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Category: Autobiography

The Book Of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

The Book Of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

“Part of growing up is learning, unfortunately, to develop loyalties to abstractions: the state, the nation, the idea,” writes Aleksandar Hemon in The Book of My Lives, “You pledge allegiance; you love the leader. You have to be taught to recognise and care about differences, you have to be instructed who you really are; you have to learn how generations of dead people and their incomprehensible accomplishments made you the way you are; you have to define your loyalty to an abstraction-based herd that transcends your individuality.” This is the way in most cultures and countries, but especially those saddled with a draconian regime. Hemon, who grew up in Sarajevo, writes of the experience with ebullience that hasn’t dulled with either years or geographical distance. The Book of My Lives documents some of the social injustices and cruelties endured by the Bosnian people prior to and during the 1990s war. It regards the subject through a personal lens, delivering moving accounts of the villainies witnessed by Hemon, his family and friends. Hemon recalls vividly the exact moment he realised the pernicious nature of the Socialist rule, when after (a grossly misjudged) fascist-themed birthday party he and some of his friends were summoned to the State Security offices. “They interrogated me for thirteen hours straight,” Hemon recalls, “in the course of which I discovered that all the other people who attended the party had visited or were going to visit the warm State Security offices…Naïvely, I assumed that if I explain to them that it was really just a performance, a bad joke at worst…they would just slap our wrists…and let us go home.” They did, of course, let the adolescents go eventually but the story developed into nationwide news with the group being labelled the “Nazi Nineteen,” which Hemon says was a very surreal experience, likening it to “reading a novel in which one of the characters – a feckless nihilistic prick – had my name”.

For a while after and despite evidence to the contrary Hemon and his friends continued to rely on what they “stubbornly perceived as normalcy,” ignoring the fact that Croatia was in the throes of war and Bosnia was soon to follow. Working as a writer for a magazine at the time, Hemon recalls the months preceding the war through a fuliginous haze of hashish, sex, writing assignments and Dean Martin’s euphonious crooning. “We did it all,” he says nostalgically, “staying up all night to close and lay out an issue of the magazine, subsisting on coffee and cigarettes and trance; consuming pornography and writing poetry; participating in passionate soccer-related discussions and endless manic debates…Then there was rampant, ecstatic promiscuity…It was a great fucking time.” A time that was swiftly succeeded, he goes on to tell us, by the incontrovertible fact that “the war had arrived and now we were all waiting to see, who would live, who would kill, and who would die.” Hemon writes of his subsequent depression and hopelessness with intense acuity, imbuing this time spent largely in isolation with cultural and philosophical contemplations which enrich the narrative with a sense of universal resonance. It is here that Hemon’s memoir works best, when his voice is subjective, idiosyncratic and entirely his own. There are moments in the book, however, when Hemon writes as a seemingly impartial observer as he does, for example, in a chapter called Let There Be What Cannot Be. “In April, [Radovan] Karadžić’s snipers aimed at a peaceful anti-war demonstration in front of the parliament building,” he reports, “and two women were killed. On May 2, Sarajevo was cut off from the rest of the world and the longest siege in modern history began. By the end of the summer, nearly every front page in the universe had published a picture of a Serbian death camp.” This kind of divagation is no surprise when one learns that all the pieces in The Book of My Lives were written individually rather than as a collective whole. They have since been revised and reassembled, but the narrative disparity – infinitesimal as it its – contributes to the overall fragmentation of the book. This is compounded by the middle chapter called This Is Why I Do Not Want To Leave Chicago, which is essentially a list – a very interesting and articulate list but nevertheless a list – at odds with the rest of the book.

The all-important aspects of Hemon’s life, however, are certainly here . The birth of his sister which marked a “tormentful, lonely period” in the writer’s formative development; his early experiences of the divisive ethic system; his realisation about his parents’ fallibility; the “ceaseless debasement” of army life; the atrocities of war; the torturous complexity of immigration; incurable homesickness and the protracted and debilitating process of constructing a new life. The latter is something Hemon ruminates on with the weight of bitter experience, conveying the hardships of adapting to a new world through his own eyes as well as those of his mother and father. A year after Hemon left Sarajevo for the US (1992) his parents and his sister immigrated to Canada. The escape itself had been precarious enough, but no one could have prepared the Hemons for the difficulties that followed. “Things were very complicated for them,” writes Hemon of his parents in Canada, “what with the language my parents couldn’t speak, the generic shock of displacement and the cold climate that was extremely unfriendly to randomly warm human interactions.” In fact, as we go on to learn, the whole process was far more serious than that. “Within months my parents started cataloguing the differences between us and them,” Hemon explains, “we being Bosnians or ex Yugoslavs, they being purely Canadian.” At one point, the writer recalls how this caused a rift between him and his family, who was beset by “devastating nostalgia and hopelessness” at their new life. Hemon writes very candidly about the various adversities in adapting and trying to encourage his parents to do the same. “I was incapable of helping them in any way,” he writes, “During my visits, we argued too much: their despair annoyed me, because it exactly matched mine and prevented them from offering comfort to me…Everything we did in Canada reminded us of what we used to do together in Bosnia.”

The Book of My Lives is full of such plaintive moments. Hemon remembers the acclimatisation process with plangent astuteness, his words reverberating with a familiar if distant echo of longing. “Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past,” he explains, ”with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances…At the same time there is the inescapable reality of the self-transformed by immigration – whoever we used to be, we are now split between us-here (say, in Canada) and us-there (say, in Bosnia).”  To bridge this gap, between his old and new self, Hemon set out to explore his adopted hometown and this is precisely how he documents his time in Chicago; as a wanderer, a searching flaneur, who grows to love his new city through familiarity, slowly forging relationships with its places and people. “I realized that my immigrant interior had begun to merge with my American exterior,” Hemon recalls after a couple of years of living in the US, “Large parts of Chicago had entered me and settled there; I fully owned those parts now. I saw Chicago through the eyes of Sarajevo and the two cities now created a complicated internal landscape in which stories could be generated.” And there are certainly many – and wonderful – stories that have been generated and gathered here, which Hemon started writing in English as soon as his displacement anxiety began to dissipate. They are the Lives referred to in the book’s title, split between his early years in Bosnia and subsequent struggles and his time in the US, focusing on the city of Chicago; his local football team, the chess players with whom he shared his passion, his past lovers, his ex and present wife, his daughter Isabel’s battle with cancer and his older daughter Ella’s imaginary friend.

The Book of My Lives is Hemon’s first collection of non-fiction, consisting of 15 pieces of autobiography assembled loosely together into a variegated whole. It is a short but surprisingly compendious read, offering great insight into the writer’s past and present. Hemon is someone who manages to convey the emotional complexities of loss and extant pain with superb clarity and feeling.“How can you possibly ease yourself into the death of your own child,” he asks, “For one thing, it is supposed to happen well after your own dissolution into nothingness. Your children are supposed to outlive you by several decades, in the course of which they’ll live their lives, happily devoid of the burden of your presence, eventually completing the same mortal trajectory as their parents: oblivion, denial, fear, the end…And even if you could imagine your own child’s death, why would you?” But sadly the unimaginable became a reality for Hemon and his family, when their infant daughter died of a rare brain tumour . “Teri [Hemon’s wife] and I held our dead child – our beautiful, ever-smiling daughter, her body bloated with liquid and beaten by compression,” he writes, “- kissing her cheeks and toes. Through I recall the moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me.” Hemon lays himself bare on the page, vacillating candidly, unashamedly, from hope to joy to grief to disbelief and anger.  “One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling,” he rages, “that it is a step on the path of some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. The only result of her suffering that matters is her death. We learned no lesson worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody.”  Hemon’s memoir ends with this heart-wrenching story, which is both overwhelming and very moving. Speaking about writing, in more general terms, Hemon recently said that literature was “human experience in language” and that what mattered was not the “information about the past or the present” but the “intensity and depth of experience of reading and imagining other lives.” And this is the key to the Book of his, his many lives, all of which – the good, the bad, the joyous and the tragic – are very much worth reading and imagining.

Book Browse | Aleksandar Hemon

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback:  224 pages
ISBN: 9781447210900


Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona by Geoff Dyer

“Nothing that happens in Stalker is an accident,” Geoff Dyer tells us in the first couple of pages of Zona, “and yet, at the same time, it is full of accidents.” This is one of the ways in which Andrei Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film imitates life and its seemingly arbitrary nature, which is in fact mapped out with cartographic precision. This exquisite geometry is also mirrored in Dyer’s book, a paean to Tarkovsky’s work, boasting a swaggering array of facts, anecdotes, references and deviations beneath a consummately rigid structure. Zona is as much about Tarkovsky as it is about Stalker which, Dyer says, was partly responsible for shaping his perception and understanding of the world and without which it would be “radically diminished”. Dyer’s interest in Stalker has been compulsive, obsessive and longstanding – and is now well into several decades. “I’ve seen Stalker more times than any film except The Great Escape,”  he wrote in the Guardian a while back, “I’ve seen it when the projectionist got the reels in the wrong order (I was the only person who noticed), I’ve seen it on my own in Paris and dubbed into Italian in Rome, I’ve seen it on acid (remember that sequence when the solid ground begins to ripple?) and I’ve seen it on telly –  and it’s never quite as I remember. Like the Zone, it’s always changing. Like the Stalker, I feel quite at home in it, but whenever I see the film I try to imagine what it might be like, watching it for the first time when it seemed so weird.” Despite Dyer’s intimate familiarity with the film one gets the distinct impression that he still finds it weird. And the emphasis on weirdness is both implicit and explicit. It is, in fact, the film and its maker’s otherness, which transcends both cultural and aesthetic hegemonies, that Dyer finds strange and idiosyncratic. He ruminates over the nuanced complexities of Stalker with admirable erudition and finesse but with a quintessentially English sense of curiosity, ossified by ratiocination and intellectual liberalism, which is doggedly linear unlike its European counterparts.

