cosmopolitan enclave of Tiger Bay. Mattan has walked the length of Africa and sailed on every sea but he is held now in this Welsh port by his love for a local girl and their three sons, though their marriage is bedevilled by prejudice, fear, and Mattan’s inability to settle down. A few streets away Diana, a war widow, and her sister Violet, close up the shop they keep. Violet’s brutal murder traps Mattan in a fate he struggles to comprehend. “The police are all liars”, he thinks and, once accused, his strategy is to dissemble and invent, a tactic that has served him well in a life of wriggling free from the hands of his mother, his brothers, bosses and lovers, from anyone who would pin him down.

Many writers are now thinking about how to represent racism without reinscribing its justification or depriving its victims of agency. One answer, deployed by John Keene in Counternarratives (2015), is to uncover the irrationality of prejudice, allowing characters to escape its logic. Another, used by Colson Whitehead in The Underground Railroad (2016), is to introduce fantasy into historical events. But in fidelity to the facts of Mattan’s life, Mohamed does not grant herself the leeway of creative circumvention. In releasing their characters from historical facts, the American writers break out of the realist form. Mohamed, by contrast, stays within its confines, revealing the intractability of the system which betrayed Mattan, and his cognitive dissonance in the face of its injustice. It is Mattan’s own lawyer who seals his fate. He recognizes his client’s evasiveness but is incapable of interpreting it as a strategic manoeuvre, characterising him as a childish liar and “semi-civilized savage” (here Mohamed quotes from the court record).

Terrifyingly, the novel’s final act of imaginative outwitting belongs not to the victim but the perpetrator. The British state performs a kind of conjuring trick revealing that Mattan’s cell was never a place from which release was possible or justice could be obtained: hidden behind a piece of furniture in the cell, an execution chamber was hiding all along. Two warders “heave the wardrobe aside to reveal an entrance to another room. A noose hangs from the ceiling. The familiar cell swims around him and his mind cannot make sense of it.”

Olivia Laing, Everybody: A Book About Freedom. Picador; Jacqueline Rose, On Violence and On Violence Against Women. Faber – TLS


In the early 1980s, I read Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Many of the young women I knew at the time were reading the book and it was part of the reason they were turning to radical feminism. Dworkin’s representation of an epidemic of trans-generational male violence against women shook me to the core. I remember in particular her descriptions of household utensils used in sadistic acts made me uneasy at the sight of everyday objects such as kitchen knives and glass bottles. In Everybody: A Book About Freedom, Olivia Laing revisits Dworkin’s polemic and recalls a similar experience she had reading Pornography the following decade, how its “terrifying and incantatory” words transformed the library where she sat into something “sinister”. Dworkin’s intent was to find a form of words that would wake women up to what she considered an ongoing genocide. A difficult task not least because, as Jacqueline Rose observes in On Violence and On Violence Against Women, there are “obstacles that litter the path between sexual violation and language.” Perhaps chief among these is the fact that sexual violence has so often been cloaked in silence, the crimes largely unreported, the victims, ignored or pilloried if ever they tried to speak – a fact which makes the powerful eloquence of these two new books even more remarkable.

In Everybody, Laing quotes Rose’s words on language (taking them from a 2016 essay subsequently reworked into Rose’s book). Though these works are related, their writers have set themselves different tasks: Rose questions why violence seems more ever-present and visible, Laing investigates the body’s powers and pleasures, as well as its discontents. They have different styles, too – Rose’s is more oratorial, Laing’s more personal – and sometimes their attitudes diverge: for instance, from the outset Rose proclaims her opposition to Dworkin’s idea of an immutable masculinity, while Laing gives Dworkin’s thesis its full context and due, before she dissents from portions of the argument.

But there is plenty of common ground between these books, which goes beyond their feminism. Both are radically subversive and yet impressively learned works that address violence at an individual and state level, reminding us that despite neo-liberalism’s privatisation of our bodies and emotions, the personal is still political. Both swim in the stream of this perilous moment – of would-be totalitarian leaders, BLM, #MeToo, Covid and climate change – progressing broadly from discussions of sex to race. Both look to thinkers, artists and activists for examples of how to respond to oppression while imagining the world otherwise, how to embody and “manifest a freedom that is shared”, as Laing puts it. And both are threaded through with the lives and ideas of psychoanalytic pioneers: in Rose’s case the connecting figure is Sigmund Freud; in Laing’s, it is Freud’s pupil, Wilhelm Reich. 

As Laing reports, it was over the question of “body language” that Reich first began to part company with his mentor. He came to believe that the talking cure was not enough: perhaps the past isn’t just buried in the memory but stored in the body, too, a burden that by touching their patients, therapists could alleviate. Although this was forbidden in psychoanalysis, Reich went ahead anyway and found his patients achieved a release of blocked energy which he called “streaming” or “orgone”. Laing tracks Reich through the 1930s in Berlin, when, full of optimism, he coined the phrases “sexual politics” and “the sexual revolution”, up to his painful split from Freud. The older man felt Reich’s theory about magical orgasmic energy was wild enough, but his membership of the Communist party and refusal to submit to Nazi demands for the Aryanisation of psychoanalysis, caused the final rupture between them.

At first Laing reads Reich alongside Christopher Isherwood. Both were involved with Magnus Hirschfeld’s ground-breaking Institute of Sexual Research, finding liberation in Berlin’s cabarets and underworlds before escaping from what Isherwood memorably called “Hitler’s weather”, when the streets were “scarlet with swastikas”. Once Reich is exiled from fascism in America, she winds the maverick’s life through the Beatnik world of Ginsberg and Burroughs, who popularised his invention of the notorious Orgone Box, an energy “accumulator” in which the patient could be sexually and spiritually recharged. She goes on to find echoes of Reich’s intellectual struggles – liberation in a box? – in feminist artists who reacted to restrictive gender norms by creating art concerned with freedom and confinement, pointing to the work of Ana Mendieta “where the body was many things at once…always in flux”, and Agnes Martin, who painted grids, nets and little boxes composed of dots or dashes where “there is nothing to hang onto…inducing a kind of rapture in the viewer”.

A consideration of the de Sade’s years in the Bastille leads Laing to explore imprisonment by the state, and in one’s own body, including discussion of the contesting responses Dworkin and Angela Carter made to the Marquis – the former uncovering the actual harm and pain suffered by de Sade’s servants and prosititues, the latter viewing the transgressiveness of de Sade’s writing as metaphorical and didactic, suggesting that “there might be something useful to discover in the interminable prison cells of his imagination”. Then Laing analyses the impact of incarceration on the neglected black gay activist Bayard Rustin and on Malcolm X, throwing up interesting correspondences between Malcolm X’s critique of “the global trans-historical system of white supremacy, the grotesque forced domination of one kind of body over another”, and Dworkin’s of male supremacy. She ends with a eulogy to the woman who sang “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free”, the ultimate liberation artist, Nina Simone.

As in her earlier books The Trip to Echo Spring (2013) and The Lonely City (2016), Laing displays a talent for parallel biography (including elements of her own), and for uncovering the myriad ways that art is always an act of resistance. Like Christina Stead, she is not a writer who romanticises the margins, recognising the risk of becoming wayward to the point of meaninglessly weird, or succumbing, as Reich did in the Fifties, to a climate of paranoia and violence. In Laing’s judicious and moving account, we come to understand how the man who called for free female sexuality turned into a wifebeater, how someone who “longed to help people unlock the prison of their bodies, ended up locked in a prison cell himself.”

If Laing’s project is to rehabilitate Reich and present him as emblematic – traduced and cast out from the mainstream but vindicated by the impact his prescient ideas had on later activists – Rose’s reading of Freud, an ongoing project for her, re-presents this canonical figure as continuingly relevant and more subversive than many have understood. “For a woman”, Rose argues in one of two chapters on sexual harassment, “Freud comes close to saying that normality in and of itself is an injury from which no girl will ever recover…it is a type of invasion.” While in an essay on recent political protest in South Africa, Freud’s attention to “hidden histories” casts light on what happens when liberation movements carry around “an additional psychic burden”. In this case, their relationship to a previous wave of activists, to whom they owe a debt, but whose project of emancipation has stalled, descending into corruption.

In both books there are productive tensions: Rose argues with radical feminists (Dworkin’s collaborator Catharine MacKinnon comes in for repeated knocks), while Laing does battle with Susan Sontag, particularly her (punitive and contradictory) ideas that illness is without meaning – or that it’s meaning derives from a lack of willpower. And inevitably there are unresolved paradoxes: Rose’s essays are titled after Hannah Arendt’s work On Violence (1970), to which she adds and On Violence Against Women, explaining her augmentation of the subject. Acknowledging Arendt’s influence, she redeploys the philosopher’s view of power as thoughtless, and of violence as stemming from a vengeful “impotence of bigness”. But Dworkin herself expressed similar opinions, arguing that “The immutable self of the male boils down to utterly unselfconscious parasitism”, and “He is always in a panic, never large enough”. To some extent, I think that the arguments between radical, socialist and liberal feminism which characterised the women’s movement in the Seventies and Eighties, have today collapsed. This, in part, is because women of colour, seeing the limitations of each of these schools, demanded a more inclusive, intersectional approach which now shapes the way many feminists think; and in part it’s because, unexpectedly, some arguments seem to have crossed over, as is the case of those socialist feminists who argue an essentialist line against transgender women.

Rose dedicates two essays to thoughtful dissections of recent debates about what trans means – including the fear of some cis women that they are being erased or marginalized, or the argument that only post-op are people ‘properly’ trans – before insisting that “For me, trans women have earned their place at the banquet of feminism”. For Laing, the genesis of her book was the feeling of never having been at home in her own body, and she now embraces a trans identity while married to a man and keeping her female name and pronouns. This widens the possibilities of trans, which some critics regard only as an extension of the dreaded sexual binary. In Everybody, Laing notes that Hirschfeld found in his study of sexuality there are “forty-three million possible combinations of gender and sexuality”, adding, gleefully: “Imagine telling J.K. Rowling”.

At the end of On Violence, trying to answer her own question about about the proliferation of violence against women Rose argues that we will not conquer the problem without facing up to it. We must acknowledge the human frailty that the “bloated masculinity” of autocrats and domestic abusers seeks to deny. This is not so far from and Laing’s opening observation that “our bodies carry our unacknowledged history, all the things we try to ignore or disavow”. Both writers show what a long way we still have to go to free ourselves from violence, stigma and shame, but their books bring us closer to understanding the task and the prize. As Laing writes, “The free body: what a beautiful idea!”

This review first appeared in the TLS on 11.6.2021 as ‘Stored in the Body’.

Anna North, Outlawed. Bloomsbury – TLS


We may think that witches are a thing of the past but only last month Mary Beard admitted that the term was still hurled at her on Twitter, just as it has been used for centuries as an insult against women beyond child-bearing age. Plagues too, were something most of us, in the West at least, had thought consigned to history. But as 2020 reminded us, the past has a way of erupting into the present. Understanding this, in her new novel, Anna North plays similar tricks with ideas of progress and time. A reimagined Western set at the end of the nineteenth century, Outlawed begins in the aftermath of a pandemic that has weakened fertility and left ‘barren’ women vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft.

North’s inquisitive protagonist, Ada, is the daughter of a midwife who battles against the patriarchal religion flourishing in the pandemic’s wake. Soon, the teenage girl becomes a wife who is unable to conceive, and as the month’s pass with no sign of pregnancy, the town’s latest pariah. Her life in danger, Ada is bundled off to a nunnery for safe-keeping. She escapes from this cloistered space, however, preferring adventure with a team of cross-dressing bandits. But even as Ada succumbs to the romance of outlawry, living wild and learning how to survive in the bitterest of winters, the question spurring her on concerns the biological mystery that led to her banishment: why do so many women have trouble with conception?  

North has a lot of fun taking liberties with history: the group Ada joins are a female version of the Hole in the Wall gang, all exiles and misfits from the punitive mainstream, for reasons of sexuality, race or insubordination. Their charismatic (in today’s parlance, non-binary) leader is the “Kid”, and Ada is renamed “Doc” because of her medicinal skills. These narrative freedoms are mirrored in the gang’s ungoverned behaviour: when Ada first encounters them they are dancing, singing, drinking and kissing under the moonlight. But such freedoms are hard-won, reliant, North emphasises on expertise – in horses, food, firearms and fooling people: one member teaches the others how to dress like flighty women or to bind their breasts and walk like macho men, conning the unsuspecting in the execution of Kid’s elaborate hold-ups.

Kid is absent from the novel’s final scam, holed away from the rest of the gang with a debilitating depression. This at first seems jarringly anachronistic, the concern about mental illness of a piece with Outlawed’s highly contemporary views of identity. But with great intelligence, North manages to weave these current preoccupations into a historical narrative, asking her readers to reconceive how gender might operate, but also how we might build community, democracy and leadership to effect political change.

This review first appeared in the TLS on 28.5.2021.

Jonathan Coe, Mr Wilder & Me. Viking – TLS


“Flawed and bonkers, but I like it” is how Jonathan Coe once described Fedora, the penultimate Billy Wilder film at the heart of his thirteenth novel, Mr Wilder & Me – an assessment that catches the manner of much of his own work. As Stanley Kramer’s 1963 movie declared, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and among contemporary British writers, Coe has been one of the readiest to see that art needs something of the unhinged to adequately encompass life. In his novels, ‘normal’ people are often besieged by forces of derangement and excess, forces so powerful they sometimes beget supernatural beings: there are monsters in the cellar in his 2015 novel, Number 11. Coe’s engagement with cinema helps him manoeuvre between these different realms or realities – an imaginative response to a divisive British class system. His best-known work, a satire on rampant Thatcherite privatisation, was named after the Pat Jackson 1961 film What a Carve Up!. But it is Billy Wilder – an Austrian-born, Polish-Jewish Hollywood director – who has been Coe’s guiding light as a writer, leading him to claim the director as his “first literary influence”.

Coe’s longstanding obsession with Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes might seem a more obvious subject for him to explore, but Fedora is the film that best conveys Wilder’s coupling of the mad and the melancholy, a mix which also infuses Coe’s writing. In Wilder’s film, an aging Hollywood star, the eponymous Fedora, subjects her daughter to plastic surgery so she can impersonate her mother on screen, sustaining the myth of her undying beauty. As Coe notes, Wilder forbade his writing partner, Iz Diamond, from adding jokes to their script because he wanted to create a wholly serious work. This means the demented behaviour, so liberating in their previous films, here manifests itself in catastrophe: in Fedora, impersonation results in a lethal loss of self, and the movie’s camp quality derives not from cross-dressing or wisecracking, but its elegiac mood.

The film’s melancholy also infects Coe’s novel, making it more subdued than some of his earlier fiction, particularly in its examination of late style. The narration by a fictional character, Calista, begins in London and looks back to her first encounter with Wilder and Diamond some forty years earlier in Los Angeles, followed by her employment as their translator during the shoot for Fedora in Greece, Munich and Paris. Mr Wilder & Me is divided into chapters named after each of these places, and Calista’s wistful memories are matched by Wilder’s own nostalgia, as he is prompted by each new location to reminisce about different moments in his life.

Alongside this narrative retrospection, Coe reflects on the demise of Wilder’s viability as a director, the “invisibility” of women like Fedora once they lose their looks, the end of classical Hollywood, and even of cinema itself. There is something terminal, too, in his characters’ judgement that British culture is not European. For the Polish Diamond, for instance, “England is not Europe”, while Calista notes that her Greek family “found many [British] customs and mores to be occult, eccentric and indeed incomprehensible”.

Although narrated in 2020, much of Coe’s book is set in the 1970s. The Wilder that Coe gives us is painfully aware that his Mitteleuropean light comedy, with its touches of elegance and ennui, is now seen as old-fashioned compared with the mean streets and dangerous spectacles offered by Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola – the “kids with beards”, as Billy and Iz call them. By this point, the two Europeans responsible for such quintessentially American films as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959) are struggling to finance Fedora. The ascendancy of a younger generation means that Hollywood’s once revered stars have become fallen idols, kicked out of paradise. Trying to obtain finance from German bankers, and keep up with the vogue for violence, the older men joke about branding their film, “Jaws in Venice”.

The foil for Coe’s tale of fallen gods and goddesses is Calista, the modest “& Me” of the title. She is another of Coe’s ‘normal’ people, pitched against beings of another order. This time, however, these are not reactionary and destructive; they are creators, and Calista is grateful to be admitted to what remains of their “heaven”, a cultured world very different from her own prosaic one. The ingénue – an obvious stand-in for younger readers, unfamiliar with cinema history – is schooled by Wilder in the delights of French wine and cheese, but her greatest lesson concerns her mentor’s part in the story of Central European writers, directors, musicians and artists exiled by fascism to Hollywood. Deepening his novel’s homage, Coe has Calista write a script about Wilder’s period at UFA, Germany’s principal film studio, where he worked alongside Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnerman, Emeric Pressburger and many other Jews who were all sacked in 1933, but defied the anti-Semites by going on to create archetypal American movies, or, in Pressburger’s case, in partnership with Michael Powell, the greatest British films of the postwar period.

Coe has fun, too, with many of the transatlantic ironies this culture-crossing produced, notably Wilder’s exasperation when Al Pacino, the boyfriend of Fedora’s German star, insists on ordering cheeseburgers even in Europe’s finest restaurants. Beneath Wilder’s unspoken irritation – why can’t Americans adapt to Europe the way Europeans adapted to America? – there is a larger point, Having lived through the horrors of war and fascism, and, like Pressburger, having lost family in the camps, Wilder chose by and large to make sardonic comedies. In other words, the violence that the “kids with beards” are so attached to seems unearned, the product of a settled existence. A director, Wilder contends, should give their audience “something elegant, a little bit beautiful … You don’t need to go to the movies to learn that life is ugly.”

By the end of his novel Coe, with an elegant touch of his own, brings together Calista’s and Wilder’s worlds with the use of one word. Calista is inspired by Wilder’s “fundamentally generous impulse” to create Fedora in the teeth of disregard, and she decides that her family must also find the “impulse…will and energy” to solve their domestic problem. These impulses to give to one another, whether in everyday acts of kindness or in acts of transcendent creativity, are not so different, Coe suggests. In this way, he collapses his habitual divisions, reuniting mortals with the gods of art.

This review appeared in the TLS on 6.11.2020 titled ‘A Fedora Tip to Beauty’.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, This Mournable Body. Faber; Irene Sabatini, Act of Defiance, The Indigo Press – TLS


With the third volume of her trilogy about the life of an “ordinary” African woman, Tsitsi Dangarembga has completed one of the most penetrating accounts we have of the continent’s difficult, often violent, transition from colonization to globalization. Since 1950 millions of people have fought to emancipate themselves from European rule, only to find that the nations which emerged from this struggle were not always the ones they had hoped for, and the work of liberation must go on.

Part of the power of Dangarembga’s account comes from the angle at which she approaches this history. Unlike many novels about Africa’s turbulent decolonization, in This Mournable Body, the central character, Tambu, is unremarkable. Brought up in Rhodesia in rural poverty, now as an adult in the 1990s, eking out a living in Zimbabwe’s capital, she is neither a freedom fighter like her sister and aunt, nor an activist like her cousin, nor even, in any straight-forward manner, a victim. And yet the circumstances of her early life – a childhood in the 1960s during the war of independence (described in Nervous Conditions, 1988) in which a brother was killed, her sister, maimed; teenage years in a convent (The Book of Not, 2006) where “closeness to [the racism of] white people…ruined your heart” – have damaged Tambu’s capacity for empathy, and bred in her an all-consuming need for self-preservation. When we encounter her in This Mournable Body, Tambu’s determination to succeed, coupled with the constant thwarting of this ambition (white colleagues appropriate her work, her age and sex discount her), have left her an intriguingly complex and perverse figure.

In the first two novels of her trilogy, Dangarembga introduced the young Tambu in a bright first-person narrative which drew the reader in. In this third volume, where we find the weary adult Tambu “labouring to define the beginning of her fading”, the author has chosen a second-person narrator who sounds at times like Tambu’s taunting, internal voice, at others, a condemnatory universal force. This tactic allows Dangarembga to fully exploit the second-person’s accusatory form: a “you” that singles out Tambu, emphasising her egotism and isolation, as well as her feelings of persecution. “You cannot afford definite conclusions for certainty convicts you”, the narrator upbraids her when she is unsure if she has broken another rule at the hostel where she lodges. Tambu’s materialist fantasies can make her envious and cruel (she joins a mob attack on a glamorous woman from the hostel), and cause her to block out her past where “nothing ever glittered and sparkled”. But the energy of her discontent also propels Tambu forward into new situations in which, incapable of masking her resentment, she fails repeatedly. Unable to find “prestigious” work, Tambu returns to teaching but sabotages her advancement with a frenzied attack on a pupil, enraged by the confidence her young charges display. A voice inside her head tells her the pupils are not a threat and need only guidance, but this is dismissed. Desperate to outshine others, she “fights…against the perils of contemplation”, deluding herself about what she has done.

Tambu’s self-deception mirrors that which Teju Cole describes in his 2015 essay, ‘Mournable Bodies’, after which Dangarembga named her novel. “Moments of grief”, Cole wrote, following the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, do not “absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions”. The west’s “ahistorical fantasies” overlook its atrocities, making it difficult for many to understand why they are being attacked. In Unmournable Bodies, Tambu is equally incapable of frank self-assessment and therefore bedevilled by a past she cannot reckon with or take responsibility for. When Tambu’s mother sends her a bag of “mealie meal”, she hides it away, feeling the corn porridge mocks her desire for advancement and rebukes her for neglecting parents living in near-starvation. Made mad by this situation, she lands up in a mental hospital only to be rescued by her cousin, Nyasha, who has recently returned from Europe married to a white man. Inexplicably to Tambu, even with these “advantages”, Nyasha chooses to live at the margins, teaching young women to analyse their lives through storytelling.

Finally, a chance encounter with a white acquaintance leads Tambu to a job in one of Zimbabwe’s few booming businesses: eco-tourism. She works hard following orders, but when her boss asks her to give an opinion, she cannot. In a subtle and intelligent novel that dissects Zimbabwe’s political malaise through the crisis of one woman’s personality, this is one of Dangarembga’s most interesting arguments. Unlike many of her contemporaries Tambu has not been tortured, yet her awareness of how her country men and women have acted under conditions of war and starvation mean that she is paralysed by fear. Knowing the brutal penalties meted out to those who offend, or even stand out, she is incapable of original thought. The imagination, Dangarembga seems to suggest, is not an inviolable attribute to which we have recourse whatever the circumstances: to flourish it requires the freedom from retribution neither Tambu, nor many other “ordinary” citizens in Zimbabwe enjoy.

Irene Sabatini’s Act of Defiance is set after Dangarembga’s story, addressing events in Zimbabwe during the last two decades. Sabatini’s protagonist, Gabrielle, is also an ordinary woman, but as a middle-class lawyer in Harare, she escapes her country’s descent into lawlessness, fleeing to Colombia and Italy. Growing up, her status as “Coloured” made her a target of cruelty. Now, an adult, she is slow to realise “The Old Man” – as Gabrielle refers to Robert Mugabe – is becoming increasing malign. Once nicknamed Vasco de Gama (someone opening routes between west and east), far from creating a more tolerant country, he and his marauding ex-soldiers turn Zimbabwe into a pariah state, terrorizing all opposition. Gabrielle and her client, Danika, the child victim of a sexual predator in the “Party”, are kidnapped from a courthouse in the capital, then raped and tortured in one of the “interrogation” camps overseen by a leader who emancipated his people, but now tyrannizes them.  

Sabatini’s story unfolds in alternating chapters which juxtapose sunny scenes of Gabrielle’s love affair with an African-American diplomat, and the nightmare conditions at the camp where a boy in the Youth Army “re-educates” his hostages by screaming twisted revolutionary slogans: “Down with imperialist saboteurs!…Down with economic prostitutes!…Down with gay gangsters!” As the American writer, John Keene noted in his story ‘Lions’ (2015), the situation in a country like Zimbabwe is all the more horrific for its degeneration from liberation to barbarity, and for the way in which the language of enlightenment is perverted into an instrument of subjugation.

Dangarembga and Sabatini have written compelling novels about brutal experiences: both feature the hyena as a metaphor for derangement (every laugh in This Mournable Body feigns, mocks or threatens); and both contain what Dangarembga has spoken of as the “location of hope” – something that sustains humanity and possibility in circumstances where they face erasure. For Sabatini, the act of defiance which snaps Gabrielle out of her “fear-fuelled inertia” is the creation of a centre in her Harare home to help people like Danika; for Dangarembga, it is Nyasha’s storytelling project run from her garden – modest, improvised projects which might pass under the radar of power. In a trilogy which has foregone consolation, however, perhaps Dangarembga’s most significant assertion of the possibility of hope, is Tambu’s liberation from her histrionic selfishness, as she works, finally, to pay her debt to Zimbabwe’s unmourned bodies.   

This review appeared in the TLS on 19.6.2020 titled ‘Ahistorical Fantasies’. 

Brixton, 1981: The Ritzy, the riots and the rest – Brixton Review of Books


There is an interview with the movie critic David Thomson in which he tells a story about being at film school, picking up other students’ off-cuts from the editing suite floor and splicing them together. When he shows the finished work to his classmates, he experiences a revelation. Instead of laughing off the series of random images, as he expects, they sit around discussing the meaning of what they’ve seen. Whatever you do to disrupt chronology, Thomson realizes, the mind will always try to make connections between the disparate, to find sense in sequence and to construct a narrative.

Thomson’s story reminds me of a time in the early 1980s when I was working at a cinema in Brixton. In those days it was called The Little Bit Ritzy, one of a dozen or so independent picture houses scattered across London, many housed in old music hall theatres, that shunned mainstream fare in favour of a broad repertoire. At some point, an agreement had been struck between the independents that anyone working in one of them should be able to watch films at the others for free. Because the repertoire was then so vast, it meant that in the course of a year an avid filmgoer could get a pretty good education in the history of the medium. On any given day it was possible to watch ground-breaking movies by Georges Méliès and D. W. Griffith. There were Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and the films of the Russian Revolution; Hollywood’s slapstick antics in the silent era, and then, once movies began to talk, its subversive screwball comedies and film noir dramas, bristling with wisecracks and comebacks. You could witness the nightmare premonitions of German Expressionism in the 1930s, and the hardships endured in Italy’s post-war Neo-Realist cinema, born in the rubble of its decimated cities. From the 1950s there were the Japanese masters of film, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, together with the iconoclasm and optimism of the French Nouvelle Vague. In the 1960s an anti-colonial Third Cinema emerged in Africa and Latin American, in which directors defied the edicts of imperialists and dictators as they flouted the rules of genre, all the way up to the 1970s when Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader (a Catholic and a Calvinist) turned their cameras on the hoodlums and guttersnipes of America’s mean streets, redefining the nation’s uneasy love affair with God and the gun.

In those tatty, rundown theatres of light we drank it all in, intimating that the nostalgia we felt for places and times we’d never inhabited had something to do with our own sense of displacement. We hoped the glamour, guts and glory we found in these other worlds might give us ideas about how to handle ourselves in our own when, under the pressure of cuts inflicted by Margaret Thatcher’s new government, the dismantling of state support for community groups, and new stop and search powers for the police (SUS), London’s streets were becoming ever more jittery. Often, towards dawn, when I left the Ritzy after an all-nighter, wandering home up Railton Road, I would fancy myself as Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950), or Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come (1972), as Jean-Paul Belmondo or Hanna Shygulla – anyone with style and attitude or a sense of mystery that the guys on the frontline might recognize and respect. The frontline was the area on and around Railton Road known for its drug dealing and resistance to police incursion. Unlike the surrounding back waters of South London, which shut up shop at tea-time, the road had a palpable energy that lasted through the night. This was particularly so in the summer, when the West Indian migrants who had settled in the area sat out playing dominoes while reggae and calypso boomed from loudspeakers stacked on the pavement or wedged into open windows.

The road was made up of Victorian terraces, mostly council properties, but a number were empty or squatted – the ones closer to Brixton by black people, the ones up nearer Herne Hill, by white. There was an off-licence that stayed open late, and a man called Joseph who hung around there used to call out “Hey, blondie!” whenever I passed by. Over my shoulder I’d maybe try throwing back Mae West’s quip, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted”, a double entendre casting doubt on the wisdom of acting like a fairytale heroine, and on the idea of racial purity. Joseph was pointing out that on his road I was the interloper, and I was acknowledging it, while trying to suggest that it did not necessarily follow from the differences between us that we should be enemies. Like many white kids of my generation I had grown up listening to reggae and punk: the rallying cry of Linton Kwesi Johnson (“Fashist an di attack, Den wi countah-attack”), or Tom Robinson’s admonitory, “Better decide which side you’re on”. When the battle lines were drawn at Wood Green, Lewisham and Southall, the taunt the National Front hurled at us of “race traitor” was one we adopted as a badge of honour.

A similar reversal of meaning took place at the Ritzy. Apart from the straight man who ran the place and one other woman (whom, it was rumoured, had struck a deal with R. D. Laing, in which she cleaned his house in exchange for therapy), the cinema was staffed by gay men, most of whom lived in a cluster of squats on Railton Road, all in varying states of dilapidation and inventive reconstruction. Many had their gardens knocked together. As with the communal spirit that the West Indians had created further down the road, this was another attempt to forge a shared space. In some respects, the Ritzy was a satellite of the gay squat; and the love of film, with the other ways of being that it proposed, was part of the glue that bound together everyone in its orbit. They were all cineastes, well-versed in Hollywood lore: Louella’s and Hedda’s gossip, intended to keep the stars in line (later extended to naming names before the HUAC), and the scandals of homosexuality, infidelity and murder, proving that stars were mortal and messy, as exposed by Kenneth Anger in his infamous photobook, Hollywood Babylon (1975). It wasn’t just that they were alert to a film’s every camp moment – Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo flirting with the girls, Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis reinventing themselves through drag, the thwarted heterosexual romances of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, the homoeroticism of Butch and the Kid – but that they understood as a kind of reflex what Michel Foucault was theorizing in The History of Sexuality at about the same time: any presentation of a subject, however couched in disapproval, was also a dissemination of information, a way of “spreading it around” and, therefore, an opportunity to learn what others were getting up to.

Even when films punished their characters for shady behaviour or illicit desire, in the suffering and angst of actors like Dirk Bogarde or Montgomery Clift, or in the rabid jealousy of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940), there was affirmation that such desire existed. This confirmed the suspicion of many in the Ritzy’s largely white audience that much of what was important in life, went unnoticed or unspoken – something that Brixton’s black community learned in their infancy. They didn’t have to wait for a film at the Ritzy or a report by Lord Scarman’s to inform them that the system was rigged or that the police were institutionally racist. Reading against the grain was something gay and black people had in common. This is not to say that the relationship between the two groups on Railton Road was always easy. The press would often refer to the fact that the police were afraid to go onto the frontline, a tacit recognition that this was ground over which the state had little control. And when the gay squats were joined by an anarchist bookshop, the sense of white encroachment onto this hard-won black territory only sharpened.

I got the job at the Ritzy when I was twenty, after three exciting and turbulent years working for Rock Against Racism. When the Tories were elected in 1979, the rhetoric of the Front – who’d we’d been fighting on the streets and in the dancehalls – become mainstream. Thatcher set the tone of her premiership the year before declaring in a Granada television interview that British people were afraid of being “swamped by people with a different culture”.  In reaction to this new climate of “respectable” xenophobia, we began staging gigs under the banner of Rock Against Thatcher. I organized one of these with the Birmingham band UB40, at the Ritzy. Not long after the concert, RAR imploded, falling apart, as left-wing groups often do, over accusations of selling out and sexual betrayal. Unable to think of any work that might live up to the insurrectionary spirit of RAR, I wandered down to the cinema and talked my way into employment.

It was another job of the night; even in the daytime we worked in the dark. And, as in RAR, we were all dreaming, though not always of a better world: up on the giant screen there were nightmares, too. At a RAR gig or an anti-Nazi demo you ran the risk of getting kicked with a Doc Martin or hit with a brick; here, by contrast, violence was aestheticized and the blood ran in Technicolor. On a wet Wednesday afternoon, the local unemployed, some pensioners, and a few skiving school kids might be tempted out of the rain and into the reassuringly womb-like world of the cinema auditorium. Here they’d perhaps settle down for a thought-provoking double bill of dystopian films: Costa-Gavras’s adaptation of the Vassilis Vassilikos novel about the military junta in Greece, say, paired with Fahrenheit 451 (1966), François Truffaut’s version of Ray Bradbury’s novel about the destruction of literature by a totalitarian regime. On good days, you’d come down from the projection box into the foyer to find these disparate groups munching on the aduki burgers we sold in the interval and talking about the similarities between the indignities they’d witnessed on screen and those they’d experienced in the post office, class room or dole queue. As with any good RAR gig, we were giving people a context for their immiseration, together with ideas about how to outwit it.

Before I moved into Railton Road, I was sharing a flat in the Oval. How I’d acquired this now seems hard to credit. In the years before Thatcher introduced her “right to buy” policy, many council houses were so run down, Lambeth couldn’t place people on the waiting list in them. Without money to improve the stock, they resorted to putting cement down the toilets of empty properties in order to stop them from being squatted. This vandalism caused such a furore in the local press that someone in the council came up with the idea of circumventing the waiting list by allowing people to queue up for what were deemed “hard-to-let” places. One starry night, we took sleeping bags and Thermos flasks down to the town hall on Acre Lane and, along with a bunch of students and drop-outs, camped out on the pavement. In the morning we were allotted a four-bedroom flat.

I moved into the flat with my older brother, Will, and three female students he’d fallen in with from King’s College University. Will was working for Lambeth Council in their mail room and, after an earlier period as an anarcho-syndicalist tai-chi teacher, had recently gone over to Trotskyism and joined the Socialist Workers Party. When he and other workers were asked to despatch letters informing Lambeth tenants of their new “right to buy”, he was so angry about the privatization of communal property that he exercised one of those acts of workers’ resistance that happens more frequently than is generally acknowledged, and began throwing the letters into the bin, encouraging others to do likewise. Eventually someone higher up in the pecking order found out what many of the mail room staff were up to and reported them. The story was leaked to the press and an MP stood up in the House of Commons to make a speech about the seditious revolutionary at Brixton town hall, “He should be put in jail. You can’t have people interfering with Her Majesty’s mail!”

Much as I approved of Will’s activities, once living together at the Oval we soon found ourselves embroiled in battles about who was dictating the conversation, or not doing the dishes, in short, about “male domination”. These weren’t remarkable debates: by the early 1980s the subject of sexual politics was becoming increasingly fractious on the left. The male hierarchy of the SWP, for instance, appalled by the critique of Sheila Rowbotham and other socialist feminists in Beyond the Fragments (1979) proposing “no hierarchy, no elites, no chair, no committees, no speakers and even no meetings in some cases”, concluded that feminism was a marginal, bohemian form of politics, (a “reformist . . . retreat into lifestyle”), and promptly closed its magazine for female members.

Finding that our arguments were also rebuffed, I and two of the other women at the flat, Colette and Fran, jumped ship. We returned to the town hall and were given another place to stay, this time in Streatham. Meanwhile, at the Ritzy, I had become friends with two of my co-workers: Jamie, an Australian whose insolence and wit stood out in a group of already defiantly camp men; and Chris, his boyfriend. Chris was a brilliant pianist and when the ancient projector broke down periodically, he would entertain the audience by playing the clapped-out piano on the side of the stage. For reasons I cannot recall, it was decided between us that Jamie and Chris would move into the flat in Streatham, and we would take over their squat on Railton Road. Nor do I remember what the other gay men felt about the invasion of straight women onto their turf. Up to that point there had been a division: the Railton Road squats were inhabited by gay men, while women, many of whom were lesbians, squatted houses further north on Villa Road.

What I do have fixed in my mind’s eye is a scene of transformation that took place not long after we moved in: Colette is sitting on a chair, surrounded by the severed locks of her long brown hair, cut from her head with a pair of scissors I am wielding. The image I have is tangled up with a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo where she also sits legs akimbo, wearing a man’s suit, her shorn hair in disarray on the floor. The following year, at a pioneering exhibition in the Whitechapel Gallery curated by Laura Mulvey and Peter Mullen, I encountered the painting with a flood of recognition, as if I’d had some hand in bringing it into being. Colette’s transformation however was not original but wholly emblematic of its time and place. A middle-class student of Medieval History, after we moved into Railton Road and I cropped her hair, she gave up men, abandoned her studies and became a plumber, enrolling on a course run by the GLC women’s committee designed to encourage women into the manual trades.

Not long after we moved into Railton Road we became lovers. The success of Colette’s reinvention, however, only underlined the failure of my own: I remained a socialist feminist rather than a lesbian separatist as many of the other women around me were becoming, and though I was constantly advised to, I refused to cut my hair simply to fit in. For many the act of reinvention was a way of signalling renunciation: Colette appeared to have changed her class as well as her sexuality. Nor was it lost on me that having struggled with the “sexist” demands placed on women by “patriarchy” (words still not heard on the television), the bohemian enclave I had landed in was now also forcible in its demand for conformity.

At the squat we achieved a look soon popularized in the Sunday colour supplements, but through want of money and material possessions. The wooden floorboards were uncarpeted and, in places, holes in the walls where the house was collapsing had been shored up with glass bricks we’d found in surrounding empty buildings, letting some light into the verdant gloom of the living room which was stuffed from ceiling to floor with spider and cheese plants, aspidistras and lemon verbena. The steps from the kitchen down to the back garden (a tangle of weeds and thorns) had long since collapsed and we threw rubbish out onto a heap. How we escaped a plague of rats I have no idea. Perhaps it was the cold that kept them away. But even in winter we were convivial, sitting out on the front steps at all hours of the day and night, drinking coffee, sometimes sharing a line of coke, listening to Steel Pulse, chatting to neighbours, arguing about politics, and waiting for Linton Kwesi Johnson’s daily pilgrimage up Railton Road.

