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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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

Like a Wasp in a Jam Jar

John Sutherland – The Good Brexiteer’s Guide To English Lit (Reaktion, 2018)

Sutherland explains that Brexit is marked by its lack of depth. It has no thinkers. So he tries to put the syllabus back into Brexit with what he claims is a single undergraduate year’s worth of reading list and guidance relating to the current ‘geist‘.

Sutherland starts with the Danegold as a kind of Viking tribute or taxation, and Malory’s Death of Arthur, which contains a curt fuck-you to Papal (i.e ‘Johnny Foreigner’) tax collectors.

Then he moves on to Norman taxation and the Wakefield Mystery Plays as two fingers up to the corrupt squires. This rotten gentry is reincarnated in modern day cads such as the sadly still Sir Philip Green. The Brexiteer supposedly rises up against these awful, rotten ‘elites’ with a confused inconsistency and possibly a pinch of bleak antisemitism.

There’s something a bit 1066 and All That about Sutherland’s book, but it is infinitely funnier and richer. It is very accessible, but he demonstrates – without ever having to say it directly – that our cultural landscape is certifiably nuttier than a container ship full of Snickers. And now, with extra nuts.

Sutherland raids even the tiny details. He explores ‘Jack’ as a name loaded with Englishness. The giant is killed by Jack, the giant that ‘smells the blood of an Englishman’ and this fairy tale re-appears in King Lear, as Edgar recites it, pretending to be Poor Mad Tom. Then there’s Jack-be-nimble, the Jolly Jack Tar, Jack the Ripper, et al. Although Sutherland doesn’t explain why Jack is short for John, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Yes, Sutherland takes you to the place where this thing that gets called ‘our culture’ seems either a bit mad, quite whiffy, or both. ‘English Literature’ always sounded a bit jingoistic already to me and when you learn that a lot of good Welsh stuff got nicked by the English – Sutherland doesn’t go into this, but he could have – you realise that it essentially is.

Brexit isn’t directly linked to specific bodies of literature, it is true, but it is linked to what I call ‘the tropescape’ – when talking to myself in my own head – a thin fleshy membrane that appears to connect any subject to its deeper structures. The tropescape is always there, and Nigel Farage knows how to call it forth with a single signifier, a photograph of himself in the papers wearing a Battle of Hastings tie, or a union jack hat.

John Crace coins ‘The Maybot’, Prime Minister Theresa May as a faulty droid, and it sticks. Here is the tropescape in action. On the other side of the political argument, May is characterised as steely Boudicca, defender of her people under attack from foreign influence. The tropescape is the mythical landscape at the other side of reality, accessed through the shibboleth of connotations in objects with meaning.

Sutherland explains the bizarre restoration of Boudicca in the nineteenth century, re-loaded with all kinds of meanings, and the obvious link now is the ‘repelling of foreign parasites’. In Boudicca’s times this meant the literally rapacious Roman Empire. Now, it is the terrible European Union with its savage imposition of slightly weaker vaccum cleaners.

What the EU has done to the European south goes way beyond electrical appliance regulation of course, but this never appears in the Brexiteer critique, as that would mean a leftist defence of border policing and refugee crises. However, Sutherland’s skill is to take the subject some distance into comedy, but not all the way, and to structure the results as a guide book. This is much more effective rhetoric than the blunt line I deployed at the start of this paragraph.

Sutherland claims to be scoring an own goal as a remain voter, giving the ‘Good Brexiteer’ a guide to literary heroes, but his secret mission is always near the surface, even if it only appears as a single periscope eye, occasionally winking.

These figures are given to the ‘Good Brexiteer’ as plain awful, or just stuffy. Here, have Larkin. Jane Austen is presented as English to the core: ‘Miss Austen was bottled up in England like a wasp in a jam jar’, he says. The odd historical Remainer is parachuted in, for instance Dickens is included as an anti-Brexiteer Francophile.

‘Get your damn clammy hands off Dickens’ he seems to be saying, and I’m right behind you John. Although Dickens did support, along with Carlyle and Ruskin, the Governor of Jamaica Edward Eyre, over the Morant Bay Rebellion. Eyre had slaves flogged and killed. But this just seems to prove Sutherland’s broad argument all the more, most British literature before post-colonial inclusiveness carries the whiff of amorality along with it, only to greater or lesser degrees.

