Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.

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Announcing Portraits and Ashes

Portraits_and_Ashes_Cover_for_Kindle
The cover. Image: Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (via Wikipedia)

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s defense of self-published literary fiction, I have independently published a novel, Portraits and Ashes. For a brief description, here is the back cover copy:

Julia is an aspiring painter without money or direction, haunted by a strange family history. Mark is a successful architect who suddenly finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice is a well-known artist and museum curator disgraced when her last exhibit proved fatal. Running from their failures, this trio is drawn toward a strange new cult that seeks to obliterate the individual—and which may be the creation of a mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist.

John Pistelli unforgettably portrays three people desperate to lead meaningful lives as they confront the bizarre new institutions of a fraying America. A suspenseful and poetic novel in the visionary tradition of Don DeLillo, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, and José Saramago, PORTRAITS AND ASHES is a scorching picture of our troubled age.

Portraits and Ashes is available for sale in print and ebook formats through Amazon, and it is listed on Goodreads as well. I am happy to offer free pdfs of the ebook in exchange for honest reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or your personal blog or website. If you’re interested, please contact me at johnppistelli at gmail.com.

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For an expanded description of the novel, please read on:

Reading [Portraits and Ashes] is like following a well-marked and yet unfamiliar winding path—the footing is sure, but it’s impossible to guess what’s around each corner…everything I hunger for in a novel.
—Craig Conley, author of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables, and more

Portraits and Ashes is about artists and cities, men and women, cultists and individualists, libraries and museums, respectability and poverty. It is about the widespread desire to burn down the contemporary world and return to something simpler. It is about the struggle to live in the contemporary world and create meaning and beauty within its confines.

portraitsandashes
An early version of the cover.

Set during the economic collapse of an unnamed Rust Belt city, Portraits and Ashes tells the intertwined stories of three main characters. Julia Bonham is a young aspiring artist with no money and no direction, haunted by a strange family history. Her high-school boyfriend, Mark Weis, is a seemingly successful architect and happily-married man who finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice Nicchio-Strand, the former mistress of Julia’s estranged father, is a famous artist and museum curator who was disgraced when the last art exhibit she oversaw proved fatal to twenty-one people.

As each of their apparently failed lives moves toward its crisis, the trio falls into the orbit of a strange new apocalyptic cult called the Its, a sect of wandering ascetics who seek to obliterate the individual and reject the world—and which may be tied to Frank Jobe, the mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist responsible for the murderous art installation that led to Alice’s own downfall. As these three fascinatingly flawed protagonists—Julia the arrested adolescent, Mark the good citizen, and Alice the willful quester—desperately try to lead meaningful lives, they confront the bizarre new institutions of a fraying America: an underground secret hospital for the poor, a deconsecrated church turned artists’ colony and pornographer’s film set, a library whose gallery is a haunt of suicides, and a death-cult that may or may not be a radical art experiment.

A novel that combines the surrealism of avant-garde art with the social and psychological portraiture of realist fiction, that challenges the stability of character with the chaos of a disintegrating social order, that shows how hope and endurance may (or may not) pass through the fire of despair and how art may yet be a redemptive force in our world, Portraits and Ashes is mostly about Julia, Mark, and Alice, whose journeys to the underworld may, if all goes well, provide some comfort or at least some company on your own, as they have mine.

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For the novel’s opening pages, please read on:

1. THE BRIDGE

In the choir loft of the deconsecrated church, the artist posed her naked body this way and that. He moved her limbs with his bare hands, crack-skinned and turps-smelling, tufted with wiry black hair. Caked beneath each fingernail, he had lines of that glossy blackish earth-brown color made when all the oil paints mix together. His touch felt so impersonal to her, like wood and moss and soil, that even when he took up her left leg to drape it over the blanket-heaped pew she sat on, the heel of one hand pressed bracingly on her inner thigh and the palm of the other cradling the sole of her foot, no question of sex or trespass arose. She was not what he wanted.

“Right foot touching the ground, left foot in the air,” he said in his thickly-accented English. “It is a symbol.”

She didn’t ask of what: Julia didn’t believe in symbols. She didn’t believe in what she couldn’t taste, touch, see. She’d always been that way: she’d stood aloof from her friends, for instance, during that vogue for dream-books in middle school, when all the girls sought the faces of their future husbands or intimations of their picturesque deaths each night. Belief, she thought, was expressed only in action. Those Soviet bulldozers clumsily chomping at gilded onion domes: pure sorcery. The domes, altars, and crosses were not symbols of something that, if you wrecked them, would continue to persist in heaven or the mind. They held all their reality in themselves. Get rid of His altars and you would also be rid of the reality of God.

“Don’t look to me,” the artist said. “Look to the distance.”

She lifted her gaze out over the empty church and lowered it down the nave until it came to rest on the space where the altar had been. She stole glances at the artist occasionally, when he would forget about her and fix his eyes on the picture taking shape under his hand. His eyes were a bit too wide, too fierce, just the way an artist’s should be, she thought: his flashing eyes, his floating hair. The old man’s mouth, though tensed, the teeth clenched, nevertheless maintained a bare little smile, as of satisfaction. This felt wrong to her. Her own art never satisfied her; no, it was a constant frustration, the inability of the image on the paper to align with the image in her head. Who was he to feel satisfied? She felt a small desire to ruin his satisfaction somehow, to kick out her heel and send the canvas over the rail of the choir loft, to see what would happen if she destroyed something.

When she was in first grade, she slowly tore a religion textbook to shreds. In her little Catholic school, a red-brick building with massive gray crucifixes hanging in stony agony at the end of each long hallway, every student was assigned a homeroom desk in which to keep their schoolbooks during the day while they circulated among other teachers’ rooms for their classes. During her math class, which she found dull because she did not understand it, she would keep herself awake by reaching inside the desk and slowly making small tears in the top textbook on her classmate’s pile. She ripped it a little bit every day, careful not to make noise and attract Sister Grace’s attention. By February, the book was in ribbons. Sister Grace sternly summoned her one Friday afternoon from her homeroom; she remembered looking up the hairy nostrils, at the dark-spotted face of the old nun, the jowls and forehead like dull clay extruded from the tight navy-blue habit.

“Did you tear this book, Julia?” Sister Grace asked, holding up in evidence, in her liver-spotted and meaty hand, the ragged strips that hung between the covers of the compulsory slipcase her classmate had made out of a paper grocery bag. Sister Grace pronounced her name with two syllables in a kind of slur: not jul-ee-yah but jul-ya.

All she remembered saying was no. She said it brazenly, not turning down her chin or dropping her eyes from the nun. She felt she had a fire in her mouth and beneath her cheeks.

“Six students sit in that desk during the day; I can’t prove which one of you did it. I’ll tell you what I told the rest of them,” said Sister Grace. “There won’t be a punishment. Not in this world, Julia. But remember this, little girl.” She bent her hunched back slightly, a sharp scent of mothballs coming out of the pleats of her tan skirt. “Remember this: hell isn’t a place you go when you die. Hell is what you do. If you destroy things, if you tell lies, you are already in hell. You are in the hell of your own making, where everything appears ugly and false, which is why you destroy and why you lie. So say what you want, little girl, but the truth is the truth. If your hands have been destructive and your tongue has been false, you are in hell, you are consumed from within, burning right before me, and it doesn’t matter what you say.”

The old nun never did know how to get along with children. She was retired the next year, and dead the year after that. Julia intermittently remembered her words. Now she had hardly any beliefs at all, but she was convinced that what she said did not in fact matter.

A customer in the café once hit on her by asking, while she prepared his espresso, if she believed in God. “Do I look like I believe in God?” she said over the sound of the machine. He frowned and narrowed his eyes, and then, after she handed him his drink and rang him up, he turned away and didn’t speak to her again, nor did he leave a tip.

Eventually, the artist allowed her to relax. He had finished capturing her pose and now went to work on tones and textures; he still wanted to study her bare flesh but not in any particular position. It was five-thirty in the morning, but the painter paid her extra for his preference for working before dawn. She lay on her back, knees drawn up, imagining his tight little elderly smile.

“Can I ask you something that might annoy you?” she said.

The artist now smiled broadly with his old-world courtliness and said, “Yes, of course, but if you are too annoying I will not answer.”

“Isn’t painting finished?” she said. “Museums, galleries, and art schools are all about installations, performance, multimedia, various kinds of street art, new forms of interactive art. There have even been defenses on these grounds of The Last Café.”

He grunted in disgust at her allusion.

“Then there’s film, video, photography, the Internet. Whatever technological function the canvas served as a way of producing images has been entirely superseded. But even leaving that aside, didn’t art considered in and of itself run its course? Didn’t artists themselves bring it to an end with abstraction and pastiche and collage and blank canvases and soup cans and all of that? They took it to its logical conclusion. There’s not another development anyone can imagine. What reason is there to go on making pictures of people and things after that?”

He nodded as she spoke, his chin bouncing off the top of every word, no doubt because he had already heard every word before, probably in more than one language. Then he painted in silence for long enough to discomfort her. The hairs of the brush scratched against the canvas like a whisper that echoed under the high ceiling of the church.

“The answer is very simple,” he finally said. “I do it only so that it will not be finished. What you say seems as if it is true, but if I am doing it, how can it be finished? Logical conclusion, you say, but we do not live in logic. There is a way of being, of meeting, in this act that does not exist in these others that you mention. On this canvas comes together myself, yourself, this church. All are touching, which cannot happen in the machine, not even in photographs, where the apparatus comes between the mind and the mark and does its work by itself, no human touch. The apparatus itself is some other man’s creation. My rival, so to say. But here is no rival, only my hand, my tool, my mind, your body, your mind, this room, this hour. All touching. This way of things coming together I do not want to see finished, so I do it if nobody else will.”

“And if nobody sees it?”

“You see it, I see it. Are we nothing? You and I are not nothing.”

He turned the easel to face her. There she was, palely luminescent in the candlelit greenish gloom, refracted through the viscous medium formed by his mind and his hand, which had rendered invisible the totenkopf tattooed on her left bicep, presumably excluded as a rival’s vision. He had muted the neon-flame quality of her red-dyed hair to make it more nearly resemble a real fire, and he’d moreover harmonized her hair color with that of her nipples and her pubes, which were, in point of mere contemptible fact, brownish blonde. The portrait hinted that some kind of flame burned inside her, lit her from within, could barely be contained by her almost diaphanous skin. She didn’t feel that way at almost six in the morning after a night of work at the café.

After he packed up his painting supplies and she got dressed, he paid her what he owed her. The two hundred-dollar bills he gave her were crumpled and smooth, so warm and soft he must have had them for years. They smelled of oil and turpentine and were worn almost to bare fabric: they hardly looked like money at all. She followed him down the dark spiral staircase leading from the choir loft into the narthex, his materials rattling and clattering against the narrow banisters. They shook hands before he went off through the huge doors into the waking city. She hesitated for a moment and then walked the other way, into the nave.

Bits and pieces of Catholic school drifted in the after-work early-morning fog of her head. Long liturgies she couldn’t wait to end. The forced silence. The smell of wet stone and wood varnish. The booming of the organ through her chest. Her rigid posture on the kneelers and the nuns who would swat your ass if you bent at the waist while you knelt. She would have been horrified to learn that she might later feel nostalgia for such oppressions. What could a child know about nostalgia? Anything that vanished, no matter what it was, seemed precious just because it was gone. She stood at the end of a pew. How furious the nuns had been when they found the dream-books. “Pure sorcery,” Sister Anne had said. Julia genuflected and knelt, not because she believed, she told herself, but only so that this way of things coming together would not be finished. Did she look like she believed?

David Markson, Vanishing Point

Vanishing PointVanishing Point by David Markson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, someday I will get around to the author’s masterpiece, Wittgenstein’s Mistress—as well as to those other books that are listed with wry self-reference in this book: “Wittgenstein’s Vienna. Wittgenstein’s Nephew. Wittgenstein’s Poker. Wittgenstein’s Ladder.” Until then, I have read this, my second of Markson’s late quartet of assemblage-novels; this is the third in the series, and I am so far reading them backwards.

These books belong to what we might call “the fun avant-garde.” Like the works of Borges and Calvino, Anne Carson and César Aira, they imply a whole raft of theoretical verbiage on the slippage of signification, the inadequacy of representation, the fallacies of plot and character, and all the rest of it, but are nevertheless so pleasurable to read—often more pleasurable than conventional fictions—that the implied museum tags spelling out the works’ conceptual premises come to seem irrelevant.