Johnson walked up the street on his way to the Race Today offices, where along with Darcus Howe and Farrukh Dhondhy, he was a member of the magazine’s editorial collective. It was whispered among those in the know that, in a small flat above the office, the great intellectual and historian C. L. R. James was now living out his twilight years. Dressed in our monkey boots and colourful charity shop coats, we chattered noisily on the steps, spreading ourselves around, but when Johnson approached, an uncharacteristic stillness descended. In comparison with our clamour and sprawl, the poet was an impressively restrained figure. His trilby and trench coat were sharply cut, and it was hard to know if his taciturnity, when we were bold enough to say hello, came from a customary display of self-discipline, or signalled a more specific hostility to our presence.

One evening a fight broke out on the road, drawing us onto the steps to see what was happening. A man and woman were shouting at each other in what sounded, respectively, like Jamaican and Brummie accents. From time to time one of them reached out to slap or grab the other. On the pavement next to them a young girl stood watching. Eventually the man walked off down the road, sucking in his lips and “tssing” in disgust. As they seemed to have nowhere else to go, we invited the woman and girl into the squat for a cup of tea. Flo had a battle-worn face that looked much older than her thirty or so years. Her sleeveless dress showed off the bruises on her upper arms. Janet was maybe nine or ten, wearing a belted cardigan over what looked like a school uniform.

They remained with us that night, and the next morning Flo went off to look for a place for them to stay. But she didn’t come back. When we learned from Janet that this wasn’t unusual, we tidied up one of the squat’s empty rooms and put up posters to cover cracks in the walls in the hope it would seem a friendlier place to stay. Flo eventually returned, but for the next six months or so we looked after Janet. At first, she joined in whatever we were doing: I still have photographs of her holding a placard on an anti-apartheid demonstration, and another where she’s looking doubtfully at an aerosol message scrawled on a wall in Brockwell Park: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. When it became clear that she might be with us for some time, we enrolled her in the local primary school. We told social services and they didn’t object, arguing that our unconventional arrangement was better than separating a kid from her mum.

While this was happening, I continued to work at the Ritzy. One evening we were showing a bill of French films that included Alain Resnais’s famously opaque rendition of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay, Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The film jumps back and forth in time, making it difficult to ascertain when any given event is happening. Our daily routine at the cinema was that a stack of films would arrive in tin cans from various distributors. Whoever was in the booth, carefully lifted the reels out and spliced them together, spooling them up to full size on the rackety old projector. Once a film started, it was part of the job to peer through a small window looking out across the auditorium to the screen beyond to check that the film was being shown in the right ratio and was staying in focus. That night I realized to my horror that I had put the reels together in the wrong order. In the interval I ran down to the foyer where people were milling around as they always did, buying coffee and home-made quiche or banana bread (it was a mark of the cinema’s independence that we didn’t sell popcorn) and talking about the film they’d been watching. A sense of dread came over me. I expected complaints. I thought I might even be fired. But instead, just like the students watching David Thomson’s disordered montage, people were earnestly discussing the meaning of what they had seen.

I became aware that some of the other workers weren’t just splicing the films to make them up and break them down, they were taking slices out of them, too. Mostly this was for personal use, but one guy did it systematically and built up what would become a well-known film archive with the frames that he took. It wasn’t something peculiar to Brixton: you could tell from the celluloid passing between theatres that some of the twenty-four frames from every second of film had been spliced out. Often key scenes were truncated or occasionally missing altogether, particularly in iconic films such as Casablanca (1942) or Kagemusha (1980). Given the number of films we worked on, it was perhaps inevitable that after the Marienbad debacle, news of my error got out. Soon others at the cinema, particularly in the dead of night, began to look for films where we might repeat the scene shuffle, only now on purpose. The films selected for this game included other European arthouse movies, but also some of the 3D American B-movies, especially anything by Ed Wood, whose gloriously gimcrack productions such as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) were, in their own way, equally abstruse, and therefore suitable for revision.

I loved working at the Ritzy, not least when we screened recent films in which – and this was still rare – actresses were given fully three-dimensional roles and allowed to command the centre of attention, films such as The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum (1975), Diablo Menthe (1977), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Les Rendezvous D’Anna (1978), Messidor (1979), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Gloria (1980) and Barbara Kopple’s powerful documentary about miners’ wives in Harlan Country, USA (1976). But, at the same time, there seemed to be a backlash against treating women as something more than instrumental, and this led to disagreements at the cinema, both about the films we were showing and those that we weren’t. Some of us complained that we were not projecting enough black films, unlike the Ace Cinema over the road (later to become the Fridge nightclub) which drew more diverse audiences by showing Kung Fu and blaxploitation movies. And of the films we were exhibiting, too many seemed to present women merely as objects of humiliation or targets of physical cruelty. Perhaps it was the visceral impact of projecting a film as often as three times a day, but the violence on screen began to get to me.

We had recently shown Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), in which the central character is a man who murders women with the point of his camera tripod, filming the terror on their faces as they die. Then there was Taxi Driver (1976), which Martin Scorsese had made after studying Powell’s film. It was one of a growing number of vigilante stories we were screening. And because it had just come out on its first run, we also showed Scorsese’s latest film, Raging Bull, about the boxer, Jake LaMotta. The sequences of fists pummelling into De Niro’s face, his sweat and blood splattering in slow motion across the screen, worked their way so effectively into my mind that I found them hard to dismiss, even in sleep. More troubling still – because this violence wasn’t staged in a ring but was domestic and banal – were the scenes in which De Niro punched his blonde girlfriend in the face, kicked her to the ground and slammed her into a bathroom wall.

In interview, Scorsese argued that in his canon the depiction of violence against women reveals an unpalatable truth about masculinity, making his films into works of feminism. As a young viewer watching women constantly battered, raped and killed, this was not the impression I came away with. Claiming that cinema’s depiction of male violence is somehow part of the feminist project, ignores its necessary corollary: female powerlessness in the face of an (apparently) inescapable fate. No doubt it was frustration with the habitual representation of women as victims that caused the Dutch filmmaker, Marleen Gorris, to turn the tables. In A Question of Silence, released the following year, a secretary, a waitress and a housewife join forces to kill an anonymous man in a shop. The most startling thing about the film is how the plot turns on the women’s shared, but unspoken, history of abuse at the hands of men. The answer to the title’s “question” about the women’s motivation, is the systemic nature of patriarchy – something not legible to the men involved in the subsequent trial, just as it was absent from scores of contemporary films in thrall to the violence of charismatic men: gunmen, serial killers and vigilantes, nearly all of them, loners.

Scorsese’s glamourized brutality was in marked contrast to the transcendent beauty of another film we were then screening: Andrei Tarkovsky’s evocation of life in twentieth-century Russia, composed of his father’s poetry, his childhood recollections and dreamlike images of decomposition, accident and flight in which plaster crumbles from walls, milk spills across a table, a bird escapes from an invalid’s clasped hand, and his mother levitates above her bed. Zerkola (1975, released in the UK a few years later as The Mirror) seemed like a cinematic response to Vladimir Nabokov’s injunction: Speak Memory!

Angela Carter was a regular visitor to the Ritzy. She lived up the road on the far side of Clapham Common, and would, a decade later, immortalize Brixton’s theatrical history in her last novel, Wise Children (1991). I think she came to watch Tarkovsky’s film, though she may have seen it at another cinema, and one night a few years later, when I was baby-sitting for her young son, we had a conversation about how his extraordinary imagery remained etched in the imagination. We discussed the powerful feeling of dread conveyed by the lead actress, Margarita Terekhova, when she makes an error at the printing press where she works. The full horror of living under totalitarianism is palpable in Terekhova’s fear of the retribution her Stalinist bosses will exact. At the same time, Angela was struck by the actress’s striking, non-airbrushed looks, so unlike the hyper-sexualized depiction of women routinely found in American cinema.

The year before Wise Children was published, when Carter’s head was full of that book’s rebellious Brixton heroines, she reviewed Barry Paris’s biography of Louise Brooks, another ungovernable female performer. Brooks was an American actress whose defiant sexuality and quicksilver beauty was only fully realized when she left Hollywood to act in two German films: G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Wedekind’s play, Pandora’s Box, and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929). At the end of the review, having praised Brooks’s luminosity, and her self-possession, Carter goes on to reflect on how the actress saved herself from the habitual fate of women in American movies. She spins a recuperative tale about Marilyn Monroe, the epitome of the American blonde, rescuing her from Arthur Miller’s self-serving characterization in his autobiography, Timebends (1987). Miller depicts Monroe as a “self-destroying” beauty who wants only to sleep forever: “death was her companion everywhere and at all times”, he writes. In Carter’s revision of Monroe’s life, she imagines her escaping Miller’s clutches by travelling to Europe, just as Brooks had done. Once in Moscow, Monroe pursues her interest in Russian literature (something mocked in America) by agreeing to play Grushenka in Tarkovsky’s film adaption of The Brothers Karamazov. But the film is banned by the Soviet censors and does not re-emerge until perestroika, by which point Monroe – again, following Brooks – has long since withdrawn into private life. The story’s fairytale ending is typically didactic and Carteresque: as an old woman, Monroe can enjoy the adulation of her beauty and talent without suffering for it; immune now to the projection of destructive male fantasies upon her, she escapes her fate.

Of course, we had to wait for Gorris’s and Carter’s instructive reconfigurations of the world. In Brixton, in 1981, as my uneasiness grew about the cumulative effect of the films we were showing at the Ritzy, the programmer pursued the line of influence that ran from Powell to Scorsese, to one of Scorsese’s followers: Larry Cohen, scheduling his 1976 movie, God Told Me To (released in the UK as Demon). The American critic Roger Ebert wrote of Cohen’s cult film that “there were times when I thought the projectionist was showing the reels in random order, as a quiet joke on the hapless audience”. This time I was not the culprit. But the act of editing – or censoring – in the projection booth, had taken hold. Fed up with the seemingly unstoppable narrative in which women were assaulted and dismembered in order to demonstrate a thesis about masculinity, or simply for the sake of titillation, I was appalled by Cohen’s gratuitous full-screen projection of a vagina in his film. It was not because I was a prude, but because of what the vagina symbolized. In this shlock horror film, a vagina is shown on the body of Cohen’s antihero – who, like De Niro’s taxi driver, is yet another serial-killing vigilante – representing some sort of satanic portal, a gateway to death. That night, when breaking the film down into individual cans after the show, I cut out the offending material, put it in my pocket and took it home. Back at the squat I shoved the roll of celluloid into a wooden box which contained letters from family and friends and forgot all about it.

What came next: further discontent at the Ritzy, this time, I think, over pay, which resulted in a group of workers going on strike. We stood outside the cinema urging people to boycott the place. The atmosphere was good-natured, and many who were sympathetic to our cause did indeed turn away. The next day we returned to picket again, but then a brick dropped, as if from out of shot, landing not far from where we were standing. We looked around, struggling with the idea that our small disruption could have given rise to such a violent reaction. Then a group of kids started running down the high street, followed by police officers. There was something comic about the speed with which they zigzagged around and the police tried to follow, making it look like a speeded up scene from the Keystone Cops, playing at sixteen rather than twenty-four frames per second. When one lad was kicked to the ground by a policeman, the words of another Brixton boy flashed through my mind, David Bowie’s homage to cinema, “Life on Mars”: “Take a look at the lawmen beating up the wrong guy. Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know”. Only this time what was unfolding wasn’t a game you could cut up and rerun.

Everyone in Brixton knew that the police and the paramilitary SPG had been using the SUS laws to pick on, and pick up, young black men with increasing frequency. In a deliberate echo of Thatcher’s hostile speech on alien cultures, they called this Operation Swamp 81. At the picket outside the Ritzy, standing just across from the town hall, we watched as the numbers of people running about seemed to magically multiply. Soon there were sirens and flashing lights all around. The police emerging from the back of unmarked vans wore visored helmets, and wielded shields and truncheons. They looked as if they’d stepped out of a sci-fi movie about a totalitarian state. By now the chaos of the scene had solidified into deliberate acts. When improvised missiles shattered the windows in Woolworths, and people formed a queue to pass out trainers from a shop on Coldharbour Lane, it was obvious what was happening: we dropped our placards and ran off to join the riot.

This was Saturday tea-time and the riot blazed until Monday night. The police withdrew temporarily from the area. On streets of burned-out buildings and overturned cars, it was a tactic calculated to increase the sense of vulnerability, so that residents would demand they return to protect them – a tactic learned from America. The carnivalesque atmosphere that had prevailed on Railton Road over much of the weekend, turned into something more menacing. A few days later, at six in the morning, I woke to find three men in my bedroom. They were undercover police officers who’d smashed their way through the bottom half of our front door. My first thought was for Janet, asleep in the next room, and I begged the men not to frighten her. Pleading had no effect, however, and soon, eleven officers were milling around the house, searching it from attic to basement. It took a while to establish exactly what they were looking for. Eventually, one of them produced a warrant – incredibly enough, for firearms. Minutes later, another opened my wooden letter box and pulled out the film I’d stolen from the Ritzy. Holding the vagina footage up to the light, he raised an eyebrow and said triumphantly to the officer in charge, “Aha, I think we have something here!” I laughed. He seemed to be running lines from a Joe Orton script. Disappointed in their hunt for weapons, the police were cheered up by the idea that they’d uncovered some sort of lesbian squatters’ porno ring. When they left, they took with them my letters and the celluloid. “To be used as evidence”, the officer in charge said, jabbing his finger at me.

Talking to others on Railton Road who had also been raided, we struggled with the realization that someone high up in the police force actually believed the black inhabitants of Brixton were incapable of organizing their own riot, meaning that it must have been coordinated by white people: the French and Italian anarchists at the bookshop at number 121, perhaps with the help of the gay squatters. Maybe it was the giant feminist fist we’d aerosoled in our porch that caught their attention. Or perhaps the whole thing was just an exercise in division and intimidation. At any rate, one of the letters the police took was from my dad. And when he heard what had happened, he did what outraged middle-class parents do in these situations: hired an expensive lawyer who duly had the film and letters returned to me.


After the riots, Lambeth Council decided to knock down some of the squats, including ours at 147, as part of a process of gentrification which continues to this day. During a recent visit to the area I found myself in one of the surviving buildings. The large, rambling houses are no longer communal and have been divided up into individual flats. Now, rather than drag queens living on the dole, working at cash in hand jobs and the endless task of refashioning oneself, the occupants are barristers and television executives. Before their wrecking ball was taken to our home, Lambeth rehoused Colette and I in yet another hard-to-let place, a ground floor flat in an Edwardian mansion block in Camberwell where we were burgled continually. Eventually, having stripped us of even the lampshades, the thieves left us alone.

I’d been thrown out of school when I was fifteen for trying but failing to organize a strike. And now another one I was involved with had collapsed. Workless, I started hanging out at the London College of Printing in Elephant and Castle, where Jamie was taking a degree in film. Today there are barriers at the entrances in colleges and universities, and security officers ask to see ID cards. In 1981, it was possible to walk in unhindered and attend lectures or seminars: the teachers either didn’t know or didn’t care that I wasn’t enrolled on the course. Jamie introduced me to Stella, one of his fellow students. When she was six months pregnant, the three of us went off to Northern Ireland to make their degree film. We went because two days before the Brixton riot, Bobby Sands had been elected to parliament. He and other hunger strikers were trying to gain special category status in recognition that these were not ordinary crimes, but political acts. A few months later Sands died of starvation, by the end of the summer there were nine more deaths. Thatcher’s response to rioters on the mainland (“No one should condone the rioters. . . .They were criminal”) and to H Block strikers in Northern Ireland (“Crime is crime is crime, it is not political”) was identical, refusing to admit the possibility of an underlying cause. We had been present at the Brixton riot and had some grasp of what provoked the uprising. But we knew very little about Northern Ireland, and so took this as an opportunity to go there and find out for ourselves.

In Belfast we stayed with a housing activist on the Falls Road, interviewing several women in Sinn Fein. In Derry, we filmed a member of the IRA – a teenage girl who lay in bed under a crucifix and told us about her imprisonment after sending a letter bomb. The girl’s espousal of female martyrdom, and her willingness to die or to carry out acts of violence in the name of religion, was one of the creepiest things I had ever heard. Out on the streets we took stills of armoured trucks, soldiers on foot patrol, metal checkpoints and giant boulders dumped on the pavements which looked highly surreal amid the cafes and shops, as if they’d landed from outer space. We thought about what it must be like to live in a paramilitary state, and what it would take to defy your rulers. We also fought among ourselves, Stella and I berating Jamie for cruising in the republican clubs, which seemed unnecessarily risky in a place where only a few years earlier the Reverend Ian Paisley had launched his “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign. Disgusted by our cowardice, Jamie lambasted us as petty-bourgeois homophobes. Not long after we came home, Emiliano was born. In the early weeks of his life, Stella carried him round in a basket, which he lay in contentedly during a screening of the first film he ever attended: El Salvador, Another Vietnam (1981).

Like Jamie, and like just about every other person I was meeting in London, Stella came from somewhere else. She had arrived in England as a seven-year-old when her family migrated from Cyprus in the hope that she and her sisters would find a better education here. Her parents were quite conservative, and as a teenager she had crushed their hopes for her by hooking up with a Mexican student she fancied as some kind of Che Guevara figure, but who was actually studying for a doctorate in agriculture at the University of Reading. When I first got to know her, she’d just returned from living in Mexico and had a three-year-old daughter. Carla babbled away in a language of her own making mixing Spanish, Greek and English. I remember thinking that this kid was the future – one of a generation of mixed-race polyglots who would grow up and take over the country.

I now spent my days as a freelance researcher at the British Film Institute Library on Tottenham Court Road. I was working for the Australian cabaret artist Robyn Archer, who wanted to turn her show, A Star Is Torn, about women in showbusiness, into a book. The job involved photocopying reams of material on Billie Holliday, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Carmen Miranda, Susan Hayward, Patsy Cline, Marilyn Monroe and Dinah Washington, and making notes about the destruction wrought on them by the industry, At night, I went over to Stella’s and while she played with Emiliano, fed him and changed his nappies, we wrote her degree dissertation on Cuban cinema. We were interested in those filmmakers who’d studied under the Neo-Realists in Rome, and then brought home the Italian commitment to making cinema about the lives of ordinary people. Unlike British directors, who hadn’t progressed much beyond kitchen-sink realism in their depiction of working people, these Cuban filmmakers told stories enlivened by the folklore and fabulism intrinsic to Latin America culture. And they were formally inventive, using disruptive techniques of collage, animation and frame-breaking that asked their audiences to think about the construction of the film they were looking at rather than simply loosing themselves in its storyline.

We watched Memoirs of Underdevelopment (1968), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film about bourgeois complacency. It features an intellectual in Batistas’s Cuba, critical of the dictatorship he is subject to, but unwilling to risk anything to challenge the regime. We read Julio García Espinosa’s manifesto, ‘Towards an Imperfect Cinema’ (“Nowadays, perfect cinema – technically and artistically masterful – is almost always reactionary cinema”), taking it to heart. Most of all, we were moved by One Way or Another, the only film made by Sara Gomez before she died of asthma in 1974, the year of the film’s release. Gomez was young and Afro-Cuban, and this was one of the first works of art I had seen which proposed the idea of intersectionality, a politics that addressed different kinds of inequality without feeling the need to place them in a hierarchy of competition. Like Alea and Espinosa, Gomez mixed found footage with dramatized sequences in her reflective polemic about slum clearance. One of the most memorable elements of her film is a repeated shot of a wrecking ball slamming into the side of someone’s home. This striking image is a visual pun which Gomez deploys at key moments, underscoring the destruction involved in clearing away old housing to create better places for people to live, but also the difficulty of breaking down old habits of thinking and behaviour.

I had a photograph on my wall, torn from a magazine, that depicted one of the Soviet Union film trains from the 1920s which went around the country showing movies to people in places where there were no cinemas. When Stella and I read that ICAIC – the Cuban cinema institute established by Alea and others after the revolution – had also fitted out lorries that took films to far-flung places, we decided to apply to the GLC to set up our own modest version of this idea. Our proposal, titled Moving Movies, was that we be funded to equip a van with a screen, a 16mm projector, and thought-provoking films which we would show in schools, youth clubs, old people’s homes and maternity wards. The GLC declined to fund Moving Movies, but they did invite us to a symposium on Women and the Media. Most of the participants spoke in a jargon that was then starting to leak out of universities which introduced new ideas about power but cloaked them in an irritatingly opaque language. There was one woman, however, who stood out from the rest: a young Sikh who’d just finished a degree in anthropology at the University of East Anglia. She talked with passion and humour about how she wanted to make popular films that would change the world. I noted that her nametag said “Gurinder Chadha”. Stella and I looked over at one another, nodding in silent agreement: she could join our gang.

This memoir appeared in the Brixton Review of Books, Issue 7, Autumn 2019 as ‘The Ritzy, the riots and the rest: Brixton 1981, as witnessed by Kate Webb’.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nawal El Saadawi, Writing and Fighting – TLS


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

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

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

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

Nawal El Saadawi, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female Human Animal – TLS


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

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

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

Chloe Aridjis in Female Human Animal, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Atkinson, Transcription. Doubleday – Spectator


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nell Dunn podcast – TLS


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

Nell Dunn, Talking to Women. Silver Press – TLS


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

Nell Dunn by Snowden, 1982

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

Jeet Thayil, The Book of Chocolate Saints. Faber – TLS


The Book of Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil’s second novel, following his successful debut, Narcopolis – begins with a poet on the verge of flight. Francis Xavier Newton is about to abandon his wife in Bombay. He is being drawn west again, a lure ever since his childhood in Goa, where he grew up precocious and taciturn, beguiled by Christian saints and English literature. The novel begins in medias res and circles around, coming at its subject from multiple angles – a polyphonous, polyglot approach that encourages the reader to question: “This is my take on the matter, of course. You don’t have to agree”. By this point in his life, Newton has already tried out bohemian enclaves in London, Paris and Milan. Now, with his new muse, Goody Lol, he’s running away to the corrupted place he calls “Amurka”. Like all poets, he’s both an outcast and an absconder, even from poetry itself. Having published when young two brilliant volumes of verse, the words have run dry, so he’s turned his hand to painting – which is easier to dash off, makes money (unlike the “poverty of poetry”), and slots him comfortably into New York’s art scene, with its pastiche and plagiarism, readily-available drugs and uninhibited women.

In New York, Newton encounters Dismas Bombai, a fellow émigré, who has happily swapped India’s caste marks for America’s brands, paying their exorbitant prices with wages from an expat newspaper, the Indian Angle. Bombai wangles an interview with Newton and goes on to become his friend, biographer, and betrayer. Both men witness the nasty racial turn of American politics (a phenomenon mirrored in India’s rising sectarianism) and the stories of men like Amrik, a Sikh attacked during 9/11 for wearing a turban, or Balbir Singh, murdered in Arizona, because to ignorant American eyes he looked like a Muslim terrorist. In The Book of Chocolate Saints, Amrik becomes Newton’s manager – just one of many indications that Thayil’s novel is, like the contemporary artworld, at home in its inauthenticity, mixing “real” people with fictional ones, who themselves are often predicated on the once-living. Newton, Thayil has said in interview, was patched together from the Indian poet, Dom Moraes, and the artist, Francis Newton Souza; Amrik Singh Bhopal shares his first two names, with Amrik Singh Bal, a man who was the victim of a racist attack in California in 2015. That there is a parasitic element to all this, Thayil acknowledges with nods to Frankenstein and vampires, which contribute to the book’s larger debate about fiction’s dual tendency to cannibalise and conjure, and the air of disreputability associated with certain kinds of writing: the name Dismas, Thayil tells us, pointedly, means thief.


Eventually Newton returns to India; Dismas, hot on his coattails. Here the opportunist biographer interviews academics, journalists, art activists and other poetry camp followers for an oral history of Newton and the Hungry Realists – a “real” group of poets who surfaced in Bombay in the 1970s. To call them a group, however, is perhaps to miss the point. Because in Thayil’s knowledgable anatomy of poetry (the poems preceding each of his novel’s chapters come from his own Collected Poems, 2015), the Hungry Realists are presented as a clique of infighters, brought together by their common sense of exclusion, but revelling in their obscurity: “They took pride in not publishing and not writing. One book and then nothing for a decade.” The talk about poetry, however, is prolific. For many, Auden’s question about what poetry can or cannot make happen, is urgent once again in this new “time of rage”. Then there are arguments about linguistic authenticity, and the (for some, deplorable) use of the coloniser’s tongue. There is India’s lingering sense of cultural inferiority, exacerbated when western poets like Ginsberg display “orientalist” responses to Indian poetry – praising Tagore’s Bengali mysticism while disdaining Newton’s English-language modernism. There are the clamours of the unacknowledged poets (the untouchables, the women) among this already-marginalised group; and, most insidious of all, there is the romance of the self-destructive poet: alienated, intoxicated, and suicidal, “the suicide saints” whom Thayil taxonomises from Anna Akhmatova to Reetika Vazirani, “a partial list because a complete list would be endless”.

And the Indian angle here? What’s novel is that these debates take place through the prism of Indian poetry. We are now the emblematic poets, Thayil is telling his readers, and our concerns (including post-colonial anxiety, linguistic diversity, and a greater global awareness) have become cardinal. Part of what Thayil’s novel is doing is attempting to rebalance the books: the Chocolate Saints are those that have been largely missing from the picture, whitewashed or ignored, and the profound sense of absence this creates chimes in his novel with the roll-calls of poetry’s lost and martyred. There are further allusions to women’s historical invisibility in the sharp portrait of Goody Lol, a woman seeking sexual liberation, who late in life (as is often the case for women artists) has her own exhibition of portrait photography exploring, quite literally, the ties that bind.

Among the most compelling aspects of Thayil’s ambitious, wide-ranging and utterly contemporary novel are its reflections upon poetry and fiction. As he demonstrates amply here, one of the novel’s strengths as a genre is its sociability, its being in and of the world: magpie, multiple, dependent. Whereas the ideal poem, he suggests, might be more like one of Arun Kolatkar’s, the Maharashtra poet, a poem of the people which “used the demotic” yet was still “a poem that did not care what you thought of it, an untouchable poem that didn’t seek you approval or understanding”. Perhaps a secular (novelistic) reading of poetry’s “holiness” – a word used by Eric Gill in the epigraph to The Book of Chocolate Saints – would suggest that what poetry has to teach the novel is its non-compliance with the times, its utter inadequcy as a thing to be bought.



Matthew De Abaitua, Self & I – TLS


It’s hard to know how to summarize Self & I, Matthew De Abaitua’s memoir of the critical period in his life during which he worked as an amanuensis for Will Self, falling under his influence. It is partly a hagiography with Self as the holy saint of literature: visionary, intoxicated and in possession of the keys to the magic kingdom – but it is also a study of working class ambition, an exegesis of the Self canon, a critique of masculinity, a window onto the last pre-digital moment, and a review of that bankrupt and hollow decade in which even the counter-culture was in hock to the establishment. Self & I begins as Tony Blair is elected leader of the Labour Party and ends three years later with the literati and the art crowd celebrating as the country follows suit; an Epilogue takes us to 2003 and Blair in Basra giving a motivational speech to the troops. “This was the true end of the Nineties: the party that became a war.”

In 1994 De Abaitua is a twenty-two year old student on the Creative Writing course at UEA when Self blows into town. Lately divorced, the writer hatches a plan to escape the scene of his marital breakdown in London by moving to a remote cottage in the Suffolk countryside. In order for him to write free from distraction, he employs De Abaitua as a sort of family stand-in, someone who can furnish the cottage and keep the “Will Self industry” ticking over. De Abaitua answers Self’s mail, transcribes his interviews (with Adam Phillips, Martin Amis, and Self’s elected “mentor”, J. G. Ballard), arranges trips to Brazil and Australia for him and waits like a lonely wife for his return. He is also a substitute son, a literary heir of sorts who Self takes it upon himself to mentor and correct: snorting whenever the babbling De Abaitua succumbs to cliché, encouraging him to use his dreams for surrealist experiments, and generally advising the working class lad on how to get ahead in literature: “Don’t be too chippy. People don’t like it”.

De Abaitua has no illusions about his role: “amanuensis…translates as slave-at-hand”, he notes; and unlike a family member he “must not – in any way – contribute to [Self’s] sense of guilt or obligation.” (Guilty memories get in the way of moving on, of creating new fictions.) Yet the twenty-two year old is thrilled by the idea of their intimacy, fancying himself a partner-in-crime: “We’ve staked too much on the virtues of vice to change course now.” They embark on long treks across an appropriately Ballardian hinterland – a nuclear power station looms over the sea into which Self plunges, taking the “Sizewell cure” for his scratched and infected face, lacerated during opiate nightmares. De Abaitua thinks of the two of them as a latter-day Withnail & I; Self’s cultural reach is more extensive: their posture, he smirks to a visiting journalist, is more akin to the Ladies of Langollen.


To the young De Abaitua, part of Self’s mystique as a writer is his shamanic familiarity with transcendence (getting constantly off his head on whatever’s to hand: alcohol, mushrooms, Horlicks home-brewed with local poppies, “special cigarettes”), while maintaining a fastidious work ethic. He is at his desk every morning at nine, instructs his protégé on “the importance of clean work surfaces”, prohibits television, or reading and listening to music at the same time (“else we become inattentive”), and takes vigorous constitutionals.

During one of Self’s absences, De Abaitua’s parents visit the cottage and this opens up memories of the life he has left behind on the outskirts of Liverpool. Here, the role-models he had were an older brother who beat him to “toughen him up”, friends who jump on any sign of someone getting above themselves, a father whose “sense of how to behave in the world” is learned from his job in the police, and Terry, a dockworker he meets when temping during the student vacation: “Terry and I assume the role of bad mentor and unlikely pupil”. When he tries to talk to Terry about art and literature (De Abaitua is reading A. S. Byatt’s Possession) his co-worker man replies scornfully, “What’s the point of that?”, it has nothing to do with the hard reality of his life which he offers up as a cautionary tale. Against these men, Self seems the perfect mentor, introducing De Abaitua to a world of cerebral disobedience that offers a route away from Poverty Lane – the street where he played as a child. The eager student, now learning how to behave from Self, recites the writer’s catechism: “non-compliance is how we make ourselves attentive to the true social relations that control us.”

But as his time at the cottage comes to an end, and De Abaitua is left drifting at the edges of the literary world, we await the inevitable challenge to Self’s conception of the way things are. He does not openly rebuke his mentor, nor betray him: De Abaitua’s dedicated explication of Self’s writing displays the kind of attention born of love. (Rebuke he reserves for himself, with many self-lacerating references to his festering ambition, his failures as a “nearly-writer”). Yet when he comes to the subordinate story of his own life, “a footnote in history”, it is full of observations that reflect back on “Self Country”. For De Abaitua’s is another country altogether, in which ecstasy is not something you get from amyl nitrate but from the relief felt at the change of shift by manual workers bored out of their minds.

What’s interesting here is that having demonstrated his mastery of the Selfian mode, De Abaitua chooses not to represent himself in this vein. His own life story is told in resolutely realist fashion: no arcane vocabulary, “exploded metaphors”, or disproportion of scale, all beloved by Self and tactically deployed in his fictions. This tells us something about the class-bound nature of culture in Britain. Even later in life the fear of affectation does not leave De Abaitua. As a Creative Writing lecturer he still feels fraudulent, imagining his students thinking: “Does he know what he sounds like?” De Abaitua’s accessible style also hints at the luxury of Self’s outlawry, and at its loftiness. “Will doesn’t do small talk” the young man learns early on in their relationship; a manner De Abaitua tries to emulate but finds impossible to sustain among the coercive communality of Liverpool’s pubs and clubs.

Not that any of this is Self’s fault, he is his own man with his own demons and these old debates about the politics of literary aesthetic will not be resolved between the two of them. But for De Abaitua there is the question of where his initiation into Self Country leaves him. After a depressing period at the Idler, where an anti-work credo is extolled by upper-class entrepreneurs, De Abaitua meets up with Self again. The older man, sensing him at a loss, does what all good mentors do, telling De Abaitua to stop procrastinating and have his say: “You have to step up, Matthew”, because in the end for the writer there is only the work.

“I have not forgotten our white cottage”, the young De Abaitua reads from Les Fleurs du Mal in 1994, reclining on the sofa in the Suffolk cottage he is sharing with a remarkable and troubled writer. Baudelaire’s elegiac phrase seems to anticipate De Abaitua’s future self, looking back at this moment. Then he recalls his mentor’s lesson: “Forgetting . . . keeps us moving forward”. However, understanding the value of a lesson does not mean always having to obey it. Matthew De Abaitua did step up, publishing three novels. But perhaps his greatest achievement will be this compelling reminiscence of the time he spent with Will Self, which, however fraught with ambiguity, turned out to be a spur to the life he had always wanted.

Aminatta Forna, Happiness. Bloomsbury – Spectator


In her keynote lecture for a conference on The Muse and the Market in 2015 Aminatta Forna mounted a powerful advocacy for the political novel, challenging the assumption that politics or ‘subject’ undermines literary aesthetic. “A political novel can fail as a work of art as much as any other novel”, she argued, “but the fact that it is political does not sentence it to failure.” Her own approach to fiction is something like Paul Klee’s approach to his art: where Klee talked of taking a line for a walk, she says, “when I write a novel it is like taking a thought for a walk”. In Happiness, Forna’s fourth novel, the thought up for consideration is that in the west many people’s lives are so sheltered they have become terrified of suffering, pathologising even ordinary loss or grief as trauma. Perhaps this desire for safety, she speculates, has also led to a fear of incomers – a fear expressed in blindness to the many migrants at work across the city, or in terror when confronted with wild creatures in urban territory, with the sudden “opalescent eye shine of an animal” in the road.

These fears are scrutinised, and countered, in Happiness by Attila, a debonair Ghanaian psychiatrist visiting London for a conference on PTSD, and Jean, an American wildlife biologist in the capital to study urban foxes. They are both adapting to life after recent losses: his incurred by the death of a beloved wife, hers by a divorce that has separated her from her son. The two collide on Waterloo Bridge one winter evening and then again in a nearby underpass when they intervene to stop a white beggar from being attacked. These collisions are followed by many more to the point where London, the novel’s third major character, is depicted as a place that continually puts one kind of person, or animal, in the path of another: a Bosnian street performer opens the door for a fox meandering through the National Theater; a Sierra Leonean traffic warden notices a boy loitering alone by the Thames; and a flock of parakeets make their home in Nunhead Cemetery, aggravating the local council but delighting the joggers and dog-walkers.

Not all encounters are welcome or convivial: one frightened woman crosses the road to avoid coming face to face with a recently-bereaved acquaintance. Against such antipathy, Forna proposes that rather than fencing off our lives in fantasy (“prelapsarian gardens”), the best hope for survival, and, indeed, for happiness, is to cultivate “a sense of something that goes beyond [our]selves”. Once worlds collide it takes curiosity, empathy and will to draw people together. When Attila tells Jean about his runaway nephew, caught up in an immigration sting, she realises she can help him, having knowledge of the city from tracking foxes. She also has access to a network of people who assist in monitoring the foxes’ movements: migrant road sweepers, traffic wardens and security guards, all with expertise in London’s street culture. And they volunteer to search for the boy. The reason they are willing to help is their sense of solidarity, something echoed in the silent nods of acknowledgment that pass between Attila and other black people as they make their way through the city.

Aminatta Forna

The correlation of Forna’s idea that some in the west have become insular and enclosed, is that those most exposed to suffering – having learnt from it – may have developed greater emotional resources. In her rather Nietzschean novel, which emphasises knowledge, tenacity and resilience over victimhood, this is demonstrated time and again. Which is not to say that Forna is an idealist. Happiness is an outward-looking book, yet in passages that punctuate the London story, set in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq, the ravaged places where Attila has worked with civilian and combatant victims of war, there is no doubting the suffering that human beings inflict upon one another, and upon other species. Here, Forna thinks deeply about our responsibilities and how we can all get along. Attila tells Jean: “Some in my profession believe animal cruelty is an early indicator of worse to come”. While she points out that foxes have moved into cities not, as widely held, because we stopped hunting them in the country, but because fast food means “the sidewalks have turned into ‘all you can eat buffets'”. Where Jean is fascinated by the culture of the natural world and inter-species relationships, Attila responds to the horror he’s witnessed by cultivating his love of food, dance and language, conversing with a colleague in Esperanto, the dreamed-up speech of international fellowship.

The novel ends with Attila’s own conference keynote lecture in which he calls on the work of Frantz Fanon, R.D. Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement, to argue that “trauma does not equal destiny”. He also returns to his love of Robert Graves who went back to the trenches, deciding “he preferred the suffering of war to the insufferability of civilisation”. Goodbye to All That might well have provided an alternative title to Forna’s piercingly intelligent and interrogative novel which, like the earlier book, registers tectonic shifts taking place in the world and provokes us to think anew about war, and what we take for peace and happiness.

Angela Carter Interview: “Alienation isn’t necessarily a bad thing” – TLS


I was saddened to learn of the recent death of the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris. In 1985 I was employed by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe to work as a researcher on a film they were making about Harris for Channel 4. He had moved to London in 1959; the following year, Faber and Faber published his debut novel, The Palace of the Peacock. By the mid-1980s there were rumours he was in line for the Nobel Prize but nothing came of it. Despite a fascinating canon of novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction as well as a knighthood in 2011, he remained an isolated literary figure, living in the suburbs of Chelmsford. Today, he is perhaps most familiar to those who study postcolonial literature.

