The Currency of Paper by Alex Kovacs: How capitalism affects art

A fascinating and funny dissection of the relationship between art and commerce.

Alex Kovacs’ debut, The Currency of Paper, is a novel of ideas: it incorporates both a range of perspectives on the nature of work and the possibilities of art, and a variety of projects that arise from the mind of its eccentric protagonist, Maximilian Sacheverell Hollingsworth. Published by Dalkey Archive Press under its British Literature Series, The Currency of Paper opens with Karl Marx’s quote about alienation from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which explains that ‘forced labour’ does not ‘develop freely [the worker’s] physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind’. In its first chapters, Maximilian, estranged from his aristocratic family and feeling obliged to ‘escape the obscene working conditions that prevail in the free-market system’, plans his entire life in a single day at a Dagenham print works, aiming to secure his freedom by counterfeiting money.

Kovacs alternates chapters that detail Maximilian’s private or anonymous schemes, conducted across London, with documents about or by him, including his essays and aphorisms, the chords and lyrics to the only song he writes, and the instructions for a board game that he invents. Kovacs contrasts the enormity of Maximilian’s most ambitious creations with the crushing minutiae of jobs, which fuels a kind of mania: most of his conflicts are with himself or his abstract notions of society, with little human contact for most of the novel. The Currency of Paper is frequently comic, its humour springing from Kovacs’ dry observation of the gap between Maximilian’s intentions and their reception: its funniest scene comes when he holds his first conversation in fifteen years, being disappointed by his failure to transform a man called Trevor’s life as they talk in a Bromley-by-Bow pub. To Maximilian, its rarity makes such a discussion deeply significant; Kovacs highlights Trevor’s indifference by closing with a swift outline of Trevor’s subsequent quiet family life.

Maximilian keeps searching for beauty in everyday life, especially in the transient products of consumer capitalism: a chapter where he becomes obsessed with collecting paper (but not cloth) napkins, finding something transcendent in the miniature writings and drawings on them, is amongst the most charming, Kovacs allowing the reader to share the thrill of Maximilian’s hermetic discoveries. Dilettante Maximilian struggles to find the right scale for his work, but his refusal to engage directly with wider society means that his revolutionary dreams fall short: he must settle for pranks on corporate directors, covertly promotion of unions and small businesses, or anti-Thatcher exhibitions that he will not allow to open until after his death, when they will not be topical.

Followed from 1951 to 1999, Maximilian’s underlying concerns and interests rise slowly, as the recluse realises the impossibility of extricating himself, even if he is unaware of how his neighbours speculate on what he does in his bungalow. Throughout, he tentatively allows himself to interact with others, socially and sexually, before retreating back into his art.: ultimately, he remains an enigma, Kovacs refusing to end The Currency of Paper like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson, clearly a strong influence, in which former book-keeper Malry’s scheme of balancing of every wrong (debit) that he feels the world does him with an act of revenge (credit) is terminated by Malry’s arbitrary death of cancer.

Inspired by Situationist ideas about aesthetics and politics without ever naming them, Kovacs’ novel slots into a recognisable Modernist and post-Modernist tradition that takes in Georges Pérec’s detached summaries of varied existences in Life: A User’s Manual and his Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, where Pérec tried to record everything he saw in the Place Saint Sulpice over three days. It also recalls Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, with its central character similarly freed to create certain happenings through the acquisition of a large sum of money, and Kovacs’ unemotional descriptions of Maximilian’s idiosyncratic activities reinforce this affinity. The novel’s fragmented structure lends it commonality with Lars Iyer’s Spurious trilogy, drawn from blog posts, as well as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be with its emails, letters and transcriptions, and Ben Marcus’s collection of short experiments in The Age of Wire and String.

Occasionally didactic, The Currency of Paper works best when asking how capitalism affects art, considering Maximilian’s freedom from the competiveness and egotism that the economic system encourages amongst producers, and thinking about who gets to make it. Maximilian’s liberation comes from an individual process, necessarily outlawed, before he attempts to fund collective activity that would radically change post-war Britain. Kovacs puts one man’s mind at war with the machinations of a whole world with considerable subtlety, intellectual ambition and wit: as a result, making this a promising first novel, which announces an intriguing new voice in British avant-garde fiction.

Factory workers at the gates in Dagenham. Image: Getty

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times