Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An indeterminable urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

A Neoliberalism Reading List

(Re)reading from first to last, as I have recently, Michel Houellebecq’s entire body of translated work leaves me in little doubt that he is the only novelist in the west truly capturing the pernicious effects on individuals living through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity.

Carole Sweeney’s reading list below is as good as any I’ve seen on the history of capitalism in the twentieth century, and most particularly on the rise of neoliberalism. I’ve read some of these and plan to read the others, and welcome any other reading suggestions along similar lines.

  • Luc Boltanski, Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism
  • Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times
  • Krishnan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World
  • Ash Amin, Post-Fordism: A Reader
  • David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
  • Gilles Lipovetsky, Hypermodern Times
  • Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy
  • Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences
  • Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power
  • Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed
  • Traces of Individuality

    It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality; as far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all’s said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more.

    Michel Houellebecq
    Platform

    Idées Fixes of the Week

    Girl in a Blanket (1953) Lucian Freud

    Freud’s captivating Girl in a Blanket appears on the front cover of Henrietta Moraes’ memoir, Henrietta, which I have sampled in small doses alongside Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. I’m fascinated with the louche, hedonistic Soho that stretched between the beat and post-hippie eras. (Moraes called the unfinished sequel to her memoir Fuck Off Darling, which is of course just perfect) Nothing of the Bohemian lifestyle that Moraes and her milieu lived could be tolerated in our age of surveillance, net curtain twitching and consumerism as economic ideology.

    I suspect that Michel Houellebecq would’ve fitted neatly in with Morae’s crowd. They would have appreciated his Beckettian mirthless humour, the finest, or at least healthiest, antidote to nihilism. My rereading of Houellebecq’s oeuvre continues, impeded only by my return to wage-orientated labour after four blissful months of reading, travel, navel gazing and walking.

    Briefly but intensely compelled to dip into Angela Carter’s work last week, nagged during an insomniac night with echoes of her highly wrought style in the depiction of sexuality in Houellebecq. There are surely broad similarities in the caustic and subversive humour of both writers. I am overdue an immersion once again in Carter’s work.

    Voice of the Sea

    What keeps coming to mind during my current Michel Houellebecq binge is that beneath the surface of his nihilism and despair is an un-extinguished faith in the redemptive potency of love and friendship, a hope that he realises is unfulfillable but impossible to abandon.

    This afternoon, feeling a little dour, I took a break from my Houellebecq bender to reread some of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I read at Francis’ recommendation some years ago. Once again I came across a favourite paragraph, underlined in pencil, which she repeats at the start and end of her novel.

    The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

    The sea, in both deadly and enriching form, is almost a character in The Awakening, and Chopin’s poetic description stands in relief to the sparseness of the rest of the text.

    Gentle Resignation

    It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life; it can be summed up in a small number of events …

    Fortunate today to have been able to spend several hours reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and though I’ve got another eighty or so pages to go, it seems clear that this is his major work to date. The twelve years that separate it from Atomised (The Elementary Articles) are evident in the fully realised characters, and the maturity of its metaphysics. I may write a little more about it when finished, but I am inclined to go back and reread the earlier works. This is a drive-by posting to drop off a couple of quotes that resonated.

    Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realised that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes even a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.

    Carole Maso’s Defiance

    How to purge the horror. Not possible. At best give it shape and name.

    Incarcerated, awaiting the death penalty, the protagonist of Carole Maso’s Defiance, depicted in the tabloids as a modern-day Medea, gently discloses her devastating, destructive life. Presenting the novel as the journal of an unrepentant double-murderer gives Maso the freedom to explore a story of victimisation and sexual abuse from an unfamiliar angle. That Maso brings to Defiance the intelligence and erudition evident in Ava also helps to lift her novel from the more mainstream discourse of victimhood.

    Though beautifully written, the essence of the novel that male violence is endemic in our culture is authoritative and unyielding. Maso’s story is in many ways reminiscent of the Aileen Wournos narrative (as played memorably in Monster by Charlize Theron), the essential difference being that Maso’s protagonist, Bernadette, is a mathematical prodigy. Throughout the story Maso challenges the reader to question the game Bernadette is playing with her readers, her social worker, and others.

    An Idiotically Decorated Box

    Both intrigued and undecided by Carole Maso’s Ava. A fragmentary novel, which impels with the force of allusion and cadence of the sentences. As with Markson’s fragmentary novels, I am not certain that the fragments cohere sufficiently as a narrative. But I am only two-thirds into Ava and will finish (and then intend to read her Defiance.) I want to capture here a couple of the fragments that accord so neatly with my view of the world I wish that I had written them (I did in my notebook, uncredited, so in a few years time I will think I did!):

    No character in Beckett has ever admitted that existence is other than a cruel joke. But here in Company Beckett reaches into a darker dark than he has hitherto plumbed, to ask if the poor jokester didn’t, after all, create us, his joke, to keep his lonely self company? This is a way of asking if in our profound and agonising loneliness we have invented the jokester, God, to keep ourselves company?

    And what is company? What have we not done for its sake? For everything human we have made up, beginning with our names. Our laws, our quaint systems of kinship, our cities, our technology, a Victorian clergyman’s carefully researched study of the Sumerian cosmology-fiction all. We’ve made it all up, to hide the mystery in an idiotically decorated box.

    Karl Ove Knausgård: First reactions

    I’m still contemplating the phenomenon that is Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Volume I, or A Death in the Family as the UK edition is titled. For several months I’ve read references on social media to the series, which comprises six volumes of autobiographical fiction, and refused to pay much attention despite the plaudits of several readers whose opinions I value and respect.

    Several factors deterred me: I’m chary of reading overweight Bildungsroman, almost exclusively written by middle-aged men with a tendency to prolixity; I’m immediately wary of any of those writers hinting of Proustian influence (see first point); I have trepidation about literary realism because in the hands of most writers it is as dull as celebrity culture (I’ll read Flaubert or Turgenev, but I’m fucked if I’ll ever open another page of Balzac or Maupassant). So when presented with the option of reading another realist Bildungsroman, which does suffer from moments of prolixity, and openly acknowledges its Proustian roots, I was in no hurry to open the copy that napped on my shelf.

    Once I did start reading A Death in the Family on Saturday morning, I was unavailable for anything except snacks until I completed it on Sunday afternoon. And it is a very ordinary, in the sense of unpretentious, and extraordinary, in the sense of superbly good. I immediately ordered Volume 2.

    Beyond the superficial reference points, it wasn’t the Proustian resonance that immediately sounded, but in the way Knausgård foregrounded the set pieces (the themes are love and death, are there others?) were echoes of Virginia Woolf’s conception of an elemental structure to life, an aesthetic order, like a recurring theme in a musical piece (Verdi keeps coming to mind). I’m reminded of the “mist between the people she [Clarissa Dalloway] knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.” Knausgård perceives of a similar connection between other people and things, which is how his narrator tries to make sense of everyday life. His sense of this connectedness is entirely secular and, as Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, is an erratic and undependable reality found throughout an utterly mundane world.

    Knausgård ultimately whetted my appetite for Woolf, and I dipped straight back into her diaries and autobiographical writings. This morning I found this paragraph (from Woolf’s Moments of Being), which captures so much more eloquently than I have been able the pattern that Knausgård seems to be exploring:

    From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

    Once I’ve read enough Woolf, I’ll read the second volume of Knausgård’s monumental outpouring. Perhaps I’ll like the narrator more than in the first volume, though it matters little. I might then have something to say with greater lucidity.