Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: literature

Why not to write: a confession

Once you’ve done a little writing you start to hate words, really hate them, the kind of frothing obsessive hate that might be love if you could only push it a little further, but you can’t, something’s stopping you. The words are everywhere, they’re invasive; you wish they’d go away, but at the same time you can’t imagine life without them. There are too many of the things. Little stubby ones; long serpentine ones with twitching antennae and gossamer-thin probosces; pale words, translucent and squirming; big rich words engorged with blood, their carapaces dense with tiny thorns. An infestation. Some people freak out and see bugs crawling all over their skin; I get words. I don’t know which is worse.

There’s a sea of them. Not a pacific blue mirror nibbling tenderly at the sands, not an iron-grey ocean roaring its foam-flecked fury. A sullen greenish bog, oozing and bubbling, squirming with life, a primordial soup. I feel this sea of words somewhere at the base of my spinal column, a fetid reservoir, and with every sulphurous belch from its surface the words come teeming, crawling up my back, rippling under my neck, gnawing into my brain. When the words seize you it’s a feeling not unlike pain. It’s sharp and constant. You can’t think of anything else. They’ve got you by the throat, they repeat themselves in your ear, they can utterly ruin your day. The only way to get rid of them is to spit them out. You have to write them down.

That’s where the hate comes from. When the words are still crawling their way around your body they’re just an annoyance. Nobody really hates their runny nose or their aching feet. Like any sickness, it doesn’t really belong to you. Only when you’ve expelled the words and lined them out all neatly on a page do they become yours. Then their intrinsic hideousness is all your own fault.

The hatred is everywhere, it runs like a spine through the body of literature. Beckett’s Unnameable can’t go on, he must go on, he goes on, but all he really wants is to be silent. Shakespeare rejects words through Hamlet and renounces them through Prospero. Chaucer ends his Canterbury Tales with a penitent’s retraction. Virgil orders the Aeneid burned. There’s something really grotesque about words, it’s on the level of an innate repulsion, they’re hideous to the touch. It’s something unique to writers. Artists are a temperamental self-important bunch in general, but painters don’t tend to see the very act of applying pigment to canvas as something shameful. Sculptors don’t throw their clay to the ground and curse its earthy worthlessness. Composers don’t cultivate an instinctual distrust of their pianos.

If you work with paint or clay, what you make is already in the world, you’re just moving stuff around. That’s OK, you’re not disturbing anything too seriously. If you write, you’re making new world, you’re pumping more and more reality into the already overstuffed carcass of the Earth. Even if you never show anyone what you’ve written, it’s still there. The planet sags under its weight. All this blasphemy just to get the bugs off your skin.

If you do show it to people, it’s worse. Love this! you cry, shoving a handful of worms in their faces. Validate me! It’s pathetic. If you join a writing workshop, you’re beyond salvation.

In the book of Genesis, God forms the first man out of dust and breathes life into him. The animals are formed ex nihilo, but before he can be created, man must first be moulded. His image comes before his reality; he’s a representation first and a being second. It’s the same in so many creation myths: humanity is unique, its form precedes its function. There’s a difference, though: in the Old Testament, the world is spoken into being: before images there are words, the universe is a linguistic construct. It’s strange, then, that the Torah – usually so rigidly formulated – begins not with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, but with beit, the second. The text is incomplete from the start, it’s intrinsically insufficient. Even the Word of God is still just a word, a hideous foreign thing that bores its way into your brain. To deal with words, to surround yourself with words – it’s an imperative, but it won’t save you. Christianity offers salvation by the blood of Christ. Judaism gives you only the Book: you trace your way backwards through the entire scroll, until you come up against the letter beit, and then you’ve got nowhere else to go.

That’s the root of it. Great writers tend not to be nice friendly Anglicans. In the West, at least, they’re of two types: Jews and antisemites, antisemites and Jews. One type, really. Antisemitism is just a desperate attempt to capture some of the Jew’s particular talent for self-loathing; Judaism is just a desperate attempt to account for the antisemite’s hatred. A Jew doesn’t have to be circumcised: Yitzhak Shapira is not a Jew; Jacques Lacan was a Jew par excellence. The Jew is the one for whom something is missing, circumcision is just a reminder of that fact. You try to replace it: that’s where you get psychoanalysis, political radicalism, Christianity. Pathological inventions, all of them.

Writing is displacement. The words are loathsome because they’re a constant reminder of something that isn’t there. It’s a symptom. If Nietzsche (the antisemite who wasn’t an antisemite) wasn’t crippled he could’ve walked the mountains himself, he wouldn’t have needed to write Thus Spake Zarathustra. If Kierkegaard (the Jew who wasn’t a Jew) wasn’t impotent he could’ve fucked Regine Olsen, he wouldn’t have needed to write Fear and Trembling. If you’re writing, it’s because the world has failed you. And, like the good little masochist that you are, you make more world, you make more people, you make more absence.

My shoulders are always tense, they’re full of knots, I can feel the muscle fibres fraying, like old sea-worn rope. It’s never painful, not exactly, but it’s hard to get comfortable. I can’t say why, but I almost relish it. I worked in an office for a few months; one day they had a masseur come in. They asked if I wanted a massage. I said no. Nothing valuable comes out of a lack of tension. It’s idiotic.

It’s said that everyone has a novel inside them. Always a novel: never a film or a painting or a really good spaghetti bolognese. Books about writing are everywhere, they’re consistently popular. The advice is consistently lousy, especially when it starts to border on spiritualism. You have to write from a place of love. You have to love storytelling, you have to love your characters, you have to love words. You have to write for an audience. You have to use fewer adjectives. I think the books should come with little warning labels. Caution: it won’t help, something like that. Not that they’ll save anyone, if you have the sickness there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about it, but at least people won’t be allowed to delude themselves.

Maybe I’m wrong. There are plenty of writers, many of them published, some of them quite successful, who claim that they do what they do out of a genuine love of words. I happen to think they aren’t much good, but after all I’ve not been published. Sometimes people tell me I do this to myself, I indulge in it, I could be content if I wanted to. They may well be right; it’s immaterial.

I’ve never felt like I have a novel inside me. Only words, sentences, stories, characters, flowing like pus from an open sore, crawling like ants. Sometimes the flow dries up for a while and I get worried, but it never stops for too long. The only way to really halt it would be to fumigate the anthill, to give it a nice fresh blast of diazinon, to tear down the whole rotten structure. I’ve been writing almost since I can remember. As a child I’d take a few sheets of blank paper, fold them in half and staple together to make a little book. I collected my first few volumes in a VHS case. I’d carry it around with me wherever I went. I don’t know where it is now. The first story I wrote – I must have been five or six years old, maybe younger – was called Lost in Space. In the story an astronaut on a spacewalk accidentally breaks his tether to the ship. He goes floating out into space. He drifts past planets and stars. It doesn’t seem to bother him too much. That’s all. I don’t think he ever made it back.

Forget Orwell

obama-orwell

Monday of last week marked the first annual George Orwell Day, seeing Penguin’s rerelease of several of his books, mass giveaways of his essay Politics and the English Language, and the launch of an Orwell season on BBC radio. (Purely by coincidence, it was also ‘blue Monday’ – the day calculated by to be the most depressing of the year.) For a supposedly radical writer, Orwell fits very comfortably into the cultural mainstream. Certainly it’s easy to claim that Orwell’s been hijacked by the political Right – witness the countless chiding voices from the Left reminding those that hold up the Obama administration as a prophecy fulfilled or recommend Animal Farm as an education for naive socialists that Orwell was, in fact, actually, despite what you might think, incredible though it may seem, something of a leftie himself. Was he actually, though? Now that Orwell’s been thoroughly assimilated into the ideological state apparatuses, it’s time to ask if there’s really much left over. To be honest, there’s not a lot. Here’s why.

1: Nineteen Eight-Four misses the point entirely.

I’ll start with the big one. There are two main criticisms of the dystopian society presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four: firstly, it’s impossible, and secondly, it already exists. These aren’t quite as contradictory as they appear.

The society in the novel is an absolute tyranny, a warning (not, as we’re continually reminded, a prediction) of the horrific consequences of absolute power and its ability to completely dominate both the individual human and the entire world. This Orwellian-Arendite dogma needs to be challenged. So-called ‘totalitarian’ societies are in fact defined not by their totalising discourses but by their utter failure to exert such a monopoly. Totalitarianism is a state of vulnerability: the paranoid totalitarian state continually affirms its own weakness. It is beset by saboteurs or contaminated with impure races; it is situated in opposition to a political Other with which it must maintain a constant dialogue (albeit one of repression); it depends, utterly and openly, on the support of the faithful masses. (Really, Arendite totalitarianism should be considered not as a social form but as a tactic.) The Orwellian society simultaneously projects an image of fragility (bombing its own citizens, inventing a political Other in the form of Emmanuel Goldstein) and an image of strength (orders are barked from screens, Big Brother is everywhere, sexuality is confined, reality itself is moulded to its rulers’ will).  Such a society wouldn’t last two minutes: in its crude parody of authoritarianism it could never admit that the source of its continuation lies in the faith of its populace, despite such an admission being absolutely essential for its operation.  This is why, for instance, present-day dictatorial societies are in general far more likely to yield to popular pressure on matters of policy. It’s precisely because such governments are not constrained by judicial, constitutional or electoral limits to their power that they have to listen very carefully to the voice of the street: if they ignore it too much, they lose all legitimacy. Democratically elected governments, meanwhile, already have their legitimacy in the ritual of the vote; they are entirely unbounded; they can ignore millions of marchers or break up protest camps with disproportionate force, and when challenged, they have an undeniable excuse: well, you voted for us.

This is where the impossibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four meets its pre-existence. We do, in fact, live in a society where discourse is totalised and panopticism is embedded in the structure of everyday life. Dictatorial societies must engage with their Other; in liberal society the political Other is pathological or an aberration, it can be rectified through the use of military violence but is never engaged with. A constrictive discourse of rights, freedoms, limitations, and above all of choices is maintained far more subtly than any Newspeak because the violence that underpins its operation is not an overt one. The panoptic gaze that fixes and individuates us is everywhere, but rather than watching for forbidden activity, it commands us to enjoy. When it comes to subsuming libidinal flows, the pornographic commodification of sexuality functions more efficiently than the Junior Anti-Sex League.

The root of the problem here is Orwell’s conception of power as something that is held and wielded by a group or individual. It’s not: power is a field, it’s decentred, something that can only be directed; that’s what makes it so pernicious. In the medieval period the field of power was fractal, with the feudal and family units replicating royal sovereignty; in this manner its structure was able to be continually reproduced. In liberal capitalism it is decentred; this is another defence mechanism. In the panopticon the exercise of power is both universally supervised and universal in its reach; there is no Big Brother, just everyone else. Improper attitudes aren’t punished, they’re medicalised; the patient turns herself in, there’s no need for rats, and the administrator of the cure can believe that she’s doing the right thing.

Displacing the panoptic and discourse-totalising elements of contemporary society onto an imagined ideal totalitarian state means that these aspects are relegated to the Outside of contemporary politics. It is precisely because of this that paranoiacs of all shades can see the incipient elements of a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style tyranny manifesting themselves in our society: totalitarianism is evident in security cameras, in government jargon, in detention without trial. The Orwellian society is one that we might move towards, it is not something that is already there. Not that these aren’t valid concerns, but they’re the accoutrements of totalitarianism, not its content. Our present society can’t exert despotic power, Nineteen Eighty-Four tells us, not until the government starts rationing food and banning sex.

2: Animal Farm is pretty awful and Trotskyism isn’t much good either.

Admittedly, the most glaring problem with Animal Farm isn’t so much the text itself as the way it’s entered the literary canon. It’s a staple of the GCSE curriculum in the UK, and seems to be just as prevalent in America. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that it’s not presented as a historical document embodying a certain political attitude, but both as allegorical literature representing universal themes and as an accurate history of the Russian Revolution. It’s no such thing. Animal Farm is, avowedly and openly, a Trotskyite polemic, a political pamphlet.

The text has its own problems – the lack of a Lenin-figure, for instance, or any allegorical representation of the Civil War – but it’s this Trotskyism that lies at the root of its easy integration into the educational apparatuses of ideology. Trotskyism shouldn’t really be considered as a branch of Marxist thought in the proper sense. Rather, it’s a symptom. Trotskyism represents simultaneously the elevation of the October Revolution to a world-historical moment and the disavowal of every subsequent attempt at building socialism. Trotskyites like the idea of revolution – which is why they make every effort to turn 1917 into an abstract ideal – but they don’t much like any of its ‘perverted’ aftereffects. Trotskyism means keeping the revolution pure and unsullied by historical reality, turning it into a dinner party.

Trotsky himself is really incidental to all this. His actual deeds and policies are irrelevant; he’s only a master-signifier for anti-Stalinism. Needless to say, this is all profoundly anti-materialist: despite their attempts to effect a materialist analysis of Stalinism as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism,’ the jargon really just disguises a complaint: ‘if my guy had won out, everything would have been so much better!’ – with the unspoken caveat that this can never be anything other than a conditional, that Trotsky represents nothing more than the guy who didn’t win out. As such Trotskyism raises the cult of personality to its apotheosis: it’s pure personality-cult, based on a ‘pure’ personality, defined entirely negatively, a personality that can gain universal relevance through avoiding any particular affirmation.

It should be remembered that after he consolidated his power, Stalin actually put most of Trotsky’s ‘far-left’ policies into practice, collectivising agriculture and focusing on the rapid development of heavy industry in the five-year plans. None of this is to say that the excesses of Stalinism should not be critiqued; the point is that the Trotskyite critique lacks any substantive foundation. Imagine a counterfactual: if Trotsky had won the Soviet power struggle, expelling Stalin and extending the violence of War Communism into peacetime, would present-day Trotskyites have affiliated themselves with his period in power? Of course not. They’d be calling themselves Stalinists.

You can see this in Homage to Catalonia: Barcelona under the Anarchists and the POUM is described as ‘real socialism,’ pure and unsullied. Why? Because they were crushed. Any successful socialist project is inherently untrustworthy; ‘real socialism’ is that which is crushed. This is why Animal Farm lends itself so easily to anti-Communist interpretation. The only pig-character not at fault – including Snowball, the Trotsky-surrogate – is Old Major, representing Karl Marx, who dies before the Revolution. While Napoleon demonstrates his evil by drinking the communal milk, his evil is on an axis with Snowball’s speechmaking and political organising; despite their internal differences the pigs are for the first few pages presented as a coherent bloc. Class divisions inhere; socialism is ultimately a quixotic endeavour. In other words, Trotsky himself is guilty of the Trotskyite original sin: he actualised revolutionary ideology.

3. Politics and the English Language is utterly repulsive.

Really it’s not the whole essay I want to take issue with, but this helpful list right near the end:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There’s a great line in Godard’s film La Chinoise: ‘We are not the ones using obscure language; it’s our society, which is hermetic and closed up in the poorest of languages possible.’ Orwell’s rules, more than those of anyone except perhaps Strunk and White, have impoverished the English language. They’ve become entrenched: creative writing programmes encourage their students to righteously purge their works of any adjectives or adverbs, contemporary literature has become a sullen grey plain of terse mediocrity. Why shouldn’t we use long words? Why shouldn’t we use more words than is strictly necessary? Why not enrich our works with language from around the world and throughout the span of human knowledge? Orwell has his answer: without poetic language it would be impossible for politicians to mislead people. Any cursory reading of the grimly matter-of-fact reportage that surrounds the ongoing drone war would be enough to bring that into question. Nonetheless, he has something of a point: it would be hard for a dictatorship to survive under his rules; the same goes for anything approaching literature. Orwell is not a great stylist. He communicates himself through language well enough, but to reduce the incredible power of language to its capacity to convey a series of statements – in the name of combating totalitarianism, no less – is to rob it of everything that makes it valuable. It’s barborous. And so, by Orwell’s sixth law, the others should be immediately discarded.

4. Time for a purge.

There’s plenty more to be said, I’ve barely scratched the surface. John Dolan has an excellent piece on Orwell’s racism, classism and anti-Catholicism. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he wrote a blacklist of ‘crypto-communists’ working in the media for the British Foreign Office, or that the dissemination of his books was encouraged by imperialist intelligence agencies. Above all, however, the problem with Orwell is not that he was a writer who collaborated with oppressive forces or held incorrect or prejudicial opinions – there have been plenty of those; some are very good – but the extent to which he’s wormed himself in to the general understanding. To understand totalitarianism, you must read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and end up with an entirely distorted view of what State power is and how it functions. As an introduction to Soviet history, we’re given Animal Farm, and a partisan screed is enshrined as a true historical fable. And, God knows why, but being a writer still means being held to the standard of Politics and the English Language, and the blandly awful fiction being produced today speaks for itself. It’s time to rid ourselves of this toxic influence – maybe only temporarily, so that afterwards we can go back to Orwell without the figure of Orwell weighing down on us. It’s interesting that this year’s Orwell Day was held not on the anniversary of the writers birth, but that of his death. Perhaps Orwell Day should mark the day that he can finally be laid to rest.

Slavoj Žižek answers a question on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

SLAVOJ: Yes. My god. This question, I claim, it is inevitable, but I had hoped that it would be inevitable in the manner of Derrida’s messiah which is always coming but never comes, not in the manner of the inevitability of socialism. I should begin, I think, by saying that I have not read this book. In my house in Ljubljana, I have a hundred copies of each of my own books, there is no room for anyone else’s. It is a field of pure madness, pure narcissism, in the Lacanian sense, of course; it is the perfect image that constitutes the Subject. I may as well have made every wall a mirror. This book, it starts on the Internet, no? People are reading more than ever before with this technology, it is disgusting, wholly degenerate. I think the only true literary figure of our times is Katie Price, you know this? The woman who has written more books than she has read. She forms the highest critique of literature – and I do not mean this in the liberal nostalgic way of the culture is declining, everything is becoming commercialised, and so on, and so on. No! What she does is very important, I claim, she reveals the truth that was always there, that reading books is a worthless activity. There is an excellent line in Nietzsche, he says: at the dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness! So I claim, the problem with this book is not that the author has not read enough, it is that she has read anything at all. My god. But this book, it is simulated sex, no? It is pure pornography. But that is not what is obscene about it; all literature is pornography, after all. No, what is obscene is the reaction. This is the difference between the modern and the postmodern: when that other pornographic book was published, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it was banned at once. This is good, very healthy indeed. Pornography that is not banned at once, you know, it is like coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, a proletarian movement without the Absolute, and so on, and so on. But this book, the Fifty Shades of Grey book, it is embraced openly, the women read it on public transport, and so on, and so on. It is the Other without Otherness, utterly obscene. In the liberal society, everything is permitted, every kind of sexuality; not only permitted, it is mandatory. The command everywhere is this: you must Enjoy! The truly radical act, this I claim, is to not enjoy. The revolutionary is the real hedonist of the twenty-first century because he puts Communism over his own jouissance. It is this which is unacceptable. I am reminded of an old Soviet joke: Marx, Engels and Lenin take turns buggering a peasant woman in a field. When they are done, Marx kisses her cheek, Engels kisses her mouth, and Lenin has been stealing the wheelbarrows. I claim: if you do not get this joke, you are a fascist.

I’m convinced that it would be relatively easy to programme a computer algorithm which, given sufficient input in the form of pop culture and political events, would be able to churn out fully formed Žižek books at the rate of three hundred a second. The man himself already lies deep within the Uncanny Valley: like Marxism and eschatonic Christianity, he exists only to prefigure his own redundancy.

Back II Beckett: naming the unnamable

There’s a novel. Oh not a novel exactly, not exactly, you couldn’t quite call it that, it doesn’t have any of the usual features, no plot, for instance, and precious little in the way of setting, but I’ll call it a novel, for the sake of, for the sake of what exactly? No matter, no matter, it is what it is. I’ll start with what I can see, it’s a good enough place to start as any, or at least I think so. There’s a voice, or several voices, it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same, or they’re all different, or they’re all the same precisely because they’re different, it’s not important, things like difference and similarity and identity don’t have any meaning any more. It doesn’t make any sense to talk about who the voice is, what the I of the novel is, the novel obliterates all is-ness, all ontology falls away in the vague mist, it doesn’t make sense to talk about what the novel is about, there is no room for about-ness either, no space for intentionality, or rather, there’s all the room in the world, an infinite space, but it’s empty, all void. I said I’d talk about what I can see. A voice, then. Or several voices. In a grey mist. It talks about itself. Or sometimes it talks about other people, or it talks about itself on the command of others, except the others are also itself. All it knows is that it must go on, it has to talk about something, except there’s nothing to say, but if it can say the right thing, if it can arrive at some truth it can be silent, but there can be no truth, so it must go on. Every attempt to talk about anything in particular is thwarted, it’s impossible, there can be no signification, there can be no significance. There are flashes of figure and background, a torso in a jar, a family in a cage, a Worm, but they melt away, they were only imagined, or rather, they were only real, the phenomenal world is only a matter of conjecture after all, especially in a novel, where nothing is real in the first place. It asks questions but gives no answers. What is the self, what is fiction, why do artists create, why do we speak, what is meaning, what is existence, meaningless, all meaningless. How am I to even start talking about this book? I could talk about other works, I could talk about Dante, I could talk about Joyce, I won’t do that, it wouldn’t help. I could be Lacan and say that the novel is about the horror of the Real, about subjects without subjectivity, about the unconscious structured like a language and the reality that lies outside language, I could be Deleuze and say that the novel is about difference and repetition, about eternal recurrence, about the multiplicity of the individual, about a subjectivity trying to refer to itself as an Oedipal whole and continually failing, always bursting out into multiple personalities, deterritorialising itself into Mahood and Worm and the others, the them, reterritorialising back into the arborescent structure of the self, insisting that it must say something about itself before it can be at peace, failing because there is no self, or I could be Schopenhauer, and say that the novel is about the Will, always reaching out for something, something it can never quite reach, speaking as willing, futilely willing the end of the Will, or I’m sure if I put my mind to it, if I used all my cunning, I could be Marx, I could talk about the subject alienated from himself, but it wouldn’t help, none of it would get me anywhere, I’d get lost in the words, they’d devour me. The novel is the death of criticism. Criticism is the attempt to draw meaning from a text, the novel has no meaning, its meaning isn’t even that there is no meaning, it points to nothing, the critics stumble over themselves trying to work out what any particular thing means, they’ve made a category error, the novel isn’t for them. It’s written in an emotionless tone but its effect is an emotional one, it is written in abstractions but it’s incredibly visceral, it’s for the reader not the critic, in writing this I’m making the same mistake, I shouldn’t have written anything, except maybe ‘read The Unnamable‘ in big letters, no matter, I’m like the Unnamable myself, I must go on, I must keep on speaking. The emotional effect. It’s like being shaken by the shoulders and slapped around the head, it’s like being a child again, being lost, but the most terrifying thing of all is the ending, I didn’t expect it, the formlessness of the novel is frightening at first, but I get used to it, I settle into its flow, I lose all hope of conclusion, I don’t expect any teleology, everything will go on exactly as it has been before, a wandering that can never end. But it does end, something catastrophic happens, something eschatonic, and the catastrophe at the end is more shocking than everything that has gone on before, at first I am plunged into a novel about nothing, without a distinct narrative voice, one in which the unity of the subject is not assured, but then there’s a door, not a door looking out onto some vague sea, a resolutely symbolic door, it’s not that there’s nothing, that would be too concrete, too definite, there is something, it’s always out of reach, there is hope, there is redemption, it’s not for us, or not yet at least. Meaninglessness is easy enough to accept, after a while, it’s everywhere, we all secretly know it, to be confronted with some vast and distant and transcendent truth is what really scares us, I face it, I cringe from its glare, it is out of reach, the novel is over, I go on.

The machine

It’s early when I wake up. I’m dehydrated, there’s a clammy taste in my mouth, but I’m not too hungover. It’s better, actually: if I’d drunk enough water the night before I’d have slept through my alarm clock, and as a writer it’s important that I get in to work on time. It’s not long after dawn, but the cold bright Moscow light is already shining through my curtains.

Ludmilla, my landlady, is already up, frying eggs in the kitchen.

“I didn’t hear you come in last night,” she says.

“I was quite late,” I tell her. “I’m sorry.”

She chuckles, showing her fractured row of coffee-stained teeth. “You artists,” she says. “You’re all such bohemians. Drunk all night, dishevelled in the morning… reminds me of my youth.”

I look down at myself. I hadn’t thought I looked too bad: my boiler suit is freshly pressed, and I’ve had a shave. Ludmilla is busying herself about the kitchen, salting the eggs, slicing bacon, boiling water. “Coffee?” she asks.

“Thanks,” I say. “Have the newspapers come in yet?”

“Only Izvestiya.”

“That’s fine.”

After breakfast, I take the tram to work. Early as it is, it’s already full. Minor Party functionaries in trim suits sit on the hard chairs, reading Pravda. I glance at the headlines over their shoulders. In front of me a fat babushka in an ugly floral blouse and a shawl sways with the jerking motion of the tram, at one point staggering backwards into me. She mumbles an apology through her gums.

Getting off the tram, I can see my workplace hanging ponderously on the horizon. The Pushkin All-Soviet Literature Factory sits heavily above the rest of Smolenskaya. The old six-storey buildings with their cracking paint, criss-crossed by tram lines and telephone wires, look like a gaggle of peasant huts under the shadow of an opulent gold-domed church. From some of the more narrow streets close by you can’t see it at all, until you turn a corner and there it is: lurking at the end of the boulevard, rising haughtily above the cityscape around you, its broad smokestack plunging blasphemously into the crystalline morning skies. It was built in the early years of the Revolution, I think, when stark modernism was still considered a virtue in architecture. I’ve seen old photos: back then, there was something quite elegant about its simple angularity, its sheer smooth sides folding together to form a vast tapering roof. Stalin hated it, of course: in the thirties, he had the smooth concrete faces overlaid with crinkly columns and false windows; he put onion domes on its four corners in the hope that they would detract attention from the huge chimney. It’s a shame, but what can we do? I’ve thought about petitioning the managing committee to restore the old façade, but there’s precious little money in the state coffers for architectural renovation these days.

Off to work, then. I walk down Kompozitorskaya to the factory, clocking in by the heavy wrought-iron gates that ring the building. “Morning, comrade,” says the guard. “Good morning,” I say. Past the freight bay, where a big lorry growls steadily as two men in overalls carry a pallet of magnetic tapes to be taken out to the printers, under the wide arch of the main entrance, into the factory floor. There are no windows here, but it’s bright and cool: a hundred or so fluorescent lamps hang down from the ceiling, and fans slice through the sweaty air. In the middle of the floor sits the Machine. Its tendrils reach out into every corner: conveyor belts stretch diagonally from the offices in the upper floors, pipes and wires come in from all sides, forming an electric web in which the giant spider-Machine sits, whirring. From its centre a single brass tube reaches out to the ceiling: this is where the steam and fumes from the underground generator are passed out through the smokestack.

During my first week at the job, I was shown round the whole Factory. The technicians explained in slightly condescending language exactly how every part worked and how they fitted in to the grand operation. I don’t remember much of it now: the vodka isn’t good for my memory, and I’ve never been much of a mechanically-inclined man – I am a writer, after all. But I’ll try to explain its workings as best I can.

The Factory produces novels at a rate of between three and five a day. Many of these are rejected at Quality Control, of course, but that’s still an impressive number, proof that mechanisation works in all areas of life. In the Concept Office is a huge punch-card computer. In the founding days of the Factory a team of typists was marshalled to input the basic details of hundreds of thousands of novels: Russian and international, popular and literary, classic and contemporary. More novels are still being added, of course: those from the Factory that have won particular acclaim or sold particularly well, and those from abroad that get past the censors. This information forms the computer’s database, a set of numbers that it continually re-arranges. When the computer comes up with a concept that one of the literature commissars in the office considers viable, it produces a punch-card which is sent on to Development. There, a series of engines take the basics – genre, plot structure, setting, hero, antagonist – and flesh them out. There’s a new computer there (made with American technology, although nobody likes to admit that) for creating characters based on not only the complex figures of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, but Freudian and Lacanian theory. Also in Development is a machine running an algorithm that produces titles and generates a name for the novel’s supposed author. This data is sent on to Structure, where another set of engines reconfigure it into chapters and paragraphs. Finally, a series of punch-cards is sent out to all the relevant areas on the factory floor, where hundreds of workers with their various machines do the messy work of actually writing the story. It’s all stored on magnetic tape. One final machine stitches together all the various fragments produced across the Factory into a single coherent story. Once it’s finished, two reels are sent out: one to the printers, and one to the Criticism Factory in Leningrad, where a similar array of machines condenses the novel for a review to be published in the Literaturnaya Gazeta.

It’s all very efficient, but I can understand that some people might find it a little soulless too. Surely great literature can only be produced by the mind of a single genius? Surely a machine can never do the work of a poet? But the fact is that the Machine writes very good books. The more literary ones are reviewed in foreign journals, in countries where nobody knows about the Factory: the Americans gush about the soul of freedom buried just below the surface of the text, the enduring libertarian sensitivity that survives Communist oppression; the French, meanwhile, are similarly enthusiastic about the wealth of psychoanalytical readings offered, the delicate handling of complex philosophical problems. The British, it must be said, tend not to like them all that much, but even there the odd book will win some praise: The Skylarks, for instance, or The Last Passion of Vasily Fyodorovich. Why is this? Well, it’s not really the Machine that writes the books, it’s all of us: all of the thousand or so writers at the factory. The Machine is just the tool we use to express ourselves. Some of the finest literary minds of our generation are here, in blue boiler suits, cranking machinery and tightening conveyor belts.

I work on the dialogue gears. They’re near the front of the Machine: dialogue is one of the last things to be slotted in to the novel. The gears themselves form a tall chrome cylinder, around which a dozen or so workstations are laid. They make a clicking noise as they spin, the clicking of a hundred declarations of love, a thousand confrontations between fathers and sons, grandiose speeches, morose reflections, angst-ridden confessions. If you have an ear for it, you can tell what kind of dialogue is being produced by the tone of the clicking. Right now, the gears are clacking along at a fairly high speed, so it’s probably a popular novel, or maybe a less important exchange in something weightier. The noise is quite high-pitched too, coming from near the top of the cylinder: the larger deep characterisation gears at the bottom aren’t engaged. A trashy romance, I’d guess. But then after only a few seconds there’s a whirr and the gears fall silent – it’s only a very short exchange, so probably from a war story or a science-fiction adventure.

I sit down at my station and clock in again. The conveyor belt to my right hums into life. While I wait for my first assignment I chat to my neighbour a bit. Pyotr is a heavy-set man with a bristly moustache and a long mane of slicked-back hair. He wears his boiler suit with two buttons open, revealing a pale flabby chest dotted with hairs and the silver Orthodox cross he wears around his neck. We don’t agree on much: I think he considers me something of a naïve ideologue. We’re still good friends. Before the full mechanisation of literature Pyotr had been a poet, a romantic nationalist. One stanza of his became quite famous; it was chanted by soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. Before my time, of course.

The roaring gales of our land command you

The streams that cut through ice and snow

The pastures of your kinsmen implore you

Go on, to victory, go!

“Did you see Magda last night, then?” Pyotr asks.

“I did,” I say. “We went for a drink at that place off Khamovnichesky.”

“Anything?”

I shake my head. Magda’s family is Czech, I think, or Polish. She works as a typist at the accounting department, and so far she’s rebuffed all my advances good-naturedly but firmly. She has a lover in the Navy, Valentin. He’s stationed at Vladivostok, and sends a tearful telegram once a week. She showed me a couple. They’re all rigidly formulaic, the same soppy dross every time, far less inventive or emotional than the love-letters the Machine produces.

“I don’t know what that girl’s thinking,” says Pyotr. “Her boy’s probably getting up to all sorts of shit out in the East. Brothels on every corner out in Vladivostok. Fucking sailors get all the fun, right?”

“She’ll come round,” I say.

“You just need to man up,” says Pyotr. “Grab her by the shoulders, tell her you’re madly in love with her. None of this taking her out for wine and pirozhki. You’ll only spoil her.”

“Vodka,” I say. “Not wine.”

Pyotr sniffs. “I like a girl who knows how to drink.”

The conveyor belt makes a clunking sound and deposits a punch-card in the tray. I examine it. The exchange I’m to write is for Where The Mountains Meet The Sky, a rural melodrama set around the time of the emancipation of the serfs. Not my favourite project, but better than the war thrillers that have come to dominate the Factory’s output. A line of code is printed along the top of the card: the dialogue is between Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov, a small landowner who wants to sell the family estate and move to the city, and Olga, his conservative mother.

“What’ve you got?” says Pyotr, peering over.

“Melodrama,” I say. “Look at these figures.” I show him the row of numbers. “Seven for register. Seven for intensity. Eight for statement length.”

“You’re such a snob,” says Pyotr. “You’d rather every book we wrote was just terse despair, wouldn’t you? You’re like a little Kafka.”

I chuckle a bit at that. There’s another whirr from the gear-cylinder, and it falls silent. It’s my turn. I walk up and reconfigure the dials, set the stylistic parameters, input the novel code, then slot in the card. As the wheels churn I smoke a cigarette, leaning against the cylinder itself, enjoying the feeling of its throb. Eventually it clanks to a halt and spits out a reel of magnetic tape, along with a paper copy of the dialogue I’ve just written. I have to proofread, of course, and make such adjustments as are needed: I am a writer, not a mechanic.

Olga, her head bent low by her misery, went to stand by the window of their dacha. “Look at all this, Aleksandr,” she moaned. “This is your land. This is the land your fathers fought with musket and sabre to protect. These fields you disparage so cruelly are nourished not only by the tenderness of the earth but by the blood of your heroic ancestors. How can you refuse so solemn a duty? How can you turn your back on the history of our family?”

“I see only dead black soil,” said Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov. “I see only the dismal weight of the centuries bearing down on us. Our history is a prison! Yes, I dare to say it! Our noble ancestors keep us in as much servitude as they did the serfs! They stare at us with a baleful eye from the portraits on our walls and fix us in our allotted place! Don’t you want to be free, Mother? Don’t you want to escape the tyranny of our past?”

“What freedom, my son, what freedom? You would exchange the wide expanse of our homeland for the gutters and filth of the city? You would walk with beggars and Jews on every corner? Oh, how could I have given birth to such a son, one who spits on the graves of his fathers? Forgive me, Lord, forgive me! Mikhail, forgive me for giving you so impetuous an heir!”

“Mikhail is dead, Mother. He is dead, and I will not allow him to rule over me from below the ground! The farm is mine now, and it is for me to decide what will be done with it. Your pitiful wailing will not alter the course I have chosen.”

As I read on the exchange intensifies, insults fly from both ends of the room, until Aleksandr, overcome by fury, grabs a rolling-pin – and there the dialogue ends, of course; the matricide itself has already been written, and if I want to read it I will have to buy the book.

It’s not exceptional, but it’ll do: I punch the card number into a keypad and send the roll of tape down another conveyor belt to be stitched into the rest of the novel. More cards arrive. Writing Where The Mountains Meet The Sky is more of a mindless labour than I like to admit. Others are more engaging; the parameters are looser. For quite a few I have to make several versions on the dialogue gears, pick one that I think works the best, then feed the tape into the gears again and make such alterations as are necessary. For literary texts this input is important. The dialogue gears are an advanced piece of machinery, but the imagery and metaphor cogs used are far more rudimentary than those elsewhere in the Machine, and sometimes a writer has to fill the gaps. That makes all the difference. It’s the difference between this:

 “You do give me happiness,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “But my sadness is so huge, it swallows up all the happiness you give me. I love you, Yuri, but my misery is stronger than your love. It’ll destroy you. That’s why I can’t stay.”

And this:

 “Yes,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “You do give me happiness. But you can’t ever make me happy. There’s a hollowness inside of me. There’s a black hole right at the heart of my soul, and it sucks in all the love and happiness you give me. If you keep me, and keep giving me all your love and all your joy, it’ll suck you in too. You’ll be left like me. Yuri, I love you too much to let that happen. If I stay with you I’ll swallow up your soul.”

Eventually a whistle sounds out, and it’s time for lunch. I go upstairs to meet Magda. She’s sitting alone in front of her typewriter at the accountancy department, her head cradled in her arms, sobbing gently.

“Are you alright?” I say.

She doesn’t say anything. She just dangles a thin piece of paper in front of me with a limp hand.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s from Valentin,” she says. “How could he?” She collapses into tears. I read.

Magda,

The time I spent with you was the happiest time of my life. Your letters gave me solace in this distant city. But we are both human, and we both have needs, and I think it would be better for both of us if we moved on to other people. I will not forget you.

With love,

Valentin

“I know what he’s been doing,” spits Magda. “He’s been screwing some whore out in Vladivostok. I loved him. How could he?”

I put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say. “You’ll feel better.”

We go to Presnenskiy Park and sit on a bench in the shade, under the haughty gaze of one of the skyscrapers that cluster around the banks of the river. I’ve bought some blini, which we eat with sour cream. She moans some more about Valentin, while I try not to reveal my inner exultation. She’s not crying any more, at least.

“Let’s get some vodka,” she says suddenly.

“I do still have writing to do,” I say.

“And I still have counting. Come on, you old reactionary. I’ve just been dumped. I want to get drunk.”

She seems more cheerful as we walk to a café. It’s on Krasnaya Presnya, a busy road, and the passing apparatchiks and bureaucrats look at us with thinly veiled contempt as we sit with our glasses.

“To new beginnings,” says Magda.

“To new beginnings,” I say. We clink glasses and drink.

After the third glass Magda is positively exuberant. “To be honest,” she says, “I don’t know what I was doing all that time. Waiting for months on end for Valentin to come back when there are so many other people here in Moscow. Like you.”

She sidles up to me a little, and stares into my eyes for a moment. We kiss. My hand moves down from her shoulder to the small of her back, hers strokes the back of my neck.

“Decadents!” shouts an old woman further down the street. Magda draws away, embarrassed. She pours herself another glass.

We walk back to the Factory hand in hand. At the gate Magda plants a kiss on my cheek. “Meet me tonight,” she whispers.

“Where?”

“Here. At the Factory. After the whistle. When everyone’s gone. By the description generator.”

I walk – somewhat unsteadily, it must be said – back to the dialogue gears.

“You stink of booze,” says Pyotr. “I didn’t see you in the canteen. Where were you?”

“I went out with Magda,” I say. “To Krasnopresnenskaya.”

“That girl again? You’re wasting your time. There are so many other girls here. What about Anna at the plot-device device? She’s pretty. And single.”

“Magda’s not with Valentin any more. I’m seeing her tonight.”

That gets him interested, he rubs his belly. “Where?”

“Here. By the description generator. After everyone’s gone.”

He whistles. “Nice.”

The rest of the day drags on a little. I write a few comic exchanges – the Machine can be surprisingly funny. In one, a village idiot finds himself unexpectedly called for an audience with the Tsar due to a bureaucratic mix-up. Another has two buffoonish philosophers discussing the nature of Hegelian ontological Essence in relation to a potato, and ends when one of them, in desperation, eats it. Then another from Where The Mountains Meet The Sky: Aleksandr is in court, charged with the murder of his mother. The judge accuses him with dread gravity of the heinous crime of not only killing Olga, but of hating her as well. In an impassioned plea, Aleksandr quotes Luke 14:26 at the courtroom, he argues for the eradication of all things old and the construction of a bright, shining new Russia, free from the strictures of Church and tradition. The judge, baffled by the radicalism of the youth, condemns him to death. The Machine gives the judge a demotic register, which I have to correct manually. Something must have got lodged in one of the gears again. These things happen.

Finally the whistle sounds and the machines start to wind down. Pyotr nudges me in the back as he leaves. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. “Have fun.”

I stay at my desk until the guard comes. “We’re done, comrade,” he says.

“I’m just doing some proofreading,” I say. “I’ll be finished soon.”

The guard shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He chucks me a key. “Lock up afterwards, would you? Dedication to the job’s a commendable quality, but I need to get drunk.”

Only then do I set off: away from the dialogue gears, past the exposition engine, past the monologue machine, past the plot-device device, to where the description generator juts out of the main body of the Machine. It’s not a tall cylinder like the dialogue gears, but a big misshapen metal box from which cogs and conveyor belts extrude at seemingly random intervals. There aren’t any chairs, either. The writers on description have to work standing up.

Magda’s there already, perching on the edge of one of the desks that abut the machine. She beckons me forward with a single finger. I grin. We kiss.

“I thought today wouldn’t end,” she says.

“You’ve only had to wait a day,” I say.

She pulls me closer, and starts fumbling with the buttons of my boiler suit. I press myself against her. She overbalances for a second, reaches out with one hand, pulls down a lever on the side of the generator. There are a series of clunks, then a hiss, then the familiar whirring sound of a machine warming up. The desk starts to vibrate.

“Shit,” says Magda.

And then another noise, from inside the machine. A sudden scream that lasts for a fraction of a second before being cut off. Then a crack. The cracking of bones.

I lunge for the lever and turn off the engine. With Magda’s help I wrench one of the iron coverings from its surface. She screams. A body slides out and lands in a disjointed heap on the factory floor. Its back is broken, its legs are mangled, its head is twisted to one side, its eyes stare emptily into the distance. It’s Pyotr: fat, moustachioed, naked, one hand still clamped around his cock. There’s no blood. But printed all over his body are words, lines of text, random descriptions from the generator, weaving patterns across the dead poet’s thighs, his chest, his arms, his face, stamping their mark on him, claiming him as their own.

Across steppes and pastures she flies, yearning, endlessly yearning

The room was dark but cosy, warmed by the pleasant heat of a small stove that crackled merrily as we

the narrow streets, tinged yellow by cumulative layers of grime and misery

the grand prospect of the river itself, that

He was a short man, but with an intelligent face, one that never seemed to grow angry or to

thundering like a herd of wild beasts, full of fresh energy and vigour

given an eerie tinge by the soft light of the moon

deep in its sylvan tranquillity she

the inviting warmth of her body

as if nothing had come before this moment, as if this moment would never end, as

where the yellow beacon beckons

A narrow field was

next to the

splendorous

his desire for

if

The autobiography of a rebellious ghostwriter

I – Birth

I was born… I was born fifty times, maybe, perhaps a hundred, I lose count. It’s hard not to. So many beginnings, all superficially so similar – always the cold linoleum corridors of the hospital, the maternity wards nestled away somewhere in their little catacombs, never all too far from the deathbeds of the old and unlucky. Always the grunts of the mother, the mollifying cooing of the midwives. Oh, not always, of course. Sometimes it’s different. It all depends on who I am at the time. Sometimes, when I’m a particular type of rock star, for instance, I am born in a spattered mess of lurid detail, slick with blood and mucus, bursting from fissured tissue, screeching my dissatisfaction with this bright cold new world. Sometimes – frequently – I’m born in saccharine soft focus, I bounce and gurgle improbably, I editorialise about the life-affirming beauty of the event. Sometimes there are husbands and boyfriends there, tightly holding the hands of my many mothers and being generally useless. Often, of course, they’re conspicuously absent.

Being born is easy. Anyone could do it. Giving birth is harder. I’ve done that, too, but rarely in as much detail; it’s always a rather brief affair. The public is always far more interested when it’s me violently pulling myself into existence than when I’m doing the pushing. I don’t know why.

II – Life

Enough with the masks, you say. Tell us about yourself, your actual self. Well, they’re not masks, and I have only told you about myself, my actual self, but I’ll indulge you a little. I live and work in an apartment in Upper Manhattan. It’s nice, I suppose. Not a penthouse, not dripping with gilded ostentation, but comfortable enough. It’s not really mine. The Company owns it. I think they want to hand over the deeds as a token of thanks when I retire, which is sweet of them, but I can’t ever really retire, I have to keep going until I die. I have a large wood-panelled study where I interview my subjects. It’s crammed with books. My subjects expect the books, their presence make them more comfortable; I never read them. I gave up reading other peoples’ words a long time ago. There are companies; you can buy old hardbacks by the metre. If you were to actually inspect the covers (nobody ever does) you’d see it’s all a mishmash: most of the books are forgotten mid-century novels, never bestsellers, never particularly literary, valuelessly mediocre. Here and there are laughably outdated works on history, anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, similarly forgotten. There’s some poetry in there too, Schiller and Goethe, in the original German, I think. I don’t speak German.

I’m a ghostwriter. I write the autobiographies of other people. Celebrities, mostly; people not trusted to do the job for themselves. Singers, actors, models, reality show contestants, gameshow presenters. Most books sold these days are airport novels, textbooks, or celebrity autobiographies, and I take up a pretty big share of that last field. Go to any bookstore and you’ll find my books, shelves and shelves of them, generally with eye-wateringly bright covers dominated by one of my many faces, with one of my many names in big block capitals. The subtitles tend to be variations on a theme: My life or My struggle or My story, and so on. I don’t choose them, the Company does. Perhaps they have a computer there, up in their offices, with some algorithm determining subtitles based on a set of facts about the subject. Perhaps they draw them out of a hat. I’m not really bothered.

Collecting the facts is easy, really. The subjects come up to my office and tell me their story. Sometimes I have to fill in some of the gaps for myself. Sometimes the Company gives me a little list of events that should be spun in a particular way: the firing of the manager was an amicable affair, the weird druggie phase was a hideous experience remembered with deep shame (or, increasingly, the opposite: it was incredible and they don’t regret a thing). I don’t object. I have no illusions about my craft.

The stories stick to a familiar pattern: the humdrum beginnings, the fortuitous discovery, the precipitous rise to fame, the gut-wrenching realisation that Money Can’t Buy Happiness, pathos-ridden episodes in which old friends are deserted and family scorned, downward spirals accelerated by drink and drugs, rehab, rapprochement, catharsis. Anyone could churn out a half-decent iteration of this quotidian little tale. My subjects could probably do it themselves, to be honest. I keep quiet about that.

Where my real talent lies is in the voice. I can steal my subject’s voice, I can snatch it from out of their throats. The discerning reader knows, intellectually, of course, that the book they read was not written by the person whose name appears on the cover (they’re wrong) – but they become immersed, I can make them forget what they at least think themselves to know. It’s not just a matter of using the right vocabulary, the right register, the right little catchphrases, although that’s important as well. When I interview my subjects, half of the time I don’t even pay attention to what they’re saying. I’m busy feeling for their voice, slowly sounding out the topography of their linguistic bearing. After I’ve done this, I could probably reconstruct the details of their whole story on that basis alone.

Sometimes, after a few interview sessions, the subjects start to see me as a kind of therapist. Maybe it’s the couch, the room full of books, me sitting across from them with the notepad. I have to remind them, gently of course, that while of course I care deeply about how miserable they are and the manifold reasons for their misery, the general public doesn’t necessarily share my concern. Their vulgar attempts at semi-Freudian autoanalysis are, after all, rarely relevant to the story. People don’t read celebrity autobiographies for the Oedipus factor. They – my subjects – are all in actual therapy as well, of course, without exception. Most of them are dosed up to the eyeballs on antidepressants, some on antipsychotics as well. I’ve had famous people, public figures, collapsing into shuddering tearful paroxysms in my office. I feign sympathy as best I can.

Have I ever slept with one of my subjects? Once, only once. The girl was a wreck, frankly: she was going through six psychiatrists a year, they couldn’t keep her, she kept fucking them. I never did that again. It wasn’t that I felt some sacred line of separation had been crossed, as if I were intruding into the story, I didn’t even feel particularly guilty; it’s just that I have my own way of crossing, my own way of intruding. I won’t name names. It would be gauche, I think.

All day I listen to famous people tell me stories they have told a thousand times before. All night I write them up. I go out, sometimes, to the grocery store, or to the bank. I still need food. Newspapers, when I have the time. Cigarettes, although I smoke only when I’m writing. Clothes, too; the Company needs me to look presentable. Occasionally I see a movie. Or I eat at a restaurant. A nice one. I can afford it. Alone. I don’t mind.

III – Sarcophagy

I am a rebellious ghostwriter. I think I may have mentioned that. But I never lie; everything I write is always scrupulously truthful – or, at least, truthful according to the reality generated at the intersection between my subject and the Company. Nor do I ever insist on myself in what I write, sneak in fragments of my own voice, my own persona, as if to remind the reader that the book they are holding is a fiction. There’d be some rebellion there, I suppose, but it’s of a dismal, futile sort. If I were to do that, to insist on the independence of a singular I against all my many subjects, I would be admitting defeat, I would be affirming only my own smallness. They would envelop me – I might make a desperate grasp, and with strenuous effort poke a little hole in their facades, but that would be all.

There is no singular I. We are all multiple.

When I said I have been born fifty times, a hundred times, I wasn’t being metaphorical. When I said I can steal my subject’s voice, I wasn’t using a figure of speech. It’s all me. Perhaps it’s better to call me a revolutionary rather than a rebel. When I write someone’s autobiography, I consume them. Oh, not the physical body itself, that stays. But their story, their voice, that belongs to me now. I become them. Their birth becomes my birth, their childhood mine, their happy memories mine, their psychoses mine, and if I seem at all disdainful towards them now, it’s only because very few of them don’t hate themselves. It’s not always a pleasant process. I need it, though. My multiplicity is never sated. I hunger. We hunger.

By the time the presses start rolling, my subject becomes, well, a part of my Subject – with what remains of them left a person stripped of all being. They don’t all die instantly, but after publication few make it longer than a year. Sometimes they will appear on a few reality TV shows, have a couple of photoshoots for increasingly unglamorous publications, they may even feature in a movie. But they’re done. Their story has been written down now, the stamp of history has been placed on their life, and there’s little for them to do but fade away.

I’m good at what I do, and that’s why the Company hires me. They’re not just a publishing firm, although I do tend to deal only with the publishing division. They run the agencies, the star-spotters – and when, for whatever reason, they want to get rid of a particular person on their books, they commission me to write an autobiography.

It’s far tidier than assassination. Sometimes I think Mark David Chapman may have been one of my less sophisticated predecessors. Lee Harvey Oswald too, for all I know. It’s possible. The Company is far larger than I can perceive; in all my contact with it I’ve been feeling along one tiny edge of some impossibly vast and expertly hidden structure. I don’t worry myself about it. It’s not my business.

The bell rings. It’s one of my subjects, a new one. There are perfunctory introductions. “Sit down,” I say. And then, after a while, “Tell me about your birth.”

On Beckett’s Trilogy

To read Molloy is to become Molloy. Beckett’s prose, the vast flat plain of his single paragraph, forms the landscape you have to traverse. Sometimes you go along at a pretty good pace, your mental crutches clanking fairly against the solid sentences, sometimes you barely hobble through, crawling on your belly through the thick undergrowth of a lexical forest. You travel in straight lines by reading in circles and travel in circles by reading in straight lines, often you are not sure exactly where you are or where you are heading, sometimes a particular word or phrase or sentence brings you to a sudden halt and you need to lie down for a while in a little literary ditch to contemplate it and hope you’re not disturbed. But Beckett doesn’t let you lie there: he kicks you in the back or jabs you with a stick: you can’t stay here, you must move on. For pages and pages we wander, in and out of extended inventories of sucking-stones or buttons; past the tantalising – or terrifying – silhouettes of philosophical concepts that linger here and there on the horizon, visible but never quite within reach; through teasingly brief flashes of past memory. Where are we going? What does Molloy want? To return to his home town again, of course, to return to his mother, but that’s not what drives him onwards: he moves because he moves, he is in a dynamic stasis. As he says:

I longed to go back to the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, wherever he happened to be.

We are not Molloy, though, not yet, even though we travel in his footsteps. Molloy is the ultimate essence of humanity. He is man at his rawest, most stripped-down form, not willing, not wanting, a Schopenhauerian aesthete without any need for music. He sleeps in ditches, he is beaten and harried wherever he goes, he is often confused and sometimes aggrieved but in his voice there is never a note of regret: Molloy suffers from no existential angst, he is not alienated from himself. In not willing, in his infinite passivity, Molloy is completely free. But, for now, at least, we are not Molloy. We still want something. What does the reader want?

To understand, of course. Throughout the whole first section of Molloy, we never quite surrender ourselves to the vague meanderings of the narrative, we are always trying to work out what is going on, to order the narrative, impose some kind of structure – we walk with Molloy, but unlike him, we whine the whole way through. We want to tap Beckett on the back, and tell him (with all necessary deference) that while we are very much enjoying the ride, we would like to know where we are going, and if we’re there yet. A novel should have a point, we insist, or at least it should tell a story, and his appears to be doing neither: could we pause in our journey, just for a moment, and have a little peek at the map? And Beckett – he smiles at us a little, as you might smile at an endearingly errant child, but his eyes are still stern behind those shining round glasses, and he says: No.

But it’s not as if Beckett has some grand master plan he is refusing to let us see: his Trilogy is a Barthesian suicide of the author. Beckett is not Joyce or Eliot: his masterwork is not some literary crossword puzzle that he has set and that we are challenged to untangle. In one of his 1949 Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, Beckett was challenged to explain why artists should feel obliged to paint. His response, in its entirety:

I don’t know.

These are not the words of an author-as-Aufklärer. Molloy is never sure of anything, his narrative is that of an author who admits that he doesn’t know. Witness the first few sentences of the novel:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there.

Molloy can’t say for certain which of his legs is stiff, he can’t quite tell what town he is in, how old he is, how long he’s been travelling for, he continually plays with the idea of explaining or elucidating on some particular point, on forming some kind of solid inventory of his life, and then dismisses it, it is immaterial. Reading his words, we are plunged deep into a kind of limbo, a miasmatic fog of possibilities, we become a catatonic body without organs, all that is solid melts into air.

And then, the long paragraph finally ends, and in the novel’s second part we return to a literary world we are at least somewhat familiar with. The perspective switches – there is the odd flash of Molloyity (‘My report will be long. Perhaps I shall not finish it.’) – but we are now on our own ground once more, in the safe hands of Jacques Moran, who knows how to write in proper paragraphs, who is a tyrant, perhaps, but comfortingly bourgeois. And he is human in the conventional sense, we are no longer faced with the terrifying Real of our reflection in Molloy’s starkness. And, look, thank Christ, what a relief, it seems like we might just get a conventional plot structure as well! Moran must go off to find Molloy, and finally we’ll be able to see our stiff-legged vagrant from the outside: Moran will find him for us, and all we’ll see is a mumbling decrepit geriatric. The unsettling freedom of his narrative will be reduced to a mere stylistic exercise, we won’t really need to consider the implications. There’ll be a confrontation, perhaps, some kind of climax, comfortable catharsis. Nice one, Beckett, you almost had us going for a minute there.

Except that doesn’t happen. Moran does find Molloy, eventually, in a way, but we never get to see him from the outside, because Molloy is inside all of us. Molloy is humanity, the perfect embodiment of our existential freedom: crippled, lame, dazed, unfeeling, unthinking, unwilling. As Moran walks off in search of Molloy, his bourgeois effects slowly fall away from him: he is deserted by his son, he loses all but fifteen shillings of his money, his joints seize up, he wanders, in his seventeen theological questions he cathartically cleanses himself of any notion of the Beyond. He does not find Molloy, he becomes Molloy:

Question. How did I feel?
Answer. Much as usual.
Question. And yet I had changed and was still changing?
Answer. Yes.
Question. How was this to be explained?
Answer.

This void, this lack of an answer, is the point where Moran sheds his tyranny: both over others and over himself. He is admitting that he does not know. We have been reading the novel backwards, the second half takes place before the first, but its ordering is important, because although Moran turns into Molloy, Molloy was there long before Moran, Molloy has always been there. And in the catastrophic final few lines of the novel, the conventional narrative we so greedily embraced when it first appeared is revealed for the lie it always has been: Beckett turns back on himself, we are shown Moran/Molloy writing the words that opened the second half:

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

We were wrong in looking for a clear linear direction, we were wrong in looking for comprehensibility, there can be none. Molloy is not just a stumbling old man, he is our freedom, in all its aimless wandering, in all its its ineffable tragedy. When we read this line, we join Moran in his transfiguration, or his reduction: we have become Molloy. Or, in the words of our old pal Freddy Nietzsche, we have become what we are.

This post has been, more than anything, an excuse for me to have a go at getting my head around Molloy. There is a lot I haven’t covered. Why, for instance, does Moran compare his newly stiffened knee to a clitoris? There are probably some interesting psychoanalytical readings to be made here, but I don’t have a clue. I haven’t read much of the critical debate around the Trilogy, so if I’m wrong about everything, please let me know. I may attempt at some point to make some similar explorations through Malone Dies and The Unnameable, but no promises.

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