Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex One

It’s only four years old but has the texture of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that sort of thing, that I read in the nineties. It’s partly the gritty urban realism that provides that cyberpunk taste, though Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I isn’t set in some near future, but navigates the joys and terrors of emerging culture in the present day. There is also the ironic social commentary channeled through the hustlers and alienated street people who exist side-by-side in this grim, violent world.

Style is central, a cynical even paranoid perspective, but without sacrificing completely the characters’ humanity. It is a narrative that is perfectly in tune with our post-war awareness that advanced societies do not by default become more humane or civilised, quite the reverse in fact.

Despentes’ Paris is not the city of Benjamin’s bourgeois flaneur, but more in tune with the concrete jungle of Baudelaire. It also contrasts with Cusk’s confined, rather claustrophobic trilogy of middle-class life, offering an alternative set of keys to understanding the ethical dilemmas of human experience in the late-capitalist modern city.

“I suppose, Sirs, that you are so glutted with this banquet of various literary dishes that the food you eat continues to rise. Indeed ye sit crammed with dainties, for many served up to you a mixed feast of precious and varied discourse and persuade you to look with contempt on ordinary fare. What shall I do now? Shall I allow what I had prepared to lie uneaten and spoil, or shall I expose it in the middle of the market for sale to retail dealers at any price it will fetch? Who in that case will want any part of my wares or who would give twopence for my writings, unless his ears were stopped up?”

—Agathias, 6th century C.E.

“Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbour does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language. Thus all understanding is always t the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence.”

—Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Humboldt: ‘On Language’. (trans. Peter Heath)

“Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages (the first text message was sent in 1992, but phones capable of texting spread later in the 1990s). . . .I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

—Rebecca Solnit, “Diary“, London Review of Books 35, no 16 (2013)

S. D. Chrostowska’s Matches

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” — Adorno, Minima Moralia

It is full of surprises, this book that interweaves the philosophical and the personal. It is a creature of excess that gives the appearance of being casually composed, layer by layer, aphorism by fragment, resisting integration into the totality of a completed system. There is an intense quality similar to that of atonal music, a teetering on an edge that is never quite resolved between art, philosophy and political polemic. As with Minima Moralia, this book is an indictment of what capitalism is doing to life (and death). Matches can share with Adorno’s book its subtitle: Reflections from Damaged Life, and its idea that the notion of an ethical life is so battered that all philosophy can do is survey the destruction and dream of what has been lost. It is an unflinchingly perceptive book, a heartfelt reflection of what it is to be neither dead nor alive.

‘For we are made of lines. We are not only referring to lines of writing. Lines of writing conjugate with other lines, life lines, lines of luck or misfortune, lines productive of the variation of the line of writing itself, lines that are between the lines of writing.’

— Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (trans. Brian Massumi)

[There is satisfaction in returning to a work you once found all but incomprehensible, and read as poetry, only to find that this time perhaps your thinking has in some senses caught up and you are able to read with greater clarity, or that is at least how it feels. It’s probably illusory.]