Andrew Gallix


The Draft of the Medusa

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From Unwords by Andrew Gallix published by Dodo Ink, out 18th January 2024.
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(Preface as over explanation, as metabombast.) – Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary (2020)
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This is not the book I wanted to write.
I thought I should warn you before you venture any further. It is the least I can do.
As well as the most.
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Dear Andrew,
At long last, a contract! If all is in order, please sign the original and return it to me. The copy is for your files. You’ll note that I’ve left several items blank: please estimate the final, printed length and fill that in; please fill in the date on which you plan to submit the final copy…
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This letter (in front of me right now) is dated 14th September 1990. A few months prior, I had submitted a brief typescript to an American publisher of some repute — just on the off-chance. It was conceived on one of those early Macs, whose grey, Cold War aesthetic (ironic, given that the Eastern Bloc had just collapsed) was accentuated by my immoderate smoking. Yellowing around the edges, the computer sat squat on a desk lodged in a cosy alcove of our diminutive living room. I say our because I shared this bijou flat with X, my then girlfriend, whose penchant for al fresco frolics may have stemmed, in part, from claustrophobia. This desk was in fact nothing more than a table, and a very unremarkable one at that. I doubt whether it would ever have made it into Jill Krementz’s celebrated compendium, published six years later, featuring stylish black-and-white portraits of prominent scribes at their escritoires. Granted, my own lack of prominence would have been the main obstacle to inclusion, rather than the desk itself — however undistinguished it may have been.
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Or would it?
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After all, Stéphane Mallarmé believed that one ‘can tell a great writer by the number of pages he does not publish’ and I, who had published none, believed Stéphane Mallarmé. Ernest Hemingway — a very different kind of author, I’m sure you’ll agree — argued, similarly, that the ‘test of a book is how much good stuff you can throw away’. I inferred from this that a truly great book would be one in which there was so much ‘good stuff’ you could throw it all away. I soon came across Ulises Carrión’s exhilarating observation that the ‘most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say’. No matter that I did not recognise this as something of a cliché or even fully appreciate what it meant; my mind was blown. I was in thrall to what Enrique Vila-Matas would call the ‘literature of the No’.
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Writers who do not feel the need to publish in order to affirm or reaffirm their status qua writers. Writers for whom literature is the ‘locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books’ (Maurice Blanchot). Writers who write in order to be able to stop writing. Writers whose decision to stop writing imparts ‘an added power and authority to what was broken off; disavowal of the work becoming a new source of its validity, a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness’ (Susan Sontag). Writers who write in invisible ink. Writers of works whose potentiality never completely translates into actuality. Writers who seek out the untranslatable. Writers who think that words can do what they cannot say. Writers who believe in the existence of the books they have imagined but never composed. Writers whose books keep on writing themselves after completion. Writers who strive, quixotically, to bridge the gap between art and life. Writers who hold that every book should contain its counterbook. Writers who sense that every good novel is also an anti-novel. Writers who turn language against itself. Writers who can never finish their works. Writers who can never begin theirs. Writers who destroy their manuscripts and writers who are destroyed by them. Writers who take their time; writers who take their lives. Writers who may be as fictitious as the yarns they spin. Writers who vanish into their writing. Writers who vanish into thin air. Writers who haunted this book which I wrote on the desk that was in fact a mere table. Plain. Bare, save for an overflowing ashtray and the Cold War Mac. A tabula rasa.
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Once — in the small hours, just as I was about to nod off — I was visited by an epiphany. I know what you are thinking but, no, the word is not too strong. This was almost twenty years hence, in a different apartment. The living room overlooked the cemetery of Montmartre, which acted like a permanent memento mori. There are in fact two cemeteries in this area. The one that officially goes under the name of Cimetière de Montmartre is, naturally, the one that is not in Montmartre per se. This is doubtless designed to confuse tourists (just like Boulevard Montmartre, which is even further away from its namesake). Jean-Martin Charcot, the Goncourt brothers, Francis Picabia; Jacques Rigaut, Stendhal as well as Émile Zola are all buried there, along with scores of others not mentioned — mainly through no fault of their own — in the book you are currently reading, which, lest we forget, is not the book I wanted to write. A recurring joke among residents (and there was a suspiciously high incidence of gallows humour) was that this was a street where one could rest in peace at night, the neighbours — across the road — being so frightfully quiet. Just as well as good ideas often come to me while I dip my toes in the shallows of slumber. On such occasions I am wont to rise promptly in order to scribble down whatever has occurred to me — be it a felicitous turn of phrase or a character’s name — on the first scrap of paper that comes to hand. This time, however, I did not. The idea seemed so momentous that I was bound to remember it in the morning. It was a tale that was so simple, and yet so profound and all-encompassing, that it seemed almost inconceivable that no one had ever envisioned it before. I racked my brain — Dante? No; Shakespeare? No, etc. — drawing the implausible conclusion that no one, as far as I knew, ever had. I suddenly felt that I had been singled out, in the grand tradition of Plato’s Ion, to be the recipient and conduit for this story of world historical importance. My mind was still caressing its perfect contours when I woke up, the next day. I recalled instantly how the story neatly encapsulated everything but could not for the life of me remember what it was. It had vanished like a dream vision rudely interrupted by some person on business from Porlock or Amazon. I sometimes wonder if other writers are visited nightly by this very same story only to forget it the following morning. Perhaps all of us are at some point. Perhaps the point of this story is to produce other stories, which we write while looking for the story we have forgotten. This may be the very source of all literature.
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On the wall, above the table-cum-desk in our tiny Parisian apartment, back in the early 1990s, I had blu-tacked a rather joyous picture of London ablaze during the Poll Tax riot. I would channel this incendiary image in the hope of writing my book into that state of incandescence where it ‘soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame’ (Bruno Schulz). In hindsight, I can see how more expedient, not to say expeditious, it would have been to print out all the pages I had typed up — the reams and reams of dreams —and burn the bloody lot in the fireplace.
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A framed picture hung above the fireplace mantelpiece. It was a glorious sketch by the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, ochre in hue and Greekish in inspiration. We were both very fond of it on account of its sensuous, sinuous lines and tantalising incompletion. Modernity, as George Steiner would point out, ‘often prefers the sketch to the finished painting and prizes the draft, chaotic with corrections, to the published text’. I was very modern in this regard: the more I proceeded towards the conclusion, the more it receded. The project soon took on a decidedly Shandyesque complexion. I even began referring to my work-in-regress as The Draft of the Medusa.
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From my mother’s in London, I had rung the editor, as requested in an earlier missive. The distance — especially in those days before email and smartphones — seemed to add gravitas to the occasion (as did the exorbitant cost of the call itself). I paced the dining room in an effort to calm down before plucking up the courage to dial the seemingly endless number, which I got wrong on first attempt. The editor was a kindly gentleman and scholar, with one of those improbable American names that conjures up wholesome frontier pursuits. To the accompaniment of intermittent static, I pictured him fighting off a big bear — bare-knuckle — against a wholly inappropriate background of cacti and tumbleweed. It turns out that my manuscript had really impressed him. At first he even tried to convince me to publish it in its present iteration, but relented as soon as he realised how unsatisfied I was with my work. He eventually granted me a one-year contract on the understanding that I would send in the revised version after six months, once I had effected a few cosmetic changes. Six months is plenty of time, he said, barely breaking sweat as he knocked the bear out cold.
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Six years later — having repeatedly extended the deadline — I had to acknowledge that my book was not only unfinished, but probably unfinishable too. William H. Gass contends that Robert Musil polished The Man Without Qualities ‘not to achieve a finish or a shine, but (like every perfectionist) to accomplish the inconclusive’ and the same could be said of me back then (although I was certainly no Robert Musil). What had been a blessing became a curse — a source of panic attacks and social anxiety. I stopped answering the publisher’s letters. I shunned friends, who would inevitably ask me how the book was going, when it was going nowhere at a glacial pace. Even now I am exhausted at the mere thought of the smoke-filled days and nights I devoted to this book that never was. Ostensibly, it dealt with the life and work of a middling English novelist and playwright (dead), but in reality it was about many other things besides. So many other things. Always more things. I wanted my book to contain not only multitudes, but everything. What I had in mind was more akin to Borges’s ‘total book’ — that ‘catalog of catalogs’ rumoured to be lurking on some dusty shelf in the Library of Babel — or the volume, evoked by Wittgenstein, that would ‘destroy all the other books in the world’ (if it existed) rather than an academic monograph.
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…please fill in the date on which you plan to submit the final copy.
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Can you wait until hell freezes over?
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‘If you meet your double, you should kill him.’ This very useful piece of advice comes from Johan Grimonprez’s film Double Take (2009), written by Tom McCarthy and based on a short story by Borges. I once met my double but I am glad I did not kill him, nor him me. I was writing my doomed opus at my mother’s in South London and had decided to go for a walk and a smoke in the local park round the corner. In those days, the path leading into the park was bisected by railings. If you wanted to go to the pond, you took the right-hand side and if you wanted to go to the playground or the cricket pavilion you took the left-hand side. My doppelgänger (the word means double walker in German) was coming towards me on the other side of the railings. He was on the right-hand side, which of course was left to him: I was coming; he was going. We walked past each other, then stopped in our tracks and turned round at the same time. We faced each other — I myself and he himself — in shocked silence for a few seconds before turning round again and walking on. I have never seen him since that day. If I did I would ask him what it is like being me and if, by any chance, he had written the book I wanted to write all those years ago. The phantom book that haunts these pages.
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Andrew Gallix is an Anglo-French writer and freelance journalist, who also teaches at the Sorbonne and edits 3:AM Magazine. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Financial Times, Irish Times, New Statesman, Independent, Literary Review, Times Literary Supplement, Dazed & Confused, BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere. He divides his time between Scylla and Charybdis.


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