Pedro Carolino: English As She Is Spoke

“…This whole book is of course, a “mistake”, and a very extreme one too. But every progression of language develops from mishearing, from distortion. While undoubtedly funny, the undulating incongruity of the language is enough to stimulate realms of the mind previously unexplored…”

Ben Granger

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Some of the best-loved writing in the world has been gibberish. Nonsense is as old as art itself, whether its practitioners are snot-nosed kids or the aging wonderful weirdoes like Carrol or Lear who entertained the self-same children by developing and codifying their abstract language. Writing for children is a good excuse for venting the inner gibber, but for nonsense to become adult and respectable it had to ally itself to a movement, not just nonsense but anti-sense. Leaving the nursery behind, the avowed aim of the Dadaists and Surrealists was to inspire a revolution in both the inner mind and the outer world by creating works that assaulted the status quo of sense.

“I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane. These people are honest to a fault.” declared movement founder Andre Breton. But beyond the absence of straightforward meaning artistic output, crucial to the surrealist argument was that intent itself distorted art. The rational world of logic was held intrinsically compromised by the dead controlling hand of society. To have beautiful work created by accident was the state to which they aspired. This purity of random intent was in turn aimed at later by William Burroughs and his acolytes, whose “cut up technique” of montage aimed to “exterminate rational thought” from the process of creation. Something untamed and ecstatic was held to hail from the accidental, stroking those parts of the mind that stately logic could not reach.

By the anti-logic of the surrealists and the Beats English as She Is Spoke, a book written by Pedro Carolino on an unspecified date near the end of the 19th century, is work of beauty to place alongside the Naked Lunch and Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility. Carolino had no intent to write a comic masterpiece. On the contrary, he intended to write an English/Portuguese phrasebook. Crucuially, he didn’t deem it necessary to have an English/Portuguese dictionary to do this. Or, for that matter, to be able to speak English whatsoever.On the sainted day he decided to enlighten the peoples of two great nations with The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English, (as it was originally known) something miraculous was born.

The book sets out its philanthropic mission in what soon becomes its trademark transcendent style.

The Works which we were conferring for this labour, found use us for nothing; but those that were publishing to Portugal, or out, they were almost all composed for some foreign, or for some national little aquainted in the spirit of those languages. It was resulting from that corelessness to rest these Works fill of imperfections, and anomalies of style; in spite of the infinite typographical faults which some times, invert the sense of the periods.

With this singular quest in mind, Carolino sets his Works out in stall. Firstly, simple works. In “Of The Man”, we discover those basic building blocks which make us all

The brain The brains

The fat of the leg The ham

The inferior lip, The superior lip

And of course

The reins

Already a wonderful inner logic has taken shape. Not too much later, the reader is plunged into more sinister realms, such as “Diseases”, namely:-

The Apoplexy The megrime

The scrofulas The whitlow

The melancholy The rehumatisme

The Vomitory

In full flow, Carolino expounds more categories, “Eatings” (which includes “Some sugar plum”, “Some wigs”, “A dainty-dishes”, “Hog fat” and “A Little Mine”) “Quadruped’s Beasts”,(including “Ass-colt”, “Rocbuck”, “Ram,aries” and “Dragon”), and “Fishes and shell-fishes” (“Calamary”, “Hedge hog”, “Wolf”, “Torpedo”, and the enigmatic “A sorte of fish.”)

These words, at once familiar and alien, are the components of a fabulous new language, as vibrant as the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange. But in the book’s next chapter “Familiar Phrases” the warped grammar takes on a whole new rhapsodic delight.

From the whimsically poetic whose actual meaning is not in doubt:-

Have you say that?

At what O’Clock Dine him?

Have you understanded?

The thunderbolt is falling down

No budge you there

Through the more arcane:-

Dress your hairs

Will you a bon?

Do not might one’s understand to speak?

These apricots and these peaches make me and to come water in mouth

He has spit in my coat

I am pinking me with a pin

To the eternally abstruse:-

He do want to fall

He do the devil at four

Dry this wine

He laughs at my nose, he jest by me

After “End First Part’s” the reader, now fully equipped, is encouraged to be more adventurous and venture into “Familiar Dialogues”, which include “For to wish the good morning”, “For to dress him self”, and “For to ask some news”. One of the finest is “With a Hairdresser”

Your razors, are them well?

Yes, Sir.

Comb-me quickly; don’t put me so much pomatum. What news tell me? All hairs dresser are newsmonger.

Sir, I have no heared any thing.

The penultimate section, “Anecdotes”, shows Carolino’s invention at its most fluent and illuminating. The best rib-tickler is surely:-

A man one’s was presented a magistrate which ad a considerable library “What you make?” beg him the magistrate. “I do some books” was answered. “But any of your books I did not seen its — I believe it so, was answered the author I mak nothing for Paris. From a of my works is imprinted, I send the edition for America; I don’t compose what to colonies.”

The sound of drumstick hitting cymbal.

Just when it can’t seem to get any better, we have what could be a mere epilogue, but ends up as a thrilling climax:- “Idiotisms and proverbs”. The cryptic wisdom of this new tongue finally reaches its zenith.

Nothing some money, nothing of Swiss.

With a tongue one go to Roma

The necessity don’t know the low..

A bad arrangement is better than a process.

Cat scalded fear the cold water.

Which like Bertram, love hir dog.

To build castles in Espagnish

To craunch a marmoset

To make paps for the cats

To come back at their muttons

Finally the reader can withdraw, delighted, sated, the glimpse of another universe in sight.

This whole book is of course, a “mistake”, and a very extreme one too. But every progression of language develops from mishearing, from distortion. While undoubtedly funny, the undulating incongruity of the language is enough to stimulate realms of the mind previously unexplored. In this sense, English as She Is Spoke is not only a worthy heir of Lewis Carrol and portent of Dali, but also belongs to the tradition of warped wordsmithery which would include not only Anthony Burgess, but also Chris Morris and Mark E Smith too.

So then, in appreciating this great masterpiece of accidental humour, we are not simply laughing at the funny foreigner. Or not just that anyway.

Elementarteilchen – the film of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised :

James McConalogue

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This film is terrifyingly humbling, sexually polite and bravely mundane in its philosophical exploration of the fragility pervading human love. It is packed with the warmth of the everyday trials of love and passion.

This film, directed by Oskar Roehler, follows Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Les particules élementaires (Atomised), published in 1998 – a provocative erotic novel which won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2002.

As with Houellebecq’s philosophical novel, Roehler’s film pursues the personal histories of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, through their experiences of love and religion. It presents a cross-section of their lives from the vantage point of their respective mid-life sufferings. Given the nature of the modern atomized society, the film questions the meaningless pursuit of love for Michel and Bruno. After their birth to a deranged, cult-dwelling, sexually liberated mother – typifying the ideals of the hip 1960s lifestyle – Bruno becomes a libertine, Michel a molecular biologist. Through tragically amusing life episodes of masturbatory fantasies, failed sexual endeavours, inevitably disastrous relationships, joining spiritual-sexual cults, scientific rationalism and the irrationality of cultish personalities, the novel and film have both philosophically re-evaluated the chaos and irrationality inherent to the contemporary world.

Before watching the film, I heard an interview on Radio 4 in which Tim Lott optimistically exposed how the film diverged from the book, depicting “the triumph of love”, being “good natured”, “lacking in shock value” and not to mention “the end of the book was rewritten.” His message seemed to be: it deviates from the book but not necessarily for the worse. Having now watched the film, I tend to agree. The film diverges from the book to produce a distinct and humbling tale on the fragile nature of human love.

When I first heard the book was in preparation for a film-production, I despaired. It was to be directed by Oskar Roehler. How could it be possible? The methodology of the novel switches between the totalizing and fragmentary histories of Bruno and Michel exploring their tenuous links with social and sexual realities. How can this be achieved in film? I recall that Amores Perros (2000) beautifully delivered this fragmentary effect in a Mexico City tripartite story climaxing and coming together in a horrific car accident – but this original script was intended for cinema. I was sure that the adaptation of Houellebecq’s novel would prove to be difficult, possibly disastrous. The director knew of the difficulties in his task. “We had to figure out what the characters were going through without giving the whole thing too negative a flavour. If you are going to make a film you should at least try to portray some passion for life”, said Roehler to Picturehouse cinemas.

After walking from the cinema, still in rapture with the film, I began to think of Tim Lott’s ruminations expressed earlier on Radio 4. He believed that the film had almost been “Hollywoodized.” I can agree with him to some extent. The tale of sexual misadventure was portrayed as the ageing fragility of human love, the cold and grave overtones of Houellebecq’s characters are replaced with the pop classics such as Don McLean’s American Pie, the music of T-Rex and the Rolling Stones. Then, the original gothic cynical comedy in the book transform into light-hearted jaunts at Bruno’s Neanderthal-libertine outlook … However, these are not criticisms. They are a cause for celebration since this peculiar tale of two half-brothers, offering a cross-section of their mid-life love crises, is an amazing and refreshing insight into the chaotic, the humanity, the passion, the love and the death inherent to everyday human experience.

The storyline clearly attaches itself to a doctrine of Freudian conservatism. Possibly enlightened by Freudian insights that childhood development in the first five years of life later determine our subsequent experiences and that our adulthood neuroses are traceable to stages of early psychosexual development, much of this film is obsessed with that skeletal plotline. In real life, both Houellebecq and Roehler were rejected by their mother’s and placed within the care of their grandmother’s so an important place has been given in the film to how important the nuclear family really is, and the disastrous consequences that ensue after its fragmentation. It is deeply “conservative” as such since it imagines that the original attachments of Bruno and Michel were distorted in childhood, leading them to a fate of failed sexual endeavours and an isolated outlook. The breakdown of the nuclear family inevitably led to their disastrous sexual relationships and future lives. In the film, this is portrayed in several scenes, particularly as the drunk son, Bruno curses his dying mother on her deathbed for what he witnesses in childhood as her sluttish hippy abandonment of the family.

The entire plot – from start to finish – is caught up in a Sophoclean fatalist tragedy in which Michel conquers the inheritance of scientific rationalism. (Since Michel works as a molecular biologist in both German and Irish scientific laboratories during the film, the majority of the film appears in spoken German with English subtitles but on location in Ireland, he is filmed speaking English). Through his calculations at a biological laboratory in Ireland, Michel proves the possibility and practice of artificial reproduction which will lead to the progress of the human species. The film’s tendency to dwell on the fatalism of the characters does not suppress the humanity or chaotic indeterminateness of their lives. As with John Steinbeck’s novels, through introducing the character’s to unbearable social ruts in which to live, it is always clear that something has to give or break down – including Bruno’s sanity or Michel’s continued virginity. As a trial on the fragile conditions of everyday human love and the dilapidated standpoint of rational man, I would recommend this film to those with a bent for the bizarre.

Michel Houellebecq: The Possibility Of An Island

James McConalogue

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“The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear.” – M. Houellebecq, The Guardian, 2005.

As Houellebecq continues his literary voyage through the irrationality, hedonism, and chaos of the modern world, his most recent book questions the possibility of human love in the not so distant future, providing that refreshing je ne sais quoi that I have been longing for among many contemporary literary talents.

In a nutshell, The Possibility of an Island reveals the story of a stand-up comedian, Daniel, and the personal narratives of his cloned descendants thousands of years after the end of mankind as we know it. It examines the fragmented histories of the clones, projecting and reversing its subject through history.

After thousands of years of earthquakes, disaster and war, the earth has become a wasteland and the human race a savage pack of animals. Thus, the modern world has, in the full light of modernity and reason, fallen into barbarism.

The cloned descendants of Daniel exist in a safe compound with the luxuries of preservation, social reproduction, cloning and constant modification of human beings. From Daniel1 through to Daniel24, and Daniel25, each begins to speculate on what it means to be and live like Daniel (the original human) as perceived through his diaries. In particular, the focus is on what Daniel and previous clones mean by ‘love’ and ‘sex’ in their diaries and recollections. Even though Daniel, the original human, struggled with the notion of love, he knew of it. His futuristic clones eventually have no grasp of love as they live sedate in their preserved environments.

It often approaches a novelistic critical theory as each successive Daniel clone looks upon the previous Daniel’s in a critical and reflective way to realise the joys and limits of these pre-existences. Through the perceived experience of eternity and immortality (the promise of cloning), the subsequent potentiality of love, or believing in such a concept, meets its demise.

The title itself is never fully elucidated upon. However, through Houellebecq’s esoteric poetry clues, the reader is led to understand that the “possibility of an island” equates with the “possibility of love”. In one of the final chapters, a modified neo-human reflects on a poem written by Daniel (a human), the final verse of which is:

And love, where all is easy,
Where all is given in the instant;
There exists in the midst of time
The possibility of an island.

Concerned, as the entire book is, with the possibility of love, it charts the reflections of Daniel’s descendants through various “neohuman” communities in an attempt to comprehend love in its debt to fleeting snippets and moments in history. He typically paints relationships as they come and go with temporary and varied reflections – in his typically humorous-cynical style.

The tales of sexual perversion, including his obsession with genitalia, are as transparent as in his previous novels – particularly Platform, Atomised, and Lanzarote. This is no bad thing. Houellebecq clearly has a talent for putting to paper the short-lived nature of sexual relationships. In fact, the entire book is clearly a testament to the possibility of love in light of the fragmentary, chaotic and tragic condition of history. Of course, not everyone will enjoy his descriptions of sexual acts – you name it, oral sex through to orgiastic fondling – and it is best to know your friend well if you are about to buy it as a gift for them.

A redeeming feature of Houellebecq’s sexual odyssey – as with the journey through Bangkok’s sexual tourist culture in his earlier book, Platform – is that the events are frequently related to ageing. This gives his experiences a touch of humility. The events are not told through the eyes of pure and perfect sexual barbarism and savage passion. Houellebecq’s text is a perfect reminder that glorious sex never lasts and something always goes wrong (especially as Daniel grows older). This, I felt, was related to a larger theme in the book – the capacity for future generations to experience their limitations through the study of previous ones. After all, it is only through the examination of Daniel’s history that Daniel1, Daniel24 and Daniel25 begin to struggle with the idea of love in their increasingly loveless semi-consciousness.

Following Houellebecq’s court case in France in 2002, subsequent to the author being tried (but then acquitted) for inciting racial hatred, one would expect an equalled level of anti-religious sentiment. There is, but it is well directed through the telling of a history of a new religion throughout the book. This is achieved by reporting Daniel1’s commitment to Elohimitism. It represents the largest fraudulent commercial religious dogma the world has ever seen and in principle, it stands for nothing. It sweeps across the globe quicker and more forceful than Christianity. Its promise is eternity. It holds that each person’s DNA will be frozen after death and each will be reborn when suitably developed technologies of the future rise. If you sense overtones of George Orwell here, be advised, it smacks of Orwellian critique – Houellebecq exchanges the political dogma of “Big Brother” for the omnipresent religious dogma in the neohumans, the “Supreme Sister”.

Houellebecq is concerned primarily with chaos. The writings of Houellebecq – including his latest novel – essentially assume a world of chaos. The conscious perceptions of characters relate to the impeding doom and chaos of an uncontrollable social world. In this chaos, his tragic characters exist within a culture of liberal individuality but are viewed as debauched rats offered the consolation of short-term love in modernity. In essence, people are a random collision of elementary particles formed loosely in space and time, heading towards an ever-increasing chaotic world.

There is such a feeling in his own philosophy that the liberal state, a makeshift society, ideology and individual have achieved such a grand place in the modern world, that from their very birth they have transcended the things that made them – that is to say, they become the essence of an uncontrollable dominating chaos encroaching over his fatigued, battered and sick-of-life characters.

The picture of chaos is the natural sense in which irrational man deals with the space in which he is chaotically thrown yet depressingly determined. Houellebecq sticks fast to the notion of determinism – especially with regards to age – in spite of his theory of human beings acting as elementary particles floating in the irrational world of religious schisms and ideologies. All religion is undermined in his novels, portrayed as the workings of irrational man. Rational philosophy, thus, provides false hopes. The philosophy of the “irrationalists” on the other hand – with citations of Nietzsche on almost every other page – is the centrepiece of Houellebecq’s philosophy. Indeed, it should be: if there is no sense of irrationality, criticism, stupidity, ignorance or even reaction towards rationalised ideologues in the modern world, then the chances of exposing the true humanity of a character is very slim.

With its peculiar taste for irrationalism and chaos, I would recommend this book to anyone searching for that missing something in modern fiction.

Michel Houellebecq: Lanzarote

Pedro Blas Gonzalez

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Lanzarote is a colorful vignette that describes the scope of meaninglessness in an apocalyptic age. Even the landscape – the lunar aridity of this Spanish island where the action takes place – is scarred by volcanic activity. Whether virulent satire or the avatar of a “new moral avant-garde,” as the narrator suggests, Lanzarote remains a fine example of Houellebecq’s uncommon prescience in a tasteless age.
Lanzarote’s protagonist is bored. Seeking a vocation to begin the New Year away from Paris, he goes to a “travel professional” for suggestions. The tourism professional, he tells us, has a good understanding of human happiness “or at least your prospect of happiness.” In a world made banal and numb from excessive choices, the job of the tourist professional “is to discover your expectations, your desires, perhaps even your secret hopes,” he goes on. Houellebecq pokes fun at self-possessed travel guides who describe travel packages in terms of “intelligent,” “humanitarian,” “eco-friendly,” as well as those that suggest “authenticity,” and others that are “open to the unfamiliar.” Lanzarote is a work that probes the seemingly infinite possibilities of hedonism.
Restlessness, both moral and spiritual, defines the nexus of Houellebecq’s protagonist, an entity who remains nameless throughout. The author captures this inner ruin in its outward manifestations: people tinkering with electronic devices, changing television channels aimlessly, in short, activities that are defined by their utility in killing time. Houellebecq’s protagonist is a fine example of an adult who is ruled by a haze of self-imposed, cultural attention deficit disorder, though, he would be the last to know it.
Reading the depiction of the protagonist’s life, we get the impression that a vacation will only serve as a mobile form of emptiness. He tells us: “New Year’s Eve was a disaster; I tried to hook up to the Internet but I screwed up. I had just moved; I think I should have reinstalled the cord modem or something like that.” Notice the lack of care and attention to detail in the objects that fulfill his sensual pleasures. He then goes on: “My fruitless tinkering quickly bored me, I fell asleep at about eleven. A postmodern New Year’s eve.” We are reminded of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Is this the future, a banal, hollow man?
He opts for Lanzarote, an island 70 miles off the African coast that is part of the Canary Islands. Preparing for his trip, the protagonist buys popular magazines at Orly airport: Passion Glisse, Paris-Match, Le Nouvel Observateur and Liberation – a varied arsenal to help him further kill time. While on the airplane he tries to interest himself in the contents of his magazines, but instead remembers a television program that he saw the night before where “the debate, in short, simply brought together another bunch of idiots.”
The narrator describes the domain of European travellers. He explains that the famous Michelin guide “whose ingenious system of star ratings for the first time made it possible for the world to be systematically categorized according to its potential pleasures.” Houellebecq is sardonic; his caustic humor is measured and controlled. His description of a mustachioed Belgian tourist named Rudi who demonstrates an “out-and-out fascination with the cactus plant” is rather hilarious.
The protagonist is a “free-spirited,” libertine entity that lets the reader into his head, if not his world, and who never holds back from engaging in any “post-modern” perversity. He becomes intrigued with two German women named Pam and Barbara. As the two women befriend him and Rudi, the exhibitionist core of early twentieth first century hedonism does not waste an opportunity to roar into action.
An empty man, the protagonist finds himself an alien to himself when he tries to reflect. Houellebecq effectively juxtaposes the former’s devil-may-care attitude with the barren geography of Lanzarote. He becomes mesmerized by the terrain: “I lay down, contemplating the conflict, so evident in Lanzarote, between two great forces: the volcano’s creation and the sea’s destruction. It was a pleasing meditation, in which nothing was at stake, to which no conclusion was possible. I continued in this vein for some twenty minutes.” Houellebecq’s hackneyed allusions to “post-modernity” are never in short order: “Though absurdity is amusing for a while, after a certain age it begins to pall.” We are left wondering what age that would be.
Houellebecq’s commentary is scathing and never dull. His take on current European social conditions paints a daunting picture, one which given the recent social upheavals and terrorist acts in France, cannot easily go unnoticed. Rudi tells the protagonist about the crime rate in his native Brussels: “Delinquency was rife; increasingly, gangs of youth attacked passers-by in the middle of shopping centers in broad daylight.” The narrator calls Luxembourg “an assortment of dummy companies over parkland, nothing but P.O. Boxes for companies with a taste for tax evasion.”
The plot gains momentum and added intrigue when Houellebecq introduces a “post-modern” cult of neo-hippies who belong to the Azraelian religion who are convinced that their leader is in contact with extraterrestrials. These Azraelians enlist Rudi, who turns out to be as depraved as the rest of the members. In fact, this is a pre-condition for membership. Rudi ends up going to prison as a pedophile. The cult is fiercely defended by its leader as attempting to “lay the foundations for a new, sacred eroticism of the kind that had disappeared from the Western world.” After hearing of the extent of Rudi’s depravity the protagonist, who’s own depravity is “practical” and “manageable,” offers a sober perspective: “No social status, no relationship could any longer be considered certain.” And then.he ties it all together – the barren, volcanic terrain, contemporary hedonism and its incessant penchant for modish coolness: “We were living in a time in which any advent, any Armageddon was possible.”
It is hardly a coincidence that Houellebecq uses Lanzarote’s blemished landscape as the backdrop for the moral and spiritual destructiveness that fuels the action. At the end of the work we come across an Appendix that tells of the devastating series of earthquakes that destroyed all cultural landmarks on the island and which created its distinctive landscape, between September 1730 and December 28, 1731. The first-person testimony belongs to a father Andres Lorenzo Curbelo. The Appendix, too, is hardly out of place in this work. Could it happen again, the author seems to suggest? And if so, could the next great eruption signify a moral implosion?
In the end we are left pondering whether Lanzarote is satire or an eloquent promotion of vulgarity? If satire, it makes Swift’s Modest Proposal sound like dinner conversation. If, on the other hand, it is a semblance of the depravity that we crave today, then Lanzarote pays homage to Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris, its rightful heir.

Trainspotting The Play: Harry Gibson: 10 Years On

Chris Mitchell

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[Note: this is the complete text of a syndicated interview with Harry Gibson provided to the press to promote the 10th anniversary production of Trainspotting, the play based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name.

Gibson wrote the script for the stage adaptation of Trainspotting and directed both the original production and the new production which begins in 2006. See the Trainspotting – The Play site for full details.

Spike also interviewed Gibson at the time of the original production in 1996: Harry Gibson: Trainspotting: Expletives Repeated]

So 10 years on, why the revival?

HG: Love, I think. I mean, audiences love seeing it, actors love performing it, and I love directing it. I’ve done Glasgow, Toronto, New York, the Australia tour and I reworked it for the Edinburgh Festival, so it felt like stand up comedy in a tent, and for the West End so it could fill a big old fashioned theatre; so this is my seventh time. And I know it’s a special show for the producers because it was ten years ago when they fell in love with it except that Mark Goucher had to look away when the needles came out. Well, they picked it up and put it on the road and got a smash hit and a shelf full of awards, so for them it’s pure nostalgia. So here we go trainspotting again.

How did it go down in New York did they get it?

HG: It upset them. Sympathy for junkies isn’t big on Broadway. And the language is way too bad for uptown folks. But for eight weeks it was a must see for Soho artists and Greenwich Village actors. The movie actor Brian Denehey said to me, “That is the darkest show I have ever seen.” And he’s been to some very dark places. Australia though was the opposite. One guy said to me, “That’s the funniest first ten minutes of a show I ever saw”. They just sat there eating popcorn and laughing like mad. The thing is, the play has a personality like all good plays which changes from cast to cast. Sometimes it’s a black comedy, like the movie, sometimes it goes deeper, really tragic.

Yes, what about the film? I mean, this isn’t the play of the film is it?

HG: This is the play of Irvine Welsh’s original book. I read a first edition and we had it onstage (at The Glasgow Citz’s) nine months later. We thought it would be good for four weeks in the small studio, but on the first night we had queues wrapped around the building and by noon the next day the whole run was sold out. We revived it six months later in a bigger studio and it sold out again. That was the one which Danny Boyle (the movie’s director) and his team came to see, but naturally a play and a film are two different animals. I love the movie. It’s a brilliant caper-film. It reminded me of those Beatles & Monkees films with lads leaping around to music like ‘Hey, hey we’re the Junkees, and we just junky around’. One big difference between the play and the film apart from the fact that the play just uses one set and four actors and you can smell it happening in front of you is that the movie ends up being the hero’s getaway, while the play stays with the trainspotters, left standing in the ruined old Leith railway station waiting for trains that will never come to get them a away from it all. Irvine liked that ending. Truer to life.

So Trainspotting entered the language?

HG: Spotting is everywhere now. In fact language is a big part of Trainspotting’s appeal. People write dissertations about it. The play has 147 cunts. In Edinburgh housing schemes, I explain to people, cunt is a laddish term of endearment. You can say “Y’cunt-ye” to a mate and it’s quite cuddly. You would not call a vagina a cunt; a vagina is (excuse my language) a f*n*y. Translators have some difficulties; I think the play’s been translated into 17 languages now, and I am waiting for the Japanese version because I’m told the Japanese don’t have dirty swearwords; mind you it might be the maddest version ever.

The culture of the production transforms the show; the Icelandic version which I saw in Reykjavik looked like a saga; our hero’s mother appeared out of a mist like a troll, with a giant wooden spoon. In Paris, it was “La Haine” type streetkids, playing around mostly on scaffolding. The Dresden director must have done a lot of very special workshops games on because I don’t remember writing parts for four blue eyed blonde boys or asking them to do a buggery dance; this went on for three hours – but still, it got 17 curtain calls. Trainspotting gets done all over the world: Canada down to Mexico across to New Zealand and up to Hong Kong – every country has its trainspotters. At the moment the National Theatre of Romania is doing it in Cluj.

So you’re not short of a bob or two?

HG: Well, let me put it this way. I wish I’d made is a full-scale musical. I might be rich. As it is, it’s just a small show for studios, so cheques do drop on the doormat from time to time but only small ones. We’re talking the price of dinner. So I have not given up my day job. Which is theatre anyway. People ask me, “What made you do this?”, and the boring answer is that it’s my job.

I do plays and I turn Irvine’s books into plays because he is a writer of foul genius. I’ve done the play versions of five of his novels. The latest one is Porno, the sequel to Trainspotting about Sick Boy’s attempt to become a porn baron, but for the first time, I’ve got a play which no one will touch. I think they think it might be pornographic, and it isn’t….very. I think it’s beautiful. But then I think every show I do is beautiful, however wild and in your face it is. It’s got to be beautiful theatre. Otherwise it’s a mess. I saw some Oxford students do it last year, and they fucked it up so bad I wanted to walk out and weep. I needed much vodka comfort.

Isn’t “in-yer-face” a whole style of theatre now?

HG: So they say. Actually, theatre’s been doing in-yer-face for years. It isn’t about outrageous acts, it really means your actors address the audience directly, they don’t pretend they are being spied on through a glass wall. Audiences really like that. It makes a play more like rock’n’roll. Well, like The Fall’s idea of rock’n’roll – they’re Irv’s favourite band. So it feels rough, but actually its cunning and beautiful, it draws you into a dream just like Shakespeare where a Prologue tells the punters what’s going to happen and the hero opens his heart in soliloquies, and you’re drawn into a Midsummer Night’s Dream, or King Lear’s nightmare; now that’s pretty “in yer-face” – “Out Vile Jelly!”

Defining the arts into movements and schools is an intellectual’s pastime. Like Irvine’s use of language it’s interesting to philologists but to many ordinary punters Trainspotting is just a great dirty book like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Naked Lunch. And language makes a great paint stripper. Used like a tool and my actors know exactly when to say “fuck” – it can cut through walls of pretension and prejudice. Scholars have called Irvine’s style “dirty realism” and my style “in-yer- face” but we’re just following our literary and theatrical ancestors to reach people’s hearts and minds, And people keep coming back for more.

On tour, Trainspotting keeps bringing new people into theatres; theatre managers cry out happily, “We’ve never sold so much lager”. Of course, theatres have to make a special arrangements; at the end of the interval at the Citzs we used to send a usher out to ring a bell in the car park, where customers had popped out for a spliff. And staff do find customers in odd places, let’s just say couples have been known to get carried away, round the back of the stalls. Occasionally someone gets carried out by the paramedics or policemen, but this is rare, There have been no riots yet!

How does all this affect the actors?

HG: One or two of the actors did take their research a bit too far. There was some scraping -up off the ground. But we’ve never lost anyone. The competition to act in Trainspotting is fierce, so we can cast people who are not only fine actors but know the lifestyle, We don’t cast innocents.

Have you ever cast anyone famous?

HG: We’ve cast actors who became famous afterwards. Our first Mark Renton was Ewen Bremner who went on to play Spud in the film an is now a wealthy movie star. In the West End our Alison was played by the amazing Michelle Gomez, who you now see on TV a lot she’s the HEAT magazine girl. And when I saw Lord of The Rings, there was one of my Tommies – Billy Boyd! This kind of starspotting makes watching films and TV a bit weird for me me- well everyone in The Business, you want to get into the drama, but then an old friend pops up and punctures the illusion. I mean, Gollum you look into his eyes and you know it’s Andy Serkis! And you go “he was in a show of mine!” Which no one wants to know and you get shushed.

The Sexual Life Of The Camel?

HG: Ah. Yes

Didn’t you bet someone that you could write a play about masturbation?

HG: It was the first night party of Trainspotting and I did get into a conversation about writing a play about anything, and wanking did come up, and I did write and won a bet, which I think was a bottle of malt whisky, or maybe a case, but I can’t remember who I made it with, so I never collected! And the play was given a reading at The Royal Court which Andy “Gollum” Serkis was in, but it’s never been professionally staged, which may be because people think it pornographic, which it sort of is…

In a beautiful way?

HG: Exactly! Next question.

How have things changed since 1995, in terms of the drugs scene. Will this new production still strike a chord?

HG: It was 1995, but Irvine was going back to the 80s, when heroin-use surged in Edinburgh and it was Thatcher’s Britain and getting messed up and wasted was like defiant and political. And then getting on an E was the way to love. For a century every different drug-craze was hailed as the way to paradise, or the doors of paradise or the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom, or just a great way to celebrate being rich or escape being poor hashish, acid, speed, coke, E, and you can go back to champagne cocktails for toffs, absinthe for poets, opium for factory workers, laudanum for stressed gentle folk, mother’s ruin gin for ruined mothers and urchins.

In Trainspotting, the book and play, we’re clear about the thrills and the buzz of defiance, but it’s like William Burroughs, the American junky novelist who tried everything and especially enjoyed morphine, he realised something was wrong; he said, “I spent two years gazing at my foot”. He got tunnel vision, and was disappearing, but then he started to see the light, the bigger picture what he saw as a great conspiracy. Well, in Trainspotting, you see that the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train. You can’t leave the theatre unshocked. Now I think that the whole Trainspotting phenomenon has been part of a gradual turnaround of opinion, at least ( and maybe most important because we write the copy for society) among intellectuals and the mediafolk

We are more grown up about drugs. We’re less inclined to idealise or demonise drugs. Society as a whole is not less inclined to TAKE them because humans have always taken drugs, we might even have become human by doing so but we hear less bullshit about drugs being either instant death or the road to excess leading to the palace of wisdom. In truth, the road of witless excess normally leads to the A & E room and the grave. Our realism is good.

