Fragments of a Map

Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (And Other Stories)

Experimental writing is often considered self-indulgent. I am not sure if this is the case. There is, however, something of the writer’s self which always seems to come through experimental writing in a way that it doesn’t in a bestseller.

The new collection of Ann Quin’s stories and fragments, The Unmapped Country, display the writer’s work at its most direct and its most obscure. The range befits this lesser known but truly important writer whose life and work remain enigmatic. Ann Quin’s writing career began in the early sixties and was tragically cut short by her death in 1973.

She was part of a circle of innovative writers published by John Calder which included Carol and Alan Burns, Eva Tucker and Giles Gordon, and in her early career was known to read alongside B.S. Johnson.

In the later sixties she used her royalties and grants to travel the world associating with American post-Beat writers and the pop art movement which she had first encountered working as a secretary at the Royal College of Art.

Her biographical trajectory is traced in her novel’s settings; from the grim Brighton of Berg (1964), to the middle class holiday home of Three (1966), through Greek dictatorship in Passages (1969) to her final comic book cut-up American odyssey Tripticks (1972).

This collection, sourced from archives, old magazines, as well as the authors’ friends and collaborators, contains work from every era. It opens with a Berg-style meeting of surrealism and social realism in ‘Leaving School – XI’ and ‘Nude and Seascape’. The latter of which is either hilarious or horrifying. I fell immediately in love with it.

‘A Double Room’ adds to the grottiness with a tale of an illicit weekend jaunt to Brighton which turns immediately stale. One feels in these stories the Brighton of Quin’s childhood. Characters trapped in the allotted pleasures of austerity Britain.

Her style and imagination is captivating, elevating, even when fixated on nastiness; it suggests rather than states how writing could lift her out of these surroundings.

We then have a few choice fragments. A satirical voice in the form of ‘B.B.’ written personally, it seems, for pop artist Billy Apple. A cut-up about soldiery, ‘Living in the Present’, co-created with poet Robert Sward. Sadly not a prime example of the genre (it’s the only part of the book that feels notably dated) it is nevertheless fascinating to see the kinds of experiments Quin was undertaking.

The meat of the collection is found in ‘Tripticks’, the story published in Ambit which would later expand to novel length, as well as ‘Ghostworm’. Both display the hypnotic Quin prose style unleashed on her favourite subjects of sex, brutality and globetrotting adventures.

Each rewards repeat reading as imagery jostles for space with the cracked, fixated voices of her protagonists. Fans of the novels will be glad of these treasures, as well as the less psychedelic ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’, which depicts a trip across Mexico with all its troubles, death and stirring encounters.

The penultimate piece, ‘The Unmapped Country’, is the final and unfinished novel of the Quin quintet. Quin fans like myself will know it from 1975’s Beyond the Words anthology of experimental writing but here it appears restored and in full.

For this particular reader, the piece remains a bit of a disappointment. Had Quin lived I can’t help that feel she would have dramatically revised and edited it. It remains, nevertheless, a moving story of incarceration and mental illness. It is tempting to draw links here to Quin the writer who herself was institutionalised around this time. But the biographical Quin and the characters she creates have always subtly repelled each other as much as they attract. Reading this as pure autobiography would be lazy.

It is on this point that I come to the second voice in the collection, that of the editor Jennifer Hodgson. Alongside her heroic efforts bringing all of these previously lost and discarded pieces together she contributes an introduction that is sympathetic, insightful and precise.

For Quin fans this introduction also represents something important in terms of biographical framing. The ugly myth of Quin – the lazy interpretation typified in Buckeye’s Re: Quin (2013) – is one of a tragic rock and roll martyr; Sylvia Plath on LSD.

Hodgson’s introduction, by contrast, tells of a varied life in which Quin’s non-traditional relationships aren’t reduced to daddy issues, her experiments with drugs aren’t a cry for help, and her travels across the world aren’t signifiers of a decadent and depraved collapse.

Even Quin’s death ‘swimming out to sea near Brighton’s Palace Pier’ (30) isn’t speculated upon; subtly breaking from the typical presumption of suicide. This is only a short introduction but, as someone who has previously attempted to write about Quin-the-person and failed, Hodgson’s approach impressed upon me the importance of biographical objectivity.

If anyone is going to write a biography of Ann Quin then it should be Jennifer Hodgson. And Other Stories have done a great job with this book.