Nigel Farage’s favourite book is The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sutherland skewers this book along with Rider Haggard’s awful racial superiority. Sutherland reminds us what a thoroughly loathsome Powellite Farage is. He describes him as genuinely witty, but also shines a light on his awful, grimy nationalism. That he does this and keeps us laughing and learning all the way through is beyond the merely commendable. The hidden agenda is human, measured and executed with humility and great humour.

But this is not just a throwaway holiday read: I think what bleeds out from under the later sections of the book – Rider Haggard, Buchan – is the Empire and its crisis in WWI. Here is Paul Gilroy’s ‘post-colonial melancholia’. This is the unconscious hangover of the Brexiteer and this is why fictions such as Haggard’s and Buchan’s could easily wrap around these mournful figures.

But what is interesting to me about this is that there is a double movement involved now, as people seem to simultaneously retrench into the island and bemoan the loss of expansionism and triumphalism in one.

There are far too many examples to cover here, Sutherland moves through the history of Eng. Lit. up to Martin Amis’s London Fields. He covers Dracula as the Vampiric Romanian at a time when tens of thousands of Romanian workers labour in London. The joy of this book is in exploring it and I don’t want to ruin that.

What Sutherland’s secret critique also seems to say is ‘look, even I can do your cultural rhetoric for you’, the stuff the Brexiteers don’t have the imagination for.

So he sets it up for them like a little toy train set, only to derail the whole thing with satire right in front of their eyes. It’s a kind of very long ‘duh!’ only using words such as ‘supranational’ and ‘galliambic’.

Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing. But Kafka once said something along the lines of ‘in the office always smile, it is the only good work done there’. I have shifted this advice away from the office and onto Brexit (how would Kafka have voted?)

To quote another so-called ‘literary’ figure Sutherland might have included in the Brexit canon, Steven Patrick Morrissey, ‘I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible’: Sutherland has moved the subject on into humour; Brexit will still provide aftershock after aftershock, but I’m hanging out with the joker in the pack, it’s much more fun there.

– Steve Hanson

 

Of Freedom, Fornication and Flatulence

Anthony Burgess, Andrew Biswell and Germaine Greer – Obscenity and the Arts (Pariah Press, 2018)

Malta in 1968 should have been a haven for Anthony Burgess. More Catholic than the Pope (Malta, like Burgess, resented Pope John XIII’s modernising reforms), a tax haven (British ex-pats were taxed only 6 pence in the pound), and filled with the kind of vibrant, sunsoaked culture he had longed for back in stodgy old Britain. If Burgess designed heaven, it would look like Malta.

One can imagine his chagrin upon arrival as he was caught up in a minor fracas over vehicle registration and a major fracas over forty-seven books from his private library. Seized by the censor for obscenities as diverse as sex, drugs, blasphemy, homosexuality and feminism, the books were sent away to be burned as Burgess, a lifelong enemy of censorship, trembled with rage.

To cap it all, his own novel Tremor of Intent would be seized by the censor under its French title, Un Agent Qui Vous Veut du Bien, and burned for its depravity, while the same book was thoroughly commended under its Dutch title Martyrenes Blod, or, “Martyr’s Blood”.

Filled with liberal zeal, Burgess began a letter writing campaign, was interviewed for the local Maltese papers and delivered with a public lecture under the juicy title “Obscenity and the Arts”. It is this lecture which is the centrepiece of Pariah Press’s new book.

Improvised in a typically Burgessian manner, the lecture itself feels like a series of polished witticisms strung together around a central theme. It lacks the unity of his written essays, but is perhaps more energetic, and more direct in its assertions as a result. His trusty thesaurus is left on the shelf.

A biographical introduction from Andrew Biswell accompanies the essay and does an excellent job not only of situating the lecture but also the importance of Malta and battles over censorship in the life of Burgess overall. This is accompanied by some nicely reproduced photographs and two interviews with Burgess taken from Maltese papers.

The second part of the book is a response to Burgess by the renowned feminist scholar Germaine Greer. As much a passionate advocate of free speech as Burgess, Greer takes the author to task for the manner of his defence. The result is a fascinating demonstration of how two writers can agree upon a position in deeply conflicting ways.

Burgess’s love of free speech is rooted in a respect for free will. By an idiosyncratic welding of Catholic doctrine onto English liberalism, Burgess decrees that to ban a book is to limit the free choice of evil, and that it is the divine possibility of choosing good that distinguishes Catholic spirituality from brute materialism. A Catholic government that bans books denies free will, and so cannot be said to be Catholic at all.