As part of my research, I interviewed Wilson and spoke to younger Guyanese writers he influenced such as Fred D’Aguiar and David Dabydeen. I also interviewed Angela Carter – a family friend for whom I occasionally babysat – who knew Wilson and admired his work. We talked, initially, on the phone. She described him as the “Guyanese William Blake”, adding “it’d be fun” to promote Wilson; “he’s an extraordinary man”. She told me about meeting him in Austin, Texas, where she was teaching creative writing and he lectured every spring semester. One night they all went out to dinner with a student who was a Vietnam war veteran. “Wilson took a deep breath and started explaining to this man why capitalism was wrong, why corporal punishment was wrong. Somebody had to explain to this man how the world really is, and Wilson did it in a very unassuming way. Talk to Wilson about that: how he changed Hank from writing about killing people to writing about being guilty about killing people. And there were many others like him.”

Shortly after this conversation I visited Carter’s home on The Chase in Clapham. We chatted about pop culture and film – Angela used to visit the Ritzy in Brixton when I worked there as a projectionist, she was knowledgeable about cinema and loved to talk about it – then we began the interview proper.

You can read the interview, published in the TLS on 27.3.2018, here.


Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down. Apollo; March Hares. Dalkey Archive Press – TLS


Why do some writers of significant, or even major, fiction fail to find a secure footing in the canon? The obvious marks of achievement for an author are remaining in print, market success and critical acclaim – the extent to which writers are assimilated into the story of literature, recognized for their place in a national tradition or as part of a literary movement. For those who fail to maintain availability, sales or notice, and whose neglect seems palpably unjust, we have the much-used compensatory phrase, “a writer’s writer”. Usually offered as high accolade, indicating appreciation by an elite circle of peers, it can mask a more uncomfortable truth about the failure of critics, academics, publishers and the reading public to find room in the house of fiction for books that are held to be in some way unfamiliar, uncompromising or heterodox.

Sometimes the cause of such neglect is baffling: “Why he isn’t better known, I simply don’t understand, because he’s outstandingly good”, Philip Pullman wrote recently of his favourite overlooked writer, MacDonald Harris. Often, though, there is an observable kinship between novels that get lost along the way: many are themselves concerned with ideas of waywardness, homelessness or oddity, with marginalized people and places. All too often their portraits of obscurity are projected back on them, with the result that they are themselves neglected. One example of this treatment is the writer’s writer Christina Stead, hailed over the years by Mary McCarthy, Angela Carter and Jonathan Franzen, yet despite successive rediscoveries, never breaking through to a more general acceptance.

In some cases, overlooked novels achieve notoriety precisely because they have been left to languish at the periphery. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), falls into this category, as does Aidan Higgins’s debut novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966), reputedly the greatest Irish novel serious readers may never have heard of. Writing in the Irish Times, Derek Mahon confirmed not just the novel’s reputation, but the author’s, as “fugitive . . . a thing of hearsay among initiates”. Langrishe concerns four sisters (one already dead) marooned outside Dublin in Springfield, one of Ireland’s decaying Big Houses. The novel is set in the 1930s as fascism creeps across Europe; the Langrishe women are creatures living at the edge of the continent and the end of their wits: ignorant, impoverished and condemned to the loneliest of spinsterhoods, which has turned them in on themselves and set them against one another. The two sisters who narrate the novel fret continually about their fall from respectability, wondering how they have arrived at a place so far beyond the pale.

With Langrishe’s latest revival by the Apollo Press, John Banville, in a new after word, has declared the book a “masterpiece”. But he also acknowledges its rough passage, quoting Higgins’s rueful observation that a fortnight after Langrishe’s publication, “sales sank to a dribble”, while Samuel Beckett’s scathing assessment – he thought it “literary shit” – did little to improve the book’s fortune. Beckett was a friend to Higgins, however. And it was on his recommendation that John Calder decided to publish the novel. The unjust evaluation was probably born of a horror of “Oirishness” – the “old-fashioned and placating nature” of Irish “yarnsters” which Higgins himself lambasts William Trevor and John McGahern for in March Hares, a posthumous collection of non-fiction from the Dalkey Archive. Perhaps Beckett felt that Langrishe failed to lift itself sufficiently out of the grip of Irish history and tradition, or to find a new form as rigorous as his own – “as cold as refrigerators” is how Higgins memorably describes Beckett’s late style in the opening salvo to March Hares, “The Hollow, The Bitter and the Mirthless in Irish Writing”.

By the time Higgins took up the pen, the authors he admired – James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Djuna Barnes – were either dead or past their prime; the scene had moved on to the more radical formalism of the Nouveau Roman, making his high modernist style seem out of step with the era. During the postwar years, the anglophone world was slow to catch up with the demolition of “réalité” that was invigorating French fiction, Beckett being the exception: he was living as an emigré in Paris. Then, in the 1950s, Calder began publishing not only Beckett in English, but also many of the Nouveau Roman writers. By 1966, when he brought out Langrishe, ideas about exhaustion and bankruptcy were in the air. Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, which was published at the same time, has a pervasive sense of people living in aftermath, embroiled in traditions and beliefs that are decaying or worn out. And the following year saw the publication of Frank Kermode’s influential collection, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the theory of literary fiction; written with knowledge of the Holocaust and in fear of impending nuclear war, Kermode identifies the apocalyptic strain of the literary imagination.

Aidan Higgins, by Suzy O’Mullane, 2002

Part of the problem for Higgins was the way critics placed his novel. Because of its Big House subject, historical references (James Connolly, Éamon De Valera, Constance Markiewicz, etc) and melancholy lyricism, many thought of it primarily in a national context – another brick in the wall of “old Irish miserabilism”, as Eimear McBride described the tradition recently on Radio 4 – as existing, therefore, in a space disconnected from these continental debates about literature and politics. But this is perhaps a category error: Langrishe is not an example of the isolation of Irish culture, but rather a work that critically dissects it. Disputing the novel’s reading by many reviewers, Higgins underscores this point in another piece included in March Hares. In it, he asserts, “on the subject of misunderstandings and cognate matters, may I be here permitted to state categorically that Langrishe, Go Down is not a Big House novel, nor ever was intended as such”.

John Calder, thinking back over some of the writers he championed during his (heroic) career, singled Higgins out as “greatly under appreciated”. “He is a very strange man”, Calder told an interviewer in 2013, “A great writer, though.” No doubt lack of appreciation played its part in that strangeness, leading to some of the bristliness on display in March Hares, where he returns repeatedly to the matter of Ireland’s “deeply conservative reading public”, the fantastic sales of the “sobsisters” (Nuala O’Faolain, Frank McCourt), the ever-present faces of the fashionable literati (Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle), his own remaindering (out of print again), and the all-too-brief mentions of his work in anthologies of Irish literature. Yet he is astute enough to understand that, for an artist, there is existential validation in being excluded: “To feel out of place is, to be sure, quite a salubrious state for a writer to find himself in”. No doubt this is why writers at the edge so often become experts in reinvention. Higgins’s own talent for redeployment and recycling – characters reappear, later memoirs replay passages from earlier fictions – is at odds with the complete lack of wherewithal demonstrated by the Langrishe sisters. He has said the women were based on himself and his brothers, who had grown up in the house that Springfield is modelled on: the sisters, he writes, were characters “in drag”. Presumably one of the reasons for changing their sex is that women more plausibly embody the “weakness” and redundancy that he was intent on exposing.

Langrishe contains some of the most poignant and beautiful writing to be found anywhere on the evanescence of time and the cycles of nature. Inlaid against this lyricism, though – as is often the case in studies of lateness – there are moments when people start to regard themselves anthropologically, and odd notes of the parodic edge into view: “Pray sir, did you ever meet a lady who is a sort of specimen of a bygone world?” Carter’s critique of Britain as a country past its sell-by date still manages to find a way forward for her characters: in the new Sixties culture of camp and cut-up, they recycle and sell off busts of Queen Victoria, clown noses and soldiers’ uniforms. But at Springfield, though the Langrishe women, cloistered in their only heated room, are also surrounded by detritus from the past – pictures of sabre-waving soldiers, a “blackamoor” statue, a sarcophagus vase-stand – these symbols remain oppressive because the stay-at-home sisters have no countering point of view, no way of learning how to flount authority or play in the ruins of their history.

The only outside voice in Langrishe comes from a German doctoral student, Otto, who takes up residence in the gatehouse, lives off the land and pays no rent – a situation the sisters, in their “stifling stasis”, are incapable of doing anything about despite a desperate need for funds. With his masterful manner and apparent knowledge of all things, Otto quickly seduces Imogen, the youngest and prettiest of the sisters, the family’s “one hope”. But because of the novel’s a-chronology, the reader knows from the outset that the hope of this affair, begun in the summer of 1933, is doomed: Langrishe opens in the winter in 1937, with the once lovely Imogen now surrounded by stout bottles, her hair and teeth falling out; it closes after two deaths and a funeral in 1939, “squashing” all hope for the Big House inhabitants and, following the Anschluss, for Europe as a whole.

“Mother Eire was never young”, Higgins writes in March Hares, chastizing Joyce for his mythologizing, and in Langrishe she is a brute, an old hag who squashes the lives of the Langrishe girls like insects. The novel ends with Imogen back in the deserted gatehouse, hiding away among “rotting wainscots” and “mildewed walls”, “spiderwebs” and “dead flies”. In another passage from March Hares, entitled “Ancestral Voices”, Higgins says (playfully, camply) of his own upbringing: “In those stagnant times how we fairly trembled before Authority!” His novel Langrishe, Go Down deserves to be more widely known, not only for its extraordinary mournful beauty, but also for its apocalyptic vision of a culture’s squandering and rottenness, for its thoroughgoing dismantling of the Irish house of fiction, and as one of the great works of European anti-authority.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone (translated by Susan Bernofsky). Portobello – Spectator


The title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Go Went Gone, and the autumnal tone of its beginning – a Classics professor retires, leaving him at home raking leaves, mulling over memories of his wife, and wondering about the body in a nearby lake – suggests that this will be a book of endings, something akin to Anita Brookner’s stories of self-absorbed people in the twilight of their lives.

But Richard, now professor emeritus, proves to be a more unpredictable character. For a start, unlike many of Brookner’s loners, there is the strong force of history in him. A precarious beginning under fascism and war, then a life shaped by the GDR and its abrupt cessation in 1989, has left him and his circle of friends adrift in the new Germany. They have only memories of their vanished country and some sense that the place in which they now find themselves, with its advertised values of reason and law, is not all it’s cracked up to be. For a start, Richard’s pension is smaller than that of his West German compatriots. Not that he’s complaining: as a child versed in “proletarian internationalism”, he’s fully aware that compared with many on the planet, he’s well off: “Richard knows he’s one of the very few people in this world who are in a position to take their pick of realities.”

The question of what constitutes reality lies at the heart of Erpenbeck’s writing. In Go Went Gone she is at pains to show that what is often taken to be universal can be tendentious or dogmatically insisted upon, despite what ought to be glaring limitations. The body submerged in the lake and Richard’s interest in underground systems (escape routes from the Nazis, tunnels from the Middle Ages) suggest that beneath the “veneer” of reality, much in life is hidden or suppressed.

When Richard watches a News programme about a protest tent city built by refugees in the middle of Oranienplatz, he realizes that he has walked through the square without noticing this challenge to everyday life. As an academic, the recognition of his trammeled view, with its implicit lack of curiosity, rankles him mildly. So with nothing better to do, he embarks on a homemade project to discover where the refugees come from and what it is that they want.

Jenny Erpenbeck

At first he sits on a bench in the square and takes notes. Then the authorities make an agreement with the refugees to dismantle the camp. Some are relocated to an unused block in a nursing home near Richard, where he finds men on mattresses four or five to a room, many depressed and sleeping in the middle of the day. But some are awake and – like Richard, with little to occupy them and no way forward in their lives as they are forbidden to work – they agree to be interviewed. Richard’s questions seem detailed but beside the point, as if, rather than facing the immediate crisis in their lives, he’s testing for humanity: “Do people have pets?” “What kind of place did you like to hide as a child?”

These conversations produce a gentle comedy of cultural difference and, for Richard, a series of realisations. The first is how little, for all his classical education, he knows about the world the refugees come from, even though, as he reacquaints himself with the story of Black Athena, he is reminded that the roots of Western civilization lie in North Africa. As he had walked through the square without seeing the refugees, so he knew of these facts but never assimilated them. Only now, through his new friendships, does the knowledge becoming meaningful. That he is unaware of where many African countries are on the map, unfamiliar with their capitals and languages is, of course, an indictment not just of Richard but of Western ignorance in general: “The American vice-president recently referred to Africa as a country.”

He becomes closer to the refugees, inviting them to his house, sharing meals and taking them to appointments with the authorities during which he starts to understand how the law is stacked against them. The Dublin II treaty prevents the men from applying for asylum (Germany is not the first European country they arrived in) and the Berlin authorities retract their agreement.

Richard’s dawning awareness brings to mind Ted Hughes’s epiphany, the fruit of his engagement with East European dissidents, about the “spoilt brats of Western civilization…deprived of the revelations of necessity”. Erpenbeck’s tone is not so dramatic: her clear, unshowy prose never draws attention to itself – at times her novel even reads like a primer, reflecting the way Richard learns like a child through reading and friendship about how the world beyond him has shaped his own.

Yet this is a highly sophisticated work in which blatant injustice (however disregarded) exists together with forces that lurk beneath the surface. At a birthday party for Richard celebrated with old and new comrades, the light falls and everyone gathers round a fire. There are stories shared by all about guilt, regret and loss, memories that usually remain submerged, too unbearable to think about, but which surface here in the company of friends. This perhaps is the common ground which earlier socialist writers were intent upon, and the scene is relayed by Erpenbeck with extraordinary emotional power, her analytical skill now matched by a tenderness to human beings that remains utterly unsentimental.

At an earlier moment Richard bemoans the fact that the loss of the GDR has meant the loss of grand ideas about humanity: now only individual action is possible. It is a sentiment that the East German writer to whom Erpenbeck seems most indebted, Christa Wolf, also expressed, saying she no longer believed in ideology, and after the fall of the Wall progress would only occur through pushes made at ground level. The inevitably cruel ending looms for the refugees and they rise once more from their beds to organise another protest, remembering the dignity they found in the Oranienplatz resistance. They know their rooftop protest will not succeed, but as Angela Carter once observed, we organise to keep our spirits up.

The verdict on the refugees’ case finally arrives and the question for Richard remains the old one: what is to be done? His answer, and the way he draws his German friends in to help, suggests some reconciliation of the grand idea with individual action, a new kind of solidarity and a way forward.

Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Bloomsbury Circle – TLS


On just about every page of Jesmyn Ward’s powerful new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, we get a sense of Mississippi’s wild and stirring beauty: its watery bayous, ancient trees and rich Delta soil. But it is also a landscape full of menace, imprinted with memories of violence and pain. “All them black hands”, Pop tells his grandson, recounting the story of how he chased a boy escaping from Parchman Prison over the fields. The earth was so crumbly from generations of black men working it – the “free” labour of slaves and prisoners – that Pop and his dogs found it easy to track the child. In Ward’s Mississippi, racism eats away at even the most basic human relations, corroding people’s feelings for the land, their idea of home, and even their sense of family. The mystery at the heart of Sing, Unburied, Sing is the horrifying story of the prison chase that Pop finally unburdens, the story of black prisoners forced to hunt down their escaping cell mates. It’s a tale that reveals just how active a force history is in the present, and how a legacy of injustice will subvert time and thwart progress: “Parchman was past, present and future all at once.”

This is the kind of sentence that one might find in many a twenty-first century novel, where the fragmentation of contemporary life often becomes a matter of play, and societal breakdown provides a showcase for imaginative resilience. What such fictions tend to demonstrate is that you can turn the world upside down and hijack its order precisely because you are already at home in it. Ward’s book, by contrast, is marked by an ineradicable gravity about what it means to be homeless. Its disordering properties seem less like a game with literary props than commensurate expression of a corrupt system: Pop’s wife, dying of cancer, is so mistrustful of authority she tries to treat herself with woodland herbs, and when their son is killed by a white man during a hunting expedition, his death is covered up by the local sheriff. The gothic element of Sing, Unburied, Sing, which includes two ‘characters’ who are dead, has none of the titillation that often features in ghost stories; as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, these revenants speak of the psychic disturbance engendered by bigotry and hate. The novel’s synchronicity emanates from an awareness of how suffering is passed down through generations, with pain in the past deforming lives in the present. And despite Ward’s title, which summons the dead to speak, there is even ambiguity about storytelling.

Ward reminds us that when family history is so harrowing, storytelling does not operate in the remedial fashion it routinely does for writers such as, say, Ali Smith. The tales the thirteen-year-old Jojo hears from his grandfather are of a blighted inheritance. Tales like the one about Pop’s great grandmother who was kidnapped and brought across the ocean, her skin growing around the chains. “In her village”, Pop tells the boy, “they ate fear. Said it turned the food to sand in they mouth.” Yet if such tale-telling induces unease or despair, Ward is mindful, too, of the damage silence can do: her novel’s narrative dissemination is a sign not, as it tends to be in modern fiction, of increased autonomy but of characters cut off from one another by secrets and shame. In Men We Reaped (2013), Ward’s wrenching memoir of the deaths of five young black men from her home town in Mississippi, she educated the reader about just how difficult it can be to speak of betrayal and loss when no one is listening: “silence is the sound of our subdued rage, our accumulated grief.”

Jesmyn Ward

The three narrators of Sing, Unburied, Sing are Jojo, his mother, Leonie, and a ghost-child, Richie – the boy Pop met when they were incarcerated together in Parchman. For Leonie, the family’s load has been too heavy to bear. Her yearning for another life, and the shame of disavowing her parents, has led into drug addiction. The only “balm” to her “open wound” is the green-eyed white boy, Michael, son of the racist sheriff, who nevertheless “saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee, lips the color of plum, and saw me.” But Michael is also embroiled in drugs (with the collapse of oil prices, virtually all that sustains the local economy is drug money) and he, too, has been incarcerated in Parchman. When his release is pending, Leonie packs Jojo and his younger sister, Kayla, into her car and heads north to the prison to reunite the family. But the road trip reveals how deep the schism runs in Leonie whose undefined wanting finds satiety only in the drugs her lawyer feeds her. She is at war with herself, and her children are the casualties of this war when having stuck them in the back of her scorching car, she fails to feed them properly or give them enough to drink.

For a mixed-race child such as Jojo, growing up with his embattled mother, amid the still deeply-entrenched racial politics of Mississippi, life, is like living in a minefield. But as time goes on he comes to understand a little of Leonie’s behaviour, sensing that he too feels the urge to escape: “An itching in my hands. A kicking in my feet.” And in Richie, the ghost-boy wandering the woods where “a murder of silver crows” shine in the trees (or is it the ghosts of his murdered forebears unable to pass on to the next world?), there is a parallel image of homelessness, longing and entrapment.

In Jesmyn Ward we have an important new voice of the American South – one developing perhaps into the twenty-first century’s answer to William Faulkner. Fiercely partisan yet unillusioned, her command of politics and idiom is impressive. But perhaps what is most striking is Ward’s sustained and clear-eyed attention to people who, when noticed at all, are more usually consigned to a novel’s periphery. Here they take centre-stage and are depicted with the kind of piercing clarity born of love. At the novel’s close, with the ghosts restless in the tress, only Kayla, combining traits from everyone in her black and white family, can hush the spirits with her babbling song. The resilient child sits on the porch with her grandfather, shelling nuts, and is somehow able to understand instinctively the working of deprivation: “Kayla patted his arm again, but didn’t ask for another pecan. Just rubbed him like Pop was a puppy, flea-itching and half bald, starved for love.”

Amit Chaudhuri, Friend of My Youth. Faber – TLS


In a recent lecture by Amit Chaudhuri on ‘Possible, Not Alternative Histories” of literature, he proposed the idea of authors being read to fulfil a particular need. So W. G. Sebald is valued for his melancholy European novels in the face of the ascendant global novel (an idea Susan Sontag first mooted), J. M. Coetzee satisfies the need for a writer who remains silent or speaks only figuratively in a time of extreme politics, and Roberto Bolaño answers the desire for a writer to be unclassifiable. It’s an interesting thought-experiment, not merely the concept of a writer expressing a cultural need, but the extension of the argument that readers bring something to the table, a set of assumptions that precede the act of reading. What need might Chaudhuri himself fulfil?

With the publication of Friend of My Youth, he is now the author of seven novels, greatly admired, particularly by his peers. He is often associated with a group of authors who address themes of migration, globalisation, and the difficulties of return. Michael Ondaatje’s poetic memoir, Running in the Family (1982), about a journey from Canada to his childhood home in Sri Lanka, is the obvious precursor of these works. It is a book Teju Cole discusses in his similarly lyrical autofiction, Every Day is For the Thief (2014), about an unsettling trip back to Nigeria from America, while Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel, A State of Freedom (2017), has two characters revisiting India who experience joy in old familiarities together with pangs of estrangement. As with Chaudhuri’s self-named narrator, the protagonists of these books are distrustful of memory with its glitches and blackouts, disoriented by changes wrought in the intervening years, and often treated like tourists in the land of their birth. When Chaudhuri crosses into Mumbai via the new Sea Link bridge (a journey also made by a returnee in Mukherjee’s novel), he is immediately tested by his taxi driver for authenticity, regarded as suspiciously as he himself views the new buildings rising across the city, “interlopers” disturbing his sense of how things ought to be. A writer, he is in India on a brief book tour and wants to reunite with the friends of his youth. But the oldest of these, Ramu, is away in rehab, others are not available, and anyway his habit of referring to the city as Bombay rather than Mumbai, its name for the last twenty years, indicates that the journey he has in mind might be just that: a chance to revisit memories, reflect on old relationships, and ruminate on the child he was, the man he has become.

Friend of My Youth is virtually plotless in the traditional sense, meaning that the novel has few events: Chaudhuri arrives, books into a club and notes its refurbishment; visits a district of the city he once knew and reflects on its “continuity” (the tranquillity artificially preserved by wealthy residents). He runs shopping errands for his wife and mother, is interviewed by a young journalist, and has dinner with a bookseller. But these unremarkable scenes do not mean that the novel is uneventful: the drama of the self, spun from Chaudhuri’s meditations and recollections, is artfully composed and utterly absorbing. At the heart of this drama are two shifting relationships: one with the city, which he comes to understand he knew very little of in his privileged youth; the other with his turbulent friend Ramu. Like Chaudhuri, Ramu is another “fantasist”, but instead of writing, he kicked against the dogma of the everyday through drug addiction. As Chaudhuri moves across the city, thoughts of the absent Ramu ripple through his mind, and like the Taj Hotel which was blown apart by terrorists in 2008 and then reassembled, he is increasingly engaged in the effort of trying to piece back together the mystery of their friendship: “There’s no question of going back. But the painstaking joining up of fragments is clear too.”

As Chaudhuri’s revisits more recent memories of Ramu, it becomes clear that what has sustained their long relationship is a common feeling of unbelonging, creating a mutual sensibility which on idle walks through the city they have exercised and refined (the novel opens with a quotation from Walter Benjamin). On these perambulations they note how globalisation has sent land prices soaring and caused landmarks to be knocked down. The city’s shiny new buildings are mirrored by Ramu’s bright insistence that he is alright, but both strike a false note. In their fifties now, Chaudhuri senses decay in his old friend, the life force leaking from him. But despite this troubling sense of an ending, of foreclosed possibility, the old friends continue their walks, and there is something stoical, triumphant even, in their flânerie: as time wastes them, so they luxuriate in the “precious wastage of time”.

During Chaudhuri’s lecture he also outlined another possible strand in literary history, one culled from his readings and misreadings. This “tradition” concerns the praise of sunlight and living in the moment, something he found in writings by Goethe, Nietzsche, Hardy, Tagore and Lawrence. In Friend of My Youth, as Chaudhuri and Ramu stroll about, “in communion” in their feeling for the city, they stop before an old building, a “gothic phantom” bathed not in sun but in moonlight, and Ramu exclaims: “I get transformed when I see these, yaar!” In an era of globalised neo-liberalism, Angela Carter once suggested, “alienated is the only way to be”. For Ramu and Chaudhuri, fantasists and escape-artists, children of a fissile city constantly “gutted…[ or] under construction”, this is a given. But awareness of our alienation can turn us inwards. What Chaudhuri perhaps senses in Ramu’s love of the city, the awe he feels (“mind-blowing!”), and the transformation it delivers, is a satisfying paradox: we are most in the moment when we are taken out of ourselves.

This review first appeared in the TLS as “The Only Way to Be” on 29.9.2017.

J. M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006 – 2017 – TLS


One might suppose that the description of J. M. Coetzee as a South African writer was relatively uncontentious, but in an Introduction to his second volume of collected essays, Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (2007), Derek Attridge – perhaps unwilling to define an Afrikaner writer steeped in the European tradition as African, or simply mindful of Coetzee’s well-known elusiveness – seems reluctant to place him in this way, and tries instead to define him through negatives: “Coetzee himself is usually thought of as neither a European nor an American writer: for most of his writing life he has lived in South Africa, and half his novels take place in that country. He now lives in Australia…”.

“That country” and its neighbouring territories – where Coetzee’s Afrikaner ancestors settled as colonists in the seventeenth century, where he was born and brought up, and where he lived on and off for over 50 years – is the place to which he returns in Late Essays 2006-2017, a new collection that winds across the continents of Europe, America and Australia, before giving Africa the last word. His envoi on the diaries of the nineteenth century tribal leader Hendrik Witbooi underscores the mixing and complexity of colonial history: the Boers “way of life had become as much African as European”, while Witbooi and his mixed-race tribe behave like white colonists, “plundering, castle-rustling”. But, scrupulously, Coetzee goes beyond Witbooi’s lifetime to the emergence of the European colonizers’ “larger and more sinister project: genocide”, a fact that cannot be ignored in his final reckoning.

Of course, there may be more to be said on the subject. Coetzee’s notoriously disciplined work rate may yet produce successive volumes – Later or Latest Essays, perhaps? Such an idea would not be out of character for a writer who studied and taught in various universities (Cape Town, Texas, Buffalo, Harvard, Adelaide, Chicago) between 1963 and 2003, and whose novels bear the imprint of this experience, engaging in postmodern games that resist conclusiveness while tipping their hat to literary history and theory. Beckett and Kafka are returning presences in his work, and in Foe (1986) Coetzee reimagines the story of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday from the perspective of a woman castaway on their island who tries to tell her own version of the colonist’s story. She finds she can speak plausibly only with the aid of a man’s intercession, and as her words are mistranslated by a male writer called Daniel Foe, so she misrepresents Friday, who is mute. As with Jean Rhys in her revision of Jane Eyre, (“Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know”), the focus is on the politics of language and the problems of interpretation, appropriation and the value denied those who speak in foreign tongues – or not at all. In later work this concern extends to the cruel treatment of “dumb” animals.

Coetzee’s engagement with literary history was attacked at the peak of the battle against apartheid as nostalgic or irrelevant. I doubt it escaped his notice that the language of this criticism – Michael Channon argued that Foe provided a “masturbatory release…for Europeanising dreams” – resembles that used by hard-line communist critics who, in the inter-war years, condemned modernist writers for failing to respond to social upheavals in the prescribed realist fashion: Mike Gold denounced Proust as the “master-masturbator of bourgeois literature”, and Karl Radek accused Joyce of being morbid and backward-looking.

Coetzee resisted any such pressure. When he wrote directly about apartheid in South Africa he was excoriating, but by flouting orthodoxy and insisting on imaginative freedom he continued to trouble readers. It was not only Thabo Mbeki who was disturbed by the depiction of black men raping a white woman in the Booker Prize winning, Disgrace (1999). Frequently, the unsettling tensions in Coetzee’s work have lain between its controlled austerity its lapidary elegance, and the risk he has run of giving offence, in writing to the edge. Over time his fictions have became increasingly self-reflexive (among his characters are numerous avatars bearing his name), digressive and provisional (“to be explored…”), and removed from what many now regard as the bad faith, or at least the untenable use of realism at the end of the modern era. Elizabeth Costello (2003), for instance, consists of a series of lectures on the industrialisation of animals, hanging on only the flimsiest of story skeletons; Dairy of a Bad Year (2007) develops three parallel narrators demarcated by dividing lines; while Summertime (2009) sees the biographer of a writer, one “J M Coetzee”, interviewing unimpressed ex-lovers following the death of the author. The problem of placing Coetzee geographically or intellectually was the subject of an essay by Hedley Twidle which won the Financial Times/Bodley Head competition in 2012. As Twidle observed, for many reviewers the difficulty of analysing Coetzee’s writing is fuelled by the feeling that he has got there before them: his fictions include their own auto-assessments, creating a critical redundancy.

J. M. Coetzee, 2017

All of which sets up intriguing questions when it comes to Coetzee’s own literary criticism. As with the two earlier volumes of his collected non-fiction, many of the selections in Late Essays, including those on Goethe, Irène Némirovsky, Beckett, Philip Roth and Patrick White, were originally published as reviews for the New York Review of Books. An insightful essay on Zbigniev Herbert first appeared in the small magazine, New Walk. But half of the essays began life as Introductions to other writers’ works (among them pieces on Defoe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Ford Madox Ford, Heinrich von Kleist and Leo Tolstoy, as well as Beckett and White again). A glance at the Acknowledgements reveals that nearly all of these were for volumes published by El Hilo de Ariadne. What we are not told is that they are part of a grander project of canon-making that Coetzee has entered into with the Argentine publishing house to select, introduce and publish his own Biblioteca Personal – along the lines of Borges’s personal library for Hyspamérica. These books, Coetzee has said, are not only works that he greatly admires, but ones that have had a formative influence upon him as a writer.

Other than Hendrik Witbooi, all the writers discussed in this new collection are by men – Némirovsky is the only female exception – who made a living from their pens. The first essay, on Defoe notes that this was a profession “which, if he did not invent…he certainly pioneered”. He was, too, “an accidental pioneer of the novel of realism”, not quite understanding what he was doing, but how could he when he was “not only making the story up as he went along, he was making the form up too”? Defoe’s innovative writing emerged from his position as “an important social actor: the inquisitive, acquisitive man or woman of the ascendant protestant middle class”, and from “a certain inborn genius”. In interview Coetzee once said “there are no generalizations that serve and are true for all writers”, and the reach and depth of these sophisticated, authoritative essays certainly prove the case. But across generations and continents there are some recurring themes, reflecting perhaps Coetzee’s own preoccupations as a writer as much as those of the people he speaks of. It is the accident of talent (“which it is death to hide”) combined with specific historical forces and the way these feed into a work that he alights upon when trying to unravel the mysteries of writing – mysteries even to authors themselves who “cannot always tell the deepest motive behind [their] writing”. Kleist, for example, was born into a Prussian military family but lived “in the shadow of Napoleon Bonaparte’s grand plan to redraw the map of Europe”; becoming sick of army brutality and discovering the sceptical philosophy of the Enlightenment, he tried to fashion himself into a writer. These illuminating details help to explain why Kleist’s stories are so paradoxical, concerned as they are with people “torn between competing forces and impulses.” In the same way, Coetzee finds in the satiric counter-attacks, the ironic masks or Aesopian fables of Herbert’s poetry “evidence of his historical situation as a man trying to live out a poetic and intellectual vocation in a hostile environment”.

Along with the particulars of background and talent, Coetzee keenly identifies the honed techniques and “writer’s tricks” which keep pushing the form into new territory: Flaubert’s “ability to formulate larger issues…as problems of composition”, Kleist’s “invisible or buried narrators”, Roth’s complication of story “transmission”, and the methods Becket took from psychoanalysis (keep talking, free-associate: there is no point, and no end). In a group of novels by Defoe, Hawthorne, Flaubert and Ford concerning sexual betrayal, Coetzee seems less interested in the betrayals themselves than in the way in which their depiction makes of their creators (as with his own challenging stories) opponents of hypocrisy, moralising and cant; even as in the case of an essentially conservative writer such as Ford, the ambiguities and double-standards that The Good Soldier exposes, make him so. Indeed, one can draw a line in Coetzee’s thinking from the rebellion against bourgeois manners – Emma Bovary’s “right to desire in the face of the pious disapproval of society”, Ivan Ilyich’s “unseemly suffering…a breach in social decorum”, or Kleist’s Marquise, inexplicably pregnant (a plot so offensive one reviewer thought that even to summarise it was “to ostracize oneself from polite society”) – to the idea of the artist as an outsider.

Among many models of the author which Coetzee entertains, the romantic idea of the writer as outcast, pilloried for truth-telling yet steadfast in fidelity to their vision (“the great Accursed One” described by Rimbaud), is perhaps the one he finds most compelling. In Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector, he picks out the artist as “Luciferian angel”, and in an essay on Samuel Beckett he anoints Kafka as “the angel Misfit”. The Irish writer was the subject of Coetzee’s doctoral thesis: a lifelong preoccupation, he gets more attention here than anyone else. In Beckett, being an outsider is reformulated not only as the artist’s condition, but humanity’s – in our “plight of existential homelessness”. Coetzee’s quality of attention to Beckett is superb, though one could argue that he misses something of the comedy at the kernel of his work. But in the last of four pieces on him in Late Essays, Coetzee performs an imaginative dance with Godot’s creator that masters some of his playfulness, revealing, perhaps, as much about Coetzee as it does about Beckett.

In an essay of parts, divided by numbers, he begins by reflecting on how the mind/body divide gave rise to the dualism of radically self-conscious humans, an over-adaptation some thought, leading them to wonder if “the hyper-reflective Western bourgeois male” was doomed liked the dinosaur. Then, in a move that is part-homage, part-usurpation, he muses on what Beckett left out of his world picture: “the great scheming animal mind…incommensurate with human thought”. So he tries to conjure this for himself with a story about a laboratory animal also struggling to understand where it fits in a “universe [that] is never as it appears to be”. Coetzee rounds off with the true story of how in 1937, after his professor at Trinity saw an advert in the TLS, Beckett applied for a Cape Town University lectureship. He failed to get the job, of course, but for a moment Coetzee imagines another universe with Beckett, Crusoe-like, “an indolent Irish castaway” at “the southernmost tip of Africa” teaching Romance languages to daughters of the merchant class, even marrying one of these “sweet-breathed, bronze-limbed Calypsos”, and wondering would he ever have returned to Ithaca. The idea of Kafka or Beckett as university professors amuses him: “What would Kafka teach, anyway? How not to fit in?” But ever alert to the counter-thought, refusing all conclusions, Coetzee reminds us that Kafka was once a “perfectly competent insurance adjuster”.

How can we know the mind of a writer? What kind of portrait can we draw of these elusive creatures? Beckett and Kafka were both lean and both had a piercing gaze, Coetzee notes, and their photographs show men “whose inner being shines like a cold star through a fleshly envelope”. It is a beautiful image with the ring of truth about it, but one, characteristically, that Coetzee quickly dismantles: if soul and flesh belong to distinct realms, no photograph can tell the truth, and our conjunction “is an everlasting mystery”.

This review appeared in the TLS as “Plundering, rustling” on 22.9.2018.

Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom. Chatto – Spectator


Neel Mukherjee has had a two-handed literary career working as a reviewer of other people’s novels and writing his own: in 2014, his second novel, The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His latest book is a state-of-the-globalized-nation novel which gives human particularity to those deadened concepts we pass around such as migration, inequality and neo-liberalism. A State of Freedom breaks into five chapters, each telling the story of a distinct individual in India, whose connection is only fully revealed in the final pages. Mukherjee has observed wryly that due to stereotypical ideas about the Indian novel, whatever their formal properties, his fictions tend to be read as family sagas. Perhaps with this in mind, the relationships in A State of Freedom are more often horizontal than generational, and the stories, taking place across the country, emphasise wildly different fortunes and experience. Refuting Western preconceptions, one of Mukherjee’s protagonists, a manqué cookbook writer, asserts that there is no such thing as Indian food (the cuisine varies tremendously between states and cultures, something Mukherjee shows in mouth-watering detail), and in his novel there is no exemplary character: everyone’s perspective is partial and fragmented, and the ability to read the lives of others is less a product of education than a function of power. So the beggars, servants and manual labourers who appear ghost-like and inscrutable to the wealthy émigré visitors of the first two chapters, glimpsed only in their “periphery of vision”, emerge subsequently from this state of illegibility into fully-realised human beings, each with their own chapter, context and rationale.

The story begins with a man undone by India, a returnee after years away in America, now “broke[n] down” by an event made all the more horrific for seeming inexplicable. The unnamed man, bursting with pride but sensing he is “no longer a proper Indian”, has brought his young son in the back of a chauffeur-driven car to the Taj Mahal. But the American boy is too young and too hot to appreciate his father’s tales of emperors banqueting under white moonlight, and is bewildered by an onslaught of beggars and amputees from whom his father tries to shield the stunned child. This brief sketch opens the novel like a short, sharp slap, alerting the reader to how proclamations of India’s dizzying too-muchness – hoardings in multiple languages and styles make the father think, “how unsettled their orthography” – become the excuse for not really looking at the violence of poverty, or reading the effect on everyone in its orbit.

Mukherjee, on the other hand, confronts us with the deranged performances of both master and slave. There is Lakshman, forced by poverty to beat and tether a wild bear so that it will dance for a handful of rupees. The power struggle between this unlikely couple is profound, and the entertainment they produce enacts their mutual humiliation. And Milly, in service from the age of eight, treated like an animal by successive employers, forced to sleep on the kitchen floor, fed leftover scraps, and beaten when she breaks a cup. The worst of these employers becomes so enraged at any sign of independence she imprisons Milly, and threatens to brand her face with a hot iron: “Flat 10”, the narrator observes, “had become like a circus.”

