Sam Francis, “Light on Fire”

Sam Francis (1923-1994) was one of the titans of Abstract Expressionism. No survey of the movement is complete without the inclusion of Francis’s distinctive, watery abstracts and expansive surfaces. Yet, Francis is also an outsider. A West Coast painter, with no ties to New York, Francis’s life is not integrated into the New York School scene and thus has been summarily described and is not well known by even enthusiasts of the movement. Now, Gabrielle Selz’s biography corrects that omission by painting a vivid picture of the difficult and unexpected life of this important Late Modernist painter. Selz’s father was Peter Selz, an important curator and administrator in the American post-war art scene, who was a supporter of Francis. Consequently, the author knew the artist and his work from a young age.

Outdoor life was an important part of Francis’s youth. Raised in the Depression in San Mateo (near San Francisco) California and Nova Scotia, Francis took a keen interest in nature. This would first stimulate his study of biology and later art. In 1936, young Francis was involved in a tragic accident. He had been handed a loaded gun by a student in the boys toilets. The students believed the pistol was defective or in some way disabled. When Francis pulled the trigger, none of the three students expected it to fire. Francis shot a fellow student, killing the boy. Although the family of the boy (who had found he pistol in the family home) absolved Francis of the killing, the death left a lasting mark on him, as did the death of his mother at the age of 44. 

Inspired by religion, mysticism, experiences of nature and romantic literature, Francis strove for to embrace the most powerful and ineffable. Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky captured the young man’s attention. “Like Sam [Francis], Ouspensky had lost a parent as a child and then embarked on a quest for secrets and hidden teachings that might lift the veil between the visible realm and the existence of something beyond.” Ouspensky’s ideas enlivened Francis’s imagination and liberated his conception of space and matter.   

Francis opted for biology at University of California, Berkeley and was intent on a career as a doctor. He had enrolled in the navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the USA declared war, he was called up. He switched to the air force and was transferred to various airbases across the country during his training period. Francis chose to specialise in reconnaissance flying – a dangerous branch. As it happened, he would never see military action.

Injured during training accidents in late 1943 – which, at this time, were common and frequently fatal in a rapidly expanding air corps – Francis’s spine became degeneratively impaired. Stricken with pain that doctors could not diagnose – and actually described as psychosomatic – Francis was in a grave condition by the time spinal tuberculosis was detected. He underwent surgery in a military hospital in Denver, followed by immobilisation in a body cast while fixed to a bed frame. Dosed on morphine, Francis drifted in and out of consciousness, hallucinating about strange visitors. In one vision, colours on the walls bled. Close to death and almost written off by medical staff, Francis received newly discovered antibiotics, which saved his life. As part of his recovery, he was given a set of watercolours, which he could paint with suspended over the paper.  

“With the gift of the watercolors, Sam started to paint and draw. He copied from art books, cartoons, postcards, magazines, movie posters […] Eventually he began painting remembered landscapes from his childhood. Soon he was working on his art sixteen hours a day. […] He hung his finished work around him, transforming his room into a studio and his nurses and aides into assistants.”

At the end of the two years of his illness (which left him immobilised for many months), Francis had a vision. “He was awake when a great orb of light like an enormous electric current appeared at the foot of his bed. It seemed to have come out of the wall, yet he could see the wall behind it. Slowly, the swirling, brilliant, transparent ball of energy moved toward him. Then the current was inside him, and it travelled through his entire body. One week later, Sam claimed, his doctor said to him he was almost cured. Whether or not he was cured so suddenly, Sam believed that the transparent orb he’d seen completely altered him. Trapped in the darkness of his cage, he had beheld a light. “It was a gift,” Sam said. From then on, he determined to move toward this apparition, toward the current.” This had a great impact on the imagery of Francis’s mature art and his visionary approach to painting.

In January 1947, Francis was discharged from hospital; the following month he married Vera, his childhood sweetheart. However, it turned out that they were sexually incompatible but they attempted to reach a harmonious modus vivendi. That attempt ended in 1949, in separation.