In many ways, it is Dyer’s Englishness that prevents him immersing fully into Tarkovsky’s imagination, and identifying with the filmmaker and his work. And thus he always remains an analytical observer and a piqued voyeur, who finds his subject exoteric and esoteric, lucid and puzzling but altogether too remote from his own value system. There is a point in the book, for example, when Dyer ponders the Stalker’s sleeping raiment, finding himself perplexed by the irrationality of it. “To sleep without trousers but with a sweater does not make sense with regard to any system of convention,” he says thinking about a scene in the film when the Stalker gets out of bed, “It just seems weird and not terribly hygienic.”  This sentiment is echoed again and again whenever Dyer thinks on the Stalker and his two travelling companions.  One almost feels as though he cannot quite reconcile the idea of a “prophet ” with the obdurate physiognomy of the shaven-headed zek who is to lead his two equally gruff “clients” – the Professor and the Writer –  on a spiritual and metaphysical journey to “the Zone” at the crux of which lies “the Room” – a place where one’s deepest wishes are granted and ”ultimate truths are revealed”. Despite lacking an interpersonal affinity with the film’s characters and director, Dyer  feels the same desire to find fulfilment, peace, happiness. “I am as badly in need of the Zone and its wonder as any of the three men,” he writes, “The Zone is a place of uncompromising and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left –  possibly the only one –  where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold: a place of refuge and sanctuary. A sanctuary, also, from cliché.” Dyer employs wry and acerbic humour throughout the book to make his subject –  a 163 minute long film “about three blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere” – more palatable, more accessible, and in doing so sees the reader follow his irreverent, digressive and meandering voice avidly from page to page.

Some may find Dyer’s footnotes and interpositions self-indulgent and whimsical but they are in fact quite important to the rich tapestry of the narrative. Every anecdote and story contributes something to our understanding of the film, its director, its cast and crew and how Stalker was made after a hellish number of delays and logistical and technical difficulties. The film went through three different directors of photography, changed locations before and after shooting, encountered various faults with the experimental Kodak film, was marred by professional rivalries, directorial vicissitudes and had a serious problem with drinking on set. The cast and crew boozed heavily to alleviate boredom in between takes, spearheaded by Anatoliy Solonitsyn (the Writer) who was renowned for his two-week binges.  Despite all the problems, however, the film went ahead and was made but sadly “at the cost of a heap of corpses and triple retakes”. Several people involved in Stalker, including Tarkovsky and Solonitsyn, were believed to have died as a result of the arduous shooting schedule and the toxicity of the location, which was based around a half-functioning hydroelectric station in Tallinn. Ironically, it is the beautifully desolate landscape that gives Stalker it’s most memorable quality, framed by Tarkovsky’s unorthodox used of  long takes with slow, subtle camera movements, which make the film seem alive –  suspiring in tandem with the viewer.

Dyer pieces together a capital of information to provide a comprehensive overview of Tarkovsky and his cinematic vision; a sophisticated and original vision, which has made him one of the most innovative and brilliant directors of the last four decades. “Tarkovsky was not only a visionary, poet and mystic,” Dyer says, “he was also a prophet.”  Stalker is loaded with allusions to mankind’s immanent future; and it is a dire forecast. One of these portentous bolts seems to be forewarning of the looming disaster of Chernobyl, by way of the Professor’s impassioned speech about a meteorite which fell to earth, destroying lives and communities and creating the Zone. ”Tremors from the future can be felt throughout Stalker,” Dyer writes, “In less than a decade Professor’s summary  of how the Zone came into existence had taken on an aura of a premonition fulfilled, and Stalker acquired yet another dimension of suggestiveness in its foreshadowing of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.” Paradoxically, the oneiric terrain and scenic atmosphere of the Zone is where Tarkovksy’s poetic propensities come to the fore. “Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky,”  Dyer writes, “but…their beingess had not been seen in this way. Tarkovsky reconfigured the world, brought this landscape…into existence.” Dyer also stresses that we ought to pay close attention to the seemingly irrelevant objects on film because they too mean something in Tarkovsky’s world. Everything, a rock , a tuft of moss, a puddle, is imbued with a “breathing magic”. They’re all part of the human interaction with the landscape , Dyer explains, which Tarkovsky makes into a kind of poetry comparative to that of William Wordsworth’s. It is Tarkovsky’s Wordsworthian understanding of and interest in nature’s ”inward meaning,” says our literary tour guide that gives Stalker’s filmic archaeology that “special aura”.

This is one of the many and varied elements that make up Tarkovsky’s cinematic trajectory. Most of them are considered in the book through Dyer’s ruminations on Stalker, which he says is a literal journey as well as a “journey into cinematic space and in tandem into time”. This was one of Tarkovsky’s principal preoccupations, which Dyer contemplates in regard to this own life, conflating research and studious inquiry with humorous yarns and confessional annotations. We get to learn, for example, that Dyer could have had several threesomes but didn’t, that he used to spend his student days tripping on LSD, that he thinks there was a time when his wife looked uncannily like Natacha McElone in Solaris and that they’ve been debating getting a dog for over five years. Some of these might be immaterial to the topic at hand, but they’re fairly interesting and offer great insight into Dyer, the man. Throughout the course of the book we get to learn about both the writer and his subject as Dyer journeys into himself by recounting the journey of Stalker and his two clients. And this makes for some very interesting reading, but perhaps the most interesting (and important) of the nuggets of knowledge we acquire is the meaning of the Zone, a term which derives from prison jargon for the world outside. “[In] the 1950s when the Soviet Union was a vast prison camp…in prison camp-slang (as an Applebaum points out in Gulag) ‘the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as freedom, but as the ‘bolshyaa zona’,” Dyer explains, “the ‘big prison zone’ large and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Whenever asked about the symbolism of Stalker Tarkovsky always maintained that there wasn’t any, saying the Zone should be taken at face value rather than as a cinematographic treatise on freedom, and its dearth in the Soviet system. But that’s precisely how the film should be interpreted, as Tarkovsky’s (man’s) quest for personal freedom through his artistic realisations, which was the only time he felt he had any. This is something Dyer could have explored a little bit more perhaps for after all Tarkovksy’s artistic freedom was the linchpin of his work.

Guardian | Geoff Dyer 

Publisher: Canongate
Publication Date: March 2013
Paperback:  228 pages
ISBN: 9780857861672

Sheila Heti: Representing the feminist narrative with renewed resonance and verve

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

How Should A Person Be? is a question that has no definitive answer, varying from one individual to the next. The only absolute is that one should always be oneself because “everyone else is already taken,” as Oscar Wilde observed some years ago. This is something Sheila Heti explores during the course of her book, which she spends trying to answer this pressing query. Written in semi fictionalised free-form, How Should A Person Be? comprises dialogue, monologue, meditation, reverie and playwriting elements into a loosely assembled whole.  A substantial part of it is based on Heti’s conversations with several of her friends, most notably an artist by the name of Margaux who has very admirably “never quit anything”. The narrator – also named Sheila – uses her personal experiences as a framework to explore modernist themes such as freedom, creativity, language, gender and the underlying impetuses that drive us. Heti’s work is defined by a very discernible feminist ethos both in her creative endeavours – a play about women – and her quest for self-actualisation by means of interaction with Margaux. “I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one,” Sheila tells us thinking of her life before meeting Margaux, “I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain.” This sentiment is later echoed in Sheila’s perception of her new friend, who in turn becomes the sum of all her aspirations. “I admired her courage, her heart, and her brain,” Sheila says, “I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become the same way too.”

The pair’s friendship begins in earnest when Sheila decides that Margaux may be the inspiration she needs to finish her play despite having reservations about female friendships. “Two women as alchemy I did not understand,” Sheila says contemplating the subject, “…ever since I was a teenager, I had been drawn to men exclusively, and they drew themselves to me – as lovers, as friends. They pursued me. It was simple. It was men I enjoyed talking to at parties, and whose opinions I was interested in hearing. It was men I wanted to grow close to and be influence by.” Somewhere mid-way through the book, after a dozen conversations with Margaux and a trip to Miami, Sheila realises that her sense of self-realisation has always been defined by men, especially men who “wanted to teach her something”. Among these is her new lover Israel, who wants to teach Sheila how to suck cock and fuck with complete abandon. And at one point Sheila finds herself completely immersed in the distraction – “the interlude” – which only drives her further away from her goal of self-discovery, her fledgling relationship with Margaux and most importantly from her playwriting. “I don’t know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel,” she says thinking about her new lover, “I don’t see why you’re getting so excited about, snuggling in with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson.” In the end, however, it is Sheila that teaches us a lesson by manumitting herself from the need to conform to what someone else thinks a person should be.

