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Wisdom Accumulates

On 26 June 1930, the oldest parliament in the world, the Icelandic Alþingi, celebrated its thousand-year anniversary with all the pomp and circumstance that the country was able to muster. The festivities culminated in a performance of the ‘Iceland Cantata’ – whose verses the nation’s most celebrated poets had competed to write – in the presence of King and Queen. Those gathered may not have noticed a twenty-eight-year-old man in the audience rolling his eyes and grumbling in frustration. Halldór Laxness, recently returned from North America, and before that an extended stay in a Catholic monastery in Luxembourg, was so dismayed by the libretto’s bloviating rhetoric that he was prompted to respond with his own poem, ‘The alþingi Cantata. To be sung after 1930’. Where in this encomium, he asked, are the farmers? Where are the dairies, the shipwrights, the fisherman? Against the mythical glories of an ancient nation, Laxness invoked the ‘penniless people, which for a thousand years has chewed its bread, weeping the pauper’s tears of hunger, bleeding, torn and tormented by the black art of the exploiter’.

This counter-cantata would comprise the final entry in Poems (1930), Laxness’ first publication after coming back to Iceland. Laxness had changed – returning to his homeland with a new set of principles, a new poetic vision and renewed faith in himself as a prophet. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in his quest to drag Iceland and its literature into the age of modernity.

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It is common to say of great writers that they spent their juvenile years in search of a voice. But Laxness possessed his at a young age, like a rough diamond. His debut, Child of Nature (1919), published when he was only seventeen, tells the story of a real estate agent, Randver, who returns to Iceland after three decades in Canada to fall in love and start a farm. The tragic romance eventually finds Randver in a drunken stupor, unable to recall the language of his homeland and so forced to babble in English. Though critics labelled the novel ‘childish’, it was animated by themes that occupied Laxness well into adulthood: the false comforts of nostalgia, the bathos of homecoming, the hard silence of nature.

What Laxness needed to find was not so much a voice as a form. His problem was that he had an overabundance of voice or voices, but no overarching narrative or structure in which to place them. In his search, he was led to reinvent himself again and again, the first time when he chose a nom de plume for the publication of Child of Nature. Born as Halldór Guðjónsson and raised on the Laxnes farm in Mosfellsbær, he chose to shed his patronymic in favour of one that would root him to the land. This act of moulting a past identity would become a ritual – a means of purifying his contact with the essence of the nation. ‘Henceforth my past is reduced to ashes and my future is the song of the northern hemisphere’, he writes in Poems.

As his biographers have observed, Laxness’s life can be told in terms of these moultings – as a sequence of identifications with higher order abstractions and different systems of belief. He made of his own existence a kind of epic, an odyssey through the chaotic world of twentieth century ideas. Throughout, Iceland remained his Ithaca, the homeland to which he promised to return in body and in spirit, always with the aim of liberating it from the hordes of unworthy poet-suitors. As the critic Brad Leithauser has written, ‘Laxness’s ambition was to become a major, truly modern Nordic writer – a legitimate heir to Ibsen and Hamsun and Strindberg – rooted in a Viking culture’. The dialectic of modern and medieval, the fisherman and the Viking, is one constant that underlies Laxness’s many metamorphoses. His third novel, The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927), is indicative. Often described as the first truly modernist Icelandic novel, the quasi-Surrealist Great Weaver is structured in close accordance with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Joyce, its author wanted to forge the epic within the infinitesimal.

To accomplish this, Laxness had to maintain two contradictory ideas: that Iceland was central, and that it was remote. He needed to assert both the centrality of the peripheral and the peripherality of the central. Iceland boasted one of the oldest continuous literary cultures in Europe. As Laxness put it in his Nobel lecture upon being awarded the prize in 1955: ‘It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition’. The Sagas endowed Iceland with a claim to be at the heart of European culture. Yet the island has always been geographically and politically marginal – a waystation for ships, a Danish colony, a base for American NATO troops (which Laxness would vehemently oppose). In Laxness’s view, however, it was from such outlying regions that one could gain an objective view of the world. They are places ‘where wisdom accumulates’, as Susan Sontag writes in her introduction to the English translation of Under the Glacier (1968). The glacier community of that novel lives, seemingly, outside the bounds of history and Christian values, in a pagan dream-world marginal even within Iceland. And yet: ‘No one in these parts doubts that the glacier is the centre of the universe’.

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What displeased Laxness most in the summer of 1930 was the state of Iceland’s class-consciousness. In all the nation’s literature, as he saw it, none had grappled with the material realities of life there: the poverty, the abjection, the oppression. His years in the United States and Canada had provoked a transformation as dramatic as any he would experience in his life. What began as an opportunity to be tokenized in exchange for a warm American welcome – giving lectures on Iceland around the country, writing screenplays for Hollywood on Scandinavian subjects – had evolved into a political awakening. One could credit Upton Sinclair (Laxness did, anyway), who introduced him to the communist circles of Hollywood and New York’s literary scene. When Laxness found himself detained and stripped of his passport for a comment made in a newspaper article about Americans being kept in a state of idiocy, it was Sinclair who organised efforts to secure his return to Iceland. Leaving behind his fervent Catholicism, Laxness now embarked on a decades-long embrace of Marxism. In the words of the critic Nicholas Shakespeare, he fixed his ‘childish faith on the Soviet Union’, where he travelled twice; for Sontag he became ‘obtusely philo-Soviet’. Awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, he would begin a slow retreat from the USSR after 1956. But Laxness’s political commitments were never as straightforward as such accounts would have it. In his own time, it was the left who needled him the most. His first socialist novel, for example, Salka Valka (1931-32), was not what many had expected – far too ironic for the serious matter of proletarian revolution.

Originally published as two distinct novels – O Thou Pure Vine (1931) and The Bird on the Shore (1932) – and only later unified, in 1951, into a single book, Salka Valka landed on readers’ bookshelves in much the same manner as any hefty, social realist novel: with a dull thud. To those not on the left, the book seemed anything but ironic, perceived, rather, to be as doctrinaire as anything Zhdanov himself could have conjured. The genre of social realism, unlike its naturalist precursor, never enjoyed a period of uncontested supremacy in European literature, in part because of its reputation for inflexibility. Almost as soon as it took shape, writers from various quarters criticised it on account of its intellectual rigidity and stilted grasp of human emotion. As Alain Robbe-Grillet emblematically put it in the 1950s, the ‘total artistic indigence’ of social realist works is to be expected: ‘the very notion of a work created for the expression of a social, political, economic, or moral content constitutes a lie’.

Yet Salka Valka eludes the indictments of both Robbe-Grillet and its socialist critics. Upon close inspection, clichés are uttered only to be upended by the novel’s dialogical qualities. Laxness forged a synthesis of art and politics by such reversals. With its acerbic wit and idiosyncratic yet deep-seated socialist sympathies, it is neither the book which early left critics lambasted, nor that which was scoffed at by readers of more liberal stripe. To contemporary readers who, thanks to translator Phillip Roughton, can now read a new English translation of Salka Valka, Laxness’s achievement will be plain.

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The novel’s two parts are less a continuous narrative than two sides of the same coin. The first volume, which takes place between 1910 and 1914, recounts in epic terms the tribulations of a mother-daughter pair stranded in a remote and backwards fishing town. Sigurlina Jónsdóttir and her daughter, Salvör Valgerður, whom she affectionately calls Salka Valka, land in the village Óseyri destitute and homeless. The Salvation Army and the local fishing business, helmed by the monopolist Jóhann Bogesen, are the twin pillars of the town, and Sigurlina is forced to navigate their influence to find room – literally, a shelter – for herself and her daughter. This volume is in many ways not about Salka, but Sigurlina. Or: it is about Salka witnessing the abject collapse of her mother’s spirit. Sigurlina is wooed by a man named Steinþór Steinsson, a local fisherman, a brute – the living image of the rugged land itself. But in truth, he desires Salka. After an attempted rape, Steinþór’s subsequent flight from town, his penitent return, his ultimate abandonment of Sigurlina at the altar and the death of Sigurlina’s son as an infant, Salka watches her mother wither away in body and soul. One Easter Sunday, she drowns herself.

At the start of the second volume, a decade has passed. In her struggle to find herself, and to avoid ending up like her mother, Salka actively resists the patriarchal world (she is mocked for wearing trousers) and develops an affinity with the oppressed. Thanks in large part to her childhood friend, Arnaldur, who studied in Reykjavik and returned a staunch socialist, Salka takes up the cause of the local fishworkers, helping them to organise a strike against Bogesen. But Salka and Arnaldur, bound into a love affair by their utopian impulses, are wrenched apart by the unforgiving reality of Óseyri’s shores. The strike is broken, Arnaldur leaves, and Salka is left alone with ‘the birds of winter’.

What we have, then, is a novel that begins as an epic only to morph into a social-realist Bildungsroman. But that is not to say that O Thou Pure Vine and The Bird on the Shore are two incongruous wholes. On the contrary, the uniqueness of the project is precisely the way in which its formal transformation is concurrent with the gradual coming-to-consciousness of its world and characters.

If O Thou Pure Vine is an epic, its cosmology is a Christian one adapted to Icelandic climes. The narrator, presuming to know as much about God’s intentions as Salka’s, routinely invokes the divine origins of the weather (‘There never seemed to be good weather in this village, because the Creator was always experimenting with His sky’). The characters themselves, meanwhile, appear as if composed out of the landscape itself, so consubstantial are they with the world they inhabit. ‘I am the waves that break on this beach, I am the wind that plays about these peaks’, says Steinþór. Even though Salka is presented as Steinþór’s moral counterpart, the novel’s monist ontology sees her drawn from the same materials: ‘in her strong, primal facial features dwelt all the merits of the salinity that is and always will be in seawater as long as it breaks against the shore’.

The hinge that binds the two halves together is Sigurlina’s death – or more precisely, the discovery of her drowned body. For Salka, this is the final straw in several senses. Her mother lived her Óseyri years prostrate, in near complete submission to the abuses of Steinþór and the pieties of the Army. As she grows older, Salka questions the rectitude of this way of life, challenging Sigurlina about her desire to have another child with Steinþór. Her mother can only respond that God ‘created me with a woman’s nature, and I cannot oppose it’. With Sigurlina’s death, Salka resolves never to acquiesce to her so-called ‘woman’s nature’ and thus never to trust in God. She would rather put her faith in what she can see, touch, taste. ‘I suppose there’s no other God but fish’, she says near the beginning of volume two, a materialist turn matched by that of the wider narrative, which evolves as the plight of the fishworkers intensifies.

The sighting of Sigurlina’s corpse is also what closes off the epic worldview. This is depicted in miniature by way of jarring juxtaposition. Sigurlina is found clutching ‘a pair of boy’s shoes’, the narrator tells us. They belonged to her dead son, and ‘she had taken them with her into eternity’ in case she found him there, shoeless. What confronts the reader is the incommensurability of the two facts: the shoes are both here, in this world, and they are in ‘eternity’. The epic voice that can speak of empyrean ascension is undercut by the realist one that will not. Reality has gained a new function; it is no longer in collusion with divine will.

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Like Laxness himself, Salka Valka switches from one thought-world to another as a means of gaining perspective. The old system of values is revealed as comprising so many pieties, as when the church Dean informs Salka that her mother’s favourite hymn is a fanciful invention of the Army and nowhere to be found in scripture (no system of belief, in fact, comes under as much scrutiny across Laxness’s novels as Christianity). But a man who moves from identification to identification also earns a sort of meta-identificatory perspective. Even from within the Marxist world view to which he then adhered – in later life, he would discard this in his move towards Taosim – Laxness uses his fiction to locate points of weakness. In this way, Laxness is hardly serious when he allows Arnaldur to tell Salka, who wants to help the motherless children of a recently-deceased friend, that lending a hand to individuals is ‘nothing but bourgeois sentimentality and hypocrisy’, and that ­– quoting Sinclair – ‘it’s like throwing a few drops of water into Hell’. After all, Arnaldur only says this after uttering perhaps the crassest sentence in the novel, in response to Salka’s resolve to help the children: ‘I would have let them kick the bucket’.

Even when Laxness believed in revolution, he was unwilling to forget that to be a ‘man of the people’, as he enjoined his audience at the Swedish Academy to be, is still to be a man – that is, an individual. Salka belongs to the ‘humble of the earth’ but she is also, like Laxness, unwilling to dissolve herself into them. For in her sovereign ego lies the capacities to doubt, to point, to laugh. And if nothing else, Laxness’s prose sings right through with laughter. ‘He has an irony rarely found in Nordic letters’, commended Le Monde upon his death in 1998. Perhaps this accounts for his incongruous reception in the Anglophone world, where such subtleties are often lost in translation. But parody is key to his temperament, allowing him both to adhere and not adhere at one and the same time – to be both Arnaldur and Salka. We might, then, ultimately view his changeable affiliations less as a quest for truth than as a bid to find the next kick. ‘I must be getting old,’ he said in the midst of his socialist years. ‘It isn’t as much fun shocking the bourgeoisie anymore.’

Read on: Sille Sigurgeirsdóttir and Robert Wade, ‘Lessons From Iceland’, NLR 65.