Francis re-enrolled in University of California, Berkeley, this time to study fine art on the GI Bill, earning his BA in 1949 and his MA in 1950. By this time, he was working in an abstract style, with soft biomorphic forms in a single colour tessellating the grounds. These evoked misty or watery forms placed in undetermined space, although painted in an unambiguous and painterly manner. Apparently, Francis rarely attended classes and – distanced by age and disability – was viewed as distant and aloof, even arrogant. Francis was closely studying the art of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Edward Corbett, which influenced his direction. At Berkeley, Francis studied with Corbett, who was working on paintings of Bay Area misty landscapes.

Francis departed for Paris in 1950. Paris had been the birth place of Modernism, but by 1950 Paris was much reduced in stature in the art world. American painters were seen as leaders of the avant-garde, not least for going beyond what the École de Paris had done. Francis received GI Bill stipend of $75 per month only if enrolled at a college. He signed up to Atelier Fernand Léger but did not see eye to eye with the master and it seems they hardly interacted. He visited the Les Trois Marroniers café, where Georges Duthuit and his wife Marguerite Matisse held court, and spent time with Jean Paul Riopelle. He drew his greatest inspiration from Monet’s panoramic canvases of waterlilies. This was a highly productive period, and one in which Francis’s originality was recognised by French and American observers. In Lovely Blueness (No. 1) (1955-7) was a massive canvas, which played with ultramarine, flecked with yellow, flanked by patches of orange, pink and red – reflecting the influence of Byzantine mosaics. Selz conveys the excitement of this period with brio.

In 1953, Francis married long-term girlfriend, Muriel Goodwin. It was another open marriage, which led to turbulent emotions and separations, some due to financial struggles. In 1954, Francis went to New York, where he was treated as a peculiarity – an American painter who had made his name and found his form in France. He was generally well received by the New York painters and a few dealers courted him. However, when his first solo exhibition in the USA opened (in February 1956) it was met by reasonable sales but biting reviews. Francis departed for France disillusioned. His second marriage foundered. “By now, there was a pattern in Sam’s relationships with women, especially during his outward-turning moments. He’d find a younger woman, usually an aspiring artist who was good, just not too competitive with him, and run off with her. He’d left the hospital with Vera, he’d left Vera and America with Muriel, he’d split with Muriel and gone off to Mexico with [Carol] Haerer. The pattern would continue throughout much of his life.”

In 1957 Francis went to undertake an artist residency in Tokyo, to paint a mural Sōgetsu school. In the following years, he would be feted as a great American and world painter, invited to paint and exhibit globally. Selz describes the sequence of affairs, children, exhibitions, prizes and landmark paintings. In 1959, Francis set up home in New York City with his third wife, who was expecting their child, only to uproot all three of them in 1960, due to his wanderlust and appetite for experiences.  

Selz puts the case of Francis as a counter-culture figure. She notes the shift around 1955-60, when abstract art went from being oppositional and liberated to being commodities for millionaires and geopolitical tools for Western governments. Non-conformist to the core, Francis prioritised freedom and expression above all else, so it is unsurprising that he sympathised with anarchistic and revolutionary aims of youthful protestors in the 1960s. He was troubled by the escalating prices of his art and spent compulsively. He experimented with performance art as a way of removing the price element of art production. He also collaborated in mixed media projects, which challenged expectations of fine art. One was a sky painting in coloured smoke released from a helicopter, executed above Tokyo in 1966.

In 1961 Francis experienced a recurrence of tuberculosis, which threatened his life and left him once again hospitalised, this time in Switzerland. As previously, he painted in watercolour from his hospital bed. The painted series of Blue Balls (1961-3) was a reference to the tubercular infection of Francis’s genitals, as well as a reference back to Pollock’s landmark Blue Poles (1952). Selz backs the idea that Francis’s Blue Balls were a bridging of introspective, existential Abstract Expressionism and cool, detached Pop Art. Feeling unmoored – he had separated from his third wife – Francis decided to settle back in California (this time Southern California, Santa Monica), while all the time maintaining studios in New York, Paris and Zurich.