Every shelf with four Quin books on it will, I don’t doubt, have five on it come January. More than this, the book’s scope recommends itself to new readers as well. As an overview of this important British writer The Unmapped Country is to be admired.

The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments will be available from And Other Stories in January 2018.

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Stones and Hard Places

Various – Cosmic Shift, Russian Contemporary Art Writing (Zed)

This is the first anthology of Russian contemporary art writing to be published outside Russia. It includes Barte de Baere, Anton Vidokle, Bogdan Mamonov, Pavel Pepperstein, Dmitri Prigov and Masha Sumnina. However, the book was perhaps unsurprisingly begun via a chance meeting at Goldsmiths College, London.

This book, on its way through its approaches to art, also explores the communism of old and the communism to come. It does so in relation to representational questions. It does so in relation to the arts of the former Soviets, with some leeway (for instance Boris Groys is included, a German who grew up in Russia).

My review, then, will suggest what use this book might have to Manchester artists, because many of the ideas in this book – ideas that are common currency to those who lived through the hard grip of communism and its eventual dropping of them into a void – are much needed by the modernistas, neo-radicals and posturers in the city. Many of them cluster around the urban art scene.

This book both is and isn’t about the ‘Various Times’ of the European mid-century. It raises the spectres of Poland, Germany, in the late 1930s and 1940s, without meaning to.

But this book is also about an emerging period of New Things and I want to suggest to you that those older Various Times are being lost in that, at the same time as they resurface in new forms: The idea that Jacobin magazine is straightforwardly the alt-left opposite to the alt-right of Vice magazine: The Good against The Bad. The White Hats out to outgun The Black Hats; be wary.

I have spoken of the managing out of postmodernism from the university elsewhere. What we are seeing is the rise of a culture which is wilfully trying to close the gap between signifier and signified. What Jodi Dean has described, via Zizek, as the capitulation to new forms of submission. Look at the article on ‘The 1917 Peasant Revolutions’ in Jacobin by Sarah Badcock and Be Aware. If facts can be presented selectively enough to become lie, then that article is a damn lie.

What we aren’t seeing in the text is a sense that the artists of the former citizens of the Tito regime brought to bear on their work, artists such as Mladen Stilinović, that, as the title of the wonderful retrospective show at Nottingham Contemporary, curated by Lina Dzuverovic explained: ‘Monuments Are Not To Ne Trusted’. Stilinović is an exemplar here, distrustful of both capitalism and communism, he existed within both as a kind of permanent dissident and his work is better for it.

More recently Engels has returned again in the statue the artist Phil Collins brought back from the Ukraine, which was ‘unveiled’ on the 16th of July, 2017. This statue was the centrepiece of the closing event of the 2017 Manchester International Festival, an event called Ceremony, a title that ties the Soviet-era statue to the Manchester band Joy Division and the general revival of the post-punk and modernist aesthetic in Britain.

Engels’ return to the surface of Manchester, now he has been ‘uncovered’, whether uncovered at the back of a factory in the Ukraine, by archeologists, or in the written textual surface of his explorations in and around Angel Meadow, invariably means a set of investments in fragments of material from the past. All archeological sites are characterised by the projections of their present moments into that past.

The statue of Engels lay unwanted because it had become a toxic symbol. All iconography associated with the former Soviets was taken down, a final dictat enshrined in legislation: In 2015 Soviet monuments became illegal. The Holodomor and the moving of ethnic Russians into satellite states, including the Ukraine are not simply ‘of the past’; they are of recent times. The Putin regime have entered the Ukraine aggressively yet again.

While these tragic occurrences are not necessarily tied to the socialism of Marx-Engels, the Engels statue, in the Ukraine, became a site of projection for all the geographical terrors of Russian military managerialism. This is why it was given away by the town of Mala Pereshchepina to Manchester. How very strange then that a YBA should then have it driven to Manchester. How odd that an artist associated with the invented new hyper-capitalist art market of Charles Saatchi in the 1990s, as the older art markets atrophied, should dabble with this particular object and its constellations of significatory dust.