Drugs are something you probably should try so long as you don’t have to. If you have to take drugs, it’s time for a reality check. As a drug worker in The Gorbals in Glasgow told me “If you have a life, you can do some drugs; if you don’t have a life, drugs will fill the vacuum”. As the careers of Irvine Welsh and Harry Gibson show, the palace is reached by getting education. My experience says, “Don’t do drugs till you’ve learned the Latin”.

Much more about Irvine Welsh is at

Ralph Steadman: Gonzo: The Art

Craig Johnson talks to Ralph Steadman about the death of Hunter S. Thompson, paranoid flashes and the “terrible betrayal” of modern politics

“One of the reasons he’s fun to work with – he has a really fine, raw sense of horror. By way of exaggeration and selective grotesquery. His view of reality is not entirely normal. Ralph sees through the glass very darkly.”
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, June 1974

One of the many facets that sets Hunter S. Thompson’s 70s works apart from other forms of classic American literature are the growling, snarling, punch-between-the-eyeballs illustrations of Ralph Steadman. Roaring from the pages, his pictures visualise the horrors of corporate America, ripping the surface to reveal the political greed and other grotesqueries that contort and degrade the human forms within his pictures. With his method of isolating and focusing on a physical idiosyncrasy, he explodes his subjects, capturing a hidden truth that was hitherto unseen; it’s as if Steadman sees with the naked eye of a schizophrenic.

Bloodsucking business men, venal politicians, dollar drugged gamblers, archetypal beholders of negation and power transmogrified into grinning reptilia, squarking sharp-beaked birds, gorgons of sheer inhuman greed. In the ferocious stroke of a few simple lines he trans-atlantically expresses all the negative facets of the human condition to a terrifyingly hilarious degree. If we think of the old metaphor of the artist’s pen being a sword, then Steadman’s scribe is nuclear.

Below is an almost verbatim conversation I conducted with Mr Steadman via a phonebox on Kings Street in Manchester city centre. His rumbling Welsh accent was full of charisma, his personality very accommodating, meditatory, thoughtful and warm. When talking about the death of Hunter S Thompson a real sense of bereavement -the only sort that can be when a real friend passes by- was prevalent in the tone in which he talked about him. Amidst rush hour traffic and passing packets of suit-encased, office imprisoned flesh, the conversation went thus …

Ralph Steadman and Hunter S Thompson

You must have been gutted when HST committed suicide.

I always knew he’d do it, but I didn’t know when. It was always the case of I always knew that that one day I would take this journey but I did not know yesterday that it would be today. That’s how it felt and it was way too soon. So upset about it. And I knew he’d do it but I wished he’d just shot his dick off. Something that would give him pain but have him talk about it, because instead of shooting away the one exceptionally wonderful piece of machinery in his body: His brain! The centre of all his being. The centre of his genius really. And he is a genius, no doubt about it as for going down as a great, great journalist writer. He didn’t write novels, he took William Faulkner’s advice about fact being far more stranger than fiction.

I mean I just wonder why he did it? You know if only I could have talked to him. Once! Just to say ‘What the fuck! Don’t be daft, Hunter, for fuck’s sake!’ That’s why I thought if he’d shot himself in the foot or something… But, you see, if you can imagine: in a wheelchair, a man of action, a man who always done exactly what he wanted to do, suddenly realising he has no control anymore and he’s gonna end up in a home with a lot of old people scared him. It’s that thing: ‘In the end it was no use, he died on his knees in a barnyard with all the others watching.’ It’s that indignity he couldn’t stand the idea of.

What was he like as a character?

He could be mean. He didn’t like sloppy drunks, even though he imbibed so much stuff he was just on another sort of level I suppose. I don’t know how he carried on like he did. Like he said: ‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.’ That’s the well known phrase. He wasn’t no pusher. But he couldn’t stand sloppy drunks and he wasn’t a sloppy drunk cos he never seemed drunk.

Did he ever frighten you?

Yes, many times in the car. I wrote a song with him once called ‘Weird And Twisted Nights.’ One of the lines is “Drive your stake through a darkened heart / In a red Mercedes Benz / The blackness hides a speeding trap / The savage beast pretends.” We’d driven. . . And this was another one of his tricks, he used to like to drive at night with his lights out because the police wouldn’t see him, a starlit night – “The scar heals black . . .”. There’s a record of it you can get from EMI, it’s called ‘I Like It’ (1999).

What is Gonzo Ralph?

Gonzo is a strange manifestation of ones intentions to go somewhere to cover it (the story) euphemistically as a journalist and yet end up being part of the story, not part of the story but become the story. You make one, you have to generate some sort of tension, some oddness, some unexpected freaky thing that makes it go, ‘Yes that’s it!’

The other thing is there is no accreditation for gonzo journalists, so you go there as an outsider. Like we went to the Miami Convention in the Seventies and we had to get inside without accreditation, that was part of the target. It’s to be a rock and roll journalist. What’s a gonzotic frenzy? Well it’s me in the throes of an ink splattering attempt to capture the feeling I have at that particular time.

Gonzo logo - via Wikipedia

I like the gonzo logo that HST used for his Sheriff of Aspen campaign.

That red fist – by the way it’s got 2 thumbs and 4 fingers. Have you noticed? Hunter always said to me ‘2 thumbs Ralph, don’t forget 2 thumbs!’ It’s the idea of a freak isn’t it? Anyone with 2 thumbs is obviously a freak or a monkey of some kind, a gorilla. And the flower in the middle of the palm, the green flower is a peyote drug plant.

Have you taken much peyote in your time?

No. Hunter was the one who enjoyed all that shit. I’ve taken coca leaves, I’m very fond of coca leaves but I can’t get them in England. I tried them in Peru, between Cusco and Machu Picchu is a little stop off on the train called Olan Taytambo, and there they sell it to you with wood ash and you roll the leaf around the wood ash like rolling a joint or a cigarette. You put it down the side of your gums and just leave it there and you don’t suffer from mountain sickness, anxiety or anything at such a height which is 13-15 thousand feet above sea level. I’ve got a wonderful book which is probably 100 years old called ‘The Divine Plant of the Inca’ (W. Golden Mortimer – 1901) and it’s all about the coca leaf.

Tell me about when you ended up screwed and shoeless in New York City on one of your first assignments with HST…

‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved’ was how it all started, the meeting with Hunter for the first time. . . There’s innocence and experience meeting for the first time! The shoeless episode was the second trip where we went to Rhode Island to cover the Americas Cup and I was shoeless and luckily I’d kept my ticket and passport home.

I had my ticket back to New York from Rhode Island (Boston Airport) and then I got a cab and got to 42nd Street where the bar was thankfully still open, the magazine (Scanlan’s Monthly) had closed and I was in a terrible state and coming down from psilocybin. A drug trip, which was the one and only trip I ever had and that was when I said, ‘Right, drugs are out entirely.’ I enjoy a drink. And I was palpitating, so I borrowed a quarter from the Irish barman, cos I had no money in New York, nothing in a hell of a city! I phoned a lady friend called Vendetoce who I knew from the Bologna Bookfair. I made the call and she said “I’m just going out.’ I said ‘Please, don’t go out, stay there till I get there, please!’ She could tell I was losing my voice and she did stay in.

When I arrived I was purple with palpitations and she got a doctor right away and he gave me a librium injection that put me out for about 24 hours. The irony of all this was that before this happened I put her in hospital with a fracture in Italy when we went into a ditch via my car. Imagine how mad she was to speak to me again! Bless her heart. Anyway that proves there are good people in the world. . .

HST once described you as having a paranoid flash within your character. What did he mean?

A sudden desperate fear that everything something terrible is about to happen. Because I always thought that my heart would stop beating just like that. Bang! Why? My question was: ‘Why should it keep beating?’ It’s an odd question but at the same time that’s a paranoid flash. Why take it all for granted for Christ’s sake? So I never did, and then of course I kept thinking about the fucking thing all the time you know and now I’ve come to terms with it. Touch wood and touch wood now even. He (HST) gave me a lovely head, which I’ve got on a cord around my neck. Sort of a strange primitive face and a long thin piece of what looks like clay or stone. He said: ‘Wear this Ralph, it’ll ward off evil spirits.’

Do you see an essential beauty or aesthetic in the grotesque?

There’s an aesthetic even in watching an operation, there’s an aesthetic in putrefaction. I mean to watch how things breakdown and there’s a kind of aesthetic beauty in that. But it doesn’t mean to say you’re being sick, you do see that but you’d rather not watch it. It’s not ugliness, it’s just a rather unpleasant beauty, because there’s nothing ugly in nature. . . I’d love to be a fly on the wall or to be a fly on their piece of shit! Hahahaha!!!!

How do you get those ideas when you transform people in such frightening animal forms?

I see if I can make human beings look like reptiles. I see if I can make them look like hideous creatures that would not come out of anything but perhaps. . . turn a human inside out. . . take a human being, supposing you can sort of like a rubber glove, turn him inside out and then look at it. That’s how it’s really like. When I’ve done a drawing like that and I’ve done a few, I tried to make the person look as though they’re completely turned inside out and I called him ‘The Perfect Gentleman.’

What’s your idea of a living hell?

Not really being the slightest bit interested in what it is I’ve done all my life. Not wanting to do it and then not knowing what to do next. That would be a living hell. I must have a feeling that: ‘Oooh I’m really excited about this!’ The most depressed times I have is when I just don’t wanna do anything. A living hell is not being creative, being utterly devoid of any creative impulse whatsoever.

Does the new political scene make you shudder more than it ever did?

I can’t be very interested in what are no more than P.R. men. That’s all they are – P.R. men for a policy, or a new sort of: ‘Oh why don’t we try it this way?’ As Hunter said of George Bush: he was a message boy for the big boys, the corporate interests in America. That’s all he is. And that’s what’s happening over here, we’ve got spin doctors, people that manipulate everything and everything is manipulation. It’s not winning through a feeling one has about a person. ‘Wow! I wanna follow that person. I’d vote for him.’ Not because you’ve heard something spun about him, but because he feels something. Like you do about Nelson Mandela, you can’t help feeling the guy’s a good man. It’s passion, yeah! Something wonderful. Maybe Tony Blair started out like that, when we suddenly thought: ‘Wow at last, a fresh air politician!’ The man was clean and then he had his dour man, but nevertheless honest dour Scotsman, Gordon Brown.

What are the elements in society that piss you right off?

I’m afraid of the ethos of reality T.V. which pisses me off. It’s not reality television, it’s completely phoney, things that are made up, phoney! It’s not even fiction, it’s contrived bullshit! And celebs that have done nothing and they have to be celebs and they have to go on television. It’s a terribly sad culture to develop or to pursue and take it further and all in the name of the god Mammon. There’s nothing else in it and I just wish there were. And I wish that kids weren’t being fed it all the time. The kids are not brought up to have minds of their own as individuals. Some do, some break out. Maybe it’s always been like that but in a different form?

We’ll probably get by you know, but I think we might not be able to overcome what which is we’re doing to the planet. You see, nature will do exactly what it must, and if we are a hindrance to its development, to even its destructive powers to reform itself and we are in a way, we will go. No doubt about it. We seem to think we have some control over this planet. I once saw a lump of Greenland breaking off into the sea and moving south, which of course will affect the atmosphere and us generally, and it’ll happen more and more. And as the South Pole starts to melt! We were down in Patagonia in December and it was such a wonderful wilderness, just across the water was the Antarctica and I felt: ‘What an extraordinary thing and what puny pieces of nothing we are!’ I’ve just been doing a series of paintings of that area. Look, all in all I’m trying to be an artist, the fact that I was a gonzo journalist-artist of a type, met Hunter Thompson and went that way. That happened. I can’t do anything about that, I’m glad it happened. It was like hitting a bullseye first time in America. But I wonder what I’d have done if I hadn’t met him?

Was is you that did that famous caricature of Mick Jagger with those over inflated lips or was that Gerald Scarfe?

Mind you don’t get me mixed up with Gerald Scarfe! I’ve done the Rolling Stones eating each other. Don’t worry, because people always say: ‘Ooh I love your Pink Floyd.’ No I didn’t do that! Gerry came up to me and said: ‘ Can you help me? I like your line.’ And so I said: ‘Why don’t I introduce you to my art teacher? Leslie Richardson.’ Whose daughter Lucy by the way, is Lucy from ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. They lived in Weybridge and that’s where John Lennon used to go into their antique shop with Julian. And John used to come in there and Lucy was always playing with lovely old bits of antique jewellery, they were sparkling things and Julian liked them. And that’s when he thought ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, that lovely song. It doesn’t detract that L.S.D. became part of it.

She was only 47 and I went to her funeral about four months ago because she died, and her mother Lesley said a really nice positive thing to say: ‘She had a good life. I couldn’t stop her dying . . .’ You know but . . . She was in film, she worked on all sorts of things, on Lord Of The Rings and was doing very well. A lovely lady. And everyone had to drink pink champagne at her funeral. ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ was played in the church, it was lovely.

What sort of music have you been into?

The Grateful Dead of course. I loved Eric Clapton. And Chet Baker the trumpet player. And I loved Dvorak and loved listening to William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg reading to music. And I’ll even listen to Gyorgy Legeti. I’ll tell you what he wrote was the theme for ‘2001’. He was a modern composer who then just went off into all sorts of weird stuff.

I was thinking of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathrustra’ but that was Strauss. You like Nietzsche don’t you?

Yeah I do. There’s another guy called Max Stirner who wrote some very radical things about politics. He wrote a book called ‘The Ego And Its Own’. I don’t know whether I can find it here. . . [Sounds of shuffling through papers]. . . Yes he’s German. ‘The Ego And Its Own’ Max Stirner:

“Question: What does man believe in?
Answer: I believe in myself, the answer of the common soldier.

Question: What is the principal of the self-concious egotist? Answer: Change the question to who instead of what and name the individual. Man is the horizon or zero of my existence as an individual. Over that I rise as I can, at least I am something more than man in general. A somebody rather than a nobody.

Stirner dispels morbid subjection and recognise each one who knows and feels himself as his own property, to be neither humble nor be fobbed but henceforth sure footed and level headed. A mist of this body who has a character and good pleasure of his/her own, just as he has of his/her own.

This is not transcendental generality. This is the transitory ego of flesh and blood. You and I cannot be reasoned into one, we are separate beings, two separate egos. It is important to be a self-concious ego in a self- conscious self-willed person. This is not self-obsession.

Those who pretend selflessness are constantly acting from self-interested motives but clothing them in various guises. Watch those people closely in the light of Stirner’s teaching and they appear to be hypocrites, full of good moral and religious plans of which self-interest is at the end and the bottom, but they are not aware of this. That this is more than coincidence. In Stirner we have the political development of egotism, to the dissolution of the state. The union of free men is clear and pronounced. . . ”

Is that boring the shit out of you? Hahahahaha!!!!! Just that whole thing gets to me because it is about self and yet you’re not being selfish. You care about people. But you want people to be straight forward and honest in reply, if they can help you or you can help them. Surely that’s better! That’s community, that what we’re afraid of doing and we’re killing it. You know, we’re really destroying ourselves because we’re really making the motivating force of anything we do selfish. Really acquisitive in a way that’s really not the point of it.

If there was one book that you could now illustrate, what would it be?

I think it’s gotta be Rabelais’ Gargantua And Pandegruel, about the big baby creature. It’s a tough one. I tell you what I’ve just illustrated: Fahrenheit 451, which is the temperature at which books burn, and Ray Bradbury wrote the book 50 years ago, (he’s still alive), and together that’s what I illustrated for him. When I’d done it, he said: ‘You’ve brought my book into the 21st Century. Thank you’. Which is the nicest thing to say.

The book is as important as 1984 and Animal Farm as real powerful social comment, because it’s about a fire brigade burning books. So that they try and stamp out ideas and a group of people get together and each of them take it upon themselves to learn by heart one book before they get burnt. It’s really worth a read. I’d say get the book but you can’t at the moment because there’s only 451 copies, a limited edition. But I’m sure Simon & Schuster or someone’ll do it. He wrote another wonderful book called The Illustrated Man. To write ‘Fahrenheit 451′, Ray Bradbury hired a typewriter and a room for 38 cents a day and he wrote it in 9 days. Try and read the book cos it’s kinda interesting, a definite must to read because of the implications of burning every book in the world.

You worked on Private Eye didn’t you?

I did in the 1960s. That was when I got involved firstly with Punch, but they weren’t really interested in social comment, they wanted jokes. And I went to Private Eye with a joke called ‘Plastic People’ and Private Eye bought it for 5 pounds and said: ‘More power to your elbow!’ And they published it with a double page spread in issue number 11. That was when Willie Rushden was there, Paul Foot, all those sort of people. Do you know I’m frightened that most of them are dead. Willie’s dead, Paul Foot died. I think it’s something to do with dying, I don’t know what it is? [Goes introspective and semi-silent for a second or two] He was a good journalist Paul Foot, very strong left-wing old Labour guy. But never mind, there’s nothing wrong with that, he believed in something!

That’s what’s wrong with them today, they don’t really believe in anything, they’re paying lip service to something. And that’s not belief but something entirely different. Ad-men is what they are absolutely, advertising a product. ‘We’re selling you this, it’s called New Labour!’ Or bright new Conservatives [chuckles], I don’t know what they are. People I don’t know hahahaha!!!

Didn’t that style over substance politics start in Nixon’s time or even Kennedy’s?

The thing about Nixon was that he really believed . . . He was just venal. He didn’t realise how evil he was. I think he was a genuine politician but with a remit of his own. A huge, deep belief in his own fabulous qualities. His dark scowling face made him a bogeyman. For a caricaturist he’s a . . . a gift! I was able to do all sorts of things with him. The light at the end of the tunnel. Offering cyanide pills to Spiro Agnew his Vice-President, and his was in the stocks being offered pills by Nixon. Who was always dressed in black. He was wonderful to draw. That’s when I had my best times in political cartooning.

It became something when we all suddenly felt: ‘This isn’t about domestic things, this is about life and death! Our lives are being fucked around!” Used to anyone’s ends, particularly corporate power with Enron and the rest. It was the “respectable” companies in Nixon’s time, who became monsters as time went by, and they ran politics and they still do and Bush is merely the bagman, the messenger boy for the dark players. I’m not into conspiracy theories, but I think they went into Baghdad for all sorts of reasons which are not made clear. And the way they use the word: ‘Terrorist. . . Terrorist. . . Terrorist!’ That’s become a mantra or even a trigger for fear. Mention the word ‘Terrorist!’ in George Bush’s voice and it’s something else. We can see through it but we can’t do anything about it!

You see that’s what I think is such a terrible, terrible betrayal, the trust that people have in government. The betrayal of people’s good will, good trust that things are being done for the best and they actually ARE being done for the best. Perhaps. But people betray that and let people down and cheat them. To me that almost fits into the same category as crime and torture. One of those unforgivable crimes that torture is for me. . .”

The sound of exasperation and anger in Ralph’s voice was genuine, a real rage about the dubious world order of our times. Whatever his age, this guy still has the growling edge and essential punch that makes him the greatest caricaturist of the modern era. We tied up our conversation with talks about wine, the fact that the British government wanted to eradicate the use of the Welsh language, polite regrets that we hadn’t conversed over a pint and an imploration that I follow and woo a woman who had mistakenly opened the door to the phone-box; sagacious sounds drowned out by passing road sweeps tidying the days litter from the floor of Manchester’s premier street of designer shops and parasitical employment agencies.

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Julie Burchill: Sugar Rush: Hurricane Julie

Ben Granger collides with Julie Burchill over several bottles of wine to seek out the dreadful truth on chavs, Stalin, Ariel Sharon and Morrissey


“Never meet your heroes; they always disappoint” runs the old saying. Invited from my humble Lancastrian abode down to the Brighton realm of the greatest shit-stirring iconic hack of our times, I wasn’t so much afraid of Julie Burchill not living up to her reputation as living up to it too much. Would she be gentle with me?

If Julie needs an introduction, it’s tough knowing where to start. Running away from her working-class Bristol childhood at the age of 17 to scribble speed-driven venom for the NME at the height of punk, marrying and deserting Tony Parsons prior to queening it over the Groucho journo set, skipping gaily from highly paid column to spiky column in a variety of newspapers across the land. Enraging the Left with her hard-line anti-liberalism and some-time Thatcher worship, the Right with her brazen pro-Soviet Communism and hatred of the bourgeoisie, and everyone with her particular and peculiar blend of narcissism, iconoclasm and rudeness. Leaving second husband Cosmo Landesman for an affair with Charlotte Raven, subsequently shacking up with Charlotte’s younger brother to whom she is now married. Etcetera etcetera.

There’s no time for a biog here, but suffice to say my longstanding admiration for the deliriously violent punch of her writing, often despite myself, was why I found myself here on the day. No I don’t agree with a tonnes of what she says, but for me she has obtained “Benefit of Clergy”, a phrase Orwell used about Dali (even though Julie hates Orwell too: worst offence in the world in my book). This basically means offensiveness is to some extent excused by how well it’s delivered, and what’s behind it. But mainly how it’s delivered. It’s what separates Jerry Sadowitz from Jim Davidson, and South Park from the Sunday Sport.

Julie’s profile is higher now than for many a year after finally breaking into the previously shunned medium of TV. A Channel 4 adaptation of her lesbian teen-scream novel Sugar Rush will be screened later this year, whilst her typically pro-prole, contrary and acidly delivered defence of the much maligned phenomenon of “Chavs” on the eponymous Sky One documentary last February slung a Molotov cocktail amongst the dinner party set once again.

The journey down South is made all the more surreal for me by being stuck on the last leg in the train from Euston to Brighton in the next carriage to our glorious leader Anthony Blair, a month before his phyrric Election victory, who graciously smirks over when I take a snap of him. I can’t stand the guy but little plebby me feels like Alice In Famousland. Weird, weird. I get to wander for too short a time round the rather beautiful town of Brighton (never before visited) with its poignantly derelict pier, until finally getting the cab round to her spacious detached home on the Hove border. Quick fag, deep breath, down the huge garden into the valley of whatsits.

Julie answers the door with an imperious handshake as she invites me to the lair. “You’re Ben? You must come in,” intones the famous high-pitched quickfire yet lilting Bristol burr. She’s half the size she was two years back and looks lovely in her black and white ensemble. I’d heard she was a nervy character around strangers, but whilst her initial demeanour is slightly distant, she is clearly at pains to put me at ease, even introducing me to her fellow guests with the unnervingly gallant “This is Ben Granger, the great writer from Spike Magazine.” (Fuckin ‘ell!)

The guests are Gary Mulholland, music journalist and author of This Is Uncool, Zoe Williams from The Guardian (both in capacity of friends rather than interviewers), her teenage son Jack, and her cleaner (and bestest friend the world) Nadia. The Burchill abode has a brash décor of pink walls and tiger skin couches which mirrors its owner exquisitely, as does the louche sprinkling of bottles, ash-trays and smoke. Oh yes, and the small Israeli flag atop the mantelpiece, given her oft-avowed Zionism. Whilst I get my MP3 recorder complete with my son’s kiddies mike together, I mention my fellow train traveller which gets the surprising response: “God, he’s sexy, innee? You’re a man, you wouldn’t understand.” I also mention how attractive I found Brighton’s bohemian Trafalgar Street. “God I never go there. Full of dossers.” I mention a couple of pubs I’ve stopped in (not mentioning I was there to steady my awe-struck nerves) “I don’t really go to pubs much to be honest with you. I don’t want to be the mad woman sitting in the corner!”

Generous host to a fault, Julie even sends Zoe and Nadia to the offie when I mention I’d like red wine which isn’t on offer. When I finally fidgetilly set up she directs myself and Gary to the house gym- now disused and decorated by a large Cuban flag representing the other great love of her ideological life, Communism- to conduct the interview. Sitting cross legged on the floor we embark.

So , how was writing for teenagers different from writing her novels for adults?

“Well, I’ll be honest with you, the first novel I wrote for adults was very successful but the other two went right down the toilet. So it wasn’t like a choice to write for young people, I just thought no-one’s sitting around waiting to hear from me in the adult world so let’s inflict it on some other poor …”

Yes, but were you consciously writing in a different way?

“Oh yeah, yeah! You don’t have to try so hard do you?..There’s a certain reason why people who twenty years ago would have been writing literary novels, like Gary, like myself, aren’t doing it now. I think I’d fall at the first hurdle. But my immediacy, my lack which stop me from doing what Ian McEwan or [mutters scornfully] Martin Amis do is part of what we love about ourselves, and what suited a book like was very pleasurable and it felt very normal to do.”

Given your typically hard-line on paedophilia, did you ever feel there was a tension in writing a lesbian novel about 15 year old girls? I’d heard there was more sex scenes in it initially before they were cut out?

“Naaah there was never any real sex in it because I thought that would be unbearably pervy and a total contradiction of everything I stood for. Don’t go there. Though for the TV show apparently she’s older, like 21 so they can make it a bit more.hardcore. Is that a horrible thing to say? No if it was kids it would be horrible wouldn’t it? I’ve had no input whatsoever in the programme so far but next week I’m going on-set. And I’m looking forward to it.”

The drama is still to come but the documentary has already been screened. “Chavs” was a classic Burchill column brought to life; one-sided, contrary, mixing pop culture and high sociological comment with humour and venom. Its subject was the eponymous; the baseball capped, Burberry clad, gold jewellery bedecked folk devils that walk down every high street in Britain. The butt of every middle-class sneery joke. As per often Julie has bloody mindedly found a devilish cause to defend; a hate-figure for snooty Telegraph toffs, Mail paranoiac patio-sniffers and Guardian liberal snoots alike.

Asked about why this issue was so close to her heart, the full ferocity of her anger really takes off. The turbo Bristol voice takes off, hard in vowels, soft in tone, ruthless in content.

“Now, I’m a very idle person and I’m very relaxed, and my ideal dream is just to lie on the sofa all day eating chocolates. But when I do get agitated and when I do get a bee in my bonnet I DO go all the fucking way. When I was told about things like Chavscum [the website dedicated to promoting hatred of all things “chav”]which I hadn’t known about, and the abuse they were putting out, I’m afraid I saw red. It seemed to me that the kind of people who are doing things like “Chavscum” ten years ago would have been racists, and would have been that loathsome and that disgusting. Now they can’t be racists because of the CRE and certain laws that have been passed – quite rightly. But the white working class are now the only people you can fucking hate with impunity, and I felt I just had to raise my fucking voice.”

It should be stressed there is no editorial trickery involved in Julie’s broadsides here. This is simply how she talks. Very, very fast too. The only other person I can think whose words race along as fast as they think is Patrick Moore.

“It’s so tempting to be lured in by the defence of humour and irony. One of the worst things you can say to somebody is they’ve got no sense of humour. If you look at the personal columns, you’ll often see people admitting that they’re ugly or not bright or fat – no-one will ever admit to having no sense of humour. It’s the final insult, the final thing no-one will admit to. But I didn’t want to get the fucking joke. If there was a joke I didn’t want to get it, just like I didn’t want to get it when my parents were watching “Love Thy Neighbour” and thought it was funny to call someone “nig-nog.” Instinctively, I just thought it was disgusting. To me laughter and great humour comes from taking on people above you on the social scale.”

The documentary featured an extremely ill-tempered spat with TV “personality” Vanessa Feltz, who opined that her very worthwhile existence should not be sullied by having to pay her taxes in supporting welfare payments to such dread creatures. Really though Julie, you were great friends after the cameras stopped weren’t you?

“I just wanted to punch her fucking face in! Listen, I’ve got a friend who thinks al Quaeda have “got a point”, I can sit with him and listen to that shit, I can listen to taxi drivers being racist. But when I sit with a middle-class person going on, I don’t care if it is a kind of prejudice, I just wanna kill the fuckers and I think you’ve got no right to say a fucking word, you just don’t know fucking anything about anything. To me, it’s not about race, there’s the middle class and the working class; us against them. Well, there’s three groups really but that’s the upper class who don’t count cos they’re fucking retarded…but put a middle-class person in front of me, I don’t care if they’re left-wing or right-wing, talk to them for five minutes, and the filthy fucking snob in them will come out.”

Julie Burchill and Burburry

Even when angry she is increasingly at ease, and warm in her demeanour. She doesn’t laugh much but does grin mischievously from time to time. Possibly libellous comments about La Feltz follow. But what would you say to people who claim that chavs are only a part of the working-class, and that criticising the former is not criticising the latter?

“People say that to me trying to be nice, I always say ‘Don’t do me any fucking favours!’ When someone tries to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving working-class the black heart of me cleaves towards the undeserving ones. My father was a member of the deserving working-class, he ended up coughing his fucking lungs out for three years and dying of tumors because of it. The working-class in the old days kept their heads down, were so fucking decent and wonderful, and it got them jack shit. Chavs are there for a reason, because the decent way, the good way, didn’t fucking work. The idea that after the break up of the manufacturing industries and the disrespect poured on the heads of the trade unions and everything the working-class stood for that their would still, masochistically, be this class of noble men and women trudging on and on and on waving banners and singing wonderful songs – WHY?! We’d fucking had enough. We are what they made us! And they don’t like us being like that because they know we’re tougher than they are and they know we’ll win.”

Julie has gone into an impressively ferocious, literally breast-beating oratory by this point, suddenly breaking off to grinningly state “What am I shouting at you two for, you didn’t fucking do it…!” She digresses once more, expressing here near eugenic belief in prole supremacy.

“Did you know there’s this thing called ‘the indestructible nine percent’ in society? They’ve all got green or hazel eyes, they can drink the most amazing amount, and they’ve got this weird blood group called rhesus negative. I’ve got all these three things and they are ALL found amongst the labouring classes…listen would I make this shit up?! How fucking mad do I want to look?”

But in defending “chavs” culturally, is this not a tacit acknowledgment that the political fight for the proletariat is lost?

“Naaaah, the fight cannot be lost, the fight changes.”

So to quote dear Lenin: “What is to be done” politically?

“I’m hoping to find out. What Marx analysed was basically right, but it’s so rich and strange the way things mutate. Who ten years ago would have predicted the decline of McDonalds? Who twenty years ago would have seen the downfall of all I believe in, with the Soviet Union? But because of the strength and the numbers of the working-class, both in this country and globally, we will decide what happens in the end and it really won’t be that bad.”

One of the main criticisms levelled at Julie is because her extremes of position are so contrary to “accepted” mainstream norms (pro-union yet pro-hanging, massively xenophobic about the Germans and French whilst showing a fierce anti-racism where black people are concerned, pro-Soviet yet pro-Israeli) that she is insincere and feigning them to shock. But while she unquestionably fires forth her beliefs in as provocative a manner as possible, hearing her talk about them there is no doubt whatsoever in her sincerity. She quite clearly really believes them. No doubt that makes it a lot worse for many! Her passion when talking about “the workers” and socialism in particular is unquestionable. I suggest that the success of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is a real international working-class triumph that is being unsung. Julie initially suggests he is corrupt from what she’s heard. I strongly disagree.

“I don’t know enough about Venezuela; I dare say you’re right. But remember when whatsisname, Ortega? The Sandinista leader was accused of molesting his daughter, well ten years ago we’d have all cleaved together and said she was lying, but, thank God for feminism, how do we know that. I was brought up in a Communist household, when I moved to London I met Paul Foot and was briefly in the SWP, and the one thing my dad the working-class Stalinist and Paul Foot the middle-class Trotskyist had in common is they couldn’t fucking look at themselves, see the bad in their side. That’s what attracted me to people on the right for a while, like Alan Clark. What a fucking cool man!”

She proceeds to launch into an entertaining and fairly accurate impression of Clark fantasising about Russian women in his infamously lecherous manner. Julie has latched onto the theme of the Left denying its own crimes now and, as ever, there’s no getting her off it.

“My dad taught me that you hide your own sin and you don’t take yourselves apart; I’ve realised recently that we’ve got to criticise ourselves before we can start on anyone else. In that way lies strength. I love Mr Castro and the Cuban revolution, and it’s achieved so much; they can cure blindness there whereas they can’t in America, but you go there and see twelve year old prostitutes; it obviously wasn’t meant to be like this. And the things he did to gay people, though I dare say he had a good reason…But to turn away helps no-one. I really think the Left has to take itself apart before anyone else, because we can, because we’re stronger and more intelligent than the Right.”

