Kazuo Ishiguro. Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
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Modernist and minimalist: on Tom McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant and Tom McCarthy's Satin Island have opposite problems: one too little stretched long, the other overstuffed.

The Buried Giant
Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber & Faber, 345pp, £20

Satin Island
Tom McCarthy
Jonathan Cape, 176pp, £16.99


The philosopher Stanley Cavell once wrote that Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger represent polar impulses – reading “nothing” and reading “everything”. Heidegger “assumes the march of the great names in the whole history of western philosophy”. Wittgenstein, by contrast, might “get around to mentioning half a dozen names”, and even then simply to identify some chanced-upon remark, “which seems to get its philosophical importance only from the fact that he finds himself thinking about it”. What Cavell failed to explain is how the know-it-all and the naif arrived in the same place: both harbouring a “romantic perception of human doubleness”, both taking “the obvious” to be the subject of philosophy, and both believing unlike the sceptical tradition that the fact of one’s existence can be known.

We cannot help but wonder why Heidegger bothered. Our favoured image of genius is of something quick, sponge-like, sweatless. T S Eliot argued that: “Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum.” Lex Luthor, thinking along similar lines in the 1978 Superman film, contrasted the people for whom War and Peace is “a simple adventure story” with those who “can read the ingredients on a chewing-gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe”. But what about the man who acquires a staggering amount of essential history from the British Museum – who can unlock the secrets of the universe from repeated readings of War and Peace?

The English novelist Tom McCarthy prefers a read-everything approach. Heideg­ger’s attitude, by Cavell’s definition, is that “philosophy has still not found itself – until at least it has found you”. That is pretty much McCarthy’s take on literature. Although his canon is transhistorical, his emphases are ahistorical. Coming after futurism and Freud, Heidegger and high modernism, McCarthy feels able to identify themes such as transmission, simulation, encryption and repetition as far back as Aeschylus and Ovid. He has said that technology “reveals us to ourselves as we always in fact were: networked, distributed, laced with code”. But he also evokes the process chronologically. Heidegger’s work is “like a switchboard into which the Greeks all run, and through which their thought is transferred onwards to the likes of Levinas, Derrida and Virilio” – a line of descent that culminates in McCarthy’s own novels, Remainder, Men in Space, C and now Satin Island.

For McCarthy, writing is a continuation of reading – reading’s overflow. But reading isn’t just fuel. It offers contextual proof that a writer “gets it”. To excuse his fondness for the Rabbit books, he points to Updike’s education in Paris and his love for Maurice Blanchot, though he must know that Updike went to Harvard and found Blanchot pretentious. Mainstream writers, slaves to “sentimental humanism”, are dismissed because they “haven’t read Beckett”.

McCarthy’s revolution is wholly one of content, with form a mere enabler. He likes the image of the Trojan horse; he has said that the historical-realist surface of C allowed him to smuggle in “modernist and avant-garde preoccupations”. Satin Island is another Trojan horse, this one not so armoured. As he struggles to compose the Great Report for the Company, U, a corporate anthropologist, delivers a brainbox monologue in which he reflects on oil slicks, airports and buffering of digital data. It might seem odd that McCarthy should adopt such a familiar narrative method but it serves its function very well, providing a more accessible means of exploring circularity and between-ness than something that tries to enact or embody these ideas.

For much of the time, U’s numbered riffs and vignettes are a model of crisp, chilly philosophical prose. In the opening paragraph, he recalls that the image of Christ on the Turin Shroud was noticed only after an amateur photographer looked at the negative of a photograph he’d taken: “the negative became a positive, which means that the shroud itself was, in effect, a negative already”. Nothing much happens to U – he gives a conference paper, a girl he is sleeping with tells him an anecdote – but he keeps on encountering detritus and inhabiting spaces that provoke this sort of paradoxical thinking (what, after having so much fun with it, he disingenuously calls “whimsy-froth”). U’s report, driven by whatever passes his eyes or enters his in-box, gives free rein to the play of images, ironies and motifs – what McCarthy considers the lifeblood of literature.

The only ambition that Satin Island fails to realise is conceptual novelty. McCarthy has not, in fact, gone where the mainstream novel fails to go, or refuses to go. There is a great deal here that has been covered by Don DeLillo. And if a square like Updike could resemble Blanchot, showing a “totally European” sensibility, then what about his heirs: the Updike-worshipping Joseph O’Neill, for instance, whom Zadie Smith set against McCarthy in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel”? Like Satin Island O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, was written on a diet of “philosophical prose”. Both books exploit a narrator “disposed”, in O’Neill’s words, “toward theorising and rationalising” but “only occasionally given to recollection”. The argument over the alleged polarity of Remainder and Netherland continues but there can be no such debate around Satin Island and The Dog.

In his author’s note, McCarthy says that Satin Island contains “hundreds of borrow­ings, echoes, remixes and straight repetitions” – “like all books”. This description leaves no room for the kind of writer whose work originates outside what is going on in literary circles. Kazuo Ishiguro claims he turned from songwriting to fiction because of one novel, Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden, rather as Wittgenstein abandoned engineering for philosophy after reading Russell’s Principles of Mathematics. In a 2008 interview otherwise free from writers’ names, Ishiguro identified 13 novels, by Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and so on – along with Chekhov’s stories – as giving writers “a very solid foundation”. None of his books has an epigraph.

Despite the difference in their temperaments, Ishiguro’s novels have a great deal in common with Tom McCarthy’s: glazed narrators, dream-logic and the same philosophical approach – unmaterialist, anti-historical – enabled by a Trojan horse. One possible reason is that the novelist who reads everything and the novelist who reads nothing are liable to share a belief in continuity, eternal verities, even if the novelist who reads everything is better equipped with proof. Hence the glazed narrators, who represent what Ishiguro calls “the universal part of us that is afraid of getting involved emotionally”. Hence the dream-logic: “the language of dreams is a universal language”.

For both writers the way a theme is expressed is almost irrelevant. McCarthy has said Remainder and Men in Space, though opposite in style and covering different epochs, are “concerned with the same things: repetition, inauthenticity, failed transcendence”. Ishiguro is similarly dismissive of the particular. “I chose these settings for a particular reason,” he said in 1989: “they are potent for my themes.” And in Never Let Me Go (2005) there were things he was “more interested in than the clone thing”. The boarding school? No, that was just “a nice metaphor for childhood”. As Haruki Murakami, a far more devotedly “Japanese” writer, says of the work: “the place could be anywhere, the character could be anybody and the time could be any time”.

Where McCarthy and Ishiguro diverge sharply is on the subject of what transcends time and space. McCarthy, insisting that modern themes have always existed, emphasises Plato’s reference in The Sophist to the copy that has no original. Ishiguro says simply that Plato writes about “what is good”. Ishiguro has called football a metaphor for life. U, in Satin Island, rhapsodises over shapes: “the football’s backspin. And the net’s grid, exploding.”

Writing fiction when you’re not interested in the material or particular might seem odd, and possibly fruitless. It raises the question: why bother building the horse when you only care about the men? Ishiguro has experienced the contrary worry: why bother preparing the men if people see only the horse? What if over-literal readers mistake the icing for the essence? (The possibility that a book might be read both literally and symbolically does not seem to occur to him.) His solution, in The Unconsoled, Never Let Me Go and his new novel, The Buried Giant, has been a retreat into fantasy, partly in order to tweak the landscape to fit his purposes, but mainly to avoid being mistaken for a chronicler or historical realist.

The setting of The Buried Giant is not a mythical space but an alternative version of medieval England peopled with ogres and sprites, through which an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, wander in search of their son. Along the way, they encounter an old knight, Sir Gawain, and a warrior called Wistan, who are both on the trail of the fabled dragon Querig.

At the start, the eccentric anthropological narrator says that Axl and Beatrice may not be the couple’s “exact or full names” but we shall call them this “for ease”. Everything in the novel is done “for ease” – to allow Ishiguro to explore his chosen theme with minimal distraction. Just as Axl and Beatrice are types – Adam and Eve, Man and Woman – so the space through which they move is designed to make a point. A mist hangs over the land, robbing everyone of memories. As Axl says, it serves to emphasise the central metaphor: “It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday . . . Like a sickness come over us all.”

The problem with stripping fiction down to what you know in advance you want to say, protecting the “essential” by barring entry to everything else, is that you select incidental detail on the grounds that it doesn’t carry meaning. There are rules and customs in Ishiguro’s dank and lonely England; rumours of old conflicts; bits and bobs regarding fauna. But nothing happens that might complicate or enrich the basic matter of what Axl and Beatrice have forgotten, whether it’s a good thing (“If you’ve no memory of it, princess, then let it stay forgotten”), why they have forgotten it and whether that matters: “Axl, wouldn’t it be a fine thing to know the cause of the mist?” “A fine thing indeed, but what good it will do, I don’t know.”

Even the monastery that provides the location for the novel’s only proper set piece is notable chiefly because of events, shrouded in mist, that occurred decades earlier, when it was “a hillfort . . . well made to fight off foes”. Most of the dialogue takes the form of questions that can’t be answered (“Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?”) or requests that can’t be met.

Ishiguro has retained his old habit, carried over from using buttoned-up narrators to unfold thriller narratives, of keeping his cards close to his chest. But nothing is gained from so tenaciously withholding the events on which the book turns. It just leaves us with acres vaguely concerned with one theme, and then a paragraph of revelation. After 340 closely printed pages, the characters are finally brought out of the darkness, and the reader put of her misery.

Whatever danger it might pose to clarity, a properly constructed Trojan horse, with polished slats and a bit of pride in the craftsmanship, certainly has its virtues. For one thing, it relieves the pressure on what is being carried inside – in this case, an idea that can summed up in a sentence (and pretty much is). If McCarthy’s motif-based approach occasionally risks seeming overstuffed as he offers more examples of the same few phenomena, Ishiguro has realised the opposite danger: a lumbering fable,
Aesop stretched to Austen length.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage