Friday 16 August 2013

The white linen jacket of Gilbert Adair

Because I’d been told Adair admired Agota Kristof, I went looking – and quoted from what I found in the previous post – and I’ve been reading more of the essays.

One of them is on Baudrillard’s book on the Gulf War, La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu (he read the French, why would he not). He approves ‘some brilliant aperçus’ – ‘The notion, for example, of the Gulf War constantly, neurotically, scrutinising its image in the mirror of the TV screen (without which incentive, Baudrillard implies, it would not have been waged at all): “Am I beautiful enough, am I operational enough, sophisticated enough, to take my place in the history of warfare?”’ And the photo of the oil-soaked cormorant ‘as the symbol of our own impotence when confronted with such a gummily unintelligible event’. And then, reading the book ‘on the sunlit terrace of a Parisian café’, Adair becomes sensitive to ‘the glee, the faintly chilling gusto’ of Baudrillard – ‘almost as though he needed such a war to vindicate his theories of postmodernism, just as the Pentagon needed it to vindicate all its glossy weaponry’. And then a switch: ‘Distractedly, turning a page, I spilt some red wine on my white linen jacket and, aghast at the stain it had made, I confess that for a moment or two I didn’t give a damn about the war or the cormorant or the tens (or even hundreds) of thousands dead.’ For the final three paragraphs he continues with ‘stain’, linking it back to Baudrillard and the Gulf War, and ending: ‘I would not dream of wearing a jacket as stained as the world is, yet I do manage to live in that world, day after day, contentedly enough.’

The white linen jacket – with silk scarf, summer and winter – was Adair’s attire of choice. I knew them: as a freelance, I copy-edited and typeset his last books, which involved meetings in cafés, and when it came to taking in corrections, or revisions (on most pages) for the paperback editions, he’d need to watch me take them in on-screen, and adjust further if the line breaks or how the paragraphs sat on the page required – a major reveal, for example, such as the exposure of a murderer’s identity, had to be on a verso, so that the reader had to turn a page to get to it – and he’d come down from Notting Hill as far as the Holland Park roundabout and I’d pick him up in my car and drive him the last stretch down the Uxbridge Road, which he perceived as not environmentally friendly to white linen jackets. He didn’t need more stains.

He was fastidious. He was clever: the title of the 1992 book of his journalism that I’ve been reading, The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, suggests clever-clever, but no, just a small joke that offered itself, and if you have a fondness for wordplay (Adair was the man who translated Perec’s La Disparition into A Void, 300 pages without a single e), why not make that joke your book title.

The essays are occasional, following up whims, connections, correspondences, and they are written, of course, in unstained white-linen-jacket prose. But that immaculate style is no bar to the frequent expression of his biting contempt. Adair on Reagan, ‘the idiot of the global village’: ‘Why, instead of making joshingly coded allusions to his deficiencies, did no American journalist, not even those to whom his policies were anathema, ever call him a moron and be done with it? Why always the language of moderation with such an immoderately awful person?’ Reagan’s wife Nancy is ‘a woman with a brain the size and colour of a small cancerous pea’. He cites a tabloid article and sees no cause to check from which: ‘Trying to distinguish between the Sun, the Star and the Mirror would be like poking into a blocked-up toilet and trying to figure out which turd came from which backside.’

He didn’t like Thatcher either. Suffering from back pain, he reluctantly turns on daytime TV (‘a pleasure to be taken exclusively in the evening, as in some households sex used to be’) and catches The Flintstones: ‘A startlingly precise metaphor for the current, calamitous state of this country’s infrastructure after a decade of Thatcherite capitulation to market forces on a specifically, mythically American model. One has only to look around one in London to realise that, beyond all contemporary capitalism’s surface sheen, beyond the computers and cellular telephones, the aerials and squarials, the bar codes and junk mail the credit cards and fax machines, the fast-food outlets and hundred percent mortgages, beyond, in short, everything that was supposed to have put the “great” back into “Great Britain”, there continues to fester a dark, grubby, Stone Age metropolis.’

He slides the anger in, deliciously. There’s a cutting piece on Bertolucci’s film of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky: ‘For expatriates, at least as represented in fiction and film, travel tends to broaden not the mind but the ego.’ Comparing two Hollywood big guns in 1990, he concludes that ‘the difference, essentially, is that Stallone sweats and Schwarzenegger doesn’t’, and goes off on a riff, before bringing himself back to book with: ‘Aesthetically speaking, there isn’t one of these films ... that is not repellent to the last degree and does not not bear witness to the insidious Nazification of a minor but often amusing genre of the American cinema’. And then puts the knife into a another journalist: ‘the fact that the heroes can be distinguished from the villains by being slightly less Fascistic in their methods can scarcely be regarded as a cause for admiring their “radicalism”, as Judith Williamson did in a recent, extraordinarily foolish and irresponsible Guardian article.’

Surveying ‘the pallid, near-chromatic spectrum of contemporary British fiction’, Adair suggests this rule: ‘Everything one reads tastes more or less like Anita Brookner.’ The piece from which I quoted in the previous post, mentioning Kristof, ends: ‘A little factionalism, a little ferocity, if you please, reviewers.’

The book begins with an introduction that’s interested in the term ‘culture’: ‘Prizes, festivals, magazine profiles, newspaper reviews, biographies, bestseller lists, questionnaires, publicised feuds, gala premieres, suits for plagiarism, scandals, personal appearances, interviews, obituaries, anthologies, manifestos, readings, signing sessions, Kaleidoscope and the Late Show, the Groucho and the Garrick ... that is the stuff of which of which contemporary culture is made.’ Since he wrote, Facebook, Twitter, etc, have kicked in: Like me, like my book/dog/cat. How, in such a stained world, did he keep his own linen jacket so clean? By discrimination. He argues in the introduction that culture and art ‘ought to be regarded as entities wholly distinct and discrete from one another; that culture, in effect, begins where art ends and ends where art begins.’

I miss him. We need him.

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