There we are then, to reverse Groucho’s old maxim, whether many on the Left want her or not -pro Bush and Blair on the war as she is- that’s the club she places herself in at heart. I can’t help but have a tentative go here; what about her wonderful 2002 Guardian columns where she ripped “Princess Toni” to pieces on a weekly basis due to his betrayal of the Labour movement?

“That’s simple, Blair is a great war-leader, like Churchill; useless in times of peace. Who would vote for the poor sod after that?”

So you’re not taking away your criticisms of his domestic policies, privatisation, sucking up to the bosses?

“I’ve never voted for Mr Blair and I don’t imagine I will.[This interview was conducted shortly before the 2005 General Election] The last time I voted was for the Socialist Alliance locally, and UKIP nationally, or was it the other way round? I don’t even remember. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Julie Burchill

She repeats the highly entertaining story of how, on her father’s death bed she vowed to defend the name of his old hero Joe Stalin, only to be told by Bill “You ain’t been saying mad stuff about him have you girl? He was a terrible man!”

So who are her all time heroes really?

“It sounds really mealy-mouthed, but the people who no-one knows the name of; they’re the heroes.”

So your other heroes have disappointed you?

“I don’t feel disappointed because I’ve grown up, very late in life, and I realise people fall short of things for a reason as we’re all human. Like all the bad things Mr Castro has done to gay people. The heroes are the people we never ever hear of and that is the essence of their heroicness. There’s a certain reason why people of real quality don’t rise to positions of power. People like my dad; who have nothing to prove. I’ve no element of self-loathing but I do realise that part of my success is just me showing off, and wanting to queen it over other people, to be frank with you. When you get people like Emma Thompson, Dawn French, Lenny Henry, the Red Nose lot – unless you tied the fuckers down and wired them up to a lie detector -and then you’d get it – you’d never get them to admit that there was any element in their desire to be famous other than them wanting to help people in Niger. To me it’s the glory of being a human being that we are a mixture of complete corruption and the most shimmering, mercury-like goodness. Of course there are some just purely evil people – like Dido- and just purely good people – like Jordan. But then there’s the glory and the black hearted just knocks you out sometimes if you think about it too much. That’s why I prefer not to think about it too much and watch Tricia instead. A great deal of my life is spent running away from…my brain.”

In my review of Sugar Rush I presumptuously wrote of the characters “No-one talks like that, not even Julie in real life.” I was in fact completely wrong. Friendlier (to me at least), and with lots more swearing, but she talks pretty much as she writes. I won’t let the Iraq war go though, I’m catching the argument bug off her.

“Ben! Ben! What would you rather live under?! Listen I was brought up as a Soviet Empirist. My dad taught me to believe -literally- that American brains were one third less the size of ours. It’s been a very hard journey to lead me to support Mr Bush on this. But I do feel that a struggle of the dimensions my father saw, light against darkness, has emerged in the Middle East. The Arab people deserve everything we have. If that makes me a fucking racist then yeah. I won’t make any exceptions for these filthy rich people, the Saudi dynasty, or the Syrian Ba’athists who call themselves socialists.”

But surely the idea that Bush is exporting democracy to the Middle East is rather undermined when he lets the CIA organise a coup against democratic Venezuela?

“One thing at a time Ben! When a Hugo Chavez can emerge in the Arab world… I know about Allende. I’m not idealistic about America. It’s a dirty massive beast. Of course they’ll attack democracy in their own back yard. But – heavy the head that wears the crown – when they stay out of wars we call them filthy cowards – as my grandma used to say – if they get involved, they’re imperialists.”

It’s nice arguing with Julie but I know I’ll never win, and she graciously changes the subject herself to the fact that her dad wanted to emigrate to Russia and her mum to South Africa, the former for idealism, the latter because “They got bungalows!” At heart Julie is a patriot, and emigration is not the done thing.

“That phrase “whinging poms” it comes from when English people were encouraged to emigrate to Australia for twenty pounds, and they came back, and they literally cried for three weeks in relief, because they missed the rain, and the dreariness. That’s the fucking greatness, and the perversity of the English people for me. Every perverse, dreary weird thing about our people.”

Changing the subject myself, I remark that Julie often writes about Hollywood, and spends as much time praising the greats of the past as she does slagging off the stars of today. What’s the difference?

“In thirty years time, will a drag queen dress up as Sandra Bullock? Don’t think so! Sorry; that’s facile…my mother had no politics but.what made her in a way a feminist was watching Bette Davis films; seeing her in Jezebel saying “Ah wiiill wear mah red dress”: the idea of women behaving as they pleased, stroppily and strongly. It was the only thing to watch back then and weirdly watching them on a rainy day is a real part of my Englishness. God I sound gay, I sound like Morrissey! But anyway you don’t get strong women on screen any more, a “tough character” in films today is either tough cos she’s hiding her neediness, or she’s a psychopath.. I don’t think I’m a “strong woman”, I hate that patronising phrase, I think I’m a “tough broad”, that’s what I used to see on screen which I never do anymore. They’re either needy weedy vulnerable wickle things waiting to be hugged – or total fucking looners.”

As was often the case of her columns I find myself agreeing with something I hadn’t particularly dwelled on. It’s true that Hollywood seems to stand still while society moves on in a lot of respects.

“There’s a great book by Molly Haskell called From Reverence To Rape and she shows how, just as women were starting to assert themselves in the real world in the 60s, that was exactly the time Hollywood started to make films like Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, where women are literally either bitches, whores or rapees. Joan Collins played a missionary nun twice in the Fifties! Not any more. Do you think I’m like Nurse Ratchett?”

Julie Burchill - Her Ladies Voice

I get short shrift however when I suggest that Basic Instinct is the height of misogyny. “Oh no, that film just makes you want to go gay! Every girl likes that film for a reason, it’s the first time they showed a lesbian as really attractive.” But also an ice-pick wielding psychopath? “Yeah well, take the rough with the smooth. As I said earlier ‘no-one’s perfect'” My suggestion that Fatal Attraction is a misogynistic farrago is dismissed too “No, I don’t think Fatal Attraction means anything. The message is don’t fuck a woman who sits in a loft playing Madam Butterfly, and don’t fuck Michael Douglas!” Well, you can’t argue with that.

We’re all very drunk now (well I am anyway), so I just bat random subjects up and let Julie take them. First up is Ariel Sharon (readers of a sensitive disposition may wish to skip the next paragraph).

“To me he’s the God that failed. He could have been such a great man and he’s just a fucking pacifist now. No – don’t leave it! Israel is the only country I would fucking die for. He’s the enemy of the Jews. Chucking his own people off the Gaza; to me that’s disgusting. I’ve given you want you want; is that the “money shot”? He’s a good man but he’s got to learn to stand by his own people. ‘Cos no-one else will; Christ knows.” Julie certainly gets into her stride when I bring up the sordid subject of the Spectator sexual shenanigans which have so dominated the headlines of tabloids and broadsheets alike in recent months. (For the uninitiated, the proprieter, editor and half the staff of the fusty old Tory journal have been caught going at it hammer and tongues lately; the former with our former Home Secretary).

“Well it all made me glad I live the life of a provincial lady. Rod [Liddle]’s a great young man, he once told me he applied for my old job at the NME, but he was always known as a lothario. I know one woman, a great friend of mine who thought he was so sexy she waited for three hours in a Bournemouth Travelodge on just like a promise – but she didn’t get none. Thank God I’m not a woman so I don’t fall for him. Simon Hoggart? What a dirty old man! Its always the quiet ones isn’t it? When it comes to Kimberley Quinn…I’ll say this and it doesn’t show me in a very good light..I never thought I’d use the word “slag” about anyone. Me and my friends, we know prostitutes, we don’t slag them off, but when it comes to her…we use it and God it feels good! Poor Mr Blunkett; fancy doing that to a blind man? Where was the dog? Must have been tied to summat. That’s what I can’t stand; it’s the animals that suffer in the end. But no, my friends have put it around, fucking like sailors and shit, but they’d never used that word before. But with Kimberley… It’s the creepy fertility relay race thing that did it I think. She just wanted to get knocked up. Desperate woman. She just wanted some sperm race. Like an egg and spoon race. Or a sack race. Or an egg and sack race – HA HA HA!! Put that in Ben right??”

Didn’t you once write for The Spectator though?

“I did some book reviews when my friend Dominic Lawson was editing. But then I’ll do anything for a Jew.”

Julie’s whirl of conversation swings one way to the next. Very friendly and complimentary, highly libellous asides splatter the whole interview. Julie is no stranger to the libel courts, but some of her comments will not appear on Spike as none of us of course would like to see this fine site shut down. One borderline accusation about a satirist I adore leads to her virulent hatred of Catholics. When I mention that I’m a Catholic her generous gallantry storms through once more “No, you’re not! Fuck off! Do you practice birth control?!” No of course I’m a very very lapsed one Julie. “See I knew you were, listen, lapsed Catholics are the aristocracy of the earth. I never met a lapsed I didn’t like. But them that cleave to their faith.I’ll shoot the fuckers.”

I ask about the time when one of my idols Morrissey walked through her door unannounced back in 1994 to a frosty reception…

“God I’d forgotten about that! That was like a very very bad marriage in three quarters of an hour:- imagine the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the space of three quarters of an hour. It’s not your dream; you’re in love with someone for five years and they turn up and we start arguing about whether you should put milk in Earl Grey tea or not. I knew I had to get him out before he visited the bathroom; “Why do you squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom?” Fuck off!”

Julie wrote an acerbic piece about their encounter at the time. For “acerbic” read “hatchet job”. Incredibly, given Morrissey’s famed propensity for dropping people who’ve offended him at the drop of a daff, they’ve restarted a friendly e-mail correspondence over the past few years. Clearly he couldn’t resist someone who’s even better at bitching about people than he is.

“I adore the man. He seems to be very civilised now; he seems more happy. Isn’t it funny it took America to make him more relaxed? I said to him, “You’ve grown into your looks, you look like someone’s sexy uncle that you’d get off with at a wedding.” And he said in his brilliantly witty way “Why do you think I go to so many weddings – known to me are not?” What a wonderfully Morrissey thing to say. Would you sleep with Morrissey if he asked and you were gay? If he was straight and I was single I still think I wouldn’t do it. I’d just be thinking “Oh fuck its Morrissey!” the whole time.”

Well, I must confess since early teenhood I’d always thought he’s the one man who just might “turn my head” as it were..

“You would?! But you’d have to slap him round a bit afterwards!! That’s what Madonna said about Billy Ray Cyrus. She said “I’d do him, but I’d have to slap him round a bit and make him cry afterwards because of Achey Breaky Heart” and I’d have to do that to Morrissey because – what’s the crap thing he’s done?- ‘Bengali In Platforms’? Course he’s a genius, but you wouldn’t wanna live with him would you?”

While her talk is littered with her trademark bile Julie assures me that she is far less keen to cause fuss in everyday life than she once was.

“I’m much better than I was. Even by the time I was 17 at the NME I was well castrated by then. You should have seen me at 13, at the height of my venom! I stopped kissing my mother when I went to bed and when my dad asked why I said “What, is she a lesbian?” That’s what I was like!”

And in fact she does seem more at ease with herself than I’ve heard she was, and very content with her life.

“Brighton, for all its airs and graces, is a very provincial town, and I like it that way. I don’t want to be like a young bunny putting it around, I’m 45 years old, it was never my way anyway, I got married when I was 18 and 24, even though I always admired girls that did. It was never the life for me, to be honest with you.”

She seems content too with her role in the grand scheme of things. “You know that thing you wrote about me [the Sugar Rush review] was so unique, it treated me like a human being which was such a change. I love being round young writers, I like to think of writers as a community, as a race. I’m forty-five years old , I’m not going to write “the great novel”…a dead mother that’s what I’m going to be now, and that’s alright with me.”

Already seriously sozzled before the interview ended (me,anyway) we break off to join her fellow guests – and proceed to drink a lot more. The “mists of Bacchus” descend on my memory somewhat here though I do dimly remember us drivelling on about many other subjects. Indulging in huge, shared, over-emphatic praise of Nye Bevan figured highly. (“Idiots always get him mixed up with Ernest Bevin, the anti-Semitic git.”) At one point Julie has a huge slanging match with Zoe and Gary about the merits of white immigration (Julie is against, she thinks the UK owes black and Asian people a huge debt which doesn’t apply to east Europeans). I recall also being a coward and slinking away during this, talking to Nadia instead. Nadia has clearly seen it a thousand times before, and its clear why Julie loves her so much. She’s fantastic, and clearly the calming, sensible one of the pair. “Don’t worry, she’ll calm down in a few minutes”, I think she said. And she did.

At one point I harangue Julie for wasting her life attacking idiotic celebrities when she could be highlighting great social injustices as she did for a very brief period in her Guardian columns of 2002, campaigning on issues like the still-toothless corporate manslaughter law which allows negligent employers to get away with murder (literally, if not legally.)

She explained she found writing such things too much of an emotional strain, and that it was too late to change now anyway. She was a nasty, witty old hack, pure and simple. And she liked it that way.

And of course; that’s what makes her what she is. The world already has John Pilger. Its precisely the fact she has “run away from her brain” as she herself puts it which makes her so entertaining. A sledgehammer cracking a nut; the spectres of Dorothy Parker and Marx ganging up on straw-celebs like Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas is sometimes just what you need. Can we really imagine a nice campaigning little Julie Burchill? Brrrr. I must have been even more pissed than I imagined.

The day after our meet, amidst the industrial hangover, I reflect on the massive hatred Julie inspires. Two years back she managed to take the number 85 spot in the Channel 4’s “most hated Britons” poll. Not high enough in her view I’m sure. But why was she there? Because of her narcissism, arrogance and self-obsession? I’d hazard a guess she’s not the only columnist to suffer such flaws. She is however one of the very few to openly acknowledge it, sign-post it, flaunt it, and make a very good joke out of it.

Because of extreme opinions, repeating her obsessions? Let’s think of these wonderful creatures we call “columnists”. Richard Littlejohn, Gary Bushell…straight-off bigots peddling the same old poison week after week, and always kicking the weak, never the strong, with far higher readerships too – not on the list. The late-now-but-not-then Lynda Lee-Potter, bitching hideously about celebs throughout her whole career, bigger readership again. Her name’s not down, she’s not coming in. A hundred odd male journalists with just as “messy” private lives as Julie; they don’t get the spawn of Beelzebub treatment either. Could the fact that she can write each one of them into the dirt at least partially explain this bonfire of loathing? I rather think it could. Julie says people who write hatefully about chavs reveal more about themselves than they do of their targets. Perhaps there’s an element of self-identification with that. And perhaps she’s right.

Of course I’m hopelessly, and rather pathetically compromised (there, I’ve said it first) by spending sloshed out time in her charming and generous presence. But I wasn’t disappointed. And long may she rain bile over us.

Hunter S. Thompson : An Appreciation : A Real American Patriot

Chris Mitchell on why Hunter S. Thompson was one of the most important figures in American letters

I love my friends. Away from email for a few days, log in this morning to 5 different people telling me Hunter S. Thompson is dead.

Distraught isn’t the word.

Thompson was forever sidelined as a caricature in the last couple of decades, a victim of his own mythmaking, the crazy old bastard on the hill permanently altered, packing guns and delivering apocalyptic pronouncements on the rare occasions he could bring himself to look at a typewriter. Loaded magazine got to the point where they were interviewing him every six months, just so another bunch of wannabe fanboy journalists could make the pilgrimage to Woody Creek in Aspen, Colorado and meet the man.

I periodically had a silly little fantasy of making that pilgrimage myself one day and spending some time shooting guns with the good Doctor. Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit and possibly even more so to read, but the point is, Hunter S. Thompson was one of those writers who changed your perception of the world. Irrevocably. So much so that you’d want to meet him just to check he was real and shake his hand.

Because Hunter S. Thompson Got It.

He saw the world as it truly is, and the drugs and guns and women were just a way to temporarily escape that. (Hence the famous Samuel Johnson quotation that prefaces Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas – “he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”). Similarly, they are incidental to his work, not the core of it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas may be a depiction of a drug-crazed doomed sojourn in Sin City, but it is also what it says on the cover: “A savage journey into the heart of the American Dream”.

That was what Thompson chronicled for four decades. He was first and foremost a political journalist of the highest calibre. Read the first journalism collection The Great Shark Hunt or his penultimate, Kingdom Of Fear – Thompson sees America through unmasked eyes, and as a true American patriot, he despairs of what he sees. And he has the guts to say so. Calling President Bush a “whorebeast” in print was funny, but Thompson meant it with deadly sincerity. He considered Bush worse that Nixon. There was no worse accolade he could award. There’s no irony involved with Thompson – there’s buckets loads of bleak and twisted humour which certainly makes him the funniest writer of the 20th century in my opinion, but Thompson meant all of it.

And this is what it comes down to. Hunter S. Thompson was a consumate hellraiser and we loved him for it. But that’s not what made him such an enduring, important figure in American letters. His perception of the collapse of America’s moral values both at home and in its projection into the world through foreign policy and intervention – or the lack of it – is what fuelled all of his work throughout his writing career. He wanted to be proud of America and for America to truly live up to the ideals it has ascribed itself. For all the perception of Thompson’s “outlaw” status and frequent brushes with the law, Thompson was a deeply moral man, concerned only with the destruction of his own country by greed and avarice.

Farewell then, HST. Your passing means one less strong voice of sanity in these Satanic times.

Paul Auster: Oracle Night

Stephen Mitchelmore

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Oracle Night is the first Paul Auster novel I’ve read since Leviathan in 1992. Until then, I had read every book. This was not a difficult feat. Auster is supremely readable. In fact, I am afflicted by an unusual inability to stop reading him once a book is begun.

However, in the end, with Leviathan, I felt this was too much. I read it abnormally quickly, devouring each page with less and less concern for what was written on it than for getting beyond that page and to the next page, and the next, to see what was there.

After the last page I was mentally exhausted, nursing a headache. It seems significant that I have no memory of the narrative except for the mental image of a forest to which a character – perhaps the main character – removes himself. The proliferation of anecdotes – or stories within stories – means one can’t see the wood for the trees.

The experience of reading Oracle Night is very similar. It’s almost impossible to put the book down as there are so many compelling stories, one after the other, even though this is a relatively compact novel (240 pages). I’m sure I’ll forget most of the stories, but that isn’t important. Nor is Auster’s distinctly unpretentious prose style important. If you wince at clichés like back in the swing of things and to all intents and purposes that appear on the first half page alone, think of them as stablisers for the roller coaster ride ahead. (Elsewhere, I read that Auster breaks through his writer’s block by typing regardless of the banality of the prose.)

There are two central narratives in Oracle Night – both told by Sidney Orr, a New York writer recovering from an unnamed illness that was expected to kill him. He hadn’t written anything in a year until discovering a blue notebook in a small stationery shop (that isn’t stationary at all in fact. It disappears overnight.) Anyway, the new notebook somehow enables Orr to write a story. Much of Oracle Night is that story.

I don’t want to summarise the plot here as it is characteristically involved and would also detract from the essential element of Auster’s novels. The essential thing is something impossible to convey outside of the narrative itself: the evocation of possibility. At each step in the story – when Orr enters the stationery store to discover the blue notebook, when he returns to his writing den, when he begins to write the story in the blue notebook as if compelled by an occult power, and when, in the story within the story, the character makes a life-changing decision – there is a thrilling, uncanny sense of freedom. I mean, for the reader. A freedom in infinite possibility; innumerable futures present themselves. I have not experienced this so acutely with any other writer.

It’s there too in the opening lines of The Music of Chance: Jim Nashe driving away from his past after a windfall of cash. After that, the story takes shape and the sense diminishes. Until then, however, no particular story is attached to the sense of freedom. Anything can happen. We are free. The beginning of the story is our windfall.

So why is do we feel an urge to continue reading rather than to throw the book aside and live that freedom? Probably because we prefer the illusion of freedom, the possibility of freedom rather than the real thing. We read to enjoy the specific story that replaces the vertigo of infinite freedom. As with a horror movie, we aren’t really horrified. Horror is only the playful withdrawal of a guaranteed safety. And narrative is the guarantee. With a novel, we know we have a circumscribed adventure before us.

Yet that narrative also makes our freedom come true for a moment, even if it is only an illusion. The open future may contain infinite possibilities but it never seems to happen for real. Consumed by habit, we lose contact with our freedom. Reading, or watching a film, reminds us of possibility even as it is removed. And in that reminder, it comes true. The obscure attraction of a book or a film might be, then, the pleasure of contact with possibility and relief in its withdrawal.

But such pleasure has a double edge of course. Indulgence in stories removes us from life; takes us to the end of possibility. Auster’s narrative is, as I’ve said, compelling. It is compelling but in the end doesn’t satisfy the indulgent reader. Oracle Night could go on for another thousand pages. Perhaps it does as Auster’s complete oeuvre. Yet it does stop. Although, actually, it doesn’t quite. The story within the story is not concluded. It is shocking and frustrating for the reader. One wants to know how the author Sidney Orr and the author Paul Auster resolve a chilling situation. At the end though Orr explains why it is left hanging and we realise that it stops precisely for the reason we don’t want it to stop. It is difficult to accept, yet not because it is wrong.

This has angered and confused naïve readers; those untroubled by stories. For instance, Aaron Hughes asks the right questions but asks them only of Oracle Night rather than literature in general. What does it mean, for example, to say that Oracle Night “is not a success” when the nature of success in literary terms is fundamental to the narrative itself? The answers present themselves in the novel under review. When you pick up a novel you become a reader, not a consumer.

Orr describes burning the blue notebook in order to escape its mysterious power; in order to flee the nightmare of possibilities it summoned. Indeed, the end of the novel seems overladen with terrible events. Orr writes: “The true story started only then, after I destroyed the blue notebook.”

We might compare this with something Auster – or should we say Orrster? – wrote in The Invention of Solitude at the very beginning of his career following after death of his father:

For the past two weeks, these lines from Maurice Blanchot echoing in my head: ‘One thing must be understood: I have said nothing extraordinary or even surprising. What is extraordinary begins at the moment I stop. But I am no longer able to speak of it.’ [from Death Sentence]
To begin with death. To work my way back into life, and then, finally, to return to death.

In Oracle Night, we joined Sidney Orr working his way back into life from the brink of death – working, that is, by writing. Yet the main symptom of his unnamed illness was dizziness, where the world became blurred and incoherent: a world without form. Almost as if language and meaning had been removed from his life. It took the discovery of the blue notebook and the writing of the new story to return him to both. But that only returns threatens another death, the death of possibility. It is Auster’s rare achievement to keep possibility alive and kicking even as it suffers a death by a thousand plots.

Julie Burchill – Sugar Rush

Ben Granger

Julie Burchill: donchajusluver??!!

Well, yes, actually. There once was a time when I agreed with all my Graun reading friends “that bigoted bitch” should be humanely shot, but it seems a very long while ago now. My obsession with her venomous vitriol went from fascinated horror to perverse admiration in the time it took to squeak “public hanging” in a Bristol accent. Every Saturday when I dutifully bought my Graun it was, without fail, to her page I turned first. Whilst my comrades sang “ding-dong the witch is dead” when she left last year, I felt Id lost a limb, an itchy, scabby limb perhaps but a part of me nonetheless. I wasn’t going to follow her to The Times though. Let’s not go nuts here.

Now I’m not one to “admire the candour” of “politically incorrect” columnists as a rule. Watching Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens and Taki being sodomised by chimpanzees whilst devouring the bloated corpses of Paul Johnson and Simon Heffer at gunpoint would be my dream reality TV viewing. I’m an overpaid bigot, get me out of here! So why my weak-kneed ardour for a woman unafraid to sing the praises of history’s greatest monsters (Thatcher and Stalin) whilst occasionally drawing the ire of the Commission for Racial Equality?

The short answer is the sheer energy, insight and wit amongst all the shit.

Reading one of Julie’s better columns is to ride the rapids. A violent tug of agreement here, a buffet sideways into the realms of entertaining irrelevance there, recoiling at the scathing extremism whilst simultaneously entranced at its vicious and shameless perversity. And along the way, just occasionally finding something you may agree with that you never thought of before.

And yes, I do love a good wind-up merchant. No-one can match her for sheer vicious spite. When she’s massacring the vacuous world of celebrity it reminds me of the old Day Today headline “Crazed Wolves In Store A Bad Mistake Admits Mothercare.” And for all the knee-jerk reaction, I was amazed to find how frequently her targets deserved everything (or at least nearly everything) they got.

The bourgeoisie, still dehumanising the working-class, but cloaking their exploitation under a silky Benneton-shroud of faux-progress. The ludicrous irritancy of pontificating film stars. The moral, hypocritical black hole of most journalism. The spineless and simpering betrayal of New Labour and the “post feminists” (offering to remove their clitoris and voting rights if they found the new era of relative equality so awful.) She’d left most of her pro-Thatcher phase behind by the time she’d gone to the Graun; this was a brutal patriot-Commie bruiser. I found myself punching the air in agreement (metaphorically of course, I am a Graun reader after all), overjoyed that she’d hit the nail on the head with far greater accuracy than her more measured colleagues.

Of course I still strongly disagreed with vast amounts of what she said; the death penalty, Israel, Ireland, invading Iraq, paedophiles and the talent of Gareth Gates springing most immediately to mind. But even then my perceptions were challenged and above all I was entertained. She could even ignorantly defame my idols George Orwell and Mike Leigh and I’d still lap it up. When she went into perversity overdrive, calling for public hanging, and claiming suicides should buck their bloody ideas up I just found the middle-class outrage of those taking the bait on the letters pages hilarious (bringing to mind one of her classic put-downs “now, before you get out your pink Forever Friends notepaper.”).

Basically, violently agreeing with about 40% of what she said and reeling at the rest was a damn sight more edifying than vaguely nodding at 60% of what Polly Toynbee puts out. I dont read her Times columns, and by all accounts she’s gone into manic pro-war, extreme Zionist overdrive now, which even I might find too much. But when I hear about her typically savage dissection of the loathsome neo-snobbery of those sniffing at “chavs” I still think “that’s my Julie!” with a warm glow.

When it comes to her books though, even a fan such as myself remains a sceptic. There was no way I was going to read her hagiographies of Princess Di and Beckham, no matter what clever class-conscious leaps she was doing to laud her unworthy heroes.

And the fiction? I once read a chapter of Ambition and found it pretty awful, an unconvincing English take on Dallas and Dynasty, neither of which I liked in the first place. I actually picked up Sugar Rush, Julie’s lesbian-driven “first novel aimed at a teenage audience” as a kind of aversion therapy. This is a woman who now claims to support George Bush for God’s sake. I needed to quell my ongoing crush for her perversity. Surely this rubbish would put me off for good?

Sugar Rush tells the tale of 15 year old Kim, a middle-class girl at a private school, who is forced into the nearby rough-as-shite comprehensive due to the financial hardship of her stuffy dad who’s been left holding the kids by her feckless mother, herself still trying to live her teens in her 40s.

Left behind by her hard-nosed friend “Saint”, Kim falls under the thrall of the head hard-bitch at the new comp, Maria Sweet, AKA “Sugar”. Sugar is rough as hell and live as wires, and drags the prissy yet uncomplaining Kim into her world of Ecstacy, vodka, dance music and sarky-faced rebellion, offering her a tang of freedom she’s never tasted before. Doubt-ridden, fucked up Kim falls for her sexually as well as spiritually. Their relationship crashes up and down, side-to-side on the winds of teenage abandon. But can such a bliss-ridden union of opposites last?

What strikes you while reading this is that Julie can only write one way, and that every word in Sugar Rush, no matter who’s speaking it, is very much her own. Indeed the three main characters are a split triumvirate of Jules herself, every bit as cute as the ones in the Catholicism and Freudianism she so loathes (actually I don’t know she hates Freud, I’m just guessing.)

Kim is the shy, intelligent, doubting, deep, wry side; Sugar the spirit of wild working class abandon that Julie so admires; while mum Stella is the shallow, formerly working-class but lavish spending strumpet who thinks of no-one but herself and has abandoned her kids, the very demonic caricature of Julie herself the Daily Mail laid on her. Believe me, Im not playing slap-dash Raj Persaud here (that being a tautology anyway); it’s pretty damn plain.

All the familiar themes from her columns crop up, sometimes down to the same wording. The sanctimonious futility of well-meaning liberalism (the private school and the comp come together in farcical “exchange” sessions, a pseudy drama troupe resonant of the one from The League Of Gentleman displaying to braying teens the evils of homophobia); the sad atavism of “the family dinner-table” and its depressing middle-class accoutrements (the means by which her sad dad tries to hold the family together); the hypocrisy of anti-racists who hate the poor (ex-best friend Saint is a bourgeois black who despises “white-trash” Sugar with a passion); the joys and contradictions of lesbianism, higher education being for losers, the fetish for Soviet-Army uniforms (an art project of Kim’s gone wrong)… Christ, she even manages to shoe-horn in her newfound passion for Lutheranism (don’t ask..)

The result, is, I’m afraid to say, a lot of fun. Yes it’s tacky and obvious at times, and yes both the dialogue and thoughts in the book really do stretch credulity occasionally too, ringing pretty false as realism. This is Julie talking, and no-one talks like that, not even Julie in real life. The over-excitable metaphors are endearing and evocative at times, but sometimes they really make you cringe.

But you know, much to my regret, I’m not a teenage girl; and that’s the audience for this book. And I really do think they’ll love it, like the young mum I saw avidly reading it on the bus the other day (I’d better stop there, lest Julie lead a misguided anti-paedo lynch mob against me.) The thing about Julie’s voice is that it is indeed perennially adolescent, and this suits the book perfectly. She still seems to be a lost teen aching to shock the grownups.

Much has been made of the “explicit content” of this book (not least by the cover), but in reality there’s very little muck to be had here (there is one scene of group sex, but nothing is described.) But she brings the bitchiness, the longing, the loneliness, the SHOUTING to make your point that are all part of the teenage condition to life very well.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I must say I find it a pretty terrible cop-out by Julie’s standards. A triumph of middle-class safety against the working-class “other”. You traitor Julie! What would Uncle Joe say?! But it is I’m afraid to say…sweet, indeed Kim’s whole tale resonates a certain empathy which brings a warm glow to even to this jaded heart.

So, once again, Ive been won over. What can this evil woman, this “sociopath” and “moral cretin” (her words) do to finally put me off her? Defend the images of torture in Abu Ghraib? Oh dear, I’ve just heard she’s already done that. Time for more soul-searching you bad, bad boy.

W.G. Sebald: Looking And Looking Away

Stephen Mitchelmore on the novels of W.G. Sebald

Why are W.G. Sebald’s novels so flat? Why – when the books refer to events of utmost horror and disaster, sometimes dwelling on pain and death with a fascination and regularity verging on schadenfreude – are the events themselves always placed at a distance, always prior to the narrator’s present, as if only ever to be experienced second-hand, as stories?

The first part of The Emigrants, the first of Sebald’s novels to be published in English, is exemplary.

It begins with a photograph of a graveyard. Below it is a date and, below that, a description of a journey to a large house situated in a village in East Anglia. The narrator and his partner are to view accommodation there. There is little or no tension. It could be mistaken for a straight memoir, particularly as there are so many photographs accompanying the words. Without pleasure or discomfort, the reader can follow the litany of precise natural details provided by the narrator – oak trees, Scots pines, a grassy graveyard, a thick shrubbery of hollies, Portuguese laurels, dry, rustling leaves. One expects it to lead somewhere, and a story of sorts does get told eventually. However, once it is, these details seem excessive. In the end all we are told is of the narrator’s brief acquaintance with the melancholy Lithuanian emigrant Dr Henry Selwyn, and the curious coincidence that emerged later. In summary (though this is barely any shorter than the original) Selwyn lost his Swiss mountain guide in the early years of the century; he went missing on the Aare glacier. Selwyn, we’re told, remarked on how deeply this loss affected him, even more than separation from his wife. The fact doesn’t take up much space in the book. But seventy years after the loss, when visiting Switzerland, the narrator sees a news report of a body being given up by a glacier. It turns out to the same mountain guide. Selwyn could not be told of the discovery because, by then, he had killed himself with a hunting rifle. In fact, his suicide is a footnote. It is not presented as a great tragedy. There is no speculation on what he was thinking as he prepared to pull the trigger, or even why he chose to end his life. The narrator’s journey to Switzerland isn’t detailed either. It’s tacked on the end without the precise details provided at the beginning, while the chapter itself ends with these lines:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair hobnailed boots.”

It’s an oddly glib reflection; a flat reiteration of a Proustian epiphany that doesn’t, in fact, happen. There is no richness, no sense of revelation. The presence of the past is down to its bare bones. Another writer, perhaps with an eye for the main chance, might have expanded this into an ambitious tale across the dark decades of the 20th century, involving mountaineering, forbidden love, religious persecution, exile and war, all framed by the giant sky of the East Anglian countryside.

But not Sebald. One might say that in this story not only is there no violence, there is nothing much at all. The presence of the dead is always at one step remove, never quite a full presence in the narration, and though his later work does go into more detail, giving a chance for that lost time to re-emerge, the flatness continues. Jacques Austerlitz, for example, is said to have grown up in Wales, but there is no rising inflection in his words, no lilt; just Sebald’s familiar, formal prose. At best this can be described as uncanny. Otherwise, there isn’t much for reader to indulge in. The fiction vacates rather than fills the space of literature.

So why has Sebald been hailed – by Susan Sontag among others – as a literary great? Well, Sontag points to the “passionate bleakness” of “a restless, chronically dissatisfied mind” that offers us “moral fervency and gifts of compassion”. But this doesn’t tell us much really. She also says that the accompanying photographs provide “an exquisite index of the pastness of the past.” Again, so how does that make Sebald great? Pastness is a great attraction to a culture that fetishises old objects. Indeed, Sebald’s style is called “Antiquarianism” by Daniel Johnson in the TLS: deriving from, he says, “a peculiar synthesis of English eclecticism and German perfectionism” where “the past has a more powerful presence than the present”. That presence is precisely its pastness, which is present only as an index of what’s not actually there. A curious paradox – one that would probably leave the experts of Antiques Roadshow nonplussed. Like their punters, they would probably prefer just to accumulate more and more of it. Hence perhaps why much is made of the variety of subject matter in Sebald’s novels, like a lumber room in a rundown mansion ready for an enthusiast’s rummage.

It is also likely that the popularity of Sebald’s fiction is due to a nostalgia for works that deal seriously with the most serious of subjects – all four Sebald novels might be misconstrued as Holocaust Literature. Certainly, Sontag desires something to counter “the ascendancy of the tepid, the glib and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects”. A nostalgia, too, perhaps, for black and white distinctions: Nazis evil, victims good. When we listen to the story of a Jewish refugee, such as Max Ferber in The Emigrants, who lost his parents in the camps, the obscure hurt has to be acknowledged even if it remains beyond us. In comparison to the moral confusion of the present, it is much easier for the reader to feel something. However, Sontag herself doesn’t see things as so clear cut. She ends her review of Verigo with Sebald’s own curiosity with “the mysterious survival of the written word”; the dead, as it were, returning to us here too, again and again.

The question of whether this is a good thing is left, as it is in Sebald’s novels, unanswered. Yet could the flatness be a means of trying to mitigate that survival?


Sebald himself is survived by four novels for which we can be thankful. The Rings of Saturn followed The Emigrants, then came Verigo, written before the other two, and finally, Austerlitz. The first and last in this sequence can crudely be called a pair: both contain stories framed by the narrator’s relation to individuals exiled from their origins. The middle two novels are framed by the narrator’s own wanderings, although they too involve telling others’ stories, usually an historical figure like Stendhal or Casanova. The trajectory is unsatisfactory. As I suggested in a review of Austerlitz, the author seemed to be painting himself into a corner. A new path is required.

We can only imagine what that path might have been. Yet that sense of loss and lack of development is oddly in keeping with the fiction. It’s as if the novels exist to deal with the inadequacy of resolutions. What I mean is described at the end of Verigo.

The narrator returns to the German village that he left as a youth. This is his first visit for 30 years. It gives him the chance to talk about all the goings-on, all the characters and intrigues that make up childhood memories with which he seems to be preoccupied. He meets friends from that time, now suddenly aged. One takes him to an attic room packed high with antiques and curios. Amongst the junk is an old tailor’s dummy dressed in a 17th-century soldier’s uniform. The narrator recognises it as the origin of a terrible threat that awaited him should he enter a forbidden room of his childhood. As he used to dream of this ghostly figure, his curiosity is stirred and he reaches out to touch the cloth, as if to make some kind of contact with that nightmare. The cloth crumbles away into dust. In subsequent dreams, he also reaches out and touches the soldier: “And every time, I then see before me the fingers of my right hand, dusty and even blackened from that one touch, like the token of some great woe that nothing in the world will ever put right.”

While the dream takes the place of that childhood nightmare, perhaps offering the end of years of unconscious terror of the unknown, what replaces it is itself a troublesome lack. One dark thing dissimulates into another. Knowledge is gained yet, while this is apparently a progress, it buries the expected dissolution of the child’s fear in another darkness. Sebald’s writing is precisely this progress; a token of some great woe that is present only in the trace of its absence. Not progress enough perhaps. The “restless, dissatisfied mind” of the writer becomes our own experience of reading. We look for some concluding knowledge to get us beyond this apparent impasse, and we continue reading as the narrators continue on their wanderings, from one place to the next, from one book to the next. They are always getting over some undescribed illness or having just gone through “a particularly difficult period” or are feeling just plain empty. It is a neurasthenic condition familiar to other distinguished quasi- autobiographical writers: Proust and Kafka. Like Sebald, they sensed a world beyond their own restless, dissatisfied minds. Kafka first:

It is entirely conceivable that life’s splendour forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons. (Diaries 18 October 1921)

And Proust:

What the intellect gives us back under the name of the past is not it. In reality, as happens with the souls of the departed in certain popular legends, each hour of our lives, as soon as it is dead, embodies and conceals itself in some material object. Unless we meet with that object it remains captive there, captive for ever. We recognise it through the object, we summon it, and it is released. (Against Sainte- Beuve)

Both continued writing, as if this would bring life’s splendour. But if the right words summons what was hidden, wouldn’t the means of seeking it also be a means of missing the time where its advantage could be lived? Both writers’ unhappy, hypochondriac real lives suggest as much. Or perhaps their manner of seeking itself was at fault; Kafka certainly felt that way. How can one tell though? When can one know if the manner is correct until life’s splendour has passed and has become words only, mere history?

Perhaps, though, that is the advantage.

There’s a famous scene in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time when Marcel returns to the Grand Hotel in the northern seaside resort of Balbec (locations familiar to readers of Verigo). He bends down slowly to remove his boots and suddenly, he says, undergoes “a convulsion of my entire being”. His chest is filled by “an unknown, divine presence” which shakes him to tears. It turns out to be the sudden return in his memory of his late, beloved grandmother; “a complete and involuntary memory”. It is only as her presence fills him like this does he realise that she is really gone. Nothing in fact really happens but it is an exquisite moment for Marcel. At last, his mourning can take its course. The novel has many such incidents, spread across seven volumes as if to ensure that each appears with an appropriate intensity to the reader, and so, in the same way, to the writer. In both cases, they exist as a passionate report; moments of felt distance. It is only in this way that movement forward is possible. The same is true in Kafka’s most powerful stories, where the death of the protagonist, in for example The Judgement or Metamorphosis, is the means of returning writing to life. The paradox, of course, is that this can happen only in writing – a space that is neither fully alive nor fully dead – a condition actually embodied (or disembodied) in Kafka’s great story The Hunter Gracchus.

While Kafka’s stories and Marcel’s epiphany are in stark stylistic contrast to each other, and both to the Henry Selwyn chapter of The Emigrants, there is the same toward into life that requires a movement closer to death. How can we make sense of this?


In 1874, Nietzsche published a long essay On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life in which he argued against the obsession with history. He recognised that there is something pathological in the pursuance of the past for its own sake.

Instead, Nietzsche says, forgetting is necessary, at least for a time. Otherwise we cannot let go; we cannot sleep.

He divided historical explanations into three types: monumental, antiquarian and critical. While all served life, both history and life suffer if they are abused, “Monumental history” he writes “deceives with analogies: with tempting similarities the courageous are enticed to rashness, the enthusiastic to fanaticism”. It’s the kind of history where the phrase “Never forget” is cried out and becomes itself a monument obscuring what needs to be remembered. Antiquarianism, on the other hand, cherishes every little detail of the past rather than the big picture. But this means it is unable to distinguish between what is and what is not important. The result is the utter veneration of the old because it is old, and the rejection of anything new. Meanwhile, critical history is used to deal with both: “to shatter and dissolve something to enable [life]”. While critical history is useful to enable movement forward, it can also be a means of avoiding its lessons: but in both forms it is a means of moving on.

Applying this to Sebald, one could say he takes the monument of the disasters of civilisation and exposes them to the gaze of Antiquarianism. Yet while the latter is present in the fiction in what Sontag calls the “spaciousness and acuity of the details”, they refuse the harmlessness of antiques. In fact, they have that potential to summons described by Kafka and Proust (perhaps what Sontag means by “spaciousness”). This does not seem to lend itself to moving on. Each detail in the story of Henry Selwyn begins to speak to its narrator: the grassy graveyard, the thick shrubbery of hollies, the Portuguese laurels, the dry, rustling leaves. As they build, there is a sense of some great woe that nothing in the world will ever put right. Wouldn’t it be better to leave it be?

Forty years after Nietzsche, Freud offered an understanding of the process of dealing with the weight of history that might explain. In Mourning & Melancholia there is an uncanny outline of Sebald’s apparent fictional procedure. As Tammy Clewell summarises,

The work of mourning entails a kind of hyperremembering, a process of obsessive recollection during which the survivor resuscitates the existence of the lost other in the space of the psyche, replacing an actual absence with an imaginary presence. This magical restoration of the lost object enables the mourner to assess the value of the relationship and comprehend what he or she has lost in losing the other.

In Sebald’s case, the space is writing and not the psyche, replacing an actual presence with a fictional one. Still, Freudian psychoanalysis would accommodate this as a cathartic process, whereby the gift of writing is the freedom from loss. The melancholic energy demanded of the work itself enables the ego’s release.

However, in both Nietzsche and Freud, the problem of discussing these issues is not itself an issue. Yet if one is to move on, then how much work is involved and how much is that work responsible for the need itself? To clarify, Clewell points out that Freud’s original theory was in the same vein as his earlier essay On Narcissism, and she detects “something self-serving about [Freud’s] description of mourning as a process of detachment and consoling substitution”. There is a sense of that self- serving element in Sebald’s relentless pursuit of stories of others’ lives and suffering, particularly the suffering. It’s as if the more stories the narrator is able to tell, the freer he becomes, yet also the more he needs the stories for that freedom. The written word mysteriously survives in the lives of the writer, and reader also. Everything becomes imbued with the spaciousness that we have to escape.

The danger of such “referential mania” is embodied in a story by another great modern stylist, Vladimir Nabokov in the story Signs & Symbols. For the institutionalised son of the elderly parents:

everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. […] Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.

While such extremes of paranoia are not present in Sebald’s novels, his work does share this story’s unease with its expressive self: that is, how much is the writing implicated in creating the problems it seeks to solve or escape? Signs & Symbols‘ power comes not only in what it tells us – of mental illness and the ravage of the parents – but the way in which fear and anxiety is evoked in each step into the story; not in what is explicitly said but in what words portend. Nabokov’s florid sentences evoke forces bearing on all our lives – forces that can move us to aesthetic pleasure as a reader, and that make the son go mad. It is a dangerous confrontation, one that Proust, Kafka and Sebald make in their different ways too.

Incidentally, Nabokov appears, another sign of something, as a butterfly catcher in The Emigrants.


With the publication – now in paperback – of a collection of lectures under the title On the Natural History of Destruction we can now begin to appreciate even more that Sebald’s project was beyond melancholy reflection. And far from being yet more Holocaust literature, work seeking to recover history for the present and future, it is fiction as a search for an end, of having done with ghosts at last.

The collection’s title itself, while at first appearing to be the loose pretence of a marketing department unchecked after the death of the author, directs us to the biological sciences where natural history is the precise eyewitness description of empirical data and events (an incipient Antiquarianism). The specific destruction under examination here is, according to Sebald, under-described: the carpet bombings of 131 German cities and towns, such as on Hamburg on 27 July 1943 in which at least 50,000 civilians died.

Sebald sketches the natural history of the firestorm. What happened that night is summarised by the unnamed reviewer at The Complete Review as “(huge numbers of dead, enormous amounts of bombs, rubble, etc.)”. The parentheses are symptomatic. Sebald does not try to wrench human detail from these, as it were, a priori euphemisms but to analyse the response with a view to opening debate about the subject. The lectures are surprisingly provisional, and wouldn’t amount more than notes if it wasn’t for Sebald extraordinary ability, as seen in his fiction, to embed the deepest themes in the apparently superficial.

The title places the clarifying words ‘On the’ in front of ‘natural history’ so that the subject becomes the attempt at recording and, implicitly, the attempt at forgetting. The latter is inevitable, hence the need for history. But what kind? How can we remove others’ experiences from its bracketed containment without crippling ourselves – in Nietzsche’s sense – in the process? For sure, Sebald finds the attempts to approach the air war unsatisfactory, almost without exception. Not that there were many attempts in the first place. We can assume two main reasons for their rarity and unsatisfactory manner: the eyewitnesses who weren’t killed had to use all their energy to survive their survival. For example (my example), Jorge Semprun’s account of his own survival of the concentration camp at Buchenwald is called Literature or Life; he had to choose the latter in order to be able to write this very book much later.

The second comes in Sebald’s reference to Lord Zuckerman’s abandonment of his plan to write an article for a British journal following his visit to Köln, another firebombed city. Simply, he couldn’t find the words: “All that remained in [Zuckerman’s] mind” Sebald tells us “was the image of the blackened cathedral rising from the stony desert around it, and the memory of a severed finger that he had found on a heap of rubble.” The experience was incomparable, and so words, the very means of communication through the tacit repetition of comparisons, fail too.

Zuckerman’s remaining memory is significant for Sebald’s project. One might assume that if there was a photograph of the finger, he would have placed it on the page. But not out of prurience. James Wood, in his perceptive essay on Sebald’s novels, refers to the tragedy of fact evoked by the captionless images placed throughout his books. They are not supplementary to the words but confirmation of mutual inadequacy. However, it is an inadequacy that contains much referential potential. The single memory is an equivalence; it orientates us toward the traumatic impact of experience even if we can have no real appreciation of what it means. Indeed, the impact exceeds experience. Zuckerman was only passing through and what remained for him was only an image. For the survivors, the ravage seems to have gone much deeper. Accounts following the raid on Hamburg tell of the majority of the surviving population – over a million – wandering through the country, without any apparent destination. They were seen everywhere, aimless and torpid. Sebald tells the apocryphal story of a woman waiting at railway station whose suitcase fell open depositing its contents on the platform, including the charred corpse of a baby.

Many millions went through this and it is more or less absent from post-war German novels and non-fiction. It was also absent from acknowledgement in everyday life. As he grew up, Sebald felt that something was being kept from him: “at home, at school and by the German writers whose books I read hoping to glean more information”. He says it hung over his life like a dark cloud. The silence had its advantages of course: “the economic miracle” of Germany after the war “has its source in the well-kept secret of the corpses built into the foundations of our state, a secret that bound all Germans together in the post-war years”.

Undoubtedly, the reconstruction required a focus on the future rather than the past and, inevitably, literature would reflect this. While those in charge were removed, the mindset of nation remained: they continued to work hard without questioning, and the companies that supplied gas to the death camps continued their capitalist success stories. German industry became a byword for efficiency (precisely what prompted the invention of the death camps). However, on the cultural front, German literature faded behind the fresh new talents of North America. One must assume that forgetting is incompatible with great literature. Appropriate recognition of the genocide of the Jews was delayed. The same happened to their own experience of the air war. For this reason, Sebald accuses modern Germany of being “strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition. We do not feel” he writes “any passionate interest in our earlier way of life and the specific features of our own civilisation, of the kind universally perceptible, for instance, in the culture of the British Isles. And when we turn to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time.”

He makes this movement clear in this analysis of the few accounts of the raids themselves by listing the kind of phrases used throughout:

‘On that dreadful day when our beautiful city was razed to the ground’

‘a prey to the flames’

‘that fateful night’

‘all hell was let loose’

‘we were staring into the inferno’

‘the dreadful fate of the cities of Germany’

In other words, endless cliché. Sebald says they are no more than gestures “sketched to banish memory”. The words slide by without gaining any purchase on the past. The truth has not been hidden, but it hasn’t exactly been registered. But should this be regretted? Well, when the lecture was first delivered, in 1997, Sebald felt it was appropriate to remind Germans that this forgetting remained part of:

the project of creating a greater Europe, a project that has already failed twice [and] is entering a new phase, and the sphere of the Deutschmark – history has a way of repeating itself – seems to extend almost precisely to the confines of the area occupied by the Wehrmacht in the year 1941.

He claims that the “psychic energy” of this project remains in the nation. If it is not brought into the open, it will carry on into the future. And that is certainly something to be regretted.

This is not to say there was complete silence about the air war. In the post-war years, fiction did try to approach what had happened. Sebald refers us to three writers who wrote about the destruction and were published. While he finds the novels superficially admirable for at least broaching the subject, he is disturbed by their form and content. For example, Hermann Kasack’s novel Die Stadt hinter dem Strom (The City Beyond the River) envelops the bombing raids and death camps into part of one big expressionist allegory. Sebald’s literary analysis is objective but his appalled disdain is also clear, particularly as, at the time of the novel’s publication, it was considered of “epoch-making significance”. Sebald suspects it was judged so because it appealed to the pre-war obsession with grand, utopian visions. In this way, they look away just like the clichéd reportage. But worse than that, in repeating pre-war fantasies of mysterious metaphysical worlds possessing transcendent truth, all these novels display “a profound ideological inflexibility”. Sebald says that the culture was still “in the midst of that pedagogic province which, in the German tradition, extends from Goethe … through Stefan George … and on to Stauffenberg and Himmler”.

So of what, one wonders, does he approve? Well, he welcomes Hubert Fichte’s novel Detlev’s Imitations, set in 1968, because it is “not too abstract in character” and includes “concrete and documentary” investigations into the raid on Hamburg. Specifically, the novel has genuine medical reports by a pathologist into the victims of the raids. They are straightforward autopsies of mummified corpses. All fiction pales before such documents. The gruesome facts make any imaginative effort seem evasive and pretentious. Stories become only a means of sustaining value where there is only flesh and bone. As it is, only clinical objectivity has the words for the calamity. Sebald, of course, doesn’t accept this. While he concedes that the reports were written in the interests of science, he does say that, within the narrow focus of its specialist language, the report “opens up a view into the abyss of a mind armed against all contingencies”. In the end, it is only another example of avoidance masquerading as proximity. He sets scientific analysis alongside the journalistic clichés and novelists’ fantasies. The pathologist’s rationality clings to a tradition in order to pass through the catastrophe untouched.

In order to bring out how the catastrophe made its mark on his own work, Sebald quotes extensively from his own. But that was in the German edition. It is excised from the English. This is a perverse decision. Sebald’s excuse is that the original subject of the lectures was poetics and it would inappropriate to repeat them now that the subject is the air war. I don’t see why these lectures don’t count as poetics still. Each of Sebald’s stories continues that sense of being kept from something, of the observer’s isolation, which is precisely the relation to the air war. The reticence of the narratives is really a patience. There is no aggressive push to imagine beyond what the narrator can see and what he hears at second-hand. Words and pictures remain orientated toward. It continues in us too, his readers. Perhaps, though, this isn’t enough. When we bandy around phrases like “literary greatness”, we contain past greatness, everything we understand to be great: the expansiveness of epic, the microcosm of theatre, the language-making power of poetry, the encyclopaedia of narrative fiction. Sebald cannot be included here. At least, not on those terms. If Sebald is great, it is in his refusal of such supremacy. The word greatness is changed if he is indeed great.

Sebald’s success, however, beyond such chatter, is in finding a form appropriate that investigates his deepest concerns in the most appropriate way. This is perhaps a mark of greatness.


It is curious then that not one of Sebald’s fictional works approaches the air war. Not one character is a survivor of those events. As I noted, the fiction is generally misconstrued as Holocaust Literature, perhaps gaining more attention as a result. Austerlitz, for example, features a visit to the remains of Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic. The tragedy is once again illuminated. This has a fine and necessary tradition. Aharon Appelfeld – himself a survivor – approves of fictional representation of the Holocaust because “the numbers and the facts were the murderers’ own well-proven means. Man as a number is one of the horrors of dehumanisation.”

One wonders what the response would have been if a novel had focussed entirely on individual survivors of Hamburg or Dresden? We might wonder again because as Sebald’s book appeared in paperback, so did Frederick Taylor’s study of the most infamous raid: Dresden: Tuesday, 13 February. It has been received with acclaim in the British press. In the Daily Telegraph, James Holland writes “with this fine, highly readable and scholarly work, we can finally view the terrible destruction of Dresden with renewed objectivity”, while David Cesarani in The Independent, after highlighting Sebald’s implicit comparison of the bombings to Nazi mass murder, calls Taylor’s an “authoritative and moving account” that “provides a truer, more fitting memorial” to those who died. Authority, objectivity and memorials is perhaps most welcome to those who were not on the receiving end. But how would it appear fictionally?

It wasn’t until 20 or more years after the war that Germany began to acknowledge the effect of its “psychic energy”. Certainly, one cannot claim that national awareness of the Holocaust is repressed. Indeed it has become commonplace in our idea of modern Germany: think of Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, or Harry Enfield’s contrite yet overbearing comic stereotype Jürgen the German, apologising for the war at every opportunity. The latter is not a figure that would have been possible when Primo Levi or Jean Améry began writing. Améry is the subject of one of three essay appended to the main lecture. He was a resistance fighter tortured by the Nazis. After the war, he concentrated on his paid work without attempting to write (for the same reason as Semprun). It was only in the 1960s that he published autobiographical essays reflecting on his terrible experience. What interests Sebald particularly is that he found a form to orientate the reader toward, to look but not look away at the same time. Where Sebald used a restrained style, Améry is more personal and polemical; he writes with “an implacable resentment”. Sebald is impressed that his work manages to “dispense with any kind of literary stylisation which might encourage a sense of complicity between writer and his readers.” Cliché and ingratiation are not present. Sebald compares Améry to the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard who, as a teenager, witnessed the bombing of Salzburg and later wrote with ferocious contempt for the institutionalised forgetfulness in his country. (NB: it is a shame Sebald’s essays on Bernhard are not already translated – and edition is required).

Such a comparison indicates that Sebald is not, as The Complete Review accuses him, contemptuous of the imagination; entirely the opposite. He is keen only to find a form that conveys the process by which the imagination dispenses with contact with its environment, as in Kasack’s highly imaginative novel. The task is more complex than the crude opposition between imagination and reality. Améry’s description of his shoulders being dislocated under torture is written without ornament. He does not try to convey the pain with the force of adjectives. Above all, his aim is to show that, as Sebald writes:

the practice of persecuting, torturing and exterminating an arbitrarily chosen adversary [is] not as a lamentable but incidental feature of totalitarian rule but, unreservedly, […] its essential expression.

One cannot read Améry’s essays without confronting the possibility of wider implication of the events of his life. They cannot be read for the find out what happened only. In this way, autobiography becomes a means for furthering life.

For Sebald, Améry remains “the only one who denounced the obscenity of a psychologically and socially deformed society, and the outrage of supposing that history could proceed on its way afterwards almost undisturbed.” Indeed, he was so angry that he criticised Primo Levi for being too forgiving. It is Sebald’s thesis that the air war is as much part of that deformation as anything. It too has to be worked through: repression is not a healthy option. Sebald’s fiction demonstrates the need for patience required for Germany’s “coming to terms” with the Nazi era; how it had to empathise with the victims of its crimes from a distance. The same can be said for victims of the air war. Imagination is required rather than objectivity.


After delivering the lectures Sebald and receiving press attention, he received many letters from distressed Germans, children at the time of the raids, whose traumatic memories have had no place to go. One can only imagine the scale of the trauma. However, seven years on from the lectures, there has been a more sustained attempt to bring this into public discourse. It reached a peak with the publication in 2002 of Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945, a book of several hundred pages describing the raids in relentless detail. It prompted an outpouring of blocked memories across Germany, becoming part of a nation debate about the subject. There was also a lot of anger, resentment and claims that the raids were war crimes. Sebald received letters from a middle-class neo-Nazis proclaiming Germany as the self-defensive victim, not the aggressor. Sebald is contemptuous. The process, he accepts, has to confront such danger. In this way, the responses to Sebald’s book become part of the literature.

It is a terribly instructive coincidence that many reviewers were writing in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In the Boston Review, Susie Linfield tells of demonstrators equating the bombing of Dresden with the forthcoming Shock & Awe campaign on Baghdad. “I can think of few worse analogies” she writes.

The propagators of such analogies would say they are using historic knowledge to heighten moral awareness and thus prevent the commission of present and future horrors. But I fear that the opposite is true: The reliance on historic analogies is an evasion of the particular, indeed novel, political complexities that face us now, complexities that have emerged since (but are not solely the result of) September 11th. Like photographs of starving children or grieving mothers or blasted buildings, such analogies create instant, Pavlovian moral equivalencies. They shut down critical thought and ultimately, therefore, stifle moral acuity.

This is certainly true. It is why Sebald’s complained about the clichés of the accounts of the raids. They were a careless means of expression and abuse history. However, Linfield doesn’t offer an alternative, except by telling us to use “critical thought” and “moral acuity”. Maybe these elegant phrases tell us more than the protestors’ banners, though I’m not sure what. They too seem like gestures to banish unpleasant thoughts. With what Susie Linfield would compare the imminent bombing, I wonder? How would she demonstrate her feelings about it?

Meanwhile, Daniel Johnson, reviewing Friedrich’s Der Brand alongside Sebald, expresses his opinions about the demonstrators’ comparisons more forcefully. He calls it “moral cowardice” and blames Friedrich for aiming “his bombshell of a book at the ageing edifice of the Atlantic Alliance”. He says the book it enabled the German government to exploit “anti-Americanism”. While he accepts that the comparison of the Nazi Holocaust to the air war is “never spelt out” by Friedrich and Sebald – he does say that the “impassive accumulation of gruesome detail serves a rhetorical purpose: to demonstrate the utter inhumanity of the air war.” (If there was a humanity in the air war, Johnson doesn’t spell it out.) It all means that the Germans “might still be capable of repeating the mistakes of the past”, and he explicitly means the opposition to the invasion.

Christopher Hitchens also uses his review to support the invasion. He is suspicious of the language used by those recovering the air war, such as Sebald’s “weak qualifier” in the reference to the German population’s “vague feelings of shared guilt” about the Holocaust. “Vague?” he says “Remember what we are talking about”. Indeed. But perhaps “vague” means unspoken and unformed – which is certainly plausible. In conclusion, Hitchens himself refers to Iraqi exiles’ “infinite pain” in supporting the invasion when it is obvious they would not be running the gauntlet of US cluster bombs, or their children to endure the legacy of depleted uranium. So much for remembering what is being talked about.

While the majority of the reviewers referred to here use the air war to support or to excuse the Shock & Awe blitzkrieg, and all remain suspicious of Sebald’s project of imaginative empathy, they have nothing but admiration for his fiction. Hitchens says Sebald’s early death is “mourned by all who love writing for its own sake” (whatever that means) and Daniel Johnson says that had Sebald lived, he would “hardly have been able to avoid the attentions of the Swedish academicians”, though exactly why isn’t explained. In fact, they write next to nothing about the fiction. It’s as if they do not know what it is so prefer to keep it in the safe enclave of entertainment or salutory token of “some great woe that nothing in the world will ever put right” (so long as it’s the right kind of wrong). Remember it is Johnson who used the convenient half-truth of describing Sebald’s work as “a highly literary form of antiquarianism”. Perhaps it is fairly explained by the fact that they are reviewing a work of non-fiction. But, as I hope to have made clear here, On the Natural History of Destruction is a coda to Sebald’s extraordinary fiction, and for such prominent and serious critics to overlook this is curious indeed. But I would go further. These reviewers, mere literary critics, have used book reviews to become accessories to the crime of killing innocent people, and their fingers are stained not black, but red.

Stephen Mitchelmore’s review of Austerlitz
Vertigo: Collecting and Reading Sebald

Ben Myers – The Book Of Fuck

Chris Mitchell

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With a title like that, you’ve got to write a good book or have the word “wanker” silently appended to your name forever after. Just to make things more difficult, the press release trumpets the fact that The Book Of Fuck was written in seven days. I don’t know about your criteria for choosing a book to read, but something written in seven days sounds to me like it will be a cramp-stomached vomit of speed-crazed gibberish, especially if the back cover states it’s “a buckled break-neck rant let loose at punk rock speed”.

Thankfully, none of these things are true. The Book Of Fuck is a homage and a pisstake of the twilight world of music journalism, a first person reportage of a starving hack sent off in search of a death metal antichrist superstar called, to the joy of America’s Christian masses, the God Of Fuck. GoF is like Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and GG Allin all rolled into one – the bogeyman of popular culture. But GoF doesn’t get much of a look-in even though the search for him propels the plot – the pages are taken up with the internal monologue of our protagonist, a mix of furious punning, musical musing and starving artist clichés twisted into new shapes, all set against his love of London’s squalid glamour. It’s a prose style that can certainly be called punk rock, but the tone of our hero is far more gentle and even genteel than even the most half-hearted sneer from Mr Rotten. He’s a Cat Stevens’ fan, for Christ’s sake.

That notwithstanding, there’s a touch of Hunter S. Thompson to the prose, which is a compliment not to be awarded likely because The Book Of Fuck echoes HST’s style without trying to ape it. It runs in parallel to rather than behind it, connecting a mordant intelligence with a sense of amused bewilderment at the predictments in which the narrator continually finds himself.

As someone who used to read the music papers religiously as a teenager, back in the golden era of Melody Maker at the end of the 80s, The Book Of Fuck has a lot of resonance with that time, before intelligent music journalism all but disappeared underneath the market forces of dad rock and prepubescent marketing exercises. (Can’t we ban The Beatles ever being featured on another magazine cover ever?). The Book Of Fuck doesn’t offer up anything particularly profound, but it does provide a superb black humoured roadtrip of the soul in search of profundity, which is possibly even better.

And, as the work of a small UK publisher, Wrecking Ball Press, The Book Of Fuck has superb production values: from the size to the spacing to the use of fonts, this is a book that wants to be read. Sadly there are numerous typos scattered through it, but then, that’s very punk rock too so I guess I’ll have to live with it.

Poppy Z. Brite : Will Self : Exquisite Corpse : Dorian : Bloodsuckers

Mark Richardson on the gender wars
in modern Gothic fiction

In recent times it has become commonplace for writers and critics alike to link contemporary gothic narratives with modern day anxieties. Two recent Gothic novels have successfully exposed our cynical attitude towards love relations and our fear of getting too close to the Other: Dorian by Will Self and Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite. Whilst both books should be celebrated and praised as artistic successes, it is Brite’s novel which is truly the more shocking work, by turning the author herself into the Other. Exquisite Corpse was, I believe, a transgressive act of literary provocation engineered by Brite herself.