In Santa Monica, Francis took up printmaking at Tamarind Workshop, Los Angeles, finding colour lithography congenial. He formed friendships with local artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and James Turrell. Francis was also critical in shaping the nascent Los Angeles art scene, which lagged far behind other major American cities. A large sailmaker’s workshop gave him enough space to paint huge canvases flat on the floor. (Canvases with edges as long as 215”/5.46 m.) At this time, Francis began his Edge or ma paintings; ma means space or gap in Japanese. The Edge paintings confine mark making to the edges of the canvases, with blank space at the centre. One of which was Berlin Red (1969-70), the world’s largest painting on canvas. Francis would spend time considering preparatory material and doing menial tasks to settle himself, before launching into extended periods of painting, walking over the surface, usually in his underwear alone. The work was so absorbing that he did not feel his back pain.

Such large projects demanded assistants. They also acted as packers and hangers of his huge canvases. One of them studied paint technology and developed paints using vivid pigments and of special viscosity and transparency. Selz is particularly good on the personal dynamics of Francis’s interactions with studio assistants. Francis was apparently generous, loyal, engaging and personable. He also had another side. “But Sam could also be capricious and manipulative. […] He was frequently fickle, giving one set of instructions to one assistant and contradictory instructions to another. He fostered divisions as a way to maintain control, and he expected the assistants who lived in the guesthouse to be available at any hour of the day or night. He was moody and arrogant.”

Wealth facilitated Francis’s access to indulgence. “Sam had many compulsions, especially women and food. By the 1980s, he was addicted to vitamins and healers. Ill health continued to plague him. He traveled with a suitcase packed with nutritional and mineral supplements. If there was a pseudoscientist in the vicinity – someone who practiced with crystals, magnets, beet juice, or hands-on magic touches; someone who drove up in a Rolls-Royce and charged exorbitant fees – Sam employed them.”

Francis’s painting was constantly evolving. It is entirely to his credit (albeit, compatible with his nature) that he never remained complacent. He developed a new system, of applying water with wetting agents in lattices, then applying acrylic paint so that it was bleed and spread within these wet areas. However, detached from the restrictions of limited materials, space and market for his art, Francis’s ego would expand to fill spaces his status afforded him. He created the biggest painting in the world, used the world’s largest printing press, had a canvas made for him that was a fifth of a mile long. Francis’s technique allowed giant areas to be covered, but this was not necessarily a wise or effective deployment of his creativity. Too much of his late work tended towards emptiness and even bombast.

In 1989, Francis was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Delays caused by Francis and his unwillingness to undergo treatment that would leave him impotent, his condition declined. After conventional medication worked, Francis switched to alternative medicine. His cancer grew and metastasised. The account of Francis’s last months presents a chaotic circus of “up to thirty  caregivers from around the world thronged the house”. He died on 4 November 1994, aged 71. His estate was valued at over $79 million and became the subject of a multi-party legal struggle.

Francis’s status is muddied by huge overproduction and unwillingness to edit his output. Painting was his life and a compulsive activity; especially in his last years, Francis carried on painting regardless of quality. At his best, Francis is a great painter, but he was not often at his best. The catalogue raisonné of oil paintings tacitly acknowledged this problem, by issuing a partial printed catalogue and a full catalogue on an accompanying disc. A full printed catalogue raisonné of oil paintings would have diluted esteem and lowered values of his paintings. In fairness, it seems unwise to assess Francis’s painting as a whole because this diminishes his standing. Any artist wants to be remembered at his best.

Selz obviously admires Francis’s skill as an artist and his zest for life but is honest enough not to conceal the artist’s frequent selfishness (regarding relationships) and arrogance (regarding his artistic status). Light on Fire is a biographical portrait that is as rich and contradictory as its subject. Definitely recommended for fans of Francis, Abstract Expressionism and American Modernism.

