Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice is subversive. At the beginning I went along with her story as I share Kopf’s evident fascination with the heady days of polar exploration, of nations racing to be first to reach an ever-moving target. I expected little more than a day or two’s immersion into a contemporary novel, of the kind I don’t read often~mostly because they offer nothing that I can’t find better developed in a novel that is tested by time=but what I found instead was an intricate study into how a modern human being constructs their idea of identity.

References to social media situate this contemporary novel but that isn’t what I mean by modernity. Children born in the late twentieth century may be brought up happily or unhappily, closer or more disconnected from their families, but the way they interpret and define themselves will be different from children in nineteenth century novels. What is clever and modern about Kopf’s novel is her feeling for how relationships with parents, the balance between selfishness and altruism that sets the tone for inter family dynamics, has shifted in secular, post-Freudian Europe.

If evidence of post-modernity can be discerned in the conflicts and compromises of family life, it is the degree to which modern human beings construct their identity from the terms of their private lives. The relationships in Kopf’s story, hopeful and tragic, are built from the substrate of exponentially increasing levels of narcissism and self-interest. In the end, Kopf’s family saga disguised as an account of a study of polar exploration, looks beyond the despair addressed at length by contemporary writers like Michel Houellebecq and offers the possibility that we can use language and, by extension, thought to see beyond our crisis of narcissism,

Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project

Somewhere around St. Petersburg and W. Somerset Maugham, it became clear that The Dead Ladies Project isn’t to be shoehorned into any of the recognisable classifications that exist for contemporary memoirs. Superficially, The Dead Ladies Project is a meandering meditation about a Grand Journey wandering in the landscape of literary, some by association, women (and a few men) who are either unappreciated or little known. Each chapter is built around an excursion and mines the life of Crispin’s ‘dead ladies,’ some that she admires unreservedly, like Claude Cahun, and others, like Rebecca West and Jean Rhys, with whom she lovingly dissents.

Each of the chapters is beautifully executed. On each of three readings I picked a different favourite journey, though I suspect the Nora Barnacle chapter is the one will bewitch me for longest. Or the Maugham. Or the Rebecca West.

But Crispin is more unique among contemporary travel writers and memoirists for her courage in using The Dead Ladies Project as a backdrop to engage with the core existential questions of how to live in a sociopolitical (perhaps I should say biopolitical) system that subsumes all sexual, sensual and social experience. Crispin wrestles with two familiar extremes, that of enjoying the freedom of libidinal hedonism, contrasted with withdrawal into monadic seclusion. What is distinctive to Crispin in The Dead Ladies Project, compared to a writer like Houellebecq that travels down similar roads, is that despite the despair and dark humour, there is optimism. How rare to come across an imagination fresh and rich enough to shift our vision, even by a small degree, on the society that is coming into view.

Houellebecq Strikes a Pose

In the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, Adrian Nathan West captures my  sentiment in the immediate aftermath of reading Michel Houellebecq’s Submission:

The worst fate a writer can suffer is to become a “writer”: for ease to eclipse inspiration, for fluency to allay the long struggle with words, for the dreadful void of the inchoate work to become schematic and ho-hum, like an instruction manual. Yet the writer-as-cultural-figure is an inevitable facet of the present, when the commodification of literature and the compression of news, entertainment, and what was once known as high culture into a vague but ubiquitous entity called “media” has led to writers vying for “exposure” alongside politicians and athletes.

There are very few contemporary writers as lucid as Houellebecq on how neoliberal capitalism has woven itself into the affective, cultural and physical sites of everyday life. But in Submission, Houellebecq’s typical dejection is turned to shaky satire reminiscent of the naïve socio-cultural projections of Philip Roth.

Even minor Houellebecq is always worth reading, but it feels rather like his prominence as a ‘bad boy of letters’ has gone to his head and Submission is striking a pose, rather than the usual meandering but luminous exposition on this world we inhabit.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

Jonathan Gibb’s Randall

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt

‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Satire is a demanding form, an act of aggression that can easily fail. Freud’s depiction of jokes as repressed hostility is evident in the sadistic satire of Anthony Burgess, and the snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s self indulgent attacks.

To qualify as satire a denunciation has to be potent, yet yield pleasures for a reader in sharing an act of narrative violence. Jonathan Gibb’s Randall aims its satire at the Young British Artists of the contemporary art world of the 1990s, starting with an act of literal violence, the killing of Damien Hirst, “hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk”. Its secondary target is that period of the late 1990s when the shock-troops of New Labour’s marketing department set out to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, uniting in common purpose a bunch of mostly white males that included the YBAs, pop musicians, second-generation yuppies and media figures.

Randall not only captures the slightly hysteric mood of this period, but also nails its target with deftness and a degree of affection. It is perhaps successful because that hint of amused fondness balances its satirical offensiveness. But don’t take that to mean that Randall’s satire is insipid, it is exquisitely cleansing and gloriously funny.

Books emerge that come to define existence for a particular social strata in certain time periods: Geoff Dyer’s gratifying depiction of life in South London in the 1980s in The Colour of Memory hit its target squarely and cleanly, as does Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised of how people and communities disintegrate under neoliberalism. Randall sits between both time periods, skilfully satirising how art and money found common ground in the 1990s.

Ink-Black Triptych

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt

‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Today, life is fast. It vaporizes morals. Futility suits the postmodern, for words as well as things. Bur that doesn’t keep us from asking questions: how to live, and why? You’re not done living because you chalk it up to artifice.

Jean-François Lyotard


Nihilism no longer wears the dark, Wagnerian, Spenglerian, fuliginous colours of the end of the century. It no longer comes from a weltanschauung of decadence nor from a metaphysical radically born of the death of God and of all the consequences that must be taken from this death. Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyse it.

Jean Baudrillard


The dissolution of being is a tragic dissolution; and driven by a grievous nostalgia every person keeps asking the other to be something he can no longer be, and to find the weight of being, like a blinded phantom, that he himself can no longer find. The resistance, the permanence; the depth. In the end, we all come away empty-handed, and the loneliness is terrible.

Michel Houellebecq

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
  • What We Once Knew As Life

    I suspect that Houellebecq and Adorno would’ve enjoyed a bottle of wine together, grumbling together about the invasion of market relations into every corner of human existence.

    What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.

    Theodor Adorno
    Minima Moralia

    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