In many ways How Should A Person Be? is a nubile (twice removed and reworked) extension of Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In Sheila’s case this realisation is reached when she ceases to see herself through the eyes of the men in her life – past and present. Yet despite her  attachment to the feminine, Sheila promotes an androgynous ideal of self-formation relaying her experiences through a traditionally male model of storytelling, belonging to the coming of age genre. Yet there are moments, when feeling lost, nullified and caught up in the search for love, creative freedom and oneself – all very unisex goals – Sheila speaks with a non-gender-specific ineligibility. “We are worse off than we were at the beginning,” she says thinking on humanity, “but this could have been predicted from our starting point. In the beginning the gods gave us liberty; in the end, we discovered cheating. Instead of developing the capacities within, we took two roads: the delusion and oblivion of drugs – which didn’t start off as cheating, but as access to the sublime…One is a reproduction of the human type – one sleeps like other humans, eats like other humans, loves like other humans, and is born and dies like other humans. We are gestures, but we less resemble an original painting than one unit of a hundred thousand copies of a book being sold. Now the gestures we chose are revealed as cheating. Instead of being, one appears to be.” This form of scepticism is very closely aligned with Immanuel Kant’s idea of transcendental reality, which Heti ruminates on briefly without much gravitas or depth.

There are several other moments in the book when one can very clearly see her academic credentials in philosophy, particularly when Sheila ponders subconscious impulses, the meaning of life and relationships. “…Love, which can’t be helped, slips into the death drive,” she says, “The death drive seeks comfort and knowledge of the future. It wants the final answer and is afraid of life…It hopes to drive you off your course like a car plunging into the center of the earth. It strives for love, annihilation, comfort and death. Now the future is clear! it cries. It wants to drag you down…It is death coming, masquerading as life, and blessed is the man who can see the death drive in the woman. Blessed is he who leaves in the morning without any promise of love. And blessed is the woman who can answer for herself, What about living? What is it about living that you want?” This is a question which Heti’s fictional self finds even harder to answer than her original probe, as she vacillates between wanting everything (fame, veneration, personal and professional fulfillment)  and nothing at all. Speaking about how Sheila’s yearning for celebrity materialised Heti said she was trying to identify and exaggerate similarities between herself and “those girls like Lindsay Lohan who were in the tabloids”. This experimental projection adds a somewhat contrived dimension to the book and leads to several very banal exchanges between Sheila and Margaux, most notable of which is over a dress. How Should A Person Be? could have done without it but Heti says she has always associated writing with performance and “if you understand yourself to be in relation to the people around you, and to the world around you, the audience for the performance expands”. An interesting point, but the performance in How Should A Person Be? expands a little too liberally, detracting from rather than enhancing the work.

Equally there are some very shrewd and interesting observations in the book like, for example, when speaking about modern day recreational pursuits Sheila says “the rule is: drink as much as you can afford to drink. We all, anyway, work better when we are drunk, or wake up the next morning, hungover. In either case, we lack the capacity to second-guess ourselves,” or when thinking about one of her past relationships she concludes that sadly “we don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them” or notes that “women apologise too much” and needlessly. Women and their relationships with men as well as each other is Heti’s strong point. Speaking about the subject in an interview she recently said: “I always thought marriage hurt female genius more than it helped.” This is a sentiment Sheila reiterates several times in the book, after leaving her husband, liberating herself from Israel and trying to find the courage to construct an identity on her own terms.  How Should A Person Be? is a novel from life which as the by-line suggests attempts to capture the immediacy of experiences and thoughts as they unfold.  And in a way Heti succeeds by employing a number of genres to convey the “benevolent operation of destiny in every moment” and a sense “of the inevitability of things” as they materialise, even if she sometimes does so at the cost of her prose which veers from inspired to jejune. How Should A Person Be? is Heti’s second book but a first in a much greater sense of the feminist narrative defined here by renewed resonance and verve.

Joyland Magazine | Sheila Heti

The Paris Review | Sheila Heti 

Publisher: Harvill Secker
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 320 pages
ISBN: 9781846557545

Jonathan Meades: An indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor

“There is no such thing as a boring place,” says Jonathan Meades. And let’s face it, he should know having spent a lifetime “writing about it in different media and in different ways: polemically, analytically, essayistically, fictively”. Place, albeit not exclusively or singularly, is also the subject of his new collection, Museum Without Walls. The sturdy hardback – boasting 54 prose pieces and six film scripts – delivers some genuinely droll and outré views and ideas, all backed up by an astonishing wealth of knowledge. Meades is an indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor, who often veers off course to fascinating ends. Writing about architecture, for example, in Hamas & Kibbutz he deviates from the topic at hand to the subject of football, pondering: “If it is a national game how come we always lose?” He writes more amusingly, however, about one of the game’s biggest stars, saying: “A buzzard is an avian analogue of the even squeakier David Beckham,” who will “always be a wrong voice, a treble in a tenor’s body. That for me is his defining characteristic. He is to be filed, ultimately, alongside Alan Ball and Emlyn Hughes in the Sportsmen Posing As Castrati category”. Yet jocund badinage aside, Meades really knows his stuff from seventeenth century literary dicta to the ineptitude of an untutored architect, from the demerits of the Theory of the Value of Ruins to the capital’s imperfect traffic and transport systems. Meades is a redoubtable social critic and nouveau historian with an intrepidly facetious streak, humorous and clever without being glib.

Much of Museum Without Walls is dedicated to Meades’ monomania, which he has spent 30 years cultivating in numerous television programmes, books and journalism features. Here, in this collection, are some of his most interesting texts pertaining to London and its monuments, both the memorable and the unremarkable. “Of London’s major set pieces,” writes Meades, “St Paul’s Cathedral is the most distinguished, though not, I suspect, the most loved: it is too stately, aloof and worldly to excite the sort of affection granted to such exercises in quaintness as Big Ben and Tower Bridge”.  Further in the collection Meades ruminates over the subject again, praising St Paul’s for its “swagger and urbanity and temporal grace,” which stands at odds with its function as a church, “a monument to unreason…a musty repository of ancient mysteries and incomprehensible superstitions” and the residence of “the fearsome, jealous, tyrannical wrath-monger called god”. Meades continues his deadpan fulmination against the numinous deity in the brilliantly irreverent Absentee Landlord. God is “an absurdity whose existence it is absurd to deny,” he says, “because God is omnipresent, God is in believers’ minds or souls or hearts or wherever it is they know he is”. In fact, he is a “fantastically successful invention.” And if an idea ever had legs Meades muses, “this one has run and run and is still full of puff”. 

Next, he tackles the church. The Church of England to be precise or rather “the Church of Convenience,” as he calls it, “founded to sanction a king’s polygamous lubricity and his Bluebeard appetites”. Speaking from an architectural point of view, however, he avers that churches as buildings cannot be denied. Most of these putatively sacred structures are lumped together as Gothic, because they predominantly are and have been since the Middle Ages. “The Gothic is an agent of de-secularisation, it is an architectural means of achieving sacredness,” Meades explains, “it made schools, law courts and railway stations into quasi-religious building which were thus invested with added authority: we thanked God for selective education, for the wisdom of judges, for making the trains run on time.” Interestingly, Meades goes on to note that “Atheism, unlike Christianity, possesses no architectural type or decorative style which is peculiar to it.” And yet he daydreams here a little, saying: “Still, had atheists built they could have built at no more propitious a moment than during the middle years of this century, when nearly all architecture had broken with western Christian precedent, when architecture was so ideologically determined that it was itself a cult or religion.” Sadly this is no longer the case, as Meades laments in Postmodernism to Ghost-Modernism because modern British architecture died when Margaret Thatcher assumed power in 1979 and thus dismantled the “economic and cultural apparatus that had supported it”.

And, it only got worse under the tenure of Tony Blair, “the most bellicose prime minister of the last 150 years”. There is something of the Uriah Heep that Blair’s “corrupt regime” has banqueted to Britain, says Meades. But what he really takes objection to are the “block upon block of luxury flats” despoiling different cityscapes across the country. In On the Bandwagon talking of Blair’s government, Meades says that the decade-long rule “will be recalled as much by its architecture as by its low dishonesty”. But the architectural legacy is Meades’ primary concern, so much so that he has coined a neologism for the particular type of structure associated with New Labour. A sightbite, the analogous equivalent of a soundbite, is “characterised by its hollow vacuity, by its sculptural sensationalism, by its happy quasi-modernism, by its lack of actual utility”.  These “dangerously vapid” buildings found mostly in municipalities undergoing regeneration, from London’s Docklands to Cardiff Bay, are fully representative of the government who authorised them. A government this particular auteur takes to task where others have not dared. Meades’ spellbinding enthusiasm, his acuity and his crafty prose in writing about social, political and religious issues – which he contemplates with wit, deft and gravity, depending on the exact nature of the topic – are surpassed only by his uncompromising candour.

This candour also extends to his life, his childhood and formative years, references and anecdotes of which punctuate the collection.  Occasionally, these sketches are plaintively nostalgic as those, for example, in Fatherland, where Meades remembers places associated with his father, which he says “coalesce into a memento mori whether I like it or not”.  Thus places, like certain smells and sounds, are able to solicit small and inconsequential but also exigent and momentous reminiscences and are therefore an integral element of our emotional life. A great number of these places for Meades are – in a very quintessentially English way – pubs, or more precisely their parking lots, where he whiled away the hours eating crisps and imbibing fizzy lemonade, waiting for the grown-ups. “I spent the 1950s in pub car parks,” he confesses, “in summer I kicked gravel, walked perilously on the wall tops, scaled trees. In winter which is what it usually was I sat in my father’s car watching my breath condense, mining driving, scrutinising the underside of Issigonis’s dashboards, reading maps”. Here like elsewhere in the collection Meades pays tribute to his father, a biscuit salesman with whom he travelled from town to town, taking-in the beautiful, the grotesque and the commonplace which, in his own words, grew to seem extraordinary. Unbeknown to young Meades at the time his edacious interest in his surroundings would not only develop into a lifelong fascination but also into a brilliant career, both in print and in television. The six scripts gathered here give unprecedented insight into the filmmaker’s pedantic precision and attention to detail. Surprisingly – surprisingly because Meades’ television programmes appear so wonderfully spontaneous – every nuance and scene, every screen-shot and take is meticulously scripted, attesting to Meades’ proficient showmanship.  Just as Museum Without Walls attests to his talents as a writer with an exciting and varied body of work of which one hopes there is much more to come.

Publisher: Unbound
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 352 pages
ISBN: 9781908717184

Hermann Hesse: For Mad People Only

“Man is never happy,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer “but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so”. This could not be more true of Harry Haller, the protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Haller is a reclusive middle-aged German intellectual – an aesthete and a connoisseur of Goethe, Mozart, Dante and Socrates – undergoing a spiritual crisis fuelled by contempt for bourgeois respectability and new world order; a crisis which began after his wife suffered a mental breakdown and turned him out of their home, and in which “love and trust”, he recalls, “had suddenly turned into hatred and mortal combat…that had been the begging of my progressive isolation.” Originally published in 1927, Steppenwolf has recently been newly translated and reissued by Penguin Classics. It is said to be loosely based on Hesse’s own personal crisis of 1924-6, which commenced with the separation from his second wife of just few months, Ruth Wenger, and prompted a deep self-loathing, periodic seclusion and a suicidal predisposition. Steppenwolf is, therefore, largely viewed as an abstract transliteration of Hesse’s own traumatic experiences during this particular time. Not only that, the book’s protagonist reads like a nimbly fictionalised doppelganger of the writer, sharing similar childhood memories and upbringing; similar political views, beliefs, resolutions; and similar travails and psychological prostrations.

Set in a nameless German city in the Weimar Republic, Steppenwolf chronicles Haller’s “solitary, loveless, hectic, utterly disordered life,” his days as a man on the periphery of society and plenary reclusion. His narrative is a panorama of hallucinations, reveries and occasional confrontations with the innominate city’s bohemian denizens. Haller exhibits masochistic tendencies, derives pleasure from suffering and often contemplates suicide. “Contentment doesn’t agree with me”, he says. “After a short spell, finding it insufferably detestable and sickening, I have to seek refuge in other climes, possibly resorting to sensual pleasures, but if necessary even opting for the path of pain.” On the other hand, he also experiences sporadic upturns of mood, namely when listening to music, reading, or partaking in other intellectual pursuits. Yet for the most part, Haller longs to do daringly foolish things, such as “tear the wigs from the heads of a few revered idols, stand the fares of some rebellious schoolboys desperate to visit Hamburg, seduce a little girl, or twist the neck of the odd representative of the bourgeois powers that be”. He is a man at odds with himself, “partly human, partly wolfish”, conflicted about the physical and the spiritual, the cerebral and the sensual, the conscious and the subconscious sides of life – an entity of irreconcilable dichotomies.

For a time, however, Haller attempts to find solace in human contact after meeting the mysterious Hermione (a girl like “life itself, forever fickle as the moment, never predictable in advance”), the “good looking, young, cheerful, very good in bed and not always available” Maria, and the dubious jazz musician by the name of Pablo. He tries to immerse himself in the city’s nightlife, and its many tawdry integuments, but is unable to overcome his need for isolation, his aversion to the commonplace or his internal disharmony. It is not until the last stage of the book and the Magic Theater episode that Haller is able to reconcile his duality or gain real knowledge of his “true self”. The preternatural realm of the Theater, reached by means of subtropical chemicals, is a cartography of Haller’s own mind which he explores at will, meeting his idols and hyperbolic versions of the characters whom he encountered during his nocturnal adventures. This brings him closer to understanding himself and his plight, which emancipates him from his tormented existence and the approach of madness.

Madness is a running theme in Steppenwolf, as the narrator at the start of the book forewarns the reader it is intended “For Mad People Only”. This slogan later reappears to Haller in an epiphany, and as an exordium to his exploits at the Magic Theater. Time and again the idea surfaces, as when Haller, contemplating humanity while speaking to Hermione, whom he believes to be a kindred spirit, says: “The image of humankind , once a lofty ideal, is currently turning, into a cliché. Perhaps mad people like us will be the ones to restore its nobility.” And while Haller may have little luck with humanity, he succeeds in restoring a sense of inner equilibrium in himself,  which may or may not facilitate him becoming one with the world. Hesse once explained the meaning of Steppenwolf by saying he intended to show that one must be content with oneself and self-aware and thus bestow, by establishing an inner peace, harmony onto a world afflicted with moral aberration and discord. And in that Hesse succeeds, by writing exceptionally earnestly and with an extraordinary clarity about the quest for the meaning of life, and the difficulties in finding it. Shortly after Steppenwolf was published Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1946)  “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style.”

These qualities continued to evolve until the end of his life in 1962. Born in Calw in the Black Forest on 2nd July 1877 to parents of a mixed Baltic, German and French Swiss heritage, Hesse spent most of his formative years in boarding schools in Wuerttemberg and in the theological seminary of the monastery at Maulbronn. “I was a good learner”, he recalled later: “good at Latin though only fair at Greek, but I was not a very manageable boy, and it was only with difficulty that I fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality.” In truth, Hesse never did fit in and Steppenwolf is a testament to that: a towering and artistic – if stinging – excoriation of European culture and values, lamenting its lack of spiritual and humanist dimensions; an intriguing and controversial book for “For Mad People Only”; a book, in other words, for most of us.

Chandler Brossard: Off-Beat

One hopes that there will always be a publisher willing to take a chance on the underdog, the underdog often being a writer who will most likely yield little commercial success. Such a publisher is not only commendable but also courageous. Allen Berlinski is just such a man, without whom Chandler Brossard’s collected shorts may have never made it into print. Over The Rainbow? Hardly (2004) failed to make publication on two separate occasions, until Berlinski accepted it for his Sun Dog Press. The introduction, written by the book’s editor Steven Moore, is studious and sympathetic, offering invaluable insight into both Brossard’s life and his work.

Chandler Brossard was born in 1922 in Idaho. He dropped out of school aged 11, and by the age of 18 was working in Washington as a reporter. Eventually, he moved to New York City and found employment with a number of prominent publications, including The New Yorker, American Mercury, Time, and Look magazine, where he remained from 1956-67. He later took to travelling around Europe, teaching there as well as in the US, while also writing fiction. Brossard was largely self-educated, and is now mostly remembered as the overlooked Beat, an appellation he vehemently rejected. This wholly unsolicited link was a result of his first book, Who Walk In Darkness (1952), which contained all the nascent elements that later came to define beatnik literature. The novel, set in Greenwich Village, was a phantasmagorical evocation of subterranean culture and life, temulent revelries, sex, psychedelics and the search for creative liberation. Asked about the Beat connection in 1979 Brossard said the critics who had made it were “not very thoughtful people” and had missed the point of the book.

Brossard believed the only correlation between himself and his Beat successors, who came 10 years later, was the fact that Who Walk in Darkness was set in the same bohemian environs of the Village, while everything else – style, syntax, subject – was at contrastive odds. In fact, much of Brossard’s work – especially in Over The Rainbow? Hardly – is irreconcilable with that of his contemporaries or precursors, as it “magically combines, orders, and dramatizes realities”, but not realities as we know them. This is in part due to Brossard’s sui generis prose-style, which shuns traditional narrative structure and literary etiquette in favour of the curious and the avant-garde. Over The Rainbow? Hardly consists of seven independent chapters, which range from venerean pastiches of popular fairy-tales to meditations on etymology and epistemology, poetry and everything in between. In Postcards: You Don’t Wish You Were Here, for example, Brossard offers literary snaps of various cities across the US by way of wry and acidulous narratives.  Each place is defined by an exaggeration of its perceived, or perhaps, more accurately, imagined, idiosyncrasies. In Lying Low, Virginia, for instance, “apples torture Newton by falling diagonally”. In Right As Rain, New Mexico, “Grief [is] a condition treasured by the educated and the upper middle class” and in If Looks Could Kill, South Carolina, “back stroke is not taught in school” because it “won’t help you much if you’re going to drown”.

Brossard’s writing is wayward, unpolished, ludibund and irreverent, adjusting to his mood at any given time as he vacillates from a nihilist to a martyr, from an existentialist to an idealist, from a writer to a reader; a technique which allows him to effectively convey the multiplicity of experience and emotions. In Shifty Sacred Songs, Brossard ruminates on “sadness”, saying: “One thing you’ve got to say for sadness. You don’t have to dress for it. Never. Unlike worshiping graven images of false gods.”  And later, of the character of “loneliness” and the emotion itself, Brossard notes: “It has staying power. It doesn’t stumble at the eight. It doesn’t make dates with you, then stand you up. Nor does it solicit you. No indeed. You come into it on your own terms. With your eyes wide open. You will never, never be justified in complaining, I was talked into this…Against my better judgement…In short, loneliness is a mother to us all. Just as the crust is mother to the pie.” The thought, like most thoughts in Shifty Sacred Songs, aspires to be profound but is somewhat hindered by the writer’s postmodernist anti-aestheticism. Although that’s not to say that Brossard lacks profundity elsewhere.

In a piece called Raging Joys, Sublime Violations, Brossard offers some earnestly profound feelings about the Vietnam War by deriding the American establishment, and its vainglorious imperialist mind-set that facilitated its intervention in the military conflict. Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is rampant, ebullient, bellicose and sexually explicit, the sort of show that galls and appals Middle America and beyond. But in the subtext of the piece, Brossard very cleverly draws out “the rape metaphor inherent in imperialism” and the self-congratulatory brutish bravado of the military, its contradictions and equivocations. At one point in the piece the soldiers break into song: “Our objective in Laos is to stabilise the situation again, if possible, if possible, within the 1962 Geneva settlement,” with the others adding: “So, let us bomb them, bomb them, for democracy,” which, of course, was the intention all along. Brossard was an avid anti-war activist and helped North Vietnamese victims while working in the UK for an organisation dedicated to the cause. Thus, Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is perhaps one of the most impassioned – if subversive – pieces in the omnibus, and one which makes the reader really think. In fact, Brossard’s work demands the reader think an awful lot, as he periodically dispenses with all forms of convention, compelling one to connect the seemingly unrelated dots of his narrative – an occasionally onerous task, but also a rewarding one.

Compensation is also provided amid Brossard’s more light-hearted offerings, including the frolicsome vignettes that make up Dirty Little Books for Little Folks and A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean.  Both pornographic in nature, they read like some bizarrely hircine reveries of a stoned somnambulist. The protagonist in A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean caroms from page to page, from misadventure to misadventure, with ferocious alacrity and to great comic effect; while the tales in Dirty Little Books for Little Folks dramatise popular children’s stories, emphasising and exaggerating their innate erotic elements, and thereby offering a new dimension to the classics.  Harsher critics may grumble that Brossard’s work is often indecipherable, but I am one with E. M Forster, who said that “nonsense and beauty have close connections” – one simply has to look for them.  And looking for them in Over The Rainbow? Hardly is easy, as the collection captures perfectly Brossard’s off-Beat, “unhinged mind,” which is indeed “a thing of beauty”. 

Elizabeth Smart: Possessed by love

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a threnody for an illicit love affair between Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, which lasted 18 years caused outrage, despair, shame, bouts of “happiness as inexhaustible as the ocean” and resulted in four children. All this while Barker was married to someone else. In the early 1930s, Smart – a promising young writer from a prominent Canadian family – was visiting London. While there she chanced upon a collection of Barker’s poetry in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Fascinated by his work she determined to seek him out as she later confessed in the book, saying he was the one she had “picked out from the world”.  By sheer coincidence, Smart was proffered Barker’s address by Lawrence Durrell, with whom she was corresponding at the time about submissions to his poetry magazine, Booster. She wrote to Barker on several occasions, initially under the pretext of buying one of his poems, which she did; and then later in 1939 while he was teaching English poetry at the Imperial Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. Unbeknown to Smart, Barker was growing dissatisfied with his teaching post but feared he would be conscripted into the army if he were to return to England. He wrote to Smart imploring her to help him emigrate to the US. In return for two tickets (which came as a surprise to Smart as she didn’t know Barker was married) he offered her the unpublished manuscript of his journals. Eager to escape, he also dispatched a telegram “begging rescue”. Smart hastily replied urging Barker to join her on the Californian coast. The rest is documented in Smart’s chef d’oeuvre, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

What the book doesn’t document, however, are Smart’s efforts to “rescue” Barker and his wife, Jessica, from Japan. Smart was short of money and in order to scrape together the $300 needed she worked tirelessly (as a maid at one point), begged shamelessly and borrowed indiscriminately. In the end, it was Christopher Isherwood – who was working in Hollywood as a script writer – that offered Smart the $200 shortfall to subsidise the Barkers’ trip. The couple disembarked in Vancouver, docked a boat to San Francisco and then took a bus to Monterey, where Smart was eagerly waiting to meet them. She describes the anguished anticipation in the opening paragraph of the book, saying “all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire”.  Barker’s wife was the first to come down the steps of the bus, “her Madonna eyes, soft as the newly born, trusting as the untempted”. Already pricked by compunction over her intentions toward Barker, Smart resolved to forgo her future with him “and postpone indefinitely the miracle hanging fire”.  But forgo she did not, albeit she did postpone it temporarily. Smart’s guilt is palpable on every one of the book’s 112 pages. And yet she never attempts to solicit pity or justify her indiscretions  merely trying to tell the story of a woman “possessed by love,” which is so much part of her world it often stands for the world itself. “He is everything,” she writes of Barker, “the night, the resilient mornings, the tall poinsettias and hydrangeas, the lemon trees, the residential palms, the fruit and vegetables in the gorgeous rows, the birds in the pepper tree, the sun on the swimming pool”. He is in fact the sum total of “where all roads strove to lead”. And this feeling was very much reciprocated, at least for a time. “She is what makes my blood circulate” Barker confesses at one point, “and all the stars revolve and reasons return.”

Smart experienced emotion very acutely and at times conveyed its multifarious graduations with a sentience rarely matched. Even in the most humdrum moments she captures the atmosphere with melancholic poetry as the three of them, for example, sit on the wooden steps of their respective cottages –  surrounded by “flowers that grow without encouragement” and “avalanches of sand” – while she thinks to herself with quietly intense dejection how once “loneliness drove women to jump into the sea”. But her introspection is fleeting. “Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host,” she writes, “So it is tomorrow’s breakfast rather than the future’s blood that dictates fatal forbearance.” And yet she cannot help herself as every time he is near she feels “every drop of my blood springing to attention”. She adds: “My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion.” Despite mutual efforts to refrain from embarking on an affair, neither Smart nor Barker could resist. It developed slowly, secretly, with Barker’s wife in the background while the two budding lovers would sit at the typewriter “pretending necessary collaborations” with love hung between them. A sense of inexorable doom pervades the book and even though Barker’s wife initially had little idea about the burgeoning love, “like the birds” she felt “foreboding in the air”.  But, of course, by that point it was already too late.

Both Smart and Barker felt intense guilt and later remorse but neither could sever the romance, spending more time together than permissible for a married man and a single young woman. Eventually, Jessica confronted Barker about his infidelity. Despite the fracas the group continued cohabiting for another six weeks with Barker vacillating between the two women. The triumvirate moved to New York in the autumn and shortly after Barker and Smart decided to travel across the country, leaving Jessica behind. After three days on the road, the lovers reached a state border between California and Arizona, where they were stopped and handed over to the FBI. The war was raging in Europe and the US authorities were being overly cautious of potential spies. Barker’s papers were in order while Smart’s were in disarray; she was therefore arrested for illegally entering the country and on suspicion of committing fornication. Barker was released after a brief interrogation and hastily made his way back to his wife, explaining his absence away with sortilege and fabrication. Smart was questioned for hours and subsequently imprisoned for three days while her story was being collaborated. Writing of the experience in the book she says defiantly: “Love lifted the weapon and guided my crime.” It is at this point in the story that one begins to question the extent of Smart’s naivety; but more importantly the authenticity of Barker’s feelings, his integrity and his intentions, eventually coming away with the prevailing impression that they were neither true nor decent.

Barker continued to juggle and deceive both women, caroming from New York to Hollywood to Ottawa. Eventually, he left Jessica again and absquatulated with the now-pregnant Smart to Canada. But not for long. The affair continued back and forth, through correspondence, after a particularly stagnant period, which Smart spent “heedlessly drifting” with her ear against her heart, which was beating to the “poisonous rhythm of the truth.” The day after Barker left she wrote him a letter. “I simply cannot live without you,” Smart declared, “You must come back & get me. There’s nothing, nothing at all in the world but this. You can’t destroy me like this. You can’t…As for the baby if I don’t stop crying & beating my head I’ll have a miscarriage…George I am going crazy. My brain rattles around like a dry pea…I simply cannot endure this. I don’t know what will happen.” What did happen was she found herself completely alone awaiting the birth of her first child. “He is not here,” she writes in the book, “He is all gone. There is only the bloated globe. Nothing but the bracelet he put around my wrist reminds me I was once alive.” And later in a tone of complete resignation at the thought of him back with his wife, Smart says: “She is his present. And if then she is his present, I am not his present. Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no one has noticed I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me.” Despite on-going communication with Barker, Smart was feeling like all the battles were lost; and did not dare “grasp either life or death” electing to endure the mechanical motion of existence submerged in grief and torpor.

Eventually, Smart returned to the US and found employment as a filing clerk with the British embassy in Washington. By this point Barker was back in England, where Smart moved in 1943. The couple had three more children together. When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was published in 1945 Smart’s family used their political clout to have it banned in Canada. The slender book materialised from Smart’s journals, adding an autobiographical authenticity to the story, which mortified and appalled her parents in equal measure. But Smart quite clearly felt a need to print it, perhaps as a cathartic exercise but more likely because she was a writer, a class of human being who according to Friedrich Nietzsche act “shamelessly toward their experiences” primarily because “they exploit them”. This is precisely how one sometimes feels reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Not only that, Smart fluctuates between disclosing too much and too little, between superbly lyrical prose and overlaboured writing, between aesthetic excellence and a propensity for the melodramatic. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t fluctuate is her devotion to Barker, which is both infuriating and heart-breaking. But perhaps that’s love, a love so rapturous yet cruel it is only ever really understood by its casualties.

Publisher: Flamingo
Publication Date: November 1992
Paperback: 112 pages
ISBN: 9780586090398

Julian Maclaren-Ross: A Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature

Julian Maclaren-Ross’ Collected Memoirs are a master-class in autobiographical writing. His recollections strike an off-beat chord, shifting between dolefulness, mirth, vulgarity and the genuinely outré. Published in a beautiful moss-coloured paperback by Black Spring Press, the book showcases Maclaren-Ross’ talent as a great wit, and a man of intellect and erudition. Often remembered as a Fitzrovian gadabout, a fine raconteur and a literary mendicant, Maclaren-Ross remains an esoteric figure, revered among a select number of fellow writers but largely forgotten by the reading public. His Collected Memoirs are full of experience; his childhood in the south of France, wartime army barracks, down-and-out boarding houses and subfusc sordid little pubs scattered around the midnight metropolis of London. As with much of his fiction, Maclaren-Ross uses informal, colloquial language to convey his life in all its fascinating detail. This use of a demotic vocabulary constitutes a literary style, redolent of cigarette smoke and drink, which is entirely his own. Booze was a lifelong crutch in Maclaren-Ross’ life, so much so that he seemed unable to face the world without it. Accordingly, he could usually be found holding court in one of the many infamous saloons in the nub of Soho, partaking in the revelry that has come to define his work.

In the 1930s Maclaren-Ross worked as a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman in Bognor, a part of his life that was later documented in the novel Of Love and Hunger (1947). He recollects: “I was there because I had answered an advertisement which began INTELLIGENT MEN WANTED, and found out too late that it meant learning to sell vacuum cleaners. The firm, however, paid an advance of £2-10 and the fare to London, find your own digs, so I’d enrolled at the training school.” Needless to say Maclaren-Ross didn’t quite make it as a salesman. He did, however, while not selling vacuum cleaners in London, meet several publishers. Among them was Jonathan Cape, who would prove instrumental in getting Maclaren-Ross to write more short stories, which his House would undertake to publish. Maclaren-Ross’ reminisces: “Jonathan Cape has been dead for some time now, but I have never forgotten the white head and charcoaled black suit, the tall square figure standing on his doorstep in Bedford Street, one hand raised to wave good-bye and point the way to where I could best catch my bus.” Yet despite this encouragement, it was really the war that provided him with the necessary material to write. After a short stint in the army from which, following desertion, he was eventually discharged due to mental health problems, he published a book of topical shorts called The Stuff to Give the Troops (1944).

At the peak of his penurious fame, he was producing reviews, radio scripts and journalistic features by the dozen, working through the night after hours of drinking and converting wild impassioned pub discussions into fascinating vignettes. Although forever scraping by on the charity of friends, acquaintances and publishers, Maclaren-Ross was known as much for his writing, his formidable intellect, as he was for a lifestyle that often saw him broke, sometimes homeless and perpetually in poor health. A typical denizen of nocturnal Soho, he was once described by friend and fellow writer Anthony Powell as having the “air of a broken-down dandy, though just what breed of dandyism was not easy to define.” It seems, by and large, that Maclaren-Ross’ talent and career was impeded by self-destruction, a theme that runs through the Collected Memoirs with a kind of abject theatricality. These reminiscences often include stories about his time on the battlefield, but the snapshots of war he relays tend to tell human stories, rather than document the atrocities of combat. Here he is in one entitled Company X: “I remember one night standing in a trench next to a corporal when all sounds of strife had long since faded and any danger was clearly past, both of us frozen to the bone despite long woollen underpants, battle dress, greatcoat, balaclava helmet and woollen gloves…when I cursed our lot the corporal stolidly replied: ‘Could be worse mate.’ I said: ‘How could it be worse?’ We’ve been here two bloody hours frozen solid…so how could it be worse?’ The corporal said stolidly: ‘Could be bleeding sight worse mate. Could be pissing down with rain as well.”  Maclaren-Ross talks of his time in the army with reluctant fondness, despite the fact that he was almost killed while working on a firing range. A wayward bullet had caromed off his helmet, and he recalls that “For years I carried this bullet about as the One with My Name On it, possession of which, according to army superstition, guaranteed immortality, at least for the duration.” He later lost it down a city street drain.

He also lost many friends; but then he made many too: Anthony Powell, George Orwell, Nina Hamnett, Henry Green, Eric Ambler, Joyce Cary, Brian Howard. And (perhaps the closest of these friends) Dylan Thomas, whom Maclaren-Ross met in 1943 while working as a screenwriter for Strand Films (producing short, government-funded propaganda). The two became regular drinking partners, and could often be found at the Wheatsheaf, a popular pub near Oxford Circus. Inspired by the bustling bohemian subculture of 1940s London, Maclaren-Ross resolved to write his memoirs, destined for serialisation in the London Magazine. The first instalment depicted his friendship with Thomas, and it is here that we learn of their initial, and slightly awkward, meeting: “…in the office assigned to us”, Maclaren-Ross recalls, “Dylan and I stood uneasy and shame-faced, like two strange children sent off to play alone by a benevolent adult, in the belief that because they are contemporaries they’re bound to get on well.” But they did get on, encouraged to do so by the Strand’s boss Donald Taylor. Eventually, Dylan confessed to have read Maclaren-Ross’ work long before the two were introduced: “He didn’t tell me, nor for a long time did I find out, that he’d read the stories aloud to Taylor, insisting that I’d be taken on at the Strand when discharged from the army: that in other words, I owed my job to him.” This quiet fraternity encapsulates the nature of their relationship, and Dylan’s unrelenting belief (“You’ll pull it off one day”) in Maclaren-Ross’ talent.

And pull it off he did. Posterity hasn’t been kind to Maclaren-Ross, depriving him off his deserved prominence in English literature, but his work speaks for itself. The Collected Memoirs contain a considerable range of topics, anecdotes and incidents written in a variety of styles. The highly literary childhood reminiscences in The Weeping and the Laughter, with their evocative descriptions and vivid narrative syntax, recall the work of Vladimir Nabokov. They are full of brilliantly eccentric characters, numerous idiosyncrasies, acutely deadpan humour – in fact, these qualities pepper the memoirs throughout. Lackadaisical passages slowly unfold with droll interpositions and qualifications, vibrantly recapturing the fears and fixations that define the lives of “delicate” children. And then there is Maclaren-Ross’ father, the most important of the book’s characters. Speaking of him in The Coloured Alphabet, he recalls: “He discouraged, even in wartime, anything likely to promote hatred between nations and would not countenance the use of the term Boche nor allow me to draw the Kaiser’s head on the shell of my breakfast-egg and then smash it in with a spoon, as other children did. This attitude, combined with his dislike of all militarism, which as an ex-officer wounded in the Boer War he felt entitled to express whenever he liked, was apt to be misunderstood when aired in public, and led to his half-strangling a man on a bus who accused him of being unpatriotic and pro-German.” Another character of note is Maclaren-Ross’ nanny, who was Belgian and whom he called Nanna. We learn that “She had an accent in speaking English not dissimilar from that of the French governess in Uncle Silas, if what she said were phonetically rendered and though her disciplinary methods did not resemble those of this fictional prototype, they were at the time quite severe enough to keep me in check. She also had a moustache which prickled unpleasantly when she kissed me; this did not happen often, luckily, as all demonstrations of affection were kept for public exhibition only: in private our relations were on a strictly practical plain…Unbeknown to me, however, Nanna’s days with us were numbered. It was a passion for atrocity stories that finally earned her the sack.”

