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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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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