In Dorian, Will Self transplants Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to Thatcher’s Britain, following a group of rich, drug-addicted and promiscuous Londoners as their decadent lifestyle leads them into ruin. Self revives Wilde’s classic creation, the pseudo-tragic figure of Henry Wotton. As Wotton dies of AIDS, Self tells us: “Wotton had always understood [t]hat for each minute or hour or day or week of abandonment purchased now, you would have to pay later. Pay with physical dissolution and mental disintegration. On this actuarial basis alone it did not surprise him in the least to wind up dead at forty.” For the cynical Wotton, the body therefore becomes an instrument or a machine with a fixed value, to be squeezed out however fast or slow one wishes.

The main character in Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse gay serial killer, Andrew Compton also contracts HIV, and deals with the news in a similar way: “Well, Andrew, I told myself, anyone who violates the sanctity of a dead boy’s ass cannot expect to get away scot-free.” Unlike Wotton, Compton has no regrets and proceeds to tell himself: “Remember only that this virus in your blood makes people afraid of you. Any time someone is afraid of you, you can use it to your own advantage.” Is it possible that here Brite is making a comment on today’s victim culture? I will return to this idea in a moment.

So what happens to our notions of identity in a victim-obsessed culture, where the body has been reduced to an instrument of pleasure? Dorian opens with an epigraph courtesy of Schopenhauer: “[I]t is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.” In our postmodern age of the ‘decentred subject’ it seems that we can never get to know who anyone really ‘is’. In the novel, Self develops this theme by making frequent references to the marriage of Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales. In Self’s vision of modern Britain, Wotton and his cohorts’ loveless and cynical use of each other’s bodies to pursue solipsistic sexual pleasure is echoed in the equally cynical, loveless charade of the ‘Royal Marriage’.

On the politics of romance, the psychoanalyst, Slavoj Zizek, has recently said in an interview for Spike: “[Y]ou cannot do the game of erotic seduction in politically correct terms. There is a moment of violence, when you say: ‘I love you, I want you.’ In no way can you bypass this violent aspect. So I even think that the fear of sexual harassment in a way includes this aspect, a fear of a too violent, too open encounter with another human being.” Of course, this moment of ‘violence’ is not something that Wotton and his cohorts avoid. They positively revel in promiscuity and group-sex. Yet by doing so, by reducing their bodies to sexual objects, they commit an act of Sartrean mauvaise foi and continue to avoid a truly open encounter with the Other.

The fear of getting too close to the Other is echoed in Brite’s book, too. After being sentenced to life for the sex murders of twenty-three “young men and boys”, the thirty-three year old Compton accidentally encounters and befriends Jay, another serial killer. Unlike Compton, who is ‘merely’ a necrophiliac, Jay is a cannibal. As the two men begin killing young men together, Compton explains why during the original killing spree for which he was imprisoned cannibalism held no appeal: “I was afraid. Unnerved by the thought of walking alone in the dark and still feeling them with me, in my very cells.”

The characters in Dorian remain cynical to the point where the book’s epilogue suggests that the events of the novel are really nothing more than a manuscript. Of course, they really are nothing more than a manuscript, and Self fills the book with various self-referential little twists, many of which are autobiographical (like Wotton, Self is also a graduate of Oxford University who makes no secret of his personal battles with heroin addiction thus raising the question of whether or not the author, through the very act of creating and identifying with his characters, is the ultimate fractured postmodern self).

By contrast, in Exquisite Corpse, Compton is awakened from his cynicism via the act of falling in love with Jay. We realise that this love is genuine when Jay dies and Compton is left aghast, heartbroken. In an entirely sincere act of respect for his Other’s desire, Compton eats a unique packed-lunch: a sandwich filled with Jay’s cooked flesh. As he falls asleep, Compton describes his emotions: “I wanted only to keep Jay’s meat in me as long as I could, to process and assimilate as much of him as possible. When I awoke, he would be with me always.”

Many readers have been repulsed by the explicitly romantic ending of Exquisite Corpse. An executive working for Penguin (up until then, Brite’s UK publisher) wrote to her: “I was very sorry not to feel able to publish it I admired the book’s ambition and [felt it] was a considerable development in your writing. But I did have very considerable reservations about the subject I felt very uncomfortable with the mixture of a [journalistic] approach to the characters and a tendency to see them as admirable, almost vampire-like figures.” (Brite, “The Poetry of Violence”, in Screen Violence edited by Karl French, 1996)

What should be avoided here is the simplistic conclusion that this means Gothic fiction is not the perfect vehicle for dealing with important social issues. Certainly, we are horrified by the idea of a serial killer who, in overcoming his cynicism and falling in love, is more human than us, but this is hardly original; the filmmaker Jean Rollin has made an entire career of presenting us with melancholic tales of lonely, romantic vampires. No, my suspicion is that the problem lies with Poppy Z. Brite’s gender. For many, Brite’s artistic motives are far from transparent: like Self, she often writes hyper-erotic, sometimes gratuitous, descriptions of gay male sex.

Unlike Brite, however, Self’s artistic motives can be easily understood: as a heterosexual man, he is ‘legitimately’ curious about the homosexual Other. This gender discrepancy might lead some readers to unconsciously wonder if Brite is just like Self, but in a different way autobiographically close (if only in terms of fantasy) to her characters. If Lacan is correct to say that we fear the Other because we (wrongly) believe that the Other has a strange, privileged access to jouissance, we might wish to consider the possibility that many readers are suspicious of the jouissance of the female Gothic writer. Recall, for instance, the constant stream of rumours regarding Emily Brontë’s private life (which even includes the suggestion that she buried a dead infant on the Yorkshire moors). I am quite sure that no one is more aware of this than Brite herself and it seems entirely possible that she knew, ahead of submission, the problems Exquisite Corpse would encounter.

Ever since Dickens, we have witnessed the rise of the literary celebrity; and ever since Bridget Jones’ Diary we have watched the rise (dreaded or otherwise) of chick lit. It appears that Brite herself has now abandoned horror writing, whilst her mainstream Other – Anne Rice – continues to pander to her horde of nu-metal-listening fans by churning out one formulaic blockbuster after another. Given the argument I have put forward here, would right now not be the time for another great female horror writer to appear; one who will play to the suspicions of readers regarding the jouissance of the female Gothic writer? Publishing companies take note: this really could be a fantastic opportunity for one of you to make lots and lots of money.

Or am I just being cynical?

Maurice Blanchot – Nowhere Without No

Stephen Mitchelmore

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Maurice Blanchot

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Not half way through the year but already a book has come along that, at the end, I will say: this is it — the book of the year.

I am aware that there is something desperate about such a pronouncement. It reveals a need to fulfil empty time with an evasive monument. That is the nature of monuments after all. The bigger the monument the more it evades — hence the respect given to a new 800 page novel spanning generations, the collected works of a writer or a definitive biography of a tyrant. Yet the book I’m holding is a fragile 53 pages and is published by a small press in Sydney, Australia.

Nowhere Without No is, ironically, a collection of thirteen memorials by translators, academics and poets (sometimes a combination of all three) in honour of Maurice Blanchot, the French novelist and philosopher, who died in February 2003 aged 95.

The introduction by editor Kevin Hart explains the title. It comes from Rilke’s eighth Duino Elegy in which the poet writes of ‘a space that has been freed from ordinary time’ as experienced by children, animals and the dead:

It is always world
and never nowhere without no:
that pureness, that unwatched, which one breathes and
endlessly knows and never wants. But a child
might lose himself inside the quiet and become
shaken. Or someone dies and is.
For near to death one sees that death no more
and stares ahead, perhaps with a beast’s huge glance.

Blanchot’s gift is to reveal to us how literature is also nowhere without no. His work pursues writing to where it disappears into this space, as it separates itself from the reader and writer. Hart reminds us that Blanchot wrote (in the third person) of his own experience of this separation as he faced a firing squad in 1944. Waiting to die, there was:

"a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however) — sovereign elation? […] In this place, I will not try to analyse. He was perhaps suddenly in invincible. Dead — immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship." (from The Instant of My Death, translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg)

The shots didn’t come; he was told to run and thereby regained a life where, from then on, he writes, "the instant of my death [was] henceforth always in abeyance". Later, he discovered that a manuscript had been taken from his room by enemy officers believing it to contain military secrets. Instead of the death of the author, there was the death of the text.

One might say: but this is written in the third person; it is either fiction or Blanchot is writing about another person — perhaps literature itself. That lost manuscript certainly has the convenience of fiction, standing for the agency and meaning as it withdraws. However, such a distinction is impossible. By writing in the third person, Blanchot emphasises the distance inherent to such reminiscence — itself already literature, already intimate with death.

Ten years later, Blanchot’s The Space of Literature is saturated with this experience:

– to write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself.
– to write is to withdraw language from the world.
– to write is to surrender to the fascination of time’s absence.
– the writer never reads his work. It is, for him, a secret.
– in the solitude of the work … we discover a more essential solitude.
– art is the power by which night opens
(trans. Ann Smock)

Throughout this extraordinary book, Blanchot traces the impact of the night on the work of various authors — Rilke, Mallarmé and Kafka in particular. If, for Kafka, "there exists only the outside, the glistening flow of the eternal outside" what does that mean for his world of expression, of escape, of liberty that is writing? The question is part of the work itself. In this way, reading Blanchot is frustrating: there is at once the assertiveness of the phrases quoted above and a resistence to actually saying anything in the usual manner. His assertions serve to obscure what was previously clear. Rather than offering an alternative to, say, a Freudian or Marxist reading of Metamorphosis, Blanchot reveals how each reading has to make a leap over the abyss.

For the reader, it is intoxicating, yet almost impossible to then put to use. Lydia Davis — pioneering translator of the récit Death Sentence — says she can follow the argument line by line yet summary is resisted. "Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment by moment". This resistence, she finds, is experienced by most other readers. It is not a criticism.

Charlotte Mandell — translator of The Work of Fire and The Book to Come — recalls how she felt a need to write to Blanchot to thank him for the silence in his words — for the revelation of the space. Her gratitude then is not for the man himself but for his absence, such is the perversity of his gift. Mandell doesn’t say whether he replied — though others report replies of exceptional courtesy and concern. Only Jacques Derrida — in the address given at the cremation — tells of the man himself: brief meetings in a university office throughout which Blanchot wore a gentle smile, and then breathless on the phone toward the end. He seems ghostly even in life.

One wonders how much this effacement contributes to the unique aura of his works? Not much, if the attempts to imitate him are any guide. The poet Jacques Dupin writes that in Blanchot’s fragmentary writing:

"his speech yielded a conductive wire of an extreme delicacy in search of the ultimate meaning, that which was well beyond one’s grasp and which indicated from very high up how to pass over the precipices, how to master the turbulance and the proliferation, of the forces of discolation that exhaust the text, that strangle the voice."

While Blanchot’s prose can be said to be poetic — and Dupin is surely right to detect a "demanding poet" behind the prose – it is not flighty and impressionistic. The silence of the words is achieved by the extreme patience and attention to the weight of words — a patience frequently expressed in doubt. Blanchot’s disciples have a remarkable confidence to use key word and oxymorons that appear throughout Blanchot’s work — passivity, sovereign relation, forgetfulness without memory, the impossible real, motionless retreat, purposiveness without purpose — in the assumption that they automatically plumb the depths as they do in Blanchot. Curiously, they don’t. As Blanchot himself wrote:

"Desire of writing, writing of desire. Desire of knowledge, knowledge of desire. Let us not believe that we have said anything at all with these reversals."

The merit of Nowhere Without No is that, unlike so much Blanchot-related material, it doesn’t strain to say too much. Such is the silence brought by death perhaps. The latter also means the distance between the author and his work is foregrounded, if only in the reader’s mind.

Michael Holland emphasises the distance in a remarkable, two-page analysis of science-fiction. The genre, he says, necessarily "hangs back from thinking the totality of what it projects – which is to say total transcendence in the here and now". He means it denies mortality. And that means such transcendence is pure violence: "Sci-fi is thus essentially nihilistic" because it cannot accommodate bodily death on the level of its narrative. He urges us to read and re-read Blanchot in order to hold off such nihilism. This is how we can learn from Blanchot. There is no need to adopt his style. Blanchot himself did exactly that in his own learning.

Mark C. Taylor remarks on Blanchot’s neglected kinship with an earlier enigmatic philosopher-writer: "It was …Kierkegaard" he writes "who first realised that philosophy can be itself only by becoming literature; and it was Kierkegaard who insisted tht the only way to be truly in the world is to withdraw from it." Taylor asked for a meeting to discuss it but got a note saying: "Though I might wish it otherwise, the conditions of my work make it impossible for us to meet". Still, he confirmed to Taylor that Kierkegaard was indeed a secret sharer. He helped Blanchot find his own way. This collection, modest in size and character as it is, offers Blanchot as a guide to us, placing the emphasis firmly on the writing:

"I have long thought that some things are so intimate that they can never be said but must be written. Writing does not merely create distance but also allows one to draw closer than any spoken word. This closeness must not be confused with presence. Writing brings the remote near by allowing presence to withdraw. The lasting lesson of Blanchot is that withdrawal opens up the space-time of desire whose absence is death. Though he has been taken from us, he will continue to give what is never ours to possess."

Mark Simpson – Saint Morrissey

Ben Granger

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Saint Morrissey
Mark Simpson

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This book is not for people who’ve never, even briefly, fallen under Morrissey’s spell. Don’t bother; it’ll only convince you further of the psycho-obsessive nature of Morrissey fans in general and the author in particular.

Don’t bother either if you’re looking for new facts about The Smiths or Morrissey, anything to do with music rather than image or lyrics. It’s Johnny Rogan’s Severed Alliance or Simon Goddard’s more recent Songs That Saved Your Life you’re after, both of which spell out in dry but meticulous detail most of what you might want to know. And don’t bother if you’re looking for objectivity, or if you’re turned off by riotously over the top prose that out-does even Julie Burchill in the school of forging constant rapid, rabid, contentious assertions from very few base facts. Anyone left? Then, like me, you’ll love it.

Simpson is a True Apostle of the cult of Moz, and like all his ilk found this warped love during a troubled adolescence, described with lively self mockery in a chapter here. The Smiths landed like a chemical warhead upon bored teenagers growing up in the most soulless decade of the 20th century. Here was the nihilism of punk for an even more genuinely despairing generation, with added literacy, sensitivity, wit, and tunes. It was something they would never forget.

Detractors say Morrissey appeals to “the teenager” because both he and they are contrary and self-pitying. This is of course true. But there are better qualities also at a premium in the best of the uppity adolescent and the everyday work of the Moz. A breathtakingly arrogant precociousness, a visceral impatience with the banal, the solipsistic knowing you’re not like anyone else, and the vicious world-weary wit of the damned. All satirised brilliantly in his own song “Nobody Loves Us” casting both himself and his fans in the role of spoilt children (“tuck us in/make us our favourite jam”..)

As Simpson notes; “Sickness never sounded or felt so good…I may have felt unloved or unlovable but I also derived an exquisite, narcotic satisfaction from the knowing of these things and to laugh under my breath at the perversity of this knowledge.” Laugh indeed, the faithful know there’s more laugh-out-loud humour in Smiths and Morrissey songs than in almost any of the swill lapped up by the “oh he’s sooo depressing” dimwits.

Simpson shows that bright teenagers know long after they’ve packed away their last Doctor Martens’s that Morrissey’s self obsession is anything but depressing; it’s a life-affirming blood-pact of strength against the stupidity of the world;

“In assaulting pop’s nostrums and clichés in his own image, Morrissey made it about the one thing both parents and pop music had been united against: intelligence. Forget drugs, forget promiscuity..Thinking Too Much was undoubtedly the most degenerate, most anti-social habit any teenager ever picked up.”

With the added get-out clause in the grand tradition of having your cake and eating it that, while you were vicariously living through the man’s emotions, you were never really as depressed as he quite genuinely seemed to be, even through all the wit and charm. He was doing it for you in Christlike fashion (although this particular Messiah was Mancunian, camp, quiffed, flower fixated and more inclined to call for people’s deaths than turn other cheek.). Lured pied-piper-like by the first incandescent chimes of “This Charming Man”; this is an adolescent anti-fantasy world which still has enough acolytes of all ages to sell out the Manchester Evening News Arena this May in less than an hour.

Simpson shows with aplomb the disparate influences that made the mental make-up of “this alarming man”. Pop, punk and glam rock (which “called for and for a brief moment seemed to actually offer escape from the humdrum by becoming your own glamorous creation.”) The feminine-centred northern drama of the sixties which at once embraced and damned the working-class background he came from, and its lighter modern day offshoots like the comedy of Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood. (“Morrissey’s ‘voice’ is that of the Northern Woman, a certain intensity mixed with a certain breeziness, a certain desperation mixed with a lot of self irony…strong, but touchingly vulnerable…a queer fish.”)

Morrissey’s two greatest idols were Oscar Wilde and James Dean. Wilde for his wit and, in the proper sense of the word, perversity (“an idealist, yet the Queen of Cynics, he was a romantic, but was frighteningly realistic; he was a moralist yet completely dissolute, Morrissey of course is an immoralist who is scandalously virtuous.” James Dean for personifying adolescent rebellion (“Jimmy reflected back as Morrissey would like to see himself: a creature who may have been tortured and full of self doubt but always managed to look comfortable in his own skin and to radiate an animal magnetism.”) And both, of course, for the romantic doom of their exit from this world.

Simpson goes a bit more out on a limb in proclaiming his parents break up was the biggest influence on his world outlook, totally siding with his book librarian mum against his porter dad with all the Oedipus connotations that implies. Speculation it may be, but it does convince. He’s insightful too on Morrissey’s famously enigmatic sexuality, rightly stating the unique mixture of the masculine and feminine, the fleshy exhibitionism (“A Morrissey gig is an extraordinary, epic, religious prick-tease”) entwined with the lovelorn celibacy is central to his unique appeal, particularly in bringing out the homosexual side to otherwise heterosexual men. Simpson is gay himself but happily does not try to claim him for “the cause” and is rightly contemptuous of those desperate to pigeonhole; “What these very helpful, very kind people forgot was that the law ‘what’s not one thing must be t’other’, absolutely correct and inviolable as it is, is a law which only applies to stupid people. And to journalists.”

The title of Simpson’s book is a play on Sartre’s essay “Saint Genet”, and he rightly makes the observation that Mozza has a lot in common with Jean G. Granted, Genet was a tremendously promiscuous homosexual and Morrissey a celibate introvert, but both were initially feted then rejected by liberals who found them a little too complex for their liking, both found a transcendent Rousseau-like glory in the seedier side of lumpen-proletarian life, and both glorify thugs and “rough lads.”

Many people find this both the strangest and the most distasteful side to Morrissey, (“but he seemed like such a nice boy!!”) appealing to sensitive little flowers yet celebrating criminality in a far more unnerving way than half-wits like Guy Ritchie. Yet this too is central to his allure, glorying like his hero Wilde in paradox and contradiction, squaring a circle, dancing outrageously on a tightrope of sensitivities in idiosyncratic celebration of the outsider.

And to the minds of the faithful, not falling off that tightrope. Simpson rightly dissects the fatuous music press chorus that damned Morrissey as a racist in the early 90s for singing his mockingly wry song “The National Front Disco” at the same time as genuinely flaunting the Union Jack and celebrating proper skinhead culture; “some might argue that this subtlety is dangerous because it is too artistic and not didactic (i.e. patronising) enough”.. Simpson argues brilliantly, though he could perhaps have snidely remarked in an aside the never mentioned fact that if the NME’s witch-hunt charges were true this must have been the first Nazi sympathiser in history to be a supporter of Red Wedge, Anti-Apartheid, Amnesty International, CND, feminism, gay rights…..

The final self-centred joy of Morrissey Simpson celebrates is his refusal to play the celebrity game; in an age where even Johnny Rotten parades his wares on reality TV shows, Mozza remains gloriously aloof, last year’s curious Channel 4 TV doc not withstanding. As Simpson puts with typical restraint “A churlish refusal to suck Satan’s cock.”

The hyperbole of the book can grate when running totally counter to your own thoughts. The pronouncement that the young Steven must have found Myra Hindley a “bad mother to offset his good mother” takes his speculation to offensively glib depths, and I for one can do without anyone talking up the dreadful Freud -as he does- even in passing. But then someone with Simpson’s provocative style is bound to piss off everyone at least once during a whole book, and quite rightly so.

The book’s best achievement is it mirrors its subject in being pretentious without being pompous, and taking things very very seriously while at the same time relishing its own absurdity with a constant self-lacerating wit. It is under no illusions its subject is a spiteful, dishonest, difficult sod but loves him more, not less for it.

As the man finally returns with a new album after seven long years, all those nervous fanatics praying for a new Vauxhall and I (rather than a Kill Uncle) would be well advised to have a copy of this book by your bedside to remind you of the childish stupidity and effortless brilliance of your obsession. It will prove you’re not mad after all; or if you are at least you’re in entertaining company.

Morrissey’s new album You Are The Quarry is released May 17th. You can preorder it from and

J G Ballard : Millennium People : Entertaining Violence

Chris Hall talks to JG Ballard about Millennium People, the middle classes and mail order Kalashnikovs

It’s been 70 years since HG Wells published The Shape of Things to Come but there has been a far more astute chronicler of our contemporary reality living among us in the suburbs for more than half a century. JG Ballard’s gimlet eye for the psychopathology of everyday life has never deserted him. Instead of characters with emotions, a history and a moral compass, Ballard’s fictional landscape is peopled with affectless casualties of the nihilistic, over-mediated consumer landscape, searching for meaning in a meaningless universe. This is fiction as biopsy, and its results are devastating.

Millennium People is the last in a trilogy of detective thrillers – along with Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes – to examine what might happen when all we have left as an ideology is consumerism. “People resent the fact that the most moral decision in their lives is choosing what colour the next car will be,” he says witheringly. “All we’ve got left is our own psychopathology. It’s the only freedom we have – that’s a dangerous state of affairs.”

I meet Jim Ballard at the Hilton International hotel on Holland Park Avenue. “I used to come here a lot because there was a Japanese restaurant called the Hiroku for many years. It would be impossible to identify your location,” he says approvingly, looking around the virtually deserted lounge we’re sat in with its palm trees and low-level skylight.

Despite reports, Ballard does not permanently reside in the suburbs – he spends two or three days a week in London visiting his girlfriend, Claire. “But living out in Shepperton gives me a close-up view of the real England – the M25, the world of business parks, industrial estates and executive housing, sports clubs and marinas, cineplexes, CCTV, car-rental forecourts… That’s where boredom comes in – a paralysing conformity and boredom that can only be relieved by some sort of violent act; by taking your mail-order Kalashnikov into the nearest supermarket and letting rip.”

Millennium People begins with a bomb attack at Heathrow airport, which kills three people. The proposition of the novel is that “the middle-classes are the new proletariat”, with the residents of Chelsea Marina, another gated community of his, so sick of school fees, private healthcare costs, stealth taxes and parking meters that they begin to dismantle the “self-imposed burdens” of civic responsibility and consumer culture. They are led, as is the psychologist narrator David Markham, by a charismatic paediatrician, Richard Gould, into attacking the shibboleths of the middle-class metropolis – the National Film Theatre, the BBC, Tate Modern – and then out into the suburbs.

But how seriously do these middle-class rebels take their claims of oppression? At one point in the book, there is the suggestion that the residents of Chelsea Marina might change the street names to those of Japanese film directors, but this is quickly scotched as it “might damage property prices”…

It is full too of perverse inversions and unsettling paradoxes – “Nothing brings out violence like a peaceful demonstration’ or “If your target is the global money system, you don’t attack a bank. You attack the Oxfam shop next door.”

Millennium People describes in part a murder with strong affinities to the Jill Dando case. “What all these murders – Hungerford, Dunblane, Jill Dando – have in common,” says Ballard, “is that they appear to be meaningless. There are no motives. Dando wasn’t even a celebrity. It may be that this is their great appeal.

“There are shifts in the unseen tectonic plates that make up our national consciousness. I’ve tried to nail down a certain kind of nihilism that people may embrace, and which politicians may embrace, which is much more terrifying; all tapping into this vast, untouched resource as big as the Arabian oilfields called psychopathology.”

Ballard continues to be endlessly engaged in what’s happening now. And as he says himself, he’s bucked the trend by becoming more left-wing as he’s got older. He is particularly disturbed by the apparently motiveless actions of our Prime Minister and has been following the “great smokescreen” that is the Hutton Inquiry. “Blair has this evangelical commitment to what he believes is right, and he invents the truth when he can’t find it out in front of him,’ he says incredulously. “I think we’re living in dangerous times and most people aren’t really aware of it. They’re worrying about asylum seekers or abortion or paedophilia…”

Does it get harder the older he gets (he’s 73), to anticipate, as he’s put it before, the next five minutes?

“I have no shortage of ideas and a peculiar kind of compulsion to get them down. Not that it makes a damn bit of difference…”

In what way?

“When you’re a young writer you want to change the world in some small way, but when you get to my age you realise that it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever, but you still go on. It’s a strange way to view the world. If I had my time again, I’d be a journalist. Writing is too solitary. I think journalists have more fun!”

Michel Houellebecq – Atomised

Kevin Walsh

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Michel Houellebecq is one of those authors who inspire hugely conflicting reactions. Some hail him as a literary giant in the European tradition, deftly weaving philosophy, history, and science into his bleak, challenging narratives, asking those questions that other more commercially-minded authors shy away from.

Others think him hollow, pretentious, showily didactic and deeply disturbed – not to mention highly overrated.

And controversial. Very controversial. In 2001, he gave an interview to the French literary magazine, Lire, in which he said “Islam is a dangerous religion, as has been since its beginnings […] I totally reject all monotheistic religions.” In September 2002 he appeared before a tribunal in Paris on charges of inciting religious hatred, and was asked to explain himself. “All I said is that their religion is stupid,” he said in his defence. “And that’s what you call promoting a book?” said the president of the tribunal. “Yes, that’s right,” answered Houellebecq, with his customary insouciance.

Atomised (published in the US as The Elementary Particles) is the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno (Houellebecq denies that his namesake is based on himself, but the parallels are striking). Sharing the same mother, they have both been abandoned by different fathers and brought up by relatives. Michel is a scientific researcher at the CNRS in Paris, a cold, unsympathetic and unhappy character. Bruno is equally unappealing, a misfit former teacher and part-time writer, divorced and sex-obsessed.

Houellebecq has a rather disquieting habit of including large chunks of economic and social history as we plough through the decades of their childhood: the événements of 1968, the legalisation of abortion, the succès de scandale in the 70s of the film Emmanuelle and so on.

But he doesn’t stop there: we are also treated to long disquisitions on science and philosophy, not to mention particle physics and DNA. Many chapters begin with long – and sometimes mystifyingly irrelevant – quotes.

Houellebecq is undoubtedly very widely read. The trouble is, he wants us to know that he is. In an effort to demonstrate just what a polymath he is, he crosses the line into what the French call étalage– literally, a spreading out of one’s wares; figuratively, just plain showing off. And he sometimes resorts to some very clumsy mechanisms to show the extent of his knowledge: at one point, Michel and Bruno have an in-depth conversation about Aldous Huxley, displaying a highly unlikely command of historical and biographical details.

Perhaps it’s a sign of insecurity. Maybe he has more in common with his namesake than he would admit. The result of the name- and fact-dropping is a patchy story, where the narrative flow is repeatedly interrupted.

The early part of the book follows the boys through their deeply unhappy childhood. These are unexceptional, rather dull and very mundane lives, and the characters fail to engage any real emotion on the reader’s part. The book swings wildly from lofty philosophical thoughts to very basic instincts.

Later, large tracts of the book are taken up with Bruno’s sexual adventures. At a holiday camp – one of whose main activities seems to be cruising for casual sex – he encounters Christiane, a libertine who introduces him to the joys of the orgy circuit. And this points up a key distinction between the uptight Anglo-Saxon and relaxed French views towards sex (at the last count, there were over 400 sex clubs in France, catering for both échangistes – wife swappers – and the more adventurous mélangistes – orgy-goers).

Sex sells, of course, which is why the UK version of Atomised features a naked woman on the cover, together with the promise from The Independent that it is “very moving, gloriously, extravagantly filthy, and very funny.”

Tellingly, the French edition features a sepia photograph of a bored-looking Houellebecq smoking a roll-up held between his third an fourth fingers (a trademark eccentricity) and a carrier bag draped over his left arm.

In the end, though, the book fails to weave a compelling story. There are too many undigested chunks of science and politics, too many swerves from highbrow philosophy to lowbrow oral sex. And far too much étalage.

But perhaps one of the most unnerving things about Houellebecq’s books is his propensity to kill off his female characters. And Atomised has a high body count: the brothers’ mother (of natural causes), and both their girlfriends (suicides). Which has, inevitably, led to accusations of misogyny – to add to the anti-Muslim, anti-Semite and anti-black charges that Houellebecq has clocked up during his turbulent career.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Houellebecq has chosen to retreat to an island off the coast of West Cork, from which he rarely emerges. He did venture forth to Dublin earlier this year, when Atomised won the Impac Literary Prize, the latest in a string of awards he’s bagged. And to Paris, to run rings round the tribunal.

But then he’s very good a running rings round people. Perhaps too good.

Paul Auster : Cruel Universe

Adrian Gargett on the writing of Paul Auster

Paul Auster is not a realist. As the title of his latest book The Book of Illusions suggests, he inhabits a world of illusion. His novels are worldly, finely tuned, elegant and knowingly self-referential. An academic whose wife and two sons die in a plane crash, leaving him so distraught with grief that he becomes like a zombie lumbering through a living-death; an enigmatic silent movie star of the Twenties, who vanished in bizarre circumstances 80 years ago, with only the haunting mute image remaining as a trace: these two characters form the intricate story of The Book of Illusions, with the first man trailing the second only to lose himself so that he may find himself.

The plots of Auster’s books resemble each other: private detectives and characters disappearing and changing their names are the principal recurring themes. These are instruments for exploring the subject that most excites him: the nature of identity. This constant thematic echo confers upon Auster’s work an over-arching coherence. There are certain repetitions in his books, such as dislocation, the intrusion of the unknown, an exploration of the way in which lives can take different directions that, regardless of technical variation, provide an essence in consistency.

The Book of Illusions is a detective story shadowed by tragedy, the salvation of self as its object and, at its emotional heart, loss and a cold, deep silence. This is unmistakably Auster’s cruel universe of doubles, parallels, labyrinths, swarming obscurity, masks and symbols, of deaths within deaths, stories within stories, like a Borgesian puzzle with no revelations.

Auster’s novels explore the mysteries of the mind in such a way that their process can be shared from the inside by the reader. “It’s a question of inhabiting the character, almost the way an actor inhabits his role. It’s like hearing the music in your head and trying to write it across the page,” Auster has said.

“To speculate, from the Latin, Speculatis, meaning to spy out, to observe, and linked to the word speculant, meaning mirror, or looking glass. For in spying out at Black across the street it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror and instead of merely watching another he finds that he is also watching himself”
(The New York Trilogy)

The writer is to some extent always a voyeur. The experience of “reading” is itself an experience of looking from a distance at something that is occurring.

The comprehensive worlds constructed in Paul Auster’s fiction function like a Mobius strip. The Mobius strip that results from joining the two ends of a strip of twisted surface is unexpected and ambiguous. It is a surface with only one side, which may be called either the top or the bottom. The surface itself leaves everything visible to anyone who travels along it; nothing can be obscured or located on such a surface, because it has only one side. It might be regarded as an impossibility, but with a kind of “cruel transcendence” it follows singular mechanical laws. Auster’s bleached-out humanism, is one-sided and unique.