Gabrielle Selz, Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, University of California Press, October 2021, hardback, 392pp, mono/11 col. illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 520 31071 1

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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


Francis Bacon: Francophile

Francis Bacon: Francophile is the first book dedicated to photographs of Bacon taken in France. Bacon first visited Paris in 1926, then again in 1927, to learn French and become acquainted with French culture. The book is edited and introduced by Majid Boustany, founder of the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco. The foundation houses many documents and photographs relating to the artist. This handsome book gathers the best of these with photographs by other photographers which are better known. Boustany sets Bacon’s contacts and esteem for French life and culture in context. Eddy Batache (with Reinhard Hassert, good friends of Bacon’s in Paris) writes about Bacon’s everyday responses to Paris and French cuisine and wine, so important to the artist. Yves Peyré writes about Bacon’s reading in French.

The photographs range from casual holiday snapshots to appearances at vernissages up to formal portrait photographs by professional photographers. The first photographs are by Bacon’s cousin Diana Watson, with whom he travelled to Paris in 1932. There are few photos until 1971, when the selection becomes richer with Bacon’s Grand Palais retrospective. The photographs of 26 October 1971 are a psychological profile of Bacon as he greets friends and dignitaries at the opening, all the time knowing that his lover was lying dead in a hotel bathroom. The private views for exhibitions in commercial galleries were big social events, with crowds pressed up against Bacon in order to get signatures.

There are many photographs taken by Batache and Hassert, not only at Bacon’s Paris flat in the Marais, but in visits to other parts of France. Seeing Bacon in chateaux gardens or wine cellars makes a change from the usual studio and museum settings. Visitors noted that Bacon kept his Paris studio apartment much cleaner than his London studio, not least because he slept and lived in a single room. We see Bacon posing on the street or seemingly caught unawares, wearing a glossy black overcoat. Some of the cultural luminaries of the period are seen with him, including Miró, Masson, Hayter and others. Michel Leiris was a personal friend and one of the writers whose general works and essays on Bacon himself Bacon most valued.  

The edition is limited to 206 copies, each sold with a loose photographic print by André Ostier enclosed. It is available only from the Foundation. Francophile is an attractive book sure to be snapped up by Baconophiles.

Majid Boustany (ed.), Francis Bacon: Francophile, Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, hardback, cloth spine, 308pp, over 150 illus., 2020, €295, ISBN 978 2 9552115 33

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Paris, Hausmann and the difficulties of cultural conservatism

“Hausmann strove for everything, for everything in Paris to be “embellished… expanded… rehabilitated”. […] He expressed a wish that was for the above and below ground, for the beautiful and useful, and from overall picture down to the smallest detail.”

Here we have the paradox of the archetype of the architect and town planner: the overarching authoritarian who can bless a city with beauty, attention to detail and efficient provision of public transport, nearby facilities and access to parks, who is also the overarching authoritarian who can curse a city with ugliness, shoddy design and communities isolated by major roadways. Planners can bestow logically designed spaces for living but can also wipe out architecture and street layouts, erasing history with a strike of a pencil. It is the most tangible and common form of hubris. Urban planners created the glories of civilisation but also destroyed cultural heritage – on a scale second only to the ravages of war.

Baron Georges-Eugène Hausmann (1809-1891) was Prefect of Seine Region from 1853 to 1870, appointed by Napoleon III to modernise the centre of Paris. In a campaign of demolition and building, that included the alteration of the street plans and infrastructure, Hausmann’s boulevardisation of certain arrondissements changed the face of Paris and is still today – in central Paris – the predominant aspect of the physical structure the capital. A map showing the buildings constructed between 1840 and 1910 reveals that the majority of central Paris consists of buildings erected during this period.

Paris faced serious problems. Narrow medieval street layouts entailed lack of light and airflow, as well as absence of roadside trees to reduce noise. The irregular and narrow streets constricted traffic and made laying of water and sewage pipes difficult. Crime, overcrowding and disease were endemic, partly attributable to the physical fabric of the old quarters.

The question arises as to what ends was Hausmann’s grandiose zeal directed towards. Was Hausmann someone who was set on improving the lot of the average Parisian and razing slums or was he a tyrannical utopian bent on making Paris more governable? Famously, new boulevards laid out in radial fashion allowed the military direct lines of access and fire on demonstrators, making Paris easier to control the army and forestall potential popular uprisings.