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Bad Habits

For nearly half a century, acclaimed Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has specialised in giving audiences a bit of what they fancy in the guise of a critique of their fancies. In his most successful ventures – Starship Troopers (1997), RoboCop (1987)the underlying gag allows for some insight into the nature of the institution, ideology or phenomena at hand: under American imperialism, military victory means endless war; in the destitute inner cities of Reaganism, the best cop is a dead cop. The resulting films are gore-splattered festivals of silliness; the major award achievements of his works to date have all been in the fields of special effects rather than script or direction. When Verhoeven has turned from violence to his other major theme, sex, as in Basic Instinct (1982) or Showgirls (1995), he has pioneered a pantomime representation of female sexuality. Only Elle (2016), his penultimate film, heralded as a return from his ironic Hollywood period to a European auteur style, avoided the tone of a clownish striptease, thanks to a magisterial performance by Isabelle Huppert and the strength of its source material, Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh (2012).

In Benedetta, a loose adaptation of historian Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts (1986) – an account of the life and times of Benedetta Carlini, a seventeenth-century nun and reputed mystic in the Tuscan town of Pescia, tried for her sexual relationship with the younger Bartolomea – he turns his focus to the early-modern Catholic Church. Kind of. Benedetta is also Verhoeven’s first film to feature a lesbian sexual relationship at its heart, rather than as ballast for cheap thrills and even cheaper character development. Except Benedetta is not really a film about either of these things, as uninterested in female desire as it is in the transcendent psychology of the mystic or the conniving intrigues of the Medici courts. Rather, it’s an excuse for some bedbound writhing, some CGI snakes, and a lipsmacking papal nuncio, all stitched so baggily together that the sum of the whole is less fun than its parts.

Faith, in particular, is a source of silliness in the film. The potential for the failure of religious conviction it depicts to act as an engine of drama is overlooked in favour of low-level convent intrigue, and so one is left wondering why anyone bothers with vespers, never mind lauds. No one seems to believe with any fervour, except a few unnamed nuns and the wretched and filthy poor who stumble about farting into torches in the town square, genuflecting to closed convent doors, picking up and putting down baskets of chickens. Inside the convent walls, Reformation-creep has set in. The Abbess (a wearied Charlotte Rampling, whose resolute theatrical posture acts as a mast for the drooping sails of the action) admits to having consecrated herself to Jesus out of ennui. When her daughter attempts to denounce Benedetta (Virginie Efira) for feigning her visions and signs of God’s grace, the Abbess confides that religious life is all a ruse anyway – the prosperity of the town and its church functionaries take precedence over truth. This is no revelation to her or to the audience: as we discover in the opening act of the film, eighteen years earlier, after a falling statue of the Virgin failed to crush Benedetta, the Abbess remarked that ‘miracles sprout like mushrooms, and usually they’re more trouble than they’re worth’.

Benedetta’s visions are obviously the product of zealous narcissism and boredom, and no one is fooled or even particularly interested in attempting to be fooled by her stigmata, for which entirely modern explanations are offered: she has fallen into a trance and self-harmed, which is possibly an obscure expression of God’s will but, who cares. This ambiguity could well have been a source of tension for the film – the emergence of a new mystic was always a threat to the Church. Like the human vessels of RoboCops, saints have to die before they can be useful to authority. But Benedetta is sent to the stake for sodomy, not heresy. When two characters expire with the word ‘lies’ on their lips both are merely making observations, not accusations.

In interviews, Verhoeven confessed to having rarely considered nuns before reading Brown’s book. Perhaps as a result, he exhibits a flippant view of the convent, seeing it as window dressing for the violation of taboos, rather than a social and spiritual system of its own. The film’s secular portrayal of religious life corresponds to his unlikely but devoted participation in the Jesus Seminar, a now-dormant working group of iconoclastic New Testament scholars and interested parties (Verhoeven’s academic background lies in mathematics) committed to determining the historical basis of Jesus’s life and teachings through anthropology, ancient history and exegesis (he published a book on the subject, Jesus of Nazareth, in 2010). But where the subjects of his other films – Vegas, insect alien invasions, dysfunctional murder detectives – can withstand an infusion of irony, the same cannot be said of holy orders. Catholicism is perceived by Verhoeven as a melodrama, full of knowing participants along for the ride. In Benedetta, this manufactured unseriousness leads Verhoeven to overlook a truism: one cannot out-camp the Catholic Church.  

Such a view needn’t necessarily condemn the film – the rich canon of cinematic nuns is hardly known for its historical fidelity. But despite effortful performances from Efira and Daphne Patakia in the two lead roles, there’s little delight outside the few moments of slapstick. Disappointingly for Verhoeven, whose penchant for excess has generally produced visual feasts, there’s not much to look at either. The film’s palette flips back and forth from a muddy orange candlelight to a blanched stone, and much of the dialogue is shot in a blockish profile across the central third of the screen. In her book, Brown goes into some detail regarding the painterly aesthetics of Benedetta’s visions, which produced a closed-circuit justification: Catherine of Siena, the historical Benedetta claimed, looked just like she did in the pictures, which meant the visions must have been genuine. For any filmmaker a vision sequence that takes its cues from the art of Renaissance Italy ought to be a source of endless invention and play, the uncanny landscapes of what Yves Bonnefoy called the arrière-pays (isolated clusters of Tuscan towns dotting the hillsides behind portraits of merchants or Nazarene scenes) a fertile setting for wild imaginings in which a sheltered nun might encounter her immortal husband in Christ. Instead Verhoeven gives us a soft-rock Jesus herding lambs in a soft-focus landscape that wouldn’t look amiss on the backwall of a ropey British trattoria. These scenes are played for their ridiculousness, but the few laughs they generate don’t justify the missed opportunity to develop a less bland aesthetic; instead, they just allow us to see Benedetta’s rape and saviour fantasies played out with codpieces and habit-ripping galore.

If religion is merely a form of sanctified daftness, one lacking any power over the protagonists except in the provision of bureaucratic offices in which to pass their days until the next plague, then something else must take its place as the film’s animating concern. In the second half of Benedetta, the plot moves from visions to assignations. Here Patakia as Benedetta’s novice lover manages to create moments of light and sweet naivety, enjoying the privacy afforded by Benedetta’s promotion to Abbess without suspecting surveillance and betrayal (whereas for Verhoeven straight sex always inclines towards performance, lesbian sex is possible only in titillating secrecy, glimpsed through closing doors and peepholes). Verhoeven doesn’t reward her for it though, and instead films her character’s subsequent torture scene with the same waist-up angles as he filmed Benedetta’s ecstasy; if it’s meant as a comment it’s a strangely cruel one, undermining earlier moments of tenderness between the protagonists by drawing parallels with a gruesome set-piece of sexual suffering. Verhoeven’s major deviation from the historical record is to repurpose a Virgin Mary statue into a sex toy, which in interviews he claims was to justify Benedetta’s death sentence (for centuries canon law prevaricated on the sinfulness of lesbianism, but generally agreed that the use of instruments qualified as an impotent form of sodomy and was thereby punishable in the same manner). For a film which has shown so little interest in the reality of its historical material it feels like a tawdry excuse. But then so does Benedetta.


Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Church Militant’, NLR 128.

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Gary’s Inferno

There is only one thing you need to know about American democracy: it does not exist. Using data collected on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002 – well before Citizens United v. FEC made corruption first amendment protected speech – a 2014 study by two professors of political science at Princeton concluded that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy’. This finding has significant downstream consequences on all aspects of American life, not least because it is largely unacknowledged, even as its effects, to varying degrees of injuriousness and fatality, are felt by 99% of the population.

The sovereignty of the ‘average American’ is outbid by economic elites as a matter of course, not excluding those supposedly divisive issues (e.g., abortion, gun control, single-payer healthcare) on which there is in fact bipartisan consensus in the electorate, but that does not mean he has become depoliticized as a result. On the contrary, he is more politically engaged than ever before – only his political activities consist in impotently watching cable news, posting about it on social media, arguing with family and friends during the holidays, decking out his lawn and bookshelf with totemic merch and PayPaling donations to whatever politician or cause has most recently shoved its cup into his diminished span of attention. Yes, he sometimes goes to rallies, protests, city council meetings, or even the ballot box, but these activities, whatever he may believe, have become ends in themselves. ‘Politics is downstream from culture’, one of the more astute ghouls recently uncorked in America liked to say, and it is true that the country’s myriad cultural pathologies give its politics their particularly rancid flavour. But the real takeaway from the Princeton study is that, in the daily experience of the average American, politics is culture, culture is politics, and – with one class of exceptions – never the twain shall meet.

Best known for his tenure as the sharp-tongued, hard-to-impress art critic at the Village Voice during the last gasp of the counterculture, Gary Indiana’s insight into this state of affairs is that insofar as the US has become a ‘televised democracy’, it may, like any other aesthetic phenomenon, be reviewed. Now 72, Indiana – born Gary Hoisington in the ‘factory world’ of Derry, New Hampshire in 1950 – has enjoyed an accelerating renaissance since the 2015 publication of I Can Give You Anything But Love. The utterly unsentimental ‘anti-memoir’ touches on his time in Berkeley in the late 60s, the LA punk scene of the 70s, and the downtown art world of the late 80s hollowed out by financialization and decimated by AIDS and the ‘depraved indifference’ of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Semiotext(e) and Seven Stories Press reprints of his collected Voice columns (1985-1988), his early novels Horse Crazy (1989) and Gone Tomorrow (1993), as well as his true crime trilogy Resentment (1997), Three Month Fever (1999) and Depraved Indifference (2002), have followed and been greeted with increasing interest. American readers born in the 80s, in particular, have been drawn not just to his nuclear-grade pithiness, his brazenly queer and bohemian narrative persona and his marriage of the techniques of American New Journalism and French avant-garde fiction, but also to the refreshing absence, rare among members of his generation, of nostalgia and apologetics in his accounts of the political events that have formed the pre-history of their lives.

Fire Season, an eclectic new selection of thirty-nine essays from 1984 to 2021, spans my own, give or take a few months on either end. It makes a compelling case that the window on American democracy closed sometime before I became a teenager: between Bill Clinton’s surprising second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary on 18 February 1992 and the opening of the assisted suicide trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian on 20 April 1994. In that period, Indiana filed five pieces for the Voice – ‘Northern Exposures’, ‘Disneyland Burns’, ‘Town of the Living Dead’, ‘LA Plays Itself’ and ‘Tough Love and Carbon Monoxide in Detroit’ – that deserve to be regarded as classics of cultural reportage and travel writing. When paired with the more recent art, film and book reviews collected in Fire Season, they connect, as Christian Lorentzen writes in his introduction, ‘the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in ways readers and critics are only beginning to apprehend’.  

In ‘Northern Exposures’, Indiana returns to towns of the Granite State where he grew up to sit in reconverted porn movie houses and rooms that look like furniture showcases and Anglophile prep school auditoria alongside the ‘blue rinse jobs with ropes of synthetic pearls’, ‘Alan Alda types’ or else the ‘dewlapped, earnest preppies’ who have shown up to hear the mercenary, delusional or deranged pitches of half-a-dozen Presidential hopefuls (five Democratic, one Republican). Throughout Fire Season, Indiana shows himself to be landscapist worthy of Bosch and a portraitist worthy of Francis Bacon: he paints with a rich palette of displeasures whose pigments range from the scatological to the refined. What makes the candidates and the people who will vote for them symbiotic is not only that they are grotesque, hideous, odious, scabrous, tacky – to use some of Indiana’s favourite epithets – nor simply – with the exception of Pat ‘Caliban’ Buchanan, who is ‘tediously, exactly’ the frightening bigot and sexual hysteric he appears to be – that they are fake. It is that, like pink urinal cakes in a football stadium bathroom, their half-hearted attempts at concealment have only made everything smell worse. Critics are often praised for their visual abilities and Indiana’s eye for the revealing detail is second to none, but the moral sense is in the nostrils, and New Hampshire reeks of something that has ‘crawled up in you and died’.

New Hampshire’s vices are those of the nation: self-pity (they ‘regard themselves as the only true victims of history’), buck-passing (they ‘admit nothing’ and ‘blame everybody’) and provincialism (they refuse ‘to learn from the larger world’). ‘Of course people are “hurting”’, Indiana writes, giving the campaign cliché the scare quotes it deserves – ‘you usually do hurt after shooting yourself in the foot’. But to shoot oneself in the foot is still a form of agency. If only someone would inject the readership of the Union Leader with a journalistic cocktail of rabies vaccine and truth serum, the logic goes, the residents of this ‘backwards but perhaps not entirely hopeless state’ might start to acknowledge the ‘bad choices’ they have made, replace the ‘bad leaders’ they have put into power and actually fix problems that do not fail to repeat themselves, no matter how bitterly they are complained about.

The degree of civic optimism this presupposes, however miniscule, is no longer in evidence when Indiana flies to Paris a few months later to visit the Euro Disney resort in Marne-la-Vallée. An ‘obvious expression of cultural imperialism’, he writes in ‘Disneyland Burning’, Euro Disney is – no less than New Hampshire – a microcosm of the nation that made it, and not just in the literal sense that you can find Carnegie Deli and Big Bob’s Country Western Saloon there, or even in the sense that Mickey, Minnie et al are ‘genuine American archetypes’. A merger of state and corporation policed by a private security force backed up by gendarmes and staffed by ruthlessly exploited labourers, the ‘superficially varied’ architectural styles of the theme park’s six ‘lands’ ‘articulate…a mode in which any escape from cliché has become impossible’ and ‘presume a universe in which human beings no longer have any minds at all’. Indiana estimates that it would take two hours to make a complete tour of the park, but the average visit requires an outlay of three vacation days because you will spend most of your hard-earned leisure time waiting in line for rides and restaurants while being bombarded with advertisements telling you and hundreds of others how great the experience you’re not having is. Like the off-brand version in Branson, Missouri he will later describe in his essay ‘Town of the Living Dead’, what Euro Disney offers visitors is the slow suicide of this ‘alienated duration’, mort à credit. (Later, making mental notes for a piece on the artist Barbara Kruger, he will say, apropos of Walmart: ‘You can get anything you want at Walmart. The fact that you want it means you are already dead.’) Indiana is not the first to compare Disney’s franchises to concentration camps, but what makes them red-white-and-blue is that you have to pay to get in.