All over social media, the idea that Engels had been ‘brought home’ could be seen, that the statue is ‘coming back’. It is an idea absolutely cracked with contradiction. How bizarre that in Manchester, of all places, the statue is being seen as something ‘solid’, that what had definitely melted into air appears to have become concrete again. The Joy Division, who are invoked in the name of the Phil Collins artwork Ceremony – the name is taken from one of their song titles – were seen as proto-postmodern, in that they took their name from an SS brothel, its signifier rising above the signified.

The moment of the Manchester Modernist Society (MMS) is tangled up in all of this too: MMS is characterised by rescuing the reputations of modernist buildings from the categories of, for instance, ‘slum’ in favour of celebrations of minimal or brutalist aesthetics.

At the unveiling of the Engels statue there was a banner workshop. Some of the slogans displayed there included ‘communism is coming home’ and ‘when they write our history they will say this is where it started’. This thin trope, that Manchester is a ‘revolutionary city’ can be seen in many discourses about it.

From the great book edited by Peck and Ward, City of Revolution to the brochure of the 2017 Manchester Literature Festival and even thinner cultural references in the world of pop. But Manchester’s ‘revolution’, if it can even be called that, Industrialism, was a failed radicalism. Because in Manchester there was a bourgeois revolution instead of a political one. This may not be a point to mourn, as in France the very real political revolution turned into The Terror and yet another form of Nationalist Imperialism.

The later ‘revolution’ in Manchester we might point to includes Manchester City Council who out of sheer desperation began to seek money from all kinds of non-governmental sources. This essentially became the model for the neoliberal form of governance and statecraft in the 1990s, including the re-calibration of the Labour Party as New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Many of Manchester’s cultural players were formed in this period, including many of the Manchester International Festival insiders. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, greatly admires Sir Howard Bernstein, an icon of neoliberal city governance.

A new generation is emerging though. They often describe themselves as communist. The Stalin memes and hammers and sickles they deploy on social media are flexible, plastic, elastic even. They are semi-ironic. Yet at the same time, the Engels statue is seen as something solid for them and irony itself is openly disavowed. For many of them, the Engels statue is a solid icon of belief in the future. Let me be clear, the reduction of spectra of meaning into one dogmatic sign is one of the processes via which totalitarianism is delivered.

What is behind these assertions is the recent revival of the Labour Party under the current leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself, in many ways, has become a statue like that of Engels. The two signs became interchangeable at the close of Ceremony. But there is a tension here, as some of Manchester’s cultural players associated with Manchester International Festival are solidly New Labour, as is Manchester City Council.

The idea of Engels returning lies latent in E.P. Thompson’s reading of him as a kind of Timelord. However, Derrida writes well on how Marx and Engels actually advised for their lives after their own redundancy and death: ‘Who has ever called for the transformation of his own theses?’

Derrida explains that they didn’t simply ask for their work to be updated with new knowledge, but requested that the original knowledge be treated robustly. In this, the excessive warnings about Marx and Engels predicting history, about their work as a sealed hermetic system, as excessive and ill-read as similar charges against Hegel, need to be denied again. They need to be denied for a new generation of radicals who are erroneously making them solid.

If you do nothing else read ‘Soviet communism and the paradox of alienation’ in this book, an essay by Artemy Magun:

‘Communist government should be truly dialectical’, as opposed to ‘the pseudo dialectical liberal state’ and ‘the ideocratic dogmatism of the Soviet state’, to which (Boris) ‘Groys falsely attributes a dialectic’. Such a government ‘should be dialectical in its rationality and aesthetical in its virtuosity.’ It should be ‘harsh’, but ‘plastic at the same time, constantly preparing its own downfall and rescuing itself from it.’

This is not an argument for postmodern relativism, it is not an argument that says the young radicals are too communist, but it is an argument that says the young Corbynistas are not yet properly communist. Artemy Magun’s essay is a good place to start again.

Belgrade went from a cosmopolis in 1978 to the horrors of the 1990s in no time at all. ‘It couldn’t happen here’. Yes it could. We need the eastern semi-dissident voices more than ever as the communist sympathy increases.

Long Live Ashbery

John Ashbery – Commotion of the Birds (Carcanet)

John Ashbery is dead. His last book of poems seemed to sense its arrival. The coming of the not being. The nearness to the absence of even the negative. The use of three dots… the coming space of void. Céline used this motif and far too much has been made of it. That it breaks the master-signifier-phallus, that it turns his texts into pure play like jazz, it doesn’t and it does not have that function here either.