The Maltese government would certainly have disagreed with Burgess’ theologising. Such arguments are, after all, much more the line of John Stuart Mill than the Gospel According to John. This is perhaps why Burgess sets aside theory and argues by example; why not ban the bloodthirsty Shakespeare, or the purgative Swift, or the carnal Rabelais? For their obscenity has value, and moral value at that.

Burgess draws a line between the improving arts, which challenge and provoke, and pornography which has a purely mechanical function. Neither, Burgess argues, should be banned, for it is up to the individual to distinguish the one from the other: something a semi-literate clerk in the censorship office is certainly not qualified to do for us.

Here enters Greer. Greer’s arguments, to the modern reader, are equally idiosyncratic, if slightly more sympathetic than Burgess’s. She argues the counterculturalist’s case for obscenity as in-itself valuable (as Burgess swanned around Malta, she points out, the editors of Oz magazine were facing prison time for publishing cartoons) and that, done properly, obscene material can act as a kind of aversion therapy.

It is when Greer takes Burgess to task for condemning the practice of shitting on someone’s doorstep (perfectly acceptable in some countries, we are told), that Greer’s argument shows its limits. Sixties-type permissiveness, we are reminded, often enjoys its own contrarian provocations to the point of destroying its own arguments. Better to blow minds than change them.

Greer’s feminism acts as a counterbalance to this tendency in her writing, however. Condemning porn’s ready availability, she demonstrates its exploitative practices through her own outrageous treatment by her male co-editors at Suck magazine. What matters, she argues, is not the freedom to indulge obscenity, but cultivating the self-awareness necessary not to be depraved by it.

The real meat of Obscenity and the Arts is this tension between voices in agreement. Government censorship, as Biswell points out, is now largely a thing of the past. The argument for free speech has been won, largely through the negative critique of government ineptitude.

Positive critique, however, seems to have slipped by the wayside in recent years. The default position of many young people at university today is a form of soft neo-Puritanism that sees no benefit to hearing out other opinions and tolerates free speech purely because they are against the return of bans. It doesn’t help that the case for free speech is so often taken up by right wing blowhards that it has become synonymous with them in a highly regrettable manner.

This book is not a comment on these contemporary issues, but in its arguments (and Adam Griffith’s artistic responses, also included) there is a certain timeless provocation. In the face of public shaming, both the obscene and the anti-social must be defended.

I highly recommend this book. It is a beautiful object and compulsively readable. It also fits perfectly inside your jacket pocket, guaranteeing that you won’t be able put it down.

Joe Darlington

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.2

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

A good review can bear a little preamble. It can tell some home truths, and sustain a little storytelling of its own.

The role of the reviewer, as m’colleague Steve Hanson made clear in the first of these Burgessian reflections, is primarily to entertain the reader. The charming delineation of a work’s positives and the witty rebuke of its negatives provoke a particular pleasure; the exercise of the critical faculty in the cultivation of taste, as Addison might put it.

But there is an additional pleasure to be gained from what this volume’s editor, Will Carr, has grouped under the heading “journalism”, and that is the joy of intelligence unbound by rigour. The strictures of academic writing and review strike out a large portion of what really makes literature enjoyable: the anecdotes, the sensations, and the unsupportable opinions. The review has no such strictures.

Burgess was a great yarn spinner, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Ink Trade offers us a collection of anecdotes that are so funny, insightful or memorable that a reader will enjoy them in spite of their very likely apocryphal nature.

The young Samuel Beckett, Burgess would have us believe, walked around Paris in shoes so tiny that they damaged his feet; all to impress his hero, James Joyce. Joyce was apparently so proud of his small feet that he regularly boasted about them.

This is the same Beckett who preferred the sports pages to poetry and who, in Burgess’ mind, not only became a naturalized Frenchman but was always, in fact, a Frenchman. A child of the Huguenots, Burgess tells us, who only happened to be born in Ireland, and whose Protestantism dragged him back to his true homeland as soon as he had graduated from the (also Protestant) Trinity College.

We learn too of Shakespeare meeting Cervantes. If the King’s Men travelled to Valladolid as part of the peace delegation of 1605, and the writer of the Quixote had also been at court then, by pure coincidence, the two great founders of modern literature would have met.