On this description, American culture is something more sinister than merely the means by which political power obfuscates its workings; it is the soft adjunct of a killing machine that reaches its telos in the carbon monoxide pumped through a rubber hose and into the mask held over your face by kindly Dr. Kevorkian. Just as Disney promises the ‘time of your life’ only to deliver dead time, Kevorkian’s ‘Kmart kind of suicide for a democratic era’ promises a dignified death, only to ‘surrender the last remaining mystery to faceless consumerism’. These days, the importance of aesthetic concerns is routinely downgraded in favour of more obviously political ones, but in a country where, as he writes in the Kruger essay, ‘democracy = capitalism = demolition of utopia’, matters of taste and tastelessness are far from irrelevant to the question: how should we live?

If it is to be objected that taking Disney and Kevorkian as the alpha and omega of US culture is to cherry pick from the bottom of the barrel, Indiana does not let its putatively higher precincts off the hook either. The American literary world will later be excoriated for its culture of ‘careerism’ and ‘fatuous self-promotion’ in his introduction to the French transgressive novelist Pierre Guyotat’s memoir Coma. Behind the ‘costume of authenticity’ worn by the first-person narrators of today’s ‘bourgeois literary writing’ – whether memoir, food writing or autofiction à l’Américain – ‘lies the mercantile understanding that a manufactured self is another dead object of consumption…a “self” that constructs and sells itself by selecting promotional items from a grotesque menu of prefabricated parts’. To write such a book is to indulge in the provincialism of personal identity; to read one is to be given yet another anesthetizing hit of ‘cultural morphine’. 

Meanwhile, some thirty miles north of the Disney mother ship in Anaheim, the only genuinely democratic event that occurs in a society where there is no means of peacefully translating popular will into public policy took place. Following the acquittal in the state trial of four LAPD officers charged with the use of excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, thousands of people staged a massive six-day insurrection (or if we must, ‘riot’) in South Central Los Angeles and Koreatown, which lead to over 60 deaths, 2,000 injuries, 12,000 arrests, and $1 billion of property damage. Covering the federal trial a year later in ‘LA Plays Itself’, Indiana does not fail to note that the father of Laurence Powell – the officer with the ‘put-upon, porcine expression of a slow-witted high school bully’ who broke King’s leg with his baton – ‘usually sports one of three differently coloured Mickey Mouse ties’. Nor does he fail to observe that although every politician, including Bill Clinton, that could get in front of a TV camera between 29 April and 4 May 1992 described the insurrection as a ‘wake-up call’, the underlying juridical and socio-economic conditions – the analogy Indiana reaches for is apartheid – that lead to it hadn’t ‘changed an iota’ since. What had changed? Gun sales. Police budgets. The ‘heavier application of cosmetics to a festering wound’.

‘The model really appears to be the old patronizing thing, corporations coming down, helping out, chipping in a little bit, rather than long-term stimulus’, LA Weekly reporter Ruben Martinez tells Indiana. ‘Given that the economic outlook is still piss-poor, and that that’s what set people so much on edge, how can you think there’s not going to be another riot eventually, whether it’s after the trial or some other occasion?’ Fast forward three decades, pausing the tape in Ferguson, Baltimore: the cover of Fire Season features a painting by Sam McKinniss, one of the artists reviewed in it, of an NYPD squad car that got torched during the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, while then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden – who helped author the 1994 legislation that would give the US world history’s largest gulag – was in Philadelphia calling the murder a ‘wake-up call’.

‘Do I honestly “believe” in democracy?’ Indiana asks himself in his Obama-era travelogue ‘Romanian Notes’, channel hopping between coverage of Tahrir Square and James Clapper’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee about PRISM, a surveillance program so extensive it would have made Securitate, Ceaușescu’s secret police, turn green with envy. The trap for a critic of such unrelenting negations is cynicism; however close he edges to despair, Indiana does not fall into it. Cynicism, after all, is just the flip side of the coin of ingenuousness, a sign that one has lost the ability to make distinctions. Although Indiana knows that democracy is ‘irrelevant’ to the people who run the US and a ‘joke to the people who own it’, he also knows that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you. For critique – of an artwork, of a society – to be meaningful it must be undertaken, at least implicitly, in the name of a preferred alternative. When his wallet is stolen by a Bucharest taxi driver in a companion essay, ‘Weiner’s Dong, And Other Products of the Perfected Civilization’, Indiana is surprised and indignant to learn how many details of his personal life the customer service representative at Chase is able to access based on ‘publicly accessible information’. Surprise and indignation are emotions you are capable of feeling only if you believe things ought to be otherwise.

Fire Season is a vision of hell, but just as every Inferno must have its gradations of offense, it ought to have a place in it for virtuous pagans. The book’s heroes are, first of all, the reporters: Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice, Ed Leibowitz and Ruben Martinez of LA Weekly, Masha Gessen, Anna Politkovskaya. What earns them deserved praise is, quite simply, that they tell the truth. Truth is a much-abused concept in our time; what Indiana means by it is less our gamified sense of fact-checking than an ethos of candour: to ask questions others will not, yes; to point out inconsistencies and outright lies, yes; but also to refrain from omitting ‘complicating facts, mitigating causalities’ from one’s account, or to lard it with ‘exaggerations’. It was for her candour about the Second Chechen War that Politkovskaya was shot four times, once in the head, in a contract-style killing whose timing suggests that it doubled as an obscene birthday present for Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, or both. ‘There is no need for the truth anymore’, a Chechen war widow says in a documentary Indiana watches in ‘I Did Not Know Anna Politkovskaya’, a reflection on the art and function of journalism, the profession for which she gave her life. ‘That is why they killed her’. The widow is right in one sense – despite what Politkovskaya uncovered in Grozny two decades ago, Putin and Kadryov are, as I write, savagely burnishing their résumés as war criminals with the blood of Ukrainian civilians. But we also need the truth, and always will, because it is essential to human dignity. Without it, we are already dead.

The book’s other heroes are its artists (Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, Kruger, McKinnis, Andy Warhol), its filmmakers (Robert Bresson, Louis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Pierre Melville, Barbet Schroder) and its many writers (Renata Adler, Samuel Beckett, Anya von Bremzen, Jean Echenoz, Guyotat, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Mary McCarthy, Paul Scheerbart, Unica Zürn). What by and large unites this somewhat disparate group is a certain sensibility: a fatalism that does not lead to resignation, a stoicism that does not preclude sympathy, an ironism that is tolerant of human folly, a tragicomic sense of life that is born of unperformed familiarity with grief, psychic extremity or violence. It is a sensibility that Indiana, as a reviewer of their work, shares. As with his reportage and his true crime novels, the idiom of his criticism is equally at home in the gutter as it is in the firmament; it is informed by the conviction that these are the zones of lived and aesthetic experience, however painful they may be to occupy, where something of value can be wrested from a cruel and cretinizing late capitalist social order.

It is noteworthy – but should come as no surprise – how few of the names on the above list were born in the US and how little of the work for which they are best known was done during the years 1984-2021. This sensibility may be diametrically opposed to the one laid out in ‘Northern Exposures’, yet in a way it is also a kind of shooting oneself in the foot. Over and over again, Indiana compares the experience of such art to a symbolic mutilation: Guyotat ‘spoils the flavour of bourgeois literary writing’ and ‘exposes [the class system’s] corruption of feeling’; Bresson ‘ruins one’s taste for mediocrity’, like a cigarette put out on the tongue; Kruger’s work is ‘the ruin of certain smug and reassuring representations, the defacement of delusion’, such as the one about living in a democratic society. The function of good art – and by extension criticism practiced as an art – is to render its audience unfit to serve as an extraction site for the cultural killing machine. Fire season, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is every day now. This is what we’ll need if we’re going to survive.

Read on: Alexander Cockburn, ‘Dispatches’, NLR 76.

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Border-Crosser

By the time Aijaz Ahmad published his now classic, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (1992), he was 51 years old. He had already drifted through Lahore, Harlem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Anatolia and the Palestinian camps in Jordan, before settling in New Delhi. In the book, Ahmad dissected the antinomies of the new theoretical turn in the Anglo-American academy – its schematic conceptions of the third world, its distancing of culture from political economy and activism, its reluctance to highlight its institutional sites, as well as the class locations and practices of its practitioners. I first encountered the book at the University of Delhi. An engineer at the time, I was mesmerized by its feverish blend of a theorist’s insight and a pamphleteer’s loose wit – equal parts revelatory (‘Determination … means the givenness of a circumstance within which individuals make their choices, their lives, their histories’) and rancorous (‘Ranajit Guha … a typical upper-layer bourgeois’). Enrolling in the English department, I soon discovered that this was precisely the kind of writing that is known to sink your academic career. Good thing Ahmad didn’t really have one when he wrote the book.

A year after In Theory was published, the journal Public Culture assembled a set of critical responses. Marjorie Levinson described it as ‘an ugly book’, dismissing it as ‘harangue, jeremiad, flyting, ethnic cleansing: not to make a mystery of it, jihad’. Peter van der Veer started by declaring that the book reminded him of a visit to Calcutta in 1973, where he was shocked to discover a photograph of Stalin in the house of a communist cadre. References to ‘hardline Indian communism’ and Ahmad’s ‘style of inquisition’ duly followed. Talal Asad tersely suggested that the book was influenced by the European teleology of progress. Partha Chatterjee questioned Ahmad’s grasp of Indian Marxism. Nivedita Menon and the book’s commissioning editor Michael Sprinker offered perceptive rejoinders (the only courteous ones) to Ahmad’s portrayal of Edward Said. Andrew Parker wrote that the book failed to achieve an integral unity; it was more a blend of ‘oil and water than political history and literary theory’. And like many other reviewers, Vivek Dhareshwar highlighted the curious disjunction between Ahmad’s focus on the institutional locations of specific scholars and his reluctance to discuss his own involvement in the metropolitan academy. Invoking Ahmad’s criteria, Dhareshwar countered: ‘Does the work/individual have or provide any links with determinate emancipatory movements?’

Ahmad fled Pakistan for the first time in 1966, at the height of Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship. He had recently finished a masters at the Forman Christian College, Lahore. Two years later, he started teaching at the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) Program at the City College of New York. His colleagues there included Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, David Hernandez and Adrienne Rich. Although the college was located in Harlem, the cultural epicentre of the country’s Black community, only 9 percent of its daytime students were Black or Puerto Rican. SEEK was instituted to counteract the college’s racist admissions policy and course design. But radicalized by the Vietnam War and Black Liberation, the students wanted to open more than just the gates to a public college. Screening radical cinema and publishing political pamphlets, they swiftly turned the campus into a site for revolutionary politics. In December 1968, addressing a multiracial assembly of students and activists, Stokely Carmichael offered a thunderous ‘blueprint for armed struggle against American racism and capitalism’ that drew inspiration from the raging anticolonial struggles in the Global South. A decade earlier, this same struggle had thrust Ahmad into the fold of radical politics. When Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt in 1956, massive anticolonial demonstrations erupted in Lahore. The 15-year-old Ahmad had joined the demonstrators, and in a burst of youthful impudence, climbed onto the veranda of a British consulate official’s house, picked up a chair and smashed it to pieces.

Living under the high noon of ’68 in Harlem, Ahmad translated the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, the last Mughal poet, whose career was dramatically transformed by the failed anticolonial rebellion of 1857. In that apocalyptic summer, the Britishers had hanged around 27,000 people in Delhi alone. With his friends either dead or deprived of their patronage and wealth, Ghalib rushed to publish DastAmbooh, a pro-British diary of the revolt. In his private letters, he bitterly censured the reign of colonial terror, and continued writing poems of intense ‘moral loneliness’. Ahmad’s collaborative translations with Adrienne Rich (a close friend), W.S. Merwin and William Stafford first appeared in Mahfil, a mimeographed magazine published at the University of Chicago. Their experiments created a poetic montage, which valued the play of translating over literal translations. Ahmad juxtaposed his ‘prose versions’ with ‘notes’ (explanation and general vocabulary) for each couplet, which were followed by the poets’ own versions of the original ghazal. In this newfound avant-garde collective, Ahmad listened for the echoes of an insurgent humanism: ‘Poetry happens wherever men suffer and posit their humanity against their suffering. Viet Nam, Harlem, the Delhi of 1857. LeRoi and Ghalib. You hold out your hand and you tell another person what you are going through: that is the final poem’.