But Ashbery, not really impressionistic, but always very open, yet always also about something, seems to be shrugging his shoulders more than he asserts and more than usual here. Sometimes this is naughty ambivalence, ‘At Puke University, I’m glad he goes in there’ he writes, but sometimes it is beautiful blank ambivalence.

‘The Old Sofa’ is a wonderful skewering of cultural rites. It is almost anthropological, but the point of view an anthropologist reaches when she decides that playing cricket and performing the Yanomami rain song are for her and for her only at this moment just flat choices. What Robert Creeeley meant when he wrote that what you did was all that there ever was. Ashbery knew for a long time that this was The Truth. At the end he glows with the radiance of this Truth, the privilege of not giving a toss.

But to leave it there would be to do him a terrible disservice. ‘Friends… die down with me…’ ‘House passed away…’ he writes, and Creeley also explained to me in interview how his friends were going, how it was like a neighbourhood fire, coming closer each day, until one day, you knew it clearly, it would be your house and your turn:

‘Hello. I have to go in a little while. Well, maybe later. If at all.’ 

Ashbery had his turn and his absence is felt. But in these poems there is a cut glass clarity, even if the meanings are more feelings. They undermine the idea of Ashbery as a ‘difficult poet’, or maybe the times just caught up. The dense circularity of the New Criticism has been distilled into another substance. Take a deep drink and take it with you.

Human Error as Truth

Essayism – Brian Dillon; This Little Art – Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters – Dan Fox; The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner (all Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Fitzcarraldo Editions are beautifully made, with their matt cover and drop caps serif typeface, with their embossed bell logo. Fitzcarraldo publish novels and other things, but I have just read a brace of their essayistic books, with their white covers. Four of them: Essayism by Brian Dillon; This Little Art by Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters by Dan Fox and The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner.

These editions look like European editions. They talk like European editions, perhaps with the addition of a little English punk attitude, in the case of Ben Lerner’s book on poetry. In a time of Europhobia in Britain this is all the more reason to buy and read the essayist Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Kate Briggs contributes a wonderful book (sort of) on translation called This Little Art. She begins in a section of Thomas Mann’s genius novel, The Magic Mountain. It is a dramatic opening, it grabs you and pulls you in. But the story twists into that of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann and her villification after her death.

‘No poem is intended for the reader’ Benjamin once wrote, in his own meditation on translation, but Briggs points out how the ‘little art’ of translation carries big risks. The underpaid, unacknowledged and ignored craftspeople that are translators carry huge burdens and risks along with their joys. Rilke’s translations into English by J.B. Leishman have been similarly villified. These are stigmas that travel beyond death. I have a copy of ‘The Rilke of Ruth Speirs’. The title says, essentially, ‘the proper stuff, not that other shit’.

A dangerous game for no stakes, this is truly the zone of the ‘committed’. Briggs cites a translation of Deleuze by Hugh Tomlinson. Coincidentally, my friend Robert Galeta translated some of the Deleuze editions after Hugh could no longer do it. He tells me, ‘I went grey doing it’. Imagine then being pilloried for your efforts.

In medieval times a Bard could sing a Queen or King into 1000 years of hell. In an unliterate culture they made songs that would outlive the mortal life of its targets. It could put an entire family into a ‘spell’ that persisted for generations. Here I sing Briggs into the opposite, into a song that I hope will carry this book through many reprints and editions.

Briggs describes translating Barthes. But she is navigating Paris, going to libraries, looking at Barthes old apartment, thinking about the people she sees, feeling, reflecting. Briggs puts shoes on, cooks, teaches. She is a human being. The chapters of this book both are and are not about translation, because like translation itself they draw on all the skills and experiences a human has, right to the edge of their consciousness. Because of this, I am reminded of my own reading of psychoanalytical texts often, when reading Briggs.

Kate Briggs is an explorer of her own under-read zones, as well as her over-read exterior, which is littered with Barthes and Benjamin on reading lists as though first year undergrads – and often many of their university tutors – straightforwardly know what those texts contain.