This facility in depicting the eccentricities of character is evident throughout, yet Maclaren-Ross’ is especially perceptive when it comes to describing the people he knew best among them his fellow drinkers. In Regulars, Wits and Bums, talking about the hierarchy of boozers in the Wheatsheaf, he explains: “They made up the background and the unsung chorus and occasionally, on an off-night, the entire cast. These fell roughly into three categories: Regulars, Wits and Bums. Regulars, of whom Mrs Stewart was the doyenne, included the old Home Guard who though extremely old wore on his tunic medal ribbons of more campaigns than even he could possibly have served in: it was thought that the tunic or the ribbons had been handed down to him by his grandfather, and I was using him as a model for the old sweat in the Home Guard film which Dylan and myself were then writing. Then there was the Central European sports writer, now relegated to the middle of the counter from which it was not so easy to get a drink; the orange faced woman (so called because of the many layers of make-up which she wore which made it impossible to assess her age), whose presence in the pub made it sound like a parrot house in the zoo and who was reputed to have silk sheets on her bed (though no man was brave enough to investigate the rumour); and Sister Ann, the tart who was more respectable than many other female customers: she mostly moved in a no-man’s-land between public and saloon bars and patronised both as it suited her . . . Wits came in various shapes and sizes, but could be distinguished by the fact that none was ever heard to say anything witty: indeed one elderly Irishman, who wore a grey wideawake hat and was supposed when young to have written a very witty book, never said anything at all . . . Bums (some of whom under their new designation as Beats are still about), were of two kinds: (1) young men and women just down from provincial universities and wrapped in college scarves which after going several times round their necks were still long enough to hang down behind: these were known to us as the Slithy Toves since members of both sexes resembled facially the curious corkscrew-like creatures depicted by Tenniel in his illustrations of Alice [in Wonderland], and (2) a number of shaggy bearded types who had managed to dodge the service and lived communally in the cellar of a blitzed building, where they made lampshades and toy animals out of pipe cleaners while dealing in the black market on the side for a living. Their leader was known, for obvious reasons, as Robinson Crusoe and they called themselves the Young Anarchist Movement. None of them had any political convictions.”

Even when Maclaren-Ross is entertaining, much of his writing is underpinned by pathos. This, to a certain extent, was a product of his frustration with the absurdity of the world, and this frustration occasionally prompted sessions of morbid introspection. These feelings, however, were not new: as he himself documents, they had been with him since childhood: “The solitary, the strange and the withdrawn always fascinated me as a boy; perhaps I recognised in them a foretoken of my future self.” Speaking further of his childhood in The Coloured Alphabet, Maclaren-Ross’ remembers how he had been “born with red hair. Later on this fell off and brown hair, which became progressively darker, took its place. My father had started life with auburn hair and my mother’s was black, so presumably both parents were satisfied: though not always with my subsequent conduct. Indeed there were times as I grew older, when my father expressed the opinion that the Devil had got into me, and my mother that I took after my uncle Bertie: a relative (her brother, incidentally) for whom a bad end had frequently been predicted, and who did finally figure in a case that achieved international publicity.”

When Maclaren-Ross’ isn’t regaling the reader with accounts of meeting the famous (“I glanced around and as I did so Graham Greene himself appeared quite silently in the open doorway. I was startled because not even a creak on the stair had announced his approach. Seeing me there gave him also a start, and he took a step back. He was wearing a brown suit and large horn-rimmed spectacles, which he at once snatched off as if they had been his hat.”) or expounding about his rambunctious nightly adventures, he writes quiet – and beautiful – stream-of consciousness prose. It feels like the reportage of an observing spectre. Here he is in the End of a Perfect Day, sitting sedately in the reading room at the Plaza Mickey Rooney, watching the world around him: “I settle down to write, someone plays the same tune over and over again on a piano in the games room. Men step over your feet with plates of cakes and cups of tea slopping into the saucer. One trips and drops the lot. Shattered china and a steaming brown puddle on the floor. An incredibly old man with a purple nose peddles newspapers: Anyone like the latest? A lance corporal asks me for a light; some men start singing to the piano; a girl of about 16, daughter of one of the servers, sits down in the next armchair and talks. I kissed her once under the mistletoe at Christmas and she’s never got over it. It’s impossible to work here, I decide to go back and type out what I’ve written.” And what this Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature has written is a spectacular body of work.

Georges Bataille: A master of macabre eroticism and satanic fancies

Buying books is – without a doubt – my favourite Saturday morning pastime. It seems, however, that I have come to acquire more of the aforementioned than common sense as I am rapidly running out of space to accommodate them. Still, as someone who is short on sense I fear that this particular predicament will neither deter nor curtail my avarice. Trawling through the numerous shelves in a great little Oxfam in Notting Hill, my eye snagged on a book called Guilty by Georges Bataille. I have had a soft-spot for Bataille ever since I first discovered Story of the Eye at the tender age of 13. I read a few of his works thereafter including, The Solar Anus, L’Abbe C, On Nietzsche and Blue of Noon and found myself unanimously confounded, challenged and inspired by each and every one. I learned a lot about Bataille entirely through his work and came to realise that there are (in a very general sense) two kinds of writers: those who one admires, and those with whom one feels an affinity. Bataille, for me, has always been of the later variety through a mutual appreciation of writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka and a desire to “respond to impulses of freedom and whims” or else “destroy myself” only to “discover myself, drowning in a glass of water”. In my case, however, it would more likely be a glass of second-rate gin but that is by and by.

Guilty is a sort of literary nympholepsy, a work which, if pressed, I would only be able to compare to The Notebooks of André Walter by André Gide. And yet, the two books are different in subject matter as well as syntax but one made me think of the other perhaps entirely without just cause. Guilty consists of autonomous chapters, divided into sub-chapters, transcribing the writer’s stream of consciousness free from restriction imposed by “systematic thought”. In the Introduction, Bataille forewarns the reader by saying: “…my way of thinking diverges from others. Especially from the way of thinking of philosophers. Mostly it diverges on account of my ineptitude.” While this may be true from a logician’s perspective, it is Bataille’s indifference to belletristic conventions and his enterprising nature – both in manipulation of lexicon and ideas – that make him a 20th century maître à penser. In the opening chapter entitled Nighttime, Bataille declares that “Life is a feast, a celebration, it’s an incomprehensible and oppressive dream, with charms I’m hardly blind to. Being conscious of chance lets me see a difficult fate for what it is. And chance wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for sheer craziness.” A paragraph later he speaks of a love “so rapturous only torment could fuel it.” A thought which rang so true, it stopped me in my reading as I contemplated it in reference to my own experiences. Sitting outdoors, looking at the paper-trails overhead, the acuity of the above lines roused, as Bataille would say, a “wasp’s stinger in me”. And yet, somehow, it made me more at ease with the bittersweet predicament.

In line with the same thought Bataille speaks of desire likening it to a “hallucinatory darkness” pushing one “towards craziness” and the escape of “illusion of any solid connection…to the world”.  In his own words, Bataille writes with “unholy light-heartedness” and an irreverence bordering on sacrilege, most expressly conveyed in his dictum: “My true church is a whorehouse – the only one that gives me true satisfaction.” This statement is significant both in view of Bataille’s background – a staunch Chatholic upbringing he later renounced – and the continued pursuit of pleasure which came to define his “filthy night” ecstasies and his work. In Guilty, Bataille often talks of the “unquenchable thirst, the unconquerable cold” and that which is “intelligible only to the heart”. In another chapter, Angel, he forsakes what humankind has sought throughout the ages, “complete knowledge”, instead trying to understand the universe which “in the dead of its night” allows you to “discover its parts and in doing so discover yourself”. He further adds, with resigned acceptance, that “knowledge, like history, is incomplete” and argues that the paleolithic human search for “completeness of knowledge” is a fallacy like the idea of God “who is complete only to be imaginary.” 

Guilty is a peculiar sweeping fresco of existentialism, sorrow, self-mortification and also self-affirmation through the writer’s experiences, his meditating practices, his readings, his sexual fantasies, his fears, his memories and his evolving thought. At once theoretical and practical, personal and political, the book swings wildly between tone and subject, between frenzy, boredom and euphoria. It is both the most esoteric and exoteric of Bataille’s writings. It opens with the Nazi assault on Poland, Bataille notes: “The date I start (September 5th, 1939), is no coincidence. I’m starting because of what’s happening, though I don’t want to go into it. I’m writing it down because of being unable not to.” Thought Bataille refuses to talk directly of war; the unmentionable inevitably snakes into his writing as he takes flight from the encroaching chaos of combat, and familiarity of Paris, to the bucolic countryside. At one point, as though reflecting on the mortality of those who lost their lives in battle, Bataille says: “…occasional luck – my luck – in a world that seems increasingly terrible makes me tremble.” There are many things besides luck which make Bataille tremble, one of them being women who to his mind are an “invitation to ruin.” Famous for his sexual cupidity, frequentation of bordellos, macabre eroticism and satanic fancies Bataille muses: “There is some kind of identity between ‘woman’, ‘torment’ and ‘the ridiculous universe’ – my need for self-destruction comes from them.” And, after a short contemplation declares: “To give up my sexual habits would mean I’d have to discover some other means of tormenting myself, though this torture would have to be as intoxicating as alcohol.”

