Best Foot Forward

Roland Topor – Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Andrew Hodgson, trans. Atlas Press, 2018)

An individual shoe, as Steve Hanson noted, is funny. Why it’s funny is anyone’s guess. More mysteriously, the presence of two shoes is not twice as funny, but entirely mundane.

Feet, shoes, legs, whether in pairs or standing solitary, clearly hold some unconscious power. A potential that surrealists have long tapped into. Think of Dali’s crutches, the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Noises for the Leg”, or Ed Barton’s poetry collection, Bad Leg.

Roland Topor’s surrealist novella, Portrait en pied de Suzanne (1978), is a love letter to the phantasmic foot. A dreamlike journey through an unnamed Eastern European capital, the story follows a gastronomic obsessive as he guzzles eggs, offends crowds, buys shoes that don’t fit, and eventually falls in love.

The journey is surprising, shocking, laugh-out-loud funny and over far too quickly. Topor, a playwright and master satirist, knows always to leave us wanting more.

Topor’s work is little known in the Anglophone world. His bug-eyed, cigar-chomping visage that graces the front cover of the book will feel oddly familiar, especially for fans of Werner Herzog who cast him in his Nosferatu.

Only a small portion of his broad and eccentric body of work – including art, literature, music and theatre – has ever been translated into English. From his early work on Hara-Kiri, the precursor to Charlie Hebdo, to his novel The Tenant that was adapted by Roman Polanski, Topor’s work presents a strange but highly entertaining body of French literature waiting to be discovered.

Andrew Hodgson, the translator of this new book, describes the renewed interest in Topor’s work currently sweeping Paris, Topor’s adopted home city. It is his hope that this new translation will bring Topor-fever across the channel. Fast-paced, clear and uncomplicated, Hodgson’s prose has its own momentum and it carries the reader along with it.

As so much of the Head-to-Toe Portrait depends upon surprise for its effects, I am hesitant to write too much about its contents. Instead, I’ll offer you the image of a sexually agitated fat man pulling his own foot off. Picture this in your mind. If it raises a smile, you’ll love this book.

The journey to this image is hilarious, and the places to which it leads afterwards are even more quirky and enjoyable.

The book itself is short, less than a hundred pages, and is accompanied by Topor’s original illustrations. This makes it the perfect entertainment for a rainy afternoon or a long train journey. The kind of book that you can read in one sitting, or lend to a friend and get back the next day.

At the very least I feel this book will initiate a new Roland Topor cult following within hip circles, although its humour is broad and accessible enough for a wide audience. A seriously wild ride, and a perfect first step into Toporland, Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne is one of the most original works to cross the channel all year.

– Joe Darlington

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Love in a warm climate

Stephen Hale – Sigi and the Italian Girl (2018)

The first novel by Manchester-based writer Stephen Hale transports us to the small hillside Italian village of Madonna del Bosco.

Though fictional – or perhaps a composite of real places – it’s grounded in Hale’s own experiences of living and working in Italy. This sensual novel displays a deep knowledge of the region’s landscape and culture and a clear affection for ways of life in rural Italy.

Hale also takes us back in time. Firstly, to 1944, when Madonna del Bosco is occupied by German soldiers – the story is told from the viewpoint of the titular Sigi, a naïve nineteen-year-old army officer – and secondly to 2010, when we’re introduced to his grandson, British single dad Ben, who has his own story to tell.

The characters speak in impressively polyglot voices, and the narrative moves seamlessly between the past and the present.

The wartime story is far removed from the frontline. Instead of fighting, we’re presented with bureaucracy and boredom. This war plays out in everyday life, and through small acts of resistance, rather than through direct action.

In the contemporary story, meanwhile, recently widowed Ben has relocated from London in search of a better life for him and his young son, also named Sigi.

Both stories share a sense of being away from home – or finding a home – and navigating the strangeness of a new culture. The importance of friendship comes across strongly, and finding commonality across cultural and generational distances; Hale deals adeptly with memory and its transmission. Both men – grandfather and grandson – fall in love in Madonna del Bosco, each relationship encountering its own challenges, although the outcomes are very different.

Despite its references to Italian neorealism, Sigi and the Italian Girl avoids cliché and sentimentality. Although the ending to old Sigi’s story comes as no particular surprise – I felt myself willing it to end differently – it leaves us to form our own conclusions about the characters’ motivations. The book suggests that there’s no such thing as clear cut goodies or baddies, or rigid ethical and moral codes. Hale passes no judgement on the characters: we are invited to make up our own minds. Sigi and the Italian Girl makes the case that most of us are neither heroic nor cowardly, but somewhere in between.