Auster provides an entire “new” universe for his illuminated but incarcerated characters, describing cruel relationships and situations under the gaze of an audience – readers, who themselves are unable to reach a transcendence, trapped in the ruins of their personal values. The Auster characters inhabit an inverted world of chaos. They experience pain, transgress borders/limits, and come into existence in situations that are stimulated by pain. They come to accept a pleasure or at least a state of being that is understood in terms of suffering/endurance.

Paul Auster’s work is primarily idiosyncratic and thought-provoking and ultimately centres upon the nature of identity, the resonances and epiphanies of memory, the strange and indefinable forces that shape our lives.

“Everything I write is about Life and emotion, and trying to figure things out as honestly as I can”
(Paul Auster)

In Auster’s fiction language is unstable and nothing is real except chance. His characters are not the central points around which the text revolves. Auster’s books work “from the inside outwards”. The principle themes are interior – explorations of the nature of identity, the constant press of memory of the past and the present, the hope of transcendence and redemption. They are intrigued with the possibilities of ambiguity. The contexts are frequently quirkish, enigmatic and puncturated with improbable black “comedy” and dark import. There is an eternal sense of destabilisation. Protagonists exist in improbable circumstances; plots spin bizarrely. Recognising incidences of synchronicity have come to characterise the structure of the narratives.

Auster’s texts do not operate simply, like literature or philosophical argument; the style, structure, rhetoric and message are so intimately connected that the text is infinitely dense. The principle factor is the close connection between the content and the vocabulary. The structure and style of the narrative are so vital that what is said often seems secondary. To interpret one is required to dismantle the structure of the text, its grammar and its theatrical qualities. Only then is its radical quality truly apparent.

In order to fully appreciate Auster’s ideas one needs to maintain the comprehension that he is the “author” of these novels. The reader will have no direct experience of the scenarios Auster describes. His statements can neither be true nor even probable. Therefore, his narrative creates what there is. If his texts create a fictional world, then the ambiguous/enigmatic ideas do not denote things which are disconnected from the text. The narrative itself is the fundamental component. The motivating fictional element is a subversive or ambiguous move.

Auster’s notion of subversion entails firstly that the repetition of coincidence and enigmatic actions alienates the reader from what is recounted. Secondly, it entails that an interpretation of the situation is never coherent. The story is ambiguous both externally and internally.

Comprised of three short sections, Auster’s New York Trilogy examines the changing identity of the main characters in a novel, while consecutively investigating “the imbalance between the physical author of a book, the individual who puts his name onto the cover, and the authentic author who I am not certain is the same person”. The first section, ‘City of Glass’, uses the conventions of the crime thriller in a metaphysical apologia about man in relation to subconscious control and solitude. ‘Ghosts’, the middle section, also uses the detective story in order to illustrate a man compelled in effect to “tail” himself. The final section, ‘The Locked Room’ , is an autobiography by the unnamed friend of a disappeared literary giant. Although the plot lines and styles are contrasting, in essence they are the same narrative, with ‘The Locked Room’ completing the series.

In the second half of The Invention of Solitude, in an essay entitled ‘The Book of Memory’ (one of Auster’s most explicitly autobiographical works), he writes a prolonged meditation on the way memory shapes our lives and the isolation of the writer. Auster suggests that it is in the most intense periods of solitude that we finally realise we are not alone: “that suddenly you see how you’re inhabited by memories of all the people you’ve ever cared about, the experiences you’ve shared. We do not make ourselves alone; we’re made by other people. And understanding this is maybe what defines maturity”. It is with this recognition that he says he was able finally to discover his own voice as a writer. “I do believe you have to dismantle yourself before you can achieve anything.”

In Auster’s fiction protagonists attempt to construct a framework of understanding but ultimately lose it to the extent that they get near to it. Each of them tries to decipher his own chaos within that of others, in a labyrinth of confusion. The characters Daniel Quinn and Fogg both subject themselves to extreme situations, probing the limits of their possibilities, as if they were trying to test the essential boundaries of self. Each of them endures a period of poverty and social dislocation, neither has to live that way, but they decide to do it. It is always for a reason that has to do with what they want to be and what they think they really are.

“New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with a feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind. And by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace. A salutary emptiness within”.
(The New York Trilogy)

New York’s ephemerality flows constantly through Auster’s narratives. In ‘City of Glass’, the New York Trilogy’s first section, the metropolis of glassy transparency becomes absolute – a vector to pure absence. Viewing the mesmeric psychic landscape affords little personal space – you look out and see fifty different narratives. On some level you have to detach yourself. It is essential to create a sense of isolation to counter the claustrophobic voyeurism produced by all those reflective surfaces.

In Auster’s fiction the main characters are mutable, changing with the environment. Characters are impermanent, evolving through states, losing identity, until he/she literally reaches a vanishing point. In Auster’s novels the individual identity fades out and/or splits, and the city is often a catalyst in this process. In the three sections of The New York Trilogy, two principally distinct characters melt into one another. In ‘City of Glass’, the City itself becomes an operative factor – the events that occur within it have a vacancy of meaning, the lost meaning/vacuum being supplied by casual nihilistic disruption. The conclusion of Quinn’s passage results in complete transformation. He has trailed the city’s avenues until, as if forced by the invisible power of malevolent nature, he consequently turns into the man he has been “shadowing”. He has mutated into his ‘other’. In ‘Ghosts’, to focus is also malignant nature – a zone of place-absence. The city is initially a borderline between two opposite points, where the viewpoints eventually become mutual and fatally converge in the end. In ‘The Locked Room’, the process reaches a destructive conclusion. New York’s nihilism has moved from the streets into the apartments, now inhabited by ‘ghosts’.

The narrative forces active in Auster’s texts are primarily destructive. Their influence provides a frame for human action and its casual consequences. From a metaphysical perspective nature in Auster’s contexts is not a static thing, some kind of external world, but a dynamic principle or force, almost like a “living being”. It seems to have a will of its own. This nature possesses no values, but is destructive. Nature annihilates things, and in this respect creates a void. The trajectory is however not so easy to trace. The ruins that are resultant, as would be expected, are messy. Since the principle of nature represents chaos, or entropy, it does not leave any space for such elements as consistency of its ends.

In an Auster story chance is a way of shattering the illusion of reason and logic as it occurs in a narrative. “The unexpected occurs with almost numbing regularity in our lives”, he remarks in ‘The Art Of Hunger’. As the improbable exists in reality, the task of the writer, states Auster, is to use it as a source of imagination and present it in fiction.

It is straightforward to suggest that these narratives of chaos achieve a degree of calamity at the fictional level, but more intricately the principle of nature may demand the destruction of both the human and the artificial. If this is so the protagonist’s struggle for self-preservation and ‘development’ in life contradicts the values derivable from the principle of nature. If it is a natural consequence to destroy everything, why do characters hesitate or refuse to include their own lives in what is interpreted as everything?

The explanation is grounded in the notion that natural laws are the principle of a natural activity that constitutes a myth. Therefore we are able to shed the question of the meaning of laws, which otherwise would constitute an insoluble problem. The natural (essence of the world or everything that is “real”) which destroys should be interpreted as a myth, operating as a story with veiled meaning and covering all that is essential about life. In this sense the principle of nature is an allusion to the truth that the world is finally chaotic. In other words (causal) consequences of actions are uncontrollable, unlike (intentional) results which represent what is artificial in the social construct.

An Auster character will attempt to address discontent and frustration towards things which can neither be controlled or violated. This concept of a mythic nature is a pseudo-materialist metaphysics which has no scientific basis other than its dynamic force, which produces some form of random causal consequence. In this pseudo-materialistic construct nature as such is external and indestructible. However this fact affords little consolation (all things die so that something else can be born). In this respect only matter and force are real, that is why they cannot die – under the blind forces of life and death nature is just reconstructed. Nature destroys and procreates constantly. In Auster’s view this creation itself is chaotic because it can neither be controlled nor utilized.

The reason why nature makes characters into restless opportunists is that chaos cannot sustain normative laws/values. The human has to start building some artificial values of interpretation. The key point is that in this construct of nature nothing seems outlandish or extraordinary. Therefore the only thing to do is participate in the life of nature, which is consequently to succumb to its maleficent mercy. The contrast between creation and destruction is advanced and consequently found to be meaningless.

Auster’s fiction is composed of supremely irrational events; the inexplicable and bewildering force of nature challenges certainties and preconceptions about the world. In The Invention of Solitude, Auster remarks that his life is so fragmented, he is tempted to look for a meaning, to look beyond the facts of his existence. Quinn comments in ‘City of Glass’, “nothing is real except chance”. Auster’s texts centre around the implications of chance. In an unpredictable universe, as Marco Fogg says in Moon Palace, causality is no longer hidden demurrage that ruled the world, where down was up, first was last, the end was the beginning, the change is the only constant.

In Auster’s books the repetitive scenes of impersonal and cruel ambiguity express a desire to overcome destructive nature via an acceleration or multiplication of acts or moments of “violence”. This cruelty is the side-effect of pure negation. In the fictional perspective Auster aims to destroy all nature, including his own identity/subjectivity as the author, in order to reach an intense state – the impersonal pleasure of demonstrative reason.

Auster’s fiction is a fiction of disavowal and suspension. An Auster character can neither destroy the real nor idealize the real, but instead disavows the real and introduces an ideal within “fantasy”, an “intermezzo” space between the real and the ideal. This explores a curious inter-world in which bodies/words/things/ideas inter-penetrate and the normal demarcations between the physical and metaphysical become ambiguous. Auster effectively attempts to saturate the real with a “destructive ideal.”

In Moon Palace lightning acts as a pivotal conduit. Auster has recounted a past incident in which a summer camp comrade was killed by such an event. In many of Auster’s scenarios improbable/ambiguous/contradictory forces activate the narrative.

“People say these are impossible events – how can that be? But I would counter and say this is how the world works. Impossible things happen all the time. Open your eyes and you’ll see your own life doesn’t work in a systematic way, like most people believe. My books are realism. I would even go further and say that the people who object have read too many books and it influences the way they look at reality”
(Paul Auster)

Auster frequently employs sequences from his life experiences. It is something that entails plausibility and sincerity. When he writes about such events he draws upon a certain conviction and in this way he transcends the borderline between fiction and reality. This is the area that he seems intent to animate.

In ‘City of Glass’, the first book in The New York Trilogy, a man named Quinn receives a telephone call from someone wishing to speak to “Paul Auster the private detective”. Quinn tells the caller he has the wrong number, and hangs up. The next night, the same thing happens, and again Quinn hangs up. When it happens a third time, Quinn plays along with the caller and takes the case. So begins Quinn’s journey into a hall of mirrors; part noir,part detective story, part existential enquiry. Folding in on noir genre conventions: the private investigators search for his private “I” contracts upon itself in a climax markedly beyond the genre. (Auster’s use of his own name in a fictional context is characteristic, as if he is determined at every possible moment to ask the question: are we really who we think we are?)

‘City of Glass’ was inspired by an incident when Auster received two telephone calls on consecutive nights from someone wanting the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In the novel, “Quinn” simply picks up the challenge that “Auster” chose not to.

Questions arise about the meaning/significance of these incidents. A religious person might regard it as the intervention of God, the mystic might suggest some higher cosmic harmony. However maybe it’s the moment at which life begins to function as art; these stories have the same internal structure as art, but they occur in an orbit of the “true”.

“One has many memories which are deeply entombed. It is the process of writing which brings these small bits of memory to the surface. But one isn’t aware of it. One doesn’t know where they come from. One cannot put them into focus. From time to time one is able to retrace the path and reach the origin……. The writer’s works are born from these hidden springs”
(Paul Auster)

Auster’s characters essentially move away from origin and identity and towards an absence – a forgetting of self. Distinct conclusions regarding actions are elusive; there appears to be no centre or stability. The only consolation left to Auster’s individuals are to reinvent themselves; uncle Victor says in Moon Palace that every person is the author of his own life. Auster’s protagonists easily came to assume another identity. Quinn becomes Paul Auster; the detective called upon to solve the mystery. To become someone else is a form of “consolation”. It affords a lightness of being – of becoming “other”. Existing only on the surface with no inner consciousness.

By having Quinn phoned by someone asking to speak to “Paul Auster” the private detective, Auster establishes an elaborate web of character and identity. This is subsequently complicated by Quinn the detective writer, choosing to become “Paul Auster the detective” and help his “client”, Peter Stillman. Although he has no idea who “Auster” is, he is willing to do what “Auster” has promised to do, as “in a kind of trance”, having “found himself doing a good impression of a man preparing to go out”, namely “Auster”. The transformation continues as he enters Stillman’s flat: “he could feel himself going blank, as if his brain had shut off”.

The task Auster attempts to confront is neither concerned with ordering nor explanation, it is rather a question of incorporating the chaos of the world beyond understanding into his fiction. It’s where allusive destiny and the belief that human life is utterly contingent blends with dark Beckett-like humour and narrative velocity. This is why for Auster disasters always contain opportunities, deaths give up life and how the solitary site of invention generates unlikely fictions.

The Music of Chance can be seen as Auster’s ultimate Nietzschean drama – in the aftermath of their lost poker game, Nashe and Pozzi examine the reasons behind their failure. Pozzi as a poker player believes in chance, and is convinced that on occasion, somewhere/sometime, he will be the chosen recipient of good fortune. He expresses the belief that the world is based on a delicate harmony which must be maintained in order to keep a state of balance. He accuses Nashe of disrupting that balance, “tampering with the universe”. He broke the rhythm of their game by leaving the room at an inappropriate moment. The consequences for the destiny of the two protagonists of The Music Of Chance are catastrophic. Not only do they lose the game but they are sentenced to a Sisyphean task. In order to pay their gambling debt they have to build a wall. The narrative moves away from freedom/movement, from a world played by music of chance, into complete isolation and fixty of place. Nashe’s attitude to his fate is fatalistic, he accepts that his freedom is taken from him and the building of the wall becomes a kind of atonement. He mocks Pozzi’s belief in a hidden purpose that explains how things work in the world – luck/God/harmony. Once released from the world of infinite chance with indefinite possibilities, Nashe stoically tolerates his new position. The Music of Chance contrasts these two disparate worlds – the improbable world of chance and the determinate world of law.

What may be described as a Nietzschean scheme, is a play in the game of truth, that is not an explanation of an entire complex, but a description of the dynamic network of the subjects shifting relationships to the process of interpretation. Nietzsche’s flow of energy encompasses what Nietzsche views as the complex/world. Flow involves the dynamic and fluid nature of becoming, while energy implies a potentiality, an inherent capacity for manifestation and progression actuated by “the will to power”. The will to power is not a universal law, but a functional imperative that operates autonomously from every position in the flow of energy and interacts with its surroundings in unpredictable ways, to produce an infinite complexity in which the subject is implicated.

Auster locates a metaphysics of flux in the Nietzschean image of the game of chance. The world of “becoming” is a world of flux and multiplicity, but also one of chance and chaos, and the affirmation of the “eternal return” is determined by this aspect of “becoming”. To join in the play of the cosmos is, as Zarathustra says, to play, “dice with gods at the gods’ table, the earth”.

If existence is a game of chance, it is a serious game because it is a game of the necessity of chance.

“Above all things stands the heaven of chance, the heaven of innocence, the heaven of accident, the heaven of wantonness….you are to me a dance floor for divine chance, that you are to me a gods’ table for divine dice and dicers!”
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

In deliberating a universe of cruel chance, Auster has expressed admiration for the high-wire artist Philippe Petit and has translated On The High Wire, a kind of manifesto of Petit’s art. High wire walking is not as might be thought an art of death but an art of life, of life lived to its extreme possibilities – life which is unafraid and uncompromising in its confrontation/relationship with death. On each occasion that Petit performs he takes life and lives it in all its exhilarating immediacy. Petit’s aesthetic is an exemplary quest, a search for a type of perfection, as Auster says, “…anyone who has ever made personal sacrifices for an art or an idea will have no trouble understanding what it is about”. In essence one might conjecture that this constitutes the fundamentals of art – useless, beautiful, extraordinary but somehow life enhancing.

“One day there is life. A man for example in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly it happens, there is death”
(Paul Auster)

For Auster, since The New York Trilogy, comparisons have been drawn between the process of operating as a detective and being a writer, and indeed there is a parallel. There is the notion of looking out at the world, observing how people behave, collecting “evidence” and then attempting to produce connections/conclusions. In all his writing, Auster utilises half-hidden references to his own life. Only in The Invention of Solitude and Hand To Mouth are there possibly extensive “autobiographical” sections. The Invention of Solitude, for example, displays a dualistic operation – the first part, ostensibly about his father, uses the “I”, but the second part which is mostly about the author himself adopts the third person. In this respect Auster demonstrates that he is not a confessional writer, presenting his life directly. Each time he employs the first person he consciously distances himself and creates an oblique perspective.

Auster’s Timbuktu is narrated by a dog, Mr Bones, the loyal companion to a wandering “poet-saint” called Willy G. Christmas. The novel begins with Willy dying outside the home of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he celebrates as the original “Yankee scribe”. Willy has told Mr Bones that when you die you go to Timbuktu, “an oasis of the spirits”, and the story follows his attempts to find another human companion until opting for a short-cut to Timbuktu.

Willy adopted his name after a revelatory vision of Santa Claus, thereafter living according to the seasonal spirit of selfless giving. He like all Auster characters, is a writer of sorts, whose language Mr. Bones has acquired in the patchy way of a child. So he thinks, for example, he has left Willy in his ancestral Poland rather than “Poe-land”, and his encounter with a Chinese boy leaves him wondering how a human being can metamorphose into a range of animals – from blue jays to bear cubs – merely by joining a baseball team.

Music, magic and love co-exist with necessity, despair and restlessness. They represent the coincidence of a certain kind of fundamental nothingness, out of which flows an acknowledgement towards a form of “hyper-existentialism”.

Auster presents another narrative structured around journey and oblivion, and again focuses upon a protagonist who constructs an existence from vagrancy. But then what is a tramp if not a writer’s alter-ego? The mirror image of the writer, quite literally a non-entity, a missing person – as the novelist is the missing person in his own fiction. Timbuktu probably has less to do with plot – very little happens in the book – but more to do with language, which is basically Willy’s language and the way Mr. Bones interprets that language.

“Willy represents the very heart and soul of what it means to be a writer. Obviously, in worldly terms, he’s been a complete failure, but the fact is, he’s in his mid 40s and he’s been writing his entire life. This is the only thing a writer can do. The ideas of success or failure eventually vanish, and what you are left with is the work. And Willy has made his work”
(Paul Auster).

Auster’s fiction is concerned with the principle question of incorporating the chaos of the world into language. The act of writing becomes a process of discovery, a conflict to rescue each moment from a confusion through the purity of perception.

Auster speaks of “…a kind of art that interests me: an art that springs from self-denial and spiritual struggle, from the search for one’s own limits”. In a definite sense Auster’s main protagonists share this perspective, they are obstinate/stubborn and blinded by their “moral” quests. Walt in Mr Vertigo learns his unique art of levitation after a punishing ordeal of training. Nashe in The Music of Chance has a compulsion to doubt – the “ordinary” characters are only marginal figures – engaged in a cycle of powerful existential anguish. In his novels, the central character wants to survive a cruel universe – this is the essential purpose. Such is the complexity of character depiction that Auster could be said to write “imaginary biographies”, tracing the development of character. Auster is fundamentally interested in his characters, and these characters come to “exist” in their own right. This is especially evident in those books narrated in the first person – Peter Aaron and Walt have their own style, they are precisely defined people who think and express themselves and live in their own ways. In writing Auster becomes “an actor” penetrating the character of the other.

In a recent interview Auster comments;

“People have often said that I have a very skewed sense of reality, that the things I write about are preposterous and untrue. I’ve always contended that I’m a realist: that, indeed, the world is a lot stranger than people credit; that really what they’re responding to are the conventions of fiction as they’ve been established since the late nineteenth century; that certain things are inappropriate for novels. But I believe that everything is appropriate for a novel, and if we close ourselves off to experiences, we’re not really telling the truth about the world.”

Auster sees his book, True Tales of American Life, as a vindication of his fictional method. True Tales is a collection of 179 stories written by Americans of every age, every station, every walk of life, originally read by Auster on National Public Radio – almost the only radio broadcast which reaches every corner of the vast United States. The National Story Project was begun in the autumn of 1999, with an interview in which Auster solicited the tales of his listeners: nearly 5,000 stories came in. Some are real stories; some are anecdotes; some are full of regret, others of love; some are about generosity, some about meanness. Not a few, which show lives bound by inexplicable events, or foretold by dreams, or haunted by lost objects, have an unmistakeable Austerian scent about them. The compilation reflects Auster’s original request for stories “that defied our expectations about the world, anecdotes that revealed the mysterious and unknowable forces at work in our lives.”

The lasting impression left by True Tales of American Life is of a nation longing to share this faith in the numinous and unknowable; of people finding the mundane, rational and material simply not enough of an explanation for their predicaments and pleasures. The tone of individual stories varies, but the overriding tone of the collection is bewilderment that the possibilities of their lives should have fallen out in this particular way.

As Auster says:

“Stories are fundamental to human life. I think we need stories as much as we need food and air and water and sleep, because stories are the way we organise reality. Reality is a thunderous cacophony of millions of impressions surging in on us at every moment. By isolating fragments of that invasion, which is what a story does, we are enabled to think about ourselves in the present, in the and being able to articulate them and link them over time, past, in the future. Without stories, we literally wouldn’t be able to live.”

To write, Auster says, you have to be out of the world. “Anyone who is making art of any kind is out of the world. You can’t be in it in order to do it”. This idea is at the centre of all of his work – an attempt to identify the world as part of literature, and not literature as part of the world. To undermine confidence in the idea that there is such a thing as straightforward reality. To reveal how only fiction can explore the mysterious levels of life hidden in our rational mind. Many of his novels resemble the telling of a dream conveyed with all its inconsistencies, its aimlessness; enigmatic narratives, balanced somewhere between the unspeakable and that which must be told.

“The closer you come to the end, the more there is to say. The end is only imaginary, a destination you invent to keep yourself going, but a point comes when you realise you will never get there. You might have to stop, but that is only because you have run out of time. You stop but that does not mean you have come to the end”.
(‘In the County of Last Things’).

Art and fiction is the place where the known elements of our lives are transformed. That is not to imply that we do not recognise ourselves – we progress to see something more essential, more coherent than usual. Our symbolic life can only be revealed to us through art/fiction. This symbolic life gives meaning to our everyday life, restoring its perspectives and dimensionality. Auster’s fiction acts as an intersection between art and life. Something of the symbolic value of art always touches his work. Auster’s books leave us full of questions: practical questions, emotional questions, some of which he answers, some of which he leaves to us, as fellow-conspirators.

Cees Nooteboom – All Souls’ Day

Stephen Mitchelmore

"The shortcut does not allow one to arrive someplace more directly (more quickly), but rather to lose the way that ought to lead there."  Maurice Blanchot

How does one deal with trauma? It’s a common question. Arthur Daane, roving documentary cameraman and protagonist of Cees Nooteboom’s latest novel, asks it too. He thinks of some of the traumatic events of his time:

"The woman who happened to be passing by when the bomb exploded in Madrid, the seven Trappist monks whose throats were cut in Algiers, the twenty boys gunned down before their parents’ eyes in Colombia, the entire trainful of commuters hacked to death with machetes in a five-minute burst of orgiastic fury in Johannesburg, the two hundred passengers on the plane that exploded above the sea, the two, three or six thousand men and boys killed in Srebrenica, the hundreds of thousand of woman and children slain in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Angola."

The list could go on and on. And that fact, Daane thinks, is perhaps the worst. "For one moment, a day, a week, they were front-page news, for several seconds they flowed through cables in every part of the globe, and then it began, the black, delete-button darkness of oblivion." Amnesia sets in "as if … humanity wasn’t interested in individual names, only the blind survival of the species."

Daane is, as you might have guessed, a melancholy soul. But his otherwise mundane ruminations have a traumatic resonance. Some time before the novel begins, his wife and child were killed in a place crash. Alone, in time between jobs, he wanders the streets of Berlin with his camera, recording quiet moments at dawn or dusk in a city full of ghosts. This is his way of resisting amnesia, and yet it is also his way of forgetting ("dealing with" one might say) the permanent absence of his family. The paradox is central to his melancholy and to this novel. How can he move on without obliterating their individual names? The temptation is to dive into work, into experience and other forms of forgetfulness, but to do that, he thinks, would, in turn, lead to the sleep of reason, thereby summoning up the nightmares already spoken of.

In first half of the novel, we follow Arthur on his wandering. He visits friends in a bar, gets caught up with dying tramp on the snow-covered streets, visits a gallery with two paintings by Caspar David Friedrich that he is fascinated by, and a library that will, in the second half, change his life. Many reviewers have referred to this wandering with, at best, condescension. In particular, they disapprove of Arthur’s "intellectual posturing", which seems to mean any mention of anything other than that which will take the story "forward" into forgetfulness. This is a form of criticism that avoids the very issue addressed by the novel. Arthur is searching for an. He talks with his living friends, and listens to those who are dead, which take the form of memories, books, paintings, films, science and philosophy. It helps him. It helps his friends. But like all friends, they have their limits. And he knows it. They are useful only in their uselessness. This novel is a part of that scheme too. It has this wonderfully strange quality of enabling us to maintain contact with what is important to us, that which otherwise seems inaccessible, in that which takes us further away (i.e "escapism"). Indeed, the All Souls’ Day of the title is the Catholic holiday (November 2nd) commemorating the souls of the dead; another form of fiction in which one has to place one’s trust in order to cross the abyss.

On a ferry crossing the Baltic, thinking of the 1994 MV Estonia disaster, Arthur reflects that there is a thin membrane between him and chaos, as thin as the window he presses his face to, looking out to sea. The more ignorant of the reviewers (i.e. Julie Myerson of The Guardian) would rather we weren’t reminded of this and be allowed to plunge into forgetfulness, as if it were possible without denial. Nooteboom’s achievement is to open the abyss of history out of these everyday thoughts. He does this by showing how the rich heritage of speculation in the arts and sciences derives from the same confrontation with trauma as experienced by Arthur. This is seen as a failure by those, like Myerson, who can see learning only as a trophy to be displayed. Nooteboom wears his learning lightly but it seems one can’t escape the philistine thought-police of English literary criticism.

In terms of the plot, Arthur contrives to meet a history research student beginning a project on an obscure Spanish queen of the 12th Century. From what little is revealed, she appears, like Arthur, to be taking a roundabout route in resolving personal trauma. Despite this, both Arthur and readers of the novel seem to be on the brink of relief from endless speculation by falling into a love story. But the student, Elik, a fellow Dutch ex-patriot, remains mysteriously private despite their physical intimacy. Through her silence, she prompts even more fevered questioning. After a date, she disappears without warning and, when they meet again, refuses to reveal very much of herself. She prefers to argue about historiography with one of Arthur’s scholarly friends. The novelist doesn’t fill in the blanks for us; she remains a figure in the shadows at the edge of the prose. We have to speculate as much as Arthur, another reason for lazy readers to complain. Indeed, this novel is, despite its conventional, conversational surface, packed full of implicit allusions to its own provisional status in relation to its own research. There’s Arthur’s private film project (that Myerson selfishly misreads as "solipsistic" when it is precisely the opposite); there’s Elik’s research project much-criticised by her supervisor; and there’s the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich quietly expressing a latent trauma much like that of Munch’s much noisier The Scream. However, the most obvious correlation is Arthur’s half-requited infatuation with Elik. While for Myerson all this is inadmissibly reflexive, it creates a stimulating vertigo for the reader. We’re not allowed to forget for very long that the novel, and so its reader, is subject to the same problems of knowledge and its refusal.

This final point is emphasised by the occasional chapters in which a kind of Greek chorus intervenes in the narrative, looking down on the events with cool compassion. It’s unclear who is speaking. Perhaps it’s the voice of all that which cannot be included in what is, necessarily, a circumscribed narrative. Perhaps it’s Arthur’s late wife keeping a concerned eye on her husband. But most likely it is the voice from 500 years from now, when the past-as-tragedy has become the past-as-absurdist-comedy, just as the life of the Spanish queen seems to us now. Elik’s project was to rescue the queen from such a fate. Her supervisor warns her it might take a decade and be, in the end, futile; no one is likely to read the results. But she continues anyway, perhaps because of that, just as Arthur will continue to pursue Elik. For many, this novel will be similarly futile, slow-moving, overlong and provisional, but I’m very grateful that Cees Nooteboom has taken the long way round and rescued something precious from the traumatic inferno.

Tim Parks – A Season With Verona

Chris Rose

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At dinner recently with a group of other Brits now resident in Italy and the subject of Tim Parks comes up. "When will that Tim Parks stop writing those books?", "And the way he uses all the people around him to turn into characters, it’s terrible!". Behind the howling complaints and bitter objections, what you can really hear are the grinding teeth of raging jealousy. What they really wanted to say was "Why didn’t I do that?", "How come he manages to do that stuff and I don’t?".

Italian Neighbours, Parks’ best and long-selling semi-fictional account of ordinary life in a dull provincial Italian town, is the kind of book that anybody who has ever lived in a foreign country for a while has probably thought about writing. It is one many Brits now resident in Italy have talked about writing, but never have. Few books in this questionable genre are, however, as unfailingly accurate, well-observed, well-written and as icily funny as Italian Neighbours is – hence its success. It drives people mad with envy.

Jealousy seems to be a subject close to Parks. He has recently written an essay (in Pretext magazine) on the subject, nearly all of the main characters in his books are afflicted by some form or degree of rancorous envy, and you talk to the man himself, and while he’s affable and funny, you get the sense that he’s not altogether content. Booker shortlisted only once for Europa, the stronger Destiny mysteriously vanished from the running following Parks’ scathing critical analysis of Salman Rushdie in the New York Review of Books. While it’s OK to slag off Salman these days, three years ago it was still a serious literary taboo. Parks himself certainly feels he paid the price for it. He’s not considered as being one of the big hitters of contemporary British letters, despite amply proving that he’s capable of writing more than one book, unlike some of his contemporaries.

His non-fiction books fit into this scheme perfectly. Not being allowed to play with the big boys, he shrugs his shoulders and goes off saying, fine, I’ll write these peripheral, ephemeral things and sell loads of copies and at least make some money out of it. And for the most recent in the sequence he strikes gold with Hellas Verona.

For various reasons (most of all the bigotry and racism of a good many of their supporters) Hellas Verona are the most widely reviled football team in Italy. They are also Parks’ local team. He has a perfect reason to support them. One suspects he’s a fairly recent convert, at least to the level of fanaticism that drove him to the extreme of seeing every single Hellas game, home and away in the 2001-2002 season, the record of which forms this book. By becoming one of the butei, the lads, the hardcore group of supporters who share his obsession, he manages to damn himself perfectly, he becomes a character from one of his own books, a chip proudly carried on his shoulder.

The book itself has the air of being partly a rush job (opposing players’ names are occasionally mistaken, on page 188 the European Cup and the European Championships get mixed up, on page 397 he doesn’t seem to know the difference between a "visa" and a "visor"), maybe with the urge to get it out while it was still relevant, but it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the dismally thin canon of good
books about footy.

The passage describing the lives of young footballers, groomed and trained and bought and sold like racehorses, is essential for any future anthology of writing about sport, his chapter on Leopardi’s Al vincitore is a subtle and perceptive piece of criticism, and the sections on "Paranoia" (of course) and "Elections" are as good as any of his writing on the bizarre paradox that is Italian society. Even though the narrative wilts and gasps towards the end, reflecting all too horribly a long season which constantly threatens to end badly, the book is constantly provocative, intelligent and funny. It also manages to end with a bang, though avoiding relegation has really go to be about the saddest prize football offers. I even felt sorry this year when Hellas Verona didn’t manage to pull off the act of escapology recorded here.