At SEEK, Ahmad became the Interim Director, but was summarily replaced by a hostile administration in the summer of 1969. He had refused to support the Dean’s decision not to renew the tenures of ten Black faculty members (the charges against one included writing a pamphlet in support of Black workers at a Ford plant). In the fallout of a campus takeover by students, Ahmad was blacklisted from teaching in New York. He crossed the Hudson and started teaching at Rutgers. His translation project, Ghazals of Ghalib, was published the following year by Columbia University Press. By this time, however, Ahmad was occupied by developments in Pakistan, where a militant upsurge of students and urban workers had overthrown Khan’s dictatorship. The Pakistani left was breathing again. A split in the National Awami League had birthed the Mazdoor Kisan Party, a Maoist organization that soon liberated 200 hectares of agrarian land from feudal landlords in Hashtnagar (Northwest Frontier Province). He took a leave of absence from Rutgers, abandoned his PhD at Columbia and returned to Pakistan. In Nothing Human is Alien to Me (2020), a book-length interview with Vijay Prashad (the best source on his life and work), Ahmad reveals that in Pakistan he worked closely with MKP’s leadership ‘at the underground level’. But details of his political activity remain in short supply.

Recently, the anthropologist Shozab Raza told me that, during his fieldwork, he picked up an elusive trace of Ahmad’s presence in South Punjab. Ahmad makes an unexpected appearance in the personal notebook of Sibghatullah Mazari, a poor tenant and member of MKP. Around May 1972, Afzal Bangash, the party’s co-founder, dispatched Ahmad to Bangla Icha, Sibghatullah’s village, where he taught literary and political writing to young students. Raza added that his clandestine presence in the village was ‘likely part of a larger reconnaissance trip, which also included travelling to Hashtnagar’. Ahmad was also a punctual presence in MKP’s official organ, the Circular, where he translated Amílcar Cabral and Lê Duẩn, among many others. Rejecting the stuffy Urdu translations produced in Moscow, he re-translated Lenin in the diction and syntax found on Pakistani streets. If in Harlem, Ahmad grappled with the politics of poetic innovation, now he stressed the poetics of his political interventions. This came naturally to him. During his college years in Lahore, Ahmad had sharpened his convictions on the whetstone of literary style. Novelist Intizar Hussain and the poet Nasir Kasmi had been among his friends. One day he would study Proust, whose ‘sentences ran to five, ten, fifteen, even twenty clauses’, inconceivable in Urdu; the next day, he would translate Joyce’s Dubliners with its ‘short, pithy sentences, hard as diamonds, impossible to cut’. Youthful enthusiasms now bloomed into a desire for new dialectical idioms.

Ahmad was prolific throughout the 1970s, publishing poems, translations, literary criticism and political analyses in various Urdu magazines – not just in Lahore and Karachi, but also across the border, in Allahabad and Hyderabad. His phenomenal critique of Baloch separatism appeared in Pakistan Forum in 1973. The complementary essays, ‘The Agrarian Question of Baluchistan’ and ‘The National Question of Baluchistan’, offered a sweeping account of the tensions between Balochistan’s linguistic and ethnic history, and the contradictions afflicting its severely impoverished economy (founded on inward and outward flows of migrant labour). Though an uncompromising advocate of the liberation of Bangladesh, Ahmad rejected calls for an ethnolinguistic revision of Pakistan’s national borders. A secession, he emphasized, could not resolve the class contradictions of Baloch society. Instead, it would further empower elite landowning Sardars, who would readily become neo-colonial clients of the US or the Soviet Union. As expected, Ahmad’s contentions enraged Baloch nationalists and their sympathizers, including the journal’s editor Feroz Ahmed, who rushed to rebut his friend in a new book. Cracks also developed in Ahmad’s relationship with MKP. The party saluted the Naxalite insurgency smouldering across the border. But Ahmad became increasingly critical of this Maoist adventure, eventually drawing the ire of the party. Writing to the political theorist Noaman G. Ali, Ahmad revealed that ‘a whole session of MKP, with perhaps 60 or 70 members present, was once called in Faisalabad for (him) to be held answerable for this heresy’.

During this period, Ahmad also travelled widely in the Arab world. Defeat by Israel in the Six Day War and the subsequent decline of Nasserism had spurred a wave of Islamist reaction. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat declared Islam the state religion and Shar’ia ‘the main source of state legislation’. Crisscrossing the peri-urban townships surrounding Cairo and the small-town interiors of Anatolia, Ahmad closely studied the unexpected rise of an Islamist bourgeoisie. In Jordan, he discovered that ‘the (Palestinian) camps were just full of Quranic recitations, full of Islamic cassettes of various sorts’. In Lebanon, his comrades in Palestinian liberation organizations painted similar pictures of Birzeit. Ahmad’s analyses were regularly translated and published in Rose Al-Yusef, the Egyptian political weekly, and As-Safir, the leading daily newspaper in Lebanon. He had already experienced similar tensions in Pakistan, where the MKP had tried to meld Marxism and Islam into a revolutionary program. Tariq Ali memorably described it as ‘the party which begins its private and public meetings with recitations from the Koran and whose manifesto is liberally spiced with quotations from the same!’ But this new shift shared little with revolutionary politics. In 1977, Pakistan also fell to the Islamists. General Zia-ul-Haq implemented martial law, disbanded Parliament and ordered the Islamization of the entire country.

Ahmad fled back to the US. A 90-page essay, ‘Political Islam: A Critique,’ soon appeared in three parts in Pakistan Progressive, as well as a ‘balance sheet’ of the rebellion against General Zia’s coup in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Struggling to find a political foothold, by the mid-1980s Ahmad resolved to move to India, the country of his birth and home to a still robust national communist movement. But since laws forbade Pakistani citizens to work in India, he gave up his citizenship and acquired a US passport. It was against the backdrop of these transitions that Ahmad wrote the essay which famously rebutted Fredric Jameson’s claim that ‘all third-world literatures are … national allegories’. Rejecting ‘Jameson’s haste in totalizing historical phenomena in terms of binary oppositions’, Ahmad asserted that capitalism imposed an economic unity on the entire world and that national cultures evolved on a shared, but uneven, political terrain. When Ahmad arrived as a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a new generation of scholars was starting to scrutinize the explosion of theory in the West. In 1990, Suvir Kaul published ‘The Indian Academic and Resistance to Theory’, a moving essay about his return to the University of Delhi after finishing PhD at Cornell, in which he astutely noted how theorists like Paul De Man and Homi Bhabha ‘co-opt(ed) … the language of resistance into … a purely linguistic, tropological activity,’ and neglected that theories of différance are subject to the “invisible hand” that scripts the global equation of knowledge/power’. Composing In Theory simultaneously, Ahmad explained that this new theoretical turn (which took Marxism as just one critical framework among many) was mediated by the successive eclipse of anticolonial struggles, the New Left and the socialist bloc. Driven by his own itinerant political life, Ahmad decreed that theory must be rigorously held ‘accountable’ by the ‘non-academic political field’.

Just three months after the publication of In Theory, a right-wing Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, sparking a blaze of anti-Muslim pogroms across India. In the early 1950s, the growing threat of the Hindu right had forced Ahmad’s family of farmers to migrate from the present-day Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan (his earliest memories included his uncle hoisting the Indian flag on the morning of independence and imbibing progressive Urdu fiction and poetry in a village that lacked electricity and a school). Four decades later, its rise was complete. As In Theory occasioned fiery debates in the Anglo-American academy, Ahmad’s own career now took a sharp turn. In a series of critical essays, later collected in The Lineages of the Present and On Communalism and Globalization, Ahmad dissected the precipitous decline of Indian democracy. Never afraid of challenging popular consensus, Ahmad resolved that there was no contradiction between liberal institutions and the Hindu right. The BJP had no need to suspend liberal democracy because it had already captured its institutions from the inside – judiciary, universities, media, bureaucracy and military. Legitimized by these same institutions, it could freely orchestrate ‘perpetual low-intensity violence’ against Dalits and Muslims. But the left, Ahmad suggested, could not replicate this strategy. The ‘liberal-democratic state apparatus’ is designed to stabilize the capitalist order. It might allow for limited welfare reforms in individual states like Kerala, but it ‘will never permit the communist Left to implement its programme’ on a national level. ‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves,’ was his grim forecast.

Ahmad’s arrival in India also radically transformed his role as an intellectual. While in Pakistan he had lived underground with MKP and published in small Arabic and Urdu magazines (many of them lost to us), now he became a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia, and wrote for India’s prominent Anglophone magazines. In Frontline, Ahmad published over 80 essays, including celebrated long-form coverage of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (collected in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Imperialism of our Times). In Newsclick, he tracked the geopolitical crises of late capitalism: the French bombardment of northern Mali, the fallout of the Crimean referendum, among others. When the BJP came to power in 2014, Ahmad’s visa was not renewed. Aged 75, he was again forced to relocate to the US – now as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, ironically a wellspring of the same theoretical turn that Ahmad had publicly censured.

When In Theory was first published, Partha Chatterjee had charged Ahmad with ‘dissembling’, querying why the book ‘should conceal so strenuously, in its jacket, preliminary pages and text, the fact that the author has spent the overwhelming part of his career studying and teaching in the ‘metropolitan academy’”. But looking back, what is bothersome is not the alleged suppression of Ahmad’s academic career, but rather that of his career outside the academy. Why do we know so little about the political ebbs and flows of Ahmad’s life? Or more broadly, why do we know so little about the lives of those countless organizers and activists, autodidacts and litterateurs, who live and write in the postcolonial periphery? Why does their work rarely travel to the shores of the metropolitan academy? And who is responsible for this ‘concealing’?

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Reconciling Derrida’, NLR I/208.

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Theorist in Exile

I first met Aijaz Ahmad in London in the mid-1990s. We ran into each other by chance. As I was introduced, he immediately said, ‘You have a very unusual name. No one from Uttar Pradesh is called Vinayak’. Only a local would make such a comment. Many men from north India of my father’s and grandfather’s generation had noted the anomaly between my firmly north Indian last name and my first name, which has its roots in western and southern India. Ahmad was the last person I met who made this observation; that generation is now mostly gone. What Ahmad said next was more striking. He explained that Vinayak, one of the names of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, was his favourite Hindu deity: a seeker of knowledge, a remover of obstacles, a consumer of intoxicants. But he lamented that the Hindu right’s appropriation of Ganesh now made it impossible for him to view the deity positively.   

It was fortuitous that Ahmad and I ended up teaching at the same university nearly twenty years later. Ahmad had arrived under adverse circumstances. The election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 meant that his Indian visa had not been renewed. His criticism of the Hindu right had finally caught up with him, not to mention his name and Pakistani identity. He could no longer live in the country of his birth. Instead, he had to return to a metropolitan university in the ‘belly of the beast’ – Che Guevara’s phrase that Ahmad often cited. He arrived at University of California, Irvine as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature in 2016. I am sure the irony of moving to an institution that was a major site for the ‘theory’ of which he had long been a critic was not lost on him. Nor the fact that he was now living in a city that wholeheartedly embraced the culture of late-capitalism – one that that Slavoj Žižek has described as the strangest place on earth.

Ahmad had experienced displacement at a young age, when his family moved from the north Indian town of Muzaffarnagar to Lahore, Pakistan. The formation of India and Pakistan as newly independent nation-states occurred in a period of great tragedy and violence that Ahmad described as a ‘communal holocaust’. The generation that lived through it never forgot their histories of forced migration. Very few returned. Ahmad, though, was different. He left Pakistan when he found himself in political trouble for questioning General Zia-ul-Haq’s military coup in 1977. But he was not allowed to live in India until he acquired another citizenship; in his case this meant moving to New York and becoming a US passport holder. Ahmad later resided in India for many years on short-term visas. Government policy stipulates that any individual who was once a Pakistani national cannot become Indian again – at least on paper. Living in India also complicated Ahmad’s re-entry into Pakistan; it was no longer possible for him to return for any length of time. The Radcliffe Line arbitrarily drawn on a map as the permanent border between India and Pakistan divided the people of both nations for posterity.

It is not surprising then that alienation is a key theme of Ahmad’s oeuvre. In the 1970s, he was best known for his translations and interpretations of Urdu poetry, especially his work on Mirza Ghalib, considered by some to be the greatest Indian poet of the nineteenth century. There is a personal inflection to his description of Ghalib as a ‘tragic poet’, ‘surrounded by constant carnage’ in a world undone by British domination and the decline of early-modern Mughal courtly culture. Ahmad was acutely sensitive to the historical conjuncture in which Ghalib no longer felt he belonged, describing his life as ‘unbearable’. Equally sympathetic to those forced into exile, he was a fierce protector of the historical legacy of Marx, especially from postcolonial scholars who dismissed him as an Orientalist, a racist, or worse. Ahmed argued that these critics had failed to read Marx’s writings on India (or elsewhere) carefully or systematically enough, countering that his analysis was far more complex and radical than most of the anticolonial leaders of the period. ‘Expecting more from a German refugee who spent much of his pauperized life in nineteenth century London strikes me as somewhat unfair’, he wrote.

The defence of Marx was part of a broader project. As an essayist extraordinaire, he spent several years writing critiques of what was popularly known in the Anglo-American academy as ‘theory’, which were collected in his most famous book, In Theory (1992). For Ahmad, the theoretical formations of postcolonialism, postmodernism and poststructuralism were characterized by a retreat from socialist politics into ‘fashionable’ discursive strategies – their theory not only distanced itself from historical materialism but sought its undoing in the name of dismantling all grand narratives. Ahmad also sharply criticised those postcolonial writers who used ‘exile’ as a metaphor for all ‘Third World’ immigrants irrespective of their circumstances. Some, he argued, were engaged in‘an opportunistic kind of Third Worldism’, whereby wealthy, educated immigrants living in the diaspora for reasons of professional aspiration neglected to distinguish between themselves and those forced to flee their homes for fear of imprisonment, torture or death. Ahmad lamented that this ‘inflationary rhetoric’ had entered the writings of literary theorists who claimed marginality as a strategic subject position in their work.

