A Confederacy of Dunces

CFD_S_11“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

In John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) (reissued in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society) Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius. He dresses oddly, refuses to convert his university education into productive employment and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is ashamed of his mother, who likes to drink and socialise, and she is beginning to tire of him. He speaks like so to a policeman: “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”

Ignatius mission is to act as truth teller for the 1960s. He attends the cinema to observe the lewd and tawdry content of films purely to glean insights into the descent of culture. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy,” he declares in his treatise on the decline of the Western world, written on pads which he illustrates.

Finally at the age of 30, forced by circumstance, Ignatius takes a clerical position at decrepit Levy Pants. In its squalid premises he seeks apply his acumen to the ignoble task of pursing trade. He engages in business correspondence with the arrogant vitriol of which society so necessarily curtails expression. “Mr I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.: We have received via post your absurd comments about our trousers, the comments revealing, as they did, your total lack of contact with reality.”

Announcing that “I cannot tolerate social injustice,” Ignatius visits the factory floor to observe the inequities of capitalism in action. He is astute enough to realise that the black workers’ responses to jazz on the PA is mere Palovian conditioning, which the subjects mistake for pleasure. “In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because of its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I can not imagine why. […] However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business.”

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

Fired from Levy Pants for organising a (failed) riot, Ignatius becomes the world’s (or at least New Orleans’s) least satisfactory hot-dog vendor: arguing with customers, fighting bystanders and consuming the hot dogs himself. This brings him into contact with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and into the orbit of yet more odd characters, which drive the story to a satisfying denouement.

Toole gives us some comedic set pieces without too much contrivance. These include an incipient lecture “Sex in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a Weapon Against Reactionaries”, the luncheon party and Ignatius’s follies. There is a plot and plenty of action and thus A Confederacy of Dunces does not suffer from the usual weaknesses of comic novels: passages of self-regarding clever prose and contrived authorial observations. The reader feels he is in the world of these characters and is invested in what happens to them. He is never irritated by the author incongruously taking him aside to deliver witty barbs about modern life.

Ignatius is a comic protagonist: he is a liar, glutton, sluggard, prig and sneak. Yet Toole keeps us engaged and we never lose sympathy despite our disapproval for his main character, who is somewhere between hero and anti-hero. Ignatius suffers consequences of his character flaws and his actions drive the plot. Ignatius is unfettered by social convention and we get the delight of seeing a person overturning politeness and saying the unsayable. He seems to lack the filter that most people have that prevents them from immediately voicing our views out loud. On the other hand, by reading his journal we see that he is driven by folie de grandeur and a series of peculiar convictions which distort his understanding. Thus Ignatius is both liberated by self-belief (having few behavioural inhibitions) and constricted in by delusion (having little wisdom). It is that friction between liberation and ignorance that makes Ignatius compelling as a character. That is why we can find him loveable – or at least appealing – while being aware of his foolishness and inadequacy.

Myrna Minkoff is Ignatius’s long-distance on-and-off-again Beatnik girlfriend. She wears black clothes, a beret and glasses purely to demonstrate her seriousness. From New York she writes letters diagnosing Ignatius’s dysfunction and urging sexual liberation. (To be fair, in this case Ignatius’s sexual repression does seem a contributing factor to his abnormal behaviour.) She reports on her activism. “At the moment my every waking hour is spent in helping some dedicated friends raise money for a bold and shattering movie that they are planning to film about interracial marriage. Although it will be a low-budget number, the script itself is chock full of disturbing truths and has the most fascinating tonalities and ironies.” She makes it her place to befriend the black actress. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them.” She carries a valise full of pamphlets on left-wing campaigns. Toole indirectly shows that her defiance of her parents is bound up with her libido. Although outwardly agitating for racial equality through political conviction, it is Myrna’s sex drive that directs her towards race-mixing and reveals a fetishisation of interracial relationships.

She is a great comic creation, although admittedly one drawn from Toole’s real-life experience. In her relentless moralism, lack of inhibition and absence of self-awareness, Myrna stands as a cutting portrait of a proto-SJW. Ignatius, likewise, is a precursor of a disaffected university-graduate anarchist who rails against the middle class whilst living with his mother. He suspects he is slandered by the forces of white supremacists. He is an armchair revolutionary who muses on how to restructure society and abolish the tyranny of commerce. He could be persuaded to engage in terrorism. “I am not above tossing a Molotov cocktail or two,” he confesses. His class solidarity allows him boundless compassion towards the masses but no patience in their execrable company.

In their forceful views, profanity, volcanic tempers and quick resorts to violence, Ignatius and Myrna are the embodiment of the minority-adulating, self-appointed class warriors.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

The secondary characters are distinctive. Hapless Patrolman Mancuso, operates undercover as a vice operative; factory owner Mr Levy is a distracted and uninterested owner of a failing concern; his wife is discontent, mildly guilty about their income, she nags her husband to better himself; Darlene, the barmaid, wants to develop a striptease act with her pet cockatoo removing her garments; her boss Lana is a penny-pinching martinet overseeing a dive bar; Dorian Greene is a party-hopping trust-fund homosexual with a line of catty banter. Burma Jones is a stand-out character; he is a cool streetwise black man living on the boundary of the licit. Toole captures his patois accurately and without condescension. When he is employed to clean a bar for below minimum wage, Jones sourly rehearses a conversation he could have with the policeman who has harassed him to get a job. “Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say “That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.” And I say, “Hey!” And he say, “Now maybe you becomin a member of the community.” And I say, “Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.””

Jones’s backchat with his employer shows him moving between leveraging historical injustice and following self-interest in a seamless manner, yet he is sympathetic and believable. He is not a rake, criminal or grifter but a smart-yet-lazy man who follows the line of least resistance, able to provide a dry self-deprecating commentary on his situation. We enjoy his company, appreciate his intelligent insight and wish him well. He is the closest to a neutral reader-perspective character in the book. It would be wrong to call A Confederacy of Dunces a collection of grotesques. Toole’s characters do not seem calculated to make social critiques or embody types but seem to have an internal life and faithfulness to life (albeit heightened) that renders them truer than outright caricatures.

This volume consists of the corrected text of the novel, an introduction covering the writing and publication history of the book and a preface by Bill Bailey, comedian and musician, explaining why he – like many comedians – finds Toole’s story strikes a chord. Production values of the Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces are characteristically high. Carefully designed, well printed and using high-quality materials, the book is a pleasure to read. Jonny Hannah has provided new illustrations for this edition. It comprises 7 illustrations plus a frontispiece, all full colour. He has also designed endpapers, cover and the design of the pictorial slipcase, as well as incidental figures in black and white, making the book a complete experience. The images are painted and drawn in a collage style, vigorous and striking. This riotous, informal and vibrant approach perfectly matches the tone and contents of the novel. Reading this new Folio Society is like being immersed in one of the best comic novels of the Twentieth Century.

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Folio Society, 2019, cloth hardback in pictorial slipcase, 332pp, 8 col. illus., £39.95. The Folio Society edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, with preface by Bill Bailey and illustrated by Jonny Hannah, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Michel Houellebecq: Serotonin

“In his fiction, Michel Houellebcq has chronicled the deracinated state of modern France, as he sees it. Made selfish by the generation of ’68, detached from morality by easy access to pornography, alienated from its history, numbed by mood medication, destabilised by mass migration and rendered powerless by the rise of transnational authorities, France (and Europe generally) is slipping into social, cultural and moral disintegration. It is, as he sees it, inevitable, imminent and irreversible. Houellebecq is the ultimate ‘blackpilled’ author. He offers readers no intimation of the rescue or survival of Western civilisation.

“In his new novelSerotonin, we encounter another snapshot of France’s plummet into oblivion. Not that there aren’t pleasures and diversions to be had as the tragedy of Europe is cast as a grotesque comedy. As usual, Houellebecq’s protagonist is his alter ego, in this instance a character called Florent-Claude Labrouste.

“Labrouste is aged 46, a heavy drinker and smoker, cynical, sour, tired and anti-social. His ‘flabby and painful decline’ is analogous to the collapse of his society….”

 

Read the full review online on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/11/11/the-exhilarating-nihilism-of-michel-houellebecq/

Josephine Tey: To Love and Be Wise

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Mark Smith from The Folio Society edition of To Love and Be Wise]

A new hardback edition of Josephine Tey’s 1950 crime classic To Love and Be Wise expands to five the number of her books published by The Folio Society. As in all of the series, the book is illustrated by on the cover, frontispiece and interior by Mark Smith.

The story begins with Inspector Alan Grant encountering Leslie Searle, a handsome American man, at a London party. Searle is in search of Walter Whitmore, a leading radio broadcaster, with whom he had a common friend. Searle turns out to be famed photographer of the California high society. Searle goes to visit Whitmore in his country home in the village of Salcott St Mary, where he will disappear. The recently arrived bohemian residents (including a playwright, bestselling author and ex-ballet dancer) feel at home with the glamorous arrival. While some are enchanted by the house guest, some are disconcerted by his presence. The author brilliantly describes the creeping worm of jealousy that starts to consume Whitmore as his fiancée Liz spends time alone with Searle. He feels slighted, inadequate, completely eclipsed by the brilliant newcomer. He slips into a despondency that fills his every idle thought. Whitmore and Searle decide to collaborate on a travel book and embark on a river journey by canoe – with Whitmore writing the text and Searle photographing the scenery. At that point Searle disappears, an event that implicates a number of people in the village.

The local police suspect death but cannot find a body. Inspector Grant and Detective Williams are sent to investigate Searle’s disappearance during the trip. Does, Whitmore, who the night of Searle’s disappearance had an argument with him before leaving for their campsite alone, have any vital clues or is he concealing something sinister? Can Liz explain some puzzling details? We follow the police as they to untangle the mystery of the man’s disappearance. With Grant’s local friend Marta Hallard, Grant sets out to discover the American’s fate.

The book is a quick read and a satisfying one. Tey’s dry and ironic style is apparent but never obtrusive. Her wit is light rather than cutting: a crowd as “asparagus-packed”; a character delivers a talk entitled “What Earthworms do for England”. The mystery is balanced by realism and one warms to the characters. Her story is laced with psychological subtlety and sensitivity to interpersonal relations. She presents characters evolving and reacting believably. It is easy to see why Tey is still admired by prominent crime writers today.

The book meets The Folio Society’s high production standards with a pictorial buckram cloth cover and a black paper-covered card slipcase. The paper stock is good quality and the illustrations are on different stock, one sided. This book would make an ideal gift for a fan of crime fiction.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Mark Smith from The Folio Society edition of To Love and Be Wise]

Mark Smith’s illustrations feature silhouettes and simplified forms interspersed by telling details. Areas of flat colour with speckle, over layering of forms, limited palette range and absence of volumetric modelling all suggest characters and situations without making concessions to verisimilitude. He rightly decides not to make detailed depictions of central characters. The style of Smith’s illustrations is crisp, stylised, often taking a cinematically dramatic viewpoint. They are entirely in keeping with the period and are a perfect match for the tone, imagery and content of Tey’s novel. Let’s hope that there are more Tey books illustrated by Smith on the way. Buyers may well be tempted to expand their purchase to the rest of the set.

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Josephine Tey, Mark Smith (illus.), To Love and Be Wise, The Folio Society, 2019, 248pp, frontispiece + 6 col. illus., cloth hardback in slipcase, £34.95. The Folio Society edition of Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise, illustrated by Mark Smith, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Alexander Trocchi: “Cosmopolitan Scum”

Young Adam

When Glaswegian writer Alexander Trocchi appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Festival in 1962, his reputation preceded him. Disreputable, dissolute, addicted to heroin, fugitive from the law, a confirmed libertine and author of books with description of sex, violence and drug abuse, Trocchi was marked as a subversive and potentially dangerous figure. When Trocchi appeared to talk on a panel, he became involved in a verbal altercation with Scots nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him “cosmopolitan scum”. Trocchi took great pride in the insult.

For Scots authors of gritty fiction, such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, Trocchi is a point of origin. Tough, unsparing, tautly written, unsentimental, identifiably Scots but tempered by French existentialism and Beckett’s interiority, Trocchi’s books are a touchstone for ambitious Scottish writers of later generations. The international acclaim afforded Trocchi was a badge of approval from the cognoscenti. As an individual, Trocchi’s extreme lifestyle – including drug taking, drug dealing, facing the death penalty, flight from US legal jurisdiction and pimping out his own wife to feed the couple’s heroin addictions – is full of palpable authenticity. By turns pathologically selfish, pitifully squalid and creatively barren, Trocchi’s life and long writer’s block act as a warning to creative artists those who are tempted to dabble in depravity. At his death in 1984, there was little unpublished material in his estate.

One can read all of Trocchi’s serious fiction over a long afternoon, if one is minded to. If one excludes eight erotic pulp novels, written to make money, the entirety of Trocchi’s prose fiction comprises Young Adam (1954), Cain’s Book (1960) and The Holy Man and Other Stories (1965), the latter of which consists of four stories. Man at Leisure (1972) is a collection of verse and completes the quartet of Trocchi’s substantial output published by Calder Publications, now owned by Alma Books.

Trocchi is generally grouped with the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs in his early hard-bitten documentary period, but John Calder comments that Trocchi actually belongs to “the “damned” French writers, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Céline and Genet. One could almost also mention Cocteau, who was responsible for introducing him to heroin, the cause of [Trocchi’s] eventual downfall and death.” Trocchi was also an active member of the Situationist movement.

Young Adam is a quasi-crime mystery novel. Our narrator recounts his collection of a woman’s body from a canal, coloured by indifference, where his responses to his breakfast are as stronger than his reaction to handling of a dead body. A observes a naked leg hang from below the blanket as the body is carried on a stretcher, looking like “a parsnip”. A boy watches the scene while eating an apple. The novel is situated in a world that has remained almost unchanged since Victorian times – low wages, simple meals, manual labour, newspapers read in pub saloons, no presence of radio and television – with hardly a glimpse of the post-war world of the time. We are immersed in the narrator’s ennui and his detachment. His only strong motivation is to seduce his colleague’s wife. We find out the narrator’s connection to the dead woman and watch his reactions as the story of the consequences of her death is played out. The blend of indifference and intimacy is affecting. The narrator’s pathologically cold and selfish psychology is mapped out indirectly through his observations of his reactions to events, from which he seems detached.

CAIN'S BOOK

Cain’s Book is about a scowman working the waters of New York. The narrator works maintaining and piloting a scow (a barge used in inland waters to transport cargo), filling in time between fixes. He is a junky who also uses marijuana. He is also writing a novel. We meet his fellow scowmen and scowwomen, individuals whose company he seeks out or avoids. His writing seems no more or less engaging than the reading he does or the conversations he has. He is unthreateningly unambitious, drifting in the moment, occasionally recalling events from his past and his failed marriage. Fragments of the narrator’s past in Scotland and his sojourns to Greenwich Village intersperse his waiting moored in the river off Manhattan. It is worth comparing the book to Trawl (1966) by B.S. Johnson. In that book, the narrator is a writer seeking material by taking passage on a fishing vessel. We are immersed in his internal monologue and preoccupation with his romantic failures and the privations of confined living and seasickness. In Trawl the subject of a writer is a very self-conscious preoccupation and plot point. In Cain’s Book, the writing is incidental and one could imagine the book without that aspect not being thematically different from the book Trocchi wrote. Trocchi writes perceptively about addiction, but it is not a core of the novel, being no more than a single factor in the narrator’s guiding conditions.

Junkies in New York are often desperate. To be a junkie is to live in a madhouse. Laws, police forces, armies, mobs of indignant citizenry crying mad dog. We are perhaps the weakest minority which ever existed; forced into poverty, filth, squalor, without even the protection of a legitimate ghetto. There was never a wandering Jew who wandered further than a junkie, without hope. Always moving. Eventually one must go where the junk is and one is never certain where the junk is, never sure that where the junk is is not the anteroom of the penitentiary.

There are other novels which bear comparison with Trocchi’s. Beckett’s internal monologues of isolated individuals (which Trocchi uses as an epigraph of Malone Dies (1951) in Cain’s Book) and the stripped nouveau romans of the period both parallel Trocchi’s novels. Another book from the preceding era which also relates is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941). It is a crime novel which follows the struggles and deterioration of George Bone, as a wrestles with the unreciprocated desire for Netta Longdon, a bit-part actress. Netta exploits her looks, drifting in a dissolute lifestyle of sleeping, drinking, fancy restaurant meals and borrowed money, cultivating a façade of indifference. In the end, Bone murders Netta and her lover, then takes his own life. The isolation of the main characters of Hangover Square – socially and familially disconnected, emotionally and financially atomised – who seem to have few ties or duties and are immersed in a demi-monde centred on immediate gratification and calculated cynicism are not dissimilar to Trocchi’s dissociated protagonists. The undeclared and unspoken part-time prostitution of the women is another thread connecting Hamilton and Trocchi. While the prose style is leaner in Trocchi’s novels, the internal monologues, character behaviour and ambience are close. Both Hangover Square and Cain’s Book include quotes as –somewhat elliptical – chapter introductions.

The Holy Man

The Holy Man and Other Stories collects four short stories. “A Being of Distances”, a description of a family funeral, reuses material that is in Cain’s Book. “The Holy Man” is about the outcast inhabitants of a tenement building in Paris. It shows a debt to Beckett in terms of tone. “To live, to grow old and to die: the process excited little interest.” He downplays the comic and anecdotal potential and instead emphasises the existential aspect of a holy man living in squalor in an attic. “Peter Pierce” concerns a man going into business with a disfigured ragman. “A Meeting” is a description of a clerk’s afternoon’s work in a small office and his conversation with a secretary. As a story, this is the most engaging and subtle story in The Holy Man – apparently the entirety of Trocchi’s short fiction.

Man at Leisure

Man at Leisure is a collection of poems, with a foreword by publisher John Calder and introduction by William Burroughs. Calder recounts that he had to illegally enter Trocchi’s residence to take possession of the manuscript, for which Trocchi had signed a contract but had repeatedly delayed to deliver.  The manuscript was not thoroughly revised by the poet. The 49 poems date from the writer’s time in Glasgow in 1951, through his wide-ranging travels in Europe and time in New York, up to his residence in London in 1972; they range widely in style. Burroughs correctly discerns the influence of John Donne’s Metaphysical poetry in some of Trocchi’s verse. Myrtle with the Light Blue Hair: “[…] what she / showed the toad, & not coy… / the slicks, flats, elastic tensions / of her great, her imperial thighs, the torque of her hot delta […]”It is striking how many times “thighs”, “belly”, “loins” and “sperm” appear in the poems – a debt to Marvell and Donne, as well as the pulp erotica of Trocchi’s era. At other times we get the jibber-jabber wild listings and political mottos of a Ginsberg: “[…] foreign policy implies / apes showing teeth / black ape-teeth / white ape-teeth / brown ape-teeth / yalar ape-teeth / gritting their prongs / all ape / all them aliens / sounding their gongs”.

Some poems are rather slight, hardly more than occasional pieces, and very short. The flippancy and flimsiness of some of the poems is not balanced by wit, insight or skill. However, that is not to suggest that Trocchi was a poor poet, just a poet who tried only sporadically and achieved uneven results. The most ambitious poem is “A Little Geography Lesson for my Sons and Daughters”, a sweeping description of the West and East, is delicately descriptive and carefully worked but still with energy and originality. In it, Trocchi expounds the common counter-culture view that the West is rational and male, enervated and played out (“The west is boudoirs and actresses / and a dwindling aristocracy”); the East is intuitive and female, fecund, unknowable and vital (“The east is a dark uterus, / darker than the waters of the Nile or the Euphrates. / she is female & her spawn / is a seeping alluvial silt […]”). It reiterates the tropes of Orientalism and anti-capitalism in terms of the human sexes. Regardless of what one thinks of the politics, it is an effective and powerful poem. Sadly, little else rises to that standard in Trocchi’s poetic output. “How at Thebes Tiresias, the Prophet, Told…” is Trocchi’s effort at recasting Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, complete with mixture of ancient myth and modern life, anachronistic parody, multilingual interjections and multi-part format. It is the longest poem here but still unfinished. One cannot help thinking that Trocchi was rambling, enjoying the writing but directionless. Verse allowed Trocchi to detach himself too much from argument, description and unambiguous meaning and to attach himself too much to undirected asides, free association and the minor pleasure of word play.  Trocchi’s gifts of description and insight shine forth in prose.

 

Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam, 2018, Calder Publications, paperback, 139pp + xiii, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4462 5

Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book, 2017, Calder Publications, paperback, 212pp + xx, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4460 1

Alexander Trocchi, The Holy Man and Other Stories, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 115pp, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4847 0

Alexander Trocchi, Man at Leisure, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 85pp + viii, £10.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4944 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art