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Paris – Hausmann is a reprint of a 2017 Venice Biennale exhibition catalogue. It presents in visual form the work of Hausmann on the rebuilding of Paris. There are plentiful street plans, morphologies, typologies and other designs. Architectural plans of typical house façades show Hausmann’s preferred styles. Hausmann wanted a degree of architectural congruency without requiring uniformity. Congruency with variation allows a pleasing sense of familiarity to his quarters without ever becoming oppressively monotonous. There are designs of benches, kiosks, streetlamps, and street profiles. Included are modifications from later periods, showing façades in beaux-arts (1882) and Art-Nouveau (1902) styles. The 1902 Art Nouveau door design of 29 Avenue Rapp is hugely extravagant. Catalogue designs of optional ornamental railings, doors, friezes, door panels, louvres, balustrades and balconies allowed investors to select their preferred stylistic touches.

Hausmann used a classic grid format for streets, with radial hubs around circuses or plazas and diagonal thoroughfares. Below ground, water, sewage and gas mains were laid. Blocks were modal in structure, with standardised layouts, materials (especially local limestone) and building methods for efficient, speedy and cost-efficient construction. Plans included open spaces and parks. Wide straight streets allowed easy cut-and-cover construction of metro lines following roadways.

Most of the buildings were six-storeys high, faced in stucco, with a ground floor area for commercial use and a tall but irregularly shaped loft – often used by servants. Floors 1 and 2 were sometimes adapted as office space. Storey heights varied, with the ground floor being 4-5m, with other floors 3-3.6m. Most buildings were financed by the investment of a single owner, who would own the house and rent premises and residences. Floor plans are illustrated for whole blocks. The designs proved strong, attractive and durable. “Designed from the outset to host diverse usages and populations, the Hausmann investment property also demonstrated considerable aptitude in terms of changing its configurations and usages, a capacity for transformation and reversibility. It is through the building and its assembling logic within the block that Hausmann’s urban fabric reveals its extraordinary resilience in spatial, climatic, structural, and technical terms.”

Despite Hausmann’s plan, Paris remained the most densely populated city in Europe (excepting suburbs). Paris employment is 70% higher than Barcelona and two and half times higher than Berlin. In age when planners are concerned about sustainability, Hausmann’s Paris is a case study in effectiveness. Paris is 66% built over, compared to Brasilia’s 16% rate of land use. Other data included measure efficiency, connectivity and walkability of Paris compared to other cities. Analyses of volumetric compactness, thermal inertia, distribution of openings and other metrics will be use to architects.

Franck Boutté and Umberto Napolitano write “The reality before our eyes today tells us that the problem lies not with the quality of each individual architecture, rather in the lack of a vision of the whole. […] What is in doubt today is not our aptitude for building and dealing with all sorts of quantitative restrictions, rather our ability to “make the city” and to “make any sense”.” This seems a central contradiction in the grand plans of architects today. It is a lament that they cannot use vast sums and compulsory purchase orders of existing buildings to enact huge schemes that will reshape cities in their image. Yet it also at odds with the prevailing view of conserving resources by maintaining and upgrading existing buildings, driven by environmentalist beliefs. The unbridled utopianism (and, dare one say, egotism) conflicts with the fetters of Malthusianism and environmental alarmism, whilst considerations of preservation and cultural heritage do not impinge.

A difficulty a traditionalist faces is answering the question “Would you rather live in a Hausmann apartment or one of the old buildings he destroyed?” While a medieval building might have more history, character and a genuine uniqueness as an authentic vernacular dwelling, how would one live with the inadequate light, gimcrack plumbing and the expense of repairing an ageing building? People do choose such old buildings but for the busy, uninformed and not-especially-well-off resident such buildings present a source of constant uncertainty and distraction. We are right to mourn the loss of pre-Modern Paris but must also admit the utility and necessity of reform – albeit not perhaps on such a large scale and not of such an imposing nature.

Photo by Matteus Silva de Oliveira on Pexels.com

There is an inherent contradiction in the traditionalist’s position. The architecture, layouts and views he wishes to conserve were once new, replacing buildings that stood there before. The Hausmann buildings, which were new and modern when they replaced medieval streets, are now celebrated as iconic and intrinsic to the character of Paris. Where does a cultural conservative draw the line? Is it at what he considers to be comfortably old, sufficiently classic or simply that to which he is used? The axiom that “Conservatism is simply progressivism driving at the speed limit” seems apply here. Surely the traditionalist – a cultural conservative with fixed reference points – is merely accepting and celebrating Modernism once that example of Modernism has acquired a dignifying patina of age.

Traditionalists and cultural conservatives sometimes use arguments about objective standards. One could argue that Hausmann’s buildings were intrinsically beautiful because they derived from Neo-classical precedents. Further, Hausmann’s architecture combined attractiveness with functionality, proving more practical, robust and healthier than the buildings it replaced. To which, the architect of today might respond by stating that radically contemporary designs can be much more resource efficient and ergonomically functional and thus objectively better than what they replace; additionally, new aesthetics follow form and require one to respond honestly and considerately to their qualities. The architect of today insists that these new buildings are design classics of the future and that fabricating historical pastiches – for pastiches these buildings would be rather than authentic recreations, as no traditionalist would return to a pre-electric and pre-indoor plumbing era – does a disservice to the architect’s integrity and discredits the spirit of our age.

Overall, this catalogue will be valuable to architects, town planners, historians and researchers studying Paris. Essays written by specialists cover the background and extent of Hausmann’s Paris project. The illustration in plans, graphics and photographs is extensive. The text is parallel original French and English translation.

Benoît Jallon et al (ed.), Paris – Hausmann, 2020, Park Books, hardback, 264pp, 143 col./345 mono illus., English/French text, 59CHF/€48, ISBN 978 3 03860 219 4  


(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Dora Maar: A Life in Miniature

“Brigitte Benkemoun, French journalist and author, bought a vintage Hermès pocket diary through eBay for €70. It was a replacement for a lost diary. When she opened it, she found it was made in 1951 and the address portion was intact and used. She saw a startling list of contacts: Cocteau, Lacan, Balthus, Chagall, Giacometti and Breton. There was no name in the diary but Benkemoun realised this diary had belonged to someone at the heart of post-war Parisian art and intellectual circles. Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life is Benkemoun’s discovery of the provenance of the address book and what it told her about the owner’s life.

“It seemed clear the owner was someone with ties to Paris but it was the mention of Ménerbes, Southern France which tipped off Benkemoun. Dora Maar had moved to the town in the 1940s. It was not clear how the book had come to be sold but research proved that this was Maar’s address book. Benkemoun consulted Picasso’s son, John Richardson and other Picasso scholars to piece together Maar’s connections with the people listed in her diary.

“Before this year if you had heard of Dora Maar (1907-1997) then it would have been in connection with Picasso…” 

Read the full review in The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/a-life-in-miniature/

Gustave Moreau

“”Moreau’s diverse and often paradoxical oeuvre lies at the crossroads of apparently contradictory trends in 19th-century art”, Peter Cooke observes at the end of his monographic study of Gustave Moreau (1826-98). Often described as a proto-Symbolist—and less often as a history painter—Moreau has proved hard to classify. The best of his elaborate biblical and mythological tableaux are hauntingly memorable but they are difficult to decode. Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism succeeds in illuminating a very peculiar and compelling figure on the margins of French art.

“Moreau’s classic oil compositions feature figures in isolated areas of light surrounded by large areas dark enlivened with coloured highlights, bestowing these grottoes and throne rooms with a bejewelled appearance. The expressions of the characters are restrained and their gestures anti-naturalistic and hieratic. Intricate decoration covers garments and architecture, causing paintings to exude a pseudo-organic quality.