– Natalie Bradbury

Ziggy Played Guitar

Jason Heller – Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded (Melville House, 2018)

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which is to say that when it’s done well it is a rare and captivating thing. Who wouldn’t want to see a jitterbug about Vetruvius?

Jason Heller’s new book Strange Stars is a work of thrilling scale and intricacy. A study of science fiction’s influence on 1970s music, it is rammed with fascinating details while still being thoroughly readable. A ballet about Gaudi, if you will.

The study is bookended by Bowie songs. It opens with the first appearance of Major Tom. 1969’s “Space Oddity”, written coincide with the moon landings is a critical moment in the creation of space sound. It ends with Major Tom’s drug-addled return in 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes”. Bowie is the thread that ties to whole together.

But Bowie is only part of the story. His gender-bending spaceman Ziggy may have popularized the sci-fi song but it was already well on its way to chart recognition in the works of the Byrds, Joe Meek, Jefferson Airplane and even Jimi Hendrix.

“Purple Haze,” as Heller describes in a fascinating first chapter, began its life as a long poem. Hendrix wrote it after being inspired by a 1957 novel, Night of Light, by Philip José Farmer. The former paratrooper and guitar maestro was, like many of his generation, a total sci-fi nut.

The list of sci-fi influenced artists is long and crosses multiple genres and styles. From the jazz of Sun Ra came the funk of George Clinton and late 1970s Afrofuturist electro hits like “Freak-a-zoid”. The sci-fi silliness of the psychedelic 1960s inspired prog (Yes, King Crimson, Rush), hard rock (Deep Purple, Hawkwind), heavy metal (Motorhead, Black Sabbath), and even soft rock in the form of crooner Gary Wright’s catchy pop ballad “Dream Weaver”.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had reading this book, lying on the sofa with YouTube open on your phone, listening to tracks that you thought you knew off by heart only to discover that they were about space ships and moon men all along.

Many of these songs can be written off as 1970s era silliness (especially the many naff disco records made to cash in off Star Wars), but as Heller makes clear, all this stargazing does make a lasting impact on music.

The influence is undeniable when it comes to synths and the progression towards a more electronic sound. Many early synth bands drew inspiration from space and starships (I highly recommend the French band Droid and their single “Do You Have the Force?”). The legacy of New Wave sci-fi is critical here, however.

Michael Moorcock, himself an honorary member of Hawkwind, turned New Worlds into an unusual thing: a sci-fi magazine uninterested in space. Writers like J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and John M Harrison gave birth to a new sci-fi, one focused on contemporary visions of apocalypse. Humanity will be unlikely to reach space, they implied. We will destroy ourselves before then.

The most hopeful future for humans in this bleak techno-wasteland comes from posthumanism; the merging of flesh and circuitry. Kraftwerk, electronic pioneers, adopted the posthuman look wholeheartedly, although it was also flirted with by Joy Division and donned in a playful manner by Devo.

Heller makes the convincing case that the development of synths as instruments in their own right is tied inextricably to the rise of sci-fi music. These artists didn’t want to sound like electric versions of existing instruments, they wanted to sound like the future.

In fact, the only musical genre in the 1970s not to feature its own array of space cadets and starship troopers was punk. Even then, the occasional single like the Only One’s “Another Girl, Another Planet” couldn’t help but feature a few rocket ships and supernovas.

Interestingly, for sci-fi fans, musicians seemed disinterested in the civil war that was being fought within the genre at this time. By the late sixties the hard sci-fi of Asimov and Heinlein was displaced by the New Wave. By the end of the next decade, however, shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos had made hard science cool again and the works of Robert L Forward and, once again, Robert A Heinlein, were back on top.

David Bowie didn’t take sides. He’d quote Heinlein and Ballard in the same sentence, Burroughs and Orwell in the same song. Where Bowie led, the rest followed, and sci-fi music is all the richer for it.

More than anything, Strange Stars is great fun. Brilliantly written and comprehensive in its scope. With Christmas coming up it’s a perfect present for Dad as well!

Forget dancing about architecture, singing about sci-fi is my new jam.

– Joe Darlington

Bombs and Balaclavas

Joseph Darlington – British Terrorists Novels of the 1970s (Palgrave)

I am reading ‘Lorna Doone’
and a life of John Most
terror of the industrialist
a bomb on his desk at all times

– Ferlinghetti, ‘Autobiography’

This is an insightfully produced, thoughtful work for such an explosive subject. Darlington sets up the context well in brief, the creation of the terrorist as we understand it also rose with the nation state as we imagine it.