Markson’s late “novels” are collections of facts, generally focusing on the lives of artists, with occasional interpolations by the fictive compiler. They are not mere lists, however. Motifs emerge, patterns form, and a portrait of the arranger coalesces from the tiny marks of each fact-freighted sentence in a kind of informational pointilism. While Markson seems to have worked only with notecards and a typewriter, these fictions nevertheless feel like very Internet-era artworks, recreating the experience of “the stream”—a cascade of disparate but interrelated bits and bytes of narrative and controversy from which it is difficult to turn away, difficult to turn to narratives and arguments in patiently logical sequence, or to more languorous and meditative aesthetic experiences. That Markson did not use computers at all, and even died before “the stream” reached its present force and flow, suggests that “artist’s intuition” deserves to be proverbial.

The social status of artists is Vanishing Point‘s main preoccupation. Again and again, the novel lists the indignities suffered by artists and thinkers (and sometimes also scientists and athletes), badly remunerated and insulted during their lives, often not born to the upper classes but to illiterate workers or impoverished peasants or enslaved people, then celebrated once they are dead by hypocritical institutions:

Dostoievsky wrote The Eternal Husband in Dresden.
And had to borrow the money to mail it to his publisher in St. Petersburg.

Two years earlier, while writing The Idiot:
They demand from me artistic finish, the purity of poetry, and they point to Turgenev and Goncharov. Let them take a look at the conditions under which I work.

Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread.

If this were all, it would be awfully self-serving. And there is another strain in the book, a focus on the Holocaust and slavery and misogyny and the present depredations of political Islam, which perhaps might represent the author’s (whether Markson’s or his fictional surrogate’s) attempt to ally artists with the victims of oppression. Sightings of The Wandering Jew recur throughout the book, suggesting an alliance of the artist with this figure (a hallmark of modernism, as readers of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood will recall).

However, the work is saved from self-celebration by a third vein of facts, representing artists and intellectuals at their notorious worst: Schopenhauer making misogynistic pronouncements and Degas painting misogynistic pictures, Chopin and Dostoevsky spouting anti-Semitic slurs, Chaucer settling a rape case and Milton abusing his daughters, Heidegger and Hamsun praising Hitler, Burroughs living as a phony radical on family money and Marx enjoying bourgeois comforts and hypocrisies without having ever seen the inside of factory; and artist after artist after artist hurling the most base insults at their peers (sickly, ugly, impotent; bum, pig, toad, etc.).

In a way, the novel champions artists by recording every aspect of their frailty and vulnerability, including their moral weaknesses and political misdeeds. So fragile, so miserably human, so in need of more support. But also, this salacious gossip, delivered with these novels’ prevailing deadpan tone of drolly surprised terseness, simply makes Markson all the more entertaining. It is hard to overstate how much more of a page-turner Vanishing Point is than some kind of door-stopping fantasy would be; and it is blessedly short too:

A good book is twice as good if it is short.
Said Baltasar Gracián.

In one respect, Vanishing Point is more traditional than it appears: it really does have a protagonist and a plot. A set of scattered reflections about “Author”—left like breadcrumb clues through the forest of information, presumably by Author himself—reveal that we are reading a collage assembled by an aged writer as he slowly succumbs to some kind of degenerative neurological disease terminating in dementia, the “vanishing point” of the novel’s title. Like Eliot’s or Woolf’s or Beckett’s work, Markson’s is less ideological than are the theorists about the inadequacy of language and representation: these potentially dry and arid post-Niezschean philosophies become occasions for the deepest pathos. The minimal tools and maximal restrictions of this sort of fiction make its elementary narrative—”I can’t go on. I must go on,” “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” not to mention “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”—almost more moving because readers have to discover the story for themselves. And, in tracing the patterns in the information that Author has assembled, we discover his character just as it is about to be lost in the haze of illness and death. What comes through is his resentment at his neglect, but also his amusement at his faults; his anger at violence and exploitation, and his awareness of his complicity in them. It is a final self-portrait of a dying artist, created under great duress. Vanishing Point summons the most advanced technique on behalf of the most old-fashioned heroism.

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