Neel Mukherjee

Mukherjee repeats certain words, complicating his novel with every accretion of meaning. So the cookery writer observes that recipes handed down can never be reproduced: each cook brings their own “hand” to the food, and it is this unique creativity, the expression of freedom, that power is threatened by and seeks to control. In Milly’s village Maoist rebels cut off her brother’s hand, while the ‘romantic’ emperor who built the Taj Mahal, cuts off his workers’ fingers so that his mausoleum can never be reproduced. In the same way, images of breaking amass to the point where the story withdraws from its own performance, reduced to a break-down of material cost (rent, water, electricity, food).

Finally in its dialectical ending A State of Freedom’s artfully-handled piecing together of story fragments is held in tension by a counter-force of textual disintegration. Capital letters and full stops disappear, sentences fragment, words break into poetic suggestion reminding us of the reduced, hollow men and women, trapped and fated by an order the writer would break, while acknowledging that art, in the end, cannot achieve this: “he is husk of course he is at last”.

Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant. Picador; Brian Van Reet, Spoils. Jonathan Cape; Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing. Knopf – TLS


“We don’t think Iraq books are going to sell,” Whitney Terrell’s editor told him when he first submitted The Good Lieutenant. Because he had spent years as an embedded reporter in Iraq, and believed he had something to say, Terrell treated this as a dismissal of his novel, rather than of its subject. Concerned that his tale of a soldier ruined by war was banal, he decided to run the narrative back to front, rewinding his protagonist from innocence lost, through killing, kidnap, lying, training, enlisting, all the way home to an American “philosophy” of goodness and innocence, to a belief that the rules of the family and the rules of the military were one and the same: “You don’t fucking run out on people…You don’t lie – or at least not to the people who are supposed to be on your side.”

The reverse narrative, as a technique of recuperation, has been deployed in war novels before, of course: Martin Amis used it to undo the murders of Nazis doctors in Time’s Arrow (1991), writing under the influence of Kurt Vonnegut who, in Slaughterhouse Five (1969), sucked bombs back into American planes to stop them from being dropped on Dresden. Chroniclers of twenty-first century wars face the same problem that Vonnegut dramatized so intelligently and with such imaginative courage: how to create an anti-war novel while exploiting war’s language, technology and murderous intent for the sake of a gripping or poetic narrative. They also face new difficulties. The so-called “global war on terror”, drifting from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, has gone on for so long it seems intractable and fathomless; the phrase “fog of war”, adapted from von Clausewitz, is often used to explain our intellectual resignation. At the same time, with combat live-streamed on the internet, and news bulletins on the injured or dead, on patches of ground gained or lost, on cities under siege or weapons deployed (most recently, “the mother of all bombs” dropped on Afghanistan), war is endlessly repeated and over-familiar. Under these circumstances, as Terrell’s editor warned, finding a readership for a war novel can prove difficult.

The books on this subject that have proved popular, selling in their millions in America, are those that publishers call ‘kill memoirs’ – tales of exploits in battle in the ‘authentic’ voice of an army veteran. The most notorious of these is probably Carnivore, co-authored by Sergeant Dillard Johnson, whose claim of a KIA (killed in action) rate of 2,764 dead Iraqis, trumpeted by his publisher, has been disputed. Despite their popularity, many soldiers, and war reporters such as Terrell, have instead chosen to write fictions that bear witness to the experience of war while complicating the one-sided bravado of the kill-and-tell accounts. These novels and stories have appeared in two waves: what distinguishes the latest batch from earlier works such as Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012), or Phil Klay’s powerful story collection, Redeployment (2014), is the desire to broaden the picture. So Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, both published this year, give the lead role to female soldiers. Similarly, they make serious efforts to incorporate the voice of the “enemy” – a late recognition of John Berger’s decree that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”. In Spoils, side by side with the story of an American soldier, there is that of a jihadi who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya before ending up in Iraq; in The Good Lieutenant, a deaf Sunni man and his Shia friend play pivotal roles. Roy Scranton devoted a part of his excoriating novel, War Porn (2016) to the life of an Iraqi mathematician caught up in the war; while Elliot Ackerman goes further still, making the ambiguous figure of an Iraqi interpreter into the central character of Dark at the Crossing (2017). His novel concentrates not on the action of war, but on the refugees and the NGO workers who gather at its edges – in a Turkish park full of rough-sleeping doctors and architects; on a roadside near the Syrian border where abandoned kids sell lighters, mints, their own bodies, anything to put food in their bellies or catch a ride out of limbo.

Whitney Terrell

The Good Lieutenant takes place in 2006. Its central figure is Emma Fowler, a working class midwesterner, suffering from guilt over a brother she was forced to mother from a young age, and has now left behind. Recruited into the army, she begins an affair with a fellow sergeant, a middle class man called Pulowski, who is fond of advising her how to assert authority over a platoon of men who – because of her homilies about looking out for one another – have taken to calling her “Family Values”. It’s an unlikely nickname but it sets up the tension Terrell wants to explore between the military’s rules, hierarchies, technological and linguistic abstractions, and its codes of honour and fraternity, which Fowler clings to and tries to inculcate in her men.

In contrast to the quagmire that Fowler inhabits – judging what amounts to “illegal crap… pulled” by other officers, finding the line between self-preserving and trigger-happy soldiers, negotiating the gender and class wars that carry on inside the military one – Terrell writes well about the simple pleasures of sex. These scenes are a reminder of the playfulness and vulnerability of the body, of all that the violence of war can eradicate in one explosive moment. Which brings us to the inevitable ending where The Good Lieutenant begins, with a reconnaissance mission gone awry after a soldier’s kidnap, with Fowler holding Pulowski’s bleeding body in her arms, and with “Family Values” now a justification for the laying waste of anyone outside the Family. By The Good Lieutenant’s last act, having got to know something of their story, we feel for the Iraqis – one is “innocent”, a fan of American films and its images of freedom, the other in cahoots with the enemy. For all this, it’s hard not to feel that their their torture and killing is made instrumental to the real tragedy of the book: the corruption of Emma Fowler.

As in Terrell’s novel, Van Reet disrupts the chronology of his story. Spoils opens in 2003, with a mortar attack on American troops at a roundabout in Iraq, before ranging back over two years leading up to the event, and then progressing to the eight weeks in which their fate is determined. Like Emma Fowler, Specialist Cassandra Wigheard (another young, white, working class midwestener) joins an army that is full of “mixed messages”: soldiers are indoctrinated about their mission as great liberators while training to ironic ditties about slaughter: “Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue. Then pulled out my knife and democratized the other two.” After her truck is hit, Wigheard is kidnapped with two male soldiers by a group of mujahideen, who hide their prisoners in a disused factory. Among the captors is Abu Al-Hool, an Egpytian growing weary of war and wrestling with his faith; Dr Walid, one of the new Islamist ideologues, encouraging the filming of prisoners’ executions; and a young Yemeni recruit who the older men compete over, each trying to pull him over to their way of thinking.

Brian Van Reet

Imprisoned in a lightless cell, Wigheard emerges as the toughest of kidnapped soldiers, tapping on the wall to check on her comrades, building a relationship with the young Yemeni guard, and surviving even when she is cast out into an animal pen because of her periods. But as Van Reet makes clear her resilience is in large part just a product of youth: the adult fear of death makes taking the risks necessary to win a ground war “too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a closeted suicide or a teenager.” Finally there is Sergeant Sleed, who provides one of the novel’s most arresting scenes when he and a renegade group break into one of Saddam’s golden palaces in search of trophies. But as in The Good Lieutenant, the spoils of war refer to more than bounty: like Emma Fowler, Wigheard suffers a cruel fate, but this time, the pity of her lost youth is joined with that of someone from the other side – the young Yemeni, who dies with his hand in hers.

Like many earlier Iraq novels, The Good Lieutenant and Spoils focus on contemplative soldiers who believe in the ultimate rightness of their mission, while being aware of the lies and rottenness of war – often showing them in opposition to more jingoistic and gung-ho figures. But whatever their political or intellectual stripe, all the soldiers in these stories ironize their situation (when Pulowski and Fowler are photographed outside the army HQ, he jokes: “Say WMD!”), and this irony is quietist, reinforcing their lack of agency and making them more dependent on the military machine. Terrell’s and Van Reet’s attempts to enlarge the story are significant, but as Scranton has argued of the preponderance of novels about the post 9/11 wars, they still fail to address the broader question of responsibility. This leaves the reader’s sympathy with soldiers on the ground who remain victims of a situation where “everything is going to shit too fast to believe”, the deaths they perpetrate, exonerated or subsumed by the ethical dilemmas which they face. In the summer of 2016, exasperated by this state of affairs, Scranton took to Twitter: “You know what would be awesome? More veterans whining about how nobody understands the moral complexity of being an imperial stormtrooper.”

Elliott Ackerman, however, has evaded this trap. As an ex-soldier who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently as a war correspondent in Syria, perhaps his more varied experience has afforded him a broader perspective. If he does not directly address the Scranton question of who is ultimately responsible, he does expand the focus to think about the war’s effects beyond the site of battle. Death at the Crossing tells the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi made guilty by his time as a translator for the American army, who has moved to Michigan before returning to the Middle East with the idea of fighting for the Free Syrian Army. He lands up in Turkey, and makes a failed attempt to cross the border, but is ripped off by a Daesh operative. Without money or wherewithal Haris hangs around the border – one of the ephemeral spaces that war creates, filled with plastic tarpaulins, sagging tents, impromptu cafes, shipping containers, satellite dishes, and scrawny kids who fight to stay alive by ganging together, adults who give up and lay down by the wayside.

Elliot Ackerman

Picked up by Amir, a former Syrian revolutionary now conducting research into the border kids for an NGO, Haris is taken to Antep where Amir has an apartment. Since the euphoria of revolution turned into the despair of war, Amir has struggled with his beliefs. Worse than this, he is plagued by guilt because a group of fighters he allowed into the basement of his daughter’s nursery, accidentally blew up the building, resulting, in all probability, in her death. Despite this, Amir’s beautiful, wife, Daphne, made crazy by her loss, and not knowing for certain what happened, is determined to return to Syria to search for her. These three displaced adults inhabit a circle of sexual attraction, but even this life-force is not strong enough to break down their individual isolation and doubt. Rather than irony, the tone here is one of futility, a sense that no one in the vicinity of war can escape its deathly pull. When Harris and Daphne finally cross back into Syria, paying a Daesh member to take them, they are now so morally compromised that they pick up one of the young border boys, Jamil, who wants to become a fighter, simply because he can navigate the way. Arriving at Daesh’s headquarters inside Syria, they find a wall covered with pictures of martyrs. But Haris notes that martyrdom is not about sacrifice, as Americans think: “The literal meaning was ‘he who bears witness’… Haris considered Amir, Daphne and even Jamil. Watching them, he no longer felt like a voyeur in their war – he was their witness.” It is unclear how Haris can be their witness, except at a metatextual level where the statement can be read as a declaration of the novel’s extension of interest and sympathy.

Perhaps Scranton’s complaint against soldiers who focus on their own involvement in these wars, failing to envisage a larger context, should more properly be levelled against non-combatant writers. As if to reassure us about the dearth of American fiction that engages the bigger picture, many critics have cited the argument that the ‘best’ war novels are only produced long after the event. But there have already been a welter of post 9/11 novels from the big beasts of American literature (including works by DeLillo, Franzen, MacInerney, Messud, Pynchon, Safron Foer and Updike). These, however, have all concentrated on the effects on what American politicians like to call “the homeland”; none have addressed the havoc wreaked on other countries. This, perhaps, is a sign of the parochialism of the American imagination, its failure to consider the wider world, or at least to imagine the consequence of its actions for the “other side”.

Boualem Sansal, 2084: The End of the World (translated by Alison Anderson). Europa Editions – TLS


Two things we can say for certain about the troubled times we live in: art and literature are once more being viewed in the light of politics, and these complex, often convulsive politics are throwing up strange bedfellows, complicating the act of interpretation. Take the Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, and the American President, Donald Trump, for instance, and the warnings both men have issued about Islamic fundamentalism. In Sansal’s dystopian novel, 2084: The End of the World, (unabashedly based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), the narrator wonders how he can reach back in time to warn people about the catastrophe of totalitarianism that is about to befall them. Set in a future when the clocks have stopped, and following a Great Holy War, an authoritarian theocracy (resembling ISIS, though never named as such) has taken control of the planet. Abistan is now the only country in existence, Abilang, the only language spoken. Religious pilgrimages traverse mountains and deserts but like many other aspects of life, the country’s geography, “so vast and so thoroughly unknown”, remains obscure; obligatory prayers are held nine times a day, and public executions and stonings keep the masses bowed down. The ignorance of history, deleted from Abistan’s official records, or of any other way of life, has created willing adherents to the creed of “Submission”. Only a few artefacts remain from some unacknowledged prior existence and these are hidden in a secret museum called the “Louvre”.

A few days after the publication of Sansal’s novel in English, an Egyptian fundamentalist – as if from some alt-right playbook, wielding a machete and shouting “Allahu Akbar” – assaulted soldiers guarding the real-life Louvre. President Trump issued a warning on social media: “A new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum…GET SMART U.S.”, and as an afterthought: “We must keep ‘evil’ out of our country!” Sansal, who has described the collective effort of North African writers as the “struggle to free ourselves from evil and archaic dictatorship”, has been on a list of banned authors in Algeria since 2006, but in France his work has been lauded: 2084 won the Académie Francaise’s Grand Prix du Roman, and Michel Houellebecq praised Sansal for going further than he had dared to in Submission (2015), his controversial novel imagining an Islamic France. In Paris recently, Sansal gave a lecture to journalists: the French are acting like “useful idiots”, he told them, pandering to Islamists who are akin to Nazis and in the process of taking over their country.

Sansal’s speech seemed like a howl of pain from a man who has seen his country transfigured by Islamisation: once his home town had one mosque, now there are eleven, and he has watched non-religious friends become pious and conformist. But his appeal to the superiority of a secular and modernist France comes at a time when racist, anti-Muslim feeling is rising: Marine Le Pen – who herself said the spread of Islam in France was akin to Nazis occupation – may soon be elected President. Such a climate means that translators of fiction have to think, more than usually, long and hard about the inflections they give to any story. As Elisabeth Jaquette, the English translator of Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2016) – another dystopian novel examining the way Islam is used by the state to bolster its own power – told me: “In a country like Egypt, where Islam is the state religion, writing against a Muslim regime is writing against state authority; in the US/UK, it plays into prevailing Islamophobic narratives.” Alison Anderson’s deft and intelligent translation of 2084 from its original French into English, helps to overcome such binary thinking by conveying Sansal’s abhorrence of a system that controls people’s minds, while explaining that the system was not originally evil but has been corrupted: “an inner malfunction in an ancient religion which had once brought honour and happiness to many great tribes…its workings had been broken by the violent, discordant use that had been made of it over the centuries, and this had been aggravated by the absence of competent repairmen or attentive guides.” In the current political context of fear-mongering and obfuscation, and of competing arguments about the free play of the imagination versus the need to defend the bullied or traduced, the challenge for readers is to encounter texts from other countries without prejudice or complicity, or at least to recognise when these might be in play.

Boualem Sansal

Ati, the protagonist of 2084, wrestles with his dawning non-belief. At a mountain sanatorium where he goes to recover from tuberculosis (one of many intertextual references to Orwell), he becomes obsessed with the “legend of the border”, something that if found would belie Abistan’s claim of global domination. He makes illegal journeys to the ghetto, to “Abigov”, the centre of power, and is finally taken to a compound where the “Louvre” museum is housed. In all these places he finds different ways of living and hears other languages spoken. Abistan, he learns, is a religio-corporate empire whose rulers, the Just Brotherhood, plot against one another over the pilgrimages’ commercial concessions. Yet he remains credulous, failing to read the signs when he first meets the museum’s curator, and recognise that he is a double agent. By the time he understands this, Ati has made a deal, agreeing to entrap one side of the feuding Brotherhood to help another’s bid for power in return for safe passage to the mountains.

The Machiavellian figure behind this operation bears some resemblance to O’Brien in 1984, but unlike Winston Smith, Ati’s collaboration does not require torture. Sansal forgoes what Stephen Spender called Smith’s “total conditioning”, and the absolutism of tragedy for something more in keeping with his faith in modernity and pluralism. At the culmination of Sansal‘s moving and cautionary story, Sansal dispenses with the totemic moment of Ati’s betrayal in favour of a hurried synopsis. The novel ends with quarrelling messages from different factions of the state. The final report of a man in the mountains searching for the border reveals the regime’s false news, or doublespeak, opening under pressure to multiple readings, and thus to a glimmer of hope: “If the border does not exist, and that is certain, its legend does and is still growing.”

Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege. Tuskar Rock; Ninety-Nine Stories of God. Tin House – TLS


“Was it only a dream that Literature was once dangerous, that it had the power to awaken and change us?”, Joy Williams wondered recently in an unpublished essay. Among her peers, Williams’s attempt to put language to work in this way, to make it shake us from complacency, has won the admiration of writers as various as Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Edmund White, Chuck Palahniuk, George Saunders and Don DeLillo. She has written four novels featuring oddballs and discontents, and two non-fiction works – one, a sort of anti-tourism book about the Florida Keys, the other an ecological polemic, Ill Nature (2001). But the bulk of praise has been for her oblique and acerbic short stories, and her skill in conveying something beyond or below their frame, making darkness visible, or at least tangibly felt. Many have now been collected in The Visiting Privilege, together with some new stories. Written over the last forty years, these unconsoling tales (“There is no happy ending”, one character warns) lay bare the disturbed psyche of America. Cumulatively they seem to foreworn of the derangement we are witnessing in the age of Trump, the loss of proportion and propriety, and a vast carelessness, even about the truth. Beginning in ordinary circumstances her stories often lurch into something more sinister or perverse, presenting solipsistic individuals, environmental decimation, cruelty to animals, and an uncertain sense of what constitutes reality. The ‘Visiting Privilege’ of the title story, like the ‘Honoured Guest’ of another, intimates that man’s stay on earth is temporary and on sufferance – an idea that rebukes our habit of exploitation, but also sets the limits of our freedom. The question of who or what we have exhausted – God, other species, the environment, or maybe the author herself – and what we might have to forfeit as a result, looms in them all.

The short story still has a privileged place in American literary culture, finding a home in prestigious magazines such as the New Yorker, the Paris Review or Esquire where Williams’ husband, L. Rust Hills, was literary editor for many years, and it is taught on creative writing programmes where these days a sizeable portion of American writers learn their craft. The appeal for the neophyte lies in the story’s evident constraints, which can make it a more visible ‘turn’ than the novel, a form for showing off (something George Plimpton once castigated Williams for). And its principal subject is perhaps the biggest one of all. If the novel is pre-eminently concerned with time, and what we do inside it, the short story’s subject is time ending, and how we face death. Not by accident is one of the greatest story collections called The Dead.

Perhaps it is the story’s deathly cast which makes the form resonate so strongly in America: its shifts in gear or sudden revelations alerting us to the fact that life is never stable or safe; and its brevity warning that the end is always nigh, or just around the corner – especially in a country where, as Williams observes, opportunities for death proliferate with every new six-lane highway. Williams’ mastery of the form stems in part from her understanding of this. Her epigraph to The Visiting Privilege is from Corinthians: “we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”; and her most frequent character, showing up in over half of these stories, more frequently still in the later ones, is Death. The endpapers to The Visiting Privilege show a supremely American image of a group of people in a convertible driving breezily towards their fate. While in the book’s culminating moment, in the final story, ‘Craving’, a couple, who like nothing better than to drink and drive, abandon their effort to sober up in various rented rooms and motels, and head out to the road to flirt with death, playing their favourite game of tailgating, “teasing” the car ahead, before coming to an inevitable bad end.


For Williams, death, in its infinite variety, is the great deconstructor, pulling apart the ordered reality we cling to and exposing it as a sham or delusion, or at the very least as more furtive and strange than is generally acknowledged. For instance, in ‘Marabou’ a mother’s funeral for her drug addicted son begins with a kind of benevolent comradeship as his friends turn up and share their memories, but the wake descends quickly into unsettling territory and the story ends with first one and then several of the friends returning to her house and refusing to go away. In ‘The Honoured Guest’, another mother, “condemned” with cancer finds the torment of its slow progression brings her daughter to the verge of suicide. In both, someone tells a tale about the cruel or bizarre treatment of an animal – metaphors that serve to emphasise human beastliness – and in both, speech becomes inchoate and threatening: “Words at night were feral things”, the dying mother thinks, vowing not to speak after dark. But as so often happens in Williams’ stories, communication breaks down into angry or bemused non-sequiturs, painting a vast aloneness and inadequacy, particularly in the face of death. One tale that conveys a rare degree of compassion in this astringent collection, ‘The Mother Cell’, concerns a group of women, all mothers of killers, who have come together unwittingly, as if drawn magnetically to the same spot on the map. Their talk is declamatory and disjointed, but in their shared predicament this is tolerated, expected even, as if in their situation only ruptured conversation is fitting. In the same way, there is collective agreement that seeking redemption would be tasteless. More often, though, Williams’ characters struggle to come to terms with one another and are oddly affectless and blind to the people around them. There are several stories where the death or sickness of others is treated as an occasion for self-aggrandisement, a chance to play a starring role in the proceedings, often with an underlying violence to those people the characters in question are purporting to help.

But despite such mordancy, nearly everything Williams’ writes is laced with comedy – for the writer, death’s silver lining. In her novel I’m Dying Laughing, Christina Stead (an author much admired by Williams) identified the character of this humour, both disturbing and disabusing, of which Williams is such an expert: “American humour is another way of seeing the truth; and what a vision!…it is homespun, godlike truth stalking in from the plains and the tall timber, coonskin and deerhide, with a gun to disturb our little home comforts.” Many of the stories in The Visiting Privilege not directly concerned with the Grim Reaper are enlivened by just such a scything humour. Williams’ narrators are experts at cutting people down to size: “Martha is a comfy woman with a nice complexion but her hair is the colour of pork”; “She had corn kernels in her teeth, but apart from that she was the very picture of an exasperated woman.” Her humour can suggest aberration: “I saw an odd thing there in the mountains. I saw my father pretending to be lame”; or veer into something more sinister: “He goes at her without turning on the light. ‘I didn’t want to wake you up’, he says”. Often it turns on dehumanisation or the difficulty of acting naturally, as if we have forgotten how to behave, even in the most basic human relationships: “It is hard to know how to act when one is with the child, alone.”

This dark comedy is even more in evidence in Ninety-Nine Stories of God, a book of vignettes modelled on Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator (1997). These comprise amusing, shocking or unexpected tales, like the fait divers beloved of nineteenth century French newspapers, as well as philosophical statements or speculations, and many brief pieces in which the Lord is brought down to earth – their humour deriving from incongruity (the Lord adopting a turtle, the Lord giving a dinner party), or from mortals failing to recognise His omnipotence. In story 99, Williams distils the preoccupations of her oeuvre: inadequate human beings struggling to understand the mystery of life, death and a reclusive God. Here, the Lord is in Maine, in the messy home of a psychic who is trying, but failing, to see Him: “this can’t be that unusual”, she thinks. But then she has an epiphany. Maybe the point is not to see Him, but to “go directly to the questions most everyone had and visualise from there. What’s going to happen after I’m dead?”

From early in her career Williams was making notes about the human disinclination to take responsibility or to pay for one’s pleasure: “They loved jumping off the cliff but…but they hated the climb back up”, says the narrator of ‘Taking Care’. By the latter stages, however, inertia has turned into intransigence. So a man attending a church meeting week after week looks down at a paper-clip wedged in the cracks of the floorboards, and wonders why it hasn’t been cleared away, but never picks it up. And a woman seeing a postcard she can’t remember displaying in her kitchen, of a city she doesn’t like, decides, perversely, she has “no intention of taking it down”. It’s in these details as well as in the bigger, showier battles with death, violence and environmental harm, that Williams illuminates the darkness in America where, rather than action, selfishness and stubborn refusal have become the hallmarks of resistance. Perhaps this is what Williams means when she says “I write out of a sense of guilt…There’s not enough guilt around these days for my taste”. She has even wondered if over-attention to the self, “this obsessional looking at the human [might] bring about the death of literature”. For Williams self-absorption is inextricably linked to the contemporary shoulder shrug, the ‘whatever’ attitude she fears is not just killing the great enquiry of literature but dehumanising mankind. In the collection’s final story, ‘Craving’, the car crash finale is brought about by something the drunk, careless couple seem to have conjured from their own squandering destructiveness. Another car smashes into them, a deliberate act by a driver who seems, terrifyingly, to be less than human: “Then whatever was driving it slammed on the brakes.”

“I believe that God is (and must be) a transcendent presence in any work of art”, Williams has said, but exasperated by her fellow Americans, wreckless and profligate, driven by death wish, she seems to doubt whether a work of art can accommodate them. She is now working on a novel set in the desert which will depict “species unknown, species never seen”.

This review appeared in the TLS, titled ‘Death Driven’, on 16.12.2016.

Ali Smith, Autumn. Hamish Hamilton – Spectator


Ali Smith is that rare thing in Britain: a much-beloved experimental writer. Part of her attraction for readers is that she continually connects formal innovation and the freedom to reinvent a story with the freedom to reinvent the self. It’s a beguiling proposition that can make liberation seem like a matter of style. Following the success last year of How To Be Both, the most dazzling and accomplished of her novels, Smith planned to write a long-gestated novel quartet, its four volumes reflecting successive seasons – an idea that would allow her to pursue her fascination with what is perhaps the novel’s greatest subject: time. But the times overtook her, and the events of 2016 turned Autumn, the first of her intended novels, from a farce in an antique shop into a meditation on the upheavals of Brexit.

Autumn opens by acknowledging that it is a tale, one, which like all tales, is influenced by others and fashioned in part from their language. “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times”, Smith begins, and once again, “things. They fall apart”. From the imaginative place Christina Stead once called the Ocean of Story, and Salman Rushdie, the Sea of Story, a figure emerges, washing up on some unknown shore. He is a literary figure trailing the memories of Odysseus and Crusoe in his wake, who questions everything (is he dead or alive?) and keeps changing shape, morphing from nakedness to leaf-dressed Green Man, from old age to youth. Daniel Gluck is his name and he recalls a life of good fortune, of being lucky through the accidents of time. But as he strolls along the beach to discover what kind of world he has landed in, Gluck finds the corpses of children lying close by holiday-makers sunning themselves under parasols. Something is amiss here: in more ways than one the times are out of joint.

From these dreamlike beginnings, Smith’s novel jumps into a prosaic world where Elizabeth Demand keeps vigil at Gluck’s bedside as he lies unconscious in a care home, hovering at death’s door. A refugee from fascism in Europe, Gluck was once a neighbour who befriended her in lonely adolescence. Watching him now, she thinks back over this vital relationship in which he opened up the world of art to her. The rest of her time is spent queuing for a passport in a soon-to-be-closed-down Post Office, battling with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that seems determined to stop those unhappy about Brexit from leaving the country. She also visits her mother who lives in an English village where the mood is turning sour. People glower at strangers on the street, someone has daubed “Go Home” across the front of a house, and a faceless company erects a giant fence around a patch of common land. Meanwhile her mother, in the grip of nostalgia, obsesses about an antiques TV show. This is England 2016, Smith tells us: narrow, suspicious and backward-looking. As the three parts of her book progress through the season’s three months, the political climate darkens with the weather.

Pauline Boty, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962

Pauline Boty, With Love to Jean Paul Belmondo, 1962

Against this all too familiar gloom, Smith offers ideas about the moral value of art. In How To Be Both she argued for the inherent “friendliness” of narrative, here (drawing on The Odyssey) she makes a demand for “hospitable” stories. And where in the former novel she lionised the swinging Sixties and the young, free and stylish women of the French pop scene, so here the figure of hope is another Sixties figure, the similarly young and glamorous pop art painter, Pauline Boty, discussing in particular her portrait of Jean-Paul Belomondo with a huge open rose on his head. It is clear that Smith is emphasising the delight and openness of art, its ability to hearten and fortify us in difficult times. But is this enough? The unease in Autumn stems not just from troubling signs of a nation becoming more divisive and cruel, but from a writer looking to aesthetics as a salve for ugliness in politics. The final demand of the book, the demand of art, is that we pay greater attention – in this case to a “wide-open rose” still blooming in the depths of November: “Look at the colour of it”. But it feels as if Smith has failed to do precisely this, to look hard enough at what’s novel in the Brexit situation, what might disturb well-trodden narratives, relying instead on the consolations of art.

This review appeared in the Spectator as ‘Things Fall Apart‘ on 19.11.2016.

Songs of Freedom: Rock Against Racism


When Syd Shelton recently published his photographs from Rock Against Racism, full of the drama and intensity of the times, I joined him and the critic Paul Gilroy, at Autograph Gallery in the East End of London to discuss the RAR years.

Forty years later, among all the theories advanced about its origins and politics, one glaring fact about RAR is often forgotten: at its root was the shared love of music. This is why thinking about the performers who appeared on our stages, and the music they played there, seemed like the best way to cut through the arguments and get to the heart of RAR. Syd, Paul and I each selected three tracks that in some way epitomized the era. What follows are a reflections on the music I chose, and on my involvement with a movement that interrogated the past, prefigured future networking organisation, and celebrated the turbulent era we were living through with – as Syd’s photographs attest – passion, style and commitment

Track 1.         Winter of ‘79Tom Robinson Band (1977)

There are many songs that convey the wild and apocalyptic imagination of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain – the pervasive sense of urgency and danger, of state violence and fascist threat – but Tom Robinson’s ‘Winter of ‘79’ differs from others in treating the moment historically. Written in 1977, the song predicts an uprising in 1979 and then looks back at the insurrection from a time in the future when a world-weary activist addresses a new generation: “All you kids who just sit and whine, you should have been there back in ’79, You say we’re giving you a real hard time, you guys are really breaking my heart”. Robinson’s prophecies weren’t far off the mark: the next few years would see tanks in Belfast, bombs in London, and riots in cities up and down the country. Like many of the period’s best songs, his catch the jittery mood on the streets. You can hear it especially in ‘Long Hot Summer’, which was inspired by the Stonewall riots, and in the shifting allegiances of ‘Up Against the Wall’, where he confronts his audience with the question: “Just whose side are you on?”

Robinson wasn’t alone in his sense of foreboding, further warnings of collapse can be heard in the songs of many other bands who played for RAR: in the Clash’s ‘London Calling’, Aswad’s ‘Judgement Day’, the Ruts’ ‘Babylon’s Burning’, Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘State of Emergency‘, and, most potently perhaps, in the weird atmospherics of the Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’. On the verge of Thatcherism and the neo-liberal takeover of the world, much of the music of this pivotal moment records the sound of a country breaking apart, of old communities dying and new ones struggling to be born. And it’s importnat to remember that pop music hadn’t yet been fully assimilated into capitalism, it was a playground the young still had largely to themselves, which meant these songs rang out like warning shots fired across a radio that no one in authority was listening to.

Tom was the first person who made me think about how you could link people together under the radar. Something of a graphomaniac, he wrote long letters to his fans, connecting them to one another. In the winter of 1977 I was seventeen, working in the hat and glove department of Debenhams on Oxford Street, and looking for people to share my anger with. He put me in touch with two Jewish schoolgirls from Camden who called themselves Scruf and Scruff; Karen, a stylish secretary, the daughter of East European immigrants; Alan, who was serving in the army in Northern Ireland and being tormented by other soldiers for his love of punk; Patsy, the daughter of West Indian immigrants who was working as a back-up singer; and a razor-sharp Irish girl who went by the name of Anna Gram, and lived on the estate behind my mum and dad’s house in Clapham. Anna approached me on the Northern line one day, my badges giving out a signal, demanding to know if I was the Irate Kate that Tom Robinson had written to her about.

Patsy, Anna, Karen and Scruff at the RAR Carnival, Victoria Park, 1978 (c) John Sturrock

Not long after this happened, decanted early from work one evening because of another IRA bomb threat, I walked out of Debenhams and made my way over to the East End where RAR were a holding a meeting. I remember being embarrassed by my boring work clothes as I descended into a basement of noisy punks, socialists, writers, photographers and graphic designers, most of them a decade or so older than me. By the end of the evening I was so fired up by their heady talk (they discussed Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandra Kollontai and Kurt Weill as if they were old friends), that I chucked in my job and volunteered to become RAR’s first full-time worker.

Red Saunders, the man who dreamed up RAR after Eric Clapton’s racist outburst in Birmingham, donated desk space I could use in his Soho photographic studio. Every morning I’d walk up Great Windmill Street as elaborately painted women pushed chairs out in front of the sex shops, smoked and drank espressos, and waited for the day’s punters to slink in. At the studio, the photographers put out their paraphernalia – maybe a wind-machine for a glossy Sunday Times portrait of Kate Bush – and I’d set to answering the letters that had begun to pour in from across the country. We quickly outgrew our spot in Soho and with the money coming in – school kids’ pennies sellotaped together, the odd fiver from a supportive vicar, tenners from the anarchist bookshop stocking RAR’s innovative poster-magazine, Temporary Hoarding – we could afford a room in Clerkenwell, not far from the Marx Memorial library. Here the operation got a little more sophisticated: the RAR office became the hub and contact point for a much larger group of people and activities.

Ruth Gregory and Darla Gilroy on the cover of TH.

By day I’d liaise with the now elected RAR committee and the rapidly increasing number of RAR groups in the UK and abroad, communicate with bands and their managers, send out press releases, gestetner newsletters, order new badges and stickers, encourage people to write reviews and reports for Temporary Hoarding, pay bills, draw up agendas, and talk to other groups with whom we often collaborated (the campaign against the Corrie anti-abortion Bill, the Right to Work marchers, and CURB, who organised against violent bouncers). By night we’d run letter-writing sessions, often working into the dawn with a gang of volunteers – teenagers, like my sister Jo and her friends, skiving from school; shop assistants, machine operators and secretaries bunking off work. We’d all squeeze into RAR’s tiny office, sackfuls of mail strewn around the floor. From the letters flooding in it was evident that there was a nation of kids out there, bored out of their minds, and horrified by the spectre of the National Front marching on their high streets. They described living in nowhere towns and suburbs that closed down at seven o’clock, aching for a life less parochial. What they wanted was the glamour of dissident art and radical ideas – a new world they tried to fathom by listening to John Peel late into the night or reading James Baldwin under the covers by torchlight.

RAR became a network before we knew what a network was. We told these kids: here are the addresses of other music fans in your area, set up a RAR group, design a poster, put on a gig, write your own fanzine, and challenge the local National Front. We told them anyone could do it and wrote step-by-step Gig Guides showing them how. And in Temporary Hoarding, the Mekons  published an article explaining how to build your own PA system, while the Au Pairs described how they recorded their first single by borrowing their mum and dad’s holiday money. The explosion of punk and reggae meant that there were bands all over the country hungry for gigs. And there was massive energy and frustration everywhere you turned, which RAR tapped into and transformed into action.

(Clockwise) Tom, Jo, Karen, Scruf, Scruff & Kate - in a Glasgow launderette, 1979.

(Clockwise) Tom, Jo, Karen, Scruf, Scruff & Kate in a launderette during the TRB/Stiff Little Fingers tour, 1978 (c) Syd Shelton

As well as organising our own gigs, tours and carnivals, RAR took a stall round the country when the TRB went out on the road. The band dressed like the school kids they sang about, “sullen, unhealthy and mean”, and Tom had 302.0 stencilled on his shirt. This was the code for homosexuality in the World Health Organisation’s classification of diseases – something he’d been alerted to by Paul Furness, a key RAR activist, who worked in the Records Office of Leeds General Infirmary. One of the characteristics that marked Robinson out from many of his contemporaries was that along with his insolence and irony in songs like ‘Glad to be Gay’ (“The British police are the best in the world…”), he also understood, instinctively, the importance of bringing people together. It was not enough to complain about discrimination against gays if you ignored what was happening to your “brothers in Brixton, backs to the wall”. Racism, sexism and homophobia – these things were all part of the same problem, and we would sink or swim together.

For RAR, too, solidarity was the watchword. As David Widgery, the East End doctor who wrote so passionately for Temporary Hoarding, argued in an article on colonialism: “there’s no us without them“. This is why Robinson was so important to RAR, a movement dedicated to routing racism, but also to exploring a much broader cultural politics. He understood how to express and channel anger, but he was also hugely charismatic and convivial – something you can see in Syd’s great shot of him at the first RAR carnival in Victoria Park. Tom is facing the audience, back to the camera, his arms wide open, embracing the crowd.


Track 2.        Oh Bondage, Up Yours!X-Ray Spex (1978)

This was the moment when women got bored of being fans or groupies and started taking to the stage. There were all-girl bands like the Slits, the Raincoats, 15.16.17, and the Bodysnatchers; women who fronted otherwise male groups such as The Selector; or mixed groups such as the Au Pairs. Many of these were tribal, slotting into the already-established indie, ska or lovers rock scenes. But X-Ray Spex’s singer, Poly Styrene, couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Part Somali, part Scottish-Irish, she was like the advance party for the new self that was going to reinvent Britain. And her music was equally idiosyncratic. She captured the spirit of the time like no one else. Poly got started, as many others did, after seeing a shambolic, end-of-the-pier Pistols gig, and deciding she’d like to have a go herself. That was the basic punk DNA — an egalitarian anyone-can-do-it, but you had to have swagger. It was a defiant attitude that boasted (as Angela Carter once described Louise Brooks’s manner): “This is me. Now show me what you can do.”

In ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, Poly moves between two voices: the masochist “Bind me, Tie me”, and the refusenik “Up Yours!”. She began by talking in an excruciatingly coy voice: “Some people say that little girls should be seen and not heard”, then yelled out, “but I say, Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”, and the music kicked in. It was a declaration of war: and whether you read this as a women saying she was tired of the sexist shit and wasn’t going to take it any longer, or more broadly as a cry against all the ties that bind, Poly was here to tell us she had something to say and was going to be heard. But her sense of herself as a performer also says a lot about the aesthetic of punk. As she indicated repeatedly in interview, she didn’t think of herself as a tortured artist writing about her own suffering, but as someone who was playing with ideas and words, sending up clichés and unexamined dogma. So when X-Ray Spex played at the first RAR carnival, Poly appeared sartorially resplendent in a twinset, as if in pastiche of Margaret Thatcher. But she refashioned the archetypal English look, combining her tweeds with dayglo socks and an African headscarf.


X-Ray Spex, RAR Carnival, Victoria Park, 1978.

Punk is often been characterized as angry or nihilistic, and there are still endless arguments about its origins and purity: were you early enough on the scene, were you authentically English or, as John Lydon accused others, singing in an American drawl, imitating Jamaican patois? In fact, like some of the best reggae, its main mode was reportage of under-reported lives and places. RAR acts like The Members vividly evoked ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, Steel Pulse announced a ‘Handsworth Revolution’, while John Cooper Clarke, appearing at the Northern RAR Carnival in Manchester, was scathing about the misery and tedium of much everyday life: “The bloody train is bloody late, You bloody wait you bloody wait, You’re bloody lost and bloody found, Stuck in fucking chicken town”.

But as Poly Styrene demonstrated, anger wasn’t the only mode; there was parody, too. The Clash had a nice line in skewering capitalist commodification in songs like ‘Lost in the Supermarket‘, as did the Gang of Four in ‘Damaged Goods‘ (“I can’t work, I can’t achieve, Send me back”), and X-Ray Spex in ‘Warrior in Woolworths’, or the sweetly melancholic, ‘GermFree Adolescents’. Other bands dragged up in the clothes of the oppressor: Robinson sometimes appeared on stage dressed as a policeman, while Steel Pulse donned long white robes for their protest song, ‘Ku Klux Klan’, which they played in an electric performance at the first RAR carnival.

Steel Pulse, RAR Carnival, Victoria Park, 1978

When Poly sang about ‘Identity’ she wasn’t talking about her own, but the idea of it as something manufactured: “Did you do it before you read about it?”, she mocks. There’s a sophistication here which was evident among many of the bands who played for RAR and RAS (Rock Against Sexism): groups like the Gang of Four, the Mekons and the Au Pairs. RAS was the brainchild of another Temporary Hoarding writer, Lucy Toothpaste. She was also a member of the RAR committee, alongside Syd, Red, Widgery, TH editors and designers, Ruth Gregory and Roger Huddle; photographer and banner-maker, Robert Galvin; myself, John Dennis and Wayne Minter – who both joined me at the RAR office. (After death threats and a letter bomb, our operations moved to Cable Street and then to Finsbury Park.)

RAR had been keen to put women on our stages but Lucy rightly saw this wasn’t enough: the aim of RAS was to challenge sexism throughout the music industry. And this meant challenging the bands, too. In the Au Pairs interview she and I conducted for TH, and in another we worked on with the Gang of Four, she’s particularly interested in ideas of power, in dissecting the aggression that then characterized so much music, asking: what did it mean, was it necessary, and how might a woman utilize the power invested in her when she walked up to the microphone and took control of the stage?


Kate on RAR’s Militant Entertainment Tour, 1979 (c) Syd Shelton

Track 3.        Sonny’s Lettah – Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)

In one of the finest examples of the reportage song, Linton Kwesi Johnson brought us news from the front line, conveying just what it felt like to be an immigrant or the child of immigrants living in Britain. RAR supporters had seen how thuggishly the police behaved at Wood Green, Lewisham and Southall, where Blair Peach was killed, and at a succession of anti-NF demos, and these had been widely reported. But this LKJ song, or dub poem, described something the TV and newspapers weren’t talking about: attacks on individual black people, the casual, everyday assaults and insults meted out on the streets and in the back of police vans. ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ is about SUS –  the stop and search tactics the police started to deploy at this time under the cover of a nineteenth century law, the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Nearly forty years before the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, it revealed a commonplace cycle of police violence, followed by black people’s self-defence, then their criminalisation.

The singer, Sonny, finds his brother, Jim, picked up by the police and roughly handled: “Jim start to wriggle and the police start to giggle”. Sonny responds angrily and the incident ends with Jim charged with SUS and Sonny charged with murder. The whole thing, immaculately produced by Dennis Bovell, is told in epistolary form, in a letter sent from Brixton Prison to the brothers’ mother back home in the Caribbean. The song is notable for the way that it contrasts the deference and respect Sonny show to his mother with the brutality of the British police when someone challenges their authority. To this brutality, LKJ answered with militancy. ‘Fite Dem Back’, he proposed in another song, and, more pointedly, “We don’t rock against racism, we fight against it.”

The demand for respect, even in the midst of disobedience and insurrection, was something that the black community kept insisting on. Black people were not, as the police or politicians said, or the gutter press frequently reported, aliens or savages, but people with cultures and histories of their own. And reggae musicians often extolled their culture, expressing a determination to resist those who would deny or eradicate it. Dennis Bovell’s band, Matumbi, who performed at RAR’s first official gig, made just this point in a song called ‘Black Civilisation’. For many alienated white kids this was a new idea. If black people had a culture in which they took pride, what was white culture? What was whiteness? It made legible to them something that had previously been invisible. At the first RAR carnival the Clash sang a furious version of ‘White Riot‘, their response to this sudden realisation. They were abetted in this by Jimmy Pursey, the Sham 69 singer – a band with a significant National Front following. Pursey was incredibly loyal to his largely working class supporters and reluctant to tell them what they should think. But his appearance at the carnival confronted the racism among some of his fans, a stand underlined in a song he released shortly after, ‘If the Kids are United’: “Understand him, he’ll understand you, For you are him, and he is you”.


Slowly these values of respect, and of cultural curiosity and appreciation, injected something new into the anger of punk, shifting the way that a whole generation learned to talk to, listen to and live with one another. The moment when black and white musicians came together at the end of every RAR gig was nearly always achieved with a reggae jam, something celebratory and uplifting – sentiments largely unavailable in the disaffected vernacular of punk. This coming together, and the ecstasy of the crowd at many RAR gigs and carnivals – the joy in celebrating a togetherness that politicians from Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher kept denying – was most frequently orchestrated by one of England’s finest live bands, Misty in Roots. Misty often performed with the Ruts, stable mates on their co-operatively owned Southall record label, People Unite; with the TRB; with Elvis Costello at the second RAR Carnival in Brixton; but also, crucially, with Pursey and Sham 69. And when Clarence Baker, the singer from Misty was brutally beaten by the police during the Southall, putting him in a coma, RAR responded with two benefit concerts at the Rainbow called Southall Kids are Innocent, at which Aswad, the Clash, Misty, the Ruts, the Members, Bongo Danny, the Pop Group and Pete Townshend all played.


The final RAR Carnival at Leeds in 1981 featured the Specials. Like The Beat and UB40, they were a mixed-race band who had come up playing through the RAR clubs. Together on stage, they embodied everything RAR stood for. And in songs like ‘Doesn’t Make it Alright’, their lyricist, Jerry Dammers, addressed head-on the way that poverty and alienation led to prejudice and violence, telling their audience “it’s the worst excuse in the world”, but also suggesting a way out of the trap racism set for working class kids: “Just because you’re a black boy, Just because you’re a white, It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him, It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight.”

On the thirtieth anniversary of the first RAR carnival Jimmy Pursey expressed what many people involved in RAR and the music of this critical moment felt: “We are still depressed by the government, but we are not confused by our culture. Britain is a multi-cultural society and it always will be if I have anything to do with it.” That was a decade ago. Then, in the summer of ‘16, UKIP and Farage dominated the airwaves, bigotry went unchallenged on the BBC, Britain voted to turn itself back into an insular little country, and the blood of foreigners ran on our streets. Perhaps this winter we should be remembering the architect of punk, John Lydon, a man inspired and educated by his love of reggae, singing to us in ‘Rise’: “I could be black, I could be white”, and then repeating insistently, as if trying to instil the message: “Anger is an energy”. Forty years on from RAR, when the country is sleepwalking back into fantasies of racism and separation, we could do, once again, with some of that galvanising spirit.

RAR Carnival, Leeds 1981, John Sturrock

RAR Carnival, Leeds, 1981 (c) John Sturrock

This is a new version of one of 67 contributions to RAR Reminiscences: Rocking Against Racism 1977-1982, edited by Roger Huddle and Red Saunders, Redwords Publishing, 2016.

Hélène Cixous, Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of the Time: 1. Los, A Chapter; Death Shall be Dethroned: Los, A Chapter, The Journal (translated by Beverly Bie Brahic). Polity – TLS


“Clearly literature is never where you think. It is not in the story. It is in the elbows of the sentences…It is guarded, dissimulated, behind a piece of canvas, disseminated in the idiom…” For Hélène Cixous the elusiveness of literature has long been a badge of honour, something she has diagnosed in her criticism and perpetrated in her fiction over nearly half a century of writing. Her work has always explored what it means to be a writer, the prerequisite “state of without-me” necessary for an author to be inhabited by her characters. In turn, those who “possess” Cixous most powerfully are themselves missing, for it is the dead – their loss, absence, and revisitation in memories or dreams – who give life to her beguiled, yet ultimately death-defying prose.

Two new associated works, elegantly translated by Beverly Bie Brahic, epitomize this condition. They aim to “give death its due” while at the same time, dismantling its power over us. Both are subtitled “Los, A Chapter”. Both are haunted by “The-Book-I-Don’t-Write” – a platonic or ultimate book whose failure to materialize has preoccupied Cixous over the years. And one is described as “the journal” of the other. Contained within these works there is the promise of more to come in the “Los” series, but “none will be more first than the other” Cixous reassures us, characteristically refusing any suggestion of hierarchy. The books also elude classification, being in turn, poetic elegy, dream diary, time-travel and ghost story, and their uncanniness is mirrored in the narrator’s sense of herself as spectral (“I myself am the shadow of myself”) and scattered (“I have several selves to house, I visit myself diversely”).


Abstracts and Brief Chronicles of the Time tells of the narrator’s attempts to come to terms with an author’s death, a Latin American writer called Carlos (Cixous was a friend of Carlos Fuentes). His unexpected loss evokes memories of their love affair and nostalgia for the revolutionary upheavals of 1968, making her marvel: “To think that in France you [could] kill a state with ridicule.” The “Los” of Cixous’s subtitles also refers to the transvestism of authorship and, in particular, to the figure of William Blake’s Los whom she imagines as the kind of circular puzzle she’s partial to: “the malefemale offspring of the author he is”. In the companion journal, Death Shall Be Dethroned, Cixous’s narrator discovers that her letters to Carlos have been stored in a box at Princeton University, giving rise to further meditation on their life together and on his turbulent afterlife, still inhabiting her head and her heart. The locked box has the allure of Pandora’s: it is a kind of “death’s door”, containing “the excess, the phosphorescence” of their relationship.

For Cixous’s generation the death of the author, of course, means the amplification of authorship, the freedom to speak in other voices. So her texts are sprinkled with quotations and commonplaces: “Call me Ishmael…Call me Los…Call me It All Depends”, she jokes. But for all Cixous’s inclusiveness (“The whole troop of them. Welcome!”), and her refusal to be pinned down (all her thoughts contain counter-thought), she is never as universal as she aspires to be. However atopic Cixous’s writing becomes, her “state of without-me” is unrealizable. This is because anonymity is in itself a style – defining, like any other – and it places her on the literary map. That she is aware of the paradox only makes her efforts more heroic. What matters in her lifelong writing project is the determination to be “myriad-minded”, to elude ready-made meaning, and to ceaselessly interrogate herself and her art. So, Cixous asks us: “This life born of death, might this be literature?”.

This review appeared in the TLS on 9.11.2016 as Hélène Cixous and her Art.

Rachel Cusk, Transit. Jonathan Cape – Spectator


Rachel Cusk is a writer who provokes strong reactions in her readers, and her critical reputation has swung wildly in a short space of time. Many, who not long ago were offended by the overflowing emotion of her memoirs of motherhood and divorce, are now full of praise for her current trilogy of novels, admiring particularly their restraint. What’s interesting about this turnaround is that while Cusk’s mode of presentation has changed, her subjects — the uncertain nature of reality, the relation of the individual to society, and the calibration of power — have not. Moreover, switching her focus from an outraged, opinionated woman to a recalcitrant, enigmatic one, has intensified her writing and clarified her project.

In Outline and Transit, the two volumes published so far, we learn little more about Cusk’s first person narrator than that she is recently divorced and temporarily living apart from her children (they phone in occasionally, often in a state of mild distress). We know, too, that she is a writer disinclined to interject or interpret, emphasising instead the value of listening. The people she encounters (ex-lovers, builders, hairdressers, friends, fellow writers, students, relatives) all tell her stories that stand out from the day’s ordinary muddle with an electric charge. The purity of these narratives and the individuated humanity they contain has a narcotic, transporting power, yet they remain at the centre of the writer’s daily life, and her occasional prompts or questions show her shaping them. In both novels the writer is named only once, and her name, Faye — which denotes either unreality or belief — underscores her scepticism: ‘I did not have the blind belief in reality that made others ask for concrete explanations.’ Instead Cusk’s rather proud and brittle narrator is drawn to dramas of perception — the neurosis involved in looking and judging, and the reciprocal fear of being misread, disregarded or found out.

At the beginning of Transit, Faye is homeless. An estate agent warns her that buying a house requires ‘the blindness of fixation’, but she immediately feels he is trying to marginalise her, and decides she will ‘want what everyone else wanted… run with the pack’. She acquires a shoddy house in an expensive neighbourhood and then battles to make it over in a style of her own. But something about the process of following convention, and becoming fixed or placed, leaves her at odds with herself. It’s as if Cusk has taken central metaphors from literary criticism — about the figure of the modernist artist, exiled and unaligned, about the estrangement of the woman writer in the house of fiction, about the violence of creativity — and translated them back into life. From the outset the house is inhospitable: floors undulate, plaster blisters, the garden is full of grot and junk. And she is beset by neighbours who intimidate or humiliate her. The tenants in the basement make dark threats about noise, while the members of the perfect family next door — who eat al fresco while talking loudly in multiple languages — high-handedly informs her that by tradition they are given the apples from her tree.

There is a great comedy of mismatching and cross-purpose here, but the reader is never allowed to find consolation in it, nor any affinity with Faye, whose alertness to her neighbours’ class-inflected putdowns and incursions are mirrored in her own petty-bourgeois snobbery. But Cusk is not writing to be liked. She once said admiringly of D.H. Lawrence that he left more room for the reader to hate him than any other author in the English language. In Transit, the ‘ambiguous glint’ of Cusk’s writing often induces a sense of panic about the validity of one’s own responses, and frustration at being unguided through an uncertain world where, as her hairdresser observes, ‘the fake generally seemed to be more real than the real’. But this refusal of ‘concrete explanations’, or a secure guiding narrator, is not an expression of nihilism or futility; rather, an exercise in the morality of freedom. When Faye picks up her son’s diary, she finds a message blazoned on the front: ‘You read, you take the consequences.’

cusk-outline    cusk-transit

The jackets for Cusk’s novel trilogy are from Man Ray’s solarised portraits of Lee Miller – a technique which she discovered while working as a photographic assistant in his Montparnasse studio in the early 1930s. This review of Transit appeared in the Spectator on 1.10.2016.


Dave Eggers, Heroes of the Frontier. Knopf; Sara Taylor, The Lauras. Hogarth Press; Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone. Hamish Hamilton – TLS


“To be American is to be blank, and a true American is truly blank. Thus, all in all, Josie was a truly great American.” This is Dave Eggers’s narrator, at the beginning of his latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, joking about the story’s heroine. Given the state of Josie, an angst-ridden single mother, it is a self-evidently false statement – but the logical fallacy is just one of many means Eggers uses to interrogate contemporary reasoning, or, to be grand about it, the logic of late capitalism. His book is among a group of recent novels about families which, like much current American fiction, are preoccupied by the legacy of trauma and the question of whether this can be overcome. The blankness referred to here is psychological as well as geographic. Josie has no idea where her family hail from, remembering only “vague references to Denmark . . . some connection to Finland”. So when, in quick succession, she is deserted by her husband, sued for malpractice as a dentist, and faced with the news that a young patient she encouraged to enlist has died in Afghanistan, she feels she has nowhere to run to but America’s furthest edge: the empty wilderness of Alaska. Packing her two small kids into the back of a rickety RV, she heads out into its vast open spaces, searching for “purity” – a blank canvas on which to redraw their lives.

Josie has become so worried about the “anxiety of influence” (Harold Bloom’s phrase, smuggled in by Eggers as if to pre-empt the inevitable comparisons here with Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth et al) that she decides she is “done with all mouths, beginning with her own”. The gamble she is taking is that the “oblivion” of Alaska’s frozen landscape will help to mute and control her, to numb her anxiety and mitigate her sense of guilt. But the journey doesn’t turn out as she had hoped. Presented with the radical uncertainty of their new lives, her kids have endless questions about where they’re heading and what they’re doing, questions to which Josie has no ready answers. And she finds that having escaped the tyrannies of suburban life,the freedom of the open road presents unexpected dangers. Soon, her children’s interrogations are supplemented by her own as she tries to discern the level of threat. Some threats are just phantoms of the timid, suburban mind she is working to free herself from (a “leering” old man turns into a friend). Some are universal, such as the danger children let loose can pose to themselves. But others – like the father of a family her kids play with, who suddenly pulls out a gun – are more distinctly American. This ever-present menace feeds into the children’s enquiries about the world. Even the fiercely unafraid five-year-old Ana, when introduced to new phenomena like planets and stars, wants to know: “Are they good?”

As Josie leads her small tribe to ever more remote places – sleeping on the roadside, in campsites, or, like some latter-day Goldilocks, breaking into deserted cabins in the woods – her search becomes indistinguishable from flight. The family flees from forest fires, from possible emissaries of her husband, and from a past Josie wants to “write . . . in disappearing ink”. She is haunted by a scandal from decades earlier, known popularly as “Candyland”, involving the suicides of over-medicated Vietnam veterans at a hospital where her parents worked. Once Josie’s parents started dipping into the patients’ drugs family life collapsed as her mother fell into addiction and her father absconded to Cambodia. So the idea of starting again is not new: we learn that at seventeen Josie “emancipated herself” from her parents and then moved around, living in Panama, London and Spain. But in modern America, movement has become a dubious practice, associated by Josie with failure, insecurity and her parents’ disgrace: “Was it wonderful to have changed so many times? She suspected it was not”.

Candyland stands as the emblematic centre of Eggers’s novel, from which the ills of American – and by extension, Josie’s – life flow. The country is ignorant of the wars it is fighting (Josie and a lover argue about whether her patient died in Afghanistan or Iraq, uncertain as to how long hostilities have lasted), its people increasingly aggressive and entitled (she singles out the “breed” of lycra-clad cyclists and pony-tail mums whose rage erupts at any infringement of what they believe is their due), tranquillizing themselves with drugs, or, like Josie, unable to get through the day without knocking back the wine, and penning their children in to keep them safe. Against all this enclosing, sedating and forgetting (here we are again in Gore Vidal’s United States of Amnesia), there is the wonder and subversive riot of Josie’s children: the wild, red-haired Ana, a force of nature, “bumping into things, yelling randomly, making up words”; and the sensitive Paul, three years older, who acts as Ana’s proxy parent. What Josie wants for her children, above all, is that they don’t merely succumb to life, but show courage in the face of it; and the further they travel, the more resilient they become. Heroes of the Frontier ends with one final test of endurance, in which by heading into disaster the family overcome it, approaching “something like sublimity”, a touch of American greatness. The frontier may be long gone, but setting the inertia of his countrymen in his sights, Eggers is banking on the idea that pushing ahead still lies deep in the American psyche: “She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion”.


Sara Taylor’s second novel, The Lauras, also takes the form of an American road trip. This time it is the wife who walks out on her husband, bundling her adolescent child, Alex, into the car one night and setting off on a journey that will take the two of them zigzagging across the country. The Lauras is the (still) rarely told story of a child’s romance about the life of their mother – here less a source of anxiety than of mystery, one which mirrors Alex’s own mystery, as her gender remains uncertain. The novel is narrated some thirty years after the trip by Alex in a Southern vernacular thick with the imagery of sweet things (“the land behind us was a caramel-peanut-butter smudge”) and of blood (“she lay back in the trail of the dying sun, it’s blood clotting in her clothing”), reflecting something of the country’s immaturity.

Held in Alex’s regard, “Ma” is an alluring, enigmatic presence: chain-smoking to keep herself awake, pulling in at truck stops when she is too tired to drive, and grabbing greasy burgers for the two of them to munch on. The reason for their leaving is undivulged; Ma tells Alex only that she wants to “figure out which way is up”. As they cross state lines, improvising their lives, it becomes apparent that Ma is in pursuit of the existence she had before she gave birth. Astonishing as this idea is to Alex,  Ma’s focus on herself is also oddly reassuring: Alex’s questions about the safety of their trip are breezily batted away: “Quit worrying kid. We should be golden”. Pressed to reveal her story, Ma remains taciturn, only slowly doling out the tale after successive dramatic encounters with the people or places she once knew.

What Alex finally gleans is that Ma was abandoned repeatedly by immigrant parents who “were horrible at life”, forgetting to clothe or feed her, and who “didn’t understand how America worked”. Moved between group homes, then living in a station wagon, drinking absinthe, possibly dabbling in prostitution, she encountered a succession of girls called Laura (the intensity of her relationship with the first makes the name talismanic), each of whom demonstrated styles of being that, even in unpromising circumstances, offered new possibilities. Alex gets into trouble hitching to another city to post tan (untrackable) letter to their father. Along the way, they are forced into performing a blow job on the man who picks them up. But though Alex later traces “the blank in me to that event”, when explaining what happened to Ma, Alex creates a story that  holds back the worst of the journey. Alex does this in part because they have no words for what has been done to them, nor their ambivalent feelings about it, but also because Alex has learnt from Ma’s continence.

What marks Taylor’s novel out from many of its contemporaries is how little psychic damage Alex and Ma sustain – or pass on – from their experiences. Indeed, the storytelling mode allows them to cast their lives as adventures through which they “hustle”, extemporize, love and sometimes act heroically. Alex understands that “reality rarely rustles up a satisfying narrative shape”, but their “mythic desire” gives them the ability to see Ma not just in relation to themselves, but as autonomous, sometimes even as legendary. When Ma finally reunites with one of the Lauras, Alex describes them as “outside of humanity, the way lovers are”. There’s a lesson here, important for storytellers, but also women and all kinds of outsiders, about not giving yourself away too easily, about possessing your own life. What it instils in Alex is the bravery to be their own person (to maintain an open sexuality and not be boxed into definition) and confidence in their own instincts: “I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t have to know. The road was beckoning; all I had to do . . . was follow where it led”.


The intergenerational trauma at the heart of Adam Haslett’s new novel is rather harder to shake off. Imagine Me Gone features five narrators, all members of one Anglo-American family beset by the “beast” of mental illness, their lives recounted over half a century, by the parents, John and Margaret, and their three children, Michael, Celia and Alex. As one might expect of a novel exploring the irrational, there is also much concern with form – from the repressive British manners John has inherited (“asking questions wasn’t the proper form”) to the linguistic and political structures in which Michael becomes passionately interested. The novel itself is tightly formatted: divided into three acts, with an epilogue and prologue, and each section further demarcated by the different speaking voices. We begin near the end: Alex, the youngest sibling, is at a cabin in the American countryside, and traumatized by something terrible that has happened to Michael. At first he imagines the sound of a neighbour chopping wood might revive his brother – a desire stronger than reason: “What kind of person would I be if I didn’t try to call him back?”

Then comes Michael’s voice: ghostly, disembodied (and yet, like all voices in fiction, as if looming out of the ether). In what we will learn is his characteristically parodic mode, Michael speaks “as” the telephone answering machine of his  therapist, one Dr Walter Benjamin. And because his is a parodic voice, always carrying multiple meanings, this is also a suicide note – a salve to himself and anyone out there listening: “[if] it seems likely that the words you are about to speak into this machine may be your last, then please know that you tried very hard indeed, and that you loved your family as deeply as you could”. In a way that only fiction can, Imagine Me Gone then proceeds to do what Alex wanted, what anyone bereaved wants: to bring the dead back to life.

Haslett’s novel masterfully negotiates the different planes on which it operates, sustaining for a long time the ambiguity whose exploration, he has said in interview, is the business of fiction. From the beginning, John expresses anxiety about the future of his garrulous son: words pour out of Michael as if nothing can contain him. John moves the family about, even back to England for a while in pursuit of work that never materializes. And this failure to settle down symbolizes to Margaret her husband’s failure to get a grip on life. On returning to the States, he commits suicide – the only way to chase the “monster” of depression out of him. Michael, called home from school in England, finds that he is numb: “You were all so upset. But I didn’t feel anything. Nothing. I was blank”, he tells Alex later. The pain of this moment lingers on in Michael’s life as an indefinable ache – something for which he finds correlatives in ideas about slavery’s “transgenerational haunting” and black music: “The backward ache. That’s what music is. The trouble – for me – is that at some stage I realized those aches, they have a history”.

From these traumatic beginnings, his siblings develop lives of ordinary difficulty, though perhaps with greater wariness: Celia struggles over the question of motherhood, Alex in building a monogamous relationship with his boyfriend. And their chapters convey this, expressed in the particularity of the real. But Michael is never ordinary: from the beginning his flamboyant intelligence and intense political theorizing make it seem as if he were somehow a different order of being. His chapters, reflecting this apartness, are delivered as exercises in literary style that challenge the “realist” frame surrounding him – whether in letters to his aunt, where his commitment to the fantastic, comic form overtakes the plausibility of events he is relating; or in medical questionnaires, in which his answers satirize the premiss of healthcare, refusing its narrow logic, while also being utterly honest: “What are your treatment goals? 1. Ordinary happiness 2. Racial justice”.


The degree to which Haslett allows the reader to entertain the possibility that these everyday forms and political structures that shape our lives may be at fault, and not Michael, is the degree to which ambiguity is richly sustained in Imagine Me Gone. But Michael’s obsessions are not just a matter of worldly critique; they are also a product of his solipsism (“the problem – for me”). At the beginning of the novel Margaret reflects on Armies of the Night and Norman Mailer’s idea that “it’s in motion that Americans remember”. But Michael never finds a cohort or movement, remaining boxed in, static in his obsessions and unchallenged in his relationships. While this may be true to the character of obsession or mental illness, it comes close to manipulation in terms of the novel. Successive black girlfriends remain somehow beyond his reach, as if such relationships were themselves a category error, outside of acceptable forms. Looking back on the story’s beginning and her love affair with John, Margaret says: “I had that American openness he admired”. However, unlike Dave Eggers and Sara Taylor, who keep faith with the idea of American openness and the possibility for remaking that it entails, Adam Haslett casts doubt on this notion. Sealing Michael’s fate from the outset, he suggests instead, as Celia advocates, the need for “acceptance” of who we are. Alongside this stoicism, in the presentation of Michael’s isolation, and the speed with which people stop listening to him, there is also something gloomier in play here, like the closing of the American mind.

Sean O’Brien, Once Again Assembled Here. Picador – Spectator


At first glance Sean O’Brien’s new novel appears to focus on England’s devotion to the past. Even its title carries the sense and long-sustained rhythm of things going on as before. As if to underscore the point, Once Again Assembled Here is set in the autumn of 1968, a year often portrayed in fiction to describe a revolt into the new. But in O’Brien’s novel it merely serves as a reminder that whatever ideas were being cooked up elsewhere, here tradition and continuity would prevail.

Here, in this case, is Blake’s, a jingoistic public school on the outskirts of a city still marked by the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids. In the peculiar way in which enthusiasm for England often turns on the degree to which one is excluded from its centre, this gloomy provincial establishment — stuffed with military historians, minor poets nursing grievances and an army of boys acting out war games — sees itself as a bastion of the country.

Stephen Maxwell, a retired history teacher, still lives in the school’s grounds. A man of marked literary pretensions, he has been commissioned to write the second volume of Blake’s history. In an Epilogue from 2010, however, he warns us that the secret ‘manuscript’ we are about to read is not that dreary tome, but his private, shadow journal — a darkly entertaining thriller of secret goings-on, treason and murder. Maxwell confesses from the outset that he is guilty of having a hand in the murder and of maintaining the cover up all these years. However, his many references to Boys’ Own adventure stories, tales of espionage and war, and in particular to Graham Greene, give us a clue not only to this manqué novelist’s imaginative aesthetic, but to the moral wriggle-room the English like to afford themselves: Maxwell’s style gives him the leeway to portray himself as a kind of hero, even as he admits to being a culprit.

This moral and intellectual murkiness is reflected in the novel’s landscape. The autumnal Blake’s is often wreathed in fog or mist, and Maxwell’s sojourns into the war-scarred city are by night, when his literary cast of mind picks out the frost glinting off rubbled buildings or, from high windows, stars glimmering above the dark streets below. The high windows — one of several Larkinesque touches — belong to various lovers. Maxwell is far from rebellious, but his penchant for married women repeatedly gets him into trouble, leaving him with a reputation for minor disgraces, for not getting on board.


Then, rising out of the tedium and gloom, the worship of war dead and unthinking obedience to authority, something with its own sharp glint of fascination catches the imagination of Blake’s pupils.Encouraged by the aristocratic Rackham — once a German collaborator, now a quasi-Poundian poet and charismatic English teacher — they stage a mock election, mirroring the by-election taking place in the city. Maxwell’s failure to act means that, as in the city, a fascist candidate is fielded, and with incredible rapidity the atmosphere shifts from boredom to menace: a fight breaks out; a fire is set; a Jewish boy’s life is threatened.

As it transpires, for a novel about the past, O’Brien’s book is extraordinarily prescient. It’s impossible to read of Rackham’s sense of immunity without thinking of Tony Blair and the Iraq War. Nor fail to hear David Cameron’s recent tirade against Jeremy Corbyn, when Blake’s headmaster exhorts Maxwell: ‘Resign, man. Do it today.’ In 2010, O’Brien discussed the political history of this phrase — from Oliver Cromwell to Leo Amery — in Journey to the Interior, a monograph on the idea of Englishness in contemporary poetry. In this prose work, as in Once Again…, it’s the coercive clubbableness of the English that O’Brien dissects — an establishment so keen to re-enact tradition and so punitive to anyone less than ecstatic about its continuation.

Because of this, at Blake’s even someone as ambivalent as Maxwell poses a threat. But just as the pupils are excited by Rackham’s demagoguery, his poetry of blood and soil, so Maxwell is emotionally tethered to Blake’s, finding it hard to extricate himself from the school or from his affair with Rackham’s striking (in both senses of the word) sister. As the initials of his name suggest, sado-masochism runs deep in the English psyche.

This review appeared in the Spectator on 27. 8.2016 as ‘Sean O’Brien explores a very English form of sadomasochism’.

John Keene, Counternarratives. Fitzcarraldo – TLS


We have become accustomed in recent years to the revisionary spirit of much postcolonial fiction, but the ambition, erudition and epic sweep of John Keene’s remarkable new collection of stories, travelling from the beginnings of modernity to modernism, place it in a class of its own. His book achieves no less than an imaginative repositioning of the history of the Americas, a tilting away from the legends of white, puritan pioneers to a more complex pattern of continental colonialism. As its title suggests, Counternarratives contains “writing back” of the kind Edward Said proposed; its stories are imbued with potent dialectical energy, bringing to mind Paul Gilroy’s key idea of the “Black Atlantic as a counterculture of modernity”. Keene is not simply an oppositional writer, however: in his richly detailed accounts of black lives through history, dividing lines are continually crossed. So there are escapologists, quislings and prophets, and motifs of cultural appropriation, false consciousness, prohibited desire, illicit knowledge, forbidden artistry, and everywhere, the struggle for transcendence. Counternarratives consists of thirteen individual fictions – some of flashing brevity, others the length and intricacy of a novella. Together they act like a polytych: each story has its own integrity but an underlying intellectual coherence allows the reader to intimate their author’s power and purpose, and to identify the arrival of a writer who, like one of his own characters, has “a will of lead and a satin tongue”. A former student of E.L. Doctorow (under whose tutelage one of these stories was written), Keene is that rarest of things today, a writer whose radicalism connects the politics of history to the politics of fiction.

The stories advance in rough chronology beginning at the dawn of the seventeenth century with a glimpse of the New World and the arrival of Juan Rodrigues, Manhattan’s first non-indigenous inhabitant (and a real life personage). A San Domingo slave who bought his freedom working on ships, the child of an African mother and Portuguese father, Rodrigues is given a name by the “Mannahatta” islanders that reminds him of the secret one his mother gave him, a name she “summoned forth from her people, and swor[e] him never to reveal”. This resemblance between his mother’s words and the islanders’, helps him to unlock their language in a way that his Dutch shipmates are unable to, emancipating him into a new life.  Rodrigues’s easy relations with these “first people” – cemented through shared meals, gestures and storytelling, “voices that spoke through fire and smoke” – suggests the possibility of an entirely different trajectory for American history.

From this alternative foundation story, Keene casts his eye across two and a half centuries of conquest, war and slavery, and concomitant with these, counter-struggles of resistance. ‘On Brazil, Or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras’, presents a history of the country seen through the lens of two plantation-owning families who intermarry but also father children with Indian and black women – part of the “New World experiment”. Down the generations their sons are named “Inocêncio”. There is “no genius compared to that of [their] own people” they believe, without understanding who their people are. These innocents work their slaves to death, and one slaughters a whole quilombo – a colony of runaway slaves led by “a particularly defiant African”, Cesarao. Told back to front, the story begins with an historical reckoning in which the last scion of the family ends up decapitated in a São Paulo favela, known colloquially as “Quilombo Cesarao”. It’s a reversal encouraging us to rethink history and notice overlooked counter-cultures (the quilombo, the favela) in which the future may be gestating.

Against the brutal fates many of his characters suffer, Keene’s stories keep changing their shape, implying countervailing forces of ingenuity and will; and against the limited psychic space historically allotted to black people, he gives us subjectivity that exceeds its cramped conditions, queries notions of rationality, proposes other kinds of knowledge, and takes liberties wherever it can. In ‘An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution’, there is an exemplar of this kind of outflanking style. Zion has a talent for evasion, non-cooperation and flouting the law which repeatedly wears down the men he is sold to. As in many eighteenth century picaresques where the protagonist’s escapades are marshalled into episodes, so Zion’s sprees and outrages are divided into sections meant to contain his unruliness. But Keene hedges these with a loaded title and an interposed “Theory” – a quotation from David Hume on the origins of liberty. Together, they subvert the narrative order, transforming the meaning of Zion’s seemingly illogical acts (carousing, stealing, daring to assault white women and then, with staggering insouciance, not bothering to run away). In the face of arbitrary law which hangs “another Negro” in his stead, and a revolution in the name of liberty which will fail to abolish slavery, Zion becomes the story’s emblematic figure of reason, his flagrant disregard of the law a logical response to its great injustice.

John Keene, 2016

John Keene, 2016

The last entry in this section, ‘Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrow’ looks further at the idea of hidden and competing knowledge. As ‘On Brazil’ gained putative authority from imagined histories of the Londônias-Figueiras’s family, so here the story opens with a (similarly invented) book: The History of the Catholics in the Early American Republic: 1790-1825. But after a page of this, we are diverted to a footnote – the ‘Gloss’ of the title. (With the “Dénouement’, the ‘Outtake’ and the ‘Gloss’, Keene is inviting us to look at things another way around and to think about what might be discoverable in the margins of official histories.) ‘Gloss’ concerns Carmel, a silent Haitian slave girl working for one Monsieur de L’Ecart, a supposedly liberal master imbibing ideas from the Age of Reason: “equality, he had more than once penned in his journal, was the proper guiding principle, though in practice it required severe restraint.” Carmel expresses herself with wild drawings prophesying revolution. Asked by de L’Ecart’s daughter about their meaning, she tries to mime: “they are going to TEAR THE WHITE OUT”. When Toussaint L’Ouverture’s men revolt, the girls are sent to live with nuns who, underscoring the story’s historical ironies, have themselves fled from the French Revolution. Keene reflects again on the contradictions of the period, asking: under the yoke of slavery “is it even possible to invoke a rhetoric of ethics?” Like Zion, Carmel makes of her circumstances what she can, responding to abuse with an “unassimilable refusal to communicate”: for this she is feared as a “spook…black witch”. Used to being misunderstood (her dutifulness read as devotion), she instead takes her duty to herself seriously, learning to read the nuns’ books in French, Latin and Greek. As the narration slips from third to first person, she creates new knowledge by recording her experience and theorising about it. But just as Carmel’s mystificatory power is questioned, so there is a counter-side to her new reasoning: becoming literate she starts to sound like Jane Austen, losing the distinctive voice of her obscurity.