As a writer who knows European literature from Leopardi to Thomas Bernhard in depth, he has dazzling stylistic and narrative skills, reads in French, German and Italian and is thankfully not in thrall to the dreadful Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Parks is one of our finest contemporary writers, and long may he continue to infuriate all of us.

Iain Sinclair : London Orbital : Width Of A Circle

Iain Sinclair walked the length of the M25 motorway to research his book London Orbital. Chris Hall hears why

Listeners of Radio 4’s Today programme recently voted London’s M25 the worst of the “seven horrors of Britain” in a poll. One imagines that this refers to their experience of it as drivers; but perhaps if they’d done what the novelist, poet and “psychogeographer” Iain Sinclair did and walked around the M25, they’d have thought differently. For this was his unique project – to walk anti-clockwise around the motorway and the areas that it enclosed from Waltham Abbey, exploring the huge tranches of unknown territory that lay bounded by the M25 outside of the city centre. And in doing so, comprehending the scale of the invasion of commerce in these zones and witnessing, as it were, an invisible landscape disappear.

Sinclair describes the journey – taken in the millennial year – in his new book London Orbital. Most people would of course regard the idea of circumnavigating the M25 as a mad one, but was it really that dispiriting? “Not at all. The experience of doing it was incredibly exhilarating,” says Sinclair. “You didn’t know what you were going to find. Getting up really early in this weird landscape. You might as well have been in some totally remote country.”

It is the disconnection between our apprehension of London and its actual topography that Sinclair writes about. (As Will Self puts it: Londoners don’t live in London, they live in the tube map of London). London Orbital is full of developments that airbrush or ignore the history of their sites. Places like Enfield Island Village, described as “an exciting new village community”, of which Sinclair writes: “The village isn’t new, the community isn’t new, the island isn’t new. What’s new is the tariff, the mortgage, the terms of the social contract. What’s new is that industrial debris is suddenly ‘stylish’.”

So what does he think about the housing forecasts for the South East, the recommendations of the Urban Task Force report, and the colossal amount of brownfield renewal that is necessary in and around the capital? “These seem to be projections made from a very privileged metropolitan standpoint about something that’s going to happen ‘out there’, without true knowledge of just what actually is out there,” he says. “The notion of decanting swathes of the populace into these amorphous nowheres, these liminal territories at the edge of the city is, I think, a nightmare prospect.”

This, as London Orbital makes clear, is precisely what the city has always done with its undesirables and madmen. Sinclair – an altogether different kind of asylum seeker, but nonetheless wandering around, not knowing entirely where he is – says that he was amazed to find the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s hypothesis about the optimum distance that asylums should be placed away from the city – 20 miles – so palpably confirmed.

“I was dazzled by the Holloway Sanitarium [now Virginia Park] – the ultimate heritage- asylum conversion,” he tells me. “The thing that disturbed me [about other asylum conversions] was the absence of memory – all traces of what had been there before had been cannily erased, including the name.”

So should architects be learning more about the history of a site? “They should be made to go into the landscape to the site and then move outwards from it for a considerable distance and then to come in on it. Especially the big-name architects who are the worse perpetrators,” he says with a little glee. “They shouldn’t just place something that is simply site-specific to the person commissioning the building.”

As you might expect of Sinclair, he’s unearthed some pretty fascinating nuggets. For example, the story of how the war cabinet was deceived into giving approval for Heathrow airport: “Emergency wartime powers were used to establish, by a network of dubious commercial deals, a major airport that was only 15 miles from the centre of London.” And finding the grave of Hawksmoor in a field just off the motorway was, he says, “quite a shock – this sense of the centre drifting out as it becomes forgotten”.

Were there any new buildings that he particularly admired? “I was very struck by the Siebel building by Runnymede Bridge in Egham. It just appeared out of nowhere between visits. It didn’t bristle with surveillance – most buildings were incredibly paranoid. It seemed transcendantly strange – there was nobody around. It was sinisterly benign.”

Sinclair’s poetic retains that characteristic samizdat quality of goods smuggled past the PR checkpoints, his prose always crackling with connectivity. Here he is on the Xerox building: “Uxbridge is made from Xs. Lines of cancelled typescript. Fields planted with barbed wire.”

One of the many treats of Sinclair’s excellent Lights Out For The Territory (of which London Orbital is a kind of sequel), is his visit to Jeffrey Archer and his penthouse at Alembic House. I wondered if he’d thought of returning to him at his new residence in Belmarsh prison in Thamesmead, south-east London? He laughs at the idea, but admits slightly wearily that “perhaps we’ve had a little too much of him already”.

As for these liminal areas, he’s already looking ahead. “One day, when the research and development has moved elsewhere, the abandoned colony will be turned over to the heritage industry. Wild nature… will be promoted and paraded.” How apt this convergence of Sinclair’s journey with London – to have returned to the beginning.

[This article was originally written for the UK architectural magazine Building Design].

Maurice Blanchot : The Infinite Conversation : The Absent Voice

Stephen Mitchelmore on the writing of Maurice Blanchot

There are many remarkable facts about the long life of the French novelist and philosopher Maurice Blanchot. The strident – perhaps Fascist – nationalism of his pre-War journalism; his near-death at the hands of the Nazis during the war; his reclusive devotion to writing that is similar to, but more significant than, Pynchon’s and Salinger’s; his deep influence on more famous French thinkers (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze). And, finally, in this list, his return to public life to oppose French colonialism in Algeria and then to support the May 1968 student uprising, during which he drafted pamphlets released by those opposing General de Gaulle’s autocracy.

But to concentrate on these facts, relevant as they are, would be to ignore what Blanchot offers, which is a return to the fundamental mystery of literature. That is, why do written words have so much power over us, yet also seem completely estranged from the world they supposedly refers to? When we say that literature takes us to “another world”, we say more than we might imagine. It is an asymmetry that Blanchot presents to us relentlessly. “There is an a-cultural aspect to art and literature which it is hard to accept wholeheartedly” he says. In this age of shortcuts, in which the value of literature is judged by how well literature effaces itself, so that the asymmetry is denied, avoided, denounced even, Blanchot’s resistance makes him, in my opinion, one of the most important writers.

In my opinion. What is that worth? The question of authority – mine, Blanchot’s or anybody else’s – is the invisible centre of our cultural ideology. We all know that Liberal Democracy is based on choice; each individual is free to choose and each individual’s choice is as good as any other’s. So, when I write in my opinion, I remove all weight from the judgement. The complete opposite is equally valid. Despite this, we still make definite choices in what to read, watch or listen to, as if hoping, despite everything, for something more than nothing. The act of choice itself speaks of a need: for nourishment, entertainment or distraction, or all three combined. But we have little guidance on what and why to choose. Perhaps the recent proliferation of award ceremonies and prize competitions for each art form is no coincidence: the award-winning novel, the platinum-selling album, the blockbuster movie. We want a guarantee of value. Each offers a mitigation of one’s apparently random choice. At the same time, however, we know, like a General Election, it is meaningless. Nothing changes. Such is the totality of Liberal Democracy.

Worse still, the condition has a retrospective affect. Nothing escapes its scything action. History is flattened too, shorn of meaning. Even critiques of the condition become just an opinion under the smiling curve of the scythe. Blanchot does not propose an answer. Rather, he looks at how this condition might have arisen, offering in the process a startling revision of our understanding of what literature is. Might the asymmetry of art and world be what makes it vital and important? In a short essay from 1953, published in a new translation by the Oxford Literary Review, Blanchot goes back to the beginnings of modern thought to investigate this possibility, specifically to ancient Athens, and Socrates’ preference for speech over writing.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that speech has the guarantee of the living presence of the speaker. One can ask questions and receive answers; there is always the movement of dialogue with those involved always mindful of truth. In dialogue, progress is possible. On the other hand, written words can only maintain a solemn silence: “if you ask them what they mean by anything,” he says, “they simply return the same answer over and over again.” The philosopher links this to religious superstition, when Greeks listened to “the sacred voice” emerging from a stone or the stump of a tree. Blanchot compares this to the silent confrontation with written words:

“Like sacred language, what is written comes from no recognisable source, is without author or origin, and thereby always refers back to something more original than itself. Behind the words of the written work, nobody is present; but language gives voice to this absence, just as in the oracle, when divinity speaks, the god himself is never present in his words, and it is the absence of god which then speaks.” (trans. Leslie Hill)

If, as Blanchot says, the voice of the divine and the voice of literature are comparable, they are effectively indistinguishable, thereby doubling the threat to the human project represented by Socrates. What can be done if the oracular voice develops an alternative outlet in literature, luring truth into “the abyss where there is neither truth nor meaning nor even error”? Blanchot reminds us what was done: “both Plato and Socrates are quick to declare writing, like art, a simple pastime which does not jeopardise seriousness and is reserved for moments of leisure”. Of course, Socrates went on to pay with his life for his commitment to the more serious matter of debate. And while his sacrifice remains emblematic of our notion of the freedom of speech, his dismissal of writing and art sounds very familiar, very now, particularly to anyone searching for truth in art. We can see the correlation between postmodernism (no truth, no meaning), popular culture (no error), and the ancient philosophers’ dismissal of art. It is attractive as there is another correlation, perhaps the most important: both are also liberations. In each case, freedom is granted to those previously enslaved to truth. Writers can let their imagination run wild; there is no comeback.

Instead of celebrating or lamenting this development, Blanchot considers the silence of the gods revealed in the written word. He wonders what it is that disarms Plato and Socrates so much that they deny it is even relevant, and compels us, their descendants, to fill the empty space with reductive theories: social, psychological, post-colonial. For a possible answer, he turns to Heraclitus, the first poet-philosopher, pre-dating Socrates, the first rationalist. In one of his enigmatic fragments, Heraclitus says the oracle “neither speaks out nor conceals, but points”. From this Blanchot deduces that the “language in which the origin speaks is essentially prophetic.” However, he clarifies the final word:

“This does not mean that it dictates future events, it means that it does not base itself on something which already is … It points toward the future, because it does not yet speak, and is language of the future to the extent that it is like a future language which is always ahead of itself, having its meaning and legitimacy only before it, which is to say that it is fundamentally without justification.” (trans. Leslie Hill)

It does not base itself on something which already is. This could be the cry of the opponents of the kind of literature that does not engage with current events or familiar social relations, and where the style, language and subject matter – or lack of it – resists the utility of common understanding. Is modern literature, then, prophetic?

The nature of the question means the answer cannot be stated as such, only experienced. The moment it is answered, the language of the future is negated and drawn into Socrates’ dialogue of utility. However, this is not to distinguish experience and literature. Contrary to popular opinion, literature is intimate with daily experience. Blanchot puts it this way:

“Upon the background noise constituted by our knowledge of the world’s daily course, which precedes, accompanies, and follows in us all knowledge, we cast forth, walking or sleeping, phrases that are punctuated by questions. Murmuring questions. What are they worth? What do they say? These are still more questions.” (trans. Susan Hanson)

We don’t experience the world without this murmuring, a kind of voice-under codifying and animating an otherwise uniform world. Yet we spend most of our lives avoiding or sedating it with entertainment-distraction, drugged socialising, or plausible theories of hominid brain development. It is Blanchot’s unique attunement to these murmuring questions – to what resists the Socratic demand – which distinguishes his work. When he reviews a book, rather than judging it within set external criteria, such as the persuasiveness of character or plot, or its relevance to the breaking news of the moment, he asks certain questions that emerge from the experience of reading the book itself.

This is clear in an exemplary essay on Samuel Beckett’s trilogy of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable [see note at bottom of page]. Here is a book that has no justification. It has no sensitive social analysis. It is scornful of polite taste and ridicules all notions of the redeeming power of art. It makes much fun of its struggle to efface the author with the usual means of the suspension of disbelief, before spiralling into a calamitous verbal free fall. Blanchot asks, “Who speaks in Samuel Beckett’s books? … Who is the tireless ‘I’ who seems always to say the same thing?” At first, the answer is clear: it is Samuel Beckett. But it by asking this deceptively simple question he opens us to the novel’s terrible dynamic.

Molloy is narrated by a man telling of a past full of cities, forests and seascapes, while stuck in his absent mother’s room. This is the usual displacement of the author’s own voice. Molloy could be Beckett writing in his own room. Eventually, Molloy invents another narrator, Moran, a police detective, who narrates his own story, in this case the pursuit of Molloy. Blanchot says this a “slightly disappointing” allegory of the author’s search for something more original than itself. Beckett is having fun with the conventions of the novel – which is why so many readers see only absurdity in his work. Yet at the same time Molloy and Moran offer a reassuring presence like normal characters in a novel speaking through their all-powerful master, and so protecting us from what Blanchot calls “a greater threat”.

That threat begins to appear in Malone Dies. Malone’s death would provoke the “ultimate disaster which is to have lost the right to say I”. Malone is bedridden, having only a pencil for company. Nonetheless, it enables him to turn his room into “the infinite space of words and stories.” He tells stories – a simple pastime – to fill the imminent vacuum of death. It is a recipe for farce, grotesque tragicomedy and outrageous lyricism; everything that makes Beckett great entertainment:

“All I want to do now is to make a last effort to understand, to begin to understand, how such creatures are possible. No, it is not a question of understanding. Of what then? I don’t know. Here I go none the less, mistakenly. Night, storm and sorrow, and the catalepsies of the soul, this time I shall see that they are good. The last word is not yet said between me and – yes, the last word is said. Perhaps I simply want to hear it said again. Just once again. No, I want nothing.”

And so on, until Malone dies. Well, almost dies, we’re never quite sure, for how can death occur in a first-person narrative? The Unnameable begins without his support for the stories. So really, it cannot continue.

It continues anyway. And according to current understanding, this is where “the real” author should reveal himself, the one “behind the scenes”. Again, it is no coincidence that when producers of “Reality TV” proclaim that nothing is hidden, they nonetheless rely on spin-off books and DVDs promising details of “what really went on” – endless promises of a definitive intimacy. The Trilogy, on the other hand, doesn’t. In The Unnameable phantoms and visions encircle a consciousness stuck in an ornamental jar at the entrance to a restaurant. Words circle on the page too, stumbling on without even the relief of punctuation. For Blanchot, this is the “malaise of one who has dropped out of reality and drifts forever in the gap between existence and nothingness, incapable of dying and incapable of being born.” As readers we undergo:

“[an] experience experienced under the threat of impersonality, undifferentiated speech speaking in a vacuum, passing through he who hears it, unfamiliar, excluding the familiar, and which cannot be silenced because it is what is unceasing and interminable.” (trans. Sacha Rabinovitch)

This is the language of the future. It is “a direct confrontation with the process from which all books derive”: language itself. By asking the simple question of who is speaking in the Trilogy, Blanchot reveals how Beckett reveals language as a form of death, a place where we meet the limits of subjectivity. In reading the Trilogy, we confront the anonymity at the heart of communication, and thereby the limits of our power in the world. Liberal culture sees this as good up to the point where we are taken to another world (“transported” as so many naïve readers put it, neglecting the recent history of the word). Beckett’s Trilogy exceeds this point. It exposes us to the infinite within the confines of novel. The author’s great achievement is to take us to the brink of complete breakdown and yet to stay this side. To declare his work ‘absurdist’ or that it ‘mirrors the breakdown of religious belief’, as might be heard wherever Beckett’s books are discussed, is unwittingly re-inhabiting what is the novel is always in the process of vacating. This suggests why the Trilogy has never been accepted into our culture in the same way as, say, Joyce’s Ulysses.

[Note: Blanchot’s essay on Beckett, “Where now? Who now?” can be found in The Sirens’ Song: Selected Essays of Maurice Blanchot, edited by Gabriel Josipovici, translated by Sacha Rabinovitch, and in Samuel Beckett: the Critical Heritage in a translation by Richard Howard. However, both are long out of print. You could always try the Marketplace sections of in the UK and in the US to find a used copy.]

Blanchot’s own novels, such as Thomas the Obscure, have a kinship with Beckett’s work; there is constant dissimulation and wandering. In many ways though, they are closer to Kafka’s; there are many mysterious landscapes, doors and rooms. Only they lack both these authors’ humour. His narratives are often insipid. However, in the late 1950s, the critical writing and the fiction began to merge, creating perhaps an entirely new genre. As the fiction clarified into analysis, the analysis developed the opacity of the fiction. In the massive essay collection The Infinite Conversation there are occasional dialogues between two friends (assumed to be Blanchot and Georges Bataille). Then in 1962, a novel appeared called L’attente l’oubli (Translated as Awaiting Oblivion). It is an almost eventless narrative of an unnamed man and a woman sharing a hotel room. Each fragment of text is denoted and separated from the rest by a printed diamond or star (like this: ). The spaces disrupt straightforward narrative progress.

She was present, already her own image, and her image, not the remembrance, the forgetting of herself. When seeing her, he saw her as she would be, forgotten.
Sometimes he forgot her, sometimes he remembered, sometimes remembering the forgetting and forgetting everything in this remembrance. (Trans. John Gregg)

In a recent interview, the novelist Ian McEwan says that novels “show the possibility of what it is like to be someone else”. Awaiting Oblivion faces a complication to this: narrative progress tends to look straight through that someone else. As we begin to understand the person in front of us, the understanding takes his or her place; it becomes only a means of furthering narrative. No wonder we love to be alone with a page-turner! Perhaps significantly, McEwan’s latest novel Atonement is about the guilt felt by a writer. The other person, like language, resists simple closure to one clear meaning. In the case of Awaiting Oblivion, however, it also resists compulsive interest.

Why did Blanchot go down this route rather than continuing to write novels and critical works? Perhaps he found that once defined, a genre of literature closes in on itself. When infected with another however, not only is the comfort of reader disturbed, but literature itself becomes a question. As Derrida later detailed in The Law of Genre – a close reading of Blanchot’s very short novel The Madness of the Day – this infection is necessary and happens to all genres; in fact, a genre is basically the effacement of that infection. As the dynamic of absence and presence that frequently drives Blanchot’s writing, the direction was necessary.

In a remarkably condensed early essay, How is Literature Possible? this movement is prefigured. In it, Blanchot reviews a critical work by Jean Paulhan about the opposition of what we might call traditional and rebellious literature. The idea of overthrowing cliché and the tired generic forms (that is, Tradition) has dominated our conception of literature for 150 years. Blanchot mentions Victor Hugo’s rejection of rhetoric, Verlaine’s denunciation of eloquence and Rimbaud’s abandonment of “old-hat” poetry. Sixty years on, it hasn’t changed that much. Think of Martin Amis’ famous “war against cliché”, JG Ballard’s expressed distaste for literature and Steven Wells of ATTACK! Books thumping the table of the high-chair with his spoon. Indeed, Beckett’s Trilogy could itself be called a work of terrorism against the citadel of tradition. Yet the rebels themselves are divided into two camps. Those, like Wells, who are keen to dispense with literature altogether in an amphetamine-fuelled auto-de-fe and so destroy the complacent world of bourgeois stolidity, and those, like Amis, who want to prune language of its deadwood so that a consciousness can be experienced in all its grotesque, singular richness. What Blanchot (and indeed Paulhan) does is to point out that in order to do either requires a scrupulous attention to language. “Whoever wants to be absent from words at every instant or to be present only to those that he reinvents is endlessly occupied with them so that, of all authors, those wo most eagerly seek to avoid the reproach of verbalism [i.e. using cliché] are also exactly the ones that are most exposed to this reproach.” Does this, then, destroy all hope of what literature might offer us? Yes, according to those who do not consider themselves writers, because writing is a work of distance from the “ecstasies” of the human condition. Not so fast, says Blanchot:

“It is the same for those who through the marvels of asceticism have had the illusion of distancing themselves from all literature. For having wanted to rid themselves of conventions and of forms, in order to touch directly the secret world and the profound metaphysics that they meant to reveal, they finally contented themselves with using this world, this secret, this metaphysics as they would conventions and forms that they complacently exhibited and that constituted at once the visible framework and the foundation of their works. […] In other words, for this kind of writer metaphysics, religion, and emotions take the place of technique and language. They are a system of expression, a literary genre – in a word, literature.” (trans.Charlotte Mandell)

The experience of these systems of expression, however, allow a chink in the armour of literature. For readers, the opposition of cliché and a virgin phrase is perhaps more troublesome; all phrases become “monsters of ambiguity” when we read. How are we, as readers, meant to know what an author intended? It is precisely this ambiguity, the unremitting silence of the oracle, Blanchot argues, that gives literature the tense dynamic demanded by the rebels. In effect, literature is a vampire rising in the dark to suck the blood of life to continue while the victims are all dependent on the vampire myth for their living. And the other way around. Blanchot takes us a long way in this short essay, yet leaves us more or less stranded as before: authenticity and originality are present, it seems, only in the inscrutibility of their presence.

If literature relies on comforting demarcations of genre to procede, yet demands a naked openness to the world for the sake of authenticity, then the apparence of the printed star in Blanchot’s work is perhaps not just a typographical convenience. It is used again in Blanchot’s famous late work, The Writing of the Disaster, a book made up of fiction and philosophical fragments designated by the same symbol. An appropriately obsolete definition of the word disaster is “an unfavourable aspect of a star”. The star helps us to grasp the possibility of meaning, which we return to at the end of each section, while at the same time threatening break down. The book is in part about how one deals with disaster, the trauma of past disasters and the knowledge of the disaster to come, specifically our own death, where the very concept of ownership is meaningless. It is also about the disaster of language itself:

The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience – it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. Which does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual. (trans. Ann Smock)

That is, the disaster itself writes. To write is to partake of the disaster, no matter how much one asserts oneself through opinion or style. Blanchot’s impersonal voice, so cold and yet so seductive, abides in the disaster.

To write (of) oneself is to cease to be, in order to confide in a guest – the other, the reader – entrusting yourself to him who will henceforth have as an obligation, and indeed as a life, nothing but your inexistence.

We are absent from one another as the disaster writes through communication. We are absent even from ourselves as the I belongs not to itself but the disaster. We saw this emerge in Beckett’s Trilogy. Yet it is precisely this absence that Blanchot says can bring us together. The paradox is essential: language gives voice to this absence. And art, where the play of the paradox is central, remains the only medium for the possibility of a community, even if it is a community of those who have no community. The growth in sales of intimate self-portraits and revelatory biographies of public figures, and the pathological obsession with personalities and gossip, masquerading as debate, betrays how liberal democracy functions by removing an effective public life. As in Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother, or at least one’s biographer, is always watching. It is a political environment that has redefined politics into a means of how best to smooth the way for corporate oligarchies to manage capital. We need art to raise the absent voice of a community denied by a misreading of absence. It requires the reader to trust, despite the apparent emptiness of art:

Reading is anguish, and this is because any text, however important, or amusing, or interesting it maybe .. is empty – at bottom it doesn’t exist; you have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not comprehend. (trans. Ann Smock)

The artist faces a similar challenge. Blanchot says at the end of his essay on Beckett:

“Art requires that he who practices it should be immolated to art, should become other, not another, not transformed from the human being he was into an artist with artistic duties, satisfactions and interests, but into nobody, the empty, animated space where art’s summons is heard.” (trans. Sacha Rabinovitch)

But how is this done? The fragmentary work, perhaps the apogee of 20th Century Modernist literature and philosophy, is Blanchot’s approach. Its refusal to insist on narrative or theoretical completion, as well as, in the process, weakening the voice of authority, means both reader and writer are constantly moving toward understanding, toward what is absent, yet never assuming the nihilism of no truth, no meaning even as it encroaches on each clearing. Blanchot calls it, speaking of Kafka but also of himself, “a combat of passivity – combat that reduces itself to naught”. Some might see this as needlessly equivocal or pretentious, preferring, instead, the apparent clarity of rational progress, even if this, in the end, leads to the bland relativism of modern culture. Yet in his essay from 1953 with which we began, Blanchot says that art’s summons might not have been lost on Socrates – the great emblematic thinker of positivistic Western culture. He might also have sensed the empty, animated space pulling like a black hole at the Light of Reason. While he accepted the only guarantee for speech was the living presence of a human being, he also “went as far as to die in order to keep his word.”

Timothy Clark – Routledge Critical Thinkers: Martin Heidegger

Stephen Mitchelmore

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The Routledge Critical Thinkers series is turning into something special. Maurice Blanchot by Ulrich Haase and William Large, published last year, is a profound and miraculously lucid guide to the French writer’s work. This year we have Timothy Clark’s introduction to the work of a major influence on Blanchot: the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). The high quality is maintained.

Undoubtedly, this has a great deal to do with the subjects. Both writers are not only seductively poetic, but make of poetry itself something much more than is commonly permitted. Yet there are innumerable introductions to Heidegger, and a growing number of works on Blanchot. What makes these significant is the series’ focus. Routledge’s general subtitle is “Essential guides for literary studies”. While this would seem limiting, or merely instrumental to passing an exam, it in fact reminds us of the true fascination of philosophy and literature; not as means to an end, but a necessary presence.

Surprisingly, Clark begins by questioning the policy of Routledge’s Series Editor. In the general introduction, Robert Eaglestone says the series aims to see the thinkers idea placed “firmly back in their contexts.” Such an aim, Clark argues, blocks off precisely what Heidegger’s ideas question. “Imagine”, he asks:

” that the whole of Western thought, since the time of the first philosophers in ancient Greece, has been in the grip of a prejudice affecting all its aspects and even what seems self-evident.”

If this is the case, then the demand for an historical context is part of the “unavoidable heritage into which we are all born”. It confirms to us, before an alternative view has a chance to be heard, that our assumptions are correct. As a consequence, Heidegger can be placed into a safely distant past, his ideas categorised, filed away, to be quoted later in an airy repudiation. This is exacerbated in Heidegger’s case by a large dose of political infamy. We’ll come to that later.

Before that, what is this “unavoidable heritage” exactly? Heidegger calls it “deep history”. Its deepness conceals the history of self-evident truths:

“the truly decisive events in history are not battles and the rise and fall of dynasties. They are little noticed changes, behind our backs but affecting everything […] Such shifts are not something any individual or society can direct: they are where they already find their existence.”

However, with infinite patience, the changes can be uncovered. This is the important point. Heidegger’s intense preoccupation with the literature of ancient Greece was due to his detection of a decisive shift in human consciousness at the time of Plato. Rather than being the “guiding spirit of Western thinking” in a positive sense, Heidegger regards Plato as an early symptom of decline. His philosophy began an

“intensification and hardening of ‘theoreticism’, the drive toward technical and objectifying modes of knowledge and, with it, the oblivion of any more primordial or more reverential kind of existence”.

This shouldn’t be too difficult for us in the 21st Century to recognise. What is higher praise or justification now than “it is scientifically provable”; and what is sterner criticism is there than to be labelled “unscientific”, “irrational”? Ancient Greek philosophy is not as ancient as we might imagine. If Plato is the beginning of Western thought, then that beginning, Heidegger says, is still with us. Indeed it is “before us” like a predestined future. We still see the world as an object of knowledge to be understood, manipulated and utilised. It is an anthropocentric attitude that has profound consequences. Heidegger claims it set us on course toward nihilism.

Eventually, everything is geared towards selfish aims with no regard for the earth or the people in it. This seems to contradict our faith in progress. As while we celebrate humankind’s progress in science, medicine, technology, culture, we also lament the sublime disasters that have interrupted it. Yet “interrupted” is one of those evidences of “self-evident” truths we adopt to avoid the possibility that these disasters were a necessary part of “progress”. Slavery, Imperialism, World War I, the Holocaust, Stalinism, among many others: these terrors inflicted upon the world are excused as atavisms we must resist when perhaps, instead, they were, and will be, inevitable. This was recognised in the early part of the Twentieth Century and led to a crisis in confidence with the logic of Western Civilisation. We can see it in the Modernist crisis in the arts. While cultural critics (such as the lamentable John Carey) blames Modernism on a few privileged writers’ opposition to mass emancipation, Heidegger widens the cause to two Millennia of history!

Martin Heidegger: Timothy Clark

Interestingly, this critique correlates with Gabriel Josipovici’s in his book On Trust. There, Plato’s dismissal of Homer is seen as a watershed in literary history. He saw The Odyssey and The Iliad as part of a tradition of mystification keeping us from the light of reason. Since then art shrunk to only a medium of aesthetic pleasure, a distraction from the Real World. Heidegger says art died (and turned into aesthetics and business) because it was unable to preserve its “world-soliciting force”. This means the work NOT as a re-presentation of the world but as the revelation, the disclosure, of that world in the first place.

Heidegger detects such a disclosing force of Greek temples (see his famous essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”). But it also applied to the other arts. Both Josipovici and Heidegger analyse how writers managed to cope with the death of art. While Josipovici looks at a range of works from the Bible to Samuel Beckett, Heidegger focusses on the major German poets: Hölderlin, Stefan George, Rilke, and even Paul Celan (who was also a student of his work). Clark says that Heidegger was interested in these writers not because they wrote about nihilism but because “poetry is itself a mode of language that engages [nihilism] by enacting the possibility of other, non-appropriative ways of knowing”.

But if these poets renewed art, it is clear that it is, in its Lazarus state on the web and marketplace stall, still close to death. Literature has been appropriated by the very forces it should be resisting: technology and capital. Clark’s book is welcome in reminding us that there is more to art than lifestyle accessory or a alternative social commentary. Instead, at it best, art “presents its own unique and ultimately inexplicable mode of being, something for the reader, beholder or listener to dwell within and not merely something to decode.” Blanchot defines the true artist as he or she who can “see the potential disclosive force of a work, and to follow it through” rather than one with all the accepted craft techniques and friends in the Media.

So where might this disclosure of the world lead us? Well, there are dangers. Heidegger made a telling misjudgement when he made a speech, in 1933, as Rector of Freiburg University, praising Hitler and the Nazi Party, which he had just joined. He announced the beginning of an emancipation from two thousand years of gathering nihilism. Of course, Nazism was the very embodiment of that nihilism, and Heidegger soon resigned as Rector. But one has to wonder whether there isn’t something inherently destructive in the idea of “another life” even after we have rejected that offered by religion.

There is a shelf of books dealing with Heidegger’s short political life and its relation to his philosophy. Clark summarises the debate without diminishing its import. I was struck by the idea that anti-Semitism, to which Heidegger paid lip service, was due to Judaism’s inherent challenge to the Platonic project of Modernity; it retains an ancient relation to the finitude of life and knowledge. Clark isn’t convinced by this idea, but it certainly helped me to understand why a disproportionate number of the great European writers and artists are Jewish: Kafka, Proust, Benjamin, Celan, Appelfeld. Otherwise, it is easy to assume these writers are deemed great by the aura of the Holocaust or by some tortured Outsider status. I’ve never accepted this. Perhaps such an assumption is a natural outcome of Plato’s attitude to literature; that the work itself is never significant in itself. It would take a raft of great critics to articulate how the specifics of these writers’ work disclose the deep history of Western Civilisation as it enters a third millennium. But reading the work in the first place is the important thing.

One great critic of the last century, perhaps the greatest, the aforementioned Maurice Blanchot, developed a Heideggerian approach to literature in The Space of Literature (a breathtaking book by the way) which Clark quotes regularly. It is particularly interesting when dealing with Heidegger’s notion that our alienation from nature is due to instrumental theoreticism, and that only poetry can redeem the situation. For Blanchot, rather than a “homecoming” to the earth as Heidegger saw it, “the [poetical] work does not enter … the realm of meaning, disclosure, cultural debate and truth. It remains with the darkness of the earth.” Whilst remaining with Heidegger’s radical revision of the possibility of art, Blanchot makes it much darker. Art may not be dead but we are exiled from it. Only a violent misappropriation can bring it into the Real World. Yet that is precisely why artists like Kafka, like Celan, like Aharon Appelfeld are worth reading, and the literature of the instrumental moment not at all.