They would, of course, have spoken in Arabic; Cervantes learning it as a slave and Shakespeare picking it up on a trip to Tangier with the Earl of Southampton. Perhaps they theorized about a great author who would write of this meeting in centuries to come? It is just as likely.

To defend Burgess against the charge of bullshitmongery, he is usually very clear, when slipping into the anecdotal mode, to make the reader aware of this. His tone of address brings the reader in, puts a linguistical arm around them and assures them that this part of the review is just between ourselves; a bit of after dinner gossip that the bores at the university would rather us not share.

The success of Burgess’ journalistic voice is its ability to move between the informal and the insightful with very little friction. Reading the collection, you will encounter narratology, insights into character, musical theory, phonetics and a wealth of psychological, historical and cultural knowledge which reinforces his personal reveries and reflections.

This is perhaps why I can disagree with Burgess’ opinions a solid third of the time while also thoroughly enjoying the way in which he expresses them.

In the essay “The Academic Critic and the Living Writer”, published in 1986, Burgess reflects upon academics as being the true allies of creative writers, where critics, reviewers, journalists – whatever you want to call them – are mercenary jackals, only out for blood. To share an anecdote of my own, I was once informed that Burgess regularly attended symposia about his own works, and enthusiastically took notes as academics interpreted his novels. They, he conceded, knew better how to analyse the work; he only knew how to create it.

In the modern era, however, I feel the tables have turned. Literary criticism as it appears in the journals, and as imposed by the peer-review system, favours the political dismantling of writers’ work and careers over the appreciation of its form and beauty. Our literary theory is often more slogan than aphorism.

If we are to begin appreciating authors again, it might be that a return to reading reviews (ideally those by authors, rather than aspiring politicians) will help us to rekindle the dying flame of aesthetic appreciation. There is certainly something in The Ink Trade which encourages you. Burgess’ generosity abounds from the page such that we, too, as readers, respond with generosity, even when he’s clearly talking rubbish.

Carr has achieved a heroic feat in the editing of this book. From the vast mountain of Burgess’ non-fiction writing he has curated a selection that is intensely readable, pleasantly eclectic, and balances the published and the unpublished in such a way that those who have read all of Burgess’ previous collections will enjoy this book as much as the newcomer.

After summing up the book at hand, the reviewer should then end on a pithy statement. Such would be fitting; to walk in Burgess’ shoes. Let us hope that they fit.

– Joe Darlington

The Burgess Reviews Reviews No.1

Anthony Burgess – The Ink Trade, Selected Journalism 1961-1993 (Carcanet, edited by Will Carr, 2018)

This book pulls some previously uncollected as well as unpublished Burgess reviews into one volume.

Orwell once described the reviewer as ‘pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.’ So here I am, tipping a half of something smooth and costly – in the eternal sense – down the sewer right in front of you – a review of a book of reviews.

In fact, Manchester Review of Books – being Manchester Review of Books – might give you a few pints of it and send you home tipsy. Several of our reviewers are covering this, Burgess is important to us, and to the city.

When I was an undergraduate a housemate had a dictionary with a quote from a review on the inside of the dust jacket: ‘This is a fine dictionary’ it said, and it was signed Anthony Burgess.

We thought it was hilarious, it seemed to be evidence of completely fickle hackwork for what might have been called, in the early 60s, ‘payola’. But this book stands that group of cheeky undergrads absolutely corrected.

Burgess was a notorious reviewer, make no mistake. At times the practice took a large percentage of his time and work. But this is not hackwork.

The introduction here does discuss whether or not Burgess took this form of critical writing seriously. He once claimed he was stopping, then didn’t. He was sacked for reviewing his own book in the Yorkshire Post, or rather a pseudonymous Enderby title.

That review kicks off this collection, and I actually believe Burgess when he says he thought the editor was in on the joke – it’s much more than self-deprecating as a review.

He actually urges his readers to avoid the book more than to buy it, although perhaps in a way which recommends its cruder aspects to certain readers.

Burgess’s reviewing was promiscuous. He took on assignments for Country Life that led to an understanding of all kinds of things he wouldn’t otherwise seek out, stable management, embroidery.

But Burgess explains this as the stuff of novelists, the detail, the authenticity fuel. He also covered Levi-Strauss for Country Life, get that – because nobody else wanted to – leading to a serious interest in his work and to the novel M/F.