For me, Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities lurks just under the surface here, as Anderson explains how ‘the world’ comes into being through literature, for a historically unworldly humanity, as modernity develops. Darlington adds that you need a real and imagined state to then have enemies of it.

The structure and clarity of this book is superb. But the journey it takes you on is also entertaining and challenges some of the perhaps more naive habits of the subject. For instance, Darlington refuses to put terrorism in scare quotes as “terrorism”, avoiding the sometimes ludicrous radical posturing to be found in some academic texts.

He sides with granting his readers the intelligence to decide where the distinction lies and is confident in his abilities as a writer to convey his own judgements.

Darlington actually contributes a chapter which I think might explain the origins of some of that radical posturing and it is the relationship between the counterculture and the ‘urban guerrilla’ – many thinkers went through the counterculture and into academia.

This chapter deals with the – by comparison with the RAF in Germany and others – almost pet British leftwing terrorist group The Angry Brigade. The sense of the surface of the 1970s is strongly captured here. It makes me remember that the English rock band Hawkwind produced a single called ‘Urban Guerrilla’ in 1975 which was withdrawn Clockwork Orange-style as it charted:

‘I’m an urban guerrilla, I make bombs in my cellar, I’m a derelict dweller, I’m a potential killer […] So let’s not talk of love and flowers and things that don’t explode, you know we used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road.’

It isn’t Joseph Conrad, it isn’t even Tom Sharpe, but it shows that the ‘countercultural nasty’ – Manson and The Family, the bad hippies in Dirty Harry movies – were one thing in America and quite another in Britain. Darlington’s chapter fleshes out my skeletal understanding of this immensely.

Here the link between Darlington’s earlier work – which this book grew out of – becomes clearer. He began by reading popular fiction to take time off from the experimental works of the 60s and 70s which his PhD thesis covers: We have a reading addict on our hands here.

Jeff Nuttall and B.S. Johnson are covered, Snipes’ Spinster by the former and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by the latter. The milder revolt of sticking two fingers up to the establishment are definitely part of the discourse here, what I might coin a ‘Vaudeville of the Absurd’.

But the book doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of the terrorist subject at all, as the excellent chapter on Ireland and the IRA shows. The chapter on The Angry Brigade etc is also carefully judged, it isn’t flippant at all.

A key strength of the book is the way in which it picks up each facet of the subject and examines it, creating a rich view of the whole strange but solid prism. That Darlington shows it to be both solid and light-bending is all of the work, and it is work carried out with erudition, wit and style.

In the chapter on post-colonial terrorist fictions, the structures of feeling this book captures really become explicit. There is a turn to a helpless state agent figure in the face of the shifting world of 1970s oil politics. This figure seems like one of mass psychoanalysis as the cold war slowly thaws in the heat of hot wars in hot places.

This chapter seems to link back to Darlington’s introductory remarks about how terrorism changed across the years during which he wrote this book – from Al-Qaeda to ISIS – and how it will therefore always morph into new shapes in relation to the geopolitical environments of the future. This chapter feels very ‘now’.

The confidence displayed in this book is well-earned and deserved. Darlington makes more modest claims where he needs to and similarly bucks pointless trends. He clearly enjoys the subject, yet has a bird’s eye view of it that is distant enough to see the big contours jutting out through the subject – the discourses that can only be fleetingly glimpsed up close. The conclusion is clear, decisive and compact.

It is useful, too, this book, at lots of different scales. Turn to Netflix and you will find scores of terrorist films, as though the golden age of 1970s terrorist literature is being replayed there, via the big VHS cassette boxes of the 1980s video rental store, now miniaturised as gaudy pixel buttons.

The point to make is that this book is as useful to film studies as it is to literature studies and politics. It would also serve a more avid but non-academic cineaste well.

As Darlington produces his terrorist taxonomy – and I’m sure it isn’t his intention at all – I imagine that one could start to write new terrorist fiction by reading this book. Recalibrate the structures, swap tropes and begin.

But the book has a wider overall effect on me that is a mark of its quality. Some writers, it doesn’t matter what they cover, or how narrowly they focus, always give you the world through any subject.

I finish the book feeling that the limits of my world are the limits of what I can know and that what I can know is seriously restricted by the media environment I am in. A historical and philosophical work then, too. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson