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

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

New Statesman
Factory workers at the gates in Dagenham. Image: Getty

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.