The review here titled The Corruption of the Exotic is offered as evidence that Burgess was interested in Levi-Strauss before that Country Life article, although you have to peer in and squint to really see it.

Burgess’s assignments were in some ways his second university, although he gloats about being one gig away from a completely free city of food, theatre, cinema, and I guess the unspoken Burgess essential ingredient, booze.

The review of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano is great, it makes me want to read all the other Lowry (I haven’t, only UTV). The Lowry review also contains one of Burgess’s many final sign-off lines: The single sentence diamonds.

Here it is ‘industry and longevity are no substitute for genius’ and a few reviews later ‘only the very bad writer is always absolutely sure of the value of what he is doing.’

So true.

But the Lowry review is chilling at this point in history – in 2018 – as Burgess cracks the relationship between the doomed ex-pat of the novel, dissipated and bent on death, the nihilist and ‘the choice that Europe, in the thirties, had already made.’

The war in Spain, Germany, and the colonial entropy. Orwell seems to hang over this point and Orwell emerges again during Burgess’s take on Why I Write, although this piece contains no nod to Orwell whatsoever.

It is a lesser fragment, clearly the start of something larger that was never finished. But at the end of the day, Burgess is always excellent as Burgess.

It actually doesn’t really matter if you’re interested in the book under review or not. He always has a pithy digression and cultural supplement to pop in your mouth. He has a juicy bit of gossip and a rootle around down the armchair for some historical artefacts.

It doesn’t really matter where you are in this book either, you can open it and ‘just start’. You could just buy this book as an introduction to great culture, full stop.

It could easily serve as intelligent holiday reading, and I don’t mean that as a slur, although doubtless AB would have taken it as one.

Or, alternately, ‘this is a fine dictionary’.

– Steve Hanson

To read or not to read

Alejandro Zambra – Not To Read (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

This is my first exposure to the Chilean writer and critic Alejandro Zambra who – as translator Megan McDowell explains – would much rather talk about Nicanor Parra than Garcia Marquez, and based on this introduction I am hoping to be able to read a hell of a lot more of him.

This is a great introduction, too, with its short sections. But each mini essay has a depth and purpose other writers would struggle to fit into a chapter. That Zambra does this with a breezy and sometimes cheeky style is kind of miraculous.

I see parallels with Nicanor Parra, when Parra writes that it’s really all the same if god exists or not, Zambra seems to have the same mix of gravity and levity.

‘Against Poets’ presents a picture of the archetypal bard starting out and then reaching mid-life, ‘they didn’t decide to become poets just so they could be forty years old’ he writes, with irreverence, but at the end concludes that these people are the saviours of the world. Again, gravity and levity fuse.

Via this short, humorous piece we get a sense of the longer tradition of poetry, as something to settle into, a thing of temporality that started before you and will go on after you. I sense this book – already far more well known outside Britain – has the same function. As Megan McDowell explains ‘we write to multiply ourselves’, in a search for a collective spirit.

The text is crystal clear and fresh, a thing of joy. The titles invite you in with their everydayness, ‘Other People’s Mail’ for instance and ‘In Praise of the Photocopy’. In the latter piece Zambra mentions Barthes and there’s a sense of Barthes refreshed in the style and brevity of these short essayistic pieces, Mythologies particularly.

The piece that bears the title of the collection is wonderful. Zambra takes pleasure in all the books he will never read, all the things he won’t have to read.

This assumption, sort-of lurking under the surface of academic life, ‘if only we could read everything’ is exposed for what it is, impossible and not actually desirable. I am coming out and saying that I will never read Giddens’ two volumes on historical materialism, since I got as far as the bit that completely rubbishes surplus value from out of nowhere.

I am now enjoying the fact that I will never read them. It glows in me like a secret.

But Zambra goes on to expose the reviewers who don’t finish books they review. I can tell you this smugly because I got that far and so can prove I have been there by writing it into this review. Which of course tells you nothing about my reviewing practice…

This is a book for writers and readers and I suspect that Fitzcarraldo is a publisher for writers and readers.

Long may Fitzcrraldo continue, I cannot find a single flaw in what they do, from the choice of text to publish and the design, right down to the way the paper smells.

This is one of their best titles. A thing to be thrust into rucksacks, battered and then treasured for generations.

– Steve Hanson

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.