The turning point in Counternarratives comes with the Civil War. In a second group of fictions the emphasis shifts from countering to encounters that take place in the aftermath of war and on into the early twentieth century when black artists and intellectuals were now ostensibly free but still struggling against the weight of stereotype and diminished expectation. In an act of writing back that should prove as significant for American literature as Jean Rhys’s deconstruction of Jane Eyre was for the English canon, Keene revisits Mark Twain’s tales of the river rats, Huck, Tom and Jim, forty years later, once adulthood and Civil War have divided them, bringing to the surface – as Rhys herself did – racism only latent in the earlier books. By projecting the three men forward in time Keene is able to throw new light on their earlier relationship, on their now-famed “adventures” which Jim thinks of rather as “sense-defying events”, the central conundrum of his life, in which he was led by Huck “into the heart of terror”, traveling south down the Mississippi, rather than north to freedom.

Keene then presents a series of duets. W.E. DuBois and George Santayana glance over at one another on the streets of Harvard, their mutual apprehension (“Of course there will be scant possibility of a friendship“) conveyed in parallel columns on the page which the reader’s eye must travel across. In Mexico city and New York, Langston Hughes hooks up with his translator, the poet Xaviar Villaurrutia – Keene’s writing now imbued with a cadenced, modernist sensibility (“this rhythm…of men…alone together…a blues”). And Miss La La, the circus aerialist, bit in mouth, soars above Edgar Degas as he tries to capture her in flight – a story spun from one breathtaking sentence: “I want to suspend the entire city of Paris or even France itself from my lips…I aim to exceed every limit placed on me, unless I place it there, because that is what I think of when I think of freedom…”

Miss La La at the Cirque de Fernando, 1879 by Edgar DegasMiss La La

Freedom as an absolute may be impossible to attain but Keene shows us here what human beings in straitened circumstance make of the struggle – in myriad ways and with great tenacity. Their key to self-realisation is the garnering of knowledge, and as Keene quotes in an epigraph from the Barbadian poet, Kamau Braithwaite, “Knowledge is submarine”. It’s an image of fugitive power that perfectly encapsulates the cunning and audacity of Keene’s writing, but also his characters’ efforts to uncover more room for manoeuvre. A corresponding effort is experienced by the reader in the face of many textual interruptions, oppositions and aporias. ‘On Brazil’, for instance, contains the word “but” ten times in one paragraph; in ‘Blues’ the narrator notes that although Villaurrutia is Hughes’s translator, “Xavier is not sure exactly whom or what Langston means”; and in ‘Lions’ – Counternarratives’ final story, leaping into some universal present in the aftermath of colonialism – the difficulty becomes even more pronounced as efforts to interpret are frustrated by Keene’s use of knotty aphorisms: “Everybody is a monster, but only the monsters know it.”

‘Lions’ explores the history of postcolonialism and the complicity between the freedom fighter and the poet whose “odes to gore” justify – as Frantz Fanon and others did -“violence in the service of revolution”. The poet delivers a counterblast to his old friend and lover, once the beautiful revolutionary, now a “filthy degenerate lion quisling” devouring his people. Adrift from his ancestors, a mind enslaved by American pop culture, high on power (“black steel toe boots…polished by peasants’ tongues”), squandering resources, banning artists, bribing the electorate, he is the leader of a “nation of narcissists, knowing nothing”. Invoking generations of violent dictators and suicide bombers, the freedom fighter’s only raison d’etre has become his fearlessness: “the man who listens only to death.” Keene plays brilliantly upon the excessiveness of it all, the spectacular unreason resulting from the project of enlightenment and liberation. He then calls time on this historical dead end, dismembering its agents and dismantling its stories. At the last he returns to the beginning and Rodrigues’ memory of a glass blower in San Domingo, the furnace nearly devouring him as he forged – against the heat and out of it – a miraculous “blown bowl”. In homage to the millions of Zions and Carmels who forged their own lives against, and out of, the furnace of history, Keene brings the reader back to the miracle of their self-making by drawing attention to his own. Characteristically countering – even in his final decomposing words – he finishes with the excess of writing and its unreasonable defiance of the end: its promise of a way out, of more room, of something further to come: “I’ll lie here until – … … …”.

This review, titled ‘Exceed Every Limit’, appeared in the TLS on 13.7.2016.

Angela Carter Podcast – TLS


A discussion of Angela Carter’s work and legacy with TLS editors Stig Abell and Thea Lenarduzzi. Our conversation begins about 29 mins in.



Angela Carter, Unicorn: The poetry of Angela Carter With an essay by Rosemary Hill; Christopher Frayling, Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales – TLS


In the “pubescent years” of the twentieth century, a young Englishman, handsome and virginal, bicycles into Transylvania. He meets an old crone who leads him to a castle, feeds him bread and stew, then ushers him to the darkened boudoir of an ageless vampire, hungry for her own dinner. But our reasonable Hero (for that is his only name) dismisses his foreboding, deciding what he sees before him is a beautiful girl whose photophobia and pointed teeth might soon be cured by an eye doctor and good dentist. That night something unexpected happens: the innocent boy awakens unprecedented feelings of love in the vampire and she leaves him unmolested. The following morning Hero discovers that his companion – now older and infinitely more human – is dead. Saved from his fate by rationalism, coupled with a chronic lack of imagination, Hero cycles away to the First World War, where the unsusceptible boy who could not shiver finally becomes a man who can.

Angela Carter’s story, “The Lady of the House of Love”, from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, is one of her most brilliant deconstructions of the Gothic, historicizing both rationalism and the imagination (bicycle meets vampire) in a way that is typical of her oeuvre. “Sex comes to us out of history”, as she reminded us in The Sadeian Woman, which was published in the same year, while her good friend, the critic Lorna Sage described the combination of fantasy and materialism in her fiction as “monsters marinated in being”. Today Carter is well known, widely taught in schools and universities, and much of what she presaged – in terms of recycling and updating (“old wine in new bottles”, she called it), or gender role play and reversal – has become commonplace in the culture. Despite this, many critics find it difficult to situate her work properly. This is partly because Carter is so sui generis (she has literary offspring but few antecedents), and partly because many struggle with the relationship of politics and aesthetics in her writing.

The “reality” in this Nosferatu revamp was something of a private joke for Carter, who was inspired to write by another friend, Christopher Frayling, who did indeed journey into Transylvania – but in the early 1970s, undertaking research for Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (1978). It is this friendship, and with it Frayling’s claim of mutual influence (“we shared a lot of conversations, ideas and inspirations”), on which his new book, Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales, rests. Readers may be disappointed to find, however, that of the nine pieces in his collection, only the first essay, “Angela and me – a literary friendship” is about Carter.

The remainder are selected from his writing over the past thirty or so years – rich and entertaining fare that, like the best cultural studies, looks for links, unearths back stories, investigates a tale’s reimagining and examines its reception, legacy and mythologizing. In this manner, Frayling tracks Freud and Fuseli, Hitchcock and Gounod, Jack the Ripper, Hammer Horror, Disney’s and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Conan Doyle’s Hound, the origins of Peter and the Wolf, and the state of the Gothic. Many of his tracks end up at the cinema (the fate of much art in the twentieth century), often newly minted with a happy ending. As stories pass from hand to hand, and from one kind of art to another, we find many strange bedfellows: there is Walt Disney, for instance, so proud of Fantasia’s cartoons that he announces to Leopold Stokowski: “this thing will make Beethoven”. For the purposes of Inside the Bloody Chamber, Frayling has added a brief introduction to each of these essays pointing to his and Carter’s shared interests (a joint visit to a Fuseli exhibition, a ramble together on Dartmoor) and to Carter’s own writing that relates to his subject. But the essays themselves make only occasional reference to her, and it is hard not to feel that in order to have earned his title, and the book’s selling point, Frayling might at least have rounded out his collection with a concluding essay on Carter, more gallantly giving her the spotlight rather than making her a player in his own show.

“Angela and me”, the essay in which she does feature, is an odd one. Frayling’s friendship with her in Bath in the 1970s gives us a valuable portrait of Carter during the middle years of her career which few others could offer: tracing the sources of her interest in vampires, werewolves and feral children (particularly as they fed into the stories, plays and filmscripts associated with The Bloody Chamber), her fascination with all kinds of automata, and redressing a critical legacy which has underestimated her socialism. His memories are fleshed out with the liberal use of her notebook-journals and published writing (though these are not always ascribed). And he finds in their dialogues the seeds of many of Carter’s ideas. Verdi’s Falstaff prompts a conversation where they “fantasised about Falstaff as a liberal education for Prince Hal” – an idea that crops up in Wise Children (1991); a trip to a Weber opera finds them in discussion about a Satanic western, something which “eventually turned into Angela’s play Gun for the Devil”; a conversation they had after viewing Murnau’s Nosferatu “led indirectly to Vampirella”; while stories in The Bloody Chamber were “inspired by” books and catalogues that he lent her.

This familiarity with Carter’s thinking, and their mutual reading and watching, means that Frayling is able to suggest many unexpected influences: they attend a screening of Miklós Jancsó’s Private Vices, Public Pleasures, featuring a “full-frontal Welsh hermaphrodite”, much to Carter’s amusement, just as she was transforming Evelyn into Eve in The Passion of New Eve (1977). He is also a persuasive judge of Carter’s sensibility: “her imagination was certainly more Jacobean than Shakespearian”; and in his hands her wit comes alive: “Angela relished the thought of a Good Food Guide for vampires”. But for all his excavation of their many conversations about vampirism (the impact of the First World War on the political geography of the vampire lands, Marx’s use of the vampire metaphor, and “whether human relationships are sometimes about ‘asset stripping’”), there is an odd lack of self-awareness about the terms in which Frayling frames his essay, none of the self-deprecation one might expect from someone claiming so great an intimacy with the generation of another writer’s work.


Something similar happens in a recent book from the historian Rosemary Hill, Unicorn: The poetry of Angela Carter. The origin of this book lay in Hill’s review of Susannah Clapp’s postcard-led memoir of Carter for the London Review of Books in 2012. Encouraged by the Editor, Hill extended her article into a longer essay which she packages here with fourteen of the poems that can be found in Carter’s archives. (The archives, which also include the journals Frayling makes use of, were bought by the British Library in January 2006; in May this year some of their contents were digitalized for a public website, “Discovering Literature: 20th century”). Carter wrote most of her poems during the early part of her career and those presented in Unicorn were published originally in small magazines and anthologies between 1963 and 1966, with three more from 1971, which she later incorporated into Fireworks: Nine profane pieces (1974). Hill’s essay is in three parts beginning with an analysis of the poetry, especially as it prefigures her later writing. This is followed by a sketch of the literary landscape of the 1950s and early 60s from which Carter started to write – a decade before Frayling crossed her path. Like Frayling, Hill emphasizes her rejection of the Leavisite school, with what Carter called their “eat up your broccoli” approach. She also discusses her embrace of the French avant-garde and bohemianism; and her ambivalent relationship to the Angry Young Men and the school of suffering of young women writers whom Hill identifies. A final evaluation of the prose pays particular attention to Carter’s first novel Shadow Dance (1966), written in the same years that produced much of the poetry.

The first delight of Carter’s poetry is just how recognizable it is: as Hill says, “at the age of twenty-three, she arrived as it were, in a single bound in the middle of the mysterious forest that was to keep her supplied with ideas for the rest of her life”. Most obvious is that from the outset Carter is set on rebalancing the books. She begins with a theatrical flourish – “Lights, action”, writing in quotation – “(bend the tab, slit in slot marked ‘x’)”, coming to rescue the virgin-heroine from victimhood, suffering and, above all, unknowing, by placing her on an equal footing with her hunter-seducer – a figure who was to turn up later in Carter’s fictions in the guise of devil, prankster, puppet-master or wolf. Here, he is the unicorn: “Q: What have virgins and unicorns got in common? A: They are both fabulous beasts”. The interrogatory joke remained one of Carter’s favourite forms; she opened her last novel in the same manner.

We must be grateful to Hill for publishing Carter’s poems, for rounding out the picture we have of her life as a young writer. Hill describes in the first part of her essay how Carter found her footing among the writers she was then studying at the University of Bristol, coming into her voice by reshaping, translating or borrowing from authors who at the time were deemed non-canonical, such as Thomas Browne (“hardly considered to be an author at all”) and William Dunbar: “writers of the Middle Ages and early modern period [who] inhabited the literary badlands, beyond the well-trodden path of Leavis’s Great Tradition”.

Hill writes particularly well about Carter’s love of bathos – “The iconography slithers down from illuminated manuscript to strip cartoon” – but can become pedantic, even unintentionally comic, when disturbed by Carter’s similes or confounded by her intentions: “‘Breasts like carrier bags’ is not the happiest of images. Carrier bags, after all, are often square, and even if round it isn’t clear whether these are full or empty”. And there is the odd slip: Hill asserts that Carter’s first five novels are “tethered . . . precisely to material reality in time and place”, but the fourth, Heroes and Villains (1969), is set in some apocalyptic, post-bomb future. Nor was Carter’s relationship to bohemia so straightforward; she is often at pains to show how tricky it can be for women.

More significantly, much of the middle part of Hill’s essay is oddly tendentious, at a stretch from Carter herself, who once again seems as if she is being shoehorned into someone else’s story. Hill reserves a large part of the limelight for her own husband, the late Christopher Logue, and friends such as Nell Dunn – and though much of this is interesting, it can leave Carter seeming like a bit-part player who failed to perform in the approved manner. Carter was “not always the most perceptive critic of her contemporaries”, Hill comments waspishly, when she neglected to respond with the right degree of sympathy to Edna O’Brien’s “heartstruck, tearful heroines, so different from Carter’s own protagonists”.

Because many women of this period suffered for their art (often this meant divorce, violent husbands, or suicide), Hill argues that Carter should have had more time for the downtrodden women represented in their novels. But from the outset – the girl in Unicorn tunelessly singing “I love the game, I love the chase”; and the bawdy, opinionated women in her other poems – Carter showed just what she thought of the spectacle of the suffering, submissive woman. In Shadow Dance, “rotten, phoney” Ghislaine is not as Hill thinks “a bit of a bore”, but the embodiment of female bad faith whom Carter disfigures and then crucifies. It is a stunningly combative debut, exhuming the worn-out plot of the martyred girl, in order, finally, to lay it to rest. She refused to stay dead for long, of course, and Carter found herself repeatedly battling her spectre, writing in her notebooks that she was sick to death of the female victim. In her critical writing, too, she observes how Jane Eyre swoons whenever she calls Rochester “Master”, and chastizes O’Brien and Jean Rhys for being writers “whose scars glorify the sex that wounded them”. After meeting Elizabeth Smart at a party, Carter wrote in fury to Sage saying she hoped no daughter of hers would ever be in a position to write a book like Smart’s: “BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS would be more like it”.

It wasn’t a lack of sympathy that Carter was expressing, but sheer indignation at being stuck in a rehashed tale, where the meanings are played out, the symbols used up. And she had no truck with women who were still perpetrating these kinds of victims in their own stories. “Never again. Never”, Carter vows in Shadow Dance, a hugely innovative novel unlike anything her contemporaries were writing, about a world where nothing is original and life is constantly “imitating rotten old art”.

My review of two books about Angela Carter was published in the TLS as ‘Monsters Marinated in Being’ on 7.7.2016:

Han Kang, Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith). Portobello – TLS


In a recent article in the Independent, the South Korean novelist, Han Kang cited Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) as an important influence on her latest novel, Human Acts. Han’s book concerns the Gwangju uprising of 1980, during which the army massacred hundreds of workers and students protesting against martial law – a moment in the country’s history that the current government is reportedly trying to erase from school text books. Wondering how to write about this contested period, Han was struck by these words of Levi: “When I returned from my life as a POW…the many things I had experienced and seen with my own eyes were blazing inside me like fire. The dead felt closer to me than the living, and I felt a sense of guilt at being a human being.”

Human Acts begins with the dead, with lines of mutilated bodies laid out by Gwangju’s Provincial Office, waiting for family and friends to claim them. The army’s desecration of corpses (Han describes them dumped in piles and set ablaze), contrasts sharply with the citizens’ attempt to reinstate the dignity of their dead children, carefully wrapping their bodies in sheets and lighting candles around their heads. These expressive rituals foreshadow this novel’s argument about the need to counter brutality through art, literature and other forms of self-expression – even while acknowledging their inability to oust a government or raise the dead.

A boy arrives at the Provincial Office, searching for a friend who was shot down as they demonstrated together. Unable to find him, he joins two women struggling to identify bodies with intestines spilling out or faces blasted away. From this fearful beginning, full of pathos, the novel moves forward in time over thirty-three years, following the guilt-ridden survivors who struggle to achieve normal lives while still facing violence in the form of state torture, censorship and repression. But it is the dead who hold sway in Human Acts, rising up into the narrative with every new bruise or feared touch, with every fresh abuse of power. Despite the government’s efforts to wipe out any memory of them, they refuse to disappear. Like the novels of Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Han’s book testifies to a specific atrocity while raising universal questions about what it means to be human, with all the potential for tenderness and cruelty that this entails.

Deborah Smith and Han Kang, winners of the International Man Booker Prize, 2016.

Deborah Smith and Han Kang, winners of the International Man Booker Prize, 2016.

Discussing Han’s novel at the Free Word centre for international literature in London, the psychotherapist Susie Orbach told the author that she found her story difficult to read at times, likening it to A Little Life (2015), Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale about child abuse. But Han’s treatment of trauma, the restraint with which she presents horrific events, could hardly be more different from the American’s ramped-up melodrama. Writing with great formal control, Han switches easily from empathy and interiority to a more distanced, anthropological contemplation. As the Russian formalist critic, Viktor Shklovsky, noted, narratives eschewing the middle ground in this way, create estrangement, a sensation intensified in Human Acts by the characters’ profound alienation – the sight of so many slain and decomposing bodies meaning they will never again be at home in their own skin.

Among Han’s more impressive achievements is her ability to convey disintegration and alienation in work so elegantly wrought. Her aesthetic strategies – like the formal acts of the Gwangju mourners – suggest a profound humanism rather than any abstract design. This is why Human Acts has no single perspective and is full of ambiguity: its six chapters focus on different characters, each with a unique experience, and these are further personalised by the narrative voice which varies between the first, second and third person. One chapter conveys the scattered thoughts of a soul hovering around his dead body. Another is tightly structured by the six humiliating slaps an editor receives when she submits a manuscript that enrages the censor.

In an earlier novel, The Vegetarian (2015) – also translated with great sensitivity by Deborah Smith – Han emphasizes the value of art that flouts authority with a video scene in which anonymous performers, their bodies tattooed with flowers, rolled around in sexual ecstasy. In Human Acts, the same point is made by a play where actors remain dumb, mouthing the speeches forbidden by the censor. But these creative acts of defiance are rare. Further chapters tell of an activist tortured with a pen, repeatedly stabbed into one hand while the other is forced to write a confession; and of a semi-literate factory worker unable to give testimony about Gwangju because she cannot find words adequate to the task. Like the disembodied soul wondering where it can find a home (“If I could exist in dreams. Or perhaps in memories”) her living characters are also trapped in limbo. But if Han is supremely unillusioned about the forces that silence and isolate us, in Human Acts she has created a moving testament to fiction’s capacity to house even the most liminal and oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, whether living or dead.

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Closer than the Living‘, on 26.3.2016.

A. L. Kennedy, Serious Sweet – Spectator


Twenty four long hours, two lonely people, one city in decline. This is the premiss of A.L. Kennedy’s new novel Serious Sweet, a work full of anger at what has happened to London since the Thatcher revolution and concern for the city’s impotent inhabitants. Kennedy’s representative Londoners are Jon, a divorced and fusty civil servant, a “passed over man” plagued by failure, and Meg, a bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic who jokes at her own expense that she is “Fine. Fucked-up Insecure Neurotic and Emotional”. The novel glosses over many contemporary bugbears – the loss of civility, state snooping on private lives, misogyny, and child abuse – but like the city itself, these are largely in the background or filtered through the minds of Jon and Meg. The plot of Serious Sweet, such as it is, lies in the vast interior landscapes of Kennedy’s suffering, self-lacerating protagonists (it is not by accident that Jon shares his initials with Jesus Christ).

As with other recent explorations of twenty-first century individualism (Knausgaard, Yanagihara, etc) Kennedy thinks that it takes a big novel (over 500 pages) to show just how distended the self has become. But in her case, the pursuit of people who are traumatized and adrift, and whose language is often banal (“Fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him”, is one of Meg’s not untypical thoughts), means that it isn’t only her characters, but Kennedy’s novel itself that suffers from a sense of exhaustion: endless sweary tirades are intended to show how frustrated Jon and Meg are, but the cumulative effect is deadening, making their voices indistinguishable and undermining what is nuanced and sensitive in Kennedy’s writing.


The epigraph to Serious Sweet comes from Matthew Arnold: “to see the object as in itself it truly is”. In her effort to achieve this Kennedy gives over nearly half her book to interior monologues which intersect with, and at times threaten to swallow up the omniscient narration. It’s a technique that emphasizes isolation, showing how difficult we find it to build relationships or effect change in a world that seems to have receded from grasp. So it takes a long time for Jon and Meg, the would-be lovers, to come together, and when they finally do meet, they still behave like “prisoners in adjoining bloody cells”, making their courtship excruciatingly tentative and brittle. For the same reason both characters find it impossible to translate their outrage at inequality or corruption into effective opposition. Meg remembers the day she attended Thatcher’s funeral, turning her back on the cortege to mark her disgust. But this was an isolated act, and Kennedy dismisses the collectivism of the left just as she decries the effects of neo-liberalism. Like everything else, politics is now confined to the realm of the individual: “behind your eyelids there is black and there is red [but] there won’t be anarchy or revolution”.

What there will be, Jon finally decides, is “the other thing which is harder, which is love”. Love, Kennedy’s narrator adds, will save them – a conclusion reached only after a disquisition by Meg on distant power elites and their abuse of the poor and weak (“a kind of rape”). It’s an oddly forced ending, but of a piece with much else in this novel which makes uneasy comedy out of the clash between romantic sensibility and atomized society. Perhaps what expresses Kennedy’s ambiguity most eloquently in Serious Sweet are the random observations of strangers moving through the city. If you watch carefully, she seems to be saying, people are, on the whole, kind and cooperative. But underlying this is something more disquieting: the novel’s traditional job of bearing witness becomes here an act of detachment and voyeurism, the city appears at a distance from its people who regard it helplessly, as if through a window: “It’s the least you can do -”, Jon says, “watch”.

This review appeared in the Spectator on 14.5.2016 as ‘Disgusted of London’.


‘Seriously Funny: Angela Carter’s Wise Children’ – Virago 1992, 2007; Macmillan 2000; British Library 2016



This essay was first published not long after Angela Carter’s death in 1992, in Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter – a book edited by the woman Carter once told me was her “best friend”, certainly her strongest critic, Lorna Sage. In 2000, it was included in Angela Carter: Contemporary Critical Essays, edited by Alison Easton for Macmillan. Virago re-published it in 2007, in an updated edition of their book with a new Introduction by Ali Smith – one of a young generation of novelists who claim Carter as an influence. For this edition Virago inverted Sage’s title to Essays on the Art of Angela Carter: Flesh and the Mirror. In May 2016, a shorter version of the essay was included on the British Library website, Discovering Literature: Twentieth Century, under the title ‘Shakespeare and Carnival in Angela Carter’s Wise Children’.

This is the original version.



I’m sure Angela Carter would have been pleased to hear that the hottest thing in pop music these days are two young mixed-race American rappers who wear their trousers back to front and call themselves ‘Kriss Kross’. Carter’s last work of fiction, Wise Children – in the spirit of the novel one could call it, perhaps, an old bird’s eye/I view of the social, cultural, imperial and sartorial history of the century now ending – is itself patterned with intersecting tracks and grooves that are made by her characters ‘crossing, criss-crossing’ the globe, by the zigzagging lines of familial and artistic descent that reaches across and into their lives; and by the writing itself, which passes through – often parodying – many genres and styles, yet remaining something completely authentic and its own.


Wise Children is the story of ‘the imperial Hazard dynasty that bestrode the British theatre like a colossus for a century and a half’, and its bastard progeny, Dora and Nora Chance, identical twin girls who are illegitimate twice over: by birth, because their father, Melchior Hazard, denies his paternity of them time after time, and by profession, where, as a novelty act, they dance the boards in music hall, appear briefly as extras in an ill-fated Hollywood musical, and finally undress (though never beyond the G-string) in seedy postwar strip show like ‘Nudes Ahoy!’ and ‘Nudes of the World’.

The story is told by one of these lovely bastards, Dora, the wise-cracking, left-handed southside twin sister who rakes over more than a century of family romance and history. As in all the best modern fiction, the action takes place in just one day. A special day, however: it is the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, which happens also to be Dora’s and Nora’s own – this year their seventy-fifth. It is the birthday and centenary, too, of another set of twins, Melchior and Peregrine Hazard, father and uncle (but which is which?) of these performing sisters, ‘The Lucky Chances’. The double-faced Hazard/Chance family is served up to the reader as a model for Britain and Britishness, obsessively dividing itself into upper and working class, high and low culture. And just as Dora proves these strict lines of demarcation to be false within her own family, so, too, her story shows the reader how badly they fit the complexity and hybridity of British society and culture.

It is relatively easy (and Carter has a lot of fun doing this) to show how we foster and exploit binary oppositions in culture in order to justify the domination and exclusion of others, and to sustain elite privilege in society, it is a much more complicated thing to respond to the fiction, the romances – family and otherwise – which we have built upon the idea of legitimacy and illegitimacy. Master of the dialectic is William Shakespeare, whose ‘huge overarching intellectual glory’ dominates the English literary canon and whose work, like Carter’s own, is brimful with ideas of doubleness, artificiality and parody. In Wise Children Carter not only weaves Shakespeare’s stories in and out of her own, she also reminds us of the extent to which his words and ideas impregnate English culture and life: his face is on the £20 note that Dora doles out to the fallen comic, Gorgeous George; and contemporary television programmes that poach their names from him like The Darling Buds of May, May to September and To the Manor Born, all make pointed, if somewhat disguised appearances in the novel.

Part of what attracts Carter to Shakespeare is his playing out of the magnetic relationship of attraction and repulsion that exists between the legitimate and illegitimate, between energy and order. This occurs most famously, perhaps, in the sliding friendship of Prince Hal and Falstaff. Near the close of her story, Dora tries to reimagine one of Shakespeare’s cruellest moments: what if Hal, on becoming king, had not rejected Falstaff, but dug him in the ribs and offered him a job instead? What if order was permanently rejected, and we lived life as a perpetual carnival? These questions are not answered directly (and I will return to her implied answers later), but this challenge to order, to the legitimate world, is made throughout the novel. When Dora describes Nora’s first sexual experience, she warns the reader not to:

run away with the idea that it was a squalid, furtive miserable thing, to make love for the first time on a cold night in a back alley with a married man with strong drink on his breath. He was the one she wanted, warts and all, she would have him, by hook or by crook. She had a passion to know about Life, all its dirty corners, and this is how she started…(p.81)

Wise Children, then, not only challenges legitimacy, it is also a celebration of the vitality of otherness. Paradoxically, though, because the legitimate and illegitimate world rely upon one another’s mirror-image of difference through which to define themselves, such a celebration of illegitimacy necessarily implies a valorisation of the system which produces outcasts. Knowing this, one of the questions Carter asks us in the novel is: what, then, should a wise child do? Revel in wrong-sidedness and, therefore, the system that produces it, or jettison the culture of dualism altogether? In answer, Carter’s wise – though now somewhat wizened – child, Dora, pulls off the sort of conjuring trick that her Falstaffian Uncle Perry is famous for: she manages both to have her cake and eat it, to revel in her wrong-sidedness, to sustain her opposition to authority, and yet to show that the culture and society she inhabits is not one of rigid demarcation, but has always been mixed up and hybrid: Shakespeare may have become the very symbol of legitimate culture, but his work is characterised by bastardy, multiplicity and incest; the Hazard dynasty may represent propriety and tradition but they, too, are an endlessly orphaned, errant and promiscuous bunch.


(i) ‘High’ Culture: William’s Word
The Hazard family is a patriarchal institution, but its father figures (Ranulph and later his son, Melchior) find their authority deriving not from God, but from a Shakespeare who has come to seem omnipotent in the hegemony of British culture, to embody not only artistic feeling but religious and national spirit too: for Ranulph, ‘Shakespeare was a kind of God…It was as good as idolatry. He thought the whole of human life was there.’ By becoming, each in his own generation, the ‘greatest living Shakespearian’, Ranulph and then Melchior assume a kingly status themselves. Having so often rehearsed the role of Shakespearian prince or king, these actors take on the mantle of royalty itself: ‘the Hazards belonged to everyone. They were a national treasure.’

At a late stage in the family’s history, mirroring the collapse both of empire and royalty, the imbrications of ‘The Royal Family of theatre’ make them appear as vulgar and commercial as our latter-day House of Windsor. Like them, the Hazard dynasty becomes national sport, soap opera masquerading as news. But in earlier times this regal troupe of players are not only commodities for the country (‘national treasure’), they are agents of Britain’s colonial ambition. Before the fall of the House of Hazard, Ranulph’s evangelical zeal for spreading the Word of Shakespeare is so great that he ‘crosses, crisscrosses’ the globe, travelling ‘to the ends of the empire’ in his efforts to sell the religion of Shakespeare and the English values he represents:

Ranulph. He was half mad and thought he had a Call. Now he saw the entire world as his mission field…[in] the family tradition of proselytizing…the old man was seized with the most imperative desire, to go on spreading the Word overseas. (p.17)

In Tasmania, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Montreal, Toronto, Alberta and even Gun Barrel, North Dakato, Ranulph Hazard’s travelling theatre troupe meet in their audience a passion for self-fashioning as great as Shakespeare’s own. As a consequence, they leave in their wake around the globe a string of towns called Hazard.

Throughout Wise Children Carter celebrates the vital and carnivalesque in life. ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’ is Dora’s refrain, but she is aware of the effect that the enthusiasm and self-absorption of carnival can have upon others: aware, too, of the ways in which power can be harnessed by a dominant group and brought to bear upon a weaker one. So she celebrates the craziness, ‘a kind of madness’, that drives old Ranulph to travel the world taking Englishness to foreigners, yet deftly shows how intimately connected are Shakespeare’s cultural domination and British imperialism.

Ellen Terry

Carter’s connecting of art and religion reinforces this idea: Ranulph sees it as his ‘mission’ in life to perform Shakespeare throughout the world in order to persuade other people of the greatness of the Bard’s words, just as missionaries took the Bible and tried to persuade ‘natives’ of the truth of God’s Word. Ranulph Hazard’s theatre troupe literally follow in the steps of religious evangelicalism – his ‘patched and ravaged tent went up in the spaces vacated by travelling evangelicals’. They perform in ‘wild, strange and various places’, and their costumes are ‘begged or improvised or patched and darned.’ Cultural hegemony may have been an important part of the imperial vision, but acting, Carter reminds us, has always been an illegitimate profession: peripatetic, thrown-together, made-up and sexually ambivalent – in Central Park, Estella plays Hamlet in drag. Theatre, and particularly the theatre of Shakespeare, has played its role in colonising the minds of other countries, but it is also a potentially destabilising and subversive force.

(ii) ‘Low’ Culture: Gorgeous George
‘Tragedy, eternally more class than comedy,’ sighs Dora, meaning both that it has a classier pedigree than comedy and is associated with the classes rather than the masses. Carter’s qualification, however, points to her conviction that, like everything else in life, art form (choosing to write comedy rather than tragedy) is a question of politics. ‘Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people,’ she says (taking in the process, perhaps, a swipe at Martin Amis whose comedies often are).

Dora first encounters the comic Gorgeous George when she is thirteen, entertaining the masses on Brighton pier. Uncle Perry arrives unexpectedly in Brixton with a carload of good things to eat and drink, and packs the ersatz Chance family (Dora and Nora, Grandma and one of Perry’s many foundlings, ‘Our Cyn’) off to Brighton for the day. There they find George, a combination of Max Miller, Frankie Howard (‘Filthy minds, some of you have’) and Larry Grayson (’Say no more’), he comes in the tradition of the holiday camp entertainer and his jokes are endlessly insinuating, every phrase or object carrying with it some double, sexual meaning. Sex is everywhere and with it, therefore, the possibility of incest. Reflecting England’s fallen status, George’s jokes mock ideas of strength and purity, and fuel paternal anxiety about redundancy and impotency. His comedy is parodic and slippery and perfectly timed, and his punchline, when it’s finally delivered, is a withering attack on a foolishly deluded old patriarch who thinks himself the greatest stud around: the son, taken in by his father’s boasts of promiscuity, becomes worried about committing incest with some unknown bastard offspring, but his mother tells him not to worry because, after all, ‘E’s not you father.’ B-bum!

George’s final coup de grâce, after singing ‘Rose of England’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘God Save the King’, and ‘Rule Britannia’, is to strip off before his dazzled audience and reveal a torso tattooed with a map of the world: ‘George was not a comic at all but an enormous statement.’ But even a statement as blatant as the pink- (for British colonies) dominated world (Dora smartly picks out Ireland, South Africa and the Falkland Islands) emblazoned across the body of this latter-day St George is fraught with ambiguity. Unlike St George of old, Gorgeous George no longer wins battles and rules the waves; he merely represents the idea of conquest. He is a walking metaphor, an effete mirror-image. George shows us an empire falling; having once dominated the world, this Englishman can now be master of only one space: his own body.

George’s decline, like the British Empire’s, continues apace. Dora encounters him once more as an anachronistic Bottom (his kind of peculiarly English comedy doesn’t travel) in the Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a debacle over which Melchior presides, and in which she and Nora have bit parts (they play Mustardseed and Peaseblossom). Finally, back in London, George ends up hitting rock bottom: Dora, catching a glimpse of his pink tattoo, recognises him in the pathetic street beggar who approaches her for the price of a cup of tea.

(iii) Fallen
If Shakespeare provides English literary culture with a model for plurality, it is in Milton, particularly in Paradise Lost, that we find a model for dualism in the world, a dualism resulting from the patriarchal and monistic vision of Christianity. One of Dora’s refrains (she has a few up her sleeve) is the Miltonic phrase, ‘Lo, how the mighty are fallen’, which is both a silly semantic joke and a serious intimation of the world she inhabits. Many of the descriptions of fallenness in Wise Children are specifically Miltonic or Christian: for instance, both Melchior and Peregrine are figured as Godlike and Satanic. Peregrine lands into the lives of the naked, innocent, unselfconscious and therefore Eve-like Nora and Dora as Adam arrived on earth: out of nowhere. And it is of Adam that Dora thinks when she sees him, because this is to be her First Man, the man who, like the fallen angel Lucifer, will first seduce her. In the same way Melchior, ‘our father’ who ‘did not live in heaven’ but who, God-like, is worshipped by the girls from afar, is also given a Satanic side: he appears ‘tall, dark and handsome’ with ‘knicker-shifting’ eyes, dressed in ‘a black evening cape with a scarlet lining’. Later he is Count Dracula (a late-nineteenth-century Satanic pretender), ordering Dora and Nora to carry dirt over from Stratford – as Dracula had carried it from Transylvania – to scatter on the Hollywood set of his film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In Hollywood, the English colony represents a parody version of the once great Empire, playing Disraeli, Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale. Just as in Ranulph’s generation English theatre was shown to embody the nation’s imperial strength, so now the film industry in Hollywood symbolises America’s new role as a world power. Melchior’s attempt to produce a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is his way of trying to conquer Hollywood, ‘his chance to take North America back for England, Shakespeare and St George.’ But the trip to Hollywood is presaged by the burning down of Melchior’s manor house, and with the English theatre symbolically erased in the fire, ‘the final degeneration of the House of Hazard’ ensues. Ultimately we find Melchior’s son Tristram, the ‘weak but charming, game-show presenter and television personality, last gasp of the imperial Hazard dynasty’, presiding over an S/M game show.

Titania and the Indian Prince, Max Reinhardt’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1935

(iv) The End

The sense of limitless freedom that I, as a woman, sometimes feel is that of a new kind of being. Because I simply could not have existed as I am, in any other preceding time or place. I am the product of an advanced industrialised, post-imperial country in decline.

It is typical of Carter that unlike many modernist writers she sees in the decline of empire – to adapt Brecht – not the death of bad old things but the birth of good new ones – her own liberation, for instance. Symbolising the newness that the death of the old might now bring into being, Wise Children is scattered with what Salman Rushdie, in a short story, called ‘the eggs of love’ . Dora’s and Nora’s bottoms jiggle like hard-boiled eggs; there are dried eggs during the war and smuggled black-market ones; Scotch eggs that landladies put out for supper; and in the snow, Dora sees egg-shaped depressions.

This is a cuspy, millennial novel, and ‘millennia’, Carter believes, ‘always gets strange towards the end’. Part of Wise Children’s strangeness is due, perhaps, to the disconcerting sense of beginnings and possibility at the moment of ending, of death. The story’s finale has a riotous celebration for the now-centenarian Melchior and Peregrine, after which Dora (who, at seventy-five has herself been thinking about calling it a day), finds that she and Nora have suddenly had motherhood thrust upon them. They toddle home – these unmarried, non-biological and overage mothers – ‘Drunk in charge of a baby carriage’.

Death has a strong presence in this book – not just the end of empire or the death of the patriarch, which Dora is happy to let go – but a sense of the presence of death in the midst of life. Dora is someone who wrestles with this, a spirited fighter who refuses to grieve for long, or give in to defeat. ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery’, our autodidact narrator recites from Jane Austen. Dora’s optimism derives from both a moral and a political sense of duty learned at her grandma’s knee, whose often-recited maxim, ‘Hope for the best, expect the worst’ lies on the map somewhere between Gramsci’s ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ and St Augustine’s ‘ Don’t presume, don’t despair’. Neither she nor Nora sheds a tear at the news of their beloved Tiffany’s death, though both are heartbroken by it. ‘Life must go on,’ says Nora, refusing to be engulfed by despair.

One of Wise Children’s characteristic inversions of the supposed order of life is that no one dies of old age, all are ‘untimely’ deaths – the only ‘true tragedy’, Dora says wisely: Grandma, hit by a flying bomb on her way to the off-license; Cyn’s husband, killed in North Africa in the war, and Cyn herself succumbing to the Asian flu of ’49 (the cat to the cat flu of ’51); Dora’s lover, Irish, makes his last exit in Hollywood caused by too much booze and a ‘dicky-ticker’; finally there is the apparent suicide of their godchild, the young, mixed-race Tiff, who, Ophelia-like, seems to have made her suicide a watery one, into the bosom of Old Father Thames. But this is just one of the instances in which – to use Edward Said’s phrase – Carter ‘writes back’. Her Ophelia does not give in to patriarchal abuse (by committing suicide in Father Thames): like Carter she, too, imagines herself as ‘a new kind of being’, and in the end it is she (the illegitimate outsider) who lays down the new rules of play for the Hazard dynasty.


(i) Pluralism and Difference
In Wise Children, Carter is able to suggest a jumbled, impure multi-culture, while showing clearly that class, racial and sexual elites which seek to exclude otherness are still a powerful and conditioning force. A reader of Foucault, Carter fully understood the way in which the dualistic structures that belong to the dying past – to Christianity, patriarchy and empire – are still extant in the present. By showing Shakespeare at the heart of English culture, as the ‘author of our being’, father to both the Hazards and the Chances (legitimate and illegitimate share his birthday), Carter is arguing that plurality and hybridity are not simply conditions of modernity, products of its wreckage, but have always existed and are characteristic of life itself. From this it follows that she does not see in plurality, as many postmodernists do, a nihilistic loss of value; rather, an existential acceptance of the facts of life and death in which contradictions are a sign of hope, and difference has to be negotiated rather than fought over as if there were only one place of rightness, one correct way of living that must be identically reproduced the whole world over. This is something that Dora’s grandma knows innately – feels it, as Dora does, ‘in her ancient water’. When, in wartime, she waves her stick in the air at the bombers overhead, she recognises that war is a result of patriarchal insistence upon monism: men fight to wipe out women and children (whom ‘she knew they hated…worst of all’ – because they are most other); but forever locked in some recidivist oedipal struggle, they fight, as well, to stop younger men stealing their thunder, to stop them taking away their distinguished mantles of poet or god.

(ii) Glasshouse Fun
But while men continue to fight wars, to battle for absolute control of land or language, Carter tells us we live now in a world of endless refraction. The days when a looking-glass reflected just one wicked witch, one absolute image of otherness, are gone. Now we have cinema, television, radio and video splintering the world ‘in a gallery of mirrors’ , a glasshouse of perpetual reproduction. Our relationship to these multiple, often contradictory reflections, especially for women, is as important and as determining as our relationship to other people. It is this awareness, critics like Lorna Sage have argued, that defines much of Carter’s work and makes it unique.

In Wise Children, however, the glasshouse is not the house of horror, the bloody chamber we have peered into with Carter so often in the past. These characters are not the glassy, fragile forms of some of her reworked fairy stories, eternally caged by images not of their own making. Dora’s narrative is a much freer, bouncier one, with a resilience that comes from a new kind of resourcefulness. Perhaps we have now lived long enough with our own shadow selves, Carter seems to be suggesting, that we are at last learning how to gain some control over them. Dora is a toughie, a survivor and a canny self-observer, and is not imprisoned by her female sexuality or the multitude of images of femininity that surround her. Rather, she seems like one of Shakespeare’s bastards, Edmund, determined not to let the Dionysian wheel of fate settle her life, but to find in the chance of her wrong-sidedness neither shame nor restraint, but opportunity. Because of this Dora is able to enjoy her own body, and the bodies of other women too. Maybe one of the meanings of the twins is a rather Laingian one: the idea that one need not be afraid of one’s image, but should embrace it, love it instead. Like the autoerotic Dora and Nora, one can ‘feast’ on oneself. (However, this enlightening idea finds it dark equation on the Hazard side, where the family seal is of an animal devouring itself – a pelican pecking at its own breast. This is because in a value system that is monistic, self-love – as I suggested above in the case of Ranulph and Melchior – inevitably implies incest or its correlative, cannibalism.)


‘Dread and delight coursed through my veins. I thought, what have I done..’ Perhaps part of the reason for Dora’s dread and delight when she momentarily wonders whether, as a young girl, she had fucked her Uncle Perry, has to do with the idea of gaining power not with a man’s weapon – his strength; but with a woman’s – her sex. One way for Dora, the outsider, to gain access to power and legitimacy of ‘the House of Hazard’ is to fuck her way inside, or at least to bring it to its knees by transgressing its laws of order and hierarchy: uncles are not supposed to have sex with their nieces, particularly when they are only thirteen – Dora’s age, it finally transpires, when Peregrine first seduced her.

Wise Children is like the proverbial Freudian nightmare aided and abetted (as Freud was himself) by Shakespearian example. Dora’s family story is crammed with incestuous love and oedipal hatred: there are sexual relationships between parent and child (where this is not technically so, actor-parents marry their theatrical offspring – in two generations of Hazards, Lears marry Cordelias); and between sister and brother (Melchior’s children Saskia and Tristram). And there is oedipal hatred between child and parent (Saskia twice tries to poison her father, and she and her twin sister Imogen are guilty of either pushing their mother down a flight of stairs or at least of leaving her there, an invalid, once she has fallen); and between parent and child (‘All the same, he [Ranulph] loved his boys. He cast them as princes in the tower as soon as they could toddle. ) Nor is Dora’s name accidental. In another example of ‘writing back’, Carter’s Dora, unlike her Freudian namesake, suffers very little psychic damage from lusting after her father (she ‘fell in love the first time she saw him’) or her uncle, or a string of father substitutes (men old enough to be) with whom she has affairs. The fact that it is the female (sisterly) body which seems most erotic to her (the nape of Saskia’s neck, Nora’s jiggling bottom) is for this Dora a cause for celebration, rather than self-hatred. Her half-sisters, Saskia and Imogen, fare less well in the game of family romance. On hearing her father, Melchior, is about to marry her best friend (another form of incest), ‘Saskia’s wails approached hysteria, whereupon Melchior smartly smacked her cheek…She shut up at once.’ It is because of this betrayal, and her father’s silencing of her anger, that Saskia takes revenge by seducing the couple’s son and her half-brother, Tristram.

Ironically, then, it is the legitimate daughters, Saskia and Imogen, who end up emotionally crippled by their family relationships (though this, perhaps, is a reflection of how rotten the family has become). These weird and troubled sisters might have received greater attention in Carter of an earlier vintage, but here Dora asserts: ‘I refuse point-blank to play in tragedy.’ Perhaps because in dealing with illegitimacy in the past, particularly female illegitimacy, Carter, in her highly wrought and self-conscious work, had sometimes aestheticised pain, even death, now, facing her own, she wanted to face it more squarely or not at all. ‘We knew nothing was a matter of life and death except life and death.’

Dora’s story-telling is a spilling of all the family secrets, bringing the skeletons out of the closet and exposing them to bright lights. This is a comment in itself: no more family secrets, no more lies, no more illegitimacies, Dora seems to assert, yet there is a powerful and unresolved tension in Wise Children between the idea of family secrets and family romance. As the Hazard/Chance family has been shown in the novel to symbolise the broader culture, so too, there is a tension between a desire for openness and equality – a world without secrets or bastards – and the seductive pull of romances from unofficial places, stories from the wrong side of the blanket, form ‘the wrong side of the tracks’.


Mikhail Bakhtin argues that language is inherently dialogic because it implies a listener who must also be another speaker. It’s a proposition that Carter, the iconoclast, agreed with and tried to illuminate in her writing: ‘A piece of fiction is never static. I purposely try to make what I write open-ended, “user-friendly”’. She demonstrates this in Wise Children by employing a first-person narrator (a form, she said, that men were afraid to use, because it was too revealing). Carter’s mouthpiece, ‘I, Dora Chance’, speaks to her reader as if she expected him or her to reply: ‘There I go again! Can’t keep a story in a straight line, can I?’ At the beginning of the book Dora tells us that she is writing her autobiography on a word-processor on the morning of her seventy-fifth birthday, but the vernacular force of her speech is so great that later she magically appears to transcend the written word, becoming, instead, the old bird who’s collared you in the local boozer:

Well, you might have known what you were about to let yourself in for when you let Dora Chance in her ratty old fur and poster paint, her orange (Persian Melon) toenails sticking out of her snakeskin peep-toes, reeking of liquor, accost you in the Coach and Horses and let her tell you a tale. (p.227)

Dora’s a reader-teaser, endlessly drawing attention to herself by postponing the moment of revelation (‘but I don’t propose to tell you, not now…’) or prodding her reader into paying attention because ‘Something unscripted is about to happen’. She’s also a demythologiser, keen to let her reader in on the tricks of the trade: a chronicler not just of the Hazard and Chance families but of fashion through the ages – talking about brand names, she says: ‘If you get little details like that right, people will believe anything’. As with this last sentence, her gist is always more than surface level, and a huge part of the fun of reading Wise Children lies in seeing how far you can unpack the layers of meaning. How far too, you can unpick the words of others that have been woven into Carter’s/Dora’s own. There is Shakespeare everywhere, but other writers also: Milton, Sterne, Wordsworth (‘If the child is father of the man…then who is the mother of the woman?’), Dickens, Lewis Carroll making an appearance as a purveyor of ‘kiddiporn’, Samuel Butler, Shaw, Dostoevsky (‘My crime is my punishment’), Henry James and Tennessee Williams (‘They lived on room service and the kindness of strangers’) are just a random selection.

Like any postmodern novel worth its salt, Wise Children not only steals freely from other literary texts but also takes from the texts of other people’s lives and uses these too. In Hollywood, Carter has a field day. Armed, I’d say with the dirt-dishing Kenneth Anger, she has a roster of stars making guest appearances – sometimes as themselves, sometimes in various kinds of drag: featured players are Charlie Chaplin ‘hung like a horse’, Judy Garland (Ranulph’s wife is known as Estella ‘A Star Danced’ Hazard and was ‘born in a trunk’), Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and his wife Adele, Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, Jessie Mathews, Josephine Baker, Jack Warner, W.C. Fields, Gloria Swanson, Paul Robeson, Orson Welles (‘old buffers in…vintage port and miniature cigar commercials’), Clark Gable, Howard Hughes, Ivor Novello and Nöel Coward (Dora’s and Nora’s first dancing teacher is called Mrs Worthington), Daisy Duck with her missing back molars (it enhances the cheekbones) is a mixture of Lana Turner and Jean Harlow, ending up like Joan Crawford in TV soaps giving ‘good décolleté’. Daisy’s ‘peel me a prawn’ line is Mae West’s ‘Beulah, peel me a grape’ from I’m No Angel, and her Puck, with a ‘face like an old child’, is Mickey Rooney, who starred as Robin Goodfellow in the original model for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Erich von Stroheim is the model for Genghis Khan, the whip-cracking, jodhpured director with a penchant for cruelty and steak-eating orchids, and Dora’s alcoholic, scriptwriting boyfriend, Irish, is an amalgam of many writers – Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West and William Faulkner – finally succumbing to the abundant alcohol and indifference doled out in equal measures by the studio system. There’s a veiled portrait, too, of Brecht in Hollywood, whom Dora employs to teach her German and likes because he’s one of the few people she meets out there who aren’t terminally optimistic: ‘What I say is, fuck the bourgeoisie.’

Wise Children has songs, too: music-hall and patriotic war songs, jazz and pop. And good and bad jokes: as well as Carter’s own (‘Why are they called Pierrots?’…’Because they do their stuff on piers’), she pastiches older camp comedians like Frankie Howard and Larry Grayson, and picks up on the more recent Thatcherite humour of Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’, turning it into Tristram’s ghastly catchphrase ‘Lashings of Lolly’.

If her sources of material are eclectic, so too is her method of writing – Carter trips lightly through many styles and genres: she is an expressionist who paints ‘a female city, red-eyed, dressed in black’; a magical realist, a student of Hawthorne, Nabokov and Borges, wreathing Perry in magic butterflies; a graffitist scratching ‘Melchior slept here’ across her page; and a montage Surrealist: ‘She was our air-raid shelter; she was our entertainment; she was our breast.’ Carter is a conjuror baiting her audience – ‘All in good time I shall reveal to you how’; a romance novelist who knows where the big bucks are to be found – ‘Romantic illegitimacy. Always a seller’; a teller of tales – ‘If you believe that …’; and wise old wives’ tales. She’s a re-teller of fairy stories – ‘Once upon a time…’/’It had come to pass…’; and autobiographer and ‘inadvertent chronicler’, farceur and tragedian, fabulist and ‘rival realist’ – Sage’s phrase for Carter’s through-the-looking-glass world.

But just as this is a wise book, knowing about culture, history and politics, it is also a childlike one. The house at 49 Bard Road that Dora and Nora live in all their lives is reminiscent of the kind found in English children’s stories. Its large musty room and odd-striking grandfather clock, (mysteriously) absent father and mother, and presiding grandmother left to eke out the rent by taking in strange boarders, are all staples of the genre. Oprhaned children are free children – free of the sexually proscribing authority of their mum and dad, at least, so perhaps the (Wildean) habit of rather forgetfully losing your parents in these stories (as it patently is in Wise Children), is strategic: a way of allowing characters a little more space in which to fashion themselves.

Finally, as well as employing all these styles in her own writing, Carter shows us how a familiarity with many ways of seeing is a part of the modern condition: Dora is not only a passive observer of different genres, she also employs them to shape her own world. She does this to heighten experience, but also self-consciously, even paradoxically, to gain a sense of the constructedness of life by turning people into actors. For instance, when Estella leaves for America she imagines herself in a scene from a movie, and when Melchior, at the age of twelve, absconds from the home of his ‘dour as hell’ puritan aunt, he does so as a character from a children’s story, as Dick Whittington.


(i) Literal Fathers
The question of paternity arises everywhere in Wise Children. Just ‘what does a father do?’ and ‘what is he for?’, Dora asks. And well she might, given the example of the Hazard men, all of whom disown their children in one way or another. Ranulph leaves his twin sons Tristram and Gareth, fatherless, abandoning them when he shoots their mother and himself in a lovers’ quarrel; Melchior and Peregrine, learning from their father’s example, are equally forgetful about their fatherly responsibilities. Melchior forgets to love his children, and when he remembers, it’s the chilly, arm’s-length affection that the wealthy inadequately bestow on their young. He denies paternity of Dora and Nora altogether, of course – the bastard girls he sired with his landlady one night in Brixton. (Perhaps the reason Grandma creates a romance out of her origins and out of Dora’s and Nora’s is to protect them from their repudiating father, to allow them the freedom of making themselves up rather than being determined by Melchior’s dismissal.) His brother Peregrine, a lavisher of all kinds of love, while watching wistfully after Saskia (and this is ambivalent – are his feeling for her sexual or fatherly?), denies his paternity of both her and her twin sister Imogen.

At the end of this line, Tristram stands no chance as a parent. Not, that is, until his lover, Tiffany, fights back, makes demands upon him, setting down preconditions for his fatherhood. What Carter hints at here is that it is the absence of practising fathers that causes so much grief and confusion: meaning that fathers, having never properly experienced fatherly feelings, often confuse them with sexual ones – hence the tradition of marrying your daughter, of Lears loving Cordelias, in the Hazard family. In the same way, absent fathers are mysterious fathers, which is why these enigmatic creatures become, for their children, the object of such longing and romance.

However, it is the errant behaviour of fathers that creates, among the Hazards and the Chances, so much opportunity for the breakdown of order, for transgression. It seems that in some way fatherly absence is what creates the carnival. That men are such recalcitrant parents stems from their carnival instincts, a sense of narcissism (Peregrine is far too self-involved to be able to give himself permanently as a parent); selfishness (Melchior is more interested in his work than in his children); and a desire not to be controlled or determined within a family order which limits the patriarch just as it confines women.

(ii) Literary Fathers
Such fatherly ambivalence, Carter suggests in Wise Children, might be rooted not only in carnival selfishness but in the anxiety of paternity: the eternal ‘gigantic question mark over the question of their paternity’. It is this forever unresolved uncertainty about their role in biological creativity that has led men to create a mystique around artistic, and especially literary, creativity: as critics like Gilbert and Gubar have shown, the anxiety of paternity translated into the anxiety of authorship. Here, however, Carter seems to be arguing that women, whose role in biological creativity is not in doubt (‘“Father” is a hypothesis but “mother” is a fact’), should now begin to shrug off the male anxiety that they, as writers, have been made to assume, and stop asking question such as ‘Is the pen a phallus?’ Dora does not romanticise or transform sex into something other than it is (which is what men do in their mystifying of the creative process, to cover their feelings of inadequacy); she enjoys it for what it is. A straight-thinking woman, Dora would never mistake a pen for a penis.


As I suggested above, the Bakhtinian idea of carnival is central to Wise Children. In particular, Carter plays out ideas about sexuality’s relationship to the carnivalesque transgression of order – a transgression that is, according to Bakhtin, at once both sanctioned and illegitimate. Jane Miller has argued in a collection of essays, that because of the breakdown of all barriers, particularly linguistic and bodily ones, that carnival entails, women do not appear in Bakhtin’s work as distinct from men: carnival’s amassing experience, which collapse laughter with fear, pleasure with nausea, where the world become ‘infinitely reversible and remakeable,’ ends up denying female difference. The reason Miller tenders for ‘the inability of even these writers [Bakhtin, Volosinov and other Formalists who are interested in power] to make gender difference and sexual relations central to their work’ is that they are limited by their ‘particular history and their own place in it’. What Carter seems to suggest in Wise Children, however, is a prior problem. It is not just a question of Bakhtin denying difference, denying ‘those pains and leakages that are not common to both sexes’, but that women and carnival might, ultimately, be inimical because female biology and the fact of motherhood make women an essentially connecting force, while carnival is essentially the celebration of transgression and breakdown.

Without entering into the debate about whether transgression can be revolutionary if it is sanctioned by authority perhaps it is in this seeming paradox in Bakhtin’s argument – that carnival’s transgression are both allowed and disallowed – that we can see how well-suited a model carnival is to masculinity, and how ill-suited it is to femininity.

Although some women in Wise Children possess characteristics that might be thought of as carnivalesque, it is a man, Peregrine, who embodies it: he is ‘not so much a man, more of a travelling carnival’. Peregrine is red and rude, a big man and, in the classic Rabelaisian manner, a boundary-buster, growing bigger all the time. To Dora and Nora he is the proverbial rich American uncle, a sugar daddy whose fortunes dramatically rise and fall but who, when he is in the money, spreads his bounty around with extravagance and enjoyment. He is a big bad wolf of an uncle, too, a randy old devil who seduces the pubescent Dora when she is just thirteen. He is a multiple man, and his multiplicity makes him as elusive as the butterflies he ends up pursuing as a lepidopterist in the Brazilian jungle: to Dora and Nora ‘He gave…all his histories, we could choose which ones we wanted – but they kept on changing, so. That was the trouble.’ He is a contradictory presence, a very ‘material ghost’, in whom Dora sees all her lovers pass by as she and he make love at Melchior’s tumultuous birthday party.

If Peregrine’s history is unknowable because he is so multiple, Grandma’s origins are unknown because she refuses to reveal them: ‘our maternal side founders in a wilderness of unknowability’. Grandma arrived in Bard Road at the beginning of the century with no past but enough money to set her going for a year. She is a mystery woman, dateless, nameless, ‘She’d invented herself, she was a one-off’, just as later she invents her family. And like Perry, she is a woman of contradiction, a naturist who happily reveals her naked body to the world, yet speaks with an elocuted voice, a disguise that sometimes slips as she forgets herself and ‘talks up a blue streak’. She and Perry get along famously – they are kindred spirits who joke about the idea of their being married.

Estella, Dora and Nora’s ‘real’ grandmother, also come close to one of the few descriptions of womanhood in Bakhtin’s work (‘she represents…the undoing of pretentiousness, of all that is finished, competed, exhausted’): Estella’s ‘hair was always coming undone…tumbling down her back, spraying out hairpins in all direction, her stockings at half-mast, her petticoat would come adrift in the middle of the street, her drawers start drooping. She was a marvel, and she was a mess.’ And through her affair with a younger man, Estella is the undoing of Ranulph’s old order. But unlike Perry, who is able to skip away from all his sexual transgressions, Estella is destroyed in the Othelloesque orgy of jealousy and retribution that ensues from her affair.

In the same way, Saskia is a force who wreaks havoc, but like Estella she, too, pays a price. If Saskia’s disruptiveness is carnivaleque, there is little of the carnival’s laughter in her. Saskia’s anger, as it commonly is in women, is directed to the domestic sphere of food and cooking. As a child she’d played a witch in a production of her father’s Macbeth, ‘but she’d shown more interest in the contents of her cauldron than her name in lights’. In later life she continues to be an ‘unnatural’ witchy woman who, rather than nurturing, seems intent upon poisoning people. From the age of five, when she’s seen under a bush devouring the bloody carcass of a swan, to her twenty-first birthday party, when she serves up a duck ‘swimming in blood’, her conspicuous consumption of meat is perhaps some sort of profane attempt to make herself feel legitimate, to be flesh of her father’s flesh. But finally, Melchior’s marriage to her best friend forces Saskia to recognise herself as a terminal outsider and, unable to gain the love she needs from her father, she sets about poisoning him instead. (Conversely, the motherly Grandma, who repudiates men, is an avid vegetarian: ‘she’d a passion for salads, it went with all that naturism. During her strictest periods, she’d make us a meal of cabbage, raw in summer, boiled in winter.’)

The Lady Atalante Lynde, Melchior’s first wife, after falling downstairs (or was she pushed by Saskia and Imogen?), comes to live in Dora and Nora’s basement, and is rechristened Wheelchair in honour of her new invalid status. Once at Bard Road she seems to undergo some sort of transformation: losing her upper-class tightness, she becomes another bawdy, bardy woman, asking a grocer ‘Have you got anything in the shape of a cucumber, my good fellow?’ But her transformation isn’t only psychological. Rather like Flann O’Brien’s bicyclists, or one of Bruno Schulz’s fabulous creatures, Lynde passes through a ‘migration of forms’ – the woman becomes her wheelchair, or at least, they become a part of one another. Welded together they now, like twins, contain something of the other’s personality. After a breakfast of bacon, Dora describes Wheelchair as ‘nicely greased’.

All these women, and Dora too, have elements of carnival in them, but none of them personifies it as Peregrine does. Perhaps this has something to do with carnival’s relationship to order. Carter has argued that in the ‘real’ world, ‘to be a woman is to be in drag’. If in the carnival world, by putting on masks and being other than we are, we transgress the order of the ‘real’ world, then what does this play-acting mean for women who, in the ‘real’ world, already exist in a duplicitous state of affectation? The idea of carnival seems to presuppose a monistic world: the experience of femininity contradicts this, implying that the ‘real’ world is itself a place of diversity, of masks and deception.

We can understand better the idea of carnival being both licensed and illicit if we see how masculinity operates within it. In Wise Children the anarchic solipsism of carnival allows a forty-year old man (Peregrine) to seduce/rape a thirteen-year-old girl (Dora). It could be argued that patriarchy relies upon such masculine transgression of order as a reminder and a symbol of the very force which shores it up. This is what Carter seems to be saying in Wise Children about the function of war in society: that patriarchy legitimates the violent disorders of war in order to sustain itself. Attractive as carnival’s disorder can be to women who have been trapped by patriarchy, when women become the object of this disorder – as they are in war, or in rape, or in ‘kiddiporn’ – then the idea of carnival becomes much more problematic for them, and their relation to it becomes an inevitably ambivalent one: as with Estella and Saskia, carnival is as likely to defeat women as it is to bring down order.


Nora and I were well content. We’d finally wormed our way into the heart of the family we’d always wanted to be part of. They’d asked us on the stage and let us join in, legit. at last. There was a house we all had in common and it was called the past, even though we’d lived in different rooms. (p.226)

At the end of Wise Children, when Dora and Perry are having sex for the last time (‘you remember the last time just like you remember the first’), Dora fantasises about what it would be like to bring the house down, to fuck it away in some glorious carnival orgy of destruction. She toys with the idea, sensing the excitement of exerting such eradicating (warlike) power. In the end, though, Dora decides that this is not something she wants to do, because although her historical house has sometimes been a painful place to live in, a place from which people have tried to eject her, it is also where her history, her story, lies. Bastard that Dora is, this is a house that she has built too. (That the house is a metaphor for the literary canon is quite clear. Should those left outside trash the house of fiction, or try to renovate it?)

For all Dora’s carnivalesque enthusiasm, and despite her part in conjuring the fantasy world of illusion, of having lived amidst the ‘bruising dew-drops’, she’s always been able to tell the difference between what is real and fake, between what is tragedy (untimely death) and what isn’t (a broken heart). In an interview in 1984 Angela Carter said that she was essentially ‘an old-fashioned feminist’; her preoccupations were with the material condition of women: ‘abortion law, access to further education, equal rights and the position of black women’. On pornography she said: ‘I don’t think it’s nearly as damaging as the effects of the capitalist system.’ Dora, too, is of this materialist persuasion:

wars are facts we cannot fuck away, Perry; nor laugh away either.
Do you hear me Perry?
No. (p.221)

Perry cannot hear Dora because at some level the irrational, possibilising, illusion-making carnivaler cannot entertain the ordered, hard ‘real world’. But just as Dora would not throw away the historical house of order, she would not banish the chaos of the carnival either. Because it seems to her ‘as if fucking itself were the origin of illusion’, and in this carnival world of illusion – in fucking, laughter and art – there is the possibility to conceive of the world differently, to break down the old. There are ‘limits to the power of laughter’ – the carnival can’t rewrite history, undo the effects of war or alter what’s happening on the ‘news’. And there is no transcendence possible in life, Carter tells us, from the materiality of the moment, from the facts of oppression and war. But carnival does offer us the tantalising promise of how things might be in a future moment, if we altered the conditions which tie us down. It is only the carnival which can give us such imagined possibilities, which is why the creative things that make it up in life are so precious: laughter, sex and art.

Dora’s art reports from both sides of the tracks, chronicling a history of exclusion and opposition, but also of wrong-sided exuberance. She ends her story, and her day, with Gareth’s new babies, pocketed deep inside the folds of Perry’s greatcoat (carnival bringing newness into the world). As ever in the dialectical Hazard/Chance family, they turn out to be twins, but this time the old sexual divisions are broken, for this latest double-act signals a change of direction – these wise children are ‘boy and girl, a new thing in our family’. And who knows where such a strange combination might lead? With this challenge, Angela Carter signed off. Leaving the reader, in the best Bakhtinian fashion, holding the babies. But if we attend, we can hear her out there riding Dora’s wind: ‘What a wind! Whooping and banging all along the street…The kind of wind that gets into the blood and drives you wild. Wild.’ Listen, wise children, can’t you hear her shouting to us: ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’

1. Spring 1993
2. Angela Carter, Wise Children, Vintage, p.19.
3. If this seems rather to schematising a response, then I call in my defence Carter herself, who often iterated the idea that she intended her fiction to have direct political meaning: ‘My characters always have a tendency to be telling you something’ (Omnibus, BBC1, 16 September 1992); ‘in the end my ambition is rather an eighteenth-century “Enlightenment” one – to write fiction that entertains and, in a sense, instructs’ (Contemporary Writers: Angela Carter, Book Trust for the British Council, 1990); ‘I believe that all myths are products of the human mind and reflect only aspects of material human practice. I’m in the demythologising business’ (Angela Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor [ed.,], On Gender and Writing, 1983).
4. Omnibus
5. ‘All art is political and so is mine. I want readers to understand what it is that I mean by my stories…’ (unpublished interview with Kate Webb, 15 December 1985).
6. Martin Amis, Other People, Penguin, 1981.
7. Angela Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’.
8. Salman Rushdie, ‘Eating the Eggs of Love’, The Jaguar Smile, Picador, 1987.
9. Interview with Mary Harron: ‘I’m a socialist, damn it! How can you expect me to be interested in fairies?’, Guardian, September, 1984.
10. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, Chatto & Windus, 1993.
11. Foucault makes this argument in many of his works. It is a particularly strong theme of Discipline and Punish, Penguin, 1975, and The History of Sexuality, Volume One, Penguin, 1976.
12. Omnibus.
13. Contemporary Writers, Book Trust.
14. Carter gets the wheel of fate into the novel by having Tristram spin a wheel (of fortune) on his S/M game show.
15. This is an idea which permeates all of R.D. Laing’s work, but is the cornerstone of The Divided Self, Pelican, 1965.
16. It would take another full essay to delineate all the Freudian and Shakespearian connections in Wise Children. Here, I am just trying to indicate the extent to which they penetrate the novel.
17. Angela Carter died of cancer on 16 February 1992.
18. Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on carnival is to be found in Rabelais and His World, Indiana University Press, 1984; Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Manchester University Press, 1984; and The Dialogic Imagination, University of Texas Press, 1981.
19. Contemporary Writers, Book Trust.
20. There is a pub called the Coach and Horse on Clapham Park Road, equidistant from where Angela Carter lived in Clapham and the road where we might suppose that Dora lives in Brixton. Not Bard Road, of course (this is Carter’s invention), but Shakespeare Road, which – with Milton Road, Spenser Road and Chaucer Road – runs off Railton Road. It is also just over from Brixton Water Lane, the street known traditionally for providing digs to the theatrical profession (it is here that Marilyn Monroe’s chorus girl lives in the film The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957). Railton Road was the heart of the area known as the ‘Front Line’ before the riots of 1981 and 1983, after which Lambeth Council knocked down half of it. When, later in the novel, Dora says she prefers the heat of Railton Road at half-past twelve on a Saturday night to the freezing country house of Melchior’s first wife, she is both making a political statement – choosing the culture of the colonised over that of the empire-builders – and talking about the relative culture of these two groups. At Lady Lynde’s house she is offered lousy food and a cold bed. On a Saturday night on Railton Road, Dora would have found blues parties, drugs, booze and many other people who felt ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’. [The rather tatty Irish pub, The Coach and Horses, is now called The White House ,and had been turned into a fancy nightclub with bouncers at the door and stretch limos in the street. – KW 2009]
21. Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Bablyon, Straight Arrow Books, 1975. [No doubt Angela was aware that Anger played the Indian prince in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the inspiration for the one she writes about here. – KW 2009]
22. Contemporary Writers, Book Trust.
23. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale University Press, 1979.
24 Jane Miller, Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture, Virago, 1990.
25 ibid.
26. ibid.
27. I’m thinking here of the New Historicist writing on Shakespeare, and of Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Parody, Methuen, 1985.
28. Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, Picador, 1980.
29. Omnibus.
30. Interview with Mary Harron.


Patrick Flanery, I Am No One. Atlantic Books – Spectator


“First and last I was, and always would be, an American”, Jeremy O’Keefe, the professorial narrator of Patrick Flanery’s new novel, insists, with just the kind of pedantic over-emphasis that makes the reader suspicious. Equally dubious is the way that he talks. Having spent the last decade at Oxford, teaching and writing a book about the Stasi, O’Keefe’s speech is now an odd mixture of affectation and deracination (“faux-artisanal”, “helicoptering”, ). On his return to New York he finds that he is ignored or mistaken for an Englishman – something which affronts him as much as his Oxford colleagues, with “their exclusionary quality”, refusing to accept him as one of their own. His memory, too, is in doubt. When boxes containing lists of his emails and ‘phone calls arrive at his apartment, O’Keefe wonders if he sent them to himself. And now a man is watching him from the street below. Is he paranoid, or is someone monitoring his every move?

The possibilities are endless, and O’Keefe, a fastidious intellectual, is determined to explore them all in his written account of what he thinks has happened. The word “or” occurs repeatedly, leaving the reader to determine whether his uncertainty is the result of enlightened speculation or deliberate obfuscation. Perhaps, as an Egyptian student with whom he becomes entangled, implies, it’s a way of masking the latter with the former. Then again, his tendency to dilate the story could be merely a sign of vanity. Like Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, O’Keefe expects the law to close in on him at any moment. He feels guilty, though he’s unsure of what exactly, and he fantasizes about the purpose of his “confession”. Might it be “entered into evidence”, subversive enough to “classify”, or just an “eccentric legacy” left to his heirs? At any rate, he’s playing to an audience, his imagination so excited at the thought of being an object of even the state’s attention, that he dreams of being hooded and handcuffed, incarcerated in some Guantanamo-type prison.

Patrick Flanery, 2016

Patrick Flanery, 2016

As a professor of history rather than literature, O’Keefe is not quite the stylist Humbert was, but the seminar he teaches on the Cinema of Surveillance has made him think about genre and he teases his readers about whether he’s writing a thriller or a melodrama. In the event, I Am No One, the novel encasing his testimony, follows no pre-determined rules, and culminates with a final Joycean flourish in which O’Keefe reiterates the word “yes”, confirming the openness of the novel and its opposition to all closed systems. The novel’s inherent antagonism to any authority but its own is what makes the internet, with its vast potential for totalitarian control, such a tempting subject for writers. Coming hot on the heels of works by Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, and Joshua Cohen, Flanery’s brilliantly sly and funny book updates Nabokov’s Cold War story of despotic power to the present-day, “badly named” War on Terror. In Lolita, Humbert fears he is living “in a lighted house of glass”, which any nosey neighbour can peer into. Today, following Edward Snowden’s revelations of global surveillance, the fear that we are watched is no longer the province of isolated fantasists but a new fact of everyday life to which we all must adjust.

O’Keefe’s response to this Orwellian state of affairs is that we should “assume transparency…insist on the right to know as much about the watchers as they about us.” For a student of the Stasi this seems naïve. Like many who experienced Stalinism, Milan Kundera thought the idea of transparency a paradisal fantasy which the watchmen would inevitably exploit. He rebuked André Breton who dreamed of living in a “glass house”, arguing that, in reality, dissenters end up in the gulag, which soon overtakes paradise. In I Am No One, O’Keefe’s dreams of Guantanamo indicate, at some level, an understanding of a similar predicament today: the technology which enables sharing and openness also keeps us “in the eye of the camera”. But unlike some of his more pessimistic contemporaries, Flanery finds resources in the novel – itself a kind of glass house, at once open and scrutinizing – which can help us face this new reality.

This review in appeared in The Spectator on 27.2.2016 as ‘The watchers and the watched: Patrick Flanery’s I Am no One’.

Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus. Riverhead Books; Mireille Juchau, The World Without Us. Bloomsbury – TLS


California has turned to desert, its skies have stopped raining, rivers all emptied and aqueducts run dry. This is the premiss of Claire Vaye Watkins’ arresting first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, set in an all too imaginable future where man’s exploitation of the earth is turning back the clock. The blazing sun beats down on a landscape now “primordial, reptilian” from which the wealthy have fled, the poor been evacuated into camps. But there are “hold outs”, skirting the authorities, declining to leave. Inside one house, for instance, long abandoned by its starlet owner, is a young woman wittily adorned in feather headdress, dusty rhinestones and rubber galoshes. Her project for the day is trying on every silk and fur in the house. But then a scavenging prairie dog interrupts her fashion show. Startled, she kicks the air, scaring the wild beast into the library. Her boyfriend reminds her that “projects” are important, but while he is practical, digging the shithole or siphoning gasoline from abandoned cars, she sleeps too much and plays at dressing up. “Babygirl” he calls her, suitably enough, though she’s proud of her many names and incarnations, unaware of how little they’ve offered in the way of self-possession. First she was Baby Dunn, an “adopted and co-opted” poster child for the Bureau of Conservation; then Luz Cortez, ill-used teenage model; and finally Luz Dunn who now, with her boyfriend, survives in the ruins on pilfered food, bartered drugs and Red Cross ration water.

Gold Fame Citrus is a wild and glamorous book conveying all the allure of people improvising and living on the edge, as well as the strange charm of enigmatic landscape. Vaye Watkins was brought up in the Mojave desert (her father had been entangled in Charles Manson’s cult-commune), and as she demonstrated in her short story collection, Battleborn (2012), she is well-versed in the region’s seductive myths – alluded to here in the Hollywood outfits Luz parades about in, and the biographies she reads of men who forged the West by playing God and taming the land. Where she finds herself in these stories is unclear, but that startling image of a wild beast in the library suggests their tradition of rugged individuals overcoming nature is doomed. It also indicates something about the way Vaye Watkins sees her own place in literary tradition. After publishing Battleborn, which was hailed by critics, winning the Dylan Thomas Prize for Fiction, she gave serious thought to Toni Morrison’s question: “Who are you writing for?” In answer, she published an essay, ‘On Pandering’ (2015), admitting she had created the book to impress older white male writers, even though she didn’t admire the work of many of the men she had in mind. “An exercise in self-hazing” she called her behaviour, “a product of working-class madness, the female strain”.


This revelation of false consciousness seems to have provided a springboard for Gold Fame Citrus, in which many of the characters succumb to the worldview of others. Luz, in particular, lacking education, is susceptible to charismatic and demagogic men. Her boyfriend, she thinks, has “prophet eyes”. And when they make an ill-fated getaway, having also “co-opted” a small child, Ig, from a band of neglectful revellers, she finds herself rescued by an actual prophet. A water-diviner and ex-scientist, Levi (his name suggests “priestly”), leads a colony in the desert, populated by mystics, dropouts and refuseniks, camping by the Amargosa dune. As nature mutates, this vast, glittering sand mass becomes more like a sea or spreading glacier, slowly engulfing California.