Speaking about Guilty to a fellow writer Jean Paulhan, Bataille said it concerned the “relationship between eroticism and mysticism,” adding “but the book considers a great deal more than that.”  And it certainly does. It documents Bataille’s resolution to throw himself into a state of “headlessness” – a key concept in his general philosophical outlook – through drinking, madness, obscenity, cruelty and extreme sex, all of “life’s majestic horrors”Guilty, however, is one of the texts which most notably marks the beginning of Bataille’s introspection triggered by the death of his lover Colette Peignot, who passed away of tuberculosis in 1938. Writing about it years later in “Notice Autobiographique” Bataille described it as “a death that tore him apart”.  Unable to completely let go of the object of his loss, or relinquish the ties through morning, he merged her into the structure of his own identity, making Peignot an iconographic feminised ideal of the excess-pursuing, tormenting self. Peignot’s death was concurrent with the breakdown of many of Bataille’s closest friendships – predominantly over disagreements about the darker elements of his work – which left him largely isolated. It is therefore perhaps no surprised that Bataille himself once surmised Guilty, written during this particular timeas “violently dominated by tears, violently dominated by death”. Looking over some of his earlier entries in the book, Bataille muses: “Reading these fragments from last year I remember I felt death – a chill in my soul. It wasn’t anguish but a chill, an exasperation with the fact of being me, an exasperation with the lack of happiness and excess…” 

In many respects, Guilty is a work of eschatology, a confrontation of death through “laughter that reaches the stars” and a need for “love eager to exceed the limits of things.” The latter is the dominating subject throughout but as Bataille warns one must not mistake it with sensuality or eroticism, which he defines as “the brink of the abyss”.  The last chapter, Alleluia, speaks directly of and to a woman thought Bataille could be speaking to womankind itself. He says: “It’s time your delirium learns the opposite of each thing you know about. Time to take the boring, depressing, image of the world in you and turn it upside down.” He urges liberation from the manacles of the orthodox through “filth” and “desire for pleasure,” adding: “You come into the power of desire by spreading your legs, showing off your unclean parts, if you couldn’t feel that passion was forbidden, desire in you would soon die, and with it the possibility of pleasure.” Love, however, is something else altogether “flowers… sunlight flooding in, the gentleness of someone’s shoulder” and “in love we stop being ourselves” unwittingly becoming something greater because “Love’s insanity becomes sane when moving towards more insane love.” Guilty is Bataille’s most recondite and multifaceted work, but it is also his most personal and sage. Writing in a state of semi-permanent “anguished drunkenness” while facing the world “alone, wounded, dedicated to his own ruin”he meditates upon all the leitmotifs that have haunted his imagination since he abandoned Catholicism for the avant-garde. There are many conclusions one could draw about this book but the most accurate one has been drawn by Bataille himself, who said Guilty is a work of “chaos boundless in every sense.”

Charles Bukowski: A scuzzy rhymester with some dirty stories

Sitting inertly in the mid-afternoon sun, after a night of hellish revelry, I tried to shut out my companion’s comical cooing by losing myself in a book. I have been a little slack with my reading lately, thus needed a metaphorical kick up the posterior to propel me out of the lethargy. Earlier in the day, I had chanced upon A.A. Gill’s review, of some trendy eatery or other, replete with customary witticisms about the victuals and the somewhat unexpected topic of misogyny. I cannot recall the theoretical imperative which prompted Gill’s spiel but it got me thinking. There have been many writers throughout history accused of being less than favourable in their treatment of women, and more often than not Charles Bukowski has featured on the list. I personally don’t see it, but then perhaps I’m somewhat biased due to my unwavering love for the man. Inspired by the above thought, I picked up Notes of a Dirty Old Man and spent the remainder of Sunday devouring the collection of Bukowski’s newspaper columns for Open City, which by Bukowski’s own definition was, at the time, “the liveliest rag in the US”.

The “liveliest rag” in the land was a perfect match for the liveliest writer of his generation, who infiltrated the somniferous rodomontade of the literary world with his own brand of irreverent penmanship. The snapshots of Bukowski’s life, gathered in the book, cover a multitude of sins from “fucking up to, fucking out” from dying to live to living to die. Pondering the contentious topic of suicide Bukowski, says: “Suicide seems incomprehensible unless you yourself are thinking about it…I think it was in 1954 that I last tried suicide. I closed all the windows and turned on the oven and the gas jets…I stretched out on the bed. I went to sleep. It would have worked too, only inhaling the gas game me such a headache that the headache awakened me. I got up off the bed, laughing and saying to myself ‘You damned fool, you don’t want to kill yourself…some hangover, some column”. Some column, indeed. Unfortunately, there aren’t many columnists like Bukowski nowadays, fewer still labouring in the tenebrous brume of a hangover like some of their readers. It is a bit of a shame that modern day papers are filled with anesthetised and insular expositions about organic rhubarb compote, the dimensions of one’s carbon footprint, psychologically contented chickens and other suchlike middle-brow fixations.  And, don’t even get me started on the credentials of the excerebrose scriveners and pseudo-intellectuals churning this bullocks out.

But, perhaps everyone is indeed entitled to their opinion like the doctors at the county general hospital who told Bukowski “one more drink and you’re dead”. That didn’t stop him, not for a long while. He continued living “surrounded by full and empty beer cans, writing poems, smoking cheap cigars…and waiting for the final wall to fall.” That didn’t happen for a while either, at least not before he got hitched – on a whim. She sent him gnathonic letters bewailing her impending fate as a spinster; Bukowski took pity and prompted by some eleemosynary instinct proposed. He remembers: “I met her at the bus station, that is I sat there drunk waiting for a woman I had never met, spoken to, to marry. I was insane. I didn’t belong on the streets.” Luckily, she turned out to be “a cute sexy blonde…all ass and bounce”. A quick round-trip to Vegas and the two were wed-locked and bound for her home town in some smoggy part of Texas. She was a millionaires and a self-confessed nymphomaniac, he “the city slicker who had hooked the rich girl,” with nothing but a “very tired cock and a suitcase full of poems.” Eventually, the two went back to LA to live in a dingy bedsit, Bukowski recollects, very candidly: “When we fucked the bed would shake the walls and the walls would shake the shelves, and then I’d hear it: the slow volcano sound of the shelves giving way and then I’d stop. ‘No, don’t stop, oh Jesus, don’t stop.’ And then I’d catch the stroke again and down the selves would come, down on my back and my ass and head and legs and arms and she’d laugh and scream and MAKE IT.” Unfortunately, being a nymphomaniac she would also “make it” with others. “Every man believes he can tame a nympho but it only leads to the grave,” in Bukowski’s case, however, it led to a divorce. She later remarried a fisherman, or as Bukowski put it: “I once lost a million dollars to a Japanese fisherman.” There’s always humour in Bukowski’s sadness, and an admirable resignation to take the knockbacks with a drink, because “the waste and the terror, the sadness and the failure, the stage play, the horseplay, falling down, getting up, pretending it’s ok, grinning, sobbing”  is all part of the “grandiose romanticism” and politics of life.

In another column Bukowski relays meeting “[Jack] Kerouac’s boy Neal C[assidy] shortly before he went down to lay along those Mexican railroad tracks to die.” Neal was berserk like a girandole “jogging, bouncing, ogling” and singing like a cranky “cuckoo bird”. Bukowski recalls: “He never sat down. He kept moving around the floor. He was a little punchy with the action but there wasn’t any hatred in him.” There’s a sense of melancholy in Bukowski’s tone, and one gets the distinct impression that Neal was already too loaded on the “Eternal High” and  too quick on the pedal in the drag race towards death. Upon hearing news of Neal’s passing, shortly after their first and only meeting, Bukowski turned his column into a eulogy for the last of the Beats, saying: “All those rides, all those pages of Kerouac, all that jail time” and for what? To “die alone under a frozen Mexican moon,” like his life meant nothing to anybody, not even himself. And yet, it did mean something, in part, thanks to the “dirty old man” who wrote about it in his column, and felt the loss. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Bukowski ploughs through a phantasmagoria  of topics from the erosion of democracy to the aching of scraped knuckles, from psychotraumatic childhood memories to the “tragicomedy of fucking”, but always in a unique argot of a scuzzy rhymester and in a style entirely his own. Fucking features heavily throughout Bukowski’s work, but as he says: “I don’t write about it as an instrument of obsession. I write about it as a stage play laugh where you have to cry about it, a bit, between acts.” And he sticks to his word, crying and laughing intermittently in the subtext of every page while regaling the reader with some botched tryst with a whore and her interfering elephantine lesbian pimp. He does that, he cries and laughs, and then pours himself a drink before falling unconscious and letting the “world go by”. But not for long as there’s far too much loving, boozing, fighting and writing to do.

Notes of a Dirty Old Man is a bawdy, intense and candid book, diving into the ugly, the awkward, the tearfully funny and the heart-breaking without holding back. And one soon gets sucked into the frenzied coprolalia of Bukowski’s prose written with a recognisably dark sense of humour throughout. The collection offers a sublime insight into Bukowski’s psyche and the dizzying myriad twists of the writer’s life. Bukowski surmises it himself in the introduction by simply saying: “I am just an old guy with some dirty stories.” And he’s right, but he is also someone who writes about the “upside down, romantic, explosive things that seem to give chance to no chance,” and someone who loaded with an arsenal of beer cans and women power-drilled through minds and column inches affronting, offending and galling thin skinned Middle America because “sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.” 

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