Thomas Bernhard: The Making Of An Austrian and The Novels of Thomas Bernhard

Stephen Mitchelmore finds Thomas Bernhard to be elusive within two studies of the Austrian writer

What if everything we can be depends on playing a role? Where would that leave us? Well, first of all, it would mean that the public self, the one presented to the world, is not “a mask” but the original; the thing itself. Behind the scenes, alone, we live the mystery of self-consciousness. We wonder who it is that wakes at four to soundless dark. Alone, we dream of another life; the one in the biography. Perhaps the oppressive climate of our culture – as seen in the triumphant exposés of the press and the prurience of Reality TV – is due to our frantic need to remove in others what we see as a façade in ourselves. And as art is seen as an adjunct of this removal (“expressing the inner self”), so the inevitable disappointment in its resistant playfulness leads to a shift in preference to revelatory biography and memoir. Could this be stage fright on our part?

Early on in Thomas Bernhard: the making of an Austrian, the first English biography of the Austrian novelist, playwright and poet, Gitta Honegger says the apparatus of the theatre is an “annoyingly overused existential paradigm”, and she’s right. I’ve only used it once and it’s annoying me already. However, it is clear that her subject is the paradigm’s essential figure. There seems to be no private Thomas Bernhard. As such, Honegger says he is a particularly Austrian phenomenon. The nation, she says, transplanted the baroque theatrics of the old Hapsburg Empire into its cultural life, notably the Salzburg Festival, the state run Burgtheatre, and one man: Thomas Bernhard. Each provided an arena for Austria to conjure its self image.

In Bernhard’s case, it was invariably a negative image, as if Austria needed an impression of embattlement against a hostile world. For example, when Bernhard received a state prize and made critical remarks about the state in his acceptance speech, a Government minister stormed out and slammed a glass door so violently that it smashed. And just before his death in 1989, he was verbally attacked by the President (an ex-Nazi), and physically attacked on a bus by an old lady wielding an umbrella. Since his death, however, Bernhard has become a national treasure. His vitriol has been rebranded, Guy Fawkes-like, into a fireworks display. As a result, his description of Austria as a place with more Nazis in 1988 than in 1938 (the cause of the President’s and the old lady’s wrath) is safely consigned to history. Like the “Anschluss” and the President’s SS uniform, it is part of Austria’s rich cultural heritage. Perhaps this is why, in his will, Bernhard refused to allow the publication or performance of his work within the Austrian state for the duration of the copyright; he foresaw his place in the state circus. (The lawyers have since got around this.)

However, the important thing to remember is that it wasn’t Bernhard who said Austria was still full of Nazis, it was a character in his play “Heldenplatz”. And while everyone assumes Bernhard meant every word as his own, those words are part of a whole that, as JJ Long explains in his book The Novels Of Thomas Bernhard: form and its function, demands to be experienced not in isolation as preferred by the culture-vultures, but in real time. If this is done, irony leaks into the hyperbole and all attitudes become unstable, even irony. In effect, even after death, Bernhard still performs, refusing to become a museum piece. The man himself remains a mystery. So what, in fact, did Thomas Bernhard think? Who was he when alone, no longer dancing before the appalled Viennese bourgeoisie? These are questions for a biography.

But don’t get your hopes up. As Honegger’s subtitle indicates, there is a plea of mitigation. She says her book is a “cultural biography”; as much about Austria as about Bernhard. While this is disappointing, it is also understandable. Most correspondence is unavailable, and friends do not say anything particularly intimate. In fact, the one clear sexual revelation doesn’t alter the image of a performer: Bernhard liked to masturbate in front of a mirror! We’re told this on page 10, so it’s all over pretty quickly. Instead of a chronological narrative, we’re given themes in which Honegger makes frequent (and wearying) digressions into cultural history and their relevance to Bernhard, such as the notion of “Heimat”, and the significance of the theatre in Austria.

In connection with the latter, Honegger rightly makes much of Bernhard’s staging of his experience. In his compelling memoirs (written in five short volumes but collected in English as Gathering Evidence), Bernhard recalls events through the eyes of his younger self while he (the younger self) is also observing or reflecting. He observes his younger self observing from a vantage point separate from the “action”. One observation point leads to another and then another. We might see this as a prime example of Chinese-box Postmodernism where all facts are as hollow as the next, but in Bernhard’s memoir the gnawing question of origin is always there. The facts are plain: Bernhard’s father abandoned his mother before Thomas was born, and died during the war years in mysterious circumstances; he either killed himself or was murdered. He never met his son. Bernhard was later punished by his bitter mother who saw her humiliation in the inherited features of her boy. No amount of virtuoso storytelling and opinionating could prevent the author from being thrown toward the bitter facts of his birth, and its consequences, much as we wonder, whilst vomiting, what we had eaten to cause it.

Bernhard’s early life was also blighted by the Nazi era. He saw at first hand the terror of Allied bombing raids on Salzburg. Barely a teenager, death closed in from all sides. And after the war, when he tried to make his way in the world as a trained singer, he was struck down with tuberculosis after working in freezing conditions in a grocery store. In hospital, with his lungs full of breathtaking sputum, he was given the Last Rites. Miraculously, he survived when all around were dying. Honegger says he wrote the memoir as a record of his victory over that death and the attempts at metaphorical suffocation by his upbringing in particular, and Austrian society in general. Victory was the result of a decision to become himself, to live despite all that suffocated him, even though it was futile. I say “futile” because all that suffocated him also provided the oxygen. It is no coincidence that, despite the oppressive details, there is a sense of freedom pulsing out of the pages of Gathering Evidence. Later, the existential energy of Bernhard’s neurasthenic narrators will also emerge from this outrageous, paradoxical act of will.

Thomas Bernhard

Perhaps it because Bernhard provides the most useful guide to his life that Honegger does not attempt to take us through the minutiae of his daily existence. Yet while the analysis is very interesting, one longs for that minutiae. Recently, a BBC Radio 3 documentary on Bernhard revealed that his record collection consisted almost entirely of the 19th Century Romantic repertoire. One might have assumed this great Modernist would have preferred Schönberg and Webern, Bach and Haydn over Schubert and Brahms. Apparently not. (Curiously, this is similar to Beckett). I don’t recall Honegger mentioning anything like this. Nor does she mention the novel Bernhard had sketched out before his death. She prefers to skim over the surface, taking what is necessary for her themed coverage. When it comes to Bernhard’s sexuality, for example, there is an exhausting bout of Freudian analysis arising from his father’s absence and his mother’s maltreatment. It is unconvincing only because it is so persuasive. Actually the same is true of the opinions expressed by Bernhard’s narrators. Perhaps Honegger is having a laugh as our brows sweat over the complexities of Oedipal anxiety? I would like to think so. In the rest of the book, Freud gets barely a mention. It is very odd.

It is also vague. We don’t get a definitive answer as to whether Bernhard was hetero-, bi- or homosexual. Honegger says he “came between couples”, which suggests one conclusion, but what she means is that both sexes were drawn into an ambiguous relationship with the writer. It’s a living example of Bernhard’s elusiveness, and proof of nothing else. Another is the one major relationship outside his family. It was with a woman 39 years older than himself. She was a widow who befriended Bernhard when he was a young writer. She provided a home and material support when he was struggling. He called her his “Lebensmench” (Lifeperson); a word he invented. Understandably, Honegger doesn’t have much to give us on the details of this partnership. All windows are opaque. The same is true, more or less, for other areas of his life. Indeed, Bernhard is a phantom in his own biography.

JJ Long takes a firmer route by concentrating on the novels. Bernhard, he says, was “a writer of considerable diversity, profoundly concerned with the problems and potential of storytelling.” Originally a doctoral thesis, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: form and its function uses the technical language of Narrative Theory to understand the unique qualities of Bernhard’s writing. Reading it requires a high level of patience and concentration. Moreover, it leaves the lengthy quotations in German untranslated. This is regrettable as those most likely to be drawn to the book – Germanless Bernhard fans – will be hampered. Presumably the costs involved are prohibitive. Still, even monolinguists can gain a good deal from what’s left. Whereas Honegger bizarrely accuses Bernhard of being a solipsist – someone for whom the world is merely a projection of their own mind – Long stresses the “narrative strategies” and “hermeneutic sequences” employed to undermine such narrow interpretations of Bernhard’s monological prose.

For example, he writes that the reflective form of the great, valedictory novel Extinction allows “an excavation of the past even as it moves forward into the future.” The novel’s narrator fires at familiar targets – particularly the repression of the Nazi past – even as he himself succumbs to the same temptation to repress the facts of his own life in order to resist the impending extinction of the title. Indeed, the targets are not only familiar but familial. Long shows how most of Bernhard’s novels – like his memoir – are concerned with “transgenerational transmission” (that is, inheritance). The narrator’s family consists of ex-Nazi parents, both sad and monstrous people, whom he loves and hates in equal measure, as well as grotesque siblings who have not resisted the legacy of repression. As the eldest, the narrator inherits the family’s country estate in darkest Austria when the parents are killed in a car crash. As he also feels that he has not got long to live, he decides he must return from his sunny life in Rome to redeem the legacy. We don’t get to find out how he does this until the final page. As he goes forward to do this, he reflects on why it is required.

Yet the reason why the narrator’s predicament compels our attention, and gives us pleasure, is his spirited unwillingness to complete the task. He is forever delaying the end in both the action as described (stalling outside the gates of the estate) and in the act of storytelling itself (spinning variations of anecdotes and opinions). Long says these delaying tactics are achieved through “embedded narratives” and “retarding elements”. As a successful doctoral candidate, “pleasure” is not an issue for him, but for those of us who turn to Bernhard for this reason, it is interesting to note how these techniques create an experience similar to the reading of a thriller or detective novel. In those genres, pleasure comes from the growth of mystery and suspense before the inevitable denouement.

Extinction is similar in that one reads to find out what happens next. However, the distinction is that the thriller cannot reproduce the same pleasure on re-reading. A new story is required every time. Extinction on the other hand positively demands to be re-read in order to enjoy that delay again and again. In fact it becomes more enjoyable as we join with the narrator repeating stories and opinions in order to delay our return to the mundane world. Unfortunately for him, the delay has more serious import for the narrator. For a time, we feel more alive even if our noses are “buried in a book”. This is the great problem and potential of storytelling. Long’s analysis, which is richer and more complex than I have space (or patience) to detail, manages to elucidate Bernhard’s method and highlight his remarkable technical achievement. One cannot go away from this book and still believe, as so many do, that Bernhard is merely a ranting egoist. Those who already know better will perhaps understand more clearly how Bernhard maintained his high-wire act, though we would still like to know more in physical detail.

In one brief insight to his working process, Honegger quotes Bernhard as saying he wrote “with full commitment”; his entire body took part in the creative process. Perhaps this is why he preferred to call his novels “prose texts” as this suggests a script for performance. Indeed, Bernhard’s many plays are not greatly different from the novels. It seems Bernhard himself felt most alive when writing, like an actor on stage even at his writing desk. Honegger observes that each work was a reassertion of that early decision to live. Appropriately, some way into Extinction, the narrator reflects on the frustrated lives of those stuck in small-town provincial misery from which he, the narrator, had escaped. He says they fail to better themselves, to “get away from their real selves” because

“they lack the intellectual energy, because they have not discovered the intellect – the intellect around them or the intellect within them – and have therefore not taken the first step, which is the precondition for taking the second.”

So, we might assume that in writing, Bernhard got away from his real self. But “full commitment” means he did it with his mortal body as well as his intellect. Despite his early escape from death, Bernhard was always seriously ill. He expected to die before reaching fifty. His half-brother, a doctor, claims to have kept him alive for an extra ten years after that. Mortality was an over-riding theme and writing was at once the escape from death’s imminence and its enactment. Barthes’ Death of the Author was more than a concept to Bernhard. In fact, in a blessed piece of minutiae, Honegger tells us one of his favourite games was “playing dead”. It’s a nice idea to think of the novels as the place were Bernhard plays dead for us. Nowhere else is he more alive.

Will Self : Feeding Frenzy : Biting The Hand That Feeds

Chris Hall serves up a slice of Will Self with the publication of his second collection of journalism, Feeding Frenzy

Chris Hall: First off, congratulations on the birth of your new son, Luther.

Will Self: Yeah, little baby Luther. He was born on August 8, so he’s a couple of months old now.

CH: So I suppose you’ve had people pointing out the Superman connection with your other son Alexis (i.e. Lex Luther)?

WS: Yes… It just arose. In my experience with names, they just arise. I was always quite keen on Dmitri because Alexis and Ivan so with the third one you could have the Brothers Karamazov. But Deborah didn’t think that was funny.

CH: So how do you find the time for all this writing then?

WS: Well, I have cycled back quite a lot this year in that I resigned from the Independent before Luther was born, so it’s the first time in more or less 10 years when I haven’t had an ongoing newspaper contract. So, I took fairly extensive paternity leave. But, you know now it’s building back up again.

CH: No plans for a regular column again?

WS: I don’t think I’m going to take another weekly contract of any kind in the foreseeable future. I’ve got this floating series of interviews with women that I was doing for the Sindie [Independent on Sunday], none of which are in Feeding Frenzy [Amazon] but which will get a book of their own. I must of done 20 to 25 women over the last two to three years but I wanna do about another ten before I pick my best women to put in the book. But, I haven’t found a home for my women yet. I mean, the Independent were happy for me to do them freelance but to be frank I just wasn’t interested.

CH: Why did you only interview women?

WS: I like women! Dammit, I like women!

CH: You gave Margaret Beckett the full treatment didn’t you?

WS: I was very mean to her. And of course you always regret it because I think in interviewing there’s a real sense of ‘did I have a successful bowel movement that morning’ kind of feeling about it isn’t there? You go in to interview someone and you’re constipated and you think they’re the worst person you’ve met and you go in to see them another day when your stomach is full of gaily coloured butterflies and you think they’re the best thing since sliced bread so you grow weary of that as an interviewer if you’ve got any wisdom – but at the same time if dyspepsia collides with something you perceive in the other person you just let rip.

The problem with interviewing, which is an aspect of our culture, is that there seems to be a licence to be psychically ruthless. It’s almost encumbent upon an interviewer to allow themselves the full traverse of the psychic rifle.

CH: And Tracey Emin, who you said was a termagant?

WS: Yeah…you know I kind of resent it when people interview me and assume that, because I’ve been well-known for a fair amount of time, that it’s kind of open season, but the truth of the matter is that Tracey really liked that piece. You have to ask yourself why is that and quite frankly when it comes to Tracey, although one or two of her pieces have a certain odd, jejune quality, her art work is essentially a peg on which she hangs her media persona which is her main work.

So she didn’t mind that piece and I think that that’s what you’re up against with a certain kind of interview subject. Now with Beckett I’m perfectly confident that she really hated and was upset by that piece and I noticed that after it she started to make some very sour comments on the media publicly for quite a while. But you know, she’s a politician, you have to reckon that someone’s going to take down verbatim what you’re saying. Why wouldn’t they?

CH: Do you normally use a tape machine?

WS: Well, I think that’s why the Beckett interview was such a devastating piece because I just transcribed answers to questions. Because she talked such complete bollocks. You know, why bother?

CH: Is one of the attractions to journalism the lack of needing to suspend your disbelief so much?

WS: I think it’s an opportunity to get you out and about. It gets you interacting with the world in all sorts of different ways. It also gives you the opportunity, funnily enough, to suspend disbelief more readily because you’re presented with an area of fact that you can then instantly turn into an area of fiction or at any rate embellish in some way. I’m not making great claims for my journalism but I think that what I do that gives me cachet and makes editors want to employ me is really colour writing, it’s really lifting what otherwise might be fairly dry into something that is quite outlandish sometimes. I suppose I am in some ways a practitioner of gonzo/new journalism in that I am prepared to inject my own warped sensibilities into a piece.

CH: You say that you read very little fiction now, a problem with suspension of disbelief, but do you just mean new fiction or do you really not read the classics?

WS: No, I don’t read classic fiction either.

CH: I was thinking of the Amis line about disparaging your youngers but exalting your elders…

WS: What you mean so you don’t see us nipping at your heels? No, I don’t think that’s the way I think about it, but unlike Martin, I’ve never been a sort of fiction-open person. Martin exists in a perpetual competition of some sort, whereas I’m absolutely convinced that only pets win prizes and I don’t think that literary art is a competition of any sort.

CH: Don’t suppose you saw the Booker prize the other day then?

WS: No. I mean what could you possibly win, apart from cash and the kind of frankly transitory and ephemeral applause of certain kinds?

CH: I suppose there is the argument of reaching out to a wider audience…

WS: You could say that the whole kind of prize giving and the whole Lit Crit newspaper based establishment represents a kind of infotainment service for fiction in that way, and beyond a certain point it doesn’t make a work a great work – it doesn’t really change someone’s life or supply that missing X factor that makes them exponentially increase their involvement with the world or with literature. Those things are not what make a work last. The only thing that makes a work last is lasting. And that again you cannot tell. You can look at countless examples of that, of books that have lasted that you wouldn’t have reckoned on lasting.

I’ve just finished writing a long introductory essay for the Penguin Modern Classics of Junky [Amazon]. I mean who would have thought that Junky, published back in 1953 as a paperback bound back to back with Maurice Helbrant’s Narcotic Agent for 35 cents, a penny dreadful shocker, would become probably the greatest confessional novel about heroin addiction written in the 20th century – and I think undoubtedly so.

CH: That must have something to do with his subsequent notoriety though.

WS: Oh no, I think that even if he’d written nothing else it would still stand.

CH: Junky‘s very hard-boiled isn’t it?

WS: It is, in fact he took Hammett as his model for it.

CH: He wrote that as William Lee didn’t he?

WS: Yes, for a Burroughsian it’s got a lot of sign posts towards later theories and fictional methods that he then took up and practiced through Naked Lunch, etc, but actually it’s a really good book. I make the argument in my essay that it’s one of the great existentialist novels, that it’s on a par with Nausea [Amazon] or The Fall [Amazon].

War and pacifism

CH: Someone was interested in a recent Today essay that defined the boundaries of your pacifism. They wanted to know why this position is marginalised by the media?

WS: Well, I think States depend upon a component of armed force – they depend upon the notion of coercion at some level and it’s very hard to find a state that hasn’t had a standing army or militia of some kind. So I think the notion of armed force and violence is integral to the kind of command-based hierarchies that states have. To paraphrase Dubya, “anyone who isn’t with us is against us”, so if you’re against all armed force you’re going to be necessarily squeezed out of the discourse. It won’t even be conscious, there will be people who simply cannot hear what you’re saying because it’s so inimical to their idea of state authority.

I think this war has rather crystallised my pacifism. I think in the past I was like a lot of people who said I’ve got pacifistic inclination but I’m not a pacifist because what I couldn’t find in my own mind was the answer to that perennial question: ‘Ah, yes, but what would you have done when the Nazis were coming?’ And as someone with Jewish blood I’ve always found that difficult to answer, but the thing with this war which makes it so wrong in so many different ways is.that it exposes that argument about the Nazis as a specious argument, in that it assumes a conditional assumption i.e. that you are in 1939, because it can be answered with a similar kind of conditional question: ‘But hang on a minute, if everyone had been a pacifist in 1914 then the Nazis would never have come to power.’

So that to me pushes up the argument to let’s just be pacifists now. Maybe that’s the adequate moral response to the phenomenon of violence in all the forms – I get really angry in the street like we all do. I’ve now taken to bicycling, so I get cut up on my bicycle and I get absolutely furious because it’s so dangerous. I’m a big guy and I’m a very aggressive guy and I feel tempted to rip open cars doors and pull people out and beat them to a bloody pulp but, hey, I don’t do it. It seems to me that there comes a point in your life as a moral being in society where you decide that violence is not the solution to car incidents so there can be the same kind of decision at a macro level.

CH: But it’s still your first response though; you’re not claiming to not have those thoughts?

WS: Well I think that people who say they don’t even think like that anymore are probably self-deceiving. I think it says somewhere in How The Dead Live [Amazon] that there’s no one as angry as an Occidental Buddhist and there’s nobody less forgiving than a fundamentalist born-again Christian. You have to acknowledge the impulse to violence, to say that it’s completely gone is a dangerous thing.

CH: What would you do with the World Trade Centre site?

WS: Mmm.. I’d be leery of venturing an opinion on that. It seems to me that’s something for the people of Manhattan to decide. It’s a grotesque singularity, the snuffing out of that many lives in one place… it also seems to me that it’s going to be an inevitable equivocation between civic pride and something to do with the symbolism of what has occurred.

CH: Is it true about you doing the new series of Shooting Stars with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer?

WS: Yes, that is true. I’ve replaced Mark Lamarr.

CH: Given that Lamaar became the greasy Fifties throwback, what have they got in store for you?

WS: I can assure people that that has not been my fate. In fact, au contraire, I have become a sinister kind of John Dee-type figure who controls Vic’s mind by use of instantiated eye beams which fiddle with his mind.

CH: This just developed organically?

WS: Yes, it developed organically over the show that Vic, Jim Moir, became convinced that I was controlling his mind. I think I’ve claimed the upper hand there actually… It was a fun show to do not least because it’s pretty good not to take yourself too seriously, and to get paid well for not taking yourself too seriously is a real bonus. I’m not sure how good I’m going to be on it because it’s not quite my humour, it’s not verbally based, it’s very visual humour – they are rubber-legged funny men. I hope it works for their sake, after all it’s not my main gig but it is theirs.

Water, water everywhere

CH: You’ve written of the benefits to the imagination of living near a large body of water. Could this be why you live so close to the Thames, albeit unconsciously?

WS: Mmm, I think with the Thames… Mmm, yeah I suppose that it does help. I hadn’t really considered that aspect of it: it is tidal, it does move. With the Thames I always think that because it’s such a conspicuous piece of physical geography going right through the heart of something that is oppressively human in that way that it annuls or at any rate vitiates the oppressive sense of human geography and provides you with a sense of topography really, because you know you’re next to a river, you know you’re in a river valley, you know you’re on a planet that has natural features whereas if you’re just in the middle of Acton then it’s rather difficult to hang on to –

CH: You’ve got it in for Acton haven’t you?

WS: I’m thinking of moving to Acton actually. That’s why it comes to mind. I concede that the river may have been why I chose to live in Vauxhall. In fact, I was looking at renting as an office, a very unusual house-boaty thing that’s down by Cringle Dock waste disposal station in the lea of Battersea Power Station, which is this weird thing on two great pontoons built by a load of Finnish architectural students. But I just wouldn’t spend enough time on it to make it practical, but the idea of writing on top of a body of water was enormously appealing.

Schzoid sensitivity

CH: On the South Bank Show a few years back you said that a psychologist had put “schizoid personality” on your case notes. Now, this might sound like a conceit from your own fiction, but I got the impression that you might have interpreted this as meaning that you were schizophrenic, but diagnostically it means a personality disorder characterised by “extreme shyness and oversensitivity to others”.

WS: I did know that, but the same diagnosis had borderline personality written down as well which would be another form of that. But, increasingly I’ve come to view addiction itself as a mimetic illness in that way – it mimics other psychopathologies. People who essentially have addictive personalities are diagnosed as manic depressive or schizophrenic or certainly depressive. What they really are is addicts. The addiction decides, if you think of it as an autonomous thing, to pretends to be another pathology because the addict finds it bizzarely more comfortable to think of themselves as schizophrenic or manic depressive or whatever, rather than confront the fact that they are an addict which of course means that they’re going to have to stop doing what they want to do above all.

CH: So are you shy and sensitive?

WS: I think I am still quite shy. A lot of the extroversion or flamboyance is always a compensation. It’s better to tough it out rather than sit there cowering.

CH: Did you retreat from the limelight after being found snorting heroin aboard John Major’s plane during the 1997 election?

WS: No, not at all. Two things happened on that front. One was that I didn’t go to ground which was useful. In fact, I counter-attacked. I rolled with the punch in the initial aftermath. Doing Have I Got News For You was quite frankly a calculated thing to defuse criticism. I think that there’s a certain level at which English or British society operates as a kind of particularly beastly lower sixth form common room. If I’d gone to ground at that point I think I would have been in trouble. And it did serve to defuse interest in it.

The other thing is cleaning up from drugs. It made me less interesting to people in that kind of prurient way. And there’s always that level in the media and society as a whole just as the papers are full of stories about illicit drugs and strange sexual practices so that was the basic voyeuristic level of interest in me as someone who got completely fucked up on drugs and booze. And if you’re not doing that anymore then you’re not vulnerable in that way.

CH: Have you read your brother Jonathan’s book, Self Abuse [Amazon], which is partly about growing up in what he sees as a dysfunctional family. Can you comment?

WS: Well, I can’t. I have read it, but I made a pact with myself not to comment on it publicly because I just don’t do that stuff. What I can say in answer to the question is that there are a lot of factual inaccuracies in it.

CH: The introduction to Feeding Frenzy refers to a cabal of restaurateurs who wanted shot of you saying you’d tried to buy drugs off the doorman of his restaurant…

WS: That was before [the Major incident] of course. That was actually a malevolent restaurateur rather than the tabloids themselves. He was someone who didn’t like the reviews I’d been giving his restaurants.

CH: So there genuinely was this plan to get rid of you?

WS: Oh yeah, that’s true.

CH: A cabal?

WS: Yeah, as far as I know is true as well. That’s not just rhetorical rubbish.

CH: That’s a bit weird isn’t it?

WS: No, it’s not weird. I mean I don’t think it was said with any great seriousness. What I think is, you know what these guys are like, they all sit around getting drunk and think ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could bump off Will Self?’. I don’t think they were serious but it does show you the level of naffness and the extent to which criticism can bite. I remember Deborah pointed out when I said ‘I don’t know why these fucking celebrity egg flippers get so upset about these reviews, you know they go on parceling up three bits of raddicio for £45, why are they bothered?’ and she said ‘Well, some of them really do regard what they do as an art form’

CH: You often just criticised the interior design of the restaurant rather than the food…

WS: Well, these guys, and I do know some of them, aren’t stupid, what they realise is that by concentrating on the restaurant you’re completely dissing the food and the whole culture that they represent in which it’s really important to drizzle olive oil in a particular way. You’re saying that ‘Hang on, this isn’t important’. Not only is it not important it’s a kind of grotesque moral singularity: You’re sitting around thinking about adding huge amounts of monetary value to ingredients that would barely keep a starving Somalian alive for a day. If you start criticising the food you start to take it on its own terms. You can’t allow it that much credence. You’ve suspended disbelief in what’s being done. Whereas my approach was to say ‘I just don’t buy any of this shit’ you know.

Novel uses

CH: I liked the long ‘travel’ piece you wrote in Australia. You’re very much a spiritual person aren’t you?

WS: Yes, when I went to see the whirling dervishes. Yes, I think so. Middle-age tends to afflict us in this way doesn’t it? And I think that cleaning up from drugs necessarily entails a revaluation of the spiritual facet of yourself. In order to shut off an entirely self-destructive way of life you have to look for a positive direction. But I think for people viewing my fictional work it’s always been there. I think that, this is a broad brush, but people tend to mistake me for a nihilist but I’m not really like this at all.

CH: Ballard gets misunderstood in that way too.

WS: Yes, I don’t think people really get what he’s up to in that respect. I think people who do understand, really understand, and people who don’t understand just don’t understand it. I’m unashamed of saying that: that I am more interested in spiritual questions. I’m looking at writing a novel about revealed religion at the moment.

CH: What about the other novel you were writing on ‘land use’?

WS: Yeah, if only I’d written it before foot and mouth. No, I mean what I wanted to do was set something in a rural context and that’s what I will do with this book on revealed religion. It’s not about the farm industry. I’m engaged in rather an odd thing which is that I’m going to turn a screenplay of Dorian Gray that I’ve been writing for about three years back into a novel.

So, I’m basically going to rewrite Oscar Wilde [Amazon], which is something I would have never done off my own back, but having been commissioned to write a screenplay and realising the very strong likelihood that it will never get made, I wanted to make something out of the material I already had.

I’ve transposed Dorian to the gay scene of the 1980s and 90s, into the epicentre of the Aids epidemic and I think it’s an interesting treatment of it and it’ll make an interesting novella. So that’s going to be the next fictional project. The fascinating thing about Dorian is that – I’ll probably get hung, drawn and quartered for this – it’s not actually that great a novel. What it is is an incredibly powerful cultural idea.

Just like the idea that Dorian himself is impervious to time, so the text itself has been impervious to time because in many ways it, rather like a Ballard book – you know he’s one of the very few writers to have been able to foretell the cultural future in that way. Wilde foretold the probable shape of a kind of aggressively “out” gay culture in the 20th century. I think that’s what’s fascinating about Dorian and the way in which gay culture in the late 20th century has become a synechdoche of the narcissism, and media obsession of western culture as a novel, and that’s where I pick up on it today.

CH: So it’s nearing completion?

WS: Err, no. But I would like it to be published some time next year, but when I really get my teeth into something it comes fairly quickly, and it is all there. It just says “Interior. Night. Scene 82. A bar in Greenwich Village.” I have to knock all those out and put it into prose and I’ve got a book hopefully.

CH: Have you been approached by any filmmakers regarding adaptations of your stories?

WS: An amateur made an amateur film of Cock And Bull [Amazon], which he wanted to push commercially, but after seeing it I confess I denied permission for this. In truth, I never would’ve allowed the amateur production to go ahead had he not come on with a sad story about already having spent aeons working on the screenplay. Cock has also been optioned for film twice by the producer Christine Vachon (‘Boys Don’t Cry’) but nothing has come of it, despite my seeing one excellent screenplay written by a guy called Nix (I kid you not). Otherwise, not a single one of the other narratives has been optioned.

CH: Would you be amenable to films made of your work, or do think it might be disastrous?

WS: I think for a writer it’s an almost always an artistic lose-lose scenario. Either you take the money and abrogate all responsibility for the finished article (which then, in all likelihood, ill serves the original), or else you take less money and become creatively involved (if they’ll have you), in which case, in all probability, your participation will be vitiated to the point where it makes no difference anyway. I know several of my peers who have spent years working on film adaptations of their work, only for them either to come out badly, or else not come out at all. Martin Amis has it about right when he says: ‘Don’t believe they’ve made a movie of your book until you rent the video.’ In part, I feel obscurely satisfied that there have been no film adaptations. To my mind it proves that I’m doing something which can only be done in the form of prose fiction. Mind you, the bank manager might well have a different take on this.

CH: Which stories would you be interested in seeing adapted?

WS: I’ve always felt that ‘Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys’ (the story) would make a great British road movie. The problem with road movies in Britain is that there isn’t usually enough road, but by starting in Caithness, on the north coast of Scotland, and having scenes the entire way to London, I think this story avoids the usual pitfalls. I’ve even gone so far as to rough out a scene plan for it, but because of all the problems mentioned above, I’ve never gone any further. I also think ‘The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz’ together with its sequel ‘The Nonce Prize’ would make a good movie. As for the novels, well, Cock would be good (no sight of the genitals – just reaction shots); and Great Apes [Amazon], I feel, could be made quite easily and effectively, by simply having humans play chimpanzees, without any makeup, just half-naked, copulating freely, grooming etc.. And with subtitles (they would sign as in the book).

CH: Which filmmakers would you trust with your work?

WS: Completely trust? Well, Cronenberg for Cock, Gilliam for My Idea of Fun [Amazon] or How the Dead Live.

CH: And finally, what question would you ask yourself?

WS: Erm, I think the question I ask myself most is, and this comes up particularly in relation to this anti-war stuff which is the first public political thing that I’ve put my head above the parapet for kind of ever. So I’d be inclined to ask myself: do you really believe that your work as a writer represents a significant or a meaningful contribution to political and social debate or do you think there’s something more you should be doing? So that’s the kind of question I tend to ask myself most.