Briggs describes Robinson Crusoe making a table for the first time in his life. I have done this, I am the kind of pretentious pervert who will make furniture and fail fifteen times before getting something that works. It is the only way to learn properly. But like a bad translator, I am failing the original here. You just have to, in the case of Briggs’ book, read the original. It is deeply, velvety rich and utterly life-affirming.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism is also a cornucopia of sorts. It argues for the flaws of the essay, for its speculative, hedging, unfinished nature, as its virtue. This is a theme of these editions. That doing scholarship and writing is not something undertaken by Uberhumans beamed down from Planet Academic with everything and some other stuff that nobody knows yet uploaded into their swollen skulls. Out students don’t live in this reality enough. Academics don’t speak honestly about that reality enough.

Ben Lerner’s book on poetry argues that we might engage with poetry through the negative. This isn’t quite Hegel via the Frankfurt School, the negative he describes is closer to the word ‘HATE’ written in white paint on a leather biker jacket. After being immersed in intolerably polite Manchester Literature Festival events, this is a wonderful read. Who says the literature scene must be polite clapping and cups of tea? At this point in history, why wouldn’t the discussion of literature that is often so fluffy it barely touches the world be characterised only by seething invective? However, this is to reduce Lerner’s argument a great deal. He begins hating poetry and urges us, in a Beckett-like way, to ‘hate better’. In between these almost identical poles there lies a fecund meditation on poetry.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit prefigures Pretentiousness, by Dan Fox. This book is also very un-British, as it calls for fabulation in the face of the British climate of dumbed-down, stylistically lumpen miserablism. If I have a worry here it is that the book dovetails too easily with ‘play’ and its origins in horrors such as Playpower by Richard Neville. They didn’t play where I grew up, they were slowly ground down in twelve hour shifts, six days a week, and that was down to another very British thing, class. But then I know from emerging out of the working classes that you get called a ‘clever bastard’. Is there an equivalent phrase in French? I don’t know.

But these books make you think. They don’t just drone information at you. These books take risks. They blend serious scholarship with a human voice. British academia has for too long been a blend of its past in an empirico-logico-utilitarianism that does not really exist outside of its texts and its present in an Americanised vaguely po-mo ‘liberalism’. These books are not some middle way between the two, they just ignore all that and begin where they stand. For that alone I applaud all the authors under review here.

This does not mean they are uncitable, dangerous curveballs from the world beyond Truth. It means that they are a little more Real than all the other rubbish pouring out of academic publishers. This is not to denigrate the few percent of incredible, lightning work emerging from academic publishers. But it is a percentage. You know the other books too well: The literature review with an argument imposed on it, rather than an argument being made from long messy immersion in the world, as the scholarship was done.

We are going to need Fitzcarraldo Editions on this island much more in times to come.

The Split Open Centre

Steve Hanson – A Book of the Broken Middle (Fold Press)

‘These are Roman, whipping times, the day burns like an oven.’ These are terms of Steve Hanson’s latest academic monograph: that we live in times of tribulation, of apocalyptic urgency. Offered as a purgative to the complacency of academic writing, A Book of the Broken Middle is a tapestry of interwoven quotations from the Bible, William Blake, Gilgamesh and the works of seventeenth century Ranter Abiezer Cobbe, all brought together and translated into Yorkshire dialect. Drawing on the insights of theologian Gillian Rose, whose late-in-life works abandoned formal modes in favour of memoir and personal revelation, Hanson’s work defies academic tradition without losing sight of what is at stake in our theorising.

Far from the sociological subject matter of his previous book, Small Towns, Austere Times (Zero, 2014), this is a work of furious anger and visceral imagery. The grammar is that of the King James Version, but all mention to God has been stripped out and all heavens and hells have turned to metaphor. The result is what Canon Andrew Shanks, in his wonderful foreword, describes as “a sacramental enactment of negative theology… the pure element of the sublime” (p.18).

The rich and the hypocrites receive a verbal beating as one might expect, but so do liars, cheats and manipulators, the prideful and decadent who our modern economy has normalised and celebrated.

Hanson has stripped out the misogyny and homophobia of the official canon and somehow kept that Old Testament moral fury. It’s a fury which drives many writers of critical theory, although the polished surfaces of their texts might not show it. This, at least, is the gambit of Hanson’s offering; that a return of the Ranters is possible, this time against the Church of current academic form.

It’s pocket-sized, like a holy hand grenade, and packed with enough tight prose to keep a confirmed atheist hooked. This is not the ‘fancy music fer few ere’s’ (p.26) that Amos rails against, although it may very well be a voice in the wilderness. A brave experiment, of which we need more.

– Joe Darlington