Similarly preoccupied with questions of ecological disaster is Mireille Juchau’s third novel, The World Without Us, which takes place in the imaginary Bidgalong Valley in New South Wales. Here, people are suffering and impotent in the face of collapsing bee colonies, diseased cattle and polluted lakes – the result of fracking and gas drilling. Many are also haunted by their experience of life in a commune that once perched above the valley in the Ghost Mountains. At the heart of the novel is the Müller family, and at their heart, a dreadful absence, caused by the death from leukemia of the family’s youngest child, Pip (her name, a hint that time is running out). The Müllers each grieve in a different fashion: the father Stefan, a German-Jewish immigrant, drinks too much, is wracked by migraines and worries about his missing bees; his wife Evangeline, traumatized by the fire that ended the commune, now wanders in the Ghost Mountains hoping to recover memories, while the eldest daughter has stopped talking, leaving only the middle child to hold the family together, voicing her sister’s unspoken words to their distracted parents. Where emotions in Vaye Watkins’ tale are exhilaratingly free (Ig, in particular, is reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s disturbing, post-apocalyptic children, at once cutely vulnerable and terrifyingly explosive), in Juchau’s elegantly poised and controlled story, the Müller family are emotionally numb, medication pushing down all unruly feeling to an unspoken “underworld” that lies between them.

the world without us

Both these novels share preoccupations with earlier fictions (by Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Helen Simpson and Barbara Kingsolver, among others) exploring the fate of women when science is turned against nature, and the alternative ways of living which spring up in response. The colony in Gold Fame Citrus and the commune in The World Without Us have been created in opposition to existing orders, their members evangelizing against the science which has lead to the decimation of the land. Like Levi, the powerful seer running the colony, the commune has its own authoritarian figurehead, called Jack, who controls the faithful. Tellingly, the two prophets use the same method of keeping their followers in line: by impregnating large numbers of women they become quite literalized versions of what Josef Stalin liked to be called: Father of the People.

It’s hard not to read the demise of ideology as well as collapsing ecology as shaping these two fictions: they share a contemporary distrust of power, whoever wields it; ambivalence about the legitimacy of any agency beyond the individual’s; and even their pleasure in language reflects back a suspicion of rhetoric seeking to persuade. In Vaye Watkins’ colony, for instance, a group called The Girls communicate in pseudo-feminist argot: “Cute is an act of erasure. Cute is gynophobia writ large” – while servicing Levi and the other men in a desert harem. Moreover, in both communities, the rejection of poisoning science and advocacy of natural healing leaves women, with their particular biological vulnerability, endangered by lack of contraception, antibiotics and modern medicine. In the same way, the benign practice of sharing becomes something creepily enforced, coercing women into sexual availability, “openness” demanded as an article of faith.

Amid the complexities of emotion and power which these writers probe so intelligently, it is this instrumentalism to which they are both especially alert. Neither Luz nor Evangeline has much in the way of learning, making them easy targets, and the disappearing worlds they inhabit are mirrored in their own lost potential. So there is not much to console in these stories: unmasking the demagogue does not in itself alleviate the problems he warned about. But there are small victories. Having never really had control over her own life, Luz fails at mothering another. She does, however, refuse to allow Ig to be turned, as she once was, into a symbol for the cause. And when the Müller child finally breaks out of her silence, she and Evangeline escape from their claustrophobic valley in search of a different kind of underworld, the Great Barrier Reef, “before it disappeared”.

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Taming the Land’ on 21.2.2016.

A History of the Christmas Story: Not Altogether Christmas but Christmas All Together – Electric Literature


Winter darkening brings its own intensities: snowdrifts on rooftops, red berries in the trees, and for the lucky few, maybe a pub fire roaring in the grate. As the nights draw in and the season’s grand finale approaches, many of us still brighten our world with carol singing, high street lights and Christmas stories – key ingredients in the mix of paganism, consumerism and religion we call Christmas. The stories we read now first appeared 150 years ago. Dickens established the modern form, publishing one in most years of the mid-nineteenth century, and soon everyone from Trollope to Alcott was trying their hand. Few could resist the temptation of sentimentality, and a reputation for the maudlin persists. “The very phrase Christmas story had unpleasant associations for me,” says Paul Auster’s narrator in “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story” (1990), “evoking dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush.” Despite this, Auster understands that though the Christmas story is a low form (a literary ‘turn’), it sets challenges few writers would run away from, which is why so many grandees (Tolstoy, Waugh, Spark, Updike) have bothered with it. Part of the attraction is that Christmas is one of the few events still bound by tradition, making the Christmas story – a thing of retrospection and repetition – peculiarly literary and self-conscious.

The rest of this essay can be found at Electric Literature where it went online on 16.12.2015.

Rupert Thomson, Katherine Carlyle. Corsair – Spectator


“Mystery comes through clarity” is how Rupert Thomson recently described the effect he was trying to achieve in writing. It’s an apt phrase for his latest book, Katherine Carlyle. Thomson has previously published nine novels but has never achieved wide public recognition, partly because of their lack of uniformity. This, though, is what has attracted other writers who admire his range, the visionary and haunting nature of his stories, the precision of his imagery, and his lack of agenda. For these, Jonathan Lethem has called him “a pure novelist”. Katherine Carlyle displays all of these qualities, and may well come to be thought of as his defining book, but it is also a work with limitations. The story, told in the first person, is of a young woman conceived by IVF. A prologue informs us that as an embryo Katherine was frozen for eight years before being implanted into her mother. Following her mother’s death from cancer, her father’s long absences from home, and her consequent sense of abandonment, she has come to regard this early state of suspension, when she was made but unwanted in the world, (“like being a ghost, only the wrong way round”) as the ruling metaphor of her life.

The Passenger, 1975

Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson in The Passenger (dir, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975).

Now, as a nineteen year old living in Rome, Katharine attends a screening of Antonioni’s The Passenger, and afterwards overhears scraps of a conversation: a man’s name and address. With only these fragmented “messages” to guide her she cuts all links to her former life and takes the train to Berlin where she tracks him down. He is beguiled by her youth and beauty and she stays with him for a while before taking up with other men, discarding them as they lose their usefulness. Her trajectory is mysterious and, rather like Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Katherine makes something of a private religion out of her ecstatic quest, looking for signs to guide her next move among the city’s tribes of wealthy, criminal, and peripheral people. But these “experiments with coincidence” are belied by a larger design, suggested in fantasies about her father’s reaction to her disappearance, and in the way her longing for him is acted out in queasy relationships with older men who want to fuck or adopt her. What seemed like a bid for freedom looks increasingly like an act of revenge. Katherine leaves Berlin, travelling to a Russian mining settlement, a blasted, Tarkovskian wasteland near the North Pole, dark for much of the day. She is warned of danger, but stays, finding a job as a cleaner in an unvisited museum, moving into an abandoned flat. In this obscure, freezing, inhospitable place, she makes herself at home.

Katherine Carlyle - Thomson

Both The Passenger, often alluded to in Katherine Carlyle, and Frankenstein, which supplies one of its epigraphs, provide background frames for Thomson. Like the Jack Nicholson character in The Passenger, Katherine’s father is a foreign correspondent, and her behavior – acting as if life were a game, playing at being someone else, treating others instrumentally – all resonate with Antonioni’s masterpiece about freedom’s romance, cruelty and difficult abstractness. Similarly, Shelley’s tale of hubristic science and its “hideous progeny”, of a monster abandoned by his maker, taking revenge and seeking the extremes of the world, finds its modern incarnation in Katherine. The collision of these narratives – one an escape from, the other a longing for, home – creates the mystery at the heart of Katherine Carlyle, and, as Thomson suggests, this is intensified by the lucidity of his writing, the exactness of his metaphors, the precise individuality given to even minor characters. As with Michael Ondaatje, whose work Thomson’s resembles, there is a palpable desire to foster and protect ambiguity. Unfortunately Katherine Carlyle loads the weight of its mystery onto one final sentence, a trick of sorts which realigns the story. Worse, in order to create this effect, Katherine is subjected to a nasty sexual assault, jolting her out of her visionary pursuit and returning her to her senses. Thomson clearly means to break the spell under which Katherine is living, but in some odd way, by shattering the suspense he chooses his novel over his character.

This review first appeared in the Spectator as ‘The Loneliness of Katherine Carlyle’ on 5.12.2015.

Jonathan Coe, Number 11. Viking – TLS


After a recent reading by shortlisted writers for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize – a prize given for innovation in fiction – the first questioner from the audience asked the panel to comment on the relationship between formal experiment and subversive politics. Tom McCarthy shot back that one necessarily entails the other. Representations of the autonomous bourgeois self, claims of authenticity and originality – these are signs of realism’s bad faith. The innovative novel (sometimes referred to as experimental, postmodern or self-reflexive), by contrast, assumes that we are radically inauthentic: even the most private areas of our lives are commodified, and we speak or write under the influence of others, in an echo chamber of language. Such ideas, of course, have been around for a good while, but in the face of realism’s persistence, their expression in fiction still seems worthy of a gong. Perhaps if the Goldsmiths Prize had been established a few years earlier it would have featured in Number 11, Jonathan Coe’s sequel-of-sorts to his satire on Thatcherism, What A Carve Up! (1994). The function of prizes in capitalist culture is the subject of just one of many mini-essays and set pieces in Number 11, a dazzling tour de force with as much to say about Britain under austerity as the state of the contemporary novel.

In its conjectures, self-doubt and formal game-playing Number 11 is avowedly postmodern, yet it clings to realist ideas about common ground and the virtue of the ordinary. Similarly, it is nostalgic for the past while critical of our failure to move beyond it. To reflect this, the story begins in pastiche of the gothic (a genre concerned with the overhang of history), its gullible heroine, Rachel, trapped in a tower and terrorized by her brother’s joke. Rachel becomes connected to the Winshaws, the exemplary Thatcherite family from What A Carve Up!, and the novel  goes on to examine how, in the aftermath of Blair and Cameron, the family’s belief in money has come to supersede all other values.

As the earlier novel reached its climax when Britain launched weapons against Saddam Hussein, so, here, the death of David Kelly haunts people like Rachel’s grandparents, making them mistrustful of government claims about the need for austerity. In this climate, and despite a massacre at the end of What A Carve Up!, killing many of the Winshaw family, those still standing remain insanely competitive. A memorial prize in their name turns, predictably, into an über-contest, pitting prize against prize in Britain and then – following the Man Booker – in America, ultimately consuming global awards such as the Nobel Prize. Giles Trending, a PR man, boasts that the prize’s “fundamental meaninglessness” is its “whole point”.

Jonathan Coe, 2013

Jonathan Coe, 2013

The destruction of meaning is just one of Coe’s charges against the Winshaw’s rampant and indiscriminate money-making (across generations they move from selling arms to defusing landmines, both equally profitable), and there is concern throughout Number 11 about the impact of a financially obsessed culture on access to knowledge; on the credulity of those who do not read. So, for example, the Winshaw Prize is launched at the £187-million Library of Birmingham, funded by a council who soon cut its opening hours and close down “less prestigious” local branches.

Underscoring the prize’s ideology, Trending declares that it is intended as a “poke in the eye to all those sentimentalists who still believe that artistic creation is [a] haven from competition… some sort of socialist utopia in which different creative spirits work…in parallel and in sympathy.” To judge whether this is satirical exaggeration, dilated merely for comic effect, it’s worth considering how many in the literary world are currently talking about the market’s capture of the arts and its impact on the imagination. At the Goldsmiths Prize, for instance, another contestant, Max Porter, an editor at Granta Books, lamented that his first novel would be the last he ever wrote in that haven “outside the market”, free from contracts, sales or prizes.

In Number 11, this question of comedy’s effect exercises PC Pilbeam, a detective seated at table number eleven during the launch of the Winshaw Prize. He is known to his colleagues as Nate of the Station because of his belief that to solve crime, a policeman needs to understand contemporary ideas about the state of the nation. Faced with the murder of two comics his automatic thought is, “It was time to do some reading”. With bookcases filled with “history, politics, sociology, cultural theory, media studies, Marxist philosophy, semiotics and queer studies”, he undertakes research on comedy, noting Descartes’s argument that humour expresses superiority; Freud’s belief that jokes are shortcuts, their punchlines bringing together disparate material; Kundera’s feeling that satire is the lowest form of comedy, because it has a point; as well as the theories of the potential murderer who writes in a “particularly well-argued and particularly unhinged” blog that comedy is quietist, defusing political anger. In the echo chamber of Coe’s novel, all of these come back to haunt the reader.

Where What a Carve Up! traced lines of familial descent, the narrative in Number 11 – studded with references to social media and the web – spins out across Rachel’s network of family, friends and acquaintances. Her best friend’s mother, Val, a one-hit-wonder of the pop world who dreams of making a comeback, is lured onto a TV competition where celebrities are humiliated for the public to laugh at. Despite suffering from arachnophobia, she agrees to be trapped in a jungle full of insects, but her willingness to collude with the programme-makers counts for nothing: she has not understood that she is the fall guy. Vicious outpourings on Twitter turn Val into a pariah, and she falls into debt. Soon, too poor to heat her home, she is reduced to circling on Birmingham’s number 11 bus. As she consoles herself with the thought that her fellow passengers are “Ordinary people. Decent people”, she is confronted with an old woman hissing, “Why don’t you piss off back to the jungle where you belong?” – a line all the more disturbing for its possible racist double meaning.

number 11 Coe

Another more seductive dream, but one that also turns into a nightmare, is told to Rachel by her Oxford tutor, Laura. In a novel comprising many tales of the irrational, full of phobias, phantoms and manias, this one exerts a particular fascination. Its power derives in part from the jewel-like image of a winter garden under ice. But it also comes from Coe’s understanding of how the elusiveness of the past, and of stories (aporia), can lure readers to a never-ending quest for meaning until they “cross the border” into fixation. This one, about Laura’s husband, an expert in “paranoid fiction” who becomes obsessed with finding an obscure film glimpsed in childhood, seems to have originated in the pages of Coe’s 9th and 13th (2005), which relates his own passionate search for a lost piece of cinema. But the pull of aesthetics and memory is not the whole story here, there is also political critique. Angered by her husband’s retreat into the “blanketing safety” of a past he felt kinder, more paternalistic and less blighted by “choice”, Laura takes revenge by adapting his cultural ideas for the benefit of a think tank measuring “everything in monetary terms”. And she treats her son with a frostiness designed to stop him from ever romanticizing his childhood.

There are ways in which Coe’s novel resembles Kundera’s essayistic fiction, sharing an understanding of the novel tradition as one of rationalism springing from sceptical laughter. As a writer of the Left, Coe also harbours some of the same anxiety about stories put in service (a reaction to Stalinist thinking on art), rather than ones that multiply meaning. So he includes Kundera’s argument as one among many possible choices for the reader to consider – a measure to outflank and outwit the Czech writer. Similarly, while open enough to number Marx, Gramsci and Lukács in Pilbeam’s lexicon of necessary thinkers, Number 11 employs a very British vernacular, its anti-elitist intelligence forged by the lessons of those, like the detective, “set apart” in lifeless suburbs, or rotting in decimated places such as the ones on Birmingham’s ringroad, whose names toll out, “Perry Barr – Handsworth – Winson Green”, as Val trundles through them on the number 11 bus.

This belief in the ordinary (despite veins of bigotry and nastiness), and the messages of popular culture intelligently read, mean that when Coe shifts genre once again and the money-monsters finally crawl out from their lair, imperiling our heroine’s sanity, Rachel is able to recognize the plot others remain blind to and fight her way out of it. No longer the unsuspecting girl of an old-fashioned gothic novel, she is now the paranoid star of her own slasher movie. But for all Coe’s experiment, he retains some of that Lukácsian doubt about the free-play of the imagination. So while he dissolves the solidity of realism, breaking the borders of genre, he also tells us that off the page transcendence is not possible. In this world, “phantoms” are unseen migrants, Dracula’s descendants are financiers “draining the life” out of our cities, and breaking borders means madness – a sign that our obsession with money is making people lose their minds. Finally, Number 11, risking nostalgia, returns to Rachel’s grandparents, to their modest life now broken by austerity’s mean resources. And yet in their summer garden there is a tree where Rachel sits biting into its powdery, juicy plums – an image of bounty to share which refutes the Winshaw mantra of scarcity and competition. A last joke, collapsing disparate worlds and ambiguous enough to satisfy even Kundera, suggests that if the economic argument seems lost, our progress in social relations may yet have a bearing on the doctrine of money. When her gay best friend proposes they become a couple, Rachel quips back: “Dream on…this lady’s not for turning”.

This review appeared in the TLS on 27.11.2015 with the title, ‘A poke in the eye’.

Gretchen Schultz, Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France – TLS


“For Lesbos chose me above any on earth to sing the secret of its flowering maidens”. Baudelaire’s claim of anointment was just one of many hints and explanations – often self-contradicting – given by male, nineteenth century French writers as to why they placed lesbianism so prominently in their work. Kraftt-Ebbing had noted the tendency: “it is a remarkable fact that in fiction, lesbic love is frequently used as a leading theme, viz Diderot…Balzac…Feydeau…Belot…Rachilde.” In Gretchen Schultz’s ambitious cultural history Sapphic Fathers, she shows just how broadly the preoccupation ran: novelists, poets and scientific writers were all fascinated by the secret world of lesbians, or “tribades”, as they were often called. Schultz examines the relationship of these discourses, showing from her readings of symbolist, decadent and naturalist writers, and of popular and pornographic fiction, how literary texts informed scientific understanding of homosexuality. In a concluding chapter she also traces their influence upon readers of twentieth century lesbian pulp fiction – an audience, Schultz supposes, that earlier male writers “could never have imagined”. As studies of influence can be, this is a rather scattered work, and the confusion about its focus isn’t helped by a title alluding only to nineteenth century France while the jacket features American pop art from the 1950s. But if the book fails to cohere in a single convincing narrative, in its separate strands, Schultz shows herself to be a fine close reader and energetic literary detective.

Schultz begins with a discussion of the poetics of identification, looking at the depiction of lesbians in the poetry of Baudelaire and Verlaine. She argues that despite Baudelaire’s infamous loathing of women – so abominable in their service of nature – he found in the “barren” lesbian a more sympathetic subject, one that intrigued and inspired him. The original title of Fleurs du Mal (1851) was ‘Les Lesbiennes’. Here, Baudelaire envisages the descendants of Sappho as largely ahistorical figures, living in erotic limbo. His “femmes damnées” are, as the poet imagines himself to be, noble in the face of social exile. Baudelaire considers them “grand spirits disdainful of reality”; and it is in “their repudiation of materiality”, Schultz thinks, that their greatness lies. Both poets deploy lesbian speakers as a way of exploring more fluid identities: in Baudelaire’s work this means he can “flirt with femininity” while avoiding having to portray a male love object; in Verlaine, it is often the opposite case: lesbian desire becomes a cover for expressions of love between men. This intersubjectivity in their work, Schutz argues, is an important part of what makes their poetry so revolutionary. Verlaine’s ‘Ballade Sappho’ (1889), for instance, has a slippery narrator, “prince or princess”, who identifies with both the figure of the poet and the female lover of women. It is a poem, Schultz says, “startling…for the sapphicization of its male speaking subject.”

From a set of Matisse illustrations, 1944

From a set of Matisse illustrations, 1944

If the symbolists discovered in gay women a potent image of the poet’s condition – at once alienated and alluring – male novelists in the latter half of the nineteenth century tended to represent lesbians as a bellwether for social and political ills. Among the naturalists, who claimed a scientific or objective basis for their fictions, fears about crime, prostitution, social instability and sexual contagion all coalesced in the figure of the lesbian. Among the decadent writers, she was often a vehicle for anti-clericalism (think of all those nuns corrupting their infatuated pupils). Lesbians also featured in much of the popular fiction of the time, and Schultz raises the question of the extent to which in portraying them, writers of the period were simply speculating on the public’s taste and out to make money. The success of Adolphe Belot’s wildly popular serial Mademoiselle Giraud, Ma Femme (1870) about a man who unwittingly marries a lesbian went through 45 editions in five years, infuriating Flaubert: “Public mentality seems to sink lower and lower. To what depths of stupidity will we descend?” Belot’s readership far outstripped even Zola’s – one of the few ‘serious’ writers of the time to achieve a large public for his work. Zola, however, was less hostile. His novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) had been inspired by an earlier Belot novel and in return he reviewed Mademoiselle Giraud, defending it against accusations of immorality. He claimed (as Baudelaire had of his own lesbian poems) that Belot was representing sapphism only to condemn it. When Zola came under attack for his novel Nana (1880), which depicted a sapphist courtesan laying waste to the men of Paris, he fended off accusations of sensationalism and depravity, arguing similarly that his purpose in writing was to shine a light on depravity.

Two final chapters consider the great extent to which early scientific and medical writing about lesbianism, absent of any actual data, was based on these literary representations. Schultz investigates particularly the work of Julian Chevalier, who wrote the first significant history of homosexuality in France, and who was alarmed about literature’s power to incite: “sapphism by literature”, he thought, was a contributing factor in the spread of “the vice”. It was precisely this idea of contagion and inexorable dissemination which Michel Foucault turned on its head in The History of Sexuality (1976) where he described “the shifts and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objects”, and which Schultz follows here in her closing argument about the lasting influence of French sapphic fathers on the readers of American pulp novels (Mademoiselle Lesbian, Appointment in Paris, The French Way). Even if the majority of nineteenth century representations of lesbians had “very little to do with the lives of the women they portrayed”, were voyeuristic, moralizing or abject, Schultz concludes, they still bequeathed to excluded minorities a heritage which placed them inside the culture, providing a store of knowledge, available, as Foucault noted, for their reuse.

Rock Against Racism, The Defining Tracks of a Moment (1976-1981) – Autograph Gallery


RAR star

These are my notes for an event at Autograph BP Gallery in Shoreditch, East London, 4.11.2015, marking Syd Shelton’s exhibition of photographs from the RAR movement. The other panel members were Syd and Paul Gilroy. We played three records each and then talked about why we’d picked what were not necessarily the best songs, but ones that said something particular about the times. The event was chaired by Mark Sealy, Autograph BP’s director.

  1. Winter of ‘79 — TRB (written in 1977)

I chose this because of the way it captures the apocalyptic imagination of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain – the sense of urgency and danger, of state violence and fascist threat, of the postwar settlement breaking apart. There were tanks in Belfast, bomb threats in London, and soon riots in cities up and down the country. Many of Robinson’s songs reflect the jittery feeling on the streets at the time. You can hear this especially in ‘Long Hot Summer’, which was inspired by the Stonewall riots, and in ‘Up Against the Wall’. This was the spirit of the time and there are similar warnings of imminent catastrophe in the Clash’s ‘London Calling’, the Ruts’s ‘Babylon’s Burning,’ and in the weird atmospherics of the Specials’s ‘Ghost Town’. It’s the sound of things falling apart, the sound of warning signals fired across a radio that no one in authority was listening to.

Tom was the first person who made me think about how you could build a network under the radar and turn it into something strong and effective – even when cultural gatekeepers like Melvyn Bragg and the South Bank Show told you that no one was interested in RAR and they were planning a programme on Eric Clapton instead. Something of a graphomaniac, he wrote long letters to his fans, connecting them to one another. I was then 17, working in Debenhams on Oxford Street and looking for people to share my anger with. He put me in touch with two Jewish schoolgirls from Camden Town who went by the names of Scruf and Scruff; Karen, a stylish secretary, the daughter of Czech immigrants; Alan, who was serving in the army in Northern Ireland, alienated from the other soldiers around him, and an Irish girl calling herself, Anna Gram, who lived on the estate behind my mum and dad’s house in Clapham. Anna approached me on the tube one day – my badges giving out a signal — demanding to know if I was that Irate Kate that Tom Robinson had written to her about.

Not long after I gave up the Debenhams job to became RAR’s first full time worker; making connections was an important part of what we did there, too. The people Tom put me in touch with and soon a bunch of other willing helpers – kids skiving off school, shop workers and secretaries bunking off work –  would gather at RAR’s tiny office in Clerkenwell Close (this was before we were firebombed, and moved out to a shop front in Cable Street). In all-night letter-writing sessions, we sent out the message, linking together RAR supporters who had contacted us with stories about the racism they experienced in school or at work. They sent in their loose change and SAE’s in return for badges and dayglo stickers. A nation of kids horrified by the spectre of the National Front and bored out of their minds, living in nowhere towns and suburbs that closed down at 7pm, trying to discover the world out there by listening to John Peel late into the night or reading bits of James Baldwin with a torch under the covers.

We told them: here are the addresses of other music fans in your area, set up a RAR group, put on a gig, get out a fanzine, and challenge the local NF. We told them anyone could do it and wrote step-by-step Gig Guides showing them how. And in RAR’s magazine, Temporary Hoarding, The Mekons — stalwarts of Leeds RAR group, one of 80 or so in the UK — wrote an article explaining how to build your own PA, while The Au Pairs described how they recorded their first single by borrowing their mum and dad’s holiday money. The explosion of punk and reggae meant that there were groups all over the country hungry for gigs. And there was massive energy and frustration everywhere you turned, which RAR tapped into and transformed into action.

On stage, the TRB often dressed like the schoolkids they sang about – “sullen, unhealthy and mean” – and Tom had 302.0 stenciled on his shirt: the code for homosexuality in the World Health Organisation’s classification of diseases (something he’d been alerted to by Paul Furness, a key RAR activist, who worked in the Records Office of Leeds General Infirmary). One of the characteristics that marked Robinson out from many of his contemporaries was that along with his displays of insolence, he also understood, instinctively, the importance of bringing people together, of building alliances.

It was not enough to complain about discrimination against gays if you ignored what was happening to your “brothers in Brixton, backs to the wall”. Homophobia, racism and sexism – he made it clear these things were all part of the same problem, and we would sink or swim together – as David Widgery wrote: “No Us Without Them”. This is why Robinson was so important to RAR, which was about routing racism, but also a much broader cultural politics. He understood how to express and channel anger, but he was also hugely charismatic and convivial — something you can see in Syd’s great shot of him at the first RAR carnival in Victoria Park in 1978. Tom is facing the audience, back to the camera, his arms wide open, embracing the crowd.


2. Oh Bondage Up Yours — X-Ray Spex (1978)

There were many women who started to appear in pop at this time, in particular the girl bands like the Slits and the Raincoats, or women who fronted groups such as the Au Pairs or the Selector. But many of these were tribal, slotting into the already established indie or ska scenes. Poly Styrene, though, couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Part Somali, part Scottish-Irish, she was like the advance party for the new self that was going to reinvent Britain. And her music was equally sui generis. I think she captured the spirit of the time like no one else

Poly got started, as many others did, after seeing a shambolic, end-of-the-pier Pistols gig, and deciding that anyone could do that. The basic Punk DNA — an egalitarian anyone can do it, and the more the merrier or rowdier. It’s in direct opposition to today’s sanitised X Factor competitions and commercialization, where the singer is a puppet and the winner takes all.

In ‘Oh Bondage’, Poly moves between two voices: the masochist “Bind me, Tie me”, and the refusenik “Up Yours!”. She begins by talking in an excruciatingly coy voice: “Some people say that little girls should be seen and not heard”, then yells “but I say, Oh Bondage, Up Yours”, and the music kicks in. It was like a declaration of war: women weren’t going to put up with it any longer. Poly was here to tell us she had something to say and she was going to be heard. But her sense of herself as a performer also says a lot about punk. She didn’t think of herself as a tortured artist writing about her own suffering, but as someone who was playing with ideas and words, or sending things up. So at the Victoria Park RAR carnival, she dressed in a tweedy twinset suit combined with brightly coloured headscarf and socks – as if in pastiche of Margaret Thatcher.

Punk is often tagged as angry and nihilistic, and there are endless arguments about its origins and purity – were you early enough on the scene, were you authentically British or singing in an American drawl? – but in fact, its main mode was either reportage of under-reported places and behaviours (another band who played for RAR, the Members, do this brilliantly in ‘Sound of the Suburbs’), or parody: mocking the idiocies of racism, sexism, homophobia. There was also a nice line in skewering capitalist alienation – the Clash did it in ‘Lost in the Supermarket’, and X-Ray Spex in songs like ‘Warrior in Woolworths’, or the sweetly melancholic, ‘GermFree Adolescents’.

And when Poly sang about ‘Identity’ she wasn’t talking about her own, but the idea of it as something manufactured: “Did you do it before you read about it?”, she mocks. There’s a sophistication here that much of pop lacks now and which many of the RAR bands, particularly those who played for RAR and RAS (Rock Against Sexism), also had: bands like the Gang of 4, the Mekons and the Au Pairs.

RAS was set up by Lucy Toothpaste (who was on the RAR organizing committee, along with Syd, Ruth Gregory, Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, David Widgery, Robert Galvin, John Dennis, Wayne Minter, and I) with the aim of challenging sexism in the music business. And that meant challenging the bands, too. In the Au Paris interview Lucy and I conducted for Temporary Hoarding (reproduced in Syd’s book), and in another we worked on with the Gang of 4, she’s particularly interested in power and aggression in pop – what it means, whether it’s necessary, how the musician-audience dynamic works, how a woman controls the stage.

If you look at the statement made recently by Grimes (“I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized”) you can see that the problems RAS posed haven’t shifted that much, not least because Grimes still feels she has to answer that ‘man-hater’ tag which fierce women always get stuck with. Much of the anti-racism RAR was arguing for has become second nature in Britain today, but RAS’s demands have proved more elusive, perhaps because of the way feminism continually flares and then falls out of fashion, having to remake itself all over again.

3. Sonny’s Lettah — Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)

This is an example of the reportage record. It is  news from the front line, conveying what it felt like to be an immigrant in the UK. RAR supporters had seen how thuggishly the police behaved at Wood Green, Lewisham, Southall, and at a succession of anti-NF demos, and these had been widely reported. But this LKJ song described something the TV and newspapers weren’t talking about: attacks on individual black people – the casual, everyday assaults and insults meted out on the streets and in the back of police vans. ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ is about SUS — the stop and search tactics the police started to deploy at this time under the cover of a nineteenth century law: the 1824 Vagrancy Act. It reveals a commonplace cycle of state violence, self-defence, then criminalization.

The singer, Sonny, finds his innocent brother, Jim, picked up by the police and roughly handled (“Jim start to wriggle and the police start to giggle”). Sonny responds angrily and the incident ends with Jim charged with SUS, and Sonny charged with murder. The whole thing is told in the form of a letter sent from Brixton Prison to the brothers’ mother back home in Caribbean. The song is also interesting because of the way it contrasts the respect and tenderness shown to Sonny’s mother with the brutality of the British police when someone challenges them. ‘Fight Dem Back’, LKJ sang in another song, and “We don’t rock against racism, we fight against it”.

The question of respect in the midst of disobedience and insurrection was something that the black community kept insisting on. Black people were not, as the police said, or as politicians or the press reported, aliens or savages, but people with cultures and histories that demanded respect. For many alienated white kids this was a new idea. If black people had a culture, what was white culture? What was whiteness? It made legible to them something that had previously been invisible. At the RAR Carnvial in Victoria Park the Clash sang a furious version of ‘White Riot’, their response to this realisation. But values of culture and respect injected something new into the punk spirit. The moment when black and white musicians came together at the end of a RAR gig was nearly always achieved with a reggae jam, something celebratory and uplifting. As the band who played more than any other RAR gigs, Misty in Roots sang: ‘People Unite’ — a sentiment unavailable in the disaffected vernacular of punk.

Sagan, Paris 1954 – TLS


“What on earth inspired you to write that?”, the parents of the eighteen-year-old Françoise Quoirez asked when she finally showed them the novel she had written the summer before. It was the Spring of 1954, and within weeks Bonjour Tristesse would be published by Julliard, becoming one of France’s greatest literary sensations. Quoirez changed her name, choosing the nom de plume Sagan (stealing it from Proust), and the novel in turn changed her life. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about her story is that despite the way in which others tried to fix her as a perpetual enfant terrible, Sagan remained true to herself. After she won the highly prestigious Prix des Critiques, François Mauriac declared, with the condescension shown to the young woman by many of France’s aged literary patriarchs, that she was a “charming little monster”. None of the above, Sagan replied, just an ordinary girl; and besides, she rebuked the critics trying to put her in her place, she wanted a life of “nightclubs, whisky and Ferraris…not cooking, knitting or making do”.

To mark the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan’s son asked the novelist and journalist Anne Berest to write something in commemoration. The work that resulted, Sagan, Paris 1954, is, as Berest confides, “neither a biography, nor a journal, nor a novel.” At times she calls it a “diary” of the few short months it took for Sagan’s book to be published and to take off so spectacularly. The confiding tone is present throughout, though whose confidences are on offer is ambiguous as Berest inserts her own life – a recent separation from her husband, her desire to break from “boxed in” thinking – into the life of the teenage Sagan, then on the verge of success and contemplating the contours of a writing life. This staged intimacy between the author and her subject conveys, in a very French way, the thrill, and the presumption, of biographical writing: “I slip into the mindset of Françoise Sagan as if I were slipping on a pair of silk stockings”. It also dramatizes the biographer as a figure of uncanny power, a Frankenstein animating her creation: “I can wake Françoise up, I can get her to rub her eyes like a child, as she does in a photograph taken in Saint-Tropez in which she is wearing a check nightgown.”

Berest conveys the postwar atmosphere in which Sagan grew up with many sharp aperçus and an eye for sartorial detail. There is the strange interim feel of the 1950s when war ghosts inhabited every building, and, against this, the desire of the young to break free, to live wrecklessly, happily, knowing, as children of war, that “the real God is Chance”. Sagan’s closest friend, Florence, was the daughter of the writer and resistance fighter André Malraux and the two girls were voracious readers, swopping books “as others swopped taffeta frocks”. Berest also describes the masculinity of French literary culture. The fifteen judges of the Prix des Critiques who did so much to advance Sagan’s career were, except for one woman, male, elderly and august. Berest suggests they may have given the prize to such a “budding author” because its protagonist – the gamine, precocious seventeen year old Cécile – not only expresses admiration for older men, but raises the spectre of sexual relations with them.

Françoise Sagan

Françoise Sagan

To help place her subject, Berest conjures other cultural figures of the time. So Sagan is watched from afar by Jean Cocteau, she passes Claude Lévi-Strauss on the street, spies Marguerite Duras asleep in a car, and runs into Pasolini in a restaurant. Some of this is imaginary and it leaves Berest worrying about the “strange form” her book is taking. But an interview with Florence Malraux lets her off the hook: literal truth is not important, what matters is she “write things that ring true”. There is a fine line here between deconstructing creative practice and constantly spotlighting oneself. Literary relationships and studies of influence are, of course, perfectly valid subjects, but the reciprocity Berest imagines between her and Sagan can seem both ersatz and self-justifying. By the end of her book she assures us “I have had the good fortune to become the object of a special affection on [Sagan’s] part…we spoke to each other almost every day.”

Perhaps this kind of fanciful communing (and Berest knows it is fanciful, constantly calling the legitimacy of her enterprise into question) can only be carried off when underpinned by strong insight. The problem is that for the most part she avoids giving a reading of Bonjour Tristesse, concentrating instead on the way in which Sagan has affected her life – a kind of enacted critical response which she translates into the self-reflecting prose of the book. But her actions cast doubt on the depth of her understanding. She visits a clairvoyant who declares that Sagan’s message to her is “Let yourself go”. So she makes a bid for freedom, taking a much younger man to a casino and having a one-night-stand with him. But when he refuses to visit Saint-Tropez with her, she feels the need to lecture him with life lessons (“At your age…”), just as in Bonjour Tristesse, the new lover of Cécile’s father uses her experience and moral certainty to belittle Cécile. Berest’s last book, How To Be a Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits (2014), displays a similar confusion: advertising itself as free-thinking, it is full of rules on “how to be a woman”.

In Sagan, Paris 1954, Berest provides a creditable introduction to the young writer and the milieu from which she emerged, but her attempts to use Sagan as a model for her own liberation are less successful. She tells the young man that Sagan’s ultimate “message” is: “seek what is important, don’t seek to be important”. Her own advice – “the most charming thing of all is to be attractive without trying” – belongs to the impossible rules of French etiquette for women which encourage self-absorption and limit freedom – the very thing Sagan is at pains to decipher in Bonjour Tristesse. Ultimately it is Berest’s inability to let go of herself, to move beyond her own narcissism, that prevents her from really inhabiting Sagan’s bohemian “mindset”.

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life. Picador – Spectator


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.

Hanya Yanagihara

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.

Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers. Harvill Secker – TLS


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.

Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen

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.




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”.

Book of Numbers

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.


Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner). MacLehose Press – TLS


“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”.

Per Olov Enquist, 2013

Per Olov Enquist, 2013

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, The Illuminations, Faber – TLS


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.

Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan

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”).

Blackpool Illuminations

Blackpool Illuminations

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’.



Sontag’s Distinction – TLS


“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.

Susan Sontag and Harriet Sohmers, c. 1949-50

Susan Sontag and Harriet Sohmers, c. 1949

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 arrested at Vietnam War protest, 1967

Sontag arrested at a Vietnam War protest, 1967

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 23.1.2015.

Nellie Hermann, The Season of Migration – TLS


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.

Vincent Van Gogh, Coalmine in The Borinage, 1879

Vincent Van Gogh, Coalmine in The Borinage, 1879

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.

Vincent Van Gogh, Miners in the Snow, 1882

Vincent Van Gogh, Miners in the Snow, 1882

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.

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests. Virago – TLS


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.