In Theory received a great deal of attention as a major intervention in Marxist cultural criticism, and for its trenchant critiques of Fredric Jameson, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said. This was softened – or at least that is what Ahmad thought – with a comradely gesture to his interlocutors: ‘Suppression of criticism, I have come to believe, is not the best way of expressing solidarity’. Criticism was ultimately intended to bring them together. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The book provoked a furore, with many condemning its combative tone as well as its insistence on linking Marxist political economy to the study of literary theory. Ahmad regretted that his criticisms were misconstrued as personal attacks, and he emphasised that he celebrated parts of the work of those he criticised. What he found more disappointing was that many of these detractors failed to engage with his central arguments about ‘Third World Literature’ and ‘Three Worlds Theory’ ­– not to mention his essay titled ‘Marx on India’.

In Theory was followed by a second volume of essays, Lineages of the Present (1996). This included an autobiographical introduction in which Ahmad identified himself as an exile and perhaps for the first time publicly discussed his departure from Pakistan, describing the ‘painful cultural price’ of renouncing Urdu as his primary language. He also made clear that the bricolage of essays reflected a personal story about his life: each represented a specific moment of his intellectual and political development. In particular, the collection charts his growing concern with the rise of the Hindu right and the ideology of Hindutva. The demolition of the sixteenth century Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists in 1992 had been a major turning point. If Mirza Ghalib had experienced the decline of the Mughal Empire, Ahmad witnessed the beginning of its historical erasure. The collection also included literary engagements with Urdu writers, as well as a critical analysis of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx that became the leading Marxist response to deconstruction at the time, alongside a defence of Gramsci from cultural theorists whom Ahmad felt no longer interpreted him as a revolutionary socialist.

The book marked a transition of sorts, as Ahmad’s attention increasingly shifted towards journalism and current affairs. Not surprisingly, Ahmad’s project was expansive: US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, Russian concerns about NATO, Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, the domestic economy of China, the persecution of Palestinians in Israel, the global financial crisis. The rise of India’s Hindu right though concerned him most intimately. He argued that there were ‘structural connections’ linking the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in India with what he called the ‘communal fascism’ of Hindu nationalism, and a new, globalized form of imperialism. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, India witnessed a dramatic increase in violence against Muslims. The Gujarat pogroms of 2002 would establish Modi’s credentials as the next leader of the BJP. Ahmad described the period as reflecting a ‘culture of cruelty’. His work elucidated how the legacy of the communal holocaust of 1947 persisted into the new century.

At Irvine, Ahmad was initially reluctant to discuss the difficulty of leaving India once again. The last time I met him we were on a panel together at a South Asian Studies conference before the Covid breach, where speaker after speaker denounced the idea of ‘South Asia’ as a neo-colonial construction. Many anticipated that Ahmad would maintain his combative position against postcolonial studies as he had done for many years, but instead he opted to share his life-story of multiple migrations and displacements. He described himself as a political exile who could no longer return to India or Pakistan. South Asia meant something to him that others in the room could not know or understand. Now, in an echo of what he had written in the 1970s about Ghalib, his world was disappearing in front of his eyes.

Ahmad never returned ‘home’. He died on March 9, 2022.

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘A Gift of Memory’, NLR I/237.

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Radical Incisions

Critical assessments of Joseph Andras usually start – and remain – at the centre of controversy. In 2016, the young author’s first novel, De nos frères blessés, won the highly prestigious prix Goncourt du premier roman. To the consternation of the French literary establishment, Andras declined the award – the first writer to do so since Julien Gracq in 1951 – stating in a letter to the Académie his conviction that ‘competition and rivalry’ were ‘foreign notions to writing and creation’. Literature, he declared, ought to ‘closely guard its independence and keep its distance from podiums, honours and projectors’. He affirmed instead a ‘profound desire to stick to the text, to words, to its inherent ideals, to the concealed speech of a worker and militant for social and political equality.’

The scandal of this rejection dominated coverage of the novel in the French press, and fuelled speculation about Andras’s identity. With ‘Joseph Andras’ revealed to be a pseudonym, rumours circulated that he was in fact a famous author in disguise. This was dubbed the ‘Andras Affair’ by the literary critic Pierre Assouline, who suggested the author’s potential association with communitarian anarchist group the Invisible Committee and those arrested in the Tarnac Affair on charges of sabotage. Others accused Andras of bad faith, arguing that his refusal of the honour and insistence on anonymity were designed to drum up greater renown by creating a kind of negative celebrity. The anglophone reception last year, when the novel was published in English as Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, tended to follow suit – fetishizing Andras’s reclusion and refusal at the expense of his writing and, just as significantly, his politics. 

De nos frères is a visceral portrait of Fernand Iveton, the only ‘European’ executed for terrorism during the Algerian War. Iveton, a Communist pied-noir affiliated with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), was arrested during a failed attempt to bomb the gasworks factory where he worked on the outskirts of Algiers. While the intention was to destroy property, not human life, Iveton was nonetheless sentenced to death in February 1957. Andras recounts his story on two temporal levels in loosely alternating chapters: the first retracing the narrative of Iveton’s arrest, imprisonment, torture, trial, and eventual execution despite several appeals (voted against by Mitterrand, then Minister of Justice); the second his relationship with his wife Hélène, a Polish Jew whose family supported the resistance during German occupation. This unfolds mostly in the third person, but there are moments where we are granted access to Iveton’s thoughts, in letters from prison, slips into free indirect style – fictional techniques that Andras has discarded in subsequent works. The prose is electric, dense and deliberate, deftly shifting between registers ­– at one moment abrupt and declarative, the next flowing, sonorous and alliterative.

Andras has described his intention to ‘give colour back to Iveton’, whom he admires as ‘a militant, that is, a comrade, a man who works with others and only understands himself in the plural’. Plural, in the sense of being a participant in collective struggle, wary of the egoism of the ‘I’ (as is Andras in his writing), but also in terms of personal identity: Iveton identified as Algerian, was a pro-independence militant who was a member of both the FLN and the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) yet maintained a seemingly contradictory love for – and trust in – France up until his execution. As Andras puts it, he is ‘a rock in the narrative machinery’. 

Critics have reached to Camus’s L’etranger (1942) as a point of comparison, but this appears to be merely the result of canonical familiarity. There is little similarity between Camus’s resigned Meursault and the committed Iveton, while Camus’s cool neutrality (what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree-zero’) couldn’t be further from Andras’s charged, richly poetic style. Camus himself has also been compared with Iveton, on account of their respective relationships to pied-noir identity, yet Camus famously opposed the idea of Algerian Independence (though some believe that he tried to intervene to halt Iveton’s execution). A more apt comparison would be with Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), banned by the French state for exposing the torture of prisoners in Algeria. Alleg, editor of the PCA-affiliated Alger Républicain, was arrested in 1957 for ‘demoralizing’ the French army with his publication. He was subjected to torture of the kind inflicted on Iveton (electric charges, waterboarding, experimental truth serums). Unlike Iveton, however, Alleg survived to publish his account before being forced into hiding. His book – like Andras’s – lays bare the brutality of the French state during the Algerian War.

Since De nos frères, Andras has published four more books, all of which have yet to be translated into English. S’il ne restait qu’un chien (If Only a Dog Remained), a 50-page free verse poem published in 2017, draws on five centuries of the history of the port of Le Havre, where Andras lives (notably its role in the transatlantic slave trade). It is told from the perspective of the port itself and is read aloud by the rapper D’ de Kabal on an accompanying recording. This was followed in 2018 by Kanaky: Sur les traces d’Alphonse Dianou (Kanaky: in the Footsteps of Alphonse Dianou), a second radical character study, this time of a New Caledonian independence leader killed by the French. In 1988 the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front took two dozen police hostages, demanding independence for New Caledonia ­ – a South Pacific island which remains to this day one of France’s ‘overseas departments’ – in exchange for their release. Dianou was shot in the leg during a standoff with the military and died soon after, though the exact circumstances remain contested. Vilified by the French government and press, Andras’s aims to correct this – travelling to New Caledonia to interview Dianou’s family, friends and comrades who retell his story ‘from many voices’.

The book takes the form of a travelogue, woven around a narrative retelling of the hostage situation and its catastrophic unravelling. Though different in approach, Kanaky reads as a continuation of the historical project begun with De nos frères. The careers of key military figures handling the hostage situation are traced back to the Algerian War, and Mitterrand, now President, returns as a target of critique, this time for his brutal handling of the situation (a timely flex of muscle on the eve of elections). The message is clear: despite official decolonization, or the shift from ‘colony’ to ‘overseas territory’, structures of imperialism do not disappear. They merely change form. 

In 2021, Andras published a pair of short books, Au loin le ciel du sud (The Distant Southern Sky) and Ainsi nous leur faisons la guerre (And So We Wage War on Them). The former tracks the shadows of a young, still-unknown Hô Chi Minh through leftist circles in early 1920’s Paris. Drawing on personal archives, police reports, and biographies, Andras, or rather, ‘you’ – the first-person is abandoned here – retrace Minh’s steps through a contemporary Paris animated by a new wave of struggle in the form of the Gilets Jaunes. The latter book is a triptych, composed of three historical scenes focusing on animal rights: the anti-vivisectionist ‘Brown Dog Affair’ led by Swedish Feminists in turn-of-the-century London; a 1985 raid on a testing lab at UC Riverside by the Animal Liberation Front; and the ill-fated flight of a slaughterhouse-bound cow through rural France in 2014. As with De nos frères and Kanaky, these works excavate minor figures, neglected events and hidden sites across space and time, gathering them into constellations of collective struggle. A new book on the French Revolution, Camille Desmoulins’s journal Le Vieux Cordelier, and the War in the Vendée is scheduled for publication next month.

In addition to his literary work, Andras writes regular journalism for the communist-affiliated press, with articles in L’Humanité including political commentary – on the Gilet Jaunes, Macronism, Israel-Palestine, to name a few – as well as a series of portraits of militant poets. For Regards, he has co-written several pieces with the sociologist Kaoutar Harchi, including an obituary of Zineb Redouane, an elderly Algerian woman killed by a tear gas canister thrown into her window by police during a Gilets Jaunes demonstration. Longer articles have appeared on the radical leftist site Lundimatin, notably an account of his time spent with the Zapatistas in Chiapas and a profile of the anti-speciesist group 269 Animal Liberation. Despite his reputation for secrecy, Andras has also given several interviews to leftist publications which offer insights into his influences (Césaire and Sartre are only the beginning of a much longer list which includes Bensaïd, Serge, Luxemburg…), politics and methods, and which allow one to approach his work through his own words.

Andras’s project might be broadly described as a form of radical poetic historiography. ‘I no doubt have a failed historian deep down in me’, he reports. Each book engages with embedded historical structures through patterns of repetition, erasure and what he calls history’s ‘esprit d’escalier’ – that is, its belated logic. Yet these are not reified into impassable monuments. They are approached by way of the countercurrent – the ultimately thwarted actions of the individual militant: Iveton, Dianou, Nguyên Ai Quôc, members of the Animal Liberation Front. ‘Great figures’ and cults of personality are distrusted. Andras is instead drawn to outsiders and underdogs (his interest, for instance, in the young Nguyên Ai Quôc rather than the ‘figure’ Hô Chi Minh). Historical failures are not bemoaned but embraced for their capacity to illuminate the broader mechanisms of the systems they confront. ‘Losing’, Andras suggests, ‘becomes an escape ladder. A way to reclaim one’s dignity when “victory” is the great standard of order.’

Structure and individual praxis are played against one another in his work to reveal forgotten lineages, historical constellations, unlikely proximities. As Andras puts it, ‘to speak of Dianou is also to speak of Balade in 1852’ (when the French first took present-day New Caledonia); ‘to speak of Fernand Iveton is also to speak of General Bourmont in 1830’ (when the French first laid siege on Algiers). In Kanaky, we are reminded of Louise Michel, deported with other Communards to New Caledonia, devoting herself to the cause of Kanak independence. In Ainsi nous leur faisons la guerre, feminist and animal liberation struggles over nearly a century and on both sides of the Atlantic are brought into alignment. In Au loin le ciel du sud,a walk through Paris activates strata of the city’s radical historical memory. 

Given the political and historical character of Andras’s works, one might ask why he has chosen literature – and with such a formally challenging style – as his primary medium. For one thing, a book like De nos frères little resembles the historical novel championed by Lukàcs. Rather than embracing the ‘mass experience of history itself’, it reaches outwards from the trajectory of a historical individual – but again, no great men here – to compose a social ecology and an embedded fragment of history. Andras’s books read like incisions, cutting against the grain of received wisdom. 

In interviews he has emphasised literature’s affective force and poetic language’s capacity to stimulate ambiguity. Literature provides access to ‘trembling, the je-ne-sais-pas, odour, the light which passes through and the glitch in the concept’; the novel ‘allows the expression of tensions, of friction and indecisions’. That is, something about poetic form – and this is apparent in the twists and folds of Andras’s syntax – resists categorical closure and insists upon remaining indecisive, in movement. We might just as well read this into Andras’s interest in reopening jettisoned cases, unearthing forgotten struggles, drawing out minor threads in grand narratives. He is clear, however, that the writer is not alone in this process, assigning them a specific place in the division of intellectual labour: 

The journalist examines, the historian elucidates, the militant elaborates, the poet seizes: it’s left to the writer to move amongst these four brothers: he has neither the reserves of the first, the distance of the second, the persuasive force of the third, nor the élan of the last. He has only his free rein and speaks directly to the skin, coming and going ­– even if this means limping – between gossip and certainty, belly cries and verdicts, with tearful eyes and the shade of trees.

Read on: NLR Editors ‘The Trial’, NLR I/6.

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In the Menagerie

Has there been a modern painter more obsessed with animals than Francis Bacon? The third room of Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, the vast, frustrating, often brilliant exhibition soon closing at London’s Royal Academy, is titled ‘Wildlife’. It is a menagerie. There are monkeys; owls; two greyhounds sprinting round a racetrack; a chicken carcass with a chimp’s mouth nailed to a crucifix; a dog pulled by a leash; another panting in the heat. Dog (1952), on loan from the Tate, delights in the surface shine of fur under sun. It is a marvel of sustained attentiveness, not just to the way that bodies react under heat and duress, but to the peculiar synergies between such observations and the material of oil paint. The face is endlessly reworked; thinned and smeared with rags and turpentine, the paint forms shadows that spill from the body and pool on the ground. By comparison, the rest of the painting has no density. The little cars that zip across their coastal highway in the background; the thin blue horizontal line for the sea; the ridiculous miniature palm tree; the massive stretches of empty, unprimed canvas that stand in for earth and sky: each of these devices insists on its own emptiness, on the artificiality of the painted image. Dog displays two sides of modernist art: at once sceptical of art’s connection to sensory experience, and utterly besotted with it.

‘Study for Chimpanzee’ (1957), © The Estate of Francis Bacon. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Bacon is one of very few artists whose commentaries on their own work are better than anything else that has been written about them (Matisse is another). He knew what he was talking about when he told the critic David Sylvester, adapting a phrase from Valéry, that he wanted ‘to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance’. In Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963), the sprinting dogs are blurs. A foreleg bends back and upwards as it slaps off the turf. Force is conjured out of a single thinned smear of mixed cream and black paint. Curved shadows veer around the left-hand side of the track, like tyre-marks left by a race car. These touches are extreme, even crass. There is something cartoonish to Bacon at his best. The paintings show a love of exaggeration that extends from their brilliant colours to their use of citation. He never lost his early fascination with impressionism. The landscape behind the dogs, with its bouncing pink grasses and crazily leaning tree, is like something out of the kitschiest Renoir.

There was more to painting animals than immediacy. The hang in the RA’s third room makes a claim for what the stakes were. Beside Landscape near Malabata is a work made five years earlier, Figures in a Landscape (1956-7). Both paintings place their figures within a centrifugal armature, a broad, circular ground that sweeps its contents into motion. Both make beautiful landscapes out of the remnants and constraints of cubist space. But in place of dogs sprinting, Figures in a Landscape gives us two men, one crouched and reaching between the knees of the other where they poke up from the deep grass. Dogs and men; man and beast; the greyhound race and the sexual tryst in the park – with such equivalences, we arrive at the exhibition’s argumentative crux. The basic question it poses is this: how deep, for Bacon, did the analogy go? All the way down? Did the basic animality of human existence imply no substantive difference between human and animal life? These are difficult questions, and I do not think Bacon ever arrived at satisfactory answers. Whenever he pretended that he had, the results were not auspicious. A painting like Two Studies from the Human Body (1974-5) shows the risks. Its Darwinism is obtuse. The figure in the foreground swings his knuckles like a gorilla. Fur sprouts on the side of his body. His mouth has a rat’s tooth. Behind him, a trapeze artist dissolves into primordial ooze. Gone is the precision that had stretched the surface of a painting like Dog as tight as a drum. In its place a plangent existentialism – affirming the brute in man! – takes centre stage.

‘Study for Bullfight No. 1’ (1969), © The Estate of Francis Bacon. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Two Studies from the Human Body shows Bacon on autopilot, imitating himself. It comes from a later phase in his career, when he was already feted, imitated: recognised, along with Lucien Freud, as the greatest painter of his generation. He painted better when he allowed for more ambiguity. In the trio of paintings titled Study for Bullfight (1969), united here for the first time since they were made, the bull’s pirouette conveys the spiral logic of each painting – from the circular arena within which the contest takes place to the thematics of human brutality that encompass the spectacle. There is panache to the curators’ decision to hang these canvases on three sides of the gallery’s central rotunda. Their spacing forces the viewer to pace in a circle, like one of the bulls lunging after its matador (though I still wished for the chance to see the three images side by side on the same wall, if only to get them all in view at once). In each painting it is the distance between bullfighter and bull that is at issue. Often there is little to speak of. In Study for Bullfight No.1 the line of the bull’s motion connects directly with the matador’s chest. His features are whipped sideways, lips puckered as if he had been punched. In Study No.2, the man seems to have the upper hand in the contest; there is enough space between him and the bull for his rear to come into view. In the final Study there is little doubt that the bull has bested the man. The human body melts away before the horns. The face is a grim shadow. Bacon made frequent use of Nazi imagery – photographs from Nuremberg shared space on his studio floor with those of rhinoceros and x-ray patients. The screen-like towers behind the first two Studies show figures from the rallies as if from a Leni Riefenstahl reel. The presence of a crowd of baying national socialists suggests one more twist in the knot between man and beast; Nazism was the ultimate historical instance in which the pursuit of social Darwinism tried to transform human beings into animals. But the figures are ghosts; they flicker as if in projection. The swastikas are hollowed out. They suggest a different register of experience, besides and apart from the heat of the bullfight.

Like so many modernists (Goya, Picasso, Hemingway…), Bacon was drawn to the bullfight because it mixed sex with death, erotic display with ritual killing. In such images, he took up the more brutish aspects of human existence, but in such a way as to paradoxically highlight those orders of experience that are not reducible to animality. Violence and sexual pleasure might be felt by human and animal alike; but they are lived differently. Take Figures in a Landscape once again. The posture of the crouching man is simian, his spine elongated. The way he reaches out an arm while tucking his face into his armpit has something in common with the ape man of Two Studies. Naked, Bacon’s figure takes refuge in the crevices of his own body. His legs are tensed as if to hop. But the impetus for such concealment could not be further from the animal world. Chimpanzees do not hide themselves in order to copulate. Plunged in the multicoloured grasses, Bacon’s two figures pursue a desperate secrecy. And that secrecy, that fugitive intimacy, is part of their humanity, part of their belonging to a complex, social world of norms, prohibitions, and repressions. Transgression – the expression and performance of forbidden desire – is policed in this social world. Yet it is also realisable; the policing is never absolute. There is an unspeakable gentleness to the manner in which the lowermost man in Two Figures in the Grass (1954) turns his head towards his lover’s. Nose touches ear. The painting’s rendering of the human body as a mass of heaving muscle takes on new meaning as a result.

‘Portrait of George Dyer Crouching’ (1966), © The Estate of Francis Bacon. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Bacon told Michael Peppiatt that before deciding to become a painter he spent his early twenties in Paris reading Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche who wrote of the ‘painful embarrassment’ posed to humanism by Darwin’s discoveries, Nietzsche who gave fullest recognition to the challenge offered to all elevations of humanity by our common animal heritage. But he also saw distinctions. In his second Untimely Meditation, Nietzsche wrote that:

the animal lives unhistorically: for it is contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left over; it does not know how to dissimulate, it conceals nothing and at every instant appears wholly as what it is; it can therefore never be anything but honest. Man, on the other hand, braces himself against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark, invisible burden which he can sometimes appear to disown and which in traffic with his fellow men he is only too glad to disown, so as to excite their envy.

A self-proclaimed ‘latecomer’, Bacon knew what disowning human history could amount to. He was conscious of arriving at modern art in the wake of its great innovations – separated from its triumphs by the gulf of a disastrous war. Each one of the 45 paintings in this exhibition reveals a preoccupation with art history that goes far beyond the usual citations of Velázquez and Muybridge. History mattered to Bacon, and it worked in the opposite direction to animality. His Nuremberg figures loomed large for a reason – they are visions of a society hell-bent on ‘natural order’, a totalitarian social organisation in which the state holds secrets, but its citizens have none. In their fugitivity and dishonesty, in their (temporary) disavowals of their own animality, his human figures reject such enforcement. They are redoubts against the nightmares.

Read on: Julian Stallabrass, ‘The Hockney Industry’, NLR 73.

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After Life

I suspect that most people would rather live in a work of fiction than in reality, but the narrator of Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel, 10:04, fails to appreciate his good fortune. He is lucky enough to find himself in a book by one of the supplest stylists in America, but often, he seems intent on clambering out of art and into life. Not only does he bear such an uncanny resemblance to his non-fictional creator that the two threaten to bleed together, but, on a series of visits to his moribund mentor, he reflects that if he were the one on his deathbed, ‘I wouldn’t even think about literature, would just be asking for morphine and distracting myself, if possible, with reality TV.’

This scene could not contrast more starkly with a strikingly similar sequence in Pure Colour, Sheila Heti’s latest genre-defying effusion. The book’s protagonist, Mira, is tasked with tending to her father in his final weeks, but her loss does not convince her of the frivolity of aesthetics. Instead, ‘it seemed to her the week her father was dying that nothing mattered but art and literature’. Heti’s, whose own father died when she first set to work on the book, is no stranger to the sharp bite of grief, but she is nonetheless unequivocal about beauty’s primacy. Mira’s stifling depression lifts only when she marvels at the Christmas lights in her neighbourhood and becomes ‘choked up with gratitude over all those tiny shining souls that adorned the trees and the falling-down porches’.

Both Heti and Lerner are often hailed as progenitors of the slippery non-genre of novel-adjacent meditations commonly known as ‘auto-fiction’. Auto-fictionalists – are they novelists, exactly? – are defined by their propensity to draw heavily on their own lives, yielding books – are they novels, exactly? – that are potent blends of truth, embellishment, and outright fabrication, not unlike the reality TV that Lerner’s narrator believes he will crave when he dies. Unsurprisingly, autofiction is alternately praised and chastised for its supposed impatience with invention. In his 2012 review of Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010), which declares itself ‘a novel from life’ in a provocative subtitle, the New Yorker’s James Wood cautioned against indulging too greedy an appetite for reality. ‘The writer who is seeking “life”, who is trying to write “from life”, is always unappeased, because no bound manuscript can ever be “real” enough’, he warns. The novelist would do better to make peace with the unabashed unreality of fiction.

Wood has many canny insights into Heti’s work – for instance, that her novels consist largely of what he calls ‘essayettes’ – but, fundamentally, he gets her project backwards. Heti mines her own biography not in order to subordinate fiction to life but in order to subordinate life to fiction. As she explains in a 2019 Yale Review essay about painting and her father’s death, ‘to draw your life is to attempt to transform it with your magic. Your life invariably comes to resemble the depiction layered on top of it’. Accordingly, Heti submits reality to scrupulous aestheticization.

Wood might counter that she is known for formal experiments in which she seems to cede all agency: in How Should a Person Be?, she transcribes a number of actual conversations and emails with her friends, and in her most recent book, Motherhood (2018), she asks questions and then flips a coin so as to allow ‘the universe’ to answer. In truth, however, her work subtly yet ferociously asserts the primacy of the artist at every turn. Dialogue is rearranged, the results of coin flips richly reinterpreted. Nothing – even a chance occurrence – is safe from authorial appropriation. Both How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood are not concessions to randomness but records of a restless intelligence at work. In both of them, and now in Pure Colour, life is justified only as a basis for art.

* * *

If Heti is hostile to fiction at all, it is not in virtue of favouring truth over imaginative acrobatics, but in virtue of preferring argument to narrative. Her books are typically organized around questions rather than events: How Should a Person Be? asks how people in general, and artists in particular, ought to cultivate their identities, while Motherhood asks whether women in general, and artists in particular, should have children. On the face of it, Pure Colour deviates from this model: it is less first-personal, more fanciful, and even less readily categorizable. But its sense of humour and its animating curiosity are the same, and though it is not quite as explicit about the question at its core, it too centres on urgent uncertainties. In various ways, it asks: How important is art, really? Is it important enough to continue to matter at times of true tragedy? Is it the kind of thing we will care about on our death beds, or will we crave reality TV? And perhaps most importantly, as the world is burning, will there be any role for art after the destruction of humanity?

In Motherhood, Heti wondered if ‘art is what humans do’, and the universe, or at least its numismatic ambassador, answered affirmatively; in Pure Colour, she graduates to asserting, ‘we make art because we’re humans, and that’s what humans do’. But this step towards certainty is also an advance into more elaborate confusion. If art is what humans do, what will become of it when mankind is extinguished in a climate disaster? ‘When you are sad about the humans being gone, it’s the art you think of that won’t be seen, not the humans, who maybe don’t deserve to be here’, Mira’s father tells her from beyond the grave. Mira knows – and tries to accept – that ‘art is made for our situation. Whatever comes will be another situation, and our art won’t be needed for it’. But she cannot reconcile herself to the prospect of art’s needlessness, and neither can her creator. The proof is in the pudding – in Pure Colour, a work of art that clearly aspires to endure.

Part theological meditation, part religious fable, it is a book so whimsical and so conspicuously strange that it would court ridicule if it were not so self-aware and, vitally, so funny. Indeed, it is less of a novel than a sort of theodicy, reminiscent of a medieval mystical tract. Its central premise, presented in simple and solemn language, is that the universe is God’s artistic creation. He has stepped away to contemplate it ‘like a painter standing back from the canvas. This is the moment we are living in – the moment of God standing back’. Now that God has a chance to survey His work, He is disappointed. Like all artists, he is incapable of achieving perfection without ample revision. We are unlucky enough to reside in ‘the first draft of existence’, where ‘nothing would be as we hoped it would be’.

All of the action in Pure Colour is staged somewhere in this draft, though the novel’s universe is difficult to place. Sometimes, the book’s characters seem to inhabit a world as ecologically ravaged as our own – a world where ‘all the water had plastic in it, even the safe water that came in plastic bottles’. Sometimes, however, Mira and her father seem to live somewhere distant, surreal, even mythological. ‘Friendships were different then’, writes Heti with dark, vatic emphasis.

Whenever and wherever Pure Colour is located, the events it relates are hazy and allegorical, perhaps because the first draft of the world could not fail to be somewhat roughly sketched. When the book opens, Mira works in a lamp shop; from there, she proceeds to the highly competitive ‘American Academy of American Critics’, where students must develop a ‘style of writing and thinking that could survive down the ages, and at the same time penetrate their own generation so incisively’. Here, she meets and falls in love with a woman named Annie. Then her father dies, and Mira’s spirit joins his in – of all places! – a leaf dangling over a lake. In this unlikely situation, their thoughts are scrambled together: ideas unseparated by paragraph breaks and uncontained by quotation marks run together, sometimes with trite results. Eventually, Mira is coaxed back among the living, but not before she has mustered the sort of New Age musings found in horoscopes, for instance when she reflects that the ‘loving part’ of us ‘shines through us so beautifully’.

But Pure Colour is more concerned with cosmology than it is with the jumbled reflections a dead man and his daughter might voice from within a leaf. It opens with a strange and compelling taxonomy: ‘God appears, splits, and manifests as three critics in the sky’. There is ‘a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in its arms’. A bird is ‘interested in beauty, order, harmony and meaning. They look at nature from on high, in an abstracted way, and consider the world as if from a distance’. Fish, in contrast, are concerned with ‘fairness and justice here on earth’, while a bear loves one person in particular.

Which is best? At points, Heti gestures unconvincingly at pluralism: ‘fish, birds, and bears are all equally important in the eye of God’, she writes. But for all her attempts at neutrality, she cannot conceal her own affiliation. Mira is a bird, and Heti is clearly on the side of her protagonist. By her lights, ‘God is most proud of creation as an aesthetic thing’. ‘Those born from the bird egg are the most grateful’, for the world is beautiful, despite its many moral and political failings. People err, kill, disappoint, and even die in droves, but art lasts, undimmed, far outstripping its sordid creators.  

* * *

One reason that a bird appreciates art above all else is that it is less fragile than earthly ephemera, among them the human body. In Motherhood, Heti reasons that a baby is prey to all manner of diseases, whereas a great book is immune. Mira reaches similar conclusions as she watches her father disintegrate. She lies in bed alongside him and thinks

how great art was… and how faithful; how faithful a book was, and how strong, a place you could be safe, apart from the world, held inside a world that would never grow weak, and which could pass through wars, massacres and floods ­– could pass through all of human history, and the integrity of its soul would stay strong.

Yet even if art is more durable than any one of its makers or appreciators, it depends on the continued existence of an audience of some sort. Perhaps for this reason, Heti makes several attempts to imagine consciousness without humanity. In Motherhood, the narrator’s boyfriend urges her to write a book about the French mystic Simone Weil, who yearned to blot out her individuality so that she could be more wholly enfolded into the universe. Perhaps Pure Colour, which envisions consciousness sustained by a sentient leaf, is a version of that book.

It is not clear, however, that a leaf could care about art, even if it could function as a seat of experience. After all, art is what humans do. It responds to human imperatives, not the unknowable needs of a leaf. Despite her devotion to her father, Mira never manages to feel at home in so vegetal an environment. ‘It takes a certain discipline to be dead. She never had much discipline’ – so she returns to navigate the flawed first draft of her life. 

* * *

Does Mira’s departure from the leaf signify resignation? Is the answer to Pure Colour’s guiding question that art cannot outlive us, that it must end when we end? Bird that I am, I do not think so: art is for humans, but not for our contingent parts. Or, as Heti herself puts it, ‘Art is not made for living bodies – it is made for the cold, eternal soul’. Perhaps literature could not survive the demolition of the spirit, but it can survive the demise of the body, whose inner essence, ever avian, swoops up and away. ‘The idea of the thing is so much more shimmering than the thing itself’, writes Heti in her Yale Review essay. Around visible objects hovers something better and more indestructible – namely, their fictionalization. Heti writes to transmute a frail physicality into an ethereal permanence, and she writes about her own life because she hopes to etherize it, saving it from disintegration by transforming it into spirit.

Why should we believe that there is any such thing? We lack material evidence. But as Mira tells her father, ‘I don’t think the scientific method is the only way to prove that something is real’. More real than reality, she proposes, is ‘imagination’. We should believe in the soul’s invulnerability because it is more beautiful to do so ­– and for Heti, beauty is what confers truth. Whether beauty in fact confers truth, then, is of course irrelevant; what matters is only that this is a beautiful idea.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Caution, Metaphors At Work’, NLR 127.

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Metabolizing Nostalgia

When Joan Micklin Silver died in 2020, she was justly celebrated as a pioneering figure in American cinema. Born in 1935 to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Silver was one of a number of female directors – among them Elaine May, Claudia Weill and Barbara Loden – who worked contemporaneously with the vaunted New Hollywood movement, but never enjoyed the studio largesse of their male peers. They received a different kind of bequest: the lacunae that blight their filmographies. After the early-career triumphs of Girlfriends (1978) and Wanda (1970), Weill and Loden were unable to break into Hollywood; May was driven from the industry following the box office disaster of Ishtar (1987); and Silver, too, found her career unceremoniously truncated after Crossing Delancey (1988), and she was relegated to forgettable comedies and hired-gun TV gigs. Prior to this, however, she managed to eke out a number of remarkable films, each a triumph in the face of a misogynistic industry. Yet these works sit uneasily with any straightforward portrayal of Silver as a feminist. The latent strain of conservatism that courses through her films was perhaps difficult to detect for the same reason that it continues to be peculiar: it cuts across familiar political fault lines. A keen awareness of the corrosive effects of liberalization is at the core of her cinema, which seems at times to be pushing against the cultural currents that made her own career as a director possible.

In their broad outlines, Silver’s feature films follow the template of the unbalanced or one-sided romance. Her debut, Hester Street (1975), recently released on Blu-Ray in a new restoration, transplants this emotional dynamic into the Lower East Side of the late 19th Century. Jake is a Jewish sweatshop worker, eager to assimilate and shed the trappings of his ethnic background. His wife’s unexpected arrival in New York proves to be an unwelcome intrusion, as Jake has started an affair with a more cosmopolitan woman, Mamie. As the film unfolds, its centre of gravity shifts towards his spurned wife, Gitl, and her attempts to render herself acceptable to Jake’s new standards. The tension between Jake’s zeal for modernization and Gitl’s clinging to tradition is channelled through the question of how she wears her hair. Jake wants her to abandon the wigs and kerchiefs that she uses in accordance with orthodox Judaism; she resists at first, but eventually the pressure of sexual competition pushes her to compromise on her piety. Throughout her other films, Silver would continue to convert portraits of dyadic intimacy into vehicles for exploring the tensions of historical progress. In the same way that Jake is torn between the two women, and between the worlds they represent, Silver’s films share in his indecision; they can’t quite make up their mind whether the new ways are better than the old.

Another early effort, Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, also portrays a woman’s decision to change her hairstyle as a vessel for the Hegelian world-spirit’s ineluctable forward movement. Shelley Duvall plays a shy transplant from Eau Claire named Bernice, visiting her sophisticated cousin in St. Paul and struggling to fit in. (In an indication of Silver’s focus on the ways that race intersects with social ostracization, the cousin attributes Bernice’s awkwardness to ‘that crazy Indian blood in her.’) Trying to make herself more popular with the boys, Bernice undertakes a full-scale renovation of her personality, which climaxes in cutting her hair into a bob even though she views it as ‘immoral’. Silver doesn’t depict the haircut directly; instead, she gives us the horrified reactions of the onlookers in the barber shop, who evidently believe themselves to be witnessing some kind of ritual slaughter. Which, from the retrograde perspective the film encourages us to inhabit, they are – the sacrifice of a girl’s virtue on the altar of sexual liberation.

Things start to get more properly Hegelian (which is to say, more dialectical) by the time Silver makes Between the Lines (1977), which centres on a Boston newspaper called The Back Bay Mainline, a stand-in for legendary counter-cultural weeklies like The Village Voice. John Heard plays a burned-out investigative reporter named Harry, stuck in an on-again off-again relationship with a staff photographer, Abbie. These days, Harry produces barely any writing at all, an affliction that he shares with several other staffers, such as Jeff Goldblum’s music critic Max, who skulks around the office trawling for LPs to resell. All things considered, the paper’s editor is remarkably tolerant of these layabouts. But from the start, it is clear that this more forgiving era is already over. Suffused with an elegiac atmosphere, the film abounds with wistful reminiscences about ‘what the Mainline used to be.’ The staff all agree that the paper’s best days are behind it, with one of them trying to sell a book about ‘the death of the counterculture’.

The final blow comes when the paper is bought by a new publisher who makes advertising the top priority and fires Harry for asking impertinent questions. This imposition of fiscal discipline sends convulsions through the lumbering institution of the Mainline. Ominously, Max appears in the film’s closing scene without his signature red jacket, having swapped it for a more understated houndstooth blazer – a casualty of the paper’s new era of buttoned-up professionalism. But, as the credits roll, he is still not above squeezing a couple of drinks out of an admiring fan. His exacting of this tribute is a little sleazy, but it is also a holdover from that older age of journalism, and a variation on one of Silver’s persistent motifs: the way that institutional structures facilitate interpersonal encounters and forge enduring bonds as a result. When Harry and Abbie leave the bar arm-in-arm (as Max pleads with them to buy him a drink), it seems like their relationship has finally settled into an equilibrium. What outlasts an institution after it has been washed away by the inexorable tide of the market, Silver suggests, are the relationships that it made possible. And insofar as this kind of conservatism is rooted in an urge to protect the beautiful things of the past from the forward march of progress, it seems broadly amenable to a leftist sensibility.

What is perhaps more difficult to metabolize is Silver’s nostalgia for an older model of organising sexual relations, grounded in the specific customs and lifeways of a contained social world. In her most widely celebrated film, Crossing Delancey, Silver returns to the modern-day landscape of Hester Street. Isabelle (Amy Irving) lives on the Upper West Side and works in an indie bookstore where she coordinates, as she puts it, ‘the most prestigious reading series in New York’. The film follows her half-hearted attempts to fend off a suitor whom she in fact seems to be falling for. Her resistance stems from the fact that the match was set up by her grandmother through a Jewish marriage broker; she furiously exclaims, ‘This is not how I live. This is a hundred years ago!’ The film projects that cleavage between tradition and modernity onto the landscape of the city. Isabelle somewhat snobbishly points out to the man she’s been set up with, a Lower East Side pickle vendor named Sam (Paul Riegert), that ‘I don’t live down here. I live uptown’. The contrast is vividly illustrated in a scene depicting her journey to her grandmother’s apartment. When she emerges from the Delancey Street subway station, the proliferation of Hebrew shop signs and sidewalk vendors indicates that she’s now in foreign territory, where the codes of the modern world don’t apply. To cross Delancey Street is not only to traverse a physical boundary, but a temporal one. Isabelle clutches a book by the sophisticated writer she has a crush on, as if it’s a lucky charm warding off the ghosts of her past.

Those ghosts are also of a city that has long since disappeared. The film’s Lower East Side is still a working-class Jewish neighbourhood, populated by family-run businesses that exemplify an older model of exchange not yet colonised by neoliberalism’s ruthless logic. Especially striking is the way these businesses simultaneously operate as a kind of social infrastructure, routing intimacy through the pathways carved by commercial transactions. This network encompasses both Sam’s pickle shop and the marriage broker, who is, of course, running a business, one that works to forge the kinship relations sustaining the community. This marks a shift in how Silver pictures the relationship between society and the economy from Between the Lines. Here, the free market does not subsume and destroy interpersonal relations in order to remake them in its own image, but is rather ‘embedded’ within them, to use Polanyi’s term; these two spheres fit together in an interlocking, mutually constitutive relation, comprising a locally rooted network of giving and receiving. But if this all appears rather quaint and benign when counterposed to the rapacious financialization portrayed in Between the Lines, it is still a societal model that relies on racially policed boundaries to maintain its integrity.

Serving as a kind of emissary for this alternative political economy is Isabelle’s grandmother, whom she calls Bubbie, played by a legend of the Yiddish theatre named Reizl Bozyk in her only film role. The archetypal meddling relative, her most audacious effort comes in the film’s last scene, as she makes a final gambit to get Isabelle and Sam together by feigning dementia. The path she sees from point A to point B is not entirely clear. It seems to involve forcing Isabelle to articulate the role she sees Sam playing in her life: ‘Who is this man?’ Bubbie asks, deviously. If there’s a way to interpret this as just another instance of her charming quirkiness, there’s also a morbid undercurrent to it: what ultimately pushes the couple together is the spectre of memory loss, or the possibility of cultural erasure made frighteningly concrete. Seen in this light, Bubbie’s behaviour looks almost like a threat: that’s a nice cultural heritage you’ve got there, it would be a shame if something happened to it. She thereby does her part to preserve the racially delimited neighbourhood, in which commercial exchange and social reproduction are bound together in a synchronous loop.

Throughout her career, Silver was preoccupied with the myriad ways in which social worlds could be tethered to physical settings, and the question of what kinds of intimacies could flower in these habitats. In the absence of a neighbourhood like Crossing Delancey’s, that nurturing role is often played by the workplace, and one way to understand Between the Lines is as a paean to the fragile possibilities to be found there. Silver would again take up this setting in another collaboration with Heard titled Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979). But if Between the Lines ran on the fumes of a prelapsarian world, Chilly Scenes takes place long after the fall. Heard plays an alienated government functionary, drinking on the clock in an office geared towards maximizing productivity – what the Mainline might look like if it was bought out by Alden Global Capital. The tone is almost apocalyptic, as characters struggle to get by in a bleak Salt Lake City on the cusp of Reaganism. The living arrangements of these characters differ from those in Silver’s previous films – single-family homes, rather than communal neighbourhoods – which seems to suggest a link between this film’s atmosphere of spiritual malaise and the social atomisation of suburban sprawl. It is important too that the characters play a direct role in creating this environment: Heard’s civil servant works in the city’s ‘Department of Development’, while his lover’s husband sells A-frame houses. Their emotional desolation is in this sense a self-inflicted wound, something they’ve done to themselves, just as it’s Heard’s own narcissism that drives away his lover. The built environment parodies his sins – reflecting his isolation back at him – at the same time as it exacts payment for them.  

Whether it is the immigrant enclave or the alt-weekly’s office, what these settings share is the degree of protection they offer from the ravages of liberalization. Notably, Hester Street was financed by Silver’s husband, a real estate developer, after being turned down by multiple studios on account of her gender – ‘women directors are one more problem we don’t need’, one executive told her – which may partly account for her nostalgic view of the shelter traditional structures can provide from an inhospitable economy. But when she alchemized these circumstances into her films, Silver saw both sides of the issue. If a gendered relation of dependence was the condition of possibility for her own career, that same dynamic is reproduced in Between the Lines in the form of staff writer Laura and her boyfriend Michael, who tries to convince her to move to New York with him when he gets a book deal. She refuses at first but eventually gives in, and Silver sees the tragedy of the situation that forces her to reluctantly accept her subordination. In Hester Street, Mamie stresses the importance of financial autonomy for a woman – ‘I don’t want no man to say, “I had to take her just as she was, without a penny.”’ – which makes it all the more surprising when she blows her hard-won savings to pay for Jake’s divorce so that they can get married. When abstract principles collide with messy reality, the allure of tradition often proves irresistibly strong.

Silver, though, never moralized in either direction. Even Gitl, a seemingly archetypal embodiment of tradition, finds it within herself to welcome the benefits of progress when she leaves Jake for his roommate, a devout Talmudic scholar. Insofar as marrying for love is a modern invention, this pairing is an uneasy amalgamation of past and present. If there is anything in Silver’s worldview approaching the rigidity of dogma, it is her conviction that the clock can never be turned back. At one point, Gitl marvels at the self-enclosed homogeneity of the Lower East Side: ‘Rivington Street, Delancey Street – everywhere Jews!’ Even in 1975, the line would have carried the frisson of dramatic irony, and one need only walk down those streets today, taking in the odd mixture of Chinese restaurants and soaring high-rises, to see how much things have continued to change. Silver’s nostalgia might be intense, even to the point of being reactionary – but it will never be irrelevant.  

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘Hollywood’s New Wave’, NLR 121.

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Sharp Edges

Beware of books with ‘paradise’ in the title. Fernanda Melchor’s third novel, about the living hell and unconscious death wish of two boys in the tropics, voices the furious emptiness that defines lives without prospects in today’s stalled Mexico, where inequality, social decomposition (especially in the countryside, drained of adult males following the destruction of communal land tenure in the 1990s), political corruption and the abdication of institutions have turned a once centralized country into a patchwork of narco-regions. These conditions are especially acute in Melchor’s home state of Veracruz, where her work is set. If Mexican literature has been overwhelmingly urban over the last fifty years – and the cities are still comparatively functional – Melchor’s nose for national decay leads her to provincial small towns and edgelands.

Melchor was born in 1982 and studied journalism at the University of Veracruz. Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists outside official war zones; nonetheless, while working in PR at the same university, she soon began to research hybrid, non-fiction crónicas, later collected in Aquí no es Miami (2013), as well as publish instantly acclaimed fiction. Though she has since moved inland to Puebla – and is currently part of the Artists-in-Berlin programme – her writing remains steeped in the heat, lust and precarity of the eastern seaboard.

Life’s blights are always conveyed from within her characters’ minds, mostly in free indirect style, mixed with direct or reported speech. Melchor has created a lusciously carnal brand of orality (as she has pointed out, few would understand the way Veracruzans really talk). One novel has no paragraph breaks at all, and her sentences can be extremely long, in an overarching past tense that makes a change from the primacy of the present in contemporary fiction.

That’s why he only ever started drinking once he was safely on the dock: he’d sooner endure that bitch of a thirst than the fear of being spotted by one of the residents or that prick Urquiza. Once there he would crack open a beer, or on a good day take a good glug directly from whatever bottle of hard stuff he’d been able to afford, and wait for the warm, cottony relief to envelop his entire body, cushioning him from the world’s sharp edges, and he’d pull out a cigarette from its fresh packet and …

Or, more typically:

… and all he could think about was sticking two fingers up to them all, quitting his miserable, piss-pay job and punching that idiot Urquiza on his way out, a quick one-two to his smug fucking egghead: who’ll wash your car now, you fucking faggot …

The slide in and out of crude subjectivities of recollection has pedigree. José Revueltas’s sublime horror of a prison fable, The Hole (1969), mingles turpid streams of narrative and consciousness in a way that surely influenced Melchor. The technique was earlier employed by Vargas Llosa in his tremendous second novel, The Green House (1965) – an interiority inspired, like much of Latin America’s ‘boom’ experimentation, by Faulkner. In the acknowledgments of her Hurricane Season (2017) – shortlisted for the Booker International Prize in 2020 – Melchor mentions García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), but she doesn’t adopt its lyricism. If her work risks airlessness with its identity of form and content – violent experience expressed in violent language – it makes up for this with an irresistible propulsive energy.

The novels differ more in their structures than in their psychic worlds. Her debut, Falsa liebre (2013) moves between two pairs of characters whose paths finally cross; Hurricane Season is polyphonic, each rambling chapter told by a different person to cast light, or rather darkness, on a local witch’s murder; Paradais emanates entirely from the mind of sixteen-year-old Polo, the gardener at a gated community called Paradise (the title is the phonetic spelling in Spanish). Yet its dynamics are those of a two-hander. Where Hurricane Season shuffles between the viewpoints of a connected but riven group of villagers, variously deranged by desire and despair, Paradais rests on opposites of poor and rich: the proud, fed-up Polo and his unlikely boon companion, the abject, repulsive Franco, who lives with his grandparents in the posh development, and is referred to as ‘fatboy’. In fact, though neither would notice, they are similar. Both are loners, both have been expelled from school (next term, Franco will be sent to a punitive military academy), and both identify fulfilment with an impossible dream.

For Polo, it is a kind of nirvana on the river, independence at the tiller of the boat his feared but loved grandfather promised to build them. But Grandfather died, and with him the dream. For Franco, it is sex with his neighbour, the classy Señora Marián whose ‘blow-job lips’ and ‘sumptuous tits’ obsess him to the point of spoiling ordinary porn. There is just one, early passage where we enter Franco’s mind and become privy to his single concern. The rest of the time we only see him through Polo’s contemptuous eyes, ‘his love handles and his weeping pimples and his sad manboobs that wobbled obscenely each time he moved his hips’. Franco’s monomania, fed by boozing with Polo on the dock every night, grows into a reckless plan to rape Marián. Polo goes along with it, for the sake of the jewels he could steal as a calling card to the narcos he imagines impressing. Yet he also claims never to have taken fatboy seriously. The whole novel is presented as a self-justification in flashback, often repeating its first sentence – ‘It was all fatboy’s fault, that’s what he would tell them’ – and rhetorically demanding more than once ‘how the fuck was he supposed to know what the crazy prick would be capable of doing in order to bone that bitch. Who could have known he really meant what he said?’

Naturally, the plan goes horribly wrong. Narrated in a long, strobe-like sequence of what Polo remembers as ‘almost soundless instants’, their blunders in the family’s house involve much pathos (tying up the young sons), much gore (everyone but Polo dies, including Franco), and even some ghastly comedy, as when he helps subdue the woman Franco had expected would cooperate: ‘I told you just the hands, for fuck’s sake, how am I supposed to fuck her if you tie her legs together?

Polo escapes the scene by swimming across the Jamapa river, the place he associates with peace and happiness, and persuades himself he has been cleansed. The dissociation from reality that afflicts both adolescents peaks on the last page, as the survivor returns calmly to his workplace the next day in ‘the comforting certainty of his total innocence’. This is unlikely to wash with the police, for the impunity that coddles the top layers of Mexican criminality does not extend to the bottom. Coolly non-judgmental herself, Melchor leaves us to grapple with the matter of personal responsibility. The boy’s craven self-exculpations, for instance: there are surely some broader excuses for him, that occur only to us. Is it his fault that the generation of multi-skilled, self-reliant men like his grandfather has passed nothing down? The political and economic backdrop is never explicit in Melchor, but its repercussions touch all her characters. It is due to the few options available for women if all that awaits Polo at home, a place he avoids by getting drunk, is a nagging mother and a detested older cousin, Zorayda, who once seduced him and is now idle and pregnant, about to ‘saddle him with that kid who, as far as he knew, could be pretty much anyone’s in town’. It is due to the failings of public education and the few legal options for rudderless boys like him that he is forced to support both women with the exploitative, humiliating job at Paradise.

In this senseless space, void of institutional, traditional or ethical parameters, the logic of cause and effect has dissolved, so it’s easy for characters to make crazy choices with no sense of consequence. A darkly comic scene at Walmart brings this home. The boys fill a trolley with equipment for the night’s larks: packing tape, later swapped for what the assistant helpfully identifies as ‘kidnapper tape’, torches, black trousers and hoodies, black tights for balaclavas. Polo is briefly terrified – ‘it was so obvious what they wanted all that for’. But nothing happens. Conversely, Polo ignores the glaring consequences for his best friend Milton of working with the drug gangs (coyly italicized as ‘them’). Milton has become a wreck, but he drives a showy SUV, and so Polo clings blindly to the suicidal illusion that they might offer the deliverance he seeks in the temporary numbness of drinking, which ‘was never enough to knock him out completely, to send the whole world packing, to switch off completely, be free’.

Anxious, performative machismo is the great underlying theme of Melchor’s writing. Misogyny permeates Mexican society, epitomized by the hundreds of ‘femicides’ that first became notorious, along with the shocking official inaction, in the northern-border factory district in the 1990s. Melchor’s men may hate most other men, but they hate women absolutely, qua women; their bodies inspire horror, as when Polo imagines ‘the murky, yellowish fluid filling Zorayda’s revolting stomach’. Meanwhile Melchor’s women have internalized the culture to be as mean, libidinous and foul-mouthed as any man – though, crucially, they often accept responsibility, and do not see themselves as victims. Some of her more towering females merge with the mythic.

Thus, the murdered recluse around whom Hurricane Season revolves is not the classic victim of femicide – young, semi-emancipated yet vulnerable – but a powerful healer and abortionist who convened orgies in her mansion, seducing both sexes, and is believed to have pots of money stashed away, like an ogre. Likewise, the sight of Señora Marián brandishing a knife dripping with gore at the top of the stairs merges for Polo with the Bloody Countess legend that always scared him on the way to the dock. And Milton’s drug boss is a fearsome young woman.

Paradais reads more easily than its predecessor, lacking Hurricane’s bewildering profusion. But it is slighter: the narrator is eaten by resentment, something necessarily repetitive. The other fellow, forever wanking, farting and wiping away drool, is a caricature, even if he marks an important divorce of depravity from deprivation. The translator Sophie Hughes, who gave us Hurricane, once more provides a ringing version of Melchor’s orality. My only reservation is that it reads so much more coarsely in English than in Spanish, hitting a maximalist note all the time. Terms like pinche or pendejo are everyday speech in Mexican – it’s just a sweary lingo. Every vieja is not, as here, a ‘bitch’ and few uses of cabrón, an interpellation that peppers friendly chat, warrant the here inevitable ‘asshole’. Even a harmless phrase like ‘sabría Dios el motivo’ (‘God knows why’) is rendered as ‘who the fuck knows why’.

In more nuanced language, the work would be just as unsettling. Latin American literature today is full of transgressive female writers concerned with cruelty, Ariana Harwicz and Selma Almada to name just two. Like Melchor’s, their refusal to comfort or spare the reader in any way is what makes them so exciting seen from an Anglo-American panorama where the redemptive and uplifting threaten to kill us with kindness.

Read on: Al Giordano, ‘Mexico’s Presidential Swindle’, NLR 41.