“By the end of the Second Empire salon history painting had sometimes become an exercise in sensationalism, titillating with visions of gratuitous horror and nudity. It is difficult not to see Moreau as—to some degree—wilfully martyring himself by adhering to the history-painting tradition which he suspected was moribund…”

Read the full review at THE ART NEWSPAPER, 1 May 2015 here:

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/reviews/books/155001/

Michel Houellebecq: Submission

“The history of modern France has been punctuated by a series of seismic shifts in ideology. Ever since the revolution of 1789, not only have regimes fallen – sometimes with considerable bloodshed – but whole concepts of governance and nationhood have been swept away nearly every generation or so. No other Western European nation has endured such huge and frequent changes during the modern era. Yet, endured France has. Human nature being what it is, a strong continuity persists. And even while revolutions, sieges and insurrections take place, the bourgeoisie finds a way of maintaining its social customs, moral standards and duplicities. The French have had to be so adaptable simply through necessity. So the central conceit of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, about a France under the governance of an Islamist-headed government, is not an inconceivable dystopia, but an elaborated extension of French history of the last 200 years.

“Submission begins by sketching out the ethnic factionalism and the loss of faith in secular institutions that leads to a Muslim Brotherhood compromise candidate winning (with the backing of the Socialists) a 2022 presidential election against Marine Le Pen of the Front National…”

Read the full review at SPIKED, 28 August 2015 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-islamic-republic-of-france/17370#.VeB9BPldU5k

Robert Crawford: Young T.S. Eliot

The Waste Land has stimulated, perplexed and antagonised millions of readers since its appearance in 1922. A multilingual collage of myth and observation, composed with sections of verse both original and filched, this epic poem popularised literary modernism (even though it was not the first modernist poem). Using new sources, and with the freedom to quote the poet’s writings, Robert Crawford has combined biography and literary analysis, in Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land, to illuminate one of the most complex and influential poems in the English language and assess its author, TS Eliot.

“The Eliot family were upper-class Unitarians from New England who moved to St Louis, Missouri, before the birth of Tom. Born in 1888, young Tom grew up in a bubble of Puritan gentility in the commercial bustle of a polluted Midwestern city. Long before Tom became an expatriate American in London, he had already lived his life as an outsider. While he was a Harvard student, Eliot toured London, Paris and Germany and found his passion for European culture deepening. In 1911, while in Munich, Eliot wrote his first masterpiece, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, in which the protagonist is an indecisive onlooker of life, aware of his impotence and marginality as if ‘etherised upon a table’. He effectively captures the situation of a man hemmed in by moral and social inhibitions that prevent him from functioning. ‘Do I dare?’, he asks himself, to eat a peach or change my fashion.

“Crawford’s biography shows how Eliot’s life experiences and reading material were woven into the rich tapestry of The Waste Land and other poems…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 6 March 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/ts-eliot-among-the-bankers-and-bloomsberries/16744#.Vd-O__ldU5k

Patrick Modiano: Suspended Sentences

“The Nobel Prize for literature is an annual occasion for the average person to feel parochial and uncultured. In a good year, a laureate might be a writer you’ve heard of – perhaps even read – but confronted with a Swedish poet or Chinese novelist who has never had his writings translated into English, one cannot be blamed for simply shrugging and forgetting the name.

“Patrick Modiano is a name that is unlikely to have meant much to Anglophone readers before 9 October 2014, when he was announced as recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Fewer than half of his novels, novellas and memoirs have been translated from his native French into English and most of those are now out of print. Previously, he was best known outside of France through his work on the script of the Louis Malle film Lacombe, Lucien (1973).

“A newly published collection of three of Modiano’s novellas in English gives English-speaking readers the chance to assess the 2014 laureate…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 14 November 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/modiano-master-of-the-oblique/16186#.Vd-LaPldU5k

William S. Burroughs: Letters, vol. 2

“Volume 1 of William Burroughs’s letters took readers from 1945 to 1959, following his frequent changes of location from New York to Texas, Mexico City, Tangiers and Paris, as he turned his hand to junk pushing, cannabis growing, pea farming, psychopharmacological investigation and – finally – writing. Burroughs skipped bail and left Mexico for good after accidentally shooting his wife dead, leaving their son Billy to be raised by his grandparents in Florida. During this early period, letters were a vital conduit for Burroughs’s political and intellectual ideas and for the continuation of friendships, principally with Allen Ginsberg.

In Volume 2 we pick up the story with Burroughs living in Paris, just having sent off the proofs of Naked Lunch to the printers…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 30 March 2012 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/12298